For socialists and working-class champions around the world, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is an event of unsurpassed importance worth celebrating, studying, and taking inspiration from in our 21st-century struggles.
So, on its hundredth anniversary last fall, the Freedom Socialist Party held talks called “Down with All Tyrants!” in cities in the U.S. and Australia.
What follows are condensed versions of a pair of speeches given by Jared Houston and Christina López in Seattle on Nov. 4 in Seattle.
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On the centennial: a celebration of the working class taking state power
When the women left the Petrograd factories on Feb. 23, 1917, they held banners calling for “Land, Bread, and Peace.” It was International Women’s Day, and the marchers were on strike.
They wanted land, because theirs was controlled by greedy property owners they had never seen. They wanted bread, because they spent entire days in line only to return home empty-handed. And they wanted peace. More than three million Russians were dead, fodder for a world war orchestrated by expansionist monarchs and industrial profiteers.
Nobody expected a strike that day. But before nightfall, 90,000 women and men were in the streets of the Russian capital. By Feb. 25, a quarter million people were demanding the end of the czar’s regime. Confronted by armed police and squadrons of Cossack horsemen, workers pushed past the barricades, incited insurrection among the soldiers, and took control of the city. As a result, in just five days the people overthrew the Romanov dynasty in power for centuries. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky writes, “The February revolution was begun from below … the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat — the women textile workers.”
This colossal achievement would be tested by compromise, opportunism, and betrayal. But victory followed in October, won by the revolutionary leadership of those who believed in the workers’ power.
Czarist tyranny and working-class growth. In 1917, Russia was populated mainly by peasants released from serfdom just a generation before. Nicholas II was cruel and aloof. His favorite victims were the dozens of national, ethnic and religious minority groups who lived in Russia’s vast empire. Georgian, Chechen, Tartar, and Jewish communities were under daily threat of deadly pogroms by the xenophobic “Black Hundreds.” These reactionaries wanted to obliterate any culture, language, or religion they considered a threat to the so-called “Great Russians.” “Make Russia Great Again” would have made an apt slogan for their murderous escapades.
Women in Russia fared all the worse. They worked in the factories and fields as well as raised families. They were assaulted by their bosses and given no rights in society. On top of experiencing daily physical abuse, women were legally bound to follow their husbands wherever they moved. Divorce was out of the question.
The working class in Russia faced the grueling conditions of global capitalism. Under constant supervision, workers spent 18 hours a day on their feet, never took breaks, and were constantly subjected to speed-ups when production demanded it. When they organized strikes to fight back, they were arrested, beaten, or shot dead.
These conditions spurred proletarian consciousness, while the conscription of millions of men to die in World War I meant women were recruited into the factories for the first time. This brought them into direct contact with class struggle and union organizing, and many became outspoken leaders. Russia’s minorities made up 50 percent of the workforce, hugely diversifying the shop floor. Polish, Turkish, and Jewish workers brought their own languages, liberation struggles, and fighting spirit to battles against the bosses.
What road for Russia? The Russian working class was small in size but centralized in the industrial districts of Petrograd and Moscow. This differed greatly from developed countries like Germany, England, and the United States, where manufacturing was the driving economic force and the proletariat was by far the largest class.
In Russia, most radicals thought there would eventually be a socialist revolution, but there needed to be a “democratic” or bourgeois revolution first — one that would allow for a period of capitalist development, similar to what happened in Western Europe. They took a famous quotation by Marx — “The country that is more developed … shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” — as an absolute truth for countries like Russia to follow.
But Trotsky saw that in Russia the developmental periods of the developed countries existed side by side. The peasant’s mule and plow could still be seen tilling the soil from the enormous factories in Petrograd. Stages could combine.
Trotsky was a leader in the 1905 revolution, an attempt to overthrow the czar during Russia’s imperialist war with Japan. The attempt failed and resulted in heavy retaliation against workers. However, during its course, it led to the formation of the soviet, or workers’ council, a crucial innovation that Trotsky was elected to head in the key city of St. Petersburg (Petrograd).
The attempt also showed the inability of the bourgeois to finally settle scores with Russia’s semi-feudal backwardness and win a transition to capitalist democracy. The Russian bourgeoisie came too late to the capitalist party. It was weak and dependent on foreign capitalists and lacked the capacity to lead a revolution no matter what “stage” Russia was supposed to be in.
From this experience Trotsky developed the theory of Permanent Revolution. This concept describes a process of worldwide, uninterrupted, and uninterruptible struggle of all oppressed people. Its central idea is this: it is the working class, not the capitalist class, who will finish winning democratic rights for humanity — like women’s liberation or, in the case of Russia, land for the peasants. And the only way that the proletariat will be able to achieve this is through socialist revolution.
After February 1917, the workers began to form soviets at breakneck speed. They elected representatives of the main left parties in Russia — the Social Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, and the Bolsheviks — into the soviets in massive numbers.
But instead of listening to this endorsement for socialism from the working class, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, known as the SRs, continued to insist on the need for a capitalist stage of development — as did more hidebound Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin.
The Mensheviks and SRs were big cheerleaders for the Provisional Government formed after February, which included both socialist and capitalist parties but was led by the capitalists. Trotsky labels these socialists the “Compromisers.” He uses the term “middle caste” to characterize those “who had taught the masses that the bourgeoisie is the enemy, but themselves feared more than anything else to release the masses from the control of that enemy.”
During the eight months the Provisional Government was in power, the middle-caste Compromisers continued to support it. Meanwhile the government disarmed the workers, censored the press, launched a disastrous offensive on the front, and was nearly ousted by a Russian general. No wonder that when Lenin returned from exile in April he issued the proclamation, “Down with the Provisional Government!”
The right-leaning Bolsheviks called Lenin an “adventurist” trying to gamble away the successes of the revolution. But he insisted that the party must begin preparing the masses for the seizure of power. In the end, he won the majority to his position.
Victory for the exploited and abused. Trotsky writes in his History that people turn to revolution “not with a prepared plan … but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime.” But, he adds, planning and leadership is needed for a revolution to succeed: “Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.”
Once the Bolsheviks had the right orientation, they became the piston-box. They analyzed, prepared, and won the workers to their ideas.
In October, the workers took control. Led by the Bolsheviks, they won key groups of soldiers to their side, seized the railways, took control of the telegraph offices, and staged an armed assault on the Winter Palace. They overthrew the Provisional Government and the entire capitalist class. With the proletarian victory secured, the Congress of the Soviets convened and elected Lenin as its head.
Women perhaps reaped the greatest rewards, illustrating a second main point of Permanent Revolution. Transformation does not stop with the proletariat taking power but continues through the struggle of all oppressed people until a classless society emerges.
The Family Plan passed by the Soviet government granted women freedom of divorce, abortion on demand, and maternity leave. The Bolsheviks instituted public laundries and communal dining areas so that women would no longer be slaves to these domestic duties. Literacy programs were implemented so that women could participate and be leaders in the party.
All workers received equal pay for equal work and the eight-hour day was law. The Bolsheviks also championed gay rights and decriminalized homosexuality decades before anywhere in the U.S. The new government recognized the right of national minorities to self-determination. And it ended Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war.
The Soviet victory was an inspiration to workers everywhere and 1918 was met with an attempted revolution in Germany and a general strike in Seattle. When the Bolsheviks took power, it began a worldwide revolution, one yet to be completed. They knew that in order for socialism to succeed, the proletariat of all nations would have to rise together in solidarity. The international nature of socialism is the third main component of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.
Instead of making compromises with a broken system, revolutionaries today must seek out the steam that will provide the energy for capitalism’s demise. The struggle of the working class and all oppressed people carries on around the world. And by learning the lessons of October, we will be able to see the image of our future.
— Jared Houston
Time for a Bolshevik resurgence!
One hundred years ago, the Bolshevik revolution shook the world. It challenged capitalist governments and showed that workers can rise up and take state power. It offers many lessons for today’s world engulfed with war, poverty, violence, oppression, chaos, and environmental destruction.
What did the first workers’ government accomplish? The right to a job, housing, and education; collective kitchens, laundries, and childcare; campaigns against anti-Semitism; land to peasants, the right to strike, formation of worker committees (soviets) to run the factories, and more.
The October insurrection stirred protesters around the world with the vision of an egalitarian society that would answer the needs of everyday people. In the years that followed, the magnificent events of October inspired revolutions from Asia to the Middle East, from Africa to Latin America. Here in Seattle, it strongly influenced a massive general strike in 1919 during which the city was run by the Central Labor Council.
The pendulum swings rightward. Though workers celebrated the triumph of the Soviets, the capitalists and czarists immediately countered with violence. An astounding 21 capitalist nations invaded! The Red Army — led by Leon Trotsky — successfully defended the revolution. The newborn workers’ state was preserved.
But sadly, the horrors of WWI and the imperialist-backed civil war took a toll on the Russian people. The Bolsheviks faced the challenge of building up the economy in a devastated nation that was barely industrialized. Meanwhile Lenin’s health was deteriorating. All these occurrences gave Joseph Stalin, a politically weak and bullying member of the party, the opportunity to appoint his cronies to key positions. Stalin took power in 1929 and a brutal bureaucratic rule arose that betrayed the ideals of V.I. Lenin and Trotsky. A lot of the revolutionary gains came to a halt.
In order to appease world capitalism and preserve his corrupt bureaucracy, Stalin put forth the theory of “socialism in one country.” By contrast, Lenin and Trotsky understood that for the revolution to be sustained, workers’ uprisings needed to spread to other countries — especially the more powerful and advanced. But Stalin told Communists in other countries to subordinate their revolutions in favor of collaboration with supposedly progressive elements of their native bourgeoisie. This was a disastrous policy as people were slaughtered and liberation struggles were halted across the globe.
Stalin totally disregarded the revolutionary role of workers in advanced countries, as he considered these workers to be too privileged. In the U.S., the Stalinist leadership mandated the Communist Party to “peacefully coexist” inside the Democratic Party. But the Democrats have proven time and again that they are incapable of ending wars, providing universal healthcare, eradicating homelessness, or getting rid of poverty. They can’t even bring about fully funded 24-hour childcare!
The Left Opposition lives on. A Left Opposition led by Trotsky arose to counter Stalinism, courageously fighting to restore the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to a revolutionary path and to build international socialism.
As you all know, however, the Soviet workers’ state did eventually collapse, though it held out for 70 years. The world would look a whole lot different had socialism spread to Europe, the Americas, and all over the world.
So what can activists do today? Are we to accept that things will never change? History has proven this to be false.
Look at the fast-emerging uprisings in recent years — Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, teacher strikes, Black Lives Matter, and the women’s march against Trump. All of this, plus increased interest in socialism, is in response to growing social and economic instability as capitalism crumbles.
Bolshevik leadership — yes! The United States desperately needs socialism. And it is a gift U.S. workers can give to the whole world. How do we get there? Do we do it by reforming the Democrats or by electing leftish politicians? Or do we do it by relying on working-class political independence?
I have given up on capitalist political parties. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer — I am sick and tired of being sick and tired! Both bourgeois parties have cut taxes for the rich while stripping social services, prolonging wars, promoting the prison industrial complex, allowing oil pipelines, and undermining labor struggles for decent-paying jobs.
The U.S. working class needs to become conscious of our power to bring it all down. We can withhold our labor. Imagine what would happen should longshore workers stop unloading cargo, or workers shut down oil production, Arctic drilling and new pipelines. Imagine what would happen if IT workers stalled the flow of information technology or bank clerks shut down the banks.
One obstacle to this scenario is the middle-caste leadership that stifles rebellion. The middle caste is the layer of labor officials and movement experts who claim to represent our interests, but in the end cater to the ruling class and promote the illusion that humane capitalism is possible. These are the folks who sell out, compromise, make backroom deals, agree to labor takebacks, or argue for protesting the Nazis miles away rather than confronting them head-on. These misguided leaders strive to make peace in order to maintain their “seat at the table.”
So how can the revolutionary potential of the working class be led towards its maximum expression?
One lesson is the need for revolutionary demands. It has become somewhat popular today to say that our movements don’t need demands. This does not make sense to me. Ideas are important to raising political consciousness. Today’s youth and working class are becoming more anti-capitalist and more interested in changing the world. How are they going to decide how to move forward without discussion of demands?
Another problem is the belief that the revolution needs to be leaderless. I disagree.
A vanguard party is key. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood this. As Karl Marx and Trotsky stated, the revolution needs permanence. That is the vital role that vanguard parties play — keeping the movement for change alive. It is essential for vanguard parties to study the tactics of the Bolsheviks and learn from history.
The Freedom Socialist Party, which emerged during the 1960s’ social upsurge, has been providing radical leadership for over 50 years. The party has participated in labor strikes, free speech fights, the anti-war and feminist movements, battles for race liberation and queer rights, and anti-fascist mobilizations. The party has earned respect and moved these struggles forward. Some of them are described in Gloria Martin’s fascinating book, Socialist Feminism: The First Decade, 1966-76.
We can do it! It may seem hard to believe that U.S. workers can lead a revolution, especially if you only look at the more privileged, high-waged sector. FSP founding members — particularly Clara Fraser — developed the optimistic program of socialist feminism and the dynamic leadership of the most oppressed. The ruling class has deviously instituted racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant bias, and white supremacy in order to divide the working class. We can overcome this and unite if we realize we are all in the same boat contending with an economic system that prioritizes profits over the well-being of humanity and this great green Earth.
Today, the FSP strives to build a militant, independent working-class movement. We recognize that we cannot do it alone. For example, comrades have worked with other labor activists to form Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, which is campaigning now against the union-busting Freedom Foundation.
The Freedom Socialist Party has also collaborated with Trotskyist organizations in Latin America to form the Committee for Revolutionary International Regroupment. CRIR seeks to forge cross-border unity in the fight for socialism.
It will eventually come to be that the international working class will rise up and take power into its own hands. A new world is necessary and possible and the Russian Revolution will always stand as an example that workers can build a more just, sane and humane world.
Oh, yes, we can! ¡Sí, se puede!
— Christina López