The Defining Event of Our Times

Madhavi Thampi recalls the context and impact of the October Revolution, which was derided by the western establishment as the uprising of the janitors and watchmen.

Madhavi Thampi recalls the context and impact of the October Revolution, which was derided by the western establishment as the uprising of the janitors and watchmen.

Ninety years ago, the world as we know it was turned upside down.  This is evident from the bewilderment expressed in the words above by the tsarist General Zalessky following the revolution in Russia in November 1917.  The janitor had become the Chief Justice, the worker had become the boss, the slave had become the master.  This was unlike any political transition previously witnessed in history, in which one scheming adventurer had replaced another at the helm of affairs, or one exploiting class had nudged aside another only to carry on with the subjugation of the common people albeit in new forms.  In Russia, the most downtrodden had, for the first time, arms in hand, assumed control of their lives and embarked on a hitherto uncharted course.  They were going to build a new world for themselves.  And through their actions, they would show the immense potential of collective human labour to create prosperity, security and culture for all, when it is freed from the crushing restraints imposed on it by a system geared to ensuring the hegemony and profits of a few.

Despite the derisive comments made by its opponents in Russia and outside about this uprising of the janitors and watchmen and “yesterday’s lackeys”, the significance of the October Revolution was not lost on the kings and emperors of the old world, or even on the high-talking “democratic” statesmen of republican countries like the United States at that time.  As soon as they had extricated themselves from the catastrophic World War into which they had plunged their countries and colonies, they lost no time in pooling their forces to try and snuff out this experiment.  For they knew that, despite being located in faraway Russia, it threatened the foundations of their supremacy over the working people in their own countries.  When they failed through military intervention, they continued the siege through long years of economic boycott and political and diplomatic isolation which they hoped would choke it to death.  The new republic of workers, peasants and soldiers soviets, however, not only survived it all, but went on to create a powerful and altogether new type of society that set the standard for all countries and societies thereafter – be it in the field of education or medicine or science or the arts, or in the realm of industrial and agricultural growth, public welfare, democratic and national rights, or international relations.

Today, when it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss the October Revolution as a slice of history with no relevance to the present day, or to even deny its achievements altogether, it is worthwhile remembering what eyewitnesses to the unfolding developments in the early decades of the Soviet Union had to say about it. And there were indeed plenty of eyewitnesses, from every country around the globe, because the Soviet Union at that time was a magnet drawing to itself not just communists and socialists, but also revolutionaries and nationalists of every description, political refugees, artists, literary figures and other intellectuals, students, workers and just the plain curious.  Rereading today what some of them wrote is revealing.  Rabindranath Tagore, whose “Letters from Russia” were published after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1930, wrote: “In stepping on the soil of Russia, the first thing that caught my eye was that in education, at any rate, the peasant and the working classes have made such enormous progress in these few years that nothing comparable has happened even to our highest classes in the course of the last 150 years. The people here are not at all afraid of giving complete education even to Turcomans of distant Asia; on the contrary, they are utterly earnest about it.” 

The October Revolution redefined the concept of progress by including as its beneficiaries for the first time every last member of the society, including the toiler, the tiller, those whose job it had hitherto been only to produce, but not to consume the fruits of their labour.  Tsarist Russia had produced great art and music, great writers and poets, great buildings – but all this glitter had rested on the backs of one of the most severely exploited and backward masses of peasants in the world.  On the other hand, the great heights that the Soviet Union achieved on the literary and artistic fronts, on all fronts of science, in sports and physical culture, and so on, were the product of a highly educated and cultured people as a whole.   The son or daughter of a worker could and did become a scientist or a professor or a general – not as an exception, but as a matter of course.  This is what so impressed countless visitors to the Soviet Union.  Tagore was particularly struck, as can be seen from his reference above to the “Turcomans of distant Asia”, by the fact that this inclusiveness was extended to all the people in the different republics of the Soviet Union.  The erstwhile tsarist regime had been, in the well-known phrase, “a prison-house of nations” in which the people of the far-flung regions had been kept at an abysmally low level by the chauvinist Russian rulers.

Just as it redefined the concept of progress and development, the October Revolution also redefined the concept of democracy.  Whereas in the capitalist democracies the propertyless sections who were the majority were having to struggle to just get the right to vote from the grudging hands of the upper classes. In the Soviet Union the common people gave themselves voting privileges as a matter of course.  Most revolutionary of all, women had equal political rights with men at a time when women in few other countries had the right to vote.  But this was not all.  The definition of democracy was substantially expanded to go beyond voting for this or that individual or party. From the soviets to organisations of people at various levels, enabling mechanisms were put in place that made active participation of all the people in public life a reality, as natural to them as breathing.

The Westminster system of representative democracy on the other hand, even after the introduction of universal franchise, had always kept the people away from the actual exercise of power.  The  Western liberal notions of democracy, with a “talk-shop” Parliament and a narrowly circumscribed set of civil liberties that always worked in favour of those with wealth and property and against the poor and deprived sections of the populace – this could not begin to compare with the self-conscious decisions taken by an aroused, armed, organised and informed people for their own welfare and their own progress.  The October Revolution exposed the hypocrisy of the capitalist democracies as democracy for some and not for others.    

The great Afro-American singer, Paul Robeson, who spent many months in Russia, had this to say about the Soviet Union in 1935: “I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow. I was aware that there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of safety and abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn.”   Robeson contrasted the “endless friendliness” he faced from all quarters in Russia with the racist discrimination faced by those of his race in the United States.  For his heartfelt appreciation of what he found in the Soviet Union, Robeson – arguably the greatest voice that America has produced – had to pay heavily, for he was virtually hounded out of the United States.  The great American “democracy” could not stomach the comments of this son of a former slave about a society where millions of former serfs had achieved their freedom.

International relations was another sphere that was transformed by the October Revolution.  For the better part of a century, the map of the globe had for the most part featured a few powerful states with their vast networks of colonies, with only a few scattered countries struggling to maintain their precarious independence in between.  International law, as it then prevailed, was little more than a cover for the iniquitous exploitation of hundreds of millions of people by a handful of marauding states, and a means to sort out contradictions among these states themselves.  Justice, equality, the sovereignty of nations and people – these concepts were applied only selectively and arbitrarily to suit the interests of the most powerful states.  In this one-sided world, the emergence of a strong and dynamic state of the workers and peasants was a bolt from the blue.  One of the first acts of revolutionary Russia, for example, was to unilaterally renounce all the concessions and privileges that the tsarist regime had wrested along with other imperialist powers from a weakened China.  This single act, which has come down in history as the Karakhan Declaration, had a profound impact not only on the Chinese people, smarting from the humiliation and abuse heaped on them by imperialist powers for the preceding three-quarters of a century, but also on the people of other colonial and dependent countries. 

Fighters for India’s freedom from colonial subjugation, it can never be forgotten, found ready support from the Soviet Union.  From San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Kabul, exiled Indian patriots flocked to the Soviet Union.  They not only found a safe haven there, but also concrete assistance for their plans to liberate India.  In the midst of his many preoccupations in a country struggling to rebuild itself and besieged from all sides, Vladimir Lenin found the time to talk with and encourage some of the Indians in Moscow at that time.  With the founding of the Comintern, this support was systematised and deepened, and the emphasis was rightly laid on strengthening the communist party within India and its links with other anti-colonial sections as the means by which India could liberate herself from British rule.  Few things about the October Revolution aroused the wrath of the big imperialist and colonial powers of the time more than this, its profoundly internationalist character, this confronting of the global axis of capital with an international alliance of the world’s toilers and oppressed people which had become immeasurably strengthened by the existence of a powerful country where the working class and peasantry ruled.

There have always been those who have been romantically taken by the idea of the October Revolution as a heroic mass uprising of the hitherto downtrodden masses, but who are uncomfortable with the fact of it having been led by the Communist Party.  On the other hand, there is the view, still widely propagated in imperialist circles, that this was no people’s revolution but only a putsch, a coup carried out by means of a ‘Bolshevik conspiracy’.  Both are distortions of the truth.  The October Revolution was both a revolution of the masses in their millions, and it was led by a party with a definite political programme based on its Marxist-Leninist ideology.  The October Revolution was no spontaneous outburst, but was the coming to fruition of a movement which had been carefully and patiently prepared and nurtured over many years by an organised political force consisting of thousands of dedicated revolutionaries.  Were it not for this leadership, it is most unlikely that the revolution, even had it broken out when it did, would have been able to vanquish its powerful enemies, and in such a short time achieve the all-sided transformation that astounded both its admirers and its opponents.

The nature of the October Revolution, however, was such that the state and society that it gave birth to were always at war: with the capitalist-imperialist world surrounding it, with the remnants of the defeated exploiting classes within, with the elements lurking within the new society that were against the socialist transformations.  Eventually, after overcoming all the challenges of foreign intervention and civil war, of the tremendous struggle to lift the country out of poverty and backwardness, and of the horrors of the fascist invasion, the party and state within the Soviet Union succumbed to these forces.  This led as we know, after a degenerative process of several decades, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The historical process set in motion by the October Revolution thus met with a major setback in the country where it took place.  But this is only one part of the picture.  As an abiding challenge to the system of capitalism and imperialism; as the most concrete expression ever seen of the rule of the labouring classes and of the alternative to a society based on private profit and the exploitation of the working people; and as the striving to realise the full potential of each and every human being irrespective of his or her background or abilities – the legacy of the October Revolution still endures.  Today in India, crores upon crores of people continue to live in such conditions of backwardness that they are comparable to those endured by the peasants in pre-revolutionary Russia.  A colonial justice system, a colonial education system, an army that continues to base itself on colonial traditions, all make a mockery of the struggles our people fought to rid themselves of foreign domination. 

While Indian capitalist tycoons crow about the successes they are achieving in a ‘globalizing’ world, tens of thousands of self-respecting hardworking Indian peasants are committing suicide because they cannot make ends meet.  The people are told that they are sovereign, but they lack the power to change their conditions for the better.  In these conditions, more and more sections of our people are looking for an alternative to the existing system, they are coming around to the view that they have to take matters into their own hands, and that they must get organised for this.  In these conditions, the legacy of the October Revolution is more relevant than ever before.  Profound, all-sided transformation is an urgent necessity, and it must begin, as it did in Russia 90 years ago, by sorting out the question of political power  – who exercises it, how it is exercised, and what is the purpose for which it is exercised.The sorting out of this question is what will lead to the much-needed renewal of

Madhavi Thampi teaches in the  department of East Asian Studies of Delhi University. She has authored a number of works on the historical relationship between India and China.

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