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On-going Lessons from the October Revolution

Josh S
 
The 1917 Russian revolution, though occurring a century ago, still provides salutatory lessons about many current issues including:
• the futility of terrorism.
• the nature of revolutionary resistance to state violence.
• the struggle for power and control of space.
• the need for leadership by a revolutionary party organisation.
 
The futility of terrorism
 
During the latter decades of the nineteenth, and in the early twentieth, centuries, many Russian revolutionaries sought to weaken or overthrow the Tsarist regime by attacks on, or assassinations of, nobles and government officials. However, not only were innocent people killed, but assassinated officials were merely replaced by others similar or worse, the masses were not roused or organised, and the anarchist or Narodnik groups were easily infiltrated by the secret police.
 
These desperate, idealistic rebels had no understanding of the need to educate, organise and lead the masses, particularly the working class, to overthrow the regime. They believed that heroic actions would create fear and paralysis in the regime and set an example for the passive masses, and this would all somehow lead to the downfall of the regime.
 
More recent terrorists, whether so-called revolutionaries in, for example, the USA, Europe and South America, or religious fundamentalists, have been variously motivated by:
 
• the desire to strike symbolic blows against capitalism, governments, and/or the armed forces, or the West, opponents of Islam, Shi’ites, or other supposed apostates;
• the belief that terrorist acts will inspire the masses to join the revolutionary struggle;
• the intention to incite the state to repress the people, who will then rise up against the state;
• the belief that military acts are educative for the population, giving them the confidence to challenge the state.
 
However, the terrorist actions have served only to:
 
• isolate the terrorists and enable governments to belittle and vilify opponents, and label all activists under the same umbrella;
• allow governments to get away with increased repression, and curtailment of hard-won civil liberties;
• alienate many in the population who either are unimpressed and remain passive, or who then support, or rally to, the government;
• fail completely to educate, organise and lead the population to take their own action leading to mass revolutionary action.
 
These terrorist acts, whether indiscriminate or targeted, are not only callously murderous, they have always been and always will be futile and counter-productive – they have never led, and never will lead, to the overthrow of governments or systems.
 
The nature of revolutionary resistance to state violence.
 
The use of violence in revolutionary struggle must be careful, responsible and calibrated. It must serve the political struggle, and must involve the masses in appropriate, careful ways.
 
Initially, the people, under the leadership of communists who understand the violent nature of the capitalist state, will take defensive measures to protect themselves against state violence and repression, and/or against violent attacks or repression by criminals, armed gangs etc. These people's actions may involve overt mass actions, covert organised actions, or actions by types of people's militias on behalf of the people and their struggle. In every case, the actions need to be part of an overall political strategy, and to be carefully planned so that the people are protected as much as possible.
 
The recent attacks on the Burmese military by the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, in response to the vicious repression of Rohingyas, seem to be sheer adventurism; they appeared to have no capacity or preparedness to protect the Rohingya from government reprisals.
 
In contrast, during the Vietnam war, the Viet Cong were very careful to avoid the association of the population in contested areas with Viet Cong military actions; indeed, the people often posed as government supporters or innocent bystanders, demanding government protection or that the government honour its promises; claiming that youths who had run off into the jungle to avoid being drafted into the South Vietnandese puppet army had been “kidnapped by the Viet Cong”. These tactics were developed by the National Liberation Front and local people working together.
 
The long period during which the revolutionary forces develop their military strength, experience and knowledge, and the people learn that political and military revolution is required to solve their basic problems, is often called the “strategic defensive”. The government forces are not challenged to major battles in fixed positions. The revolutionary forces gradually build their capacity and organisation, spread their influence over wider areas and gradually tie down the enemy, limit its ability to manoeuvre and attack at will, and force it to adopt a more and more defensive posture in larger and larger formations, and therefore, in fewer and fewer positions.
 
In Russia in 1917, the February Revolution overthrew Tsarism, and freed the hands of the bourgeoisie to pursue a slightly more modern, less constrained capitalist system, and to continue to pursue Russia's imperialist objectives in World War 1. The February revolution was in fact achieved by the workers of the major cities, the unrest in the countryside, and rebelliousness in the armed forces. The workers, and soldiers and sailors, established representative organisations, called Soviets, through which they attempted to define and pursue their demands, and to exercise political influence.
 
The Revolution was appropriated by the bourgeoisie, and remnants of the old feudal classes, aided by weak, opportunist organisations, like the Mensheviks and (so-called) Socialist-Revolutionaries, who constantly compromised with, and toadied to, the bourgeoisie. These latter groups held leadership of the Soviets and trade unions. The Bolsheviks waged a relentless struggle during 1917 to convince the workers, soldiers/sailors and peasants that a complete change of social and political system was required, and that the Soviets should take power to achieve the change.
 
That struggle involved intensive organisation and agitation around key popular demands to win support.
 
It also involved strong political actions to defend the people and their newly won rights. Soldiers and sailors elected committees which demanded a role in military decision-making. They overthrew the absolute control of the officer class and the death penalty in the armed forces, and resisted vigorously the Provisional Government's attempts to re-introduce it. They expelled, punished and sometimes executed the worst officers. They increasingly refused to obey orders unless these were endorsed by the relevant Soviets. They took their own independent action to protect the revolutionary forces. They increasingly became an independent political and military force as they realised that fundamental changes were required to end Russia's involvement in the War, and to provide land, food and hope to the Russian masses.
 
As well as agitation, the Bolsheviks also organised their own members and the working class, particularly in the big factories, into workers militias, independent of the Government. There was intense struggle during 1917 as the workers militias got organised, took arms, trained, and forced employers to pay the wages of workers on militia duty, while the Government tried every effort to circumscribe the independent workers militias and to bring them under government control. The workers militias enrolled women (for the first time ever Russia), kept peace and order in working class districts, distributed food in an attempt to avert famine, kept factories working as many employers tried to undermine the growing movement by closing factories to starve the working class into submission, regulated industrial disputes between employers and workers, protected meetings, and released political prisoners.
 
These militias and their actions taught the workers about the need for, and possibility of, completely replacing the old regime with new people’s organs, and prepared for the overthrow of the government and its armed forces.
 
The struggle for power and control of space
 
The period between the February and October Revolutions was a period of Dual Power, as the people's organised forces challenged the old system and gradually neutralised its forces, took power in increasing aspects and areas, until by October, the regime was sufficiently weak and isolated, and the few military forces that it could muster were easily and quickly defeated., the Socialist revolution achieved, and power was formally vested in the Soviets.
 
The revolutionary military process during 1917 was closely linked to the strategic political process, which itself involved organising and educating the masses, particularly the workers, soldiers and sailors, and to some extent the peasantry, although the latter's actions in attacking landlords, burning manor houses and seizing land were probably less organised and largely spontaneous. The military defeat of the feudal/capitalist system was the culmination of long-term political struggle and strategy, and went through defensive and stalemate stages before the offensive in October.
 
Subsequently, the remnants of armed forces loyal to the bourgeoisie or even Tsarism, combined with the intervention of 14 capitalist countries which were aghast that Russia had both left the War and had a Socialist revolution, mounted a counter-revolution. The ensuing civil war bled Russia dry, but the courage, determination and inspiration of the Soviet people, of all nationalities, again with strong clear leadership of the Bolshevik Party, enabled the revolution to defeat the counter-revolution, and then the construction of socialism.
 
The need for leadership by a revolutionary party organisation
 
The difference between the failed terrorist attacks of the nineteenth century and the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905, was due to two key factors:
 
(1) The overall political and military situation. By 1917, the whole Russian system was collapsing; people were starving, crops were unplanted or unharvested because peasants were sent off to the war, the transport system was in chaos, and soldiers were being slaughtered or dying of cold, hunger and disease at the front. But the tsarist regime and its feudal and capitalist supporters would not, could not, change course because of their subservience to, and reliance on, French and British capital.
 
(2) The steady construction and maturation of a revolutionary organisation that was capable of seeing what was required and of providing leadership to the people to achieve it.
 
As soon as the February Revolution occurred, clear differences were apparent among the supposed revolutionary parties. The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries could not see, refused to see, that merely overthrowing the Tsar would change little. They compromised and cowered, more afraid of militant uncontrolled masses than of the disastrous situation across the country.
 
The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, demanded that the revolution continue to a socialist conclusion, that power be taken by the people, in the form of the Soviets.
 
The Bolshevik Party had been steeled in struggle for decades, by the experience of struggle, and repression, jail and execution.
As a tight, experienced organisation, it had the capacity to pool information, perspectives and knowledge from across the whole Russian Empire, across all nationalities, and develop demands and strategies that responded to the political and military situations as they unfolded, and to the masses' needs and consciousness. It modified and refined strategies and tactics as situations changed, and these changes were implemented by the Party membership across the empire.
 
The leadership carefully analysed the changing situation, the strength of the government and of the revolutionary forces.
 
In late June, the workers of Petrograd and Moscow and some other industrial centres, were completely fed up with the Provisional Government and were ready for the next revolution. Spontaneous demands for a confrontation with the government and its armed forces broke out, and massive demonstrations were organised. The Bolshevik leadership realised that, as yet, there was insufficient support for an insurrection across the whole country, that rebelliousness in the armed forces had not matured enough, and that an uprising would be crushed. At the same time, they recognised that the revolutionary consciousness of the workers was the result of Bolshevik agitation, and that the Party still had to supply responsible leadership in this difficult situation. The Bolsheviks assumed leadership of the (early) July demonstrations which were attacked by the regime, but (doing the most difficult thing for a revolutionary organisation), reined in the spontaneity and adventurousness, and avoided the confrontation that the government tried to provoke. The movement had to take a step back, the Bolsheviks were hounded by the regime, and a military coup was prepared by the army and government leadership.
Although driven underground, the Bolsheviks kept agitating and organising across the empire, preparing the ground for a successful insurrection when the time was ripe.
 
The Russian empire covered many nationalities, who had long been oppressed by the great Russian chauvinism of the Tsarist regime. The overthrow of Tsarism created the opportunity for local bourgeois nationalists among most, if not all, nationalities, to agitate for secession from the empire, and the establishment of nationalist bourgeois or (semi-)feudal governments. The Bolsheviks, pooling information from across the empire, and determined to fight for a socialist revolution for all, agitated and organised both against the chauvinist Russian Provisional Government, and also against the opportunist local nationalist leaders, and advocated the maintenance of unity among all nationalities toward a socialist revolution across the whole empire.
 
After the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries deserted the socialist revolution, and used their leading positions in the Soviets and trade unions to oppose the continuation of the revolution, the Bolsheviks shelved their slogan “All Power to the Soviets” and adopted the strategy of concentrating their efforts on the workers and soldiers committees and the factories, steadily winning mass support which was organised into cells, committees and militia.
 
The Party had clear strategies for the development of Dual Power, for the organisation of workers militias, and for the preparation for the military insurrection. The Party carefully monitored events and the mass mood and consciousness, and the disposition and weaknesses of the enemy forces. It considered timing – when the enemy would be weak enough, and the people's forces strong and well enough organised, to stage the insurrection.
 
The Russian revolution would not have happened, could not have happened, without a committed, tightly organised and disciplined Party, to make the ongoing analyses, to develop the strategies, to agitate consistently across the vast empire, to organise the people politically and militarily, and to possess the accumulated pooled wisdom and courage to brave the tsarist and bourgeois repression and know when and how to strike.
 
Today's advocates of spontaneity, of movementism, of no organisation, of opposition without positive demands, of isolated acts, would do well to learn

 

On-going Lessons from the October Revolution
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