Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The year 2017 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Russian communist revolution of October 1917. The hundred years in between have been the most violent in human history. The explanation for this phenomenon is incomplete without a recognition of the central role of revolution and counter-revolution during these 100 years.
Mankind’s aspiration for a just and equitable society is almost as old as mankind itself, certainly as old as the emergence of private property, classes, and the state. All these were outgrowths of the ancient agricultural revolution, which freed large parts of humanity from the precarious existence of primitive hunter-gatherers and led to settled communities. The ancient civilisations that arose on this foundation were riverine, as this was the only reliable source of fresh water in sufficient quantity to sustain cities. The three great examples of such civilisations are our own Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt, all more or less contemporary and, as the archeological record shows, in contact and trading with each other.
These ancient civilisations and those that followed were based on the subjugation of those who worked the land and provided the riches enjoyed by their ruling elites. This subjugation took the form of slavery and serfdom in the west, the Asiatic mode in the rest of the ancient world (this mode of production rests on the state controlling agricultural production through irrigation and public works and exacting tribute in cash or kind from the peasantry). Subjugation and the extraction of surplus required repressive force, hence the evolution of the state as an instrument of the class rule and domination of the ruling elite.
Revolts and rebellions against this extremely repressive system were either crushed bloodily or at best led to a change of rulers without denting the system per se. It was not till the advent of full-blown capitalism, starting from the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, that the glimmer of a systemic change that would abolish the ancien regime first presented itself as a distinct possibility. In its native home in the west, the capitalist mode of production concentrated a scattered peasantry in cities and towns, crowded them into factories for long hours of backbreaking work, and relegated them to slums to live in. It is these miserable conditions of life and work that spontaneously gave rise to working class solidarity through trade unions at work and poor people’s social clubs during whatever scarce leisure time was on offer. The new emerging working class thus now began to take on the hues of a class-in-itself, without yet having achieved the status of a (conscious) class-for-itself.
Many utopian meanderings later, the general idea of a just and equitable society, now clearly expressed as socialism, was placed on firm scientific foundations. This scientific socialism, enunciated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century, posited that capitalism, undoubtedly the most dynamic and innovative mode of production in mankind’s history, was also at the same time producing its own gravediggers: the working class, a section of society with no means of production to its name and only its labour power to sell in order to survive. Certainly in Europe of the 19th century, this appeared a real prospect. However, with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the crushing of the Paris Commune of 1870, counter-revolution and reaction seemed paramount.
It was not till the early 20th century that revolutionary hopes were once more awakened. But they emerged in new form since the expected revolutions in the developed capitalist countries of Europe, such as Britain or Germany, had not materialised and ‘backward’ Russia was showing signs of revolutionary ferment. It is a testament to the wisdom and scientific approach of the founders of Marxism that far from being a dogma as uninformed or motivated critics have tried to paint the philosophy, they were open to a revisit of their earlier views if the circumstances changed. About Russia their initial scepticism, especially in the case of Marx, gave way to the acceptance of the possibility of a revolution in comparatively backward and underdeveloped Russia.
Czarist Russia was a bundle of contradictions, the main one being the conflict between an absolute monarchy and the economic, political and social changes being triggered because of developing capitalism. These contradictions came to a head in 1905 in the aftermath of Russia’s defeat in the Far East at the hands of a rapidly modernising and rising Japan. Revolution not only broke out in Russia, it threw up a new form of political power of the people: the soviets (councils) of workers, peasants and soldiers. Although the 1905 revolution was crushed, the memory of the soviets as a new form of people’s power re-emerged in 1917.
The trigger for the 1917 revolutions in Russia proved to be the First World War (WWI). An absolutist monarchy out of touch with its people’s misery and demonstrating its incompetence on the battlefield fell prey to a general uprising of the people in February 1917. The revolution abolished the monarchy and declared a democratic republic. Most revolutionaries (including Lenin’s Bolsheviks), not to mention reformers, believed this democratic phase of the revolution would last for an extended period of time, such was the relief and euphoria at seeing the back of Czarism. However, the one man who thought differently changed the course of Russian and world history by arguing that Russia was ripe for a socialist revolution. That man was Lenin who, upon returning from exile, enunciated his April Theses to persuade his own Bolshevik Party that the revolutionary iron was hot, especially considering the reluctance of the interim government of the Cadets Party to negotiate a badly needed peace with Germany and its insistence on continuing a losing war. On the contrary, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘Land, bread, peace’ struck such a chord with the masses that the party soon gained a majority in the soviets. By July, the Bolsheviks were in a commanding position and began to prepare the insurrection that was launched and proved successful in October 1917.
The declaration of a socialist state and society in hitherto backward Russia shocked the international bourgeoisie and persuaded 22 capitalist countries to support the monarchist White Guards against the revolution with money, weapons and even troops. However, a revolution that enjoys the unstinting support of the masses is difficult to defeat. The Bolsheviks not only defeated this panoply of local reactionary and foreign imperialist forces, their victory rang the bells for a new era in world history.
The victory of the Russian revolution in the civil war and against imperialist intervention by 22 countries soon after the socialist takeover in October 1917 was achieved after four years (1918-22) of bloody conflict through the length and breadth of the country. It demonstrated the strength and resilience of a people mobilised by a revolution they owned and supported because it had declared itself for the people and against their erstwhile oppressors and exploiters. However, a country already reeling under the privations of WWI was further placed in enormous difficulties because of the ravages of the civil war/imperialist intervention.
While the Russian revolution was marching to new victories and demonstrating that the capitalist front had been decisively breached in the largest (by area) country in the world, albeit with significant hangovers of serfdom (abolished in law in 1861) and underdevelopment, the revolution in the rest of Europe was defeated, bloodily in Germany in 1918 and Hungary in 1919. With the retreat of the revolutionary wave in the wake of WWI, the choices and chances of long-term survival of the Russian (by now the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, encompassing the extent of the Czarist empire) revolution, appeared bleak. Until the October 1917 revolution, the article of faith amongst Marxist revolutionaries was that without a revolution in (by now defeated) Germany, any revolution in Europe, including the Russian, was doomed. Even Lenin subscribed to this received wisdom. However, history had now placed the Russian revolutionaries in the unenviable position (and, some argued, opportunity) of building socialism in the inhospitable terrain of an underdeveloped country with the barest rudiments of industrialisation and a vast reservoir of peasants relatively recently liberated from serfdom. The slogan of Socialism in One Country proclaimed by the Bolsheviks was as much a pragmatic recognition of the hand dealt them as an admission that backward Russia could not look for succour, support and sustainability from the revolutionary forces in the advanced countries of Europe.
The task before the Bolsheviks was formidable. How to lift a huge country (albeit with enormous, untapped natural resources) from its virtually medieval darkness into the light of the modern day exercised the minds of the Bolsheviks. With his characteristic clarity, Lenin summed up the challenge by focusing his government’s economic efforts on electrification (a huge task) to provide the energy base for rapid industrialisation. Having nationalised the commanding heights of the economy, the revolutionary regime gave the working class unprecedented rights, the peasants land under a redistribution of the vast lands owned by the nobility and aristocracy, instituted universal education (including adult literacy), healthcare, skills training and universal employment. In addition, they transformed the ‘prison of nations’ as the Czarist Empire was known, into a country with equal rights for all the nations and nationalities in the USSR, including cultural and linguistic rights. Taken as a whole, these revolutionary policies brought enormous change in the lives of the overwhelming majority of the people and evoked in them the spirit of living and dying for the revolution. The example of the Russian revolution inspired generations of revolutionaries all over the world.
If the problems inherited from WWI, the seizure of power and the civil war/imperialist intervention were not enough, soon after the death (premature due to sclerosis of the brain as a result of an assassination attempt on him in 1918) of Lenin in 1924, the spectre of fascism began to raise its ugly head in Europe. Italy succumbed to the scourge in 1922 (Mussolini), Germany in 1933 (Hitler). In the latter case in particular, the Nazi Party fed on resentment at the harsh terms imposed by the victorious allies on Germany at the end of WWI through the Treaty of Versailles and the misery of generalised unemployment, hunger and starvation for the working people during the Great Depression (1929-39). In echoes of the development of fascism in Europe, Japan in the east and Spain in the west also exhibited features of fascism. As the immediate threat from fascism grew from a rapidly rearming Germany under Hitler, while the continuing hostility of the other imperialist countries remained a fact of life, the Soviet government embarked on rapid industrialisation, even at the cost of agriculture and other needs of the people based on the argument that either the Soviet Union must catch up with the imperialist countries to be able to defend itself or it would be exterminated.
To stave off an attack from Germany, the USSR made a non-aggression pact with Hitler, hoping that he would confine himself thereby to the conquest of the rest of Europe in what Moscow saw as another inter-imperialist war for a redivision of the world (WWI was the first such conflict, and in many ways fed into WWII). However, the USSR under Stalin, Lenin’s successor, gravely underestimated Hitler’s ambition of world conquest and hatred of communism. Having conquered the rest of Europe and driven the British off the continent, Hitler launched a surprise offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1941. The element of surprise, relative technical inferiority of the Soviet forces, and the blitzkrieg (total war) tactics of the Germans initially overwhelmed the Soviet defences and brought Hitler’s legions within striking distance of Moscow. Basing himself on the rapid conquest of the rest of Europe through this unprecedented total war strategy, Hitler thought the Soviet Union would succumb before the onset of the severe Russian winter. However, he had not factored into his calculations the resilience of the Soviet people and revolution. Hitler’s offensive bogged down after its initial rapid advance in the face of the determined resistance of the Soviet people against terrible odds and degenerated into a war of attrition, with the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad reflecting the strategic stalemate. Meanwhile Japan had brought a reluctant US into the war through its sneak attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Now the fascist Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, faced on paper a formidable alliance of the capitalist powers with the socialist USSR. However, the air war over Britain, the American war in the Pacific and the allied war in North Africa notwithstanding, the USSR bore the brunt of Hitler’s cruel hordes. Starting from the defeat of Hitler’s siege of Stalingrad in February 1943, the Soviet people turned the tide against Hitler, finally defeating him virtually alone (until 1944) on the eastern front at the cost of 26 million dead and many more millions wounded. Arguably, as honestly admitted by British military historian Basil Liddell-Hart, the Soviet Union virtually singlehandedly defeated Hitler while the allied effort came towards the fag end of the war.
WWII shook the world order to its roots. Movements for independence and national liberation from colonial control broke out and accelerated in the wake of peace. ‘Peace’ does not fully fit the situation, since a divided Europe between the capitalist west and the socialist east entered the Cold War, punctuated by rebellions against the communist regimes of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), crushed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces’ interventions. On the other hand, the part liberation of Korea and Vietnam characterised the growing desire for independence of the colonies in what came to be called the Third World. The Chinese revolution’s triumph in 1949, the Cuban revolution in 1958 and the renewed anti-colonial, anti-imperialist liberation war in Vietnam (not to mention the indeterminate conflict in Korea 1950-53) inspired the outbreak of guerrilla wars throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. It seemed at that historical juncture that the advance of socialism was looming on the horizon and the day of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism was done and dusted, especially given the inspiring example of the Vietnamese people’s heroic resistance against superpower the US and their complete victory in 1975. The Vietnam War radicalised the whole 1960s generation and this phenomenon changed the social (if not political) world of their elders beyond recognition. However, the owl of Minerva had not yet spread its wings and the liberatory hopes of the Third World came to be dashed eventually at the end of the 1980s. Guerrilla movements were defeated in the Third World, and even where they succeeded in capturing power, soon discovered the process of capitalist domination of their economies by a world order still largely in the grip of capitalism, and in which the socialist camp’s best efforts to aid and help these newly liberated countries proved inadequate.
Guerilla movements in the Third World virtually ceased to exist in the 1990s, notwithstanding some notable examples such as Colombia (that long running insurgency is currently in the process of a turn from civil war to a negotiated peace settlement). And in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and re-emerged as the Commonwealth of (15) Independent States. That construct, aimed at keeping close ties between the newly independent countries that hitherto constituted the USSR, did not prove long lasting and withered on the vine. The process of the collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that began with the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall was now complete.
The factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union are complex and multi-layered, but if one overriding one can be identified it is the inherent difficulties and problems of constructing socialism in a comparatively underdeveloped country, and that too in the face of unremitting hostility and sabotage by the imperialist powers. That inevitably leads the revolution and its leadership into a siege mentality, where survival against imperialist subversion and the ever-looming threat of attempts to restore the ancien regime dominate over all other considerations. The war communism imposed on the USSR during the life-and-death struggle against the monarchist White Guards and their imperialist supporters soon after the 1917 revolution inevitably produced great hardship for the Soviet people, including hunger and in some areas, starvation. The victory of the revolution in this conflict was therefore achieved at great human cost and suffering. Immediately after the end of the civil war, the Bolsheviks introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) to stimulate a revival of the economy, offering concessions to the rich peasantry (kulaks). Lenin predicted that after its overthrow, the resistance of the expropriated capitalist and large landowning classes increases ten-fold. The class struggle, therefore, could only intensify, despite the revolution’s victory.
This perceptive view re-emerged in Stalin’s work, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, after the victory in WWII. His prediction about the need to intensify the struggle against the class enemies of the revolution reflected what hindsight reveals was the growth of capitalist restoration forces that had quietly gathered force as a result of the devastating losses, human and material, in WWII, which fed into a resurgence of silent resentment against the deprivations experienced since the revolution.
Stalin’s repression of ‘counter-revolutionary’ dissent, both outside and inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), led to his denunciation by new leader Nikita Khrushchev in a secret speech to the CPSU Congress in 1956. The leak of the speech (allegedly by the US CIA) evoked unrest in Hungary that year, aimed at an overthrow of the communist regime that had emerged there and in many countries of Eastern Europe after the Soviet Red Army liberated them from the Nazi yoke on its way to the final defeat of Hitler in 1945. The Hungarian uprising was crushed, but the questions and issues it threw up were never satisfactorily resolved. These included the nature, not only of the eastern European communist regimes, but even the Soviet Union itself. The ravages of war, the needs of survival of the revolution in the face of awesome internal and external odds, the unwise and unfettered repression of any and all dissent within the CPSU, even if it was not necessarily counter-revolutionary, had alienated the party and government from the people. The 1968 crushing of the Czechoslovakian experiment at reform in the direction of ‘Socialism with a human face’ proved that the Hungarian example was not an isolated phenomenon. Both countries’ developments exposed serious contradictions within the communist system. If the crushing of movements that appeared to Moscow to reflect counter-revolutionary tendencies in Eastern Europe was problematic, the adventure in Afghanistan (1979-89) proved the last straw. This invasion and occupation ostensibly was mounted to save the Afghan revolution, being led astray, it was argued, by Hafizullah Amin, who had overthrown and killed Nur Mohammad Tarakai, the leader of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. In the process, time has revealed, it killed off the Afghan revolution and accelerated the process of collapse of the Soviet Union itself under the weight of its internal contradictions. The backdrop to the 1991 collapse was the attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev, elevated to leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, to reform the Soviet system under the rubric perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). What Gorbachev and the Soviet Union learnt to their cost is that an arguably stagnant, bureaucratised and alienated-from-the-people system is at greatest risk when it tries to reform. To add to the simmering cauldron of discontent, it became clear later that Gorbachev had embraced social democracy and abandoned Marxism despite having been elevated to the leadership of the Soviet Union. The rest, as they say, is history.
The collapse of the Soviet Union provoked unabashed triumphalism in the capitalist west, with British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously declaring: There is no alternative (to free market capitalism). In the wake of the capitalist west’s victory in the Cold War, unbridled capitalism expanded horizontally into the former communist countries as well as the rest of the world (globalisation). It appeared that the bourgeoisie’s victory was so complete that Marxism and socialism were declared passé or even dead. But the Red Mole (Revolution) has a peculiar tendency to prove the reports of its demise as premature again and again after every defeat and retreat. The 1999 Seattle protests against the world’s grouping of pre-eminent capitalist countries (G-7), the Occupy Wall Street movement, the focus on the one percent filthy rich of today’s world in sharp contrast with the inequality and immiseration inflicted on the rest of the 99 percent, the resurgence of the Left in Latin America and Europe, all indicate that capitalism’s claims of final victory (the ‘End of History’ thesis, amongst others) is once again flying in the face of history’s lessons. The human aspiration for a just and equitable society remains alive and kicking in the contemporary context. The struggles against capitalist-imperialist domination will no doubt adopt different forms and paths (as they are already embryonically indicating), not perhaps the classical forms of the revolutions of the 20th century. But for all its undoubted development of the modern world, capitalism in its moment of greatest triumph still faces the spectre of the peoples of the world challenging the system and, if history is any guide, overcoming or changing it in the direction of a just and equitable society.
To understand the world today, including Pakistan, requires an understanding of how the modern world evolved out of the womb of pre-capitalist societies. In Europe, feudalism gradually was impregnated with new ways of producing things and new ways of understanding things, the latter in particular the result of technological and scientific advances that fed into the ideas associated with the Enlightenment. The old order incrementally gave way to and was overthrown/replaced by the new, not always peacefully, often accompanied by violence, including revolutionary violence. Even societies that managed the transition relatively peacefully, were impelled forward by the example of revolutions in their midst (the English, French and American revolutions standing out in this regard). In Asia, despite the argument that similar processes were at work, the encounter between Asian and western societies soon revealed the advantage the new form of production (capitalism) had over traditional societies. In the Americas and Africa too, the gap between indigenous societies and the colonisers was glaring. The conquest by colonialism of most of the known and ‘newly discovered’ world had a catastrophic impact on the latter while providing a fillip for the former.
In the light of this movement of history and its laws of motion so brilliantly enunciated and analysed by the founders of Marxism, what is the way forward? The prospects of revolutionary struggles appear dim at present. What they need is a clearly articulated theoretical framework that lays bare the heart and workings of the globalised contemporary capitalist system and serves as a guide for practical struggles. Those struggles need first and foremost to rely on and develop the organisational weapon to serve as the motivating force for the mobilisation of the working masses to throw off their chains and march forward towards the realm of light and freedom. It is these tasks to which our people must now dedicate themselves.