One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we ask:
What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to us today?
Their responses are collected below.
Lars T. Lih
Author of Lenin (2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (2006). Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.
In 1917, Russian elite society committed suicide. The educated elites were fanatically committed to a war that was in the most direct sense indefensible: it could not be justified in terms that the Russian people (narod) would accept. The people had reluctantly obeyed orders when the centuries-old traditional government demanded it, but after February the tsar abdicated not only for himself but also (as it turned out) for his entire dynasty, thus leaving Russia suddenly without any source of legitimate authority (vlast).
The continuing war meant that the elite could not restore order in the usual repressive way nor could they refrain from further alienating the people. In these circumstances, ‘All Power [vlast] to the Soviets!’ meant ‘using the forces of the people to do the job the elite is failing to do’ – namely, respond to the national crisis in a way favourable to the great mass of the people (workers, peasants, urban lower classes).
As we might expect, taking on this task led to mistakes, absurdities, and outright crimes. Today, looking back, we should not focus so exclusively as we do on the crimes and absurdities, but rather appreciate the huge dimensions of the challenges handed to the new and untried regime, and the often admirable energy and creativity shown in responding to them.
Socialist writer and campaigner. Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire.
The Russian Revolution did something cheered by millions across the world: it pulled Russia out of the First World War, and so ended the senseless carnage which had dominated the previous three years. That alone could be its legacy, as a beacon of peace. But it did so much more. It showed that working people – uneducated, oppressed, many illiterate – could run society and that they could do so much better than their supposed superiors.
The revolution opened up new ways of thinking, acting and organising. It made a lasting mark on the music, cinema, theatre, art and literature of the 20th century. It developed new ideas about education, architecture and science. It helped to map out a new world for women, organising to ensure that they had a role outside of the oppressive family and that the drudgery of housework was shared collectively.
That it didn’t succeed in the long run was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. Beleaguered by imperial intervention, war and famine, increasingly dominated by a small and repressive bureaucracy, the working class which made the original revolution defeated, it was eventually lost. But it remains an inspiration for those of us fighting against war and capitalism today, and a reminder that working people who produce the wealth can run society in the interests of all.
Something happened; a leap into the future. Workers, equipped with their own forms of self-government, proved that they could take power. They could rule, chaotically and disputatiously. They could reverse, in a split historical second, the evils of nationalism, world war, feudal tyranny and capitalist exploitation.
And then, in another blink of the historical eye, it was gone, consummated in barbarism. The final disintegration of the USSR confirmed a long-standing defeat, inscribing it in a drastically narrowed historical horizon. That has cut the Left off from a strategic memory, connecting present to utopian future. Our link to this loss now is perplexity, and thwarted mourning, as much as history.
The Russian Revolution and its fate constitutes an unresolved question for us. Germinal, hopeful movements arising in the interstices of today’s capitalist crises are yet far from constituting the kind of threat to capitalism once represented by mass socialist movements linked to insurgent labour movements.
Recovering that scale of organisation, vision and strategic calculation cannot mean indulging an October Reenactment Society. But for a long time, Cold War exigencies occluded the necessary confrontation with this agonising historical defeat, its causes and consequences. A lucid, non-defensive working through – begun in China Miéville’s October – is long overdue.
Paul Le Blanc
Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. Author of October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917-1924 (2017) and Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990).
As Jean-Paul Sartre once said of Marxism, we have not gone beyond the circumstances that engendered it: a globalizing capitalism animated by a voraciously creative/destructive dynamic, creating possibilities of meaningful community and freedom while generating and deepening oppression and exploitation in innumerable ways, proletarianising (and re-proletarianising in new ways, over and over again) labouring majorities throughout the world.
In contrast to recent efforts seeming to promise liberating breakthroughs (Syriza, Brazilian Workers Party, etc.), what Rosa Luxemburg emphasized in 1918 remains true: ‘Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world,’ placing on the agenda ‘the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism,’ advancing ‘mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world.’
We must approach what happened with critical minds, absorbing the lessons in a manner relevant to quite different contexts of our own times (in the manner of Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci). The missing piece for us is an international working-class movement animated with a socialist consciousness – our task in each of our countries is to help forge such a reality once again.
Assistant professor at the European University, St. Petersburg. Senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Author of The History of Animals: A Philosophy (2012).
Contemporary society is obsessed with the idea of change. On the one hand, capitalism constantly transforms itself through dynamic technological developments; on the other, the structure of social relations remains the same: the wealthier are the top of a global pyramid of capital, the poorer are the bottom. Today, when capital is represented by transnational corporations and the part of labour is undertaken not only by migrants or populations of poor countries, but, as the protest movements of recent years proved, by 99% of people even in the wealthiest states of the US and Western Europe, the idea of Revolution becomes more than relevant.
The Russian revolution is a historical event that demonstrates that a radical transformation of an entire social structure is possible, and that the will of the people can intervene, break with a status quo and become a real agency of a historical process that could be turned towards reason. But it also shows, with the experience of its failure, that such a transformation is not stable, that there is an inertia, and things tend to return to their ‘natural’ state of inequality and unfreedom. To overcome this inertia, revolutions like this must happen again and again.
Teacher and author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917.
Women have been almost entirely written out of the Russian Revolution but they were central to the revolutionary process. Women faced hardship, exile and execution to claim an equal role in the construction of revolutionary organisation in Russia. Women ignited the February Revolution of 1917 when they celebrated International Women’s Day with strikes which spread and deepened.
Throughout that summer, women in Petrograd’s factories and beyond joined the movement fighting for economic and political change. Protests by soldiers’ wives intensified the growing opposition to the war. Women members of the Bolshevik Party created new ways to reach working women, including the hugely successful Rabotnitsa newspaper.
Within weeks of the October Revolution, civil marriage was legalised, divorce was made easy, distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children were abolished and equal pay laws were passed. Abortion was legalised in 1920. A new organisation led by Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai was launched to empower women. Attempts were made to provide collective alternatives to the work which enslaved women in the privatised nuclear family.
The appalling conditions which prevailed in Russia meant that these aspirations could not be realised. However, the Russian Revolution gives us an inspiring glimpse of how, through socialist revolution, women can achieve liberation.
When Leon Trotsky eventually returned to Russia from exile in the United States, having been held by the British en route, he headed straight for the Petrograd Workers’ Council. His first speech to the body he had chaired in the 1905 revolution made three points: never trust the bourgeoisie, always hold your leaders to account, rely only on your own strength. Those lessons have echoed through the 100 years since the Russian Revolution as a brilliantly concise summary of all that made the revolution possible.
The revolution still commands our attention as the highest peak that working class struggle has yet reached: the successful overthrow of capitalism and a decade long attempt to build a socialist society. One other central lesson of that experience should also be recalled today. It was Lenin who most fully embodied it, but Trotsky again best expressed it in his The Lessons of October: ‘Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the last decade…We have paid too dearly for this conclusion…to renounce it so lightly or even to minimise its significance’.
John Eric Marot
Author of The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (2012). Lecturer at Keimyung University, Korea.
Socialist activists in developed capitalist countries can learn much from the history of the workers’ movement in Russia leading up to and including the October Revolution. Principally, they will learn that the success of revolutionary socialists in Russia, and the defeat of their counterparts in the West, laid the basis for the ‘Leninist’ view of the party. This view held that the mass-reform party and the advanced-revolutionary party could not be permanently combined. The ‘vanguard’ party would be recruiting and organizing workers with a revolutionary world view, enabling them to collectively develop their own understanding, to analyse past experience, and to prepare for the future with non-revolutionary workers by systematically engaging in joint activity with them – ‘united’ fronts – in order to develop their consciousness, to struggle with them and, in the very process of struggle, win them over to a revolutionary perspective.
With respect to the history of the workers’ movement in Russia after the October Revolution, socialist activists can learn nothing. This is because the material foundations to socialism in Russia were lacking in 1917. Consequently, that history cannot teach any ‘lessons’ to activists living where the material basis for socialism does exist – in developed capitalist countries.
Reader in Philosophy and Art Theory at the University of Wolverhampton. Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Author of Rex Exsomnis, Sleep and Subjectivity in Capitalist Modernity (2012).
I keep thinking about this very important question, due to my own biographical background, inseparably linked to the Moscow left-wing activist, artistic and theoretical scene. Of course, the vicissitudes of the USSR under Stalin, then the Cold War and final collapse of ‘real socialism’ made very obscure the meaning of the October revolution, if we leave aside the stereotypical praising mantras of various cohorts of the left sectarians.
I think the relevance of the 1917 was also overshadowed by the ‘May 68’ event that glorified what was rather marginal in the October revolution and the early Soviet avant-garde. I mean the ‘micro-politics’ of everyday, anti-Oedipal uprising against authority, ‘liberation of desire’, anti-disciplinary attitudes, etc. This event paved the way for further incorporation of this ‘micro-politics’ into governmental apparatus of advanced consumption and into the identitarian ‘life-styles’ that were made absolutely domesticated and became impotent politically, over the last decades. The outstanding Soviet Marxist thinkers, such as Mikhail Lifshitz and Evald Ilyenkov, produced a penetrating and powerful critique of ‘la pensée 68’ in the 1960s and 1970s, following Lenin’s critique of the ‘ultra-leftism’s infantile disorder’.
Meanwhile, the 1917 event was just tremendous. Never before or after was a group of communist activists and intellectuals able to seize real power and use its transformative capacities over a sixth of the territory of the globe, to break all the rules and conventions of oppressive bourgeois order, and to create an unheard of union of the ‘Socialist Republics’. This event opened a dazzling field of experimentation, and it created, I would claim, a whole new social ontology.
I think that Boris Groys’ hypothesis about the purely ‘linguistic’ nature of the Soviet society – similar to Plato’s ‘State of philosophers’, ruled not by ideological dogmas but by the force of paradox – is not an exaggeration. Moreover, the October revolution created enormously fruitful possibilities for radical philosophy. Actually, if you read some of the texts of late Soviet thought, the best of them are all about very ‘speculative’ questions such as: what is the ontological status of the ideal? What is the distant future of the liberated communist humanity that will be struggling not with the banal and ridiculous bourgeoisie but with the approaching cosmic entropy? And you should keep in mind that all this happened in a State established by militant materialism. Only after the full victory of materialism were philosophers finally able to talk properly about these problems.
So we still need to excavate all these theoretical treasures from the ruins left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and get rid of the enormous amount of theoretically mediocre works by so-called ‘experts’, produced during that period. Then the meaning of the October event will be time and again relevant for the present and for the future, as we don’t have anything else comparable in the past.
 However, there were some interesting recent statements. For example, it was Alain Badiou who provocatively argued that the Revolution was the second great revolution after the Neolithic one – and this grandiose perspective doesn’t seem an exaggeration. See: Alain Badiou, ‘On the Russian Revolution of October 1917’, www.versobooks.com/blogs/3325-on-the-russian-revolution-of-october-1917.
 See, for example, Ewald Ilyenkov’s ‘Cosmology of the Spirit’, the English translation is forthcoming in the journal Stasis, 2, 2017.