By Danial Nikovich
In early 1917, misery and economic hardship bore down on the people of Tsarist Russia. The first imperialist world war had left millions dead. Both in cities and the countryside, people starved.
On March 8 (new calendar), women textile workers had had enough and flooded the streets of Petrograd. This action, held on International Women’s Day, was joined by other workers – both men and women – who left their factories on strike.
The Tsarist government was paralysed. On March 15, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and was replaced by the Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky. In April, Vladimir Lenin and other exiled Bolshevik leaders arrived in Petrograd by train. Thousands gathered outside the Finland Station and from atop an armoured car Lenin told them,
“The people need peace; the people need bread; the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread…We must fight for the socialist revolution, fight to the end, until the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!”
Until this point, the Bolshevik Party had agreed to work within the Provisional Government, arguing that the conditions were not yet ready for a seizure of power by the workers and peasants.
In his April Theses, Lenin disputed this and argued for the transfer of power to a “republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the land, from top to bottom.” Two days after his return, Lenin’s proposal was voted down 13-2 by the Petrograd Committee of the Bolshevik Party.
At the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets in June, the Bolsheviks were in the minority. Of 822 delegates, the Bolsheviks had only 105. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) had 285 delegates while the Mensheviks had 248.
However, the Mensheviks and SRs supported a continuation of Russian participation in the imperialist war – with all its deprivations. The Bolshevik Party was soon won over to Lenin’s line and through their slogan “Peace, Land and Bread!”, they won mass popular support.
The October Revolution began on November 6. By November 8, the Winter Palace had been captured. While the Bolshevik’s seizure of power was a bloodless insurrection, the period which followed was brutal.
The country entered into a bloody civil war as the White Armies – defending the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie and landlords – revolted against the new government. The international bourgeoisie went into frenzied hysteria and no less than 14 foreign armies invaded the country.
In early 1919, a mass uprising in Germany was crushed by the social democratic government that took power after the abdication of the Kaiser. The leaders of the German Communist Party – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – were murdered shortly after. As a result, the Soviet Union was isolated and surrounded by hostile capitalist powers.
Russia was also a backwards, peasant-based economy with only isolated pockets of modern industry. World War One had devastated much of the country and the civil war – during which an economic policy called War Communism was implemented – was unimaginably tough. Despite all odds however, Soviet power survived.
Faced with these immense challenges, the revolutionary government enacted some of the most far-reaching changes ever seen in a modern state including equal status of men and women and right of all nations in the Russian empire to self-determination. For the first time in capitalist history, private property relations were replaced with public ownership of the means of production.
Gains of the 1917 Revolution
In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union underwent a rapid process of industrialisation. Particularly in the countryside where land was collectivised, this process inflicted immediate hardship and conflict.
In regions such as Central Asia, centuries old systems of social production were also not easily transformed. It would take years of work, particularly by local activists trained at the Communist University of the Toiling East (KUTV), for the economy of these areas to be socialised.
The situation was worsened by the approach to rural development taken by the Soviet leadership in 1929-1930. This was characterised by “forced collectivisation” of land and stands in contrast to, for example, Cuba where collectivisation was able to be carried out on a voluntary basis through, incentives, education and example.
The result was that the Soviet Union went from one of the most backward countries in Europe to one of the most advanced in some types of production. Because these advanced productive forces were socially controlled and planned, economic development spread more evenly and living standards accelerated massively.
All Soviet citizens had the right to secure employment, free childcare and one month paid vacation. This new system rivaled even the richest countries – whose wealth was based on the super-exploitation of the Global South. A 1984 study of human rights found,
“In general, the application of such economic rights is more advanced in the Soviet Union than in any Western country, including those on the same level of development as the Soviet Union, and those most advanced Western capitalist countries, such as the US and Japan.”
A declassified CIA document from January 1983 observed, “commonly accepted U.S. health views suggest the Soviet diet may be slightly better…an average Soviet citizen consumes 3,280 calories a day, compared to 3,520 calories for the American.”
Adequate housing was also guaranteed in the Soviet Union with low-cost accommodation accessible to all citizens for a fraction of their household budget. This is compared to contemporary Australia where over 116,000 people are homeless and renters in New South Wales (NSW) are forced to give 21.4% of their income to landlords.
Living standards achieved in the Soviet Union were far higher than much of the contemporary Global South, where ordinary people are routinely denied the most basic rights such as clean water, adequate or nutritious food, housing and medical care.
For example, in 2017, it was found that more households in the Philippines have access to cell phones than to basic toilet facilities. In Indonesia, over 20 million people face the risk of hunger while 21 million are undernourished. The scale of injustice is even more stark in regions Sub-Saharan Africa where 40% of the population live below US$1.90 a day.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was prone to various shortcomings and contradictions throughout its existence based on the backwardness of the economy it inherited and the aggression it faced from the imperialist states throughout its existence.
Curtailing of democratic organs and political repression, manifested clearly in the execution of original Bolsheviks like Gregory Zinoviev, reflects the degeneration of Soviet leadership after the consolidation of power by Joseph Stalin.
The massive social achievements brought about by the revolution of October 1917, despite all these factors demonstrates that a planned economy based on a socialised system of production could massively improve the lives and dignity of ordinary people.
Above all, the October Revolution proved that it is possible for the working class and peasantry, led by a revolutionary party, to seize and hold onto state power.
After just over 70 years, the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by other workers states such as Yugoslavia. It almost spelled the end of the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro labelling it the biggest setback in history for the working class.
Many socialist organisations, particularly those founded on the ideas of Leon Trotsky, falsely celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union. For example, Doug Lorimer wrote in the 1992 pamphlet The Collapse of ‘Communism’ in the USSR,
“Whatever the immediate problems it has created in terms of ideological confusion and demoralisation within the international workers’ movement, our central conclusion is that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR and of the political influence of Stalinism in the West represents an enormous step forward for the struggle for socialism.”
Rather than a ‘step forward,’ the collapse of the Soviet Union has been an unmitigated disaster for the working class globally. In the former-socialist republics, workers faced a rapid deterioration of living conditions while organised socialist groups, particularly in the imperialist core, shrunk or collapsed altogether.
With the sudden removal of the Soviet bulwark, the imperialist countries began a largely unopposed campaign of aggression and violence, particularly in the Middle East and Afghanistan. However, the ruling class’s declaration of the ‘end of history’ was soon proved wrong by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the determination of socialist Cuba.
Over 100 years after the October Revolution and 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we find ourselves in a very important moment. It is crucial that we begin to regroup and renew our thinking based on understanding both the achievements and shortcomings of the 20th century. We must reinvigorate the fight for socialism because it is the only path out of the nightmare of late capitalism.