In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, books will be published, op-eds written, and programs broadcast about the dramatic events of 1917 and their impact on the 20th century.
In the mainstream media, few are likely to look at whether the “Ten Days that Shook the World,” when Lenin led the first successful socialist revolution, have helped shape the planet we live on today, or whether they retain the power to shake the world again in years to come.
The revolution will be presented as history – and socialist and communist ideas as done and dusted, dead and buried. How many of us have heard that socialism “doesn’t work,” that it was tried in Russia and it failed?
Of course, the revolution is part of history and it did shape the 20th century. In his book, The Age of Extremes, the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm even defined his “short 20th century” as 1914-1991, a period almost coterminous with the existence of the Soviet state.
The great events of the century all took place in the context of the global struggle between socialism and capitalism.
The rise of fascism was a ruling-class response to the threat of social revolution and the defeat of the Nazis would not have been possible without the heroic sacrifices made by communists – many of them soldiers in the Red Army, which “tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine,” to quote Winston Churchill – but also partisans and resistance fighters in every corner of occupied Europe.
The latter part of the century is held up in the text books as dominated by the “Cold War,” supposedly between the democratic West and the wicked and sinister communists.
A wider view, encompassing the titanic Third World battles against colonialism, paints a more complex picture.
The contributions of communists were again key as fighters in the front line of national liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, and many other countries. And the Soviet-led socialist camp was also a supporter of anti-colonial movements the world over, providing everything from diplomatic backing at the United Nations to cash and arms when needed.
To many Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans, the Soviet Union was a friend and ally against domination and exploitation by the so-called “free world.”
Much of this history is hidden. Children in our schools are not taught about the millions of victims of British imperialism during the Bengal famine of 1770, the “Malayan emergency,” or the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
To do so would undermine the myth of a benevolent, enlightened West playing the role of history’s good guys, standing up to the nefarious Reds.
Communists, liberals charge to this day, were guilty of terrible atrocities in Russia, China, and elsewhere. And there is of course no point in seeking to defend the indefensible when revolutionary governments had innocent blood on their hands.
But that is not the whole story of the later revolutions inspired by that of 1917, which also won tremendous achievements in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, spreading education and literacy to populations that were previously illiterate, and massively extending life expectancy through modern sanitation and free healthcare.
That’s not even mentioning the extraordinary cultural and scientific advances made in the Soviet Union, which sent the first human being into space.
The impact of the revolution was felt way beyond the socialist countries, who helped found the United Nations and define human rights by pushing for recognition of a universal right to shelter and food, for example, against opposition from the capitalist West.
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), offering healthcare to all free at the point of use, owes much to the inspiration of free healthcare in the Soviet Union, as does the welfare safety net put in place by the Labour government of 1945-51.
Since the triumph of neoliberal ideologies in Britain and the United States in the 1980s, we have seen a mammoth effort to undermine and dismantle our social security system, one which continues in the privatization of our NHS.
The social democratic compromise of the postwar period was always vulnerable; the interests of working people and the super-rich few who own the banks and the big businesses are simply not compatible. The collapse of socialism in eastern Europe removed the constant leftward pressure that kept social democracy in western Europe alive.
We have since seen a ruthless drive to marketize every service and exploit every natural, human, and social resource beyond remotely sustainable levels – capitalism, as Karl Marx once put it, weeping from every pore with blood and dirt.
If we don’t like the poverty and war that are synonymous with modern capitalism, we might think again whether those who say the Russian Revolution “failed” are right.
Certainly socialism came to an end in the Soviet Union and the eastern European countries in 1989-91, and there was a capitalist restoration. Yet, though the kings returned to Britain and France after their revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the liberating ideas those upheavals unleashed were not defeated but have borne fruit around the world ever since.
The overwhelming rejection of a tired, corrupt, and out-of-touch establishment we are seeing now in this country, across Europe, and in the United States, suggests that capitalism is not delivering and that it can again be challenged.
Revolutions don’t proceed according to instruction manuals, and the events of that October night in Russia a hundred years ago are not going to be replicated in London or Washington. But the experiences of the world’s first socialist country are of huge and continuing relevance.