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Issue #1572      7 November 2012

Culture & Life

Time, place and circumstance

Capitalist propagandists used to try to make an issue of the fact that the founders of Marxism thought that the most likely places for a successful socialist revolution would be the countries of Central or Western Europe; that is the countries with a developed working class. This was a logical assumption to make when they had no actual experience of Red Revolution to guide them.


The Bolsheviks mobilised the other revolutionary parties to seize the instruments of state power and the reins of government.

As it turned out, there are a multitude of factors that influence the success or otherwise of revolutions. The size and experience of the working class, the quality and nature of the leadership given by the working class party, the opportunities for imperialism to intervene in the process and the capacity of the international working class to act in defence of the revolution.

In 1917, the Russian Empire consisted of a relatively small industrialised sector in European Russia adjoined by a vast empire stretching out across the East from the Urals to Kamchatka. It was largely undeveloped, sparsely populated, with only one train-line, and was used as a dumping ground for political prisoners and as a source of timber and furs. Russia’s industry, what there was of it, was concentrated in the European part of the country, along with the known reserves of iron, coal and oil.

The country was so vast that when the sun was setting on the Western frontier it was already rising in the East. There had already been one revolution in Russia, in 1905, lingering in some places until 1907. Provoked by the callous incompetence and indifference of the Tsarist regime which had led the country into a disastrous war with Japan, the 1905 Revolution was put down with relative ease. But it taught the Russian revolutionaries many invaluable lessons, which Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to put to good use only ten years later.

Only a few years after the ’05 revolution, in 1914, Russia joined with the other imperial powers – Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Japan, Austria-Hungary and later the USA in attempting to redivide the world’s markets and territorial possessions. The resulting war took a dreadful toll on Russia, whose armies were led by generals who received their positions by virtue of their titles and family connections, not their military prowess. Lacking arms and ammunition, Russian soldiers were obliged to win back by bayonet charges at night what they lost to superior force of arms in the daytime.

While the Russian ruling class behaved as though the trappings of empire would last forever, the wretched troops – hungry, poorly armed and ill-led – listened increasingly to those political forces that talked of peace, bread and land. They simply walked away from the front and went home or headed for the capital to see that something was done about the shocking situation that faced the Russian people.

The whole of Russia became a giant debating society, with agitators arguing for every standpoint from the extreme right to the extreme left. The well-dressed tended to stand aloof from the discussion, as though the turmoil in the streets would not affect them. They went about the “business” of government as usual, unconcerned by the masses faced with a “choice” between starvation and death. But they prepared their machine gun detachments, their armoured cars and their heavy artillery, just in case. But the revolutionaries had learned the lessons of 1905 and had prepared for such tactics from the ruling class.

Led by Lenin, the Bolsheviks mobilised the other revolutionary parties (mainly the peasant-based Left Social Revolutionaries and a clutch of smaller liberal democratic parties) to seize the instruments of state power and the reins of government. On the November 7, 1917, judging that it was now or never, they struck, and the world would never be the same again.

At first, global capitalism simply did not believe it. Its strategists assumed that workers and peasants would be unable to run a country’s government, that they would be able to be brushed aside as soon as it suited capitalism to do so, either by a traditional “whiff of grapeshot” or by a judicious assassination or two. After all, the World War was still on, there were plenty of weapons around and men under arms to use them.

The War in the West was hastily brought to a close, Germany signed an armistice, and imperialism prepared to wage war against revolutionary Russia. But the people wouldn’t agree. Germany had given up; the troops could now come home. A “Hands Off Russia” campaign began, even as 14 imperialist states intervened in Russia, from every direction. Now Russia’s size and backwardness became significant factors. The imperialists could conquer Russian territory but not Russia itself. As the Civil War and Intervention dragged on, the working class in other countries was able to campaign against the Intervention, to demand that the troops be brought home.

Soon, the tactics and courage of the Russian Revolutionary forces combined with the solidarity of the workers in many other countries forced a very reluctant imperialism to postpone trying to conquer the Revolution until the 1930s and the advent of Hitler. Defeated once again, in a titanic struggle, they settled for decades of subversion, propaganda, economic sabotage and ultimately betrayal to finally achieve their ends.

But by then, the Revolution that had broken out in 1917 had spread all over the world, and brought about the collapse of the colonial system, had awakened people in all sorts of places to new ways to organise society, and put socialism very firmly on the table as an alternative to the wasteful, blood-stained capitalist system.

The American journalist John Reed called the Revolution in Petrograd “Ten days that shook the world”, and shake it to its foundations it certainly did! Now, Communists and socialists around the world are able to (and do) confidently declare that “the 21st century will be The Century of Socialism”.  

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