Don't Ignore The Russian Revolution Of 100 Years Ago

Published: November 15, 2017 11:11 IST
Given the Great Confrontation over Demonetization on 8 November, it is perhaps not surprising that the centenary on 7 November of the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia - the "Ten Days that Shook the World" (to borrow the title of perhaps the highest selling English-language account of the Revolution) - should have virtually escaped attention in India. Indeed, the Putin establishment in the Russian Federation also gave the centenary a virtual miss. True, the somewhat pathetic remnants of that old giant, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, did put up a defiant show in the vicinity of the Kremlin, but the fact is that the only real recognition accorded to the Revolution was the denigration of it by right-wing Western think-tanks.

The derisive argument of these think-tanks is that the Revolution was not a revolution at all but a coup d'etat fostered by the Kaiser's Germany to enable Lenin to pull Russia out of the then raging World War-I so that Germany could throw the full force of its army against the Western Front where it was locked in mortal combat with the Allies. Lenin, who was in exile in neutral Switzerland, was smuggled into a sealed German freight car and transported by rail across Germany and German-occupied lands to Russian territory. From there, he was expelled briefly to Finland by the Kerensky government, but he staged a comeback, and with the support of the soldiers and workers, who constituted the soviets, returned to St. Petersburg and triumphantly concluded the Revolution. There being little evidence of peasant support, who were clearly the overwhelming majority of the population, Lenin was obliged to abrogate any pretence at democracy and instead proclaim the "dictatorship of the proletariat". That turned out to be such a vicious dictatorship that the very people in whose name the coup was undertaken now only want to wipe out of their memory not only 7 November 1917, but all the dreadful seven decades that followed. Hence, these think-tanks argue, the 1917 Revolution did not matter; it was of no enduring significance; it deserves to be forgotten, except as a reminder of a monumental aberration. QED.

It is true that Lenin did not come to power through the ballot but the bullet. Yet, even as the First World War ended in November 1918, just a year after the Red Revolution of November 1917, the "White" counter-revolutionaries, led by former Czarist generals and heavily backed with arms and other military supplies from the West, did all they could to cripple Lenin's Revolution at birth. It was the military genius of Trotsky and his comrades that warded off a mighty effort to strangle the Revolution. Therefore, to dismiss October 1917 as a coup d'etat, and not a genuine Revolution, is to hopelessly miss the point. What needs to be seen and understood is that Soviet Russia, in its earliest beginnings, courageously faced and overcame, entirely on its own, a determined counter-revolution begotten by Czarists and a reactionary Western coalition to overthrow the Soviet regime by force. That is what legitimized the October Revolution as a genuine Revolution with massive support from the vast majority of the Russian people who did not want to see their motherland restored to the feudal brutalities of the Romanov regime.

To portray Lenin as an opportunist German puppet is also to miss the point. Of course, he seized opportunity by the forelock when it came, but had always held - quite correctly - that his country should have nothing to do with World War One as it was a war among Imperialists about grabbing as large a share of the globe as they could and insisting that the thievery was a "civilizing mission".

Moreover, Lenin did not forge the Revolution overnight. Had he not built and led over several decades an army of dedicated revolutionaries, neither would the Germans have turned to him nor would he have made so smooth and effective a transition from exile to state power. The Revolution was waiting to happen; the Germans only facilitated it for their own selfish and, ultimately, self-defeating reasons. 

"History," said Nelson Mandela, "depends on who writes it". And since it is usually the victor who writes it, the history of the Soviet Union, from its earliest beginnings to its collapse, is largely being written contemporaneously in the mood of triumphalism that led the US intellectual, Francis Fukuyama, to welcome the end of Soviet Communism as the  "End of History". But "History," to quote another American of an earlier age, the poet TS Eliot, "is full of cunning passages". And so, before writing off the "October Revolution" as a non-event, perhaps the reassessment can begin with the mundane fact that the Revolution took place in November only on the Julian calendar that we use; it took place in October on the Gregorian calendar then in use in Russia.

The genesis of that Revolution was the remarkable intellectual breakthrough that Karl Marx fostered at just about the juncture that the horrors of laissez faire economics were visiting on the victims of burgeoning capitalism seven decades from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Seven decades from the onset of our Industrial Revolution is where we are at in India today. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s (as manmade as the Bengal famine of 1942-44) drove millions of famished Irish to the shores of the United States of America. It was but one example of the "spectre haunting Europe" with which Marx alarmed the Western capitalist world. Indeed, had the vast and almost empty spaces of the US, much larger than all of Europe, not been discovered, and the Red Indians driven off the land where they came in the way of massive European immigration, and if the Statue of Liberty had not opened her generous arms to "the poor and the wretched" of the Old Continent, there is little doubt that Europe would, indeed, have surrendered to the spectre that haunted the industrializing West in the 1840s.  

It was in this decade of despair that Marx gave his moral call: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need". No wonder a poll taken at the turn of the millennium in that most capitalist of capitalisms, Germany, led to Marx being voted the greatest German thinker ever.  

If, nevertheless, Marx has been proved to be no prophet, rejected by the very workers he had urged, "Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain", it is no different to the fate of those other great thinkers who turned the moral scale, only to have their injunctions observed mainly in the breach. Think the Buddha, Christ, Gandhi. In the annals of history, the moral imperatives they pronounced led to fundamental changes in values and ways of thinking even if ordinary mortals were unable to live up to the impossible standards they set. Why they endure is because they altered the moral vocabulary of humankind.  

It is on this scale that the Marxian influence should be measured. Marx made people realize that neither feudalism nor callous capitalism is the ordained fate of men, that men can change their lot by taking charge of their lives, by not accepting injustice as irreparable. Paradoxically, if capitalism has survived, it is because the moral instruction of Marxism has insidiously made its way into the minds of men, forcing governance back from the heartless mechanics  of the system of capitalism that the Utilitarians had fostered, rejecting any role for the State in the operations of the market. Marx pushed States towards accepting their responsibilities for social welfare and the protection of the working classes. Indeed, I would deem Keynes demonstrating in 1937 through rigorous economic analysis that the State must intervene when market forces cause economic disruption and social upheaval as the ultimate synthesis of Utilitarianism with Marxism.  

In a little over 20 years, the Revolution raised Russia from a backward rural economy to an economy strong enough to resist the full might of Hitler's unfettered assault on the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Where the Western democracies had packed up within weeks when the Germans attacked, Stalin's Russia stood up to them, sent the Germans in full retreat after the Battle of Stalingrad, and thus enabled the world to be saved from the Nazis and the Fascists. It cost them 27 million ordinary Soviet lives - more, much more than all Western civilian losses put together. It was not only a victory for the Soviet system but, more importantly, a victory of the Soviet people who stood four square behind their Communist leadership during the Soviet Revolution's worst challenge.  

That is why a highly informed individual like the American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, proclaimed on his return from Stalin's Russia in the '20s (that is, before Stalin unleashed his terror) and even as the Hunger Marchers were shot by Churchill's troops in the streets of London, and the capitalist West was slipping into the Great Depression, "I have seen the future  - and it works!" Many of the greatest minds of the capitalist West, ranging from Sidney and Beatrice Webb to Bernard Shaw to Aldous Huxley and Andre Malraux, were bewitched by what the Soviet Union had achieved after beating back the "White Revolution". So was our then young Jawaharlal Nehru bewitched when he visited the Soviet Union after attending the Congress against Imperialism in Brussels in 1927 where he found in Soviet leaders companions-in-arms in the fight against colonialism and discovered the international dimension to our domestic struggle for freedom, which was his main pre-occupation.   
The tragedy of the Soviet model is that by sneering at democracy, they failed to sustain their enormous economic, technological and social achievements. That is why Nehru, notwithstanding his admiration for the Soviet model of development, totally and utterly rejected the dreadful dictatorship and fearful oppression of ordinary folks on which that model was built. Eventually, when Gorbachev came visiting Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, he co-signed a declaration affirming not revolution and violence but Gandhian Nonviolence as the one path to nation-building and keeping the peace of the world. 
To ignore the 7th of November is to ignore one of the most path-breaking moments of human history. It amounts to a betrayal of the intellectual and moral inheritance of humankind to dismiss the day as just another blip in history.

Lal salaam!

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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