Exactly one hundred years ago today, on the evening of October 25, 1917, the Winter Palace in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) was stormed. This event marked the start of the Great October Revolution, one of the most important political events of the 20th century that shaped the course of history for decades to come.
Prior to the events of October 25, another revolution in late February 1917 brought to power a group of bourgeois political party leaders who formed a provisional government led initially by Georgy Lvov, a liberal reformer, and later by Aleksander Kerensky, a socialist. In early March of that year, Tsar Nicholas II, who had ruled Imperial Russia since 1894, abdicated. Five months later, Russia was declared a republic.
Although the Provisional Government introduced some reforms on the political front, even prompting Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to declare Russia in April 1917 “the freest country in the world”, it was the Red October Revolution that completely upended the old order by ushering in socialist rule and making Soviet-style communism a global ideological and political force that lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union at the end from 1991.
Yet a hundred years later, the rise of the Bolsheviks to power continues to divide scholars, the talkative classes, and even the educated public. Several issues are particularly divisive, such as whether the October Revolution was a popular uprising or essentially a coup, and whether Stalinism evolved naturally from Lenin’s basic principles and political strategies or this was an unexpected development.
Likewise, there is still much ambiguity, disagreement and confusion about the nature of the regime that flourished in the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death in 1924. For example, did the Soviet Union represent a “socialist society real”, a “degenerate society”? workers’ state”, or simply a “totalitarian state economy” in which communist ideology functioned as a mere instrument of political legitimation and imperial domination?
When this happened, the Great October Revolution produced worldwide hysteria, untamed enthusiasm and hope for the possibility of the creation of heaven on earth (a new utopia) in equal measure. For the bourgeois classes around the world, the inauguration of the Soviet regime was anathema to the fundamental values of “Western civilization”, while for radicals and communists it meant the natural culmination of the inevitable march of story towards human freedom and a social order devoid of exploitation. .
No place for mourning or celebration
On the centenary of the Great October Revolution, an objective assessment of socialism and the legacy of Soviet communism leaves no room for mourning or celebration. It was essentially the epic story of an impossible dream that in due course turned into a political and historical nightmare due to the interaction of a vast array of factors which included “backward” socio-economic conditions , outside intervention, lack of democratic traditions and misconceptions. ideas about socialism and democracy. Therefore, while you can easily romanticize the October Revolution, the cold reality of the story hits you in the face.
Dreams are surely renewable and a new world is waiting to be born, but the possibilities available to create an egalitarian, socially just, ecological and decent society lie outside the ideas, practices and policies of the October Revolution.
To begin with, the Great October Revolution was different from the February Revolution which broke out as a result of the spontaneous action of hundreds of thousands of hungry and angry workers and militants. What happened in October 1917 was the result of a well-conceived strategy by the leader (Lenin) of a minority party (the Bolsheviks) to wrest control from the Provisional Government due to strong ideological aversion for “bourgeois democracy” and desire for power. Unsurprisingly, Lenin’s call for “all power to the Soviets” ended up being something entirely different: all power went to the party and its political bureau.
The October Revolution was not a coup per se, but neither was it a popular uprising enjoying the kind of mass support that the February Revolution had. In fact, it was not until the fall of 1917 that Lenin’s slogan “land, peace, bread” was adopted by some workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Yet even this did not mean that the Bolshevik program and Lenin’s ideas of government were accepted by the majority of the Russian people: in the elections of November 1917, the first truly free elections in Russian history, Lenin’s party only got a quarter of the votes. , while the Socialist-Revolutionaries succeeded in obtaining more than 60%.
Lenin had no taste for parliamentary democracy or for sharing power with another political organization. His unwavering intention to establish socialism in Russia, however mature the social and economic conditions, and his firm conviction that the Bolsheviks alone represented the true interests of the working people, would compel him to adopt strategies and policies which would soon deprive the Revolution of any potential it originally had for the establishment of a new social order based on workers’ control of the means of production and democracy (which Lenin, unfortunately, associated with the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) .
Indeed, shortly after the November elections, Lenin would ban several opposition newspapers and unleash a campaign of “Red Terror” against all class enemies (the Socialist-Revolutionaries being the first victims after their uprising in Moscow in early July 1918). The orchestration of the “Red Terror”, which lasted until the end of the Russian Civil War, was entrusted to the Cheka (a Bolshevik police organization which reported to Lenin himself for all anti-Communist activities), thus laying the groundwork for the emergence of a full-fledged police state under Stalinism.
The clearest illustration of the Bolshevik shift to the “right” after the outbreak of the October Revolution is the brutal repression of Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921 by Red Army troops. Discouraged by the dictatorial tendencies of the Bolsheviks, a garrison of the key fortress of Kronstadt revolted in March 1921 against the communist government and the ideas of “war communism” – even though the sailors of Kronstadt had been, since 1917, among the most strong supporters of the October Revolution and the idea of ”Soviet power”. Certainly, they were until then, in Lev Trotsky’s own words, “the pride and joy of the revolution.”
With the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, it became clear that Lenin’s “vanguard party” concept and his understanding of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” did not allow any form of dissent and that a socialist political order had to be based on a party rule.
As for the policy of “war communism”, it ended in complete disaster. Lenin himself admits this in a speech of October 17, 1921, when he says: “we made the mistake of deciding to go straight to communist production and distribution”.
But this did not mean that all Bolsheviks shared Lenin’s views on “war communism” or that they embraced the policy followed in the 1920s of a partial return to the market system of production and distribution. The future “new Tsar” Joseph Visarionovich Stalin saw the New Economic Policy as the betrayal of the October Revolution. Its “revolution from above”, launched in 1928 with the policy of collectivization and dekulakization (a campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations and executions of millions of the “well off” peasy ) reopened the gates of hell and definitively transformed Soviet socialism into a barbaric and murderous regime.
Stalinism did not merely formalize the worst aspects of Leninism but actually became a real stumbling block for the transition to socialism both inside the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. where the ideas of social justice and equality continued to stir people’s minds. and the hearts of millions of honest people.
Hence the end of Stalinism and the collapse of Soviet Communism (which in its 74 years succeeded in transforming a “backward” country into an industrialized nation capable of defeating Nazism and making undeniable progress on several economic, cultural and social fronts) simply mark the end of a dream turned into a nightmare.
In this context, the legacy of the Russian Revolution requires neither celebration nor mourning a hundred years later. Dreams are surely renewable and a new world is waiting to be born, but the possibilities available to create an egalitarian, socially just, ecological and decent society lie outside the ideas, practices and policies of the October Revolution.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al Jazeera.