This month marks the centenary of the 1917 Revolution in Russia which led to the foundation of the Soviet Union. Many in the Russian Federation will mark the occasion with special festivities. A majority of Russians have moved away from the Communist heritage. The remnant of the Communist Party receives no more than 10 to 15 per cent of the votes in elections. All over the world almost all Communist Parties have either disappeared or morphed into different identities. Nostalgics of Communism will also be in festive mood. However, it would also provide an occasion to remember the victims of the Bolshevik revolution and its child Stalinism. Here, we cast a glance at the origins of the Red October in its early phase.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin called it “the greatest tragedy in the history of Russian people.” To the French poet Louis Aragon it was “the event that redefined the modern world”. An American journalist labeled it “Ten days that Shook the World.”
The “it” in question was the October Revolution which led to the seizure of power in Russia by the Bolshevik Party 100 years ago. Well, seizure of power may not be the right phrase if only because when the Bolsheviks pushed themselves to the front of the stage there was no power in Russia to seize. The Tsarist edifice had collapsed and the provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky was acting like a headless chicken. On occasions, Prime Minister Kerensky had to find a horse-driven droshky to take him to the office because the driver of his limousine hadn’t turned up. Exhausted by three years of war and carnage the vast empire was on the edge of famine, its administration in taters and its agriculture almost wiped out.
When a group of armed sailors appeared at an open session of the Duma, the Russian parliament that had emerged from the country’s first and last free elections, the deputies had only one thought: how to flee into safety. Suddenly, Russia, the largest country in the world, was left without anyone in charge. The Bolsheviks pretended they could fill the vacuum but soon found out they couldn’t. They were a small party of middle class urban intellectuals, most of them just back from exile, with little contact with the Russian heartland. In the election for Duma the party had won around five per cent of the votes. But its leader Vladimir Illych Ulianov, better known by his nom de guerre of Lenin, believed that in war-torn Russia power was like a jewel box that had fallen in the street for anyone to pick up. He was determined to be the one who does it. What he didn’t realize was that in doing so he would not inherit a power that had ceased to exist but a responsibility that his party was in no position to assume.
Initially, Lenin, who was a master of tweets long before twitter was invented only hoped to win a propaganda battle thanks to his daily missives. Days after he was told that he was now in charge he “tweeted” that his aim was that the Bolsheviks, acting through what he called Soviets of Workers, Peasants, Soldiers and Sailors, would be able to hang on for at least 100 days so as to last longer than the Paris Commune, the model for the Communist Utopia, had lasted in 1871.
When the 100 days came and went, Lenin began to realize that triggering a revolution is far easier than building a new society. He saw Russia plunged into a civil war that lasted almost four years, claiming millions of victims. In 1921 he wrote: “The civil war has decimated our proletariat exactly when we want it to build the new Russia.”
Half regretting his own propaganda, Lenin shared his doubts with the 11th Congress of his party. “Because of my position, every day I hear a lot of sentimental Communist lies; and sometimes I get sick of them.”
Having mobilized his party‘s energy to destroy the cursed “bourgeoisie,” he realized that Russia needed that very same bourgeoisie to rebuild.
“The idea that Communists alone could build the Communist society is naïve, absolutely childish. We Communists are but a drop in the ocean of the people. We’ll be able to build Communism only if we make the vanquished bourgeoisie work for us”.
Marx had taught that every state belongs to one dominant class in different stages of history, starting with the primitive commune to capitalism and passing by feudalism. While casting himself as an arch-Marxist, however, Lenin rejected that linear analysis. He insisted that there could be a shortcut for direct passage from capitalism to Communism. During that shortcut the state would be controlled by “the vanguard of the proletariat”, that is to say the Communist Party.
Experience quickly showed that Lenin’s romantic optimism had been misplaced. The mass of Russians lived in starvation as Politburo members fought over whether or not to use the Tsarist gold reserves for importing canned food from France. Lenin decided to sue terror to fore peasants to share part of their meagre crops to feed the starving cities.
In a letter, his kind of “tweet”, to Lev Kamenev, who was in charge of the economy, Lenin said: “There is no evolution without terror: political terror and economic terror!”
To use terror systematically, Lenin created CHEKA, the secret police and precursor of the KGB headed by Polish Felix Dzezhinski.
However, the Bolsheviks were not numerous enough to provide the leadership, management and administration required by a huge country at a time of exceptional crisis. In 1924, as he was approaching his early death, Lenin estimated the number of Bolshevik cadres at around 4,700, many of them having jumped on the bandwagon after the victory of the Revolution.
That led Lenin and his party towards a new policy which he dubbed “one step backwards for two steps forward”. The label was the New Economic Policy or NEP which envisaged the creation of mixed public-private enterprises and the creation of state capitalism. When Preobrazhenski, a member of the party’s central committee, publicly took Lenin to task for pursuing a new version of capitalism, the father of the revolution opted for sophistry in response.
“In capitalist society the proletariat works for the bourgeoisie, “he said. “In Communist society, the bourgeoisie works for the proletariat.”
"Peasants ask us: The capitalist is able to supply things that we want, charging exorbitant prices and humiliated and robbed us. But he was, after all, able to supply things,“ Lenin said. “But what about you, Communists? Can you supply the things we need? You Communists may be saints destined for heavens. But can you get things done? Can you supply what we need?"
It took history almost 80 years to provide the answer, which was “no.”
Initially, Lenin wanted a talk-fest in which all Russians, used to silence for centuries, would air their grievances in public and make their views heard. Soon, however, he realized that freedom of speech and of press could be dangerous for the kind of centralized state he was trying to build.
Three years after “Red October”, the heavy Russian silence which Tolstoy had claimed was due to drunkenness, was back in force. Lenin told the party congress: “We can have free debates on weekends but absolute obedience to the Soviet leader, the dictator, the rest of the week. One wonders what would have happened today when every chat-room in cyberspace is a Soviet!
Having called for the abolition of censorship, Lenin soon returned to measures that the Tsarist regime would not have thought of. He described press freedom as deadly and dangerous. Freedom for whom, and for what?
He insisted that “all over the world wherever there are capitalists, press freedom means freedom to buy newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fabricate public opinion for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.”
His argument was that once “history” had chosen the path of Revolution, there could be no free choice that might harm or hamper the course of Revolution. Thus, freedom of choice belongs to pre-Revolutionary societies, a bourgeois value.
When faced with the inevitable failure of his Revolution to produce “positive improvement” in the material of the workers and peasants, Lenin blamed Russia’s “deep-rooted backwardness.”
“Facts and figures reveal the vast and urgent task we face to reach the level of an ordinary West European civilized country, bearing in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not been able to extricate ourselves,” he wrote in a message to the Central Committee.
“As long as our countryside lacks the material basis for Communism in the countryside, under no circumstances should we immediately advance purely and exclusively Communist ideas. (Doing that) would be harmful, I might say even fatal.”
At one point, Lenin suggested to send students to Britain, Germany, Canada and the United Sates to learn how to organize and manage modern industries and offices. The Central Committee took no action because the Soviet state had no money for that and there was no guarantee the Western "enemies" would issue the necessary visas.
Sometimes, Lenin's proposed solutions for major problems were derisory. In one memo to the Central Committee he said the country's educational system was on the verge of collapse. But the solution he suggested was increase bread ration for teachers!
In another memo he presented his parable of the mountain in which a group of climbers have gone far up a range but feel lost and unable to reach the summit. The way out of the situation is to climb down and cast a fresh look at what lies ahead on the way to the summit. The trouble is that human societies cannot be treated as blank pages on which one could doodle as one wishes in the hope of finding the right shape. You make a mistake on the path, people die. You correct the mistake, people die.
Isolated within its ideological cocoon, the Bolshevik leaders also spent much time on in-fighting and clan rivalries. Lenin wanted to promote Bukharin as the rising star, describing him as “the most valuable theoretician of our party.” That made Stalin jealous. In the end, Stalin could put Bukharin to death, after Lenin had died.
Lenin disliked Larin and did all he could to marginalize him. Zinoviev and Kamenev couldn’t stand each other. Lenin’s concubine, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had a quarrel with Stalin who had been rude to her on telephone. That led to Lenin writing to the Central Committee asking it to replace Stalin, which didn’t happen because Lenin died a few months later.
Lenin's great genius was to realize that there is no standard model, no recipe fr revolutions.
"Every revolution," he wrote, "is a leap into the unknown, and each time a different unknown."