What radicals today can learn from the Russian Revolution

One in a series of articles commemorating the 100th anniversary

Striking workers at the Putilov plant in St. Petersburg on the first day of the February Revolution in 1917. This strike, against one of the largest employers in the city, helped bring about the abdication of the czar. PHOTO: State Museum of the Political History of Russia, St. Petersburg.
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A century ago, millions of working people were dying so that the richest capitalist countries could carve up the globe among them. In Russia, the people were suffering wartime deaths and starvation on top of suffocating repression by an all-powerful monarchy. On International Women’s Day 1917 (in February by the old Russian calendar), women textile workers of St. Petersburg defied the empire. They struck and took to the streets, demanding bread, peace, and the end of czarism. They called on other workers to join them. Together, within five days they won over the soldiers, brought down Nicholas II, and launched a revolution.

Fast forward to this century. Movements for survival and justice have erupted around the world, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Often these struggles have been stalemated, or pushed back after initial gains. Why?

Perhaps to many people’s surprise, learning about Russia in 1917 is an excellent way to begin answering this question.

Capitalism swept away. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is the authoritative account of that world-changing upheaval, told by one of its two main leaders. Trotsky and V.I. Lenin were both out of the country as the revolt began. After the czar abdicated, state power was there for the workers to seize. But reform-minded leaders of the main opposition parties handed control to the capitalists.

For eight months, the bourgeois government refused to pull Russia from the war and gave ground to reactionaries trying to overthrow the revolution. But the workers, soldiers, and peasants were creating democratic councils (soviets) that were a force in their own right, carrying out essential functions and making decisions.

One of those determinations concerned which party offered the best way forward. Ultimately, their allegiance went to the Bolshevik Party, which had been persuaded by Lenin that the working class must take power. No better future was possible if capitalist exploitation merely replaced czarist tyranny.

The Bolsheviks’ understanding of this essential question, along with their absolute reliability in standing with the masses through the ups and downs of the struggle, shows how indispensable a leadership party is to successful working-class revolution.

A transformation made by and for the most oppressed. After the October seizure of state power, the most progressive social laws in history were passed.

The revolution was not only socialist in its aims, but feminist. Mandated equality for women included the unconditional right to divorce and free abortion on demand. Collective kitchens, laundries, and childcare facilities were established to free women to participate in public life. Homosexuality became legal.

The right of oppressed national minorities to self-determination, which Lenin had long advocated for, was made law. And the Russian Empire’s centuries-long official policy of anti-Semitism was overturned.

The new government negotiated Russia’s exit from the war. It abolished private ownership of land and gave land to peasants. It guaranteed the right to strike and encouraged formation of worker committees to run the factories. To protect the Earth, Lenin initiated the creation of vast nature reserves, far exceeding anything in the capitalist world.

Stalin’s counterrevolution. Beyond recognizing basic rights, the early Bolsheviks wanted to usher in workers’ democracy — control of the majority over their own lives, including economic and political decisions. But these hopes were obliterated by a bureaucratic caste headed by Joseph Stalin.

Contrary to the claims of pundits and academics who profit from pleasing the establishment, Stalinism was not an extension of Leninism, but its overthrow. It happened due to unique circumstances facing the country after the October victory.

Over a dozen capitalist countries backed reactionaries in a devastating civil war. A two-year drought brought famine. Revolutions in Western Europe, which would have created strong allies for the USSR, failed. Under conditions of terrible scarcity, a bureaucracy arose to decide who would get what — making sure to reserve the best for themselves.

Lenin died in 1924. The working class that was the soul of the revolution was decimated and exhausted. Even so, Stalin’s rise only succeeded through bloody repression, including the defeat of Trotsky’s Left Opposition in Russia and execution of all the leading Bolsheviks. And, after his exile and until his assassination by a Stalinist agent, Trotsky worked with comrades all over the world to keep alive a movement fighting for the ideals of 1917.

A workers’ state, not “state capitalism.” Lenin and Trotsky defined the USSR as a workers’ state because it was not yet advanced enough to create socialism. Some radicals, including the International Socialist Tendency, term the Soviet Union under Stalin “state capitalist,” meaning that the bureaucracy became a new capitalist class. This idea ignores the material facts.

Collective ownership of resources and production remained, even though workers’ democracy was smothered. The USSR made economic and technological advances that would have been impossible in an underdeveloped capitalist state. And there is a striking difference between the privileges the bureaucracy reserved for itself in the degenerated workers’ state and the billions of dollars that post-Soviet oligarchs stole from the people.

Moreover, if capitalism already existed, why was it not until after the fall of the USSR that workers suffered the stunning loss of most of their social benefits? Even under the hateful Stalinist bureaucracy, the economic fundamentals of education, jobs, housing, and healthcare for the Soviet people stayed in place for an amazing 75 years.

An epic task left to be fulfilled. The 1917 revolution doesn’t answer every question facing today’s fighters for justice. But it would be foolish to ignore the guidance it can give us about crucial issues: the key role of the most oppressed workers; the need for a thoughtful, principled, disciplined party; the danger of believing that the capitalists will deliver democratic rights; the understanding that socialism can only be secured as an international system; and much more.

Understanding the rich lessons of the Russian Revolution is part of the continuity of the Freedom Socialist Party going back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. We do our best to live up to our heritage, including the examples set by our early party founders and leaders, notably Clara Fraser and Gloria Martin. We know that the bright light of the Russian Revolution will continue to shine until working people of all descriptions, joining together, complete the world revolution to set humanity free.

Click here to see a study guide for Volume I of History of the Russian Revolution. It is one of many such guides to be found under “Educational Resources” at socialism.com.

A Russian Revolution commemorative article

Other articles in this series:

The puzzle of Putin’s Russia (June 2017)

Trotsky in New York, 1917 (June 2017)

Secondhand Time: socialist hopes and Stalinist tragedies (August 2017)

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