by Martin Levy

October 25 old-style, November 7 on the current calendar. Exactly 100 years ago this autumn the workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd overthrew the Russian Provisional Government in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. Following the capture of the Winter Palace, all state power was transferred to the Congress of Soviets.

Is it just a coincidence that the blank shot announcing the assault on the Winter Palace was fired by the cruiser Aurora? The name means dawn, and this was a new dawn, not just for Russia, but for the world. Within a few weeks the revolution had swept Russia, though in Moscow and a number of other places it required fierce fighting.

In this issue of CR we celebrate the significance of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Several articles are taken from communist publications 50 years ago, most of the authors having either directly experienced – like Alexandra Kollontai – or lived through that momentous event. We include some observations written in connection with the 90th anniversary. And then we also have images and poetry from the revolutionary period and some modern-day observations.

Andrew Rothstein, following up the previous two article on The Fall of Tsardom, shows how the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants had to learn by practical experience that there was no alternative but to take power themselves. They wanted ‘peace, bread and land’ but this could only be delivered through the mass democratic organisations, the Soviets, which by October 1917 were led by the Bolsheviks.

Lenin had correctly assessed Russia as the weakest link in the imperialist chain, and his strategy was to work towards transforming the February Revolution into a socialist one. But there was no guarantee that events would follow such a course. The October Revolution was made possible by the Bolsheviks’ correct strategy and their painstaking efforts over many years. And there are lessons in Lenin’s Letter to Comrades of October 16-17 (29-30), 1917:i his precise spelling out of the conditions for insurrection – in particular leadership by a Marxist political party enjoying mass support – would apply also to a non-insurrectionary revolutionary situation today.

Lenin had hoped that the October Revolution would be followed by successful revolutions in the industrialised West. Not only did this not happen, but, as described in Dennis Ogden’s article, the young Soviet republic had to fight the wars of intervention led by Western, particularly British, imperialism. The then right-wing leaders of Western social democracy bear an enormous responsibility, not only for the imperialist intervention, but also for the betrayal of the opportunity for socialist revolution in their own countries. Ultimately, that led to fascism. The whole history of the world could have been very different.

But the Decree on Peace did give a boost to all those fighting against the imperialist war begun in 1914; the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia and the Appeal to All Worker Moslems of Russia and the East were inspirations to the subject peoples of the colonial empires – Ireland included, as Desmond Greaves’ article shows; and the fact that the Russian people had thrown out their exploiters led to a strengthening of working class consciousness, the foundation of communist parties and the establishment of the Communist International. The Revolution started the process which ultimately led to national liberation and the revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam.

Devastated by the wars of intervention and surrounded by hostile capitalist powers, the USSR faced the enormous task of building socialism – and then had to start again after the German invasion and the enormous losses sustained. That they were able to defeat the Nazis is a testament to both the work of the Soviet Communist Party during the war, and to the tremendous advances which had been made before then – in socialist industry and agriculture, in the overcoming of poverty and illiteracy, in the flowering of socialist culture, in the rights of women and nationalities. The Soviet peoples knew what they were fighting for, and were prepared to lay down their lives for it.

There is not space in this introduction to deal with the full range of Soviet cultural achievements – art, sculpture, cinema, music, poetry, literature … – which still resonate in the world today. The colour images in this CR, and the extracts from Blok’s poem The Twelve in the Soul Food column, give just a glimpse of the early revolutionary flowering; while Pierre Marshall’s interview with Mike Quille looks at how art should “help us understand the world, get to the heart of things, live richer and more satisfying lives.”

As we know, there were also mistakes and injustices in the Soviet Union. Hans Heinz Holz, in the extracts published here, regarded those as partly a consequence of the prolongation of the revolutionary process, due to hostile encirclement, and partly to “fronts of the class struggle inside the Party”, due to pre-socialist class antagonisms “which continued in the Party leadership after the Revolution”. And he states that in no socialist revolution yet “was the economic structure ready and prepared for socialist production relations.”

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the Soviet Union did not survive. Holz argues that there was a turn to revisionism in the Soviet Union with the idea that developed socialism had been achieved. Lars Ulrik Thomsen comments that the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956 was a missed opportunity, and that the disastrous reforms of the mid-1980s were based on positivism and neokantianism.

But this does not mean that there is no reason to celebrate. Drawing parallels with the Paris Commune of 1871, Liz Payne comments that the enormous sacrifices of the Soviet people “demonstrated in concrete reality that another world is possible.” We do not know where the next socialist breakthrough will take place but we do know, as Steve Johnson writes, that the “guidance by Marx and Engels, later developed by Lenin … can take us forward in the struggle for working-class power today.”


i V I Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 26, pp 212-3.