The 1917 Russian Revolution was driven by a theory and practice of social change that if developed can help humanity find a way forward today.

Significant political and other legacies, notably cultural, outlive both Stalinism and the restoration of capitalism in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. This heritage needs rescuing from the outpouring of hostile propaganda in the mainstream media which even after a century still feels the need to condemn the revolution.

A crucial part of the legacy is  the theory of the state in capitalist society because this leads directly to the question of who has the power in society – and, conversely, who doesn’t. For example, would a Jeremy Corbyn-led government have real power or be subordinate to the powers of the state? If the latter, can the power of the present state be broken without revolution?

Few events change the course of world history but the Russian Revolution was one of them. Why? Because it was the first successful overthrow of capitalism by workers. It led to the dismantling of the existing state, Russia’s unilateral exit from World War One and inspired solidarity actions by workers everywhere.

Red Guards from the Vulkan factory in Petrograd

Vladimir Lenin was not simply an outstanding revolutionary leader. He was also a deep thinker, whose ideas form a valuable political heritage. No one could accuse him of being a dogmatist, that’s for sure. He always maintained that analysis was only as a good as the time it was made in.

Informing Lenin’s approach was the philosophical worldview put forward by Karl Marx and his collaborator and funder, Fred Engels. They had demonstrated that the working class, which had nothing to lose but its chains, was the force for change. In the Communist Manifesto, they showed how capitalism was but a stage in historical development and explained the contradictions within the system of production for profit.

Lenin took the proposition further with his theory of what kind of a party was needed to articulate this potential and overthrow capitalism in his seminal booklet, What is to be done? Models of modern forms of political organisations that could help shape the future are the subject of hot debate among activists today.

While in exile in Switzerland he made his own study of dialectical logic, drawing out the essence of the work of German philosopher Georg Hegel and this proved invaluable in analysing the complexities of Russia in 1917. Here was a mainly peasant country with the largest factories in Europe (50,000 in one works in St Petersburg), ruled by a feudal aristocracy presiding over a crumbling army that was facing defeat at the hands of German imperialism. Grappling with these contradictions and seeing within them the possibility of a socialist revolution was a huge philosophical leap of faith!

Karl Marx

Marx developed his original theory of the modern state following the Paris Commune of 1871, when for two months during the Franco-Prussian war workers seized power. An analysis of the Commune led Marx to conclude that the working class “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” but had to break up the existing machinery of rule.

The Communards created their own form of government, abolishing the standing army, putting the police under their control and dismantling the state bureaucracy. “Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune,” wrote Marx.

“It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

Marx added: “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.”

In the period following the Commune, Marx’s view of the state was rejected in practice by powerful German social democracy while it was simply ignored by other parliamentary parties. When World War One broke, all the parties of the second Socialist International committed themselves to the existing imperialist state powers and supported the financing of and prosecution of what was to become the bloodiest conflict in history.

In his book State and Revolution, Lenin expanded on Marx’s theory, writing:

“The exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation, i.e., in the selfish interests of an insignificant minority against the vast majority of all people. The exploited classes need political rule in order to completely abolish all exploitation, i.e., in the interests of the vast majority of the people, and against the insignificant minority consisting of the modern slave-owners — the landowners and capitalists.”

Vladimir Lenin addressing a rally in Moscow

As Lenin pointed, this analysis is “absolutely irreconcilable with reformism” which is dependent on the state supposedly taking a neutral position, being considered above society and class interests. Historical experience shows this not to be the case and a state-led attack on a radical Corbyn government would be absolutely inevitable.

In his unfinished book written on the eve of the revolution, Lenin asked that if parliamentarism – by which he meant a toothless body that was a cover for real power – was considered as one of the institutions of the state, what could replace it? Commune-type institutions, Lenin argued.

He added: “We cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions, but we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarism, if criticism of bourgeois society is not mere words for us, if the desire to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie is our earnest and sincere desire, and not a mere ‘election’ cry for catching workers’ votes.”

So the Constituent Assembly in Russia re-established after the overthrow of the Tsar in February was closed in favour of the power of the Soviets, through which workers, soldiers and peasants were represented. That, ultimately, power was wrested from the Soviets by the Stalinist bureaucracy in a counter-revolution in no way detracts from Lenin’s vision of real democracy.

In 508 BCE, Athenians rose up against their ruler and his allies, the Spartans, who had imposed dictatorial rule. After several days of bitter fighting, the regime was deposed and the Spartans left.  An earlier ruler was invited to return and in turn established the foundations of Greek democracy. So the idea and practice of revolution and rebellions is deeply rooted in the human condition and occurs with some regularity as this list shows.

It’s clear to many that we have entered a period of seemingly insoluble, unrelenting crisis in society that encompasses climate change, gross inequality, the threat of global conflict and authoritarian rule. In the UK, the deepening constitutional crisis over Brexit is part of a wider questioning of the status quo in countries around the world – from Spain to the USA. The situation is fraught with danger but also contains great opportunities.

Building on the theoretical and practical heritage of 1917 can help elaborate paths to a transition beyond capitalism in the era of advanced globalisation. The movement can develop an understanding about the role and purpose of the capitalist type of state and examine what combination of spontaneous resistance and co-ordinated strategy has the best chance of success.

With the odds shortening on a Corbyn-led government sooner rather than later, we need to widen the debate right now on what would confront it from day one. As a supporter of the Real Democracy Movement, I am going to a Planning Day on October 28, to start work on just this. Why don’t you join me?

You can find out more about “Towards the RDM – preparing for a Corbyn government” via info@realdemocracymovement.org and putting October 28 in the subject line.

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