‘Freedom in capitalist society still remains much the same as in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for slave owners. – Vladimir Lenin
One hundred years ago, the 24 October 1917 (November in today’s calendar), the disgruntled peasants, working class and soldiers of Russia overthrew the centuries-old system of Tsarist rule. Until then, the Russia of the tsars was one of the most terrible dictatorships in history. The vast majority of Russians worked under severe oppression and were subject to the iron rule of the regime and the nobility.
Industrialization created a new class of workers in Russia who lived in abject misery and poverty. The workers had no political rights and no means of obtaining even minor reforms. Working hours were long, wages were low, and unemployment was high. The state was bankrupted by the Tsar’s excessive extravagance, costly wars, and the burden of an impotent bureaucracy. The privileged classes of the clergy and nobility were exempt from taxes, while the poor, peasants and working class were overburdened with taxes. Russia’s defeat in the 1905 war against Japan heightened popular discontent.
On the morning of January 22, 1905, following strikes and wartime disputes, crowds began to gather on a freezing morning in different places in St. Petersburg. Led by the charismatic priest Georgy Apollonovich Gapon, more than 3,000 workers, women, men and their children marched peacefully across the frozen landscape to the Winter Palace to implore the Tsar to help ease their hardship. The Tsarist regime responded with violence and by the end of the day over 300 peaceful protesters had been killed. Bloody Sunday, as the massacre became known, laid the groundwork for the events that took place 12 years later that ended Tsarist rule once and for all.
Despite the institutionalization of the Duma (a legislative body of the ruling assembly of Russia) and the limitation of tsarist power after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1905, life for ordinary Russians did not improve. In 1917, weary of the impact of World War I, which caused severe food shortages in the country, women textile workers in St. Petersburg went on strike in March – International Working Women’s Day. They were joined by soldiers and members of the peasantry. A few days later, Tsar Nicholas abdicated the throne ending centuries of Russian Romanov rule and the tsarist system was definitely overthrown. Jhe Douma formed a provisional government on March 12.
Although the workers and peasants led the revolution, the revolutionary moment of March was quickly captured by the Mensheviks who began pushing for a much more liberal program. The power of the Bolsheviks (who were led by Vladimir Lenin), was sidelined. Lenin was forced into exile, where he mobilized the Bolsheviks of Finland, urging them to mobilize the workers and insist on the power of the soviets and the council of deputies. They acted quickly and won majorities in the councils (soviets) that sprang up everywhere in factories and workplaces. Under the simple slogan of bread, peace and land, Lenin succeeded in radically reversing the course of power.
The soviets, which sprang up everywhere in factories and workplaces, became a key element in the struggle for power. Unions have proliferated in previously unorganized industries. The soviets supervised production and became very powerful forces in the workplace. Initially, the role of these committees was to monitor the bosses and prevent them from hoarding goods or sabotaging the factory. Ultimately, they were responsible for hiring and firing workers; they secured the materials, controlled the production and ultimately the distribution of the goods. In some larger workplaces, committees have taken care of demands for childcare and food among workers. Amy Muldon explains how the workers organized themselves during the revolution:
“If the employers were sabotaging the economy, the workers’ soviets were the way to democratically decide how to produce and distribute what was needed. In the army, soldiers elect committees to impose their demands on officers. And the peasants revolted, plundered and occupied land – often under the influence of family members of soldiers who had had some experience of direct action in the army.
“Rapid changes in consciousness swept through the Soviets, causing repeated shifts in their composition between the overthrow of the Tsar in February and the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October.
October 6 and 7, 1917 the revolutionaries led by Lenin launch their armed insurrection against the Duma. The Bolsheviks and their allies occupied government buildings and other strategic locations in Petrograd, and soon a new government was formed.
This revolution led to an upheaval in the social fabric of Russian society. After the October Revolution, no one could deny the remarkable strength and unity of the peasants and the working class. For the first time in the history of mankind, political power and the state have been transferred to the working majority; the dictatorship of the bourgeois state was replaced by a democracy of a workers state.
the Declaration of the Rights of the People of Russia which was published in November 1917 reflects the spirit of this victory:
“The October revolution of workers and peasants began under the common banner of emancipation. The peasants emancipate themselves from the power of the owners, because there is no longer any property right of the owner on the land, it is abolished. Soldiers and sailors emancipate themselves from the power of autocratic generals, as generals will now be elective and recallable. The workers emancipate themselves from the whims and arbitrariness of the capitalists, because henceforth the control of the workers over the mills and factories will be established. Everything that is alive and capable of living emancipates itself from the odious chains. There remain only the peoples of Russia, who have suffered and are still suffering oppression and arbitrariness, and whose emancipation must be immediately begun, and whose liberation must be effected resolutely and definitively.
The basic principle of the revolution was that human society, not just Russia, should get rid of the dictatorship of the capitalist class and the division of society into different mutually hostile classes. Only then can true social and economic equality, and therefore democracy, be achieved. The existence of mutually hostile classes which originated in the division of labor, and the division of labor as it existed under capitalism, must be abolished. Thus society would march towards a classless society, a truly free and democratic society, a communist society. For the first time, peasants and workers who had suffered at the hands of the elite and the nobility now had equal status. Women suddenly had the same rights as men. All class and rank privileges were abolished.
In many ways, the conditions faced by Russian workers in 1917 are eerily similar to the conditions faced by workers in South Africa today. The negotiated settlement left our society unchanged: the racist and colonial capitalist foundations of our economy and society remain intact. Land theft was legalized by a bourgeois constitution, and the dominance of white monopoly capital in the economy remained unchanged and unchallenged. White cultural dominance was also entrenched. This created one of the most unequal societies around the world. Poverty levels have reached alarming levels where more than half of the population lives in abject poverty. More than a quarter of the population is unemployed, and the dignity of the majority of Africans is violated every day by poverty, unemployment and extreme inequality. The majority of the working class are denied a quality education and the only health care system available to them is an inferior, public health care system, which is more likely to maim or kill you than cure you. The human personality of millions of Africans, the majority of South Africans, is oppressed under the weight of white supremacist domination.
Leon Trotsky a key leader and theoretician of the October Revolution observed:
“The revolution gave the land to the peasants, the revolution gave power to the workers and the peasants: these were great achievements, but no achievement of the revolution is more important than the awakening of the human personality in each individual oppressed and humiliated.
The significance of the Russian Revolution is that it created a just and democratic society where the will of the majority was imposed on society below. The result was a truly revolutionary transformation in all aspects of human life. It sowed the seeds of the possibility of the emancipation of all of humanity from the dictatorship and tyranny of the global capitalist class. It announced the possibility of the revolutionary unity of the world working class. Above all, he demonstrated what can be achieved when the poorest strata of peasants and workers are united in revolutionary action against their oppressors and exploiters.
The October Revolution of 1917 proved that a new civilization based on true human equality is not only desirable, but possible. This is precisely what South African workers and their families deserve. DM
Phakamile Hlubi is the national spokesperson for Numsa (acting). This is part of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution which is organized by Numsa Research and Policy Institute, November 5-10, 2017.
Pictured: The Hermitage State Museum is illuminated in red for the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 25 October 2017. The Hermitage celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution with the ‘The Palace winter and the Hermitage. 1917. History Was Created Here’ exhibition, which runs until 04 February 2018. Photo: Anatoly Maltsev/(EPA).