The legacy of October 1917

To mark the centenary of the Russian revolution, Izquierda Revolucionaria (CWI Spain) has translated into Spanish John Reed’s classic book, Ten Days that Shook the World. In this introduction to the book, Peter Taaffe explains the significance of Reed’s account, the importance of the revolution, and its relevance today.


The Spanish publication of the great John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World could not come at a more fitting time than the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution. From the first to the last page it gives a gripping and pulsating account of the revolution, up to now the greatest single event in human history.

Although written 100 years ago, it answers all the lies and misinformation spewed out by capitalist commentators and historians about the events, and about the Bolshevik party and the revolution’s main leaders, in particular Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Without them the revolution would not have been carried through, as John Reed makes clear.

In the very first line of the preface, Reed writes: “This book is a slice of intensified history – history as I saw it. It does not pretend to be anything but a detailed account of the November [October in the old-style calendar] revolution, when the Bolsheviks, at the head of the workers and soldiers, seized the state power of Russia and placed it in the hands of the Soviet [workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils]”.

He points out that in the early stages the Bolshevik party was a “small political sect” with only 8,000 members after the February 1917 revolution. The Bolsheviks were so slandered – Lenin was a spy in the pay of the German high command, it was falsely claimed – that sailors threatened to bayonet Lenin on sight! The soviets were initially dominated by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.

The workers and peasants, particularly the ten million soldiers exhausted by the first world war, yearned for an end to the slaughter. In fact, war can often be the midwife of revolution, enormously speeding up events. Without this the Russian revolution may have developed over a more protracted period, similar to the Spanish revolution of 1931-37. The demands of the Russian masses were very simple: land, bread and freedom. But to the peasant in the fetid battlefield trenches what use was the promise of future land or freedom if he was to perish in the war? It was therefore necessary to put an end to the slaughter immediately. The same for the worker.

The mass disappointment and anger at the refusal of the ‘socialist’ ministers in the coalition governments after February to end the war – and with the reintroduction of capital punishment – was reflected in the revolt of the Petrograd workers in the ‘July days’. Similar events take place in all revolutions. The working class feels power falling from its grasp and comes onto the streets to force the leadership to complete the revolution.

The Barcelona working class acted likewise in May 1937, in an attempt to defeat the growing bourgeois/Stalinist counter-revolution. Had the left leaders acted decisively – in the POUM, for instance – together with the anarchist workers and youth, they could have taken power in Catalonia. This, in turn, would have spread to the rest of Spain and internationally.

The Bolsheviks opposed a premature uprising. Nevertheless, they put themselves at the head of the July movement in order to mitigate the damage and conserve their forces for the more decisive struggle to come. Leaders like Trotsky were imprisoned, and Lenin was forced into exile in Finland. Unbelievably, some bourgeois ‘historians’ today, from the safety of their studies, accuse Lenin of cowardice for this. But if he had remained in Petrograd there is no question that he would have been murdered by counter-revolutionary forces, just as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were following the failure of the Spartacus uprising in Germany in 1919.

Farsighted leadership

This would have beheaded the Russian revolution. In fact, just by recounting the events, John Reed’s book hammers home the crucial importance of the Bolshevik party and its politically astute and farsighted leadership. This was crystallised in the political role of Lenin and Trotsky. It was their policies and tactics at each turn which made the victory of the Russian workers possible.

Even during the February revolution, it was only Lenin in Switzerland and Trotsky in New York who saw it as the beginning of ‘the world socialist revolution’. Lenin’s erstwhile followers, the so-called old Bolsheviks of Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin – who were in Petrograd from early March 1917 – gave ‘critical support’ to the new provisional liberal-capitalist government. Subsequently, a coalition between the leaders of the workers and peasants at that stage – the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – was formed. Lenin demanded an absolute break with this policy: “No confidence, particularly in Kerensky”. (Kerensky went on to head the Provisional Government up to the October revolution.)

The masses were arriving at the same conclusions as Lenin, as John Reed makes clear when he quotes a Russian soldier: “We are at war with Germany. Would we invite German generals to serve on our staff? Well, we are at war with the capitalists and yet we invite them into our government… Show me what I’m fighting for. Is it Constantinople or a free Russia? Is it for democracy, or is it the capitalist plunderers? If you can prove to me that I am defending the revolution then I’ll go out and fight without capital punishment to force me”. In these simple words is the instinctive class opposition to all capitalist coalitions – yesterday and today – with the political representatives of the propertied classes.

After months, which seemed like years, of consistent capitalist sabotage, the prolongation of the war, attacks on the gains of the revolution, and threats against the Bolsheviks and the working class – all graphically described by John Reed – the Bolsheviks’ influence grew spectacularly among the working class, peasants and troops. This was particularly the case after the defeat of an attempted military coup by General Kornilov in August – the whip of counter-revolution which gave an enormous push to the process of revolution: “There must be no more Kornilovs… The Bolsheviks demanded that the All-Russia Congress of the Soviets take over power… Almost immediately the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet; the soviets of Moscow, Kyiv [Kiev], Odessa, and other cities followed suit”.

Then the compromisers (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) together with the ruling class “decided that, after all, they feared the dangers of Kornilov a lot less than the danger of Lenin”. They pursued a policy of procrastination and sabotage aimed at weakening and disarming the masses. But, as John Reed writes: “Meanwhile, the Congress of Soviets loomed over Russia like a thundercloud, shot through with lightning… A groundswell of revolt heaved and cracked the crust which had been slowly hardening on the surface of revolutionary fires dormant all those months before”.

Mass support for revolution

Then the Bolshevik Central Committee considered the question of carrying through a revolution, with the overwhelming majority of the masses behind them. John Reed gives numerous examples of that support for revolution, which readers will see for themselves was a genuine mass expression – not the conspiratorial ‘coup’ beloved of superficial bourgeois commentators.

The working class, peasantry and soldiers, who began to vote with their feet, embraced the revolution. However, as Reed reports: “The right wing of the Bolsheviks led by Riazanov, Kamenev and Zinoviev continued to campaign against an armed uprising”. Reed also reports that Lenin, taking up their objections, declared: “Either we must abandon our slogan, all power to the soviets, or else we must make an insurrection. There is no middle course”. Reed adds: “Alone of the intellectuals, Lenin and Trotsky stood for insurrection”.

The masses made their agreement with Lenin and Trotsky clear. A workman, “his face convulsed with rage, said: ‘I speak for the Petrograd proletariat… We are in favour of insurrection. Have it your own way, but I tell you now that if you allow the soviets to be destroyed, we’re through with you’. Some soldiers joined in and, after, the vote for insurrection won”.

Once the revolution was secured in Petrograd it spread, with some delay, to Moscow and elsewhere. John Reed describes in unforgettable language the taking of power: “Now Lenin, gripping the edge of the reading stand, letting his eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long rolling ovation which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he simply said: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order!’ Again that overwhelming human roar”.

Similar scenes of wild excitement and celebration broke out in the trenches as the masses hailed the end of the hated war – and in the factories where the workers were now the masters. Similarly, the peasants greeted the decision of the Soviet, which invited them to occupy and establish their ownership of the land.

John Reed relates a telling incident when a delegation of Cossacks, who in the past acted as a praetorian guard for the old regime, “came to the Smolny, the headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet, to see Trotsky and Lenin, and asked them: ‘Does the Soviet government intend to confiscate the estates of the great Cossack landowners and divide them among the working Cossacks?’ To which Lenin replied: ‘That is for you to do. We shall support the working Cossacks in all their actions’. They asked [General] Kaledin from the other side the same question about handing over the land to the working Cossacks, and he replied: ‘Only over my dead body’… A month later, seeing his army melt away before his eyes, Kaledin then blew out his brains”.

Through deeds, not just words, in this way the new democratic workers’ state cemented the ardent support of the overwhelming majority of the masses: “Army after army, fleet after fleet, sent deputations, ‘joyfully to greet the new government of the people’. In front of the Smolny one day I saw a ragged regiment just come from the trenches. The soldiers were drawn up before the great gates, thin and grey-faced, looking up at the building as if God was in it”.

From internationalism to isolation

So opened up a new glorious chapter for the working class and humanity worldwide. The Russian revolution detonated a series of revolutions in western Europe – Germany, Italy, Hungary – with reverberations in practically every country of Europe and on every continent.

In the midst of the upheavals in Russia, Trotsky took time out to discuss with John Reed about the international implications of the Russian revolution: “At the end of this war I see Europe recreated, not by the diplomats but by the proletariat. The Federated Republic of Europe – the (socialist) United States – that is what must be”. The Bolsheviks never perceived that ‘economically undeveloped’ Russia was ready for socialism by itself or in isolation.

From Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century, the beginning of socialism implied a higher productivity of labour than that reached by any country or continent under capitalism. This meant a higher level of production even than the US, the most developed capitalist country at the time. This was only possible on the basis of the world revolution – with Russia seen as the start, and as the weakest link in the chain of capitalism.

The revolution gave a mighty heave, with the working class of Europe, and to some extent the US, pushing in the direction of their Russian brothers and sisters – inspired by the ten days that shook the world. They were checked not primarily by the strength of capitalism but by the betrayals of their own ‘social democratic’ mis-leaders who refused to follow in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks and the policies of Lenin and Trotsky. The isolation of the Russian revolution was the product of their cowardice.

Stalinist betrayal

Thrown back largely onto its own resources, Russia became a beleaguered outpost, necessitating the rationing of scarce goods. This ultimately led to the development of a bureaucratic stratum, reflected in the victory of Stalin whose rise personified this process. The growth of the bureaucracy was a conservative drag on Russia and the planned economy which had issued from the revolution. It also meant the loss of a series of favourable opportunities for the working class to take power, including the potential for successful revolution in Germany in 1923. It led to the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27.

By the early 1930s this bureaucratic caste feared that the hot flames – for instance, from the Spanish revolution – would not only threaten capitalism but the grip of Stalinism in Russia itself. If the Spanish revolution had succeeded – and the immortal working class initially defeated General Franco’s fascist coup and conquered four-fifths of the country – the European and world revolution would have been back on the agenda.

Almost to a man and woman, the Spanish capitalists fled to the side of Franco leaving behind their political shadows. It was the false policies of the leaderships of the different workers’ organisations – above all, the Communist Party – which allowed this shadow to acquire substance: the reconstruction of the shattered capitalist state and the defeat of the magnificent Spanish proletariat.

It was not the only revolution to be derailed in the 20th century. In 1968, the French workers staged the greatest general strike in history with ten million workers coming out and occupying the factories. The Portuguese revolution in 1974 saw the taking over of the banks and put 70% of industry in the hands of the state. The British Times concluded that in Portugal “capitalism is dead”. This was premature, however, because the Socialist Party, the radical army officers and the Communist Party were unable to cement this victory through democratic workers’ control and management.

New movements

The onset of a deep-going world economic crisis, beginning in 2007/08 – which capitalism has not fully recovered from – has opened up a new period of social and political instability as the opposition of the working class and the youth has grown. A new language for the mass movement has taken shape, with Bernie Sanders in the US in favour of a ‘political revolution’.

Unfortunately, he did not extend this to social and economic revolution without which real change is not possible. But the attacks of Donald Trump have spurred a new series of mass movements, particularly of the working class and young people who are once more searching for a socialist and revolutionary road in the US and worldwide.

The heat lightning flashes of the upheavals to come in Europe and the US were shown by the North African and Middle East revolutions in 2011. They failed because of the absence of the one ingredient that was present and vital for the success of the Russian revolution: a mass Marxist party with a farsighted leadership, basing itself on the movement of the working class and able to lead it to power.

It is Izquierda Revolucionaria in Spain, together with the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is assembling the nucleus of the kind of party which did guarantee victory to the working class in Russia. We call on all workers and youth, and organisations looking for socialist change, to join with us in celebrating the mighty events of the Russian revolution 100 years ago. But also to prepare the forces now that will carry out the same task in Europe and the world.

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October 2017