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Ninetieth anniversary of the October Socialist Revolution
history and heritage |
Thursday November 01, 2007 22:03 by Sean - Edwards cpoi at eircom dot net James Connolly House, 43 East Essex St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. 01 6708707
In response to a number of comments in relation to the Communist Party of Ireland's celebration of the Ninetieth anniversary of the October Socialist Revolution both on the internet and in the print media on what we might or might not say about events pertaining to the revolution and subsequent developments we have poster the speech delivered by Eugene Mc Cartan, to a packed meeting in Liberty Hall on Friday 26th October
Ninetieth anniversary of the October Socialist Revolution
Speech by Eugene McCartan, general secretary, CPI,
at a meeting to celebrate the Russian Revolution,
Liberty Hall, Dublin, 26 October 2007
Over the last few day the Irish and international media have carried articles denouncing the Russian Revolution, proclaiming that it was one of the greatest mistakes and disasters that befell the human race since the dawn of history. The Irish Times had an appalling feature article in yesterday’s paper by some US academic, who is a right-wing neo-con. She is presented as some disinterested, objective academic, which she clearly is not.
It is a strange phenomenon that the establishment media should waste so much valuable advertising space dealing with an ideology that they claim is dead and no longer relevant. I have been told there is at least one book a month published in the United States alone on the Soviet Union and Stalin. Of the many books on the subject, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between pseudo-left and right critics.
Sections of the Irish media have contacted us, wanting to know why we are celebrating this historic event. “Surely that is all dead and gone, and you lost.” I even received e-mail from people on the left stating that it should be a commemoration and not a celebration, implying that it is a chapter of history to be left alone and quietly forgotten.
I am sure if I stood up here before you and said, Yes, it was all a bad mistake, and apologised on behalf of the CPI it would make a brief two-line piece in the national media. But I will not be saying anything of the sort but attempting to explain and understand what happened, what was the balance of forces, the internal and external conditions. The establishment is attempting to corral communists and put them on the back foot in regard to our history and to present us as apologists for gulags, labour camps, famines, etc. To try to understand why things happen is absolutely necessary if we are to learn lessons from history. That does not make you an apologist. The past shapes the present and the future, as our actions of today shape tomorrow.
Not alone are we celebrating here in Ireland but we know that many millions of workers around the world will celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, when the Russian working class took power under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Those momentous events released forces, aspirations and demands across the world that imperialism globally, and the political establishment here in Ireland, are still to this day attempting to roll back and defeat.
To the press and all the academics we have this to say. In 1917 tens of thousands of Irish workers came out in solidarity with the workers of Russia. Thousands of Dublin workers were mobilised by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions; the workers of Limerick established their own “Limerick Soviet”; workers in Waterford attempted the same; and thousands of workers occupied creameries and factories around the country, raising the Red Flag, as workers did in many countries, like a red thread across the world. No, we are not ashamed but rather we are proud of the October Revolution.
The Russian Revolution heralded the dawn of a new era, when the exploitation of one person by another ended and a new mode of social development burst forth. It gave concrete expression to the long-held aspirations and demands of workers around the world, including Ireland. The young Soviet state gave rights and opportunities only dreamed of and aspired to but long denied workers in the most advanced capitalist countries then and even now: the five-day week, the forty-hour week, maternity leave, equality for women, access to culture, education, and universal literacy.
The October Socialist Revolution matured and developed inside the Russian empire, one of the most backward and least economically and culturally developed parts of Europe. It was also the weakest link in the chain of imperialism. The October Revolution gave birth to a new mode of social development, diametrically opposed to that of capitalism.
Russia was an impoverished country, racked by the slaughter of the First World War, invaded by foreign powers, suffering a deep and bitter civil war. We know from our own history of the deep divisions and the hurt that our own Civil War caused and how long its effects lasted. We can multiply that many times over to get some impression of the viciousness and trauma of the Civil War in Soviet Russia. Many thousands died, including some of the best and most politically advanced working-class leaders, who died on the battlefield. It was truly a fight to the death. From that cauldron the Soviet Union emerged as the counterweight to global imperialism.
While many in the political establishment and in national and international academic circles have proudly proclaimed the “end of history” and the complete victory of capitalism over socialism, the actual experience of working people around the globe points in the opposite direction. Despite these continuing efforts, the establishment has not been able to completely write out of history this most important event, which shaped the course of the twentieth century and continues to influence and shape our world. Why else would the establishment be telling us it is dead and gone?
The world in which socialism emerged in Russia was one in which the European empires, as well as the United States, dominated and controlled the lives of hundreds of millions of people, where people’s rights and freedoms meant nothing to their imperial masters. The peoples of Europe had just experienced the slaughter of millions in a war between the imperial powers for domination in Europe—a war in which tens of thousands of Irishmen died; a futile imperialist war.
The infant Soviet state was invaded by fifteen foreign powers. These were the same powers that had only recently sacrificed millions of their own citizens, now coming together in their common class interests in their efforts to smash the Bolsheviks and roll back the Revolution—as Winston Churchill put it, to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle.” Their very action showed clearly how seriously and how threatening the establishment throughout the world took the events of October 1917.
From the triumph of the revolution to the day that Yeltsin took the Red Flag down from the Kremlin, the Soviet Union experienced hot and cold wars, threats and subversion; but despite it all, the Soviet Union was built and endured up to its destruction by imperialism and its internal allies.
We have to take account of a number of facts when trying to understand both the revolution and subsequent events in the Soviet Union. The Russian working class numbered less than two million in 1917. The vast majority of the population were serfs or peasants. Social development ranged from a small industrial working class and a vast peasantry, tens of millions of illiterate people, to communal tribal societies in the north and clan systems in the Caucasus and nations influenced by the Islamic religion and culture. It contained within its borders many languages, cultures, and nations. It was a seething mass of poverty, exploitation, and national oppression.
The first workers’ state set about developing and building a new society, free of exploitation, one where the wealth was owned and controlled by those who produced it. It gave land to those who worked it, food to those who needed it, shelter to those who required it, and equality to those denied it.
The Soviet Union instituted free universal education at all levels and free health care at all levels—a situation not reached in Ireland, nor in many developed capitalist countries, even today. The Soviet Union, through the strength of a socialist planned economy, developed some of the most underdeveloped and neglected parts of the old Russian empire. It granted equality among the various nations and peoples within its borders, but clearly not without shortcomings and contradictions.
Outside Soviet Russia the October Revolution gave hope and renewed energy to trade unions, workers’ organisations and their political parties around the world. They gained strength and renewed vigour and became a powerful example of a potential new world that could be shaped and controlled by working people.
Today many workers throughout the developed capitalist world who secured the long-cherished demands of the labour movement because of the very existence of the Soviet Union are now experiencing renewed attacks on those gains. Since the counter-revolution and the deliberate dismantling of socialism in the Soviet Union, workers in the developed capitalist countries are now seeing their own gains under sustained attack, including the eight-hour day, forty-hour week, job security, pensions, retirement and security in old age, as well as shelter and many other social provisions. The unseen and unrecognised Soviet workers were in fact the guarantors of our economic and social advances.
Not alone did the defeat of the Soviet Union herald renewed attacks on workers but it also dealt a significant blow to those forces struggling against US domination and aggression around the world. This has created a vacuum that forces not of a progressive nature are now attempting to fill. For many decades the Soviet Union held the imperialist powers in check and attempted to curb their actions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Today there is no-one to check imperialist aggression.
Yes, sometimes there were contradictions in their policy, but nothing is ever static, and the balance of priorities needs to be considered.
The Soviet Union presented a benchmark for movement upwards in the provision of economic and social rights that capitalism had to address and take note of. Today, sadly, China is presented by monopoly capitalism as the benchmark for movement downwards and for the surrendering of many advances and gains made by workers around the world.
Today, renewed efforts are being made to equate fascism and communism as “twin evils.” We reject this gross distortion of history. We honour the communist and other left forces that took the lead in the opposition to fascism in Europe, a period when many in the establishment throughout Europe encouraged and even supported fascism in its drive to smash workers’ organisations as well as to destroy the Soviet Union. Fascism was and remains the last line of defence of capitalism.
The Soviet Union bore the heaviest losses in the fight against and eventual defeat of German fascism and Japanese militarism during the Second World War, losing more than twenty million people in the struggle—a victory for which all the peoples of the world owe it a debt. Three-quarters of Nazi losses were on the Eastern Front.
With that victory the Soviet Union emerged as a powerful opponent of war and imperialism. That victory and its strength gave a new momentum to the forces struggling to end centuries of colonialism, forces that became unstoppable in the struggle for national liberation by oppressed nations and peoples all over the world.
Throughout the world the Soviet Union provided political, military, economic, educational and moral support to the masses fighting for their freedom and economic and social development. The oppressed nations no longer needed to rely solely upon imperialism. The Soviet Union, despite its many weaknesses, became a source of capital investment and made possible an alternative path for development to that offered by imperialism, with its use of neo-colonialism and its myriad of chains and strings attached to its aid.
Throughout the twentieth century the Soviet state provided material, military and political support to Republican Spain, rebuilt eastern Europe after the Second World War, aided revolutionary and anti-colonialist forces in Africa, and supported the revolution in China, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau and the revolutionary forces in South Africa.
The workers’ movement in Europe split in 1914 on support for or opposition to the war in Europe along the pro and anti-imperialist fault line—a fault line that still divides the workers’ movement around the world but particularly here in Europe.
Socialism emerged, was established and built not in an advanced capitalist country, as was envisaged by Marx and Engels, where the productive forces would be most developed, where the relations of production had matured and fractured and where the working class had assumed the role of the largest class in society but rather in one of the most underdeveloped countries. It is estimated that there were fewer than 2 million workers in Russia and 150 million or more peasants.
This underdevelopment shaped its nature and the way it developed. Underdevelopment was a significant factor, but more important were the constant external pressures placed upon it, emerging as it did in a world dominated and controlled militarily, economically, politically and culturally by its enemies, by capitalism and imperialism.
Socialism did not emerge or develop in some hermetically sealed environment, free of past discords and division. It did not and could not start off with a clean slate. It was built on the economic, social, political and cultural inheritance of the past.
The difficult struggle, both internal and external, had a profound impact on the young Soviet democracy. The loss of so many working-class leaders in the Civil War and the widespread destruction of the social and economic infrastructure left an appalling burden on the young Soviet state, while externally in Europe it watched the rise of fascism, which exposed new dangers emerging within capitalism. These very real and difficult problems led to short-cuts being taken that had long-term effects.
Another important factor was the inability of the leading personalities to find a common strategic approach while retaining critical differences, which led in many situations to unnecessary conflicts and disputes, resulting in unwarranted and unjustified executions and imprisonment.
The over-emphasis on and dogmatic interpretation of the leading role of the Communist Party led to the weakening of the soviets—the workers’ and peasants’ councils—and popular forms of democratic accountability and to the subsuming of the Communist Party into the state itself, which created a feeling of alienation among the mass of working people. While there were concrete and material reasons for this happening at a certain historical period, its prolonged use as a method of work in the light of historical experience had a detrimental effect on both socialist democracy and the Communist Party. Aspects of this dogmatic interpretation were also blindly replicated in the socialist countries of eastern Europe, leading to similar alienation from the workers.
In addition, the role and the power of a small group and even of certain individuals led to profound weaknesses not just within the Communist Party but within the democracy of the whole of society. Because of historical developments, power and decision-making became over-centralised and bureaucratic, and propaganda did not fully reflect the reality experienced by working people. This led over time to working people becoming alienated politically, economically and culturally, where the relationship between government and people became one of paternalism rather than being based on the sovereignty of the people. Criticism and self-criticism were replaced by unquestioning obedience to the leadership—a recipe for opportunism and careerism.
While these negative developments had their roots in the terrible experiences of the First World War and the Civil War and the continuing threat of war, much of the damage to developing socialism was self-inflicted. Many actions of the Soviet government cannot be defended on any grounds. Nor can we simply reduce it all to the role of Joseph Stalin. He was certainly a major figure, both in the many achievements and the many mistakes that caused great damage to the development of socialism. These grievous distortions of socialism left a legacy of problems that subsequent leaderships failed to cope with or deal with successfully. The consequent weaknesses in Soviet society ultimately created an opportunity for the enemies of socialism to undermine the system and restore capitalism.
We Irish communists firmly believe that the October Revolution still has important lessons for the working class internationally. On the occasion of its ninetieth anniversary we affirm that the October Revolution remains not just a central historical event for workers but an essential lesson for the working class and all anti-imperialist forces in the world today. In our view it was the most important blow struck against imperialism. It was the first successful attempt by workers to take and hold state power and to build an alternative society.
Events, and the experience of workers’ struggles both here in Ireland and around the world, have shown that the advances made by workers in the economic, political and social fields have been won and defended only by struggle. Nothing has been given or won without intense and at times bitter struggles. The historical experience gained over these last ninety years confirms
• the centrality of class struggle as the engine of change,
• that the working class is central to the pushing forward and achievement of radical change in society,
• that there is an absolute need for a working-class party at the heart of working-class struggle,
• that the necessity to build and maintain alliances of all progressive forces is crucial,
• that power, both political and economic, must rest with working people,
• that democracy and the empowering of people are not optional but are central to securing and maintaining their active support and participation,
• that democracy in every sphere of life—political, economic, cultural—is the cornerstone of the struggle.
The primary struggle facing humanity today is the struggle to defeat imperialism and for the unity of all those opposed to it.
The events that unfolded from the October Revolution in Russia were not the result of some “experiment.” Neither is there any blueprint or some prescriptive way laid down in some book or other in which social change must take place.
We would not choose a difficult way to build socialism. If there were an easier path to social change, why would we not take it? We know from experience, from our history, that the demand for social change thrusts people into struggles, which we must prosecute to win or we should not begin at all.
Class struggle is intense and difficult and not without bitterness. It is not nice, nor is it easy. It is clear that the struggle to build an alternative mode of social development will not be without many twists and turns, advances and setbacks. The October Revolution was and is part of that continuing struggle.
We Irish communists supported the Soviet Union in accordance with our understanding of imperialism and its impact on our own people and on the oppressed peoples of the world. We remain convinced that, for all its faults, the Soviet Union was worth defending: indeed it was our internationalist duty to do so.
From our own experience in the many struggles that communists have been and are involved in we know that nothing is given easily but has to be dragged from the boss class. We believed and continue to believe that the primary struggle is to weaken, to corral and to defeat imperialism. So long as imperialism, headed by the United States, remains the dominant force in our world it will resist, it will attempt to shape and distort social development.
The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia was only the beginning, the opening shot in the struggle to defeat imperialism and to build a more civilised society with more human social relations. It falls to a new generation to take up the challenge and the struggle for a better world. We are witnessing new shoots of democratic growth springing up in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution develops and deepens, despite the criminal and terrorist activities of the US government. New developments of popular sovereignty are taking root in Venezuela and Bolivia and throughout Latin America.
People throughout the world reject the mantra peddled by the establishment media, that “there is no alternative,” by building and developing the alternative. The struggle continues.