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1917: lessons for socialists from the Russian Revolution

Lisa Descary

October 24, 2017

Today, young people in particular are more open to ideas about socialism than any time in recent history, with an American survey last year finding that a majority of those under 30 had a more favourable view of “socialism” (however they defined it) than capitalism. But how do we get to a socialist society? To answer that question, we need to look at some of the lessons from the only time in history that working people were able to radically transform their society into a socialist one: the Russian Revolution of 1917. 


The first and most basic lesson to be drawn for socialists today is that yes, workers can run society themselves! Our capitalist system needs us to believe the lie that we need so-called “great men” to be rulers and experts at the helm of the governments and companies that run the world. They try to convince us that there is no alternative to their system, and that most working people are too lazy and lacking in skills to be in charge of their own workplaces and communities.

This is a very old piece of propaganda that is sometimes believed even on the left. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wrote more than a hundred years ago, “We must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called ‘upper classes’, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society.” The October revolution inspired working people around the world when rank and file soldiers began to govern themselves democratically, and workers took over and ran their workplaces.


But perhaps the most useful lesson from the Russian revolution is the importance of having a revolutionary party like the Bolshevik Party in Russia. While a party cannot make a revolution happen by itself, without such a party, the spontaneous uprisings of the working class cannot coalesce in an organized way into a social revolution that can successfully overthrow the capitalist order. Upsurges in struggle happen even today, but real change in society won’t occur without organized revolutionaries, who can debate strategy and tactics within a democratic party. This party of activists has to be committed to adapting and applying what has been learned from past struggles, applying Marxist ideas without being rigid or dogmatic.

Former anarchist Victor Serge, impressed by the effectiveness of the Bolshevik party that he saw in 1917, wrote, “The party is the nervous system of the working class, its brain.” This party is not separate from the working class, but part of it, made up of the best militants. Without a revolutionary party, history has shown that workers’ struggles will be channeled by social democrats and liberals into dead-end strategies that rely on the capitalist system to somehow solve their problems. (This could have happened in 1917 if the Mensheviks had had their way.)

Start now

But obviously, socialist revolution is not on the agenda this week or likely even this year. So why is it important to build such a party now; can’t it wait until a more revolutionary period? In fact, the experience of the Bolsheviks shows how important it is to build such a party well ahead of a revolutionary period. To wait until then is too late—a tragic fact proven by the failure of other revolutions across Europe that resulted in the isolation and destruction of the revolution in Russia.

The Bolsheviks started building their party more than a decade before the October 1917 revolution. Although the size of the party fluctuated greatly, it was comparatively small in March of 1917, having only 4,000 members across Russia. But by October of 1917, the Bolshevik party had grown to a quarter million members. But without the cadre or experienced members that had built up credibility in their workplaces and communities and laid groundwork over that previous decade, it is unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have been able to be the effective “nervous system of the working class” that Victor Serge recognized.

Capitalism today is far from stable; it lurches from crisis to crisis. Think of Egypt in 2011, South Korea in 2016 and the US under Trump. Imagine what might have been achieved by workers in these countries if a party of revolutionary socialists had roots in their workplaces. That’s why we say that if you want to be part of the fight for a better, socialist world you shouldn’t wait… you should join the International Socialists!

This is the final in a four part series of articles commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The next articles will look at the gains of the revolution, how the revolution was lost, and lessons for socialists today.

Join the events “Ten Days That Shook the World”, next Wednesday October 25 in Vancouver, Toronto or Ottawa

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