The change from the ancient Julian to the more modern Gregorian calendar in Russia means that we should actually celebrate the anniversary of the October revolution in November. Once you convert the dates, October 25th becomes November 7th – today. Happy centenary of the October revolution. On this day, the authority of state power – the ability to make and enforce laws – transitioned, for the first time in history, to representatives of the working class, with the interests of the working class their priority. It was the first revolution with explicitly socialist aims not merely liberal ones. For a hundred years capitalists have sought to delegitimise challenges to the economic order based on the ultimate failure of the Bolsheviks to bring about a communist utopia. Indeed it is quite fashionable for historians to refer to the insurrection that brought about Soviet power not as a revolution but as a coup d’état.
However in 2017, people the world over are realising that neo-liberal global capitalism is, in the words of New Zealand’s new Labour Prime Minister, “a blatant failure”. It cannot continue unchecked. From Occupy Wall Street to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, challenges to the system are becoming more and more common. In recognition of the fact capitalism in its current form has a limited future, the phrase ‘late capitalism’ is increasingly applied to our current era. Of course whether neo-liberal capitalism is replaced with socialism or with nationalist populism, or with nuclear Armageddon, or an era of Artificial Intelligence that results in a modern day feudal system, is yet to be determined. Yet socialists must have hope that the future belongs to us. And for that hope to be justified we must look back, on this day in particular, and understand that open challenges to capitalism are indeed legitimate. We must be inspired by the bravery of the Russian revolutionaries. For if modern day socialists do not seize the political initiative in the way that the Bolsheviks did, our future looks very bleak indeed.
As a way of discouraging challenges to the capitalist order, we are told by the establishment to “respect the rule of law”. The Bolsheviks have been lambasted by capitalists throughout history for “illegally” seizing power. From this point of view Vladimir Lenin was a criminal not a leader. There was after all a warrant issued for his arrest in the lead up to the revolution. However the arrest warrant was as morally illegitimate as the recent warrant issued for Catalan leaders for their work to achieve independence from Spain. The provisional government, in power since the collapse of the Tsarist regime in February, lacked any real mandate. Furthermore they acted against the interest of the vast majority of people by not only continuing Russian involvement in World War I but launching new offensives – even threatening an invasion of Finland to crush a bourgeoning independence movement there. Even as more conservative and liberal ministers resigned and more socialists joined the government, the laws and policies continued to be hypocritical. A government that only months prior had declared a new age of freedom began censoring Bolshevik newspapers. Opposition that threatened the class interests of the establishment would not be tolerated. The rule of law was being used to prevent revolution.
This same appeal to law is still used in similarly hypocritical ways today. We have the CFMEU being fined millions by the Victorian Supreme Court for preventing work going ahead on Grocon building sites. The law protects Grocon, never mind they are a building company with a terrible safety track record whose actions should be scrutinised and stopped by the union if need be. The law even allows the Australian Federal Police to storm into the Australian Workers Union head office for the purposes of a political witch hunt against the Leader of the Opposition. Sure these laws were passed by a democratically elected government, which is more than can be said for the provisional government of Russia in 1917, but then again perhaps not even all democratic laws are legitimate. Lenin was on to something when he wrote in The State and Revolution that capitalist liberal democracy was only “democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich”. The increasingly radicalised left in Australia are waking up to this Leninist insight. Sally McManus, the leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, recently told the National press Club that she “believes in the rule of law, but, laws must be fair, just and right. When they are unjust, no, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking them”. Sally McManus is the leader workers need in Australia on the centenary of the Russian revolution.
The declaration by McManus that workers and unions need not always follow the law is highly reminiscent of the famous Petrograd Soviet’s Order Number One. Immediately following the resignation of the Tsar, a group of mainly former Tsarist Ministers and advisers proclaimed themselves to be a provisional government. In an effort to re-gain control of the situation, they ordered soldiers who had mutinied to return to their barracks and report for duty. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was a democratic organisation that represented workers and troops, most of whom were conscripts, in the capital. Fearing that troops would be punished upon their return to duty, the Soviet issued its first order. It declared that workers and soldiers should obey the laws and decrees of the provisional government only in so far as those laws and decrees do not contradict the policies of the Soviet. This created a situation known as dual power. The Soviet was setting itself up, not merely as a representative lobby group, but as a quasi-legislative body. And it had more of a claim to do so than the provisional government. So, especially as the provisional government refused to take action that would improve the dire situation most Russians found themselves in because of the war, the Bolshevik call of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ started to make total sense.
The provisional government lost whatever moral authority it had when the new sell-out socialist Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky asked the proto-fascist General Kornilov to bring his supposedly anti-Soviet soldiers to Petrograd to crush the Soviet opposition in September 1917. When Kerensky realised that Kornilov saw himself as a Napoleon type figure who intended to occupy the capital and run Russia as a dictator, he begged the Soviet for help. Kerensky freed Bolshevik leaders who had been jailed and supplied Leon Trotsky with arms so his Red Guards could mount a defence of the city. As it turned out, Kornilov’s soldiers weren’t as anti-Soviet as he thought and once they caught wind of the plan they deserted. The whole affair ended without a shot being fired, with Kornilov in prison, and with Kerensky an irreparably diminished figure. The Bolsheviks, the most radical and now the most popular party among the working class, decided enough was enough. They made plans for an insurrection to seize state power and deliver it solely to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The Congress began on October 25th/November 7th.
There were barely any noticeable disturbances as soldiers loyal to the Bolsheviks took control of telegraph lines, train stations and bridges. Kerensky saw which way the wind was blowing and fled Petrograd – he was lent a car by the American Ambassador. The rest of the provisional government ministers gathered in their offices inside the Tsar’s former Winter Palace. As tens of thousands of soldiers gathered outside the Palace, Lenin issued a telegram to “the citizens of Russia”. It read:
The Provisional Government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the Revolutionary Military Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and the garrison.
The cause for which the people have fought, namely, the immediate offer of a democratic peace, the abolition of landed proprietorship, workers’ control over production, and the establishment of Soviet power—this cause has been secured.
Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!
Russians had very little experience with democracy in any form in 1917. The Soviets were barely months old. Of course they weren’t perfect models of representative democracy. Different Soviets had different methods of election. Some areas of Russia were over or under-represented. However these same criticisms apply equally today to the United States where Donald trump was elected President with three million less votes than his competitor. What is clear is the All-Russian Congress of Soviets was by far the most representative body in Russia at that time. And the Bolsheviks dominated. Three hundred and ninety of the six hundred and fifty delegates were Bolsheviks. A further one hundred were from a Bolshevik aligned group – the left SRs. Some of the other less radical socialist parties tried to reject the power now being offered the Congress by Bolshevik troops. Groups like the Mensheviks and the right SRs had supported the provisional government. Indeed they could count among their members some of the provisional government ministers now holed away inside the Winter Palace. They preferred to keep the Soviets as workers’ lobby groups, a check on government power. They never wanted the responsibility of government to fall to the Soviet.
As the night wore on the Bolshevik aligned sailors on the battleship Aurora fired blanks at the Winter Palace in an attempt to scare the ministers into surrender. The ministers did not yet surrender. But the blanks did scare the Mensheviks. Believing incorrectly that the Bolsheviks were blowing up the city, they walked out of the Congress in protest. As they did so Trostky lambasted them from the podium uttering his famous words, “you are pitiful isolated individuals… your role is played out. Go now where you belong – into the dustbin of history”. The Menshevik walkout was a real shame. Many of them were intelligent and had much to contribute, especially the last to leave Julius Martov. At the crucial moment, when they could have worked as a part of a truly left wing working class Soviet government, they decided that instead they would be a protest group. The Mensheviks remind me of the Australian Greens. Similarly, they snub real political power and the chance to actually achieve left wing outcomes that comes with it. They prefer to remain ‘morally pure’, criticising governments from the outside. Well as Gough Whitlam famously said, “the impotent are pure”. Lenin was certainly willing to get his hands dirtied by power. And he is the one that is remembered a hundred years on for changing the world. Let that be one of the key lessons of 1917. And if the Greens don’t learn that lesson soon they will also go into the dustbin of history, Australian Democrats style.
In the end 505 out of 650 delegates voted in favour of the revolution. The Congress overwhelmingly accepted the power given to it as the most legitimate representative and democratic body in Russia. It elected a Council of People’s Commissars, with Lenin as Chairman of the Council and hence head of the new government. He immediately decreed that the Soviet would seek a peace with Germany. The Council also decreed that private landed estates should be redistributed among the poor and starving peasants who work the land. The troops eventually found the ministers inside the Winter Palace. For much of the last century, the word ‘revolution’ was associated with illegitimate violence. So it is important to emphasise that they were arrested with barely a shot fired. Most were freed only a few days later. It was a militaristic revolution of course – how could it not be in such a heavily militarised WWI dominated society? – but it was a peaceful one. And indeed the word revolution is making a comeback in late capitalism. Young people do not associate the term with terror but with hope. Bernie Sanders, for example, regularly calls for a socialist revolution. And polls consistently indicate that Sanders is the most popular politician in America. Sanders is an example of someone who doesn’t shy away from radicalism – he sees no need to water down his policies to be more palatable to the capitalist establishment. He knows that unjust laws may need to be broken. Indeed he was arrested during the civil rights movement in the sixties. He is also someone who doesn’t just hope to lead a protest movement. He wants power. He knows that capitalists respond only to cold hard power and that it is through power you can really create radical change.
It is the fact that we now have, in the age of late capitalism, so many organisations and leaders who understand the lessons of the October socialist revolution that gives me hope. Hope that a different world is possible. A world where the concerns of the working class and the oppressed are prioritised in our political and economic system. After all, it did happen, even if for a brief time, one hundred years ago today.