“It is vital that we learn from the Russian Revolution, understand its virtues, and more importantly its failures”
Dublin City Council, as part of their 2017 commemorations programme, have allocated €30,000 towards work on the Communist Party of Ireland archives in advance of the centenary of the October Revolution this year. This is, one can imagine, a rich vein of material providing another perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Additionally, there will be a series of public lectures organized discussing the events of October 1917 and their impact. One could feasibly abhor the Communist Party, the Soviet Union and all for which it stands yet recognize the historical value of such work.
Young Fine Gael, however, are having none of it. In a statement issued on their website, the organization conflates the revolution with the crimes of Stalin, and urges Dublin City Council to “abandon its plans to commemorate the October 1917 tragedy”.
Return of the Soviets?
“The Russian Revolution was not a coup d’état by an elitist vanguard party – it was the reshaping of the entire social order by working class people.”
According to some sources, nostalgia for the old state and a desire for a return to the Soviet era has never been higher in Russia. Such polls should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, but if the debate over how the Soviet period should be remembered is still an open one in these countries, it isn’t difficult to see why. One could cite much data charting the devastating collapse in living standards and public services following the fall of the Soviet Union. The economic stagnation that marked the latter years of the USSR was traded in for harsh IMF measures, followed by increases in inequality, poverty and child mortality. It would take a brave commentator to argue that Russia has necessarily become any more liberal since the Soviet period, either. None of this is to whitewash that period, flawed and ugly as much of it was. It is clear, however, that neoliberal capitalism of the shade Fine Gael practice has not been any less damaging a force in Russian history.
Anyone with a comprehensive and balanced understanding of the Russian Revolution can discern what it is about October 1917 that the Irish centre right finds so offensive. Unfortunately, such knowledge is not readily disseminated in our school history classes. On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, the Strike 4 Repeal group will attempt to overturn Ireland’s archaic abortion laws. The Bolsheviks enacted the full legalisation of abortion in 1920. Women were at the heart of the revolution, and the Bolshevik party produced women revolutionaries and intellectuals of the highest calibre. A hundred years later, debates still rage over gender quotas, reproductive rights and misogyny in politics. However, in 1917 the Russian working class struck a blow against gender oppression.
Leon Trotsky said that a revolution was the moment the masses entered onto the stage of history. The Russian Revolution was not a coup d’état by an elitist vanguard party – it was the reshaping of the entire social order by working class people. The Bolshevik Party operated in a leadership role, their ideas and methods having won the democratic approval of the workers in the organic labour councils known as soviets. It sent shockwaves across the world, coinciding with a wave of revolutionary struggle across Europe, including here in Ireland. The Limerick Soviet of April 1919 is the best-known example of such activity in Ireland, but it is just one of many.
“The working class itself, the lifeblood of the revolution, was decimated in the civil war. The result was an increasing transfer of power to an elite bureaucracy and a reliance on the old Tsarist officers and officials.”
And so this poses the question: what is the real legacy of the Russian Revolution? The prevailing narrative would have it that October 1917 was a catastrophe for the Russian people, setting them off down a path of mass murder and totalitarianism. Undoubtedly these shadows loom large in the history of Russia. But the notion that all that transpired under Stalin and beyond was an inevitable consequence of the October Revolution is false. History contains many forks in the road. It is a marriage of objective and subjective factors — the material conditions of a given moment on the one hand, historical actors with the agency to shape their own future on the other.
Bolshevik Russia was devastated by civil war, having already endured the horror of the First World War. The revolutionary government promptly made good on their promise for “Peace, Land and Bread”, and withdrew Russia from this mass slaughter. However, they could only do so at a grave price: the conditions imposed on Russia by Germany for their exit from the war were punitive and cut off access to much of their base of material resources. The working class itself, the lifeblood of the revolution, was decimated in the civil war. The result was an increasing transfer of power to an elite bureaucracy and a reliance on the old Tsarist officers and officials. The figure in the party best placed to take advantage of this and maximize his own power was Stalin.
None of this would have come as any surprise to Lenin, the intellectual and political leader of the Bolshevik party. In characteristically prophetic fashion, he warned that if the revolution remained isolated, and was not merely the opening shot in an international uprising against capitalism, then it would be “doomed”. The failure of the revolution in Germany, Europe’s greatest industrial power, in 1918, can be seen as the moment this warning became a reality.
This may be dense historical conjecture, but it matters — the true legacy of the Russian Revolution is yet to be written. A hundred years on, the world is gingerly emerging from a deep and protracted crisis of capitalism, with another one arguably on the horizon. The major social democratic parties are in terminal decline across Europe, and a rising far right threatens to challenge them for power and influence. We need the ideas of the Russian Revolution now more than ever. It is vital that we learn from it, understand its virtues, and more importantly its failures — not to consign it to irrelevancy but to learn from it, so that we may apply those lessons in our own struggle to change the world. The centenary of October 1917 represents an opportunity to make a humble but important contribution towards that.