‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism,’ so wrote Karl Marx in his opening to the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Communism has been on quite a journey for the last 169 years, at its peak a third of the world’s population lived in states which self-identified as Communist and while we are now well beyond that point Marxism remains a highly influential political philosophy in various academic, cultural and social groups.
This is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution (yes, it’s November but the Russians used a different calendar back then) which saw the Bolsheviks come to power and go on to run the USSR for the next 74 years. It’s a history I know well, having spent much of my Modern History and Politics degree studying the history of the Soviet Union, eventually writing my dissertation on the role of Leninism at the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. This wasn’t a random fluke, like many on the Left I was at one point a Marxist and the failings of the Soviet Union cast a long shadow, one I sought to understand.
Marxism is fundamentally about seeing history as the outcome of conflicts between classes over the products of labour and for Marx the final state of classless ‘Communism’ would be reached when we had been through a period of ‘Socialism’ where the ‘Proletarian’ industrial working classes had control over the means of production. While industrialised nations had large a proletariat, Russia’s economy was far from industrialised and consequently its working class was still largely formed of peasantry, from a Marx’s viewpoint it simply wasn’t the right economy for the revolution.
Yet, revolution came nonetheless. First, in February 1917, when the oppression of the Imperial State, its poor performance in the First World War and the economic deprivation of the people came to a head and the Tsar was deposed. What followed was an uneasy truce was formed between the Petrograd Soviet (a soviet being a workers council), dominated by Communist parties, and the Provisional Government of the other major parties. In October, the Bolsheviks used a meeting of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd to take control of the city. While the Bolsheviks had thought it unlikely that the revolution would succeed on a first attempt, after a five year long civil war the Red Army stood victorious.
In the aftermath, the new state tried various political structures and economic models, at the start Lenin included members of other parties in his Cabinet and started to ditch some of the central economic planning common to all states in a time of war, even starting a New Economic Policy involving financial incentives for agricultural production. However, the death of Lenin and the power struggles which followed drew a line under these early experiments, as the personal ambitions of tyrants and oligarchs took hold, with the same tragedies such regimes always eventually produce: political repression and economic failure.
The October Revolution was a moment in history which said that the established order didn’t always have to be the case and the collapse of the Soviet Union could be seen as having the reverse effect, presaging the large-scale adoption of capitalist economic theory by social democratic parties in Europe and further afield. Yet, it was a revolution never attempted on its own terms. It was a theory of the proletariat was implemented in a state of peasants and consequently for most of the population it never spoke to their issues nor enjoyed popular support. Even for the Bolsheviks, the revolution was a trial run and so they were unprepared for the sudden assumption of power and, for all the reams of theory, little had been done to provide a blueprint for the practical elements of a Marxist political system or economic model. The system we saw was one essentially still built on the top-down model which had been put in place to fight a civil war, central economic planning being common for states fighting major wars, and where the possible alternatives never had their chance to take hold in the wake of the power struggle which followed the death of the state’s founder.
This shouldn’t be regarded as the work of an apologist, the Bolsheviks and their successors committed horrific acts against both their own citizens and those of other nations, and their decades in power highlighted major gaps in Marx’s political economy that no one has yet managed to plug. However, a century on from the October Revolution, I’d hope that we can take a dispassionate look at the context in which it took place, at the unpleasantness of the state which came before (and possibly after) and that the lessons of the revolution may not be quite so clear cut as people on both sides like to claim.