Hundred years ago, the people of Russia united to overthrow a 400 year old dynasty which lived in opulence and abused its people. We need, while celebrating the centenary look, to also look at the contemporary relevance of this revolution. No one can study Marxism without having studied the Russian Reolution. This is important as we engage on the strategy and tactics of Marxism in the 21st century. Indeed one of the most significant events of the 20th century is the rise of the Soviet Union as it shaped and influenced the world. Greeted with enthusiasm by millions around the world, the Revolution has inspired many popular movements for progressive social change as well as oppressed peoples struggling against colonialism and imperialism. We can say with confidence that the liberation of Africa gained its impetus from the selfless revolutionary activity of Petrograd, Russia, in 1917.
It had a positive development for humanity and we should use its centenary year to draw public attention to the historical significance of the Revolution and to enhance debate about the continued relevance of the Revolution to politics today. This year we celebrate the centenary of that historic event, the single most important in the history of the struggle of humankind to move from a class society to a non-class society in which the exploitation of one person, class or nation by another is eliminated.
It is true that counter-revolution and internal contradictions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe set the revolution back ÔÇô badly ÔÇô but it was not a permanent setback. We must understand that the global role played by the Soviet Union, its influence, did not die in 1991. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 put the trajectory of human history on a different course and brought in the establishment of the world’s first socialist state – the Soviet Union. This was preceded by the 1905 revolution which was the harbinger to the 1917 revolution.
It will be fair to start off by looking at the conditions that existed which made the revolution possible. Before the 1917, there was the 1905 revolution which some refer to as the first revolution. Russia was the only autocratic country left in Europe with no representative political institutions. The Tsar/ King had absolute unlimited power and controlled all aspects of life. Nicholas II had become the Tsar in 1894 and believed he was the absolute ruler.
Tsar Nicholas’ reign was preceded by Alexander III’s, who when taking over from his father who was assassinated by leftists had these words to say, “in the midst of our grief… and with faith in the strength and rightness of autocratic power”. His secret police, “the Okhranka” was ordered to infiltrate the many Russian revolutionary groups. Those found guilty of working against the establishment were hanged or sent into exile in Siberia. He was a pious man who supported the Orthodox Church and assumption of a strong national identity. In contrast, his father who was assassinated in 1881 was seen as a liberator who freed Serfs.
There was also the Russo-Japanese war over Korea/ Manchuria which Russia lost and this did not sit well the populace. They marched to Tsar Nicholas II’s Palace. Workers not happy with their working conditions were joined by peasants took part in the strike. The Tsar’s guards fired at the protesters (the day became known as Bloody Sunday and the year was 1905) and this inflamed the situation and led to countrywide discontent.
The Tsar had to do something. He weaned his power and introduced the Duma to allow people to elect their own leaders. He came up with the October Manifesto in 1905 which promised an elected assembly and political rights, including freedom of speech. The aim was to deceive the masses and make them feel like he was abdicating. The Tsar ignored the newly elected representatives. It dissolved in just 10 weeks. He had survived. In 1906, Russia’s first constitution was drafted. The Tsar’s prime minister was so ruthless and hanged many progressives to the extent that the hangman’s noose was named after him and became known as “Stolypin’s neck tie”. He was assassinated at an Opera House in Kiev. Then entered Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian.
The participation of Russia in the 1st World War is seen as what broke the camel’s back. For Tsar to join the war with such a poor economy was disingenuous. The troops lacked supplies and this led to chaos and disintegration of the Russian army. While Nicholas was at the eastern front with the troops, Czarim Alexander, his wife was in charge of the government. She was hugely influenced by Rasputin, “the holy man”. He was a “holy monk”, but followed everywhere by scandals; an alcoholic, paedophile, drunkard and heroin addict. Rasputin was assassinated by a group of nobles in December 1916. The Tsar had ignored signs that the people were unhappy. To him this would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Soviets or socialist councils, workers, soldiers wanted change based on the Communist Manifesto.
Russia had not gone through the Industrial revolution like other European countries. The poor standard of living and autocracy influenced the emergence of the revolutionary movement. Marxism became popularised. There were the popular Mensheviks and the radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. The Social Democratic Party had split into two these two factions. The Mensheviks were the minority while the Bolsheviks were the majority. There is an argument that in fact it is the Bolsheviks who were the minority. Lenin argued that the revolution had to be led by the bourgeoisie intellectuals like himself. Though Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, it made its major breakthrough through the Great October Socialist of 1917, led by V.I. Lenin as part of the leadership collective of the Bolsheviks.
The Communist manifesto was written during the Industrial Revolution, influenced by the horrific treatment of workers and unfair distribution of wealth (class warfare). It argued that in order to get rid of capitalist system, the proletariat/workers must overthrow the capitalist/bourgeoisie. It argued that everyone should share the work equally and receive an equal share of the rewards. The Communist Manifesto argued further that the government should own the farms and factories for the benefit of all citizens. It appealed a lot to the poor and oppressed people of Russia. They said if communism is here to lift us up, then let us go with communism. Lenin emphasized that communism will bring farms and equality to all Russians. The long term social unrest in Russia exploded in revolution and would later usher in the first communist government in the whole world. Inability to adequately address and deal convincingly with the problems faced by the Russians led to the October Revolution. On February 23rd, 1917 thousands of women went on a protest and were later joined by workers and other sectors of the population. The March took place in Petrograd, the then Russian capital city. They carried placards reading, “Down with Tsar”. The situation got worse and on the 8th March, 1917, there were more riots. People had had enough The Police would not keep order anymore. The Tsar was under pressure to give up his throne. On March, 2nd as a way of introducing reform and acting on advice of his ministers, he abdicated.
*Moeti Mohwasa is Secretary General of the Botswana National Front