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.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.