The Human Hopes of October 1917 Revisited: On the Russian Revolution’s Centenary


by Michael Neocosmos


The extraordinary events in Russia in October 1917, and their aftermath, shaped much of the last century. A hundred years on it is imperative to ask whether the failure of that experiment necessarily means that we are condemned to live within the escalating barbarism of hypercapitalism, or whether the Russian Revolution contained an emancipatory kernel that remains of enduring importance to humanity.


The Russian Revolution was the product of specific circumstances: a corrupt and highly repressive feudal state – the ‘Tsarist autocracy’ – which was engaged in mass slaughter in a war for the domination and partition of the globe, and the control of colonies. The support provided by the newly formed Social Democratic parties in Western Europe, particularly the German SPD, for their national states was deeply complicit with the nationalist logic that made that horrendous conflagration possible. The radical refusal of that logic by the Russian Bolsheviks, in support of an internationalist vision of emancipation, was a decisive break with the dominant logic of the day. It sustains its emancipatory charge today as capitalist devastation is increasingly accompanied by the mobilisation of reactionary and authoritarian forms of nationalism.


The Bolshevik opposition to the imperialist war corresponded with the views of soldiers on the front, mainly of peasant origin, who rebelled against being treated as cannon fodder by their officers.  In addition, the radicalisation of workers in St. Petersburg facing massively exploitative working conditions and food shortages, along with discontent among peasants against feudal landowners, meant that only a political commitment to radical human emancipation could adequately express the demands of the masses. The absence or weakness of trade unions, and other state institutions where popular interests could be voiced, led to the rapid rise of workers’ and soldiers’ councils – known as Soviets – where the working people could express their views and have their interests heard.


The Soviets were originally formed in 1905 during the first wave of revolutionary upsurge as organisations giving direct expression to working people’s demands. By February 1917 the Soviets had become the arenas where various left political parties vied for dominance and to represent of the working masses in a quest for state power.


February saw the rapid collapse of Tsarist autocracy. The Tsar himself was forced to abdicate having lost control of his army and the war industry. Between February and October a provisional government was in power backed by social democratic organisations  — Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – who were concerned to support bourgeois reforms until such time, always unspecified, as a more liberal capitalist order could develop. Led by Lenin the Bolsheviks argued that although it was not yet possible to establish a socialist system — as capitalism was still undeveloped — it was necessary to have a more radical form of bourgeois democracy that would transfer land to the peasants and establish a form of popular democracy in the interests of the overwhelming majority.  It was this popular democracy that, after April, found expression in Lenin’s famous slogan “All Power to the Soviets!”


In August an attempted coup, led by General Kornilov, was successfully resisted by armed workers and soldiers, a fact that enabled Lenin’s slogan to reverberate into reality for the masses. Yet even though the provisional government had decided to renew a military offensive the leaders of the Petersburg Soviet hesitated to take state power. Massive desertions by soldiers followed showing that the masses of the working people were opposed to the continuation of the war and prepared to fight for a new society.  During September a steadily growing peasant movement was seizing land, manor houses and implements on a grand scale, ethno-nationalist movements were increasing while in the cities the Bolsheviks were acquiring a majority in the Soviets.


The provisional government responded with attempts at repression, largely unsuccessful given its lack of control over the army.  A clear either-or opposition was developing between the provisional government and its small number of supporters on the one hand, and the masses of the people on the other.


In September Lenin put it this way: “The key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power. Which class holds power decides everything.”  Given that they had the following of the whole people, Lenin argued that the country would only be saved from disaster if the Bolsheviks were to take state power: they would meet the demands of the peasants for land, withdraw from the war and call on all nations to establish peace.


Having decided on an armed uprising in order to save the revolution, workers, soldiers and sailors engaged in an insurrection and stormed the famous Winter Palace where they arrested the provisional government on the nights of October 25 and 26.  Between October 25 and 27, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets adopted Lenin’s decrees on peace and land and elected the first Soviet government.  These were the 10 days that, as John Reed famously put it, shook the world.


The victory of the Revolution was followed by three years of civil war during which the Western powers attempted to destroy the new state. However it emerged victorious and was able to consolidate its power thanks to mass mobilization, central state control and the brilliant military organisational leadership of Leon Trotsky.


It was only after Lenin’s death in 1924 that internecine struggles occurred within the state-party.  By the late 1920s Stalin was coercively collectivising the peasantry and had begun a reign of terror against his ex-comrades.  Beginning in the 1930s thousands were sent to camps in Siberia.  A bloated state apparatus had arisen. Much of it was afraid of threats to its power. The state apparatus deteriorated into a notorious criminal state.


At the same time, the Comintern (‘Communist International’) became a mere agent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s (USSR) foreign policy rather than an international movement of working people.  It was only after 1956 that a process of ‘de-Stalinization’ took place in the wake of the revelations at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party.


At the same time Nikita Khrushchev abandoned some of the more cherished features of socialist thought such as the class struggle in favour of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West.  Nevertheless a ‘cold’ war continued with the West. It was, of course, much hotter in the Global South where countries like Korea, Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan were laid to waste. The USSR remained committed to the support of national liberation movements even if only within the struggle for ‘spheres of influence’ in the world by the two ‘great powers’.  The system collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions in 1989.


World Impact


In 1979 the most well-known liberal historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr, wrote that:

[T]he Russian revolution of 1917 was a turning-point in history, and may be assessed by future historians as the greatest event of the twentieth century.  Like the French revolution, it will continue for a long to come to polarise opinion, being hailed by some as a landmark in the emancipation of mankind from past oppression, and denounced by others as a crime and a disaster.”


The Russian Revolution had an immense impact throughout the world. It showed, for the first time, that it was possible for working people to overcome the oppression and exploitation inherent in capitalism, and to attempt to construct a new world which, it was hoped, would lead to human emancipation. News of its success provided a blazing beacon of a fundamentally different world for masses of people. It irrevocably marked the history of the 20th century.


The principle attractions of the Russian Revolution for working people were in four distinct areas.


Firstly it showed that a non-capitalist world could be achieved.  Followed by other countries – most notably the Chinese Revolution of 1949 – the Russian revolution offered concrete evidence that a socialist alternative to capitalist society, in which life could be organised on a very different basis to the individualism of capitalist society, was possible.


Secondly the rapid industrialisation in the Soviet Union gave an example of development to newly independent countries that was not tied to capitalism. At the same time national liberation struggles in the Third World could count on Soviet support, and it must be recalled that the Soviet Union emerged with enormous prestige after World War II as it made the greatest contribution to the defeat of Fascism. With the notable exception of the Scandinavians, all the Western imperialist countries were opposed to national liberation except when they could no longer avoid it.


Thirdly communist parties developed throughout the world and challenged, to various degrees, the dominance of capitalism worldwide. These parties often controlled strong trade unions that were themselves influenced by Marxist thinking.


Finally the existence of the Soviet Union enabled the strengthening of social democratic parties in the West and a corresponding limiting of totally uncontrolled profit making and of United States dominance worldwide.  The profit making of capitalist interests was substantially subordinated to a ‘common good’ of subsidised housing, free education and health and subjected to state intervention in the economy in both the West and the newly independent Global South.


Today we are suffering from the absence of an alternative vision of social relations. There is no sense of a humane politics that can affirm the common good. The result has been extreme inequality and oppression for which, for example, the five richest people in the world own the same amount of wealth as 50 per cent of the world’s population — a staggering figure.  This is an obscene statistic previously unattained in world history.  It has been made possible by unfettered capitalism, unfettered that is by a thinkable alternative and movements with the power to advance towards that alternative.


Ready-made answers


Given the disastrous conditions in which we find ourselves today, across the world, it is fundamentally important to ensure that past attempts at universal human emancipation are thinkable.  Currently they are not.  Instead of a rational account of the achievements and limits of the emancipatory projects of the past we are presented with a series of crude ready-made answers to the failure of what used to be called ‘actually existing socialism’.  These ready-made answers are broadly of two types.


The first revolves around the idea that revolutions are both violent and a waste of time as things change slowly for the better anyway.  Given the increase in violence throughout the contemporary world, and the fact that life is getting worse every day for the majority of humanity, this view has no credibility.  In any case capitalism has always been extremely violent, although such violence has often been hidden away from the eyes of the middle-classes, frequently overseas and visited on people raced into a lack of consequence.


Allied to this is the view that people are fundamentally egotistical and solely concerned with their own interests.  In this view people are simply animals defending their interests and asserting their identities. But, of course, there is irrefutable evidence to show that people are capable of both egoism and altruism. To elevate egoism into a universal assumption does serious damage to a fundamental dimension of humanity, the ability to think beyond narrow interest.


Variations on such crude views are the supposedly more intellectually satisfying positions concerning the apparent fact that the revolution always ‘turns on its own people’ as leaders struggle for power, that cooperative or collective work is ultimately impossible as the profit motive is fundamental to life, and so on.  In sum, equality is deemed simply impossible. Human beings are asserted to have no choices in their lives as they are determined by their psychological make-up, or by the constraints within which they live.  It is said that any attempt at an egalitarian way of life can only be arrived at by coercing people against their nature, with the result that disaster ensues.


These are crude conservative notions that assert that any fundamental change to our current world is simply impossible. They are frequently asserted by intellectuals within the same classes that have been waging a socially devastating hypercapitalist revolution from above, along with imperial wars aimed at radically remaking the periphery with massive violence. Clearly revolution from above is treated in very different terms to revolution from below. The hypocrisy is rank.


An equally crude view finds the supposed cause of socialist failure in evil individuals with authoritarian tendencies.  It is assumed that these proper names (Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao) somehow have the capacity to bamboozle people with their exceptional personalities and charisma, and to brainwash them into some form of madness that ultimately undermines democracy and replaces it by authoritarianism.  These proper names are, for the most part, said to be the mirror image of Hitler, the incarnation of evil. People are thought to simply be moronic followers of evil-doers.


For more left-inclined accounts, it is assumed that there is nothing basically wrong with the Marxist theory pursued by Soviet leaders – that it was merely ‘betrayed’, ‘distorted’ or ‘misapplied’ by Stalin in the context of an economically backward agrarian society.

More generally, self-centred opportunists and the petty-bourgeoisie, whom they are said to represent, are seen as betrayers of ‘working-class interests’.  As a result there seems to be no need to rethink the assumptions of politics.  It is assumed that what is required to solve all our problems is a party that really represents the working-class.  Interestingly enough of course these interests are usually taken to be defined by self-appointed worker’s representatives but not by workers themselves. These self-appointed representatives are often little more than tiny sects, in some instances cults, with no discernible popular support of any sort.


These accounts have been doing the rounds for many years.  Their undoubted persistence is simply due to the fact that they avoid the need to think, and in particular the need to think politics.  But such thinking is desperately needed at the moment. For example it could be (and has been) pointed out that the genocidal character of German fascism was founded on an identitarian ideology (German/Aryan superiority) and colonial practice in no ways different in substance to that pursued in the genocide of Native Americans by the United States, or the Nama and Herero people in Namibia by the German state, or countless others by British colonialism.  In contrast, the politics of the Stalinist terror had no fundamental ethnic identitarian content but is arguably better understood as a systematic distortion of the idea of human universality through a series of ideological representations whereby a supreme leader (Stalin) is seen to represent a party which itself represents a class (the working-class) which in turn is seen as representing the future of humanity.


Rethinking the failure, rethinking a future


The state is always the betrayal of political hope. - Alain Badiou


While the classic 19th century theorists of socialism saw a revolution against the depredations of capitalism as inaugurating a move from the “reign of necessity to the reign of freedom”, the eventual universal freedom of communism, a future in which freedom is common to all humans, presupposed the absence or gradual ‘withering away’ of the state itself.


Anarchists opposed the state as such. Marxists held that the disappearance of the state would take place over time. But neither Anarchists nor Marxists held to a statist understanding of politics.  After all Marx and Engels had maintained in 1879 that, “the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves”.


For Marxists, the intermediate period between capitalism (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) and communism (the domain of freedom and equality) was referred to as socialism or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.  The latter, as Engels maintained, was equivalent to the popular power of the Paris Commune of 1871.  It was a period of genuine democracy for working people — workers, peasants and other oppressed classes and groups, in which women were often in the forefront — along with dictatorship over the small bourgeoisie.


It followed from all this that socialism was not meant to be an end point but a period of transition and that during socialism there would have to be a state which was partly a ‘non-state’ – in other words that the state would be more and more subservient to society rather than existing ‘above it’ (in Marx’s formulation) which is the rule in capitalism.  The state would be gradually disappearing (‘withering away’).


During its existence it had to adequately ‘represent’ the overwhelming majority of the popular masses and not just the working class.  Lenin never ceased repeating vis-à-vis Trotsky that that the new state formed after 1917 was not a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state.  This issue refers fundamentally to the problem of representation and the state.  The problem to be solved was one for which popular needs and demands had to be accurately expressed by a party which said it was acting on their behalf within a state system which was to represent their interests. Lenin put the issue as follows in January 1922:


One of the greatest and most serious dangers that confront the numerically small Communist Party which, as the vanguard of the working class, is guiding a vast country in the process of transition to socialism (for the time being without the direct support of the more advanced countries), is isolation from the masses … 


Since 1904 Lenin had consistently argued that a Social Democratic (later Bolshevik and later Communist) party could not be formed from the trade unions because the political consciousness in the unions was restricted to their members’ narrow work experience.  A party had to address questions of the state, its power and the demands of all popular classes among the people.  Such a party could only be composed of the most ‘ideologically advanced’, who would possess a detailed knowledge of Marxism, in order to fulfil its vanguard role.


For Lenin, proletarian communist politics could not emanate from trade unions. It was only the party that could speak for the whole people. The people must be led by the proletariat, and the proletariat by its party. Leadership meant correct policies based on Marxist principles – e.g. nations have the right to self-determination; the nationalism of the oppressed nations is not the same as the nationalism of the oppressor nations; land must be provided to peasants, etc.


In Lenin’s view proletarian and communist consciousness must be able to address political issues in the interests of the people as a whole, and not only of the working class.  In Russia where the majority were peasants the party had to act in their interests too.  Lenin’s slogan for the revolution in October 1917 was the “Revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.


By 1922, and now in power after the civil war had been won, Lenin realised that a problem of representation had arisen. He argued that the way to resolve the problem was for the trade unions to be the ‘transmission belts’ that would connect the party to the masses.  In addition workers and peasants were to keep an eye on the actions of the bureaucracy to ensure that bureaucratic actions were undertaken in their interests.  This was known as “the workers and peasants inspection”.  The problem of representation had not only arisen because of objective problems in post-revolutionary Russia.  It was central to Lenin’s thought because of the lessons he drew from the experience of the defeat of the Paris Commune.


In 1871 the Paris Commune had been defeated in blood. More than 30 000 workers were mercilessly slaughtered. The reason for this, it had been concluded by Lenin and others, is that the Communards had not been organised in a party. The consensus among radicals was that the only way to avoid a repetition of this massive defeat was to have a sophisticated organisation that could secure a victory over the inevitable reaction to revolution.


The Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), as the Communist party was originally known, had to be set up as an underground military machine with iron discipline and iron will, not open to influence from outside as it largely operated in conditions of illegality.  But the fundamental issue at stake did not concern the illegality of the party.  The closed system necessitated by an underground structure merely exacerbated the problems inherent in the party form as such.  The fundamental problem was that parties, irrespective of their ideological orientation, have always been hierarchical, centralist and vanguard organisations.  As a result there is always a problem of ensuring accurate representation of those they are supposed to speak for.  This problem is central to liberal, social democratic as well as to Leninist theories.


The issue was not so much present for Marx as modern parties only began to be formed at the end of the century. It was workers movements that dominated the thought of revolutionary politics in the 19th century.  In their famous Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels had insisted that communists did not form a separate organisation outside the workers’ movements.  In the 20th century liberal thinking also maintained that parties represent social interests in political society while the state itself was said to represent the people as a whole – as is apparent in criminal trials in the US for example: ‘The People vs. so and so’. But regular elections by universal suffrage do not guarantee accurate representation as there is no direct popular control over the actions of the state in liberal democratic systems. Elections are more or less invariably a choice between competing factions of the ruling class.


The thinking of the Bolsheviks had always been that each party represented a class or section of a class and that the leader represented the party.  Lenin put it most clearly as follows:  “It is common knowledge that the masses are divided into classes … that … classes are led by political parties; that political parties … are run by leaders. All this is elementary.”  The problem was that in the absence of popular voices being heard, there was no guarantee of the accuracy of various levels of representation. Lenin’s formulation does not take into account the evident fact that parties, and their leaders, can and do acquire interests of their own, interests that can be separate from, and in contradiction to, the interests of the classes that they claim to represent.


In addition, in the absence of some forms of popular control over the party and the state, the two have a tendency to meld.  In the view of Bukharin, a well-known Bolshevik leader, this is what happened after the Russian revolution, and is what explained Stalin’s overwhelming personal dominance: “The party and the state have become confused.  That is the misfortune”, he said in 1928.  For Trotsky and others it was the bureaucratisation of the state and the independent power of the bureaucracy, known as the ‘Nomenklatura’, whose interests Stalin defended, which was the core problem, although the existence of a centralised party apparatus of control over the state power meant an increase in state control and not its withering away in favour of the releasing of popular inventiveness.


The ultimate failure of the October revolution raises crucially important issues for thinking politics. Perhaps the most important of these concerns the gradual disappearance of the thought of communism, along with the idea of the withering away of the state.  Of course the precise context of the Russian Revolution, and the need to strengthen the state in fighting external threats is historically specific. Yet the fact remains that the attempt to bring about universal equality through the control of state power has been a general feature of attempts at emancipation during the 20th century. It should be recalled and re-iterated that this was not the way in which emancipation was thought in the 19th century.  There is no need to continue with the same conceptions in the 21st century.


The fundamental problem with parties is that, although they were extremely useful for winning power from the bourgeoisie, and holding it with military might, they were totally inadequate for constructing an egalitarian system, and for unlocking the unlimited inventiveness inherent in human beings.


The idea that political opponents are invariably seen as enemies, that — in the words of Jacob Zuma for example — “enemies are in the party”, and that parties are invariably structured and subjectified as military machines, means that politics is thought as always confrontational and not as a primarily as a way of resolving popular contradictions in a peaceful manner.  Parties are not designed to resolve popular differences and contradictions in times of peace. Rather they are obsessed with confronting enemies.  The proliferation of parties does not resolve this fundamental problem — it simply exacerbates it — while the creation of professional politicians only means that strong interests support the maintenance of the party system.


Without uniting the people around a shared idea of the common good, there can be no possibility of adequately confronting their enemies — whether these be capitalism, imperial domination, poverty, or whatever. But for differences between people in a political community to be creatively overcome, various groups of people must be allowed to express themselves independently of constituted power without being in fear of coercion. Constant, open and free discussion must be enabled.


The problem is not that people — the workers, the poor, women, migrants, sexual minorities, the excluded generally — cannot speak, but rather that no one listens, or perhaps rather that that their speech is re-interpreted from within the parameters of existing theories to mean something other than what it intended.


Movements — whether ‘social’ or ‘mass’ — must have an independent existence and the kind of autonomous power that can compel the state to take them seriously.  This requires the existence of a political organisation whose concern is not to capture state power but rather to force the state to listen to the demands of independently and democratically organised people.  This does not happen within a ‘civil society’ composed of NGOs run by professionals who see themselves, yet again, as representing the voiceless.


The United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa from 1983 to 1987 was an example of such an organisation.  The UDF was a non-party organisation that was distinct in some important sense from the popular movements that had preceded its formation in 1983 — it only had affiliates that it did not control — as well as from the state. The rethinking of emancipatory politics could address the issue of establishing a political organisation distinct from the party form that maintains an independence from state thinking.


It is the state thinking of representation that constitutes the core problem: i.e. the supposed representation within the state of interests and identities emanating from society. There must be a way to allow independent popular organisations to speak for themselves and to restrict the state from speaking and acting on their behalf.  Universality cannot be allowed to be the exclusive prerogative of the state.


The relationship between independent popular movements and the political organisation must be rethought in any emancipatory thought of politics. That organisation cannot be thought of as a party that sees itself as achieving state power on behalf of those it supposedly represents. To think in this way is to remain within state thinking and the tradition of representation. It also means that popular movements must have delegates responsible to those movements and not representatives whose existence is tied to fulfilling professional functions. This would be a way of truly democratising state power – of subordinating the state to society, as was precisely the case in the Paris Commune and other similar popular experiments across space and time.


It should be clear that the failure by the apparent representatives of the oppressed to allow the oppressed an independent voice from state thinking was not a feature unique to the Russian Revolution.  The same process was witnessed after independence struggles in the ex-colonies, whether in Africa or elsewhere. Again and again a profound process of popular de-politicization was allowed to take place.  Moreover, the turn to authoritarianism consequent to anti-colonial struggles — struggles for freedom centred on ‘capturing’ state power — occurred completely independently of the ideological colour of those who attained state power whether they were socialists, nationalists or simply liberal democrats.


This has had something of the character of a law on the African continent, something that Frantz Fanon, in particular, recognised.  Thought must be given to the reasons for that law.  One reason is arguably the nature of the state itself. It sees itself as both a monopoly of expertise and as a representative of society but, of course, this is never the case under capitalist conditions.  In addition it is not only politicians who see themselves as speaking on behalf of workers and the poor.  It is also NGOs masquerading as ‘civil society’, and academics and scientists.


Popular subjectivities are rarely elucidated in their own terms, and tend to be seen by elites as simply reflective of people’s social location. Workers are deemed a priori to be interested in pay and conditions at work, women in household issues and rural folk in the land. It is assumed that no thought of universal humanity can emanate from anyone other than the authorised intellectuals operating from within the dominant power relations.


A century after the October revolution South Africa finds itself in a major crisis. Mass impoverishment is being accompanied by escalating repression, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal where murder has become a routine form of social control. The conflicting roads to accumulation within the state are not simply the result of the current incumbent in the presidency, appalling as Zuma is, but have much deeper origins.


Neither side in the conflict between a faction of the political class that is primarily interested in accumulating via the state with a faction of the political class that is primarily interested in accumulating via the market have any sense of the general interest or the public good.  It is essential that the commonly repeated assertion that it is the people who make history must be taken seriously and not simply regurgitated as an empty slogan.


The recovery of an emancipatory politics, a politics rooted in the struggles of the oppressed and committed to the common good, is an urgent imperative. Dogmatic attempts to impose lessons from the Russian Revolution, as if they amount to some sort of eternal theology, function to block rather than enable the work of rethinking emancipation in the here and now. But the emancipatory kernel of the revolution, in particular the forms of popular power and revolutionary democracy that inaugurated it, retain an intense political charge a hundred years on.


Michael Neocosmos is Professor and Director of the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University.  His award winning latest book Thinking Freedom in Africa was recently published by Wits University Press. 


Further Reading;

Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, 1937, Pathfinder Press 1980

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the self-destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. Yale University Press 2010

Alain Badiou and Peter Engelmann, Philosophy and the Idea of Communism Polity Press 2015


Main Picture: 1917 October Revolution – Bolshevik revolutionaries storm the Winter Palace. Artist: unknown

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