The Russian Revolution Is Still Relevant Today
Above Photo: Flickr/ The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Library. Political demonstration at Petrograd, 18th June 1917
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The upcoming 7th November will mark the 100 years of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution changed the course of history in many ways. In what is remarked as one of the most significant events of the 20th century, the ordinary Russians took control of the stage to overthrow the provisional government and established a rule of the proletariat. Various organizations around the world have organized events to mark those events 100 years on. The Centenary Committee, a committee established by the Marx Memorial Library and the Society for Co-operation in Russian and cultural organizations, held an international conference “Russian Revolution Centenary- Marking 100 years since the October Revolution” on 4th of November at Congress House in London. Speakers from across Britain and around the world discussed the political, historical and cultural legacy of 1917. International guest speakers Aleida Guevara March from Cuba, Brinda Karat from India, Slava Tetekin from Russia and Johanna Scheringer-Wright from Germany focused on the Revolution’s relevance in today’s world. The following is a full transcript of Brinda Karat’s address in the International Conference.
Brinda Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) :
Dear Comrades and friends,
On this most historic occasion of the centenary of the epoch-making Russian revolution, I extend my warm greetings to you and on behalf of my party the Communist Party of India (Marxist). For the last one year the one million plus members of the CPI(M) and through them the masses of working people, have observed in different ways the centenary of the Russian revolution, at factory gates, in village meetings, in university campuses, in seminars and public meetings. Much of what I speak today is what we collectively believe is the legacy of the Russian revolution under the revolutionary leadership of its most brilliant strategist and theorist V. I. Lenin.
At a time when the world is facing the challenge of an offensive of imperialism, of right-wing forces, of xenophobia, of racism, of bigotry, of increased violence against women and marginalized social groups, the need for an alternative vision of human development cannot be overemphasised, In India we have the rule of an extreme right-wing Government wedded to neo-liberal policies and a framework of politics which is based on sectarian majoritarian ideologies termed Hindutva. They work to destroy the unity of the people on religious lines. They aim to replace the secular framework of India by a theocratic Hindu State. The Left and specifically the CPI(M) is one of their main targets as they see us as a barrier in their efforts to destroy democracy, unity and human rights. For two weeks our central office in the heart of New Delhi was literally barricaded because of daily demonstrations led by Union Ministers and leaders of the ruling party against the CPI(M). But we will not be cowed down and will intensify our fight to oust this Government and take forward the struggle for an alternative path of development.
The tremendous achievements of the first Socialist State beckon us to understand what was possible and what is possible to create today. The Soviet Union created records, equally relevant today in wiping out poverty, backwardness, and illiteracy, in establishing equality among peoples and nationalities, between men and women. It is an inspiration of what was and what can be, and that is why we say that the era it established of the transition from capitalism to socialism is as relevant today. Capitalism is not the end of history.
On this occasion, we salute the memory of Lenin and commemorate the sacrifices of the millions of Bolsheviks, women, and men who gave their lives in the battle for Socialism and also lived their lives in the struggle to establish Socialism. In paying homage, we must strongly protest against and reject the canards, the lies, the distortions of the project of rewriting of the history of the revolution and the unprecedented achievements of the Soviet State being undertaken in the last two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by those political representatives of corporates and finance capital who benefitted most by the collapse of the socialist regime. The betrayal of the revolution by those at the helm of affairs in the former Soviet Union, the distortions, the over-centralization and bureaucratization, the depoliticisation of the people are a different chapter to discuss and debate. But the dismantling of the revolution can hardly be a license to wipe out its achievements.
In particular, the attempt to characterize the Soviet State as a “totalitarian” one and to draw comparisons with Nazi Germany, to bracket communism and fascism is motivated ideological engineering. It negates the truth that none of the western countries which boast of democracy today would have survived but for the vital role played by the USSR and the Communist Party of Soviet Union under Stalin in destroying the Nazi regime and the enormous sacrifice of 25 million Soviet citizens and soldiers of the red army who died to free the world from fascism. The partisans in France, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Spain were part of this historic battle against fascism. But the reason why the lies and vilification of the Russian revolution is an ongoing project is precisely because of the relevance of the Russian revolution today.
In our world today, capitalism has wrought havoc and destruction in the lives of millions across the world. 71 percent of the world holds only 3 percent of global wealth, while only 8.1 percent of the global population owns 84.6 percent of global wealth. Oxfam, in its report published in January this year, brings out the stark contrast in all its horrifying details. “Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity”. Further, the report shows how “our broken economies are funneling wealth to a rich elite at the expense of the poorest in society, the majority of whom are women. “
Capitalism today is not only still the monstrous system described so vividly in Marx’s writings, but even more so because even though we have the power of technology, the creation of scientific discoveries, and enough resources to eliminate poverty and disease, the hunger for profit maximisation is, one and a half centuries after Capital was written, still the core of capitalism, more so in its neo-liberal avatar. The answer to capitalism, the alternative to capitalism is socialism, and that is the relevance of the Russian revolution, and that is why it is sought to be vilified.
Dear comrades, The Russian revolution embodied the dreams and yearnings of workers and peasants throughout the world for a better, most just society, an end to the exploitation of human by human, and it turned that dream into a reality. It was the first time the world had witnessed the actuality of a working class led the revolution, witnessed the establishment of the first State of what the Bolsheviks termed the rule of the working class and peasantry. It brought into focus the Leninist concept of the capture of State power, the necessity to overthrow the State controlled by the ruling classes and to establish a new State. This lesson is relevant today as the social democratic theory that change and reforms can work within the capitalist system still prevails in many circles.
The capture of State power in the first Russian revolution was not by a coup or a military takeover. It was through the power of a people ignited against exploitation. But it was not an amorphous mass, the people in the forefront of the battle were workers in alliance with peasants and soldiers, peasants in uniform. In other words, the lesson of peoples power is premised on a class-based understanding.
Today many question the concept of working-class leadership. Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its conclusion that it is the working class and its position in production relations which can emancipate itself only through the overthrow of the capitalist system itself is termed outdated. Undoubtedly, the capitalism of the 21st century is vastly different from the time of Marx’s analysis. For example, global capital today can extract super profits by monopoly rent from its brand and intellectual property. The fight against global capital will have to be expanded to include issues such as against monopoly rent by copyright and patents even on such life and death issues as in the pharmaceutical industry. Thus workers as consumers also need to be organized. But the core of exploitation of labor power as the lever to maximize profit is relevant in contemporary analysis. Contrary to the claim that the working class is a declining force which diminishes its role, the reality is that while the industrial workforce in the capitalist countries has declined due to the shift of industrial centres through the so-called globalization process in search of cheap labour to the developing countries in Asia, the number of workers globally has grown. Now with the capitalist world’s failure to recover from the 2008 crisis, the entire gamut of policies linked to the neo-liberal framework is itself being refashioned in the heart of the capitalist world, the United States America. The huge unemployment crisis in most of the western countries has once more brought to the fore the utter bankruptcy of the capitalist system.
It is the workers across the world who are leading the battle against austerity measures, in defense of their rights. At the same time, the lack of a coherent political alternative provides the right wing the opportunity to intervene and divert the anger of workers into divisive, racist and xenophobic channels. This only underlines the important lesson for revolutionary forces to pay priority attention to organizing the working classes, in finding new ways to organize given the fragmentation of the workplace, the outsourcing, the trend of contract rising and casualizing the workforce, the majority of workers now being in the informal sector.At the same time given the nature of the neo-liberal State, we have to not just organize workers at the point of production but also in the areas where workers live facing the brunt of policies of privatization which make water, electricity, sanitation so much more expensive and as consumers. In India, there is an offensive against workers rights including the right to unionize. United actions of trade unions have been taking place in major sectors. Over 100,000 workers are expected to participate in a three-day sit-in before Parliament in New Delhi from November 9 to 11.
At the same time, a mechanical understanding of class is often problematic. When Marx said, workers of the world unite he was not speaking of male workers. We are unable to integrate the multiple forms of the double burden that working women face as an integral part of our struggle. All successful revolutions have shown the critical role of working women in the revolution. We know the February revolution in Russia was started by the huge street demonstrations of women workers. Apart from gender, in our experience in India, within the working classes, there are sections which face added oppression and discrimination on the basis of caste, with a large section of the so-called untouchables, the Dalits, relegated to the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Caste acts as an instrument for the intensification of the extraction of surplus value of the Dalits. Somewhat similar is the assault on the rights of Adivasis communities (tribal communities) with the corporate grab of land, forests, destruction of histories, cultures, languages, and ways of life. No class struggle in India can succeed without at the same time challenging the birth based hierarchical caste system against Dalits or the specific issues that Adivasi workers face. I think this would be equally relevant on the question of race, religious-based discrimination or even against immigrants in other countries. These aspects have grown in the last century and working-class struggles which ignore these aspects damage and weaken themselves laying themselves open to legitimate charges of being racist or casteist. Thus class consciousness must necessarily include the consciousness of the specific exploitation that workers may face because of their caste or racial origins or because of their gender.
For us, in India, the Russian revolution provided another very important lesson. That of the worker-peasant alliance first seen in action in the Russian revolution is of deep relevance today and forms the strategic core of the class alliance. This is true in many developing countries which are basically economies with a large agrarian/agricultural base. In the last three years in India, there has been an average of 12,000 farmer suicides every year. Right now in India, we have seen massive mobilizations in States across India of the peasantry against acute agrarian distress caused by the neo-liberal policies of the Government of India. These include highly inadequate allocations for the development of agricultural infrastructure, low prices for farmers produce, cuts in subsidies and soaring costs of farm inputs, resulting in debt burdens and so on. You will be happy to know that in the most recent struggle, thousands of peasants in the State of Rajasthan ruled by a right-wing Government, launched militant struggles under the red flag of the left wing peasants organization, the All India Kisan Sabha, and forced the Government to accept their demands. It was a historic victory.
Therefore one of the most relevant lessons of the Russian revolution is in understanding the need for building class-based alliances of the different sections of the people depending on the class character of the State.
The last century has seen the development of parliamentary democracy in most parts of the world, and revolutionary forces have to engage and participate in these processes to take the movement forward. The combination of parliamentary work with class struggle is an important feature of the challenges facing us in the fight for Socialism. In India, we have some experience of the combination of these processes. At present, the CPI(M) is leading two State Governments in the States of Kerala and Tripura. It is not possible to go into details of the alternative policies these Governments try to implement within the restrictions of the system, but the approach of our participation in parliamentary politics is guided and should always be guided by the analysis of the class alliances we forge and not through opportunist electoral alliances.
In this context, the importance of organization and of a communist party as envisaged by Lenin is essential if the huge energies of the revolutionary masses are to be united towards a common goal. Spontaneity is always an essential element of revolutionary fervor, but for success, more so against the highly centralized and militarized capitalist states today, the need for organization of the working people is paramount. We are committed to the building of a communist party. I know that in most of Europe and the West, the very word communist party has been discarded by many progressives and new formations have been created, some quite successful in their mobilization of people, particularly the youth. We appreciate the work being done by many Left platforms which have developed. But it needs to be stated that the change from a communist party which is live, dynamic, democratic in its internal processes as the Bolshevik party was in its early years, into a bureaucratized hierarchical structure as happened in the latter years of the Soviet Union is not intrinsic to the concept of a communist party based on democratic centralism. I would like to stress that one of the important lessons of the Russian revolution is the importance given to building an organization capable of responding to the challenges of the time.
Comrades, we cannot think of the Russian revolution and its legacy without foregrounding the original and most important contribution of Lenin in developing the Marxist understanding of imperialism and intertwining it with revolutionary strategy. Imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism” developed as a worldwide system due to the inherent requirement of monopoly capitalism. The Russian revolution, the first anti-imperialist revolution, broke the conventional understanding that the socialist revolution would take place in the most capitalist developed societies. The uneven development of capitalism during the stage of imperialism, when the entire world was brought under the purview of a world capitalist system, showed that it could be in a less developed capitalist country which was the weakest link in the chain of the world capitalist system, where the chain could be broken, and the revolution surge forward.
Today the very word imperialism is sought to be eliminated from our dictionaries by the apologists of the present world order. The collapse of socialist State in the Soviet Union and east European countries altered the balance of forces in favor of imperialism. In the absence of a countervailing socialist system, imperialism is aggressively pursuing its policies for establishing its global hegemony. In its quest for the control of natural resources and markets, it is fueling sectarian conflicts and regional wars in many parts of the world. The present situation in West Asia and Africa is a blatant example. The most reactionary forces and Governments are supported by the United States of America and its Nato allies. Let us not forget that it was the US and Nato which first funded and armed Islamicist terror groups to fight incumbent regimes, whether in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, and now in Syria.
The biggest threat to peace and harmony in the world emanates from imperialism and its constant endeavor towards new forms of plunder and loot. The need to strengthen forms of internationalism and solidarity against imperialist depredations is an important aspect of what we can learn from the Russian revolution. One of the basic planks of the Russian revolution was the fight for national sovereignty against the joint attacks of 14 capitalist powers. Today imperialism’s role in support of reactionary regimes all over the world, against the interests of the people, makes it evident that no revolutionary struggle can move forward without mobilizing the people against imperialism and its new forms.
The October revolution was not just a revolution against Tsarist autocracy in Russia. It had a universal significance as it heralded a new type of revolution which was anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and socialist in character. In the present-day world, the struggle against the finance-capital driven imperialism continues. True to the spirit of October, we have to actively support all the struggles against imperialist hegemony – the struggle of the Palestinian people for liberation; the heroic endeavour of the Cuban people to defend national sovereignty and the socialist system; the struggles of the people of Venezuela, Bolivia and other Latin American countries against the rightwing forces backed by imperialism; the resistance of the peoples of West Asia against imperialist aggression and attacks on national sovereignty and the struggles of the working people in Europe, Japan and North America against the onslaughts of neo-liberalism.
We should strive for the coalescence of all the struggles against imperialist aggression, neo-liberalism, women’s oppression and environmental degradation so that they become a powerful force for change.
The social changes wrought by socialist policies are one of the most inspiring legacies of the revolution, which is of extreme relevance today, in particular, the sex-based discriminations which stay as a black shadow in every nook and corner of the capitalist world. Dear friends, half of the world’s population is the female half which holds up more than 70 percent of the sky. The work of women in the survival of families is even today unrecognized. Capitalism and particularly neo-liberal policies have strengthened patriarchal practices and discriminations in myriad ways, in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.
The socialist revolution in Russia and the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union showed the world in a most spectacular way that the all-round emancipation of women is possible only through the Socialist path. The policies conceptualized and implemented in the world’s first Socialist State made women and children the greatest beneficiaries.
We have heard in previous sessions of this seminar the great achievements of socialist Russia in its policies for women, in its abolition of discriminatory laws, in its attempts to overcome the unequal sexual division of labor, in the opportunities for employment, education, and creativity for the female population. Women who were equal partners in the revolutionary movements, which overthrew the Tsarist rule, and later the rule of the provisional Government was also critically the agents for the transformation. They impacted not just the women in the Soviet Union but across the world forcing capitalist governments to introduce reforms in their systems. India too was greatly influenced by the achievements of Soviet women. 100 years later the work of the pioneer women leaders of the Bolshevik party lives on.
It lives on my dear friends in the sacrifices of women and men for the principles that the red flag represents. I conclude my address, with the words of a Dalit, agricultural woman worker in the dist of Hooghly in West Bengal. West Bengal is a State where communists and progressive force have faced the most ferocious terror by the present state government backed in their anti-communist fascistic methods by those ruling at the centre. More than 200 comrades have been martyred in the last four years. The woman I speak of is called Santwana. She had mobilized her village to vote for the communists in the previous elections. Three days later she was waylaid in the late evening when she was returning from work and brutally attacked. Her breast was almost completely cut off. She survived. I went to visit her in the hospital with my comrades. She held my hand and said, why do you worry sister, what can they do to me, they can take away my work, they can burn my home, I will sleep in the field, but as long as I live they can never take away the red flag from my hand and my heart, and if they kill me, there are other hands to hold it.”
There are millions of Santwanas’ across the world, who know and believe that a better world can and must be built. The triumphant cries of the women and men of Petrograd as they hoisted the red flag on that distant day resonate through the century to us here today—we are here, we have arrived.
Long live Socialism
Long live the Revolution
For more see also: The Revolution of 1917 by Vijay Prashad