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An overthrown statue of Russian communist revolutionary and politician Vladimir Lenin. Photo: Getty
An overthrown statue of Russian communist revolutionary and politician Vladimir Lenin. Photo: Getty
A century on, few traces remain of the October 1917 Revolution. So, did it count for anything? Bruce Munro puts that question to two Marxist academics and asks them if it’s time to give up on Communism.

This month, 100 years ago, the Russian people threw off a millennium of oppressive rule for the heady, idealistic freedom of democratic socialism. But the Bolshevik revolutionaries who established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were themselves soon usurped by  Communist-turned-dictator Joseph Stalin. Today, in Russia, there are few traces of the October 1917 Revolution. And internationally, with the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc and the gradual free market transformation of Red China, the radical revolution that ignited it all seems to have burnt to ash and scattered in the winds of time.

Brian Roper
Brian Roper
That is one interpretation, but not the only one, Assoc  Prof  Brian Roper says.

The University of Otago politics researcher and convinced Marxist says the October 1917 Revolution has enduring global significance.

"For the first and only time in history, a popular movement of workers and peasants overthrew an absolutist monarchy and attempted to build a socialist society," Prof Roper says.

He is supported by Dr Rosemary Overell who is a lecturer in media, film and communication at the university and also identifies with the Marxist moniker.

"It marks the first significant attempt at putting Marx’s ideas into practice,  applying them to a population," Dr Overell says.

Prof Roper concedes the revolution’s legacy is contested.

"The October Revolution is either an historical experience that shows why it is neither feasible nor desirable to attempt to create a socialist alternative to capitalism, or a continuing source of inspiration for those advocating a democratic socialist alternative to capitalism in the 21st century."

What happened after the revolution is lamentable, he says.

Rosemary Overell
Rosemary Overell

"Tragically, the revolution degenerated into an authoritarian regime of terror as Stalin took power and then moved to systematically eliminate all opposition, including the bulk of the Bolsheviks who played leading roles in the October Revolution."

But, he asserts, what the critics — who defend the neoliberal status quo or advocate for its reform rather than its overthrow — inevitably fail to mention, is the role the capitalist West played in undermining Russia’s fledgling socialist society.

After October 1917, countries including the major Western powers imposed a trade blockade and sent munitions, equipment and 200,000 troops to support the counterrevolutionary White Russian armies "because they were ...  fearful that socialist revolution might spread to other countries".

"The combination of the civil war, trade blockade, and the social and economic underdevelopment of Russian society, were key factors that contributed to the authoritarian degeneration of the Russian Revolution."

Prof Roper says it is important not to lose sight of the positive achievements of the  revolution.

"It initially aimed to end the war and create a new form of democracy in which the workers and peasants, who made up the vast majority of Russian society, would democratically govern the society from the bottom up."

Dr Overell agrees that viewing the October Revolution as a failure because of the later failure of the USSR is "too simplistic".

The revolution was a true "event" in world history, she says.

"An event is by definition revolutionary. It should be a site where huge risks are taken by participants and things change in a major way.

"Did it fail? Well, as I say, events are risky situations and an event is never complete ...  the world is constantly changing, moving and progressing."

Dr Overell’s comment is reminiscent of a famous quote by The People’s Republic of China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai,  to Richard Nixon during the United States president’s historic visit to Beijing, in 1972.Asked by Nixon what he thought was the impact of revolutionary events in France, Enlai replied  it was "too soon to say".

Because the show is not yet over, Dr Overell will not be hanging up her Marxist cap yet.

She does not agree that human nature means the socialist ideals of the October Revolution are too lofty to be implemented.

What does need critiquing, she argues, are capitalism’s ideas about what is normal and what is possible. Often these norms are disseminated and reinforced by social media.

Bolshevik forces marching on  Red Square. Photo: Public Domain
Bolshevik forces marching on Red Square. Photo: Public Domain

"We need to change the stories that we take for granted as natural or normal and make new stories, which would, first, need to critique the system under which we live, capitalism, but also work to articulate new kinds of futures and ways of thinking about how we live in this world.

"This is a massive task. But I do have hope that things can change."

Likewise, Prof Roper does not think it is time to give up on socialist revolution.

Capitalist democracy is not the best we can hope for as humans, he says.

"As a life-long socialist, the Russian Revolution has been a source of inspiration because, albeit for a tragically brief period, workers and peasants used socialist ideas to try to change society for the better."

Vladimir Lenin argued that the establishment of socialism involved "an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags".

Many would say  this utopian thinking was, and is, doomed to fail. But contemporary socialists argue that a future socialist revolution would not degenerate like the Russian revolution did, Prof Roper says.

"Socialist participatory democracy, in which the majority is directly involved in the self-governance of society, will be vastly easier to establish and maintain in the 21st century, given the economically, culturally, and scientifically advanced conditions created by contemporary capitalism," he predicts.

Comments

The Russian revolution was, like all revolutions, an authoritarian venture from the beginning, and no amount of revisionism by a couple of unreconstructed marxists can change that. As for the idea that one failure doesn't prove anything, let's not forget China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile etc --- communism has failed (usually with disastrous consequences) every time and every place it's been tried. The Russian revolution disaster was no freak accident.

Yet, the Spectre of Fascism is still with us.

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