1917 Russian Revolution: What the world has lost


It has been 96 years since Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades overthrew the provisional government of the Russian Empire. It has been 22 years since the Soviet Union, the creation of the Bolshevik Revolution, collapsed and broke into pieces, and full-blast, dog-eat-dog capitalism was restored.

We may ask "what has the human race gained? What has it lost?"

From the fall of Soviet and European socialism, it has gained nothing, and it has lost much.

Yes, the old Soviet Union had a lot of problems; its leaders made mistakes, and some even committed crimes. Those of us who are working for socialism should study those carefully; the socialist states would not have collapsed merely from outside pressure.

To understand the points at which different choices might have been made that could have preserved and improved Soviet and Eastern European socialism is a massive task requiring much study and careful scientific analysis. Flip answers not based on such study and analysis should be avoided. I don't read Russian or any of the other languages of the old Soviet Union and do not have access to Soviet government archives or those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So for me to pontificate on the "reasons Soviet and European socialism collapsed" would be an act of of gross immodesty.

But I follow developments in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America closely, as well as the class struggle here within the United States and in other developed capitalist countries. And on the basis of that, I can state with sad confidence that the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialism was a disaster for humanity.

Ideologically, it opened the door for a prolific growth of aggressive and selfish individualism. Numerous political and ideological leaders in the "West" used the demise of socialism to "prove" that human beings are incorrigible. The idea of social solidarity was, and continues to be, ridiculed. Discredited reactionary ideas of people like Ayn Rand took on a new life. "Look out for number one" replaced "look out for your comrades and neighbors." The goal became, not to create a better community for all, but to get more stuff. Those, in the former socialist countries, who object to this are accused in the bourgeois media of being "nostalgic."

The working class, instead of capitalist exploiters, suddenly was being blamed for everything that went wrong. Workers were not exploited enough under socialism, went the refrain. This was soon "remedied" by a horde of instant Russian billionaires.

The supposed non-viability of socialism is used by right-wing politicians in the United States to oppose any effort to improve the lives of ordinary people. This has created new forms of red-baiting, against anybody who tries to achieve modest improvements in the lives of poor and working class people. "That's communism! They tried that in Russia and it was a disaster!"

Working class people in the former socialist states saw an immediate impact on their living standards and on the more intangible aspects of their quality of life. Many, many first hand testimonials have been published about this. Social supports and cultural institutions of high quality were destroyed, abandoned or privatized. Even the old landholding nobility in some European countries came thronging back from exile, demanding that their palaces, castles and estates be returned to them.

The disappearance of the Soviet Union and its allies led to dire situations in poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many of them had been trying to develop their economies with massive aid from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and other European socialist states. Thousands of students from poor countries were studying in the universities in the Soviet Union and its socialist partners.

When the Soviet and European socialism collapsed, much of this aid was cut off or sharply reduced. The ideologues of the right in the new Russia tried to portray the countries which the socialist states had been helping as feckless moochers.

This forced poorer countries to go hat in hand to the wealthy capitalist states, to transnational corporations, and to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for trade agreements and financial help. There were strings attached, namely the acceptance of what came to be called the "neo-liberal" or Washington consensus package: "Free" trade rigged in favor of the wealthy countries and corporations, privatization of public enterprises and services, austerity that deprived the people of jobs and education and health services that are a matter of life or death. And when people in poor countries become restive, there is NATO and "humanitarian intervention."

But we have not yet seen the "end of history". All over the world, the Marxist ideas that inspired the Bolshevik Revolution still animate the struggles of millions. And in Latin America and other places, new forms of struggle for socialism are gaining strength every day.

The hope of a world based on solidarity and progress that was embodied in the Revolution of November 7, 1917 is the same that moves millions today. It will bring victory.


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  • Responding to your thoughtful and valuable comments.
    1. Thank you all for commenting.
    2. The analysis of the why of the collapse of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe is no simple matter. It requires access to information most of us don't have, including huge numbers of economic and political documents in the archives of the Communist Part of the USSR, the other CP's in the area, the Soviet government and the other socialist governments. This requires, to be adequately mined and analyzed, mastery of Russian and other relevant languages, which I don't have. I am chary of people who come up with "quick and easy" explanations not based on either personal knowledge or scholarship of any kind.
    3. Green Left should reflect on the fact, though, that what we do have access to shows that many people in Russia and the other former socialist countries now are willing to say that "things were better then", often listing job and personal security and a greater sense of community solidarity of things they miss about socialism. Definitely all bad; also, the socialist period should not be conflated with the period of Josef Stalin's rule, which the ruling class likes to do for propaganda purposes.
    4. Cuba, Vietnam and other still existing socialist states were subjected to even more ferocious outside attacks than was the USSR, yet there they are still. So to say or suggest that the USSR, etc. collapsed merely because of outside pressure from imperialism does not make sense to me. The USSR fought and defeated the Nazis, who invaded it and destroyed over 700 towns and villages in Belarus alone (then the Byelorussian SSR). It did not collapse then; why later? That is the question that needs to be answered (and no, I don't believe that if Stalin had lived to be 150 years old, all would have been well).

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 11/18/2013 9:02pm (2 years ago)

  • I don't see how those of us who lived through the long "red scare" of the "cold war" and the undeniable collateral damage it did to all progressive movements around the world can simply describe the defeat of socialism as "the collapse of socialism." We know that there were internal contradictions but we know more about the imperialist aggression that continued unabated until the Soviet Union fell during the leadership of Gorbachev and company. Socialism didn't fail, it was defeated and betrayed.
    Now what? Where do we go from here? And what about China and Cuba? China is a huge part of the world and the Communist Party there is the ruling party. So how is it that one ignores China? Obviously I have more questions than answers.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 11/13/2013 3:44pm (2 years ago)

  • The present writer submitted considerable comment on 11/12/13, that seems somehow lost.
    Thanks to brother Emile Schepers for this excellent contribution and positive and true sentence which ends it.
    However, what the piece seems to under-estimate is the powerful methodology of Marxism, namely its historical materialism as a method of inquiry.
    The great American historian W. E. B. Du Bois and his buddy the great Renaissance Man, cultural anthropologist and linguist, Paul Leroy Robeson, heralded this methodology along with the Russian, V. I. Lenin(who struggled with English) in explaining the events surrounding the Revolution of 7 November 1917, which Du Bois resoundingly supported. This event proved to be critical in saving the whole of humanity from Nazi fascism of the'30s and '40s.
    Speaking of Lenin and the scores and scores of linguists, analysts, communists and Marxists, like our own American Harvardite, John Reed, who had his book, Ten Days That Shook the World, introduced by Lenin, we can safely conclude that there is a collective opinion among many communists and non-communists, that would agree with brother Schepers, that the 7 Nov. 1917 Revolution has and will bring more progress to humankind.
    Our Negro giant Robeson, who mastered Russian from the Balto-Slavic family of languages along with languages of the Celtic and Italic language branches, loved the people of Russia, their history, their culture and the best of what was "lost" of the Bolshevik Revolution. Robeson discovered many inter-relations among and between languages of humanity, sharing this discovery generously with the whole of humanity-for socialism and communism.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/13/2013 3:19pm (2 years ago)

  • Unfortunately, you are right with regard to capitalism and the rampant corruption of politics in the United States. Endless wars, military occupation of many countries, the use of drones to recruit terrorists by slaughtering innocents abroad and to monitor the activities of citizens at home, the privatization of prisons, and the political control of ethnic minorities by severely limiting their voting rights. Add to this the belittling of, mocking of and lying about our brilliant President because of his Afro-American heritage, shows the inherent racism of his opponents. That the latter lie about his Affordable Care Act to deny the people their right to health protection is incredibly inhumane. Apparently, the majority of his opponents are psychopathic, with neither conscience nor regret.
    From the foregoing it is obvious that the objective of the self-anointed Conservatives (Destroyers) is to catapult our beloved country back to medieval times, wherein the Destroyers are the Nobles and we the Peasants.

    Posted by Robert, 11/13/2013 10:26am (2 years ago)

  • One interesting trend in today's world not mentioned here is that China, which has yet to officially reject Communism, continues to beat the capitalists at their own game. And the former KGB man Putin refuses to be a puppet of a hegemonic United States.

    Posted by John Whiskey, 11/13/2013 1:30am (2 years ago)

  • Think what F. Engels would have said. What did he say after the 1848 revolts, or after the 1871 Paris Commune, or what he predicted after he knew that WW1 was coming? That the working class would stand on higher ground! Let's not forget that.

    Posted by Joseph, 11/12/2013 9:45pm (2 years ago)

  • Thank you, Emile, for the reminder the severe losses suffered by working people around the world from the loss of the Soviet Union. We remember the Soviet Union for the material support that they gave to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements everywhere. The Soviet Union was also a restraining force preventing imperialist wars.

    Yes, we need to study the mistakes that allowed terrible crimes and ended in the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union. But I think we must also learn from the massive positive experience of building socialism that raised hundreds of millions of people from illiteracy and poverty up to a decent standard of living.

    Karl Marx and the movement he led honored and learned from the Paris Commune. As far as I know, and I am not a scholar of Marxism, he never said we should use the Paris Commune as a model. But we can learn from and be inspired by it. I think the same idea applies to the history of the the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.

    Posted by Beatrice Lumpkin, 11/12/2013 9:43pm (2 years ago)

  • A stellar piece of work. Thanks, Emile, for clearly depicting how history has played out to this point since the forced collapse of the Soviet Union.

    I see young people today--inheritors of bad economic policy, bad faith, and worse prospects--as an inspirational force for change.

    Posted by Kelly Sinclair, 11/12/2013 9:15pm (2 years ago)

  • i just reread this article for the 3rd or 4th time. what a thoughful, factual, nuanced and ulitmately hopeful presentation! thank you for writing this emile schepers!

    Posted by Barbara Chicago, 11/12/2013 6:29pm (2 years ago)

  • I would say that we have had varying degrees of socialism in different countries depending on their respective, historical characteristics...and unfortunately on how far Stalinism could reach those countries.

    Tragically, the USSR was its "home base." Tragically, this and consistent capitalist aggression were two, obvious negative factors.

    A tragic irony: In the name of "socialism," Stalinism actually gave ammunition to the capitalist camp's propaganda during the Cold War, precisely because of its political/economical deformities.

    However, I get the feeling that the USSR will become resurrected into a much better form for the practice of socialism. It's a matter of time.

    Posted by revolution123, 11/12/2013 6:12pm (2 years ago)

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