October 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, when the workers of Russia, fed up with the misery of capitalist rule, overthrew the capitalists and took power into their own hands in the most democratic revolution in world history. The state they established, the Soviet Union was a beacon of hope for a few short years, before becoming its opposite – a repressive dictatorship. Today we face many of the same problems that Russian workers faced because capitalists continue to rule the world. What can we learn from the Russian Revolution?
At the turn of the 20th Century, the vast majority of the Russian population were poor peasants ruled by a nobility headed by a dictatorial czar (king). Russia was a deeply religious and conservative society and workers and peasants were taught to love the czar and accept their own exploitation as God’s will.
Things began to change in Russia as capitalists based in England, France, and other countries were investing in modern factories in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities. Millions of peasants moved to the cities, hoping for a better life. But they were frustrated by low wages and terrible working conditions. In 1902, workers started a wave of illegal strikes across the country. In December 1904, citywide strikes shut down the capital of St. Petersburg. A mass march on the czar’s winter palace in January 1905 was met by gunfire from the czar’s troops, killing hundreds. This event broke people’s faith in the system and led to strikes and peasants’ uprisings, which ended with token reforms by the regime. In the process of the struggle, workers organized themselves into democratic councils (called “soviets” in Russian).
World War I (1914-1918) meant millions of lives lost in Russia through combat and starvation. In February 1917, a mass movement of workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors finally overthrew the czar’s government, demanding “peace, bread, and land.” A provisional government of liberal politicians was set up, but it continued the war. The war and starvation continued. But workers organized soviets again, like in 1905.
Over the next few months, more and more workers, soldiers, and sailors looked to the soviets for leadership. The provisional government came close to turning itself into a military dictatorship. But the military couldn’t control its own troops. Finally, in October, workers overthrew the provisional government and the soviets established their own workers’ government, almost without firing a shot.
With their soviets in power, the Russian workers withdrew the country from the war. They offered national independence to the peoples subjugated by the Russian Empire. They supported the peasant movement to redistribute the land. They took over the factories. They established fair and open courts for the first time in Russia. They separated church and state, and recognized freedom of speech and belief. They established equal rights for women, legalizing abortion and setting up day care, public laundries, and public kitchens. And much more.
Perhaps most importantly they offered the rest of the world’s workers a perspective, forming the Communist International to spread the revolution. The workers’ leadership in the Bolshevik Party knew that the workers couldn’t hold power for long in a poor and devastated country without support from revolutions in wealthier countries like Germany and England. When revolutionary movements across Europe failed and the capitalist powers invaded Russia, the revolutionary Russian working class was nearly annihilated. A bureaucracy led by Stalin took over and destroyed the workers’ democracy imposing a dictatorship.
How is this history relevant to us today? The Russian Revolution demonstrated that the working class can organize and run society. To win the struggle, workers need to build their own organizations, not just unions, but workers’ councils and parties. And today we need to and can build such organizations in every country.