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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Russian Revolution (1917)

Last year (2017) I received lots of interesting material from friends and colleagues about the centenary of the Russian Revolution (1917). I studied the Russian Revolution at school and was totally mesmerised by it. I mentioned before that the French Revolution was one of the most significant and seismic events in human history (closely followed by the American Revolution and the massively underrated English civil war), since it fundamentally changed the world once and for all (cf 9/11 in our living memory). The Russian Revolution was another such event of similar magnitude and effect, though regrettably not of consequence (another post on how it fell apart, namely Stalinism, isolationism and state totalitarianism, all of which significantly and unjustly denigrated the global reputation of Marxism). In Marxist scholarship, the Russian Revolution is hailed as the single greatest moment in human history, since although it has parallels with the French Revolution in being a massive popular uprising overturning the ruling aristocracy, it is the only time in human history where no property is privately owned but commonly distributed through communal ethics. This is probably as close to Marxist communist utopia as it will ever get, as documented in first-hand historical accounts by Trotsky (History of the Russian Revolution) and Reed (Ten days that shook the world).

As in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution began in the form of a national crisis where the people suffered from economic shortages and political repression from above (Tsar Nicholas II, who, like Louis XXVI, was weak and ineffectual, and this was not helped by the scandalous Rasputin who only complicated things further), to the extent that they were driven to act and react. In 1917, however, the Russian people were probably going through much greater hardships than the French in 1789, since WWI, which was still ongoing, was really turning Russia upside down. The Russians were losing spectacularly to the Germans with deaths piling up, and the morale both at home and on the front was verging on disaster and mutiny. The whole country was ripe for change, and the first stage of the revolution occurred in February/March when the capitalist Kerensky effectively ousted the Tsar and the Russian aristocrats and established the famous Provisional Government. However, this Provisional Government was not to last long, as it did little to improve the lives of the Russian people immediately. In fact, it continued to participate in WW1 which only exacerbated the suffering and desperation of the common masses. The Russian people were hence waiting for another revolutionary turn in the form of a heroic saviour, who turned out to be the political exile, Lenin (cunningly brought back to Moscow by the Germans). Lenin immediately gained popularity among the masses, since he promised immediate cessation of military activities and withdrawal from the war as well as basic needs to the Russian people, who rallied to his side (the Bolsheviks) and stormed the Winter Palace in October/November. This was the climax of the second stage of the Russian Revolution, which is widely commemorated as an iconic moment in human history, since it marks the triumph of the working class. Russian society was now rid of aristocratic (Tsarists) and capitalist (Kerensky et al) elements (counter-revolutionaries notwithstanding) and was essentially a workers’ state, broadly conforming to Marx’ account (mutatis mutandis).

What was unique about the Russian Revolution was that it was the first time in history (and since) that a big and major first-world (sort of) power was dominated by unpropertied people i.e. poople who did not own anything privately in the first place. This makes it subtly yet crucially different from the classics forms of popular revolutions in France and America where the political tide and the balance of propertied power turned from the ruling sovereignty (feudal/medieval monarchy/colonists) to the masses spearheaded by the wealthy and emerging Middle Class. In Marx’ term, this was a bourgeoise capitalist revolution which made possible by the fact that the propertied Middle Class had gained enough momentum and power to assert their position in society and overthrow the obsolete feudal hierarchy. In the Russian Revolution, on the other hand, the second insurgency was a genuine socialist/workers’ revolution in that the unpropertied workers overthrew the owners and benefactors of their workplace (i.e. their (former) bosses) and seized control of national production. This was a unique moment in human history where the common masses with no experience of ownership took responsibility for themselves and formed a truly democratic society where there was no capitalist/bourgeois influence but sole and pure proletarian zeal. In Reed’s first-hand account of his time in Moscow, the factories seized and repossessed by the workers were truly democratic in that rather than controlled and dictated by corporate thugs these workplaces were regulated by regular assemblies and democratic procedures for decision-making, all carried out by the workers with no bucreatic influence whatsoever. The Soviet Republic was hence established in which the Soviets (Russian for ‘workers’ councils’) oversaw daily proceedings and all workers co-habited in a seemingly classless state. This is as close to Marxist utopia as one can get. Much hardship was to follow, namely the Russian Civil War and Lenin’s untimely death, which set the stage for Stalinism and its many tragic consequences. Nonetheless, the early existence of the Soviet Republic of Russia was spectacular in that property and production were state-contolled and equally distributed among the working members of society (which consisted of pretty much everyone in post-revolution Russian society). This is true democracy in candescent form, and shame that it was only flash (albeit a magnificent flash which will never be forgotten). If it had remained an eternal flame just as capitalism had persisted in face of feudalist counter-reactions two centuries before, it could have been the very beacon of humanity in our world. It seems ironic to say this but the Russian society in 1917 was to-date the most postmodern form of human society that exceeds even today’s society where the world has fallen back on global/corporate capitalism. What went wrong with the socialist/communist ideals in Russia and beyond? This will be discussed next time.

‘The International Ideal, Unite the Human Race!’ (The Internationale, by Eugène Pottier (English translation by Billy Bragg))

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