Given the Great Confrontation over demonetisation on November 8, it is perhaps not surprising that the centenary on November 7 of the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia should have virtually escaped attention in India. Indeed, the Putin establishment in the Russian Federation also gave the centenary a virtual miss.
True, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did put up a defiant show in the vicinity of the Kremlin, but the fact is that the only real recognition accorded to the revolution was the denigration of it by right-wing Western think-tanks.
The derisive argument of these think-tanks is that the revolution was a coup d’etat fostered by the Kaiser’s Germany to enable Lenin to pull Russia out of World War I, so that Germany could throw the full force of its army against the western front.
Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland, was smuggled into a sealed German freight car and transported by rail to Russian territory. From there, he was expelled briefly to Finland by the Kerensky government, but he staged a comeback, and with the support of the soldiers and workers, returned to St Petersburg, and triumphantly concluded the revolution.
Lenin was obliged to abrogate any pretence at democracy and instead proclaim the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” That turned out to be such a vicious dictatorship that the very people in whose name the coup was undertaken now want to wipe out of their memory not only November 7, 1917, but all the dreadful seven decades that followed.
Hence, these think-tanks argue, the 1917 revolution did not matter; it deserves to be forgotten, except as a reminder of a monumental aberration.
Missing the point
It is true that Lenin did not come to power through the ballot but the bullet. Yet, even as World War I ended, the “white” counter-revolutionaries did all they could to cripple Lenin’s revolution at birth. It was the military genius of Trotsky and his comrades that warded off a mighty effort to strangle the revolution.
Therefore, to dismiss October 1917 as a coup d’etat, and not a genuine revolution, is to hopelessly miss the point. What needs to be seen and understood is that Soviet Russia, in its earliest beginnings, courageously faced and overcame, entirely on its own, a determined counter-revolution begotten by Czarists and a reactionary Western coalition to overthrow the Soviet regime by force.
That is what legitimised the October Revolution as a genuine revolution, with massive support from the vast majority of the Russian people who did not want to see their motherland restored to the feudal brutalities of the Romanov regime
The genesis of that revolution was the remarkable intellectual breakthrough that Karl Marx fostered at just about the juncture that the horrors of laissez faire economics were visiting on the victims of burgeoning capitalism seven decades from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Seven decades from the onset of the Industrial Revolution is where India is today.
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s (as manmade as the Bengal famine) drove millions of famished Irish to the shores of the US. It was but one example of the “spectre haunting Europe” with which Marx alarmed the Western capitalist world.
The tragedy of the Soviet model is that by sneering at democracy, they failed to sustain their enormous economic, technological, and social achievements
Indeed, had the vast and almost empty spaces of the US, much larger than all of Europe, not been discovered, there is little doubt that Europe would, indeed, have surrendered to the spectre that haunted the industrialising West in the 1840s.
It was in this decade of despair that Marx gave his moral call: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
If, nevertheless, Marx has been proved to be no prophet, rejected by the very workers he had urged, “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain,” it is no different to the fate of those other great thinkers who turned the moral scale, only to have their injunctions observed mainly in the breach.
Think the Buddha, Christ, Gandhi. In the annals of history, the moral imperatives they pronounced led to fundamental changes in values and ways of thinking even if ordinary mortals were unable to live up to the impossible standards they set. Why they endure is because they altered the moral vocabulary of humankind.
Injustice is not irreparable
Marx made people realise that neither feudalism nor callous capitalism is the ordained fate of men, that men can change their lot by taking charge of their lives, by not accepting injustice as irreparable. Paradoxically, if capitalism has survived, it is because the moral instruction of Marxism has insidiously made its way into the minds of men, forcing governance back from the heartless mechanics of the system of capitalism.
Marx pushed states towards accepting their responsibilities for social welfare and the protection of the working classes. Indeed, I would deem Keynes demonstrating in 1937 through rigorous economic analysis that the state must intervene when market forces cause economic disruption and social upheaval as the ultimate synthesis of utilitarianism with Marxism.
In a little over 20 years, the revolution raised Russia from a backward rural economy to an economy strong enough to resist the full might of Hitler’s unfettered assault on the Soviet Union during World War II.
Where the Western democracies had packed up within weeks when the Germans attacked, Stalin’s Russia stood up to them, and thus enabled the world to be saved from the Nazis and the Fascists. It was not only a victory for the Soviet system but, more importantly, a victory of the Soviet people who stood four square behind their communist leadership during the Soviet revolution’s worst challenge.
That is why a highly informed individual like American journalist Lincoln Steffens proclaimed on his return from Stalin’s Russia in the 20s -- even as the capitalist West was slipping into Great Depression -- “I have seen the future -- and it works!”
Many of the greatest minds of the capitalist West were bewitched by what the Soviet Union had achieved after beating back the “White Revolution.”
So was the then young Jawaharlal Nehru bewitched when he visited the Soviet Union after attending the Congress against Imperialism in Brussels in 1927, where he found in Soviet leaders companions-in-arms in the fight against colonialism and discovered the international dimension to India’s domestic struggle for freedom, which was his main pre-occupation.
The tragedy of the Soviet model is that by sneering at democracy, they failed to sustain their enormous economic, technological, and social achievements.
That is why Nehru, notwithstanding his admiration for the Soviet model of development, totally and utterly rejected the dreadful dictatorship and fearful oppression of ordinary folks on which that model was built. Eventually, he co-signed a declaration affirming not revolution and violence, but Gandhian non-violence as the one path to nation-building and keeping the peace of the world.
To ignore November 7 is to ignore one of the most path-breaking moments of human history. It amounts to a betrayal of the intellectual and moral inheritance of humankind to dismiss the day as just another blip in history.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. This article first appeared on ndtv.com.