After One Hundred Years Of The Russian Revolution, Where Does The Left Stand?

by Sumanta Banerjee

Lenin was the Russian revolutionary leader who led the Bolsheviks victory and oversaw the creation of the world’s first socialist state.

The history of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath, can be divided into four phases – (i) the historical circumstances surrounding the 1917 revolution that led to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks; (ii) the post-revolution experiments in setting up a socialist system in Russia under the leadership of Lenin in the 1920s, and by Stalin from the 1930s onwards; (iii) the disillusionment among Communists all over the world, following the disclosure by Khrushchev in his speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party about atrocities under Stalin’s regime; and (iv) the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the light of the above experiences, there is a need for a three-pronged strategy for the future – (i) reformulation of the goal of a new socialist society and political system in the post-Soviet era, and reshaping of the tactics to reach that goal; (ii) re-orientation of the Indian Communist movement towards a programme of embracing not only the industrial proletariat and rural poor, but also vast sections of oppressed dalits, adivasis, and ethnic and religious minorities; and finally (iii) rooting this struggle for a new socialist state and society to a firm commitment by the Communist revolutionaries to respect democratic and human rights of common citizens.

Let me elaborate on the points made above. First, the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution was made possible not solely by an uprising of the industrial proletariat (as envisaged by Marx in the past), but mainly by the increasing disgruntlement of the Russian soldiers (who came from peasant families) with a futile and destructive Tsarist-led war, whom the Bolsheviks could persuade to join their programme of capturing power. This is not to undermine the Marxist ideology of socialism that inspired Lenin and other Russian Bolshevik leaders to undertake the insurrection in October/November 1917 (which had been recorded vividly by the American journalist John Reed in his famous `Ten Days That Shook the World,’ that came out in 1919 with Lenin’s introduction.

To come to the second point, the post-revolution Soviet regime implemented some reforms – however limited – like equitable distribution of resources, spread of education, health care, housing and other social benefits for the poor, and recognized the right of self-determination and secession for the people of the former Tzarist colonies.

These experiments not only earned appreciation from eminent humanist intellectuals from all over the world (e.g. Romain Rolland, Rabindranath Tagore, and British Fabians like Sydney and Beatrice Webb), but also impacted on the social democratic parties of the West (traditionally opposed to the Bolsheviks) which began to put pressures on their governments to carry out such hitherto neglected reforms. Beyond the West, India among other colonies, received news of the revolutionary and egalitarian reforms that were being carried out by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Indian revolutionary freedom-fighters were drawn to their ideology, and began to form political organizations among the industrial workers and peasants in the 1920s – giving birth to the Communist movement in India. The 1917 Revolution thus acted as a catalytic agent to change the minds and practices of people at various socio-economic levels – all over the world.

But while delving on this period of 1920-30, we need to remember the trials and tribulations suffered by the fledgling Soviet government. It had to face a civil war instigated by Western capitalist states which also hatched plots of subversion within Russia to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. A meticulously documented history of these nefarious plans is available from the book `The Great Conspiracy Against Russia’ written by Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn published in 1946.

As for the third point, Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Congress revealed that behind such popular reforms under the Bolshevik regime, there lurked the surveillance of the secret police (under Stalin’s dictates) which violated the human rights of Russian citizens (as well as killed veteran Bolshevik revolutionaries). Soon after Khrushchev’s revelations, the veteran American journalist Anna Louis Strong (who had spent years in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s regime) came out with a book entitled ‘The Stalin Era’ (1956) that described the background that led to the atrocities under his regime, which she described as `The Great Madness.’

On the fourth point, we may consider whether the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by the backlash of policies followed by successive governments – authoritarianism that provoked popular resentment, failure of the economy due to mismanagement and corruption by the party bureaucracy, and finally the military invasion of Afghanistan (which drove the nail into the coffin of the USSR). It is an irony of history that the same Russian soldiers who brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 and fought courageously the Nazi army in the 1940s to protect and save the Soviet Union, and yet their descendants in the Red Army in the 1980s had to face an ignominious defeat in Afghanistan.

As for the three-pronged strategy suggested earlier, in the post-Soviet era of the 21st century, there is a need for a new vision of socialism. Instead of following a hegemonistic model of revolution and a uniform model of post-revolutionary societies (whether the Soviet or the Chinese model), we must recognize the new strategies and tactics that are being shaped in different parts of the world for bringing about a socialist transformation of society and governance – that would suit different countries according to their respective levels of economic development and popular political demands.

In the present Indian context, Communists (ranging from the parliamentary Left to the armed revolutionaries) who are commemorating the 1917 Russian Revolution, can pay the best tribute to that Revolution by reviving its spirit. How can that spirit of a revolutionary change be revived ? By scripting a new agenda for socialist transformation, and formulating a new set of strategy and tactics to meet the demands of our oppressed and struggling masses at different levels of society. There is an urgent need for both the parliamentary and armed Communists to link up themselves with the on going popular social movements (e.g. rural agitations against dams, nuclear projects, industrial encroachment on forests; dalit and tribal protests against upper caste exploitation; campaigns in support of women’s rights and recognition of transgender community).

In this new agenda for socialist transformation, it is important to include, and prioritize the issue of human rights – an issue which had been trampled upon by Communist parties and states all these years. From the time of Stalin in the Soviet Union, to Mao-tse-tung in China and his present successors who claim to inherit the tradition of the 1917 Russian revolution, Communist rulers had continued to follow a path of suppressing dissidents (from among their own Marxist followers and ideologues), and imprisoning human rights activists (from civil society). This had scarred the image of socialism and reputation of socialist regimes). Similarly, today’s Indian Maoist leaders and guerilla squads who are operating in Chhattisgarh and other areas in central and eastern India, show little respect for the human rights of the common tribal inhabitants.

The next generation of Communists will have to discard this notorious tradition of suppression of democratic rights, and open up space for both dissent within their ranks, and for open debate with their opponents.

Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016). He is based in Hyderabad.

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