November 7 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which stands as the greatest event in human history. With the exception of the all-too-brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune in 1871, for the first time in history working people took power into their own hands, held onto it, and began the task of the socialist reconstruction of society. To celebrate the occasion, Fightback organized events in Toronto and Montreal which were attended by well over 250 people. This clearly shows that 100 years later, the October revolution remains a source of inspiration for those looking to fight against capitalism!
Toronto Day School and evening plenary
In Toronto, Fightback organized a day of events and discussion at the University of Toronto on the lessons of the Revolution. Around 80 people attended the discussions throughout the day and over 120 attended our evening panel discussions, showing there is a thirst for revolutionary ideas!
Answering lies and slanders
The day started with a discussion introduced by Alex Grant, a Fightback editor and organizer, answering the fabrications and slanders levelled against the memory of October. As Alex explained, no other event in human history has been the subject of more distortions and outright lies than the Russian Revolution.
Alex explained that this was no accident – the ruling class is always terrified of the idea of revolution. The bourgeoisie is so afraid of the idea of revolution, which they understand means the end of their class rule and privileges, that they feel compelled to denigrate and attack the memory of the very revolutions that established the rule of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. If they feel forced to attack the memory of the American and French Revolutions, for example, then it is not hard to understand why they heap scorn and abuse on the memory of the Russian Revolution, a socialist revolution that saw working people overthrow the rule of the capitalists and landlords.
Some of the slanders and lies are patently absurd. Utterly ridiculous things have been claimed about the October Revolution; for example, that the Bolsheviks had electric guillotines capable of lopping off five hundred heads an hour, or that in Soviet Russia all women 18 years of age and older had to register with a “Bureau of Free Love” which would parcel out respectable bourgeois women to proletarian husbands. The latter fabrication mirrors the false claim that communists seek to “nationalize women,” an absurd argument that can be traced back to Marx’s time.
Alex discussed the main slanders and lies against the memory of the Revolution, including the accusation that Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were German agents. That slander was unquestionably refuted 100 years ago, at the time of the Revolution, yet that does not prevent it from still being used today. The New York Times even recently published an article recycling this fabrication, which also included the lie that Russian workers were paid to participate in Bolshevik demonstrations. We see similar accusations levelled against the left to this day.
There is a long standing myth that the October Revolution was a violent coup, carried out by a small band of fanatical Bolsheviks. This myth doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. While small bands of fanatics are certainly capable of taking political power, something that has been witnessed many times in history, it would be impossible to usher in a complete economic, social and political transformation of society without the support of the majority of the population. Alex explained the role played by the masses and the Soviets in the revolution, explaining the vast popular support the Bolsheviks had amongst the people, as documented in Soviet delegate elections.
Alex continued by discussing some of the other lies and slanders, such as the idea that Russia would have become a liberal democracy if it hadn’t been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the execution of the Romanovs, the false idea that Bolshevism inevitably leads to Stalinist dictatorship, and the slanderous idea that “communism killed 100 million people,” a shoddy argument based on the Black Book of Communism.
Leon Trotsky: The Life of a Revolutionary
The discussion on the lies and slanders against the October Revolution was followed by the launching of a new documentary film on the life of Leon Trotsky, one of the main leaders of the Russian Revolution.The film chronicled the life of Trotsky from his youth, to his role as chairman of the St.Petersburg Soviet in the revolution of 1905, to his founding of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, to his exile from the Soviet Union and eventual assassination at the hands of Josef Stalin.
The film featured Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, who spoke at length about his grandfather’s life and his untimely death. Leon Trotsky was murdered in 1940 in Mexico City at the hands of a Stalinist GPU agent – Ramón Mercader. This followed an earlier attempt on Trotsky’s life, in which armed Stalinist agents raided Trotsky’s compound – an attack that Esteban Volkov was present for.
After the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, Leon Trotsky formed the Left Opposition, which advocated for a return to worker’s democracy in the Soviet Union, as well as to highlight the necessity for international revolution – in a word, the genuine ideas of Marx and Lenin. This came into conflict with the privileges of the fledgling bureaucracy, which saw the Left Opposition as the greatest threat to its newly acquired position. For this reason, Leon Trotsky and his supporters in the Left Opposition were imprisoned, exiled, murdered and driven to suicide, often in the most horrific manner.
The struggle of the Left Opposition, however, was not in vain. Despite Stalin’s success in ending his life, it could not prevent Trotsky from producing some of the most remarkable works of Marxist theory in the time following his exile. These works include Revolution Betrayed, In Defence of Marxism, and many, many others. The Left Opposition did not win against the Stalinist regime. It did, however, preserve and develop the ideas of Marxism, which are used as tools for revolutionaries organizing in the present day. This, as the film points out, is the final legacy of the great Leon Trotsky.
Lessons of the Russian Revolution
The afternoon started with a discussion on the Lessons of the Russian Revolution, introduced by Farshad Azadian, an activist and organizer with Fightback. He began by providing a backdrop for the Revolution – the First World War and the crisis in the workers’ movement.
Farshad then went through the history of the Revolution, from the massive strike started by women textile workers on International Women’s Day in February 1917 through to the formation of the soviets, the July Days, the Kornilov affair and finally the October Revolution when the soviets took power.
At each point, the role, creativity, and revolutionary will of the masses was highlighted. This revolutionary creativity and will was expressed through the soviets, or workers’ councils, which were popular organs of revolutionary democracy.
Farshad explained the importance of ideas and revolutionary theory, contrasting the role played by the reformist organizations, such as the Mensheviks and their consistent support for the bourgeoisie and eventually the counterrevolution, with the role of the Bolsheviks, who under the watchwords “patiently explain” took their revolutionary program of “All Power to the Soviets” and the slogan of “Peace, Land, and Bread” to the masses. With consistent and patient work and utilizing tactics in the best of revolutionary traditions, the Bolsheviks were able to convince and win over the majority of working people to their revolutionary program.
The discussion then moved to highlighting the role of the Bolshevik party, and the importance of a strong revolutionary party. The Russian Revolution sparked an international revolution. In the wake of the death and destruction of the First World War and inspired by the example set by the Russian workers, the working class in country after country, such as Germany and Italy for example, took the road of revolution. However, in each case the moment was lost and the opportunity slipped through the fingers of the working class. What was missing in each of these cases was a strong revolutionary party with a leadership capable of carrying the revolution through to the end.
As Trotsky explained, “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
Farshad continued the discussion by explaining that world capitalism today finds itself at an impasse and is mired in one of the deepest crises in history. As a result, there is a profound process of polarization taking place around the world, and as a result some are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions. Revolution is once again on the order of the day, and a key task in the revolutionary events to come will be the establishment of revolutionary workers’ parties. Farshad ended the discussion with an appeal to those who want to fight for a better, socialist world to join the IMT and help build the revolutionary party.
Book launch – Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution
Rob Lyon, a Fightback editor and activist, began the final session of the afternoon launching the book “Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution” by Ted Grant.
Ted Grant was a well-known figure and theoretician in the international Marxist movement. He had been involved with the Trotskyist movement since the late 1920s and remained active until his death in 2006.
The book had originally been published 20 years ago in 1997 and deals with the history of the Russian Revolution from the October insurrection through to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We decided to re-publish the book to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which now has a new afterword by Alan Woods, a long-time collaborator and comrade of Ted’s, that continues the analysis of Russian society up to the present time.
The book provides a detailed history of the Soviet Union, from the Revolution to the struggle of the Left Opposition and the rise of the Stalinist dictatorship, the Purge Trials, the Second World War through to Perestroika and Glasnost, and continues the analysis of Stalinism on the basis of the works of Leon Trotsky, such as The Revolution Betrayed.
Rob countered the argument that Bolshevism led inevitably to Stalinism because it is abstract and ignores actual history. It is not just a question of an abstract revolution that for some abstract reason leads to a Stalinist dictatorship, but a question of a working class revolution, in Russia in 1917, under the conditions of the First World War with the total breakdown and collapse of Russian society, crushing backwardness, and eventually blockade and Civil War.
Rob explained that the working class emerged from the Civil War, as Lenin said, “de-classed”. Most of the advanced workers who had participated directly in the revolutionary struggles of 1917 had given their lives on the front. In many ways, it was the bureaucracy and not the working class that emerged victorious from the Civil War. With the introduction of the NEP the growing bureaucracy found a pillar of support in the growing army of NEPmen, middle-men, traders and kulaks. Soviet democracy was replaced by the will of the growing, and increasingly self-aware, bureaucracy. Trotsky had explained that either the working class would overthrow the bureaucracy in a political revolution to restore proletarian democracy or the bureaucracy would move down the road of capitalist restoration. The bureaucracy enjoyed its rights and privileges on the basis of the state plan, but could not pass these down to their families as inheritance. It was inevitable that at a certain stage these bureaucrats would want to solidify these privileges as property rights.
Rob detailed some of the remarkable achievements of the Soviet Union. In the span of only 20 years Russia went from being a backward country to the second superpower on the planet. For a period of some 10-15 years after the Second World War, the Soviet economy was growing at an average rate of 12 per cent a year, which was historically unprecedented. The Soviet Union eventually became the world’s second largest producer of industrial goods, and was the world’s largest producer of oil, steel, cement, tractors and machine tools. Soviet advances in rocketry and space exploration were second to none. Food and housing remained cheap – when the Soviet Union collapsed the cost of rent and many basic food items had not been raised since the late 1950s or early 1960s. It should be noted that this was achieved with full employment and next to no inflation.
Stalinism, the bureaucratic dictatorship, and the bureaucratic plan eventually reached their limits. The remarkable Soviet achievements in economics and development had always been monstrously hampered by the corruption and theft of the bureaucracy. It has been estimated that in any given year upwards of 30 to 50 per cent of the wealth created by the Soviet working class was lost through bureaucratic mismanagement, theft and corruption. Eventually, as the economy became more complex, the entire system seized up, growth rates slowed to zero, and the Soviet Union entered deep crisis. After decades of brutal Stalinist dictatorship, the class consciousness of the working class had been thrown far back. With no genuine revolutionary leadership, a section of the bureaucracy interested in converting their privileges into bourgeois property rights dominated the situation and the Soviet Union collapsed, ushering in an era of counter-revolution and capitalism.
The final session of the day was an evening plenary, which included various speakers from the socialist and labour movements. This included Alex Grant, John Clarke, a leading figure of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), Mike Palecek, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and Marissa Olanick, an activist with Socialist Fightback Students (SFS). Over 120 people were in attendance for this concluding session.
Alex Grant spoke first. He began by reiterating the significance of the Russian Revolution, saying how it will be remembered by friends and enemies alike as the first time the workers and peasants of a country rose up, and proved that they were capable of running society for themselves. He then made an appeal to the crowd to learn the lessons of the Revolution, and to read the timeless works of revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky.
Grant said that there were two important ideas to take from the Revolution. The first was the idea of permanent revolution, first advanced by Leon Trotsky. This idea suggests that in a semi-feudal country, much like Russia before 1917, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, which would have been carried out by the bourgeoisie in an earlier period, fall to the working class. The working class, however, doesn’t stop short at bourgeois-democratic tasks, but then inevitably passes over into socialist tasks. The slogan of “all power to the soviets,” under which the October Revolution was carried out, was the concrete application of Trotsky’s idea.
The second idea was the need for a revolutionary party, advanced by Lenin. No matter how incredible your ideas may be, without a vehicle to transmit those ideas to the masses, no revolution could ever be successful. The failure of the Arab revolutions, which lacked a revolutionary leadership, are proof of this. Grant made an another appeal to get active with the International Marxist Tendency, which he said was building that revolutionary leadership, just like the Bolsheviks before 1917.
John Clarke of OCAP spoke next. Clarke highlighted how the Russian Revolution was not seen by the Bolsheviks as an end in itself, but as the “opening round” of the world socialist revolution. All of the defeats of revolutionary movements since then, he said, have not changed that contention. He also said the Revolution remains the defining example of masses of people striving towards human emancipation
Clarke highlighted how the anger that exists in society today, resulting from austerity, war and poverty alike, make the conditions for revolution as favourable today as they were in 1917. He cautioned against pessimism, and noted how the Russian Revolution itself was described as the “impossible revolution.” If anyone should be pessimistic, he said, it should be the ruling class, and not working people.
Mike Palecek of CUPW was next. Palecek said that one of the most striking features of the period before the Russian Revolution was the treacherous betrayal of labour leaders across the world. Before 1914, almost all of the labour and socialist leaders had vowed that there would be revolutionary general strikes to prevent the outbreak of war. This, however, did not occur.
Palecek mentioned Ginger Goodwin, who led a strike for the eight hour day in British Columbia in this period. Goodwin was a prominent anti-war activist and socialist. The strike he led shut down munitions factories across the entire West Coast of North America. Goodwin paid for this with his life.
Palecek also spoke about how, after the October Revolution, Russia was transformed from a backwards, semi-feudal country to a world superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, which brought unparalleled crisis to the country, also proves the superiority of a planned economy over a market economy. He ended by saying the Russian Revolution was a dress rehearsal for the coming world revolution.
The final speaker was Marissa Olanick of SFS. Olanick spoke about the role of the national question in the Russian Revolution. Before 1917, Russia was what Lenin called a “prisonhouse of nations.” Had the Bolsheviks not won the support of Russia’s national minorities, the October revolution could have never been possible.
Olanick spoke of the horrors faced by national minorities under Tsarist Russia, which included pogroms, denial of civil liberties and a lack of justice. For this reason, Lenin always advocated for the right of nations to self-determination. This was not for purely moralistic reasons, but to build working class unity, by proving to Russia’s national minorities that the Russian workers had no interest in maintaining their oppression. Olanick emphasized how the right of nations to self-determination holds importance today, using examples of the Kurdish and Catalan struggles for nationhood.
Following a period of discussion, the speakers were invited to deliver closing remarks. Alex Grant was the last to speak that night. Grant noted how, 10 years ago, Fightback was the smallest group on the Toronto left. Over the last two years, Fightback’s forces have doubled, making it one of the largest groups on the Toronto (and Canadian) left. This, he said, was achieved by applying the methods of the Bolshevik party. This meant emphasizing the need for revolutionary leadership, as well as promoting flexibility in tactics. Grant ended by saying that, whether we like it or not, revolution is coming. As individuals, we can do nothing. However, by getting organized, and by learning the lessons of the past, we can change the course of history.
At this point, the crowd was asked to stand and sing “The Internationale” – the hymn of the international socialist movement. The notes of over 100 individuals echoed through the room, as the incredibly successful Russian Revolution Day School came to an inspirational close.
After this, a large crowd of attendees flocked to the nearby Duke of York pub, where discussions continued into the night, and a number of people decided to get active in the revolutionary struggle. The night was capped off by a round of revolutionary songs, led by Mike Palecek of CUPW on the guitar, and sung by the dozens of people crowded into the pub. Participants in the Day School left feeling encouraged to carry on the socialist struggle, having taken the lessons from the day’s discussions.
Montreal Events and Celebration
Over 110 people participated in events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the October revolution organized by the International Marxist Tendency in Montreal. Close to 60 people participated in our English discussion and around 50 participated in our French discussion. This was followed by an October revolution party at a nearby pub which was also packed with over 70 people. The high turn out for these events proves that the October revolution still remains a source of inspiration for those looking to fight against capitalism today.
Joel Bergman of the Fightback editorial presented at the English discussion and Julien Arseneau of the La Riposte socialiste editorial board presented at the French discussion. Both presentations began by dealing with the question of why there is still, to this day, so many slanders and lies poured onto the October revolution. The entire point behind this is to convince people whose lives are worsening under capitalism that there is no other way and to get them to simply accept the current conditions rather than organize to fight back.
Both Bergman and Arseneau explained the historical background of the revolution, how sections of backwards feudal Russia were rapidly industrialized, leading to a huge increase in the size of the working class and therefore their social weight and political importance. The 1905 revolution was an example of this with the working class launching a mass strike all over the Russian Empire. While this revolution was put down in blood by Tsar Nicholas, no amount of repression can hold down the workers forever.
Sure enough, the movement revived several years later, eventually culminating with the February revolution in 1917 in which the hated Tsar was overthrown. However, while the tsar had been overthrown, the workers, led by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, let power slip from their hands and into the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie. This highlights the vital role of ideas as in the heat of the struggle, the ideas of the Mensheviks proved to completely disarm the workers and only the ideas of the Bolsheviks could lead the workers to victory. The Bolsheviks, a small minority in the soviets at the time worked patiently, exposing the errors and making the case for a government of workers, soldiers and peasants. This method paid off later in the year when the workers decisively came over to the side of the Bolsheviks who led the seizure of power.
The gains of the revolution were immediately evident. Decrees on land reform, the right of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, full equality before the law for women and all oppressed groups – many things that most “democratic” countries do not even have today! This was followed by a call for the participants to help us fight to build a revolutionary organization, modeled on the Bolshevik party, to fight for socialist revolution today!
The enthusiasm from these events spilled over into our October revolution party, packing the top floor of Brutopia brew pub in downtown Montreal with over 70 people. Informal discussions and drinks went late into the night as people discussed what we can do to fight for socialism today.
The Russian workers made momentous strides towards world revolution 100 years ago. It is now up to us to finish the job they started. These events were a huge success and show that there is a growing thirst for Marxist ideas in Canada. The International Marxist Tendency is rapidly expanding and we need your help so that we can finish what the Bolsheviks started 100 years ago!
Contact us to get involved and help us build the forces of Marxism in Canada!