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Does the Russian Revolution still matter?

By: 
Faline Bobier

November 8, 2017

How can an event that happened 100 years ago in a very different time and place matter to us today?

Activists or people on the left may argue that looking back to the experience of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution is simply nostalgia for a different world that cannot be recreated. Or that the outcome of the Revolution—the creation of a state bureaucracy under Stalin which brought back all the old oppressions of tsarism—proves that the revolution must have been fundamentally flawed in the first place.

But the content of the Bolshevik revolution and the methods of that revolution still have much to teach us today. The world that the Russian working class, peasantry and the poor sought to overturn unfortunately has many commonalities with our world today.

Tribune of the oppressed

When Bolshevik leader Lenin argued that the revolutionary party had to be the “tribune of the oppressed,” there was a whole political strategy and world view in that statement. The Russian ruling class used all manner of divide and rule tactics to keep their hold on power: encouraging and organizing anti-Semitism through vicious pogroms against Jews in Russia; oppression of national minorities, including Muslims, in an attempt to bind Russian workers and peasants to the ruling class through poisonous Greater Russian nationalism and chauvinism; shoring up centuries-old structures of women's oppression that kept Russian women chained to housework, and suffering violence and harassment at work and at home.

The Bolsheviks argued for unity in order to overturn tsarism but understood that unity could only be achieved by waging a principled struggle against all the oppressions that divided the population against each other.

Lenin referred to Russia as “a prison house of nations” because of the oppression of national minorities. He argued that Russian socialists had to take up the question of national oppression, not as a side issue, but as fundamental to building unity among the working class and peasantry:

"We nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great' nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which it obtains in actual practice."

These arguments are still very relevant today because imperialism is still very much with us. We can see this very clearly in the case of Catalonia, where the Spanish state is attempting to brutally crush Catalonia's independence movement and their right to determine their own future, whether that be within or outside of the Spanish state.

Self-determination

Some on the left say they don't support Catalonia's right to self-determination because nationalism is a backward ideology. However, there is a world of difference between the nationalism of an oppressor nation, such as Spain, and that of the oppressed national minority within that nation. This becomes clear when we see the fascist elements supporting the Spanish state.

Likewise, here in Canada, English Canadian nationalism serves only to tie workers to the oppressive state—the state that was built on the attempted assimilation and genocide of Indigenous populations and Quebec. It's only by breaking with that oppressive nationalism, by siding with struggles of Indigenous peoples and Québécois that we can hope to build any kind of unity among workers and activists across these divides.

For anyone born in the new millennium they will never have known a world where the West has not been at war in the Middle East. The pervasiveness of Islamophobia has been a creation of Western imperialism in order to justify its plunder of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. This racist ideology has now come home to roost with the growth of fascist groups in North America and Europe, even to the extent of open fascists being elected to European parliaments.

The Bolsheviks also had to contend with a long history of Russian oppression of Muslim peoples. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks declared that the oppression of Muslims, that had been so central to the Russian Empire, was at an end. “Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable.” This attitude was one reason why so many Muslims came to support them during the Russian Civil War.

Unlike so many contemporary “muscular secularists” on the left who end up supporting Western imperialism by their arguments that religion—but particularly Islam—are backward and must be opposed, the Bolsheviks understood that religion has a material basis, which is the misery and oppression capitalism breeds. The Bolsheviks did not argue against religion or legislate against it after the revolution, because they realized that people's ideas would only change as their material reality changed.

While the Bolshevik Party’s programme was avowedly atheist, atheism was never a condition of party membership: for the Bolsheviks, religion was the private affair of every citizen. In 1905 Lenin wrote a diatribe against including atheism in the party programme, insisting, “No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.”

Lessons

And if we look at the question of women's oppression today, how can we possibly argue that women have achieved liberation under capitalism? The recent revelations of sexual harassment and rape of young actresses surrounding Hollywood power broker and producer Harvey Weinstein, dating back 30 years, have served to uncover the ugly reality of women's oppression yet again. If even some of Hollywood's most powerful women have suffered in silence until recently this is a damning indictment of the system and a reminder that this kind of coercion exists for many working class and poor women as part of their every-day existence.

The spectre of Trump's America threatens the hard-won gains that have been achieved since the advent of the women's movement in the 1960s, particularly around the question of reproductive choice. This is what brought hundreds of thousands of women and men out on January 21 of this year, the day after Trump's inauguration.

It's that much more impressive that the beleaguered Bolsheviks, in a country where women's oppression was endemic, were able to achieve what they did in such a short space of time in very difficult conditions: the legalisation of abortion, the creation of communal kitchens and laundries to liberate women from the repetitive drudgery of labour in the home, the removal of homosexuality from the criminal code; the creation of a Women's Department or Zhenotdel, led by women Bolshevik members like Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai, in order to spread literacy and encourage participation in building the new society among the most isolated and impoverished women in society.

The gains of the Russian Revolution—for national minorities, for Muslims, for women, for lesbians and gays and for the working class in general—were eventually undermined. The enemies of the revolution were external: the ruling classes of 14 capitalist countries, including Canada, that supported financially and militarily the old Russian aristocracy because they feared revolution within their own borders. The enemies were internal as well: the growing bureaucracy under Stalin that needed to reinstate all the old divisions in order to compete militarily and economically with world capitalism.

However, the fate of the Russian Revolution does not mean that the struggles that workers fought and won then have nothing to say to us today.

The impact of October 1917 can be seen in the obituary speech that US Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey gave for Lenin in 1924: “The revolution…took out of the hands of the privileged class the destiny of Russia’s government… For over five years Lenin and Trotsky were able to hold the Russian peasantry together and established for the first time in modern days…a government wherein the people ruled… Russia promised great hope not only for negroes but for the weaker people of the world.”

Now that the dominance of Stalinist politics has passed we should remember that they were a distortion of an earlier tradition with a real potential to sweep aside imperialism and oppression worldwide.

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