The Most Important Lessons from the Russian Revolution

Written and presented by an activist as an introduction to an open meeting in 2017 for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. Originally published by Tjen Folket on 27.11.2017.

We must draw lessons from the socialist revolution in Russia. Not only this, but it is extremely important that we do so. Why?

Why Learn from the Russian Revolution?

  1. First, because capitalism is a murderous, unfair, and unreasonable system that creates war, hunger, need, mental illnesses, poverty, and environmental destruction. Capitalism must be eradicated, communism is the only alternative, and the Soviet Union was the first time in history that the proletariat took the political power in an entire country in order to create communism!
  2. Second, because we must learn from practice. Theory is important, but theory is formed through the summary of practice. This is how it is for everything else, and this is how it is for socialist theory. Everyone agrees on this in all of the sciences, but many who are politically engaged will overlook this! Without evaluating practice and drawing lessons from it, one can never reproduce or surpass previous feats. Imagine if researchers carried out experiments without evaluating them, without drawing from them laws of nature and lessons. We would never have medicine nor machines.
  3. Thirdly, because Lenin, the Bolshevik Party, the Red Army, the Worker-Peasant Alliance – the Soviets – created a political-ideological line for revolutionary war. To succeed in taking the power, such that the proletariat can win against the bourgeoisie, we must use some of the same methods for organizing and struggling. We CAN reinvent the wheel. We can likely figure out these methods ourselves. But this has a number of disadvantages… And the enemy has itself learned from revolutions. The bourgeoisie’s armies and intelligence services study Lenin and Mao and other revolutionaries. Socialism’s victories, the proletariat’s power, capitalism’s defeat – all of this depends upon revolutionary activists and leaders drawing lessons from the October Revolution.

What Starting Point Should We Have When We Learn From the October Revolution?

What kinds of lessons should we be seeking out? For political activists, general lessons are not important in and of themselves. It is important to learn about things that we can use. We must draw forth lessons of the kind that are relevant for all socialist revolutionaries – since this is what we are working towards. We must draw forth principles and universal laws of development for the socialist revolution.

We should, on a preliminary basis, reject a great myth about the Russian Revolution. It is often depicted as an incredibly short-lived struggle, an almost spontaneous uprising that began and ended in 1917. In reality, it was a protracted war. In 1905, there has been a revolution against Tsarism that did not succeed in smashing this political power. Both before and after this, there were expansive struggles in Russia against the Tsar, the state, and capitalism. The Bolsheviks were often held in Tsarist prisons for a long time, they organized themselves illegally, they organized armed groups, and Lenin was made to live abroad for several years. The revolution in 1917 was followed by a civil war and intervention that did not end until 1922. It was not until then that the Soviet Union was proclaimed. In short – it was a protracted revolutionary war. And it was led to victory by a communist leadership that laid plans and took the initiative; it was not a purely spontaneous uprising.

This is an important starting point. There were a number of objective conditions in Russia that laid the basis for revolution. It was class struggle, it was spontaneous uprisings, a brutal empire, feudal and old-fashioned relations in the countryside, deep poverty, hunger, need, and war. But the revolution by no means followed from these conditions automatically.

The Historical Relevance of the October Revolution and the Soviet Union

Before we turn to the political lessons from the Russian Revolution, let’s briefly look at the historical role that the Red October and the Soviet Union played:

  1. The Soviet Union was the world’s first socialist state and therefore a pioneer and role model for the world’s proletariat.
  2. It was a red base – a fortress – for world communism, for the Comintern, and for communist parties in all countries.
  3. It was a bulwark against fascism, the victor over Hitler-Germany, and the liberator of the world’s people.
  4. The Soviet Union established the socialist camp of socialist and popular democratic countries and was a support for colonial liberation and revolution in the colonized countries.
  5. This state carried out thirty years with socialist construction, and gave us rich experiences from industrialization and collectivization, socialist planning and socialist economy.
  6. It provided us with over thirty years of the dictatorship of the proletariat, experiences with the class struggle, the two-line struggle between the left side and the right side within state and party, with red bureaucrats and counterrevolution.

In short: The historical role of the October Revolution and the Soviet Union is enormous, and for the proletariat is plays an enormous role – and it has shaken the world to its very core and driven history forwards with great leaps and bounds. Both as a symbol and as a practice improvement and advancement, we must lift high the Russian Revolution and Soviet socialism as an inspiration and a mentor.

Six Central Elements in Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ Political-Ideological Line

To learn for our own political struggle, we must engaged in the political line of the Russian Revolution. The ideological and practical line they developed and followed is the starting point for the lessons we can learn. The revolution did not succeed blindly and spontaneously, but rather as the result of political leadership and line, especially that of Lenin, who stood at the center of it. We do not believe that it is individuals who make history, but good leadership can determine the result of struggles. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to struggle for a good line in order for the proletariat to win in the revolution. Without this, they would not have had the October Revolution in 1917.

We can draw forth in particular the 6 following points:

  1. The starting point in Marxism: scientific communism, and particularly its revolutionary and proletarian core – concretely applied to Russia. Lenin and other Russian communists translated Marx and Engels to Russian, they read their works, and Lenin used them analyze Russia. We wrote a work about capitalism in Russia, which revealed that even if the country was by and large a feudal society, it was still capitalist, and the modern proletariat could lead a revolution for socialism. He used Marxism to analyze the class struggle and the organizational needs that the proletariat had if they were to take the power. In order for Marxism to be used in the service for the proletariat, it needed to displace the un-Marxist and anti-Marxist ideology. The Russian Marxism needed to be established as a break from pre-Marxist populism, individual acts of terror, and different so-called peasant socialists. The first point is the Marxist theory, and the concrete application of it to the concrete situation.
  2. Lenin’s Bolshevik party for the ideological leadership of the proletariat, against economism’s spontaneity. Lenin said that the party’s task was to give the proletariat socialist theory, give it a consciousness about itself and its historical task and to lead the fore of the struggle – and not lag behind it. The party needed to give a direction to the class struggle and develop it to political struggle for political power. Not to lag behind the spontaneous thoughts or struggles, not to talk the ears off of the people to push people into leagues – but to give people the necessary tools, theoretical and organizational to liberate themselves. The second point is to build the party as a general staff and ideological leadership.
  3. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party for illegality and war, against the Mensheviks’ legal mass party. Even under the Tsarist regime in Russia, the social democrats – Mensheviks, as they were called – organized themselves legally. They only wanted to run in elections and organize their unions. They wanted to organize themselves as a normal bourgeois party, where anyone could join. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were revolutionaries. They wished to organize themselves for revolution and for illegality. They wished to organize for war. They financed their organization through bank robberies. Stalin was involved in organizing a number of heists in the Caucuses. They wished to build conspiratorial organizing underground. This party would work all over the world, legally, through legal organization. It would work with the masses of working people through labour unions and workers’ councils. But the party organization, its apparatus and the professional revolutionaries, would be subjected to hard discipline, centralism, security, secret organizations, and a duty to participate actively in the party’s local organizations. The third point is then to build a party for class war.
  4. Proletarian military program – against social chauvinism’s “defend the Fatherland”. WWI was a predatory war between the world’s largest colonial powers. Emperors and capitalists attacked each other and used the peoples of their colonies and the proletariat as cannon fodder in a war over influence, territory, resources, and profit. Lenin stood at the fore for a proletarian military program against the war. The war on war, as the Bolsheviks called it. The proletarian military program is to build the proletariat’s own militias, the Red Army, and the proletariat’s own state – and the combat the bourgeoisie’s wars. This made it possible to raise the parole for peace, to withdraw Russia out of the world war, and to organize the people’s army that would be needed to take the power. The fourth point is a military program against the bourgeoisie’s wars and for the armed power for the proletariat.
  5. The dictatorship of the proletariat – against the Mensheviks’ “bourgeois government first”. The Mensheviks, social democrats, underestimated the power of the proletariat. They did not use Marxism creatively, but remained narrow, dogmatic, and Eurocentric in regards to the thesis that Russian’s workers were not advanced enough to make revolution. They were too primitive, and the country was too underdeveloped – and therefore the bourgeoisie would first have to introduce a modern capitalism. In other words, the social democrats placed more faith in the bourgeoisie that they would remove the Tsar and modernize Russia. Lenin rejected this. He maintained that capitalism already had been introduced to the cities, and that hundreds of thousands of proletarians had already been gathered in Russia’s largest cities – gathered in heavy industrial factories – and thereby formed a proletariat that not only could make revolution, but that it had to be them to do it. Lenin also said that the socialist revolution against imperialism needed to happen along imperialism’s weakest link, i.e. the countries that were not the strongest imperialists. Countries were capitalism was weak and where the rulers were unable to control the masses. Russia was a country where imperialism was not strong, precisely because the country was not already one of the most developed industrial countries.
  6. The alliance with the peasants and the Worker-Peasant government – against Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”. Yet, the proletariat could not win on its own. Lenin saw that its natural allies were among the masses of farmers, first and foremost the poorest peasants. They comprised a large majority of the people and would be primary reserve for the revolution. The proletariat would need to lead them and be the backbone, but Lenin saw a great revolutionary potential among the peasants. The Trotskyists did not! They looked down on the peasants, and they considered them to be more a threat than an ally to socialism. They saw them as potentially incredibly hostile and believed that the Russian proletariat should rather depend upon the Western European proletariat for support. Without the aid of the workers from Germany, France, and England, the Trotskyists maintained, the revolution was condemned to lose. History would prove them wrong. And this arrogance against the peasants may look like an overestimation of the Russian proletariat – but it is yet against another example of the social democratic lack of trust in the masses. And an exaggerated faith in Europe and the highly developed countries there. Lenin was on the contrary for a workers’ and peasant government on the way towards the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism. The sixth point is to have faith in one’s own power, to seize power wherever possible, and to unite all who can be united against the enemy.

Each one of these six points were completely decisive for the Bolsheviks’ victory in displacing the bourgeois government and creating a revolutionary government. It was decisive for being able to build the Bolshevik Party, the Soviets, and the Red Army as tools for the proletariat and for communism. And each one of them contains universal lessons about the laws of development for the proletarian revolution. And in each step forward, this line needed to struggle against bourgeois and petit bourgeois political lines. Against lines that objectively served the proletariat’s enemies, even if they contained red, radical or revolutionary forms. The class struggle is waged on all fronts – not only through arms and strikes, but with thoughts and songs, with culture, ideas, and theories. The proletariat must chisel out its own political line, from its own class standpoint, and struggle on all these fronts – in order to be in a position to organize itself, seize power, hold onto it, and develop society forward until communism.

In short: The political line was decisive, and it grew forth in the two-line struggle against a number of different types of bourgeois and petit bourgeois “socialisms”, and the core of it was to build the dictatorship of the proletariat – the red power – as a revolutionary force, led by the party and developed through revolutionary war against imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism.

How to Summarize the Lessons from the Russian Revolution?

The lessons from the Russian Revolution can be summarized in waves – and these themselves in the struggle against other standpoints and views. As other political lines, these also needed to fight against bourgeois determinations.

Furthermore, a number of parties and groups have supported the October Revolution in words. In words, they have supported Bolshevism, but in practice they have been neither willing nor able to implement these teachings in their entirety. They have not organized themselves for protracted revolutionary war and for red proletarian power.

To regard the Russian Revolution in the best possible manner, we must refer to four primary sources:

  1. Lenin at the beginning of the 1900s.
  2. Stalin in the 1920s.
  3. Mao in the 50s and 60s.
  4. The Maoists from the 1980s until today.

Step by step, they have arrived to a deeper understand, which not only gives greater depth in the analysis, but also clearer and more concise formulations of laws and principles for revolution and socialism.

Lenin was the pioneer, but he was never able to evaluate his and the Bolsheviks’ practice in a fundamental manner and in the light of hindsight and the results of the revolution. He was nonetheless able to write a great deal about it. And his works are the most important source of the political line that led the Bolshevik Party and carried through to revolution and the establishment of the the Soviet Union. So decisive was Lenin, that his thoughts became the core of a new stage of Marxism: Marxism-Leninism.

Stalin summarized the revolution and Lenin’s contributions in his typical pedagogical and transparent manner. In his works Concerning Questions of Leninism and Problems of Leninism, he summarizes briefly and directly the most important lessons. And he edited the history book on SUKP(b), the Communist Party, and its history. He has also written several texts on revolution. He worked closely with Lenin, and stood partially on Lenin’s shoulders when he formulated Leninism as a new and higher stage of Marxism.

In turn, Mao stood on Lenin and Stalin’s shoulders and he and the Chinese communists used Marxism-Leninism for the concrete conditions in China. They drew forth universal lessons and used them in their own country. They created a Bolshevik Party that built a people’s army and a revolutionary united front, which created red base areas with red power and Soviet power. Mao evaluated the Russian Revolution in the best manner possible: by learning from it, drawing from it the universal teachings, and implementing them in practice – together with a creative use of Marxism-Leninism in his own country and the class struggle in it. And he wrote a number of works that showed this.

In the 1980s, the Communist Party of Peru summarized that Marxism had been listed to a new, higher, and third stage: Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. In a decision passed on this, where they also mention that the Russian Revolution was carried out over the course of several years and name it as an example of the people’s war’s applicability in all countries, they write:

What is fundamental in Maoism? Political Power is fundamental in Maoism. Political power for the proletariat, power for the dictatorship of the proletariat, power based on an armed force led by the Communist Party. More explicitly:
1) Political power under the leadership of the proletariat in the democratic revolution;
2) Political power for the dictatorship of the proletariat in the socialist and cultural revolutions;
3) Political power based on an armed force led by the Communist Party, conquered and defended through people’s war.

Using these experiences and summaries as a staring point, we can attempt to summarize the three most important lessons as follows:

  1. The socialist revolution takes the form of a protracted people’s war to establish red power, political power to the proletariat, and the proletariat’s revolutionary dictatorship.
  2. In the protracted people’s war, the proletariat must develop together, step by step, the three instruments for taking power: the fighting communist party of a new type, the red people’s army, and the revolutionary united front – the new state.
  3. The party can only lead this people’s war to victory if it learns the communist science – today Marxism-Leninism-Maoism – and uses it practically and creatively on the conditions for class struggle, politics, economy, and so on, in the individual countries were the party has its operations.