Empire Files: What the Russian Revolution Proved Possible
Nov. 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the seizure of power by workers and peasants in the Russian Revolution, regarded as the most world-altering event in the history of civilization. Abby Martin talks to Brian Becker, socialist organizer and co-author of the book “Storming the Gates: How the Russian Revolution Changed the World.”
ABBY MARTIN: 2017 marks the centennial of one of the biggest events in human history. One hundred years ago, a huge chunk of the planet became ruled by workers and peasants with a socialist economy with the success of the Russian Revolution. Fourteen other nations joined Russia in what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, shifting a balance of power in a role that had long been dominated by lords and barons. Critics and supporters can agree, the Soviet Union shook the world, ushering in a period of social revolution breaking up old colonial bonds, and a challenge to the reigning system of capitalism. All of that started on November 7th, 1917.
To learn more about this event, I sat down with Brian Becker, long-time socialist organizer and co-author of the new book, Storming the Gates, How the Russian Revolution Changed the World.
Can you set the stage for the revolution in Russia in 1917 and what was happening both locally and globally that sparked it?
BRIAN BECKER: The big context, the big picture for the Russian Revolution was a country that spanned all the way from Poland to Pacific Ocean, in other words, the largest land mass of any country in the world, a country that had been ruled by an emperor, the tsar. For 300 years, the Romanov family dominated.
In 1917, 75 percent of the country were peasants, 96 percent of the peasants were illiterate. There had been tempestuous industrial growth in the last years before the Russian Revolution as a consequence of foreign direct investment, mainly from France. In general, this was a society that had remained static for three centuries. The monarchy had become decrepit, it had a bad leadership under the tsar, the last tsar, Tsar Nicholas II. Most importantly, the Russian Empire had suffered major military defeats in 1905 in the war with Japan, a humiliating defeat. Then in World War I, three million-plus Russians died. There was no end to the war and the consequence of that was that the people in Russia could not eat. The peasants were at the front, they wanted to go home to the farms. Economic misery and discontent was growing.
The Russian Revolution, well, there were really two revolutions: The February Revolution started on International Women’s Day when women went out on strike, protesting their immiseration. Suddenly, surprisingly, within three or four days, the tsar was vanquished. That wasn’t carried out by the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks or the social revolutionaries or any political party. It was an entirely spontaneous mass movement that the tsar himself, the day before the revolution, where he loses leadership, he’s writing in his diary, “I took a walk today. I had tea today,” in other words, a leadership that was completely removed from the realities of his own country and his own people.
ABBY MARTIN: What sectors of Russian society comprised the revolution and what role did they play?
BRIAN BECKER: There were two basic classes. Of course, we know from the flag of the Soviet Union, it was the hammer representing the workers and the sickle representing the tool of the peasants. Those were the two classes. You had the urban workers in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, a few other industrial cities but again, as I said, 75 percent of the country were peasants. There was a peasant uprising as a consequence of the extreme suffering caused by World War I.
The Bolshevik Party, which was an urban-based, proletarian-based party, a minority party, a small party, relatively, in St. Petersburg and in Moscow. It threw its lot in with the peasants. It said, during this period of tempestuous peasant uprising, “Land to the tiller.” We, the workers, support the peasants in seizing the landed estates from the big landowners. The workers and peasants began marching, step by step, shoulder and shoulder with each other against a common enemy. First the tsar, and later, nine months later, against the bourgeoisie that had taken the place of the tsar. The bourgeois government became the next to fall. That was the October Revolution. It was a worker and peasant revolution led by a worker and peasant soviet.
ABBY MARTIN: Everybody knows the name, “Soviet Union,” but who were the Soviets?
BRIAN BECKER: The soviet is the Russian word for council. The soviets were a little bit like what occupy encampments were but they were independent councils of people’s power from the grassroots. The workers’ districts voted for delegates to come to the workers’ council. The council is the soviet in Russian. Same with the peasants. They had peasant councils. The soldiers got in the act, too, and they formed soviets of soldiers. These were elective bodies from the grassroots, grassroots resisters, who said, we have more legitimacy than the existing government. They became a dual power, a secondary power, a competing power with governmental power.
ABBY MARTIN: What made the Russian Revolution different than, let’s say, the U.S. Revolution from its monarchy, the French Revolution from its monarchy? It ousted a tsarist monarchy.
BRIAN BECKER: Right. Revolutions aren’t very common in history but they do happen. You mentioned the American Revolution, a revolution against the monarchy, the French Revolution that came a decade later against a monarchy. The real difference in the Russian Revolution is that it was the very first time in history where the revolution was led by classes that did not have private property at all. The working class did not have private property. They didn’t own factories. They didn’t own estates. If you look at the American Revolution, it was led by big plantation owners and big bankers in the northern cities.
Here, you had poor people, working class people, seize the power of society and say, guess what? We are going to really have a government of, by and for the people which was not protecting any private property interests but, in fact, attacking private property, meaning the control of capital. That’s what made it really unique, the first time the working class, or working classes, took power and held power. There have been other worker insurrections, other peasant insurrections, but they took the power and they were able to hold it.
Of course, Winston Churchill and all the Western leaders, they never thought the Russian Revolution would last more than a few months. Winston Churchill said, “Let’s strangle that baby while it’s still in the crib.” Of course, that led to many, multiple imperialist invasions. They never thought the Bolsheviks could hold it. They thought “Oh, these are poor people. These are workers, they’re peasants. How could they be the ruling class of society?” Shockingly, the Bolsheviks, for the first time, showed that the working class, the poor, could actually take and hold power.
ABBY MARTIN: It seems very crazy to people living here, to confront the powers that be as a peasant force and not have just have complete massacres. How bloody was the revolution, and how did it actually take place? How did these peasants actually take power and hold it?
BRIAN BECKER: The February Revolution, the leadership was inherited by bourgeois liberals. They were called the Cadet Party and some Socialists, Kerensky in particular. The problem that that revolutionary government that came from the February Revolution had, was it could not escape its alliance with Britain, France and the United States which insisted that the new revolutionary government stay in Word War I as allies. The U.S. and Britain and France didn’t want them to end the war because then Germany could focus all of its attentions on the western front. They demanded that Kerensky and the Russian revolutionaries stay in the war.
But that’s what the revolution was about, getting out of the war, stopping the killing, letting the soldiers go back and work the farms. The Bolshevik Revolution came about because the Bolsheviks and the Bolsheviks alone said, we must have a second revolution if we are to end the war. It was an anti-war revolution. When the Bolsheviks took power, they immediately said, we’re done fighting. They sent a message to all of the combatants, allies and axis powers alike, saying, we’re done and you should be done, too.
Of course, that’s why the message of the Russian Revolution spread to Hungary, spread to Germany because the workers there, they wanted to stop fighting. Millions, tens of millions had been killed. Everybody wanted the war to end, except the bourgeois classes that were hoping that, out of the war, they’d have new colonies. The workers don’t have colonies, they just wanted to stop the bleeding. That was the real reason the Russian Revolution happened.
ABBY MARTIN: You mentioned that it was bloodless, before.
BRIAN BECKER: So many people in Russia and so many sectors of society were so insistent that this war come to an end, when the Bolsheviks finally staged the insurrection, the planned uprising on November 7th, the old government fell with almost, it wasn’t bloodless, but nearly bloodless, one of, perhaps, the most bloodless revolutions in world history. It was, in fact, like a celebration. People just started drinking. They emptied the wineries. The soldiers let all the prisoners go. The soldiers even captured the counter revolutionaries, they said, let them go, too. They said, finally, we the workers and peasants have taken charge, like a big party. It only became really bloody and really violent in the months later.
ABBY MARTIN: Let’s talk about what happened after the fact, Brian, several countries invaded. How did the new-found, the revolutionaries who took power, how did they fend off the assault and use the military to do so?
BRIAN BECKER: That is what we call the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. The German government, the imperialist government in Germany, demanded that Russia make huge concessions of western territories to Germany. When the Bolsheviks, under Lenin’s leadership, said, yes, we must make these concessions to Germany, they gave up a big part of Russian territory, which meant the territory where Russian peasants were living, many on the left became disaffected with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and said, you’re capitulating to German imperialism. We didn’t make a revolution in order to give away our country. Lenin said, we have no army. How can we fight? We must make a concession, the relationship of forces was such.
The coalition government between the social revolutionaries, who were a peasant-led party or a party that tried to lead the peasants, and the Bolsheviks, that alliance broke apart. Different parts of the left, along with counter revolutionaries from the old landed estates, tsarist generals, in league with imperialist invading countries, formed a common cause called White Russia. They were the Whites versus the Reds.
A civil war ensued and another three million Russians died. You had 14 imperialist armies invading including the United States, you had the Germans taking up a big part of Russia. Under those pressures, it looked like the Bolsheviks would lose control. The White Russians began a campaign of terror and assassination, thousands of Communists were assassinated when they went to the countryside or went to the factories. This previously bloodless revolution was suddenly engulfed in the worst kind of civil war. All of the basic democratic premises of the revolution that had been signaled immediately starting November 7th, 1917 were replaced by conditions of civil war.
When you’re in conflict, when you’re in military battle, hierarchies, command posts are established and all things are done to win because you don’t want to die. As a consequence, the soviet democracy, the flourishing of socialist democracy was, in many ways, engulfed by the military exigencies or emergencies confronting the revolution as a consequence of imperialist armies invading, tsarist generals forming counter revolutionary armies and even left forces like SR or social revolutionaries and some Mensheviks taking up arms against the new Bolshevik government.
ABBY MARTIN: Brian, we hear a ton about Lenin. He was the principal leader of the revolution, of course. Talk about who he was, what he brought to that revolution, also how did the character of the revolution change six years later when he died?
BRIAN BECKER: Many people say that without Lenin there wouldn’t be a Russian Revolution. I agree with that. The Bolshevik Party was a collective party, but only Lenin had the stature within that party, where all of the different sectors of the party, the different factions, the different leaders, ultimately looked to Lenin above all others. Lenin had this brilliant tactical acuity. Some said, we must always go forward, and some say, we should never go forward. Lenin had the capacity as a theoretician of Marxism, as a philosopher, as a strategist, but also a brilliant tactician. He was guided by tactical or organizational principles that we would now call Leninism, although that’s a badly misunderstood term.
I would say that Lenin was the one who understood after the February Revolution, and he alone understood this, that there had to be a second revolution. Most of the Bolsheviks were ready, really, to stop with the February Revolution and to be a left-wing lobby in the new bourgeois liberal democratic revolutionary government. Lenin came back from exile and said, no, we must have a second revolution because this revolutionary government will not break its alliance with imperialism, it will not do that which the people most need, which is to end their participation in World War I.
Lenin was bold enough and audacious enough to actually conceive of the idea that a second revolution could happen. When he came back, Lenin said, we can’t have a revolution now because the masses of people don’t agree with us. They’re euphoric. They think the new government is something wonderful, it’s not the tsar, give it a chance. In other words, he said, we can’t make a revolution through a conspiracy. We have to premise our tactics, our strategy, on the popular will. He said, you don’t have to have all the people with you, but you have to have a big part of the population with you or sympathetic to you. He suggested to the Bolsheviks, let’s stay steadfast in our principles to end our participation in the war, but go and explain persistently and patiently why that must be.
As a consequence of that six-month process, Lenin’s strategy of winning over the population happened. The soviet, again, those councils of peasants and soldiers and workers, their composition changed by September. Instead of it being the middle class, educated parts of the population and, you know, those are the people who always get to the microphone first, they speak first, the have the privileges to be able to do that, by September, end of September, the composition of the soviet had changed. It was poor people coming barefoot to the meetings of the soviet, the poorest workers, the ones who were most ready to fight, those who had the most to gain and the least to lose by going for it, by actually having a revolution. They had become the new leaders within that six months. That was Lenin’s strategic genius.
ABBY MARTIN: What happened when he died?
BRIAN BECKER: He died and, if you read Lenin’s writings in the last year of his living live, because he had several strokes that paralyzed him and incapacitated him, you can see that Lenin has become consumed with the problems facing this new Russian Revolution. The country is too poor. The state can’t provide for the peasants yet. It doesn’t have enough material resources. The Bolsheviks are not equipped to really fully run the machinery, the administrative machinery of the state, so they’re relying on the old civil servants of the tsarist government. He’s preoccupied with those problems.
He maybe could have guided the country as Fidel, or Mao, they lived longer, they were able to guide their revolutions through various processes. Lenin, the premier, indispensable leader of the revolution, is gone six years later, after the revolution. The country is in crisis, it’s facing internal foes. Of course, after his death, the party cleaved into different factions, those following Stalin, those following Trotsky, those following Bukharin, three big, broad factions.
Lenin was able to manage a party where there was free-wheeling debate, there was not censorship, people could have differences and argument. Lenin frequently lost the vote in the politburo. He was not a dictator at all. He had no dictatorial or megalomaniacal feature. He made sure that the organization was a collective, even though it had decisive leadership. Afterwards, a lot of that spirit of leadership and the way leadership was conducted profoundly shifted, especially as the factions sort of started to fight it out following Lenin’s death.
ABBY MARTIN: Why did so many former prison nations of the Russian Empire end up joining the USSR?
BRIAN BECKER: That, too, was a battle between 1917 and 1922, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was actually proclaimed, during that five-year period. In every one of the former Russian republics, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan in the Caucuses, or Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Baltics, or in the southern places, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, all of these places became the point in which Communists and revolutionaries were fighting it out with landlords and political elites who were aligned with one or another of the invading imperialist armies. By the end of the day, by the end of that civil war which the Bolsheviks won, shockingly, because of their limited resources, wherever the working class party had the upper hand, they said, we want to be with the Soviet Union, but on the basis of mutual equality, not the old days when Russia was known as the Prison House of Nations under tsarism.
Thus, language rights were developed, social rights for those other non-Russian republics. In fact, the way the Soviet government was structured, and people don’t know this, is that there were two Soviets, two supreme Soviets. One was the Supreme Soviet of the Union, that was of the USSR, but then there was the Soviet of the Nationalities, meaning each of the nationalities had an equal vote within the Soviet of Nationalities. No law could become the law of the Soviet Union unless it was also agreed to by the Soviet of Nationalities, which meant smaller, non-Russian republics were given, essentially, a veto power over laws. That meant there could not be racist laws passed against them or laws that were detrimental to their own ethnic or national development. Nothing like that had ever been done by a modern government where oppressed nationalities and minority peoples had been given such a formal equality in the law.
ABBY MARTIN: You mentioned the state of Russia before the revolution, of course, widespread famine, devastation. What happened after the revolution? How did Russia change, and not just Russia, but non-Russian republics?
BRIAN BECKER: There’s two phases here. Between 1917 at the time of the Russian Revolution, November 7th, 1917 and 1920, everything got worse. During the years of civil war, a famine broke out, millions had died, there was nothing left economically. Many of the Communists had died, because they were the ones who rushed to the front to fight the imperialist invading armies. The factories were no longer working by 1920. There was an absence of energy.
In 1921, Lenin adopted a policy called the New Economic Policy or NEP. That policy was largely successful and the economy started to grow and grow and grow. If you fast-forward to the question of how was Russia impacted over the decades of socialist economic planning, that’s an important question because the conditions of life so improved for the people in Russia and in the other, what were formerly Russian Empire republics that had re-affiliated with Russia, we see the most dynamic social, economic, educational and cultural advances of almost any time period.
These were kind of the social gains of a revolution that did not have a capitalist class. In other words, instead of the capitalist class devouring or hoarding so much of the society’s wealth, that wealth was able to be used for social insurance programs, social welfare programs and for people who in the past had nothing.
ABBY MARTIN: You talk about the extreme and consistent economic growth, but at what cost?
BRIAN BECKER: We don’t want to try to pretend the Soviet Union was heaven on earth. It was a poor country. You also asked the question, at what cost? When you go from a country that’s 75 percent peasant in 1917 and become an urban industrial country within 20 years, a process that took 150 years in Germany and France and Britain and the United States, and you compress that into 20 years, when you have that kind of social reorganization of society, there’s going to be a lot of social tension, a lot of pressures on families and on individuals. It was, in some ways, as a consequence of its dynamism, also a fairly brutal process.
When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, they did not think the Socialist Revolution would happen in poor, underdeveloped countries. Nor did Lenin. Lenin always thought it would happen in Germany or France. He never expected the Russian Revolution to become the vanguard of the worldwide Socialist Revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were mainly fighting to end the monarchy in 1905 or 1910 or 1915. It was a consequence of World War I. As Lenin explained, the revolution happened not where the social conditions for socialism were really ripe, but where imperialism was weak. In other words, he said, we weren’t ready for socialism. He said, but we were the weakest link in the imperialist chain. It broke there.
The revolution broke it because of the war, so Russia had its revolution. When Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin, all of the leaders, looked out and saw the world in 1917 after the revolution. They said, we can win, but only if Germany has a socialist revolution so that we come to our aid. Lenin said, as soon as the advanced capitalist countries have their revolutions, the vanguard will be like looking to them. We’ll be looking to them for assistance, culturally, economically.
The other revolutions didn’t come. There was a revolution in Germany and in Hungary, it all happened in 1918, but the capitalists overcame it. They didn’t have a Bolshevik-type party capable of taking advantage of the revolution and seizing and holding power. The Soviet Union became isolated, so isolated, the most sanctioned, embargoed, blockaded country in the world. We know about the blockade in Cuba, the Soviet Union was completely blockaded.
This poor, illiterate country that had a war and then a civil war and famine had come back by 1920, nobody would trade with it. The worldwide capitalist powers said, we’re going to destroy it. We’re going to snuff it out. We’re going to strangle it. As a consequence, the Soviet Union had to develop on a basis of complete self-reliance on its own indigenous industry, rather than having the benefits of worldwide trade.
ABBY MARTIN: After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was declared the end of history, right? Socialism was tried and failed. Capitalism would rule to the end of time. As a socialist, what’s your response?
BRIAN BECKER: It’s a very important question because the hubris and arrogance of the apologists of imperialists and capitalism was at such a high point in 1991 and ’92, where they thought, or told the world, you see, socialism was tried. They conflated socialism with a government, the Soviet Union. It was tried in the Soviet Union and that government failed. That means socialism failed. Thus, history has stopped because we went from early primitive society, as they would call it, to feudal society to capitalist society, but this is it. Now we can live under the rule of billionaires, our crowning achievement as a species, we’ve made it. Billionaires will rule. History has shown that the other way isn’t going to happen.
Is that how people will remember the Soviet Union? I don’t think so. The Soviet Union will be looked at in history not as the end of communism, but as its first valiant experiment, that the flaws and defects that exist in the Soviet Union, and yes, there were many, were not the cause of a planned socialist economy or public property. They were caused by a torturous history, an environment domestically poor, underdeveloped, illiterate society, ravaged by civil war, invaded by 14 imperialist armies, embargoed and deprived technology, invaded by the Nazis and taking 27 million lives and destroying the economy.
That was the conditions under which this socialist experiment was conducted. It will be remembered as the first time the red flag was waved, where the working class, the poor, the oppressed, the people who are written off by all previous ruling classes, they said, we could remold society. They made a huge historic achievement to the 20th century. It will be, because we will learn its lessons, the sort of Petri dish where Communists and Socialists will learn from, not reject. In other words, the Soviet experiment must be embraced and respected as a huge monumental achievement, in spite of its defects and flaws.