The Increasing Relevance of the Russian Revolution

A painting of the Bolshevik forces by Kustodiev

Year 2017 saw a host of world leaders congratulating each other on historic events that had taken place in their respective countries. Leaders from around the world, including Prime Minister of Israel, Canada and king of Qatar congratulated India on eve of India’s independence day, celebration on 15th August.  Similarly, storming of Bastille prison, marking the days of French Revolution was celebrated by French Prime Minister and the current President of U.S. together by watching the Millitary parade.  Many “independence movements”  are not only celebrated by their respective nations but held as a sign of progress in the globalized world by the  imperialist powers the world over. Although this is the 100th year of Russian Revolution where the Russian working class removed tsarism , demanded an end to the brutal war , and sought to reshape the Russian society on the terms of the toling masses,  we can be sure  that there will be no celebration from either the Russian Ruling class or Ruling strata of the world.

The reason of course is simple. This was the first Socialist revolution (not withstanding the remarkable attempt by French working class to establish Paris commune) where workers sought to radically restructure the society economically as well as politically and  attempted to reshape all other aspects of Russian social life.  It was an independence movement where the toiling masses sought freedom from Tsarism , Monarchy and clutches of imperialism. And in spite of many attempts by Russian  Bourgeoisie to hijack the movement, it was a revolution created  and carried out by the proletariat. It was a revolution where workers chose to align with a  party of revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks) which refused to cave into the demands of reformism.

While left intellectuals uphold the Russian revolution as that of working class, it has come to a conclusion that the revolution holds no important lessons for today, especially for countries like India. Their rationale is that the russian revolution happened a century ago under special conditions when the world war was at the end.

This is a mistake. As Lenin showed beautifully in his thesis on Imperialism [1],  Russia during early twentieth century was already part of global capitalism. Towards the end of Nineteenth century, the Russian tsar had started financing industrialization of Russia  by borrowing from European banks. In the cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg , an industrial urban working class had emerged which faced the same hostile conditions on the shop floor that workers around India are well familiar with today.  Just as in the case of India, Russia was a laboratory of uneven distorted capitalist development where majority of the population remained in the peasantry  as wage labourers and toiled in miserable conditions , but at the same time an ever increasing migration to the cities gave rise to a tiny but concentrated industrial working class.

A painting of Lenin by Brodskiy

The seeds of this revolution were already planted in 1905 when the first revolution by the Russian workers took place. Although the workers comprised a minority of population even in the cities , they took the lead in protesting against the corrupt and brutal tsarist regime which, in order to compete with the more advanced European countries , was advocating rapid industrialization of Russia by giving no rights to the workers (Labour law reforms in our country seek to take the workers back to the same conditions that Russian workers fought against in 1905).

In September 1905,  print-workers in a factory in Moscow demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate. The demands of these workers was that they be paid for typing even the punctuation marks! This strike set off a wave of strikes throughout the printing industry in Moscow and then spread to other factories.  Under an initiative by a group of political activists, factory delegates in St. Petersburg met and called on the workers to elect their delegates for the soviet.  Soviets were essentially representative councils which were formed to oversee interests of common interests of the working class on a regional level.  By the end of November 1905, Soviet consisted of 562 deputies (one deputy for 500 workers) who represented close to 200 factories and plants and 16 trade unions. [2]

A similar Soviet formed in the Moscow as well.  From being mere strike committees formed to ensure a co-ordinated strikes by the workers, Soviets confronted the state by effectively operating as a people’s government. Between October and December of 1905, they arranged for food supplies and demanded free speech as well as release of political prisoners. However as the revolution did not spread to the peasantry in rural areas (and it was the peasant population which swelled the ranks of the army) ,  the 1905 revolution was eventually suppressed by the end of the year. However,  the birth of the soviets marked a new phase in the development of the Russian working class.

During the time of world war one, in the years of 1914 and 1915, a cleavage developed in Russian urban society when majority of the intelligentsia moved in the conservative direction and supported the war. (We see such a cleavage developing in our society today where majority of the emerging middle class supports RSS/BJP’s vision of development and overall  rightwing shift in the society is markedly evident. ) Workers were facing harsh conditions on one hand (increasing workload in military industry) and unemployment on the other (many factories closed due to utter neglect of the state). They were against the war and  started feeling alienated from the rest of the society  and were politicized by a tiny minority of professional revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks.  As workers came to realise that the solution to their problems could only come from themselves , strikes as well as demand of workers intensified. This was evident especially in military industries like metal factories in St. Petersburg intensified where workers toiled under intense workload.[3]

In February 1917, what began as a strike by the women workers in St. Petersburg , a mere 10 day of workers revolt resulted in displacing centuries of Tsarism .  How did this happen? The army comprising of peasantry, with bases mostly centered around the cities, had an increased interaction with the working class in the years preceding 1917. This interaction  resulting from the efforts of advanced section of the workers and the professional revolutionaries resulted in army supporting the revolution! [4]

Once the tsar fell, a provisional government of liberals who wanted to divert the workers revolution into a path where bourgeoisie would benefit the most formed .  However workers were not satisfied with this bourgeoise government and especially its stance on the war.  In March, workers in st. Petersburg managed to secure for the first time in Russia an eight hour working day. This was an important victory which the workers in India are in danger of losing today. As the factories act has increased allowed limits on over-time and over-time is nothing but extension of a workers’s worktime, it is clear that eight hour working day has turned into a dream for majority of the Indian working class.

In April 1917, Lenin put forward his April thesis [5]  where he demanded an end to the war and asked that all powers be given to the Soviets.  Under the leadership of Bolshevik party who as a revolutionary organization understood and channeled the discontent and the demands of workers clearly, Russia ended the short lived bourgeoisie rule. Thus came the October revolution which took place on 25th October 1917 according to the old calendar (November 7th in new calendar).

A lot has been written about the aftermath of the October revolution , mostly by the forces which are outright hostile to the idea of a socialist revolution . The fate of revolution needs a detailed discussion not only to confront the capitalist forces which oppose the idea that a society can be radically restructured by the working class , but also to learn from mistakes of the past. To this effect, we must remember how the Russian revolution effected every strata of Russian society. It was not merely a revolution where tsarism was replaced by Provisional government which was in turn  replaced by the Bolsheviks. It was a movement of the working class where via the organs they created; factory committees , Soviets , trade unions , workers took control of the work places.

Between February and October 1917, workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow sought to dismantle the autocratic structures of the management and even dismantle the bureaucratic structures of trade unions which had primarily believed in negotiations with the management.  The creation of democracy on the shop floor was seen as a pre-requisite to the dignity of workers in society as a whole. This birth of democracy required violent measures.  In a metal factory in St. Petersburg where over 30,000 workers worked, one of the hated foreman had lead poured over his head and was sent packing. The factory rule books detailing fines and insulting searches were torn apart. The factory committees took over the running of the many state run enterprises.

The repercussions of the Russian workers revolution were immediately felt throughout Europe where workers in countries like Germany and Italy sought to emulate formation of the soviets and factory committees to replace traditional trade unions.

The relevance of this revolution for Indian working class and Indian society  as a whole can not be overlooked. As we have noted above, working class and peasantry in both the countries are victims of distorted capitalist development aided by imperialist powers. Russian working class especially in manufacturing industries was concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in India we see such concentration of the workers in many sectors like the Automobile sectors in few of the Industrial corridors. St. Petersburg was site of extreme inequalities with it’s palacial buildings  for the growing and affluent middle class, and squalid living conditions for the workers finds a strong parallel to the living conditions of workers in say Delhi-Mumbai Industrial corridors which often overlook gated communities and high rise buildings in which the bourgoisie resides. India, Just like Russia at that time is constantly changing due to increasing migration where owing to acute agrarian crisis, a reserve army of labour is concentrating in the cities. The fight to unionize that Russian workers fought for is a fight Indian working class undertakes on a daily basis.[6]

Indian society as a whole is facing a severe crisis due to the rise of facism which,  by tapping into the most regressive currents  in the society and by alligning itself with the neo-liberal program, is reshaping the country where all the inequalities will be legitimized.  In Russia there was an existant facism in the form of Tsarism which had brought war on it’s people. Thus the workers revolution of 1917 has important lessons if the working class of India were to fight the Hindutva facism which is on the rise in the country.

Russian revolution was born in the belly of shop-floor abuses. It is a revolution where demands of democracy and fundamental rights by the workers on their respective shop-floors and in the factories spread outwards in the rest of society and transmuted into the wider  demands of equality, justice and freedom from exploitation. The working class struggles were in many cases spontaneous , but through the interaction of the workers with the revolutionaries, especially the bolsheviks , these struggles evolved into a cohesive whole which tore the existing regressive fabric of Russian society apart.

The revolution was best summed up by Antonio Gramsci who wrote:

the Russian revolution is the triumph of freedom . A continuous and systematic elevation of a people, following the lines of a hierarchy, and creating for itself one by one the organs that the new social life demands.

 

References:

[1] V.I.Lenin , Imperialism , the highest phase of capitalism.

[2] Alex  Callinicos, Soviet Power, 1977.

[3] Ronald Grigor, Revisiting the old story : 1917 revolution in light of new sources.

[4] A. Rabinovitch, Bolsheviks in Power

[5] V.I.Lenin,The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution

[6] James Bater,  St. Petersburg and Moscow on the eve of Revolution

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