Too often, the fact of the Great October Socialist Revolution having occurred in November was an introduction for a student eager for information about the Bolsheviks and Russia, of the Julian calendar versus the Gregorian. Even now, as the world marks the centenary of that Revolution, it needs to be explained that Czarist Russia had been a holdout in following the Julian calendar, according to which the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky regime in October 1917, while according to the Gregorian calendar, which the rest of Europe followed, the date was November 7. More important, the new regime switched to the Gregorian calendar swiftly, with the result that the very first of its anniversary celebrations took place on November 7. Yet its centenary has not been celebrated by any state.
It had to be called the Great October revolution to distinguish it from the revolution which had swept Aside the Czarist regime, which had taken place earlier that year in February (according to the Julian calendar; in March according to the Gregorian). And it was called Socialist because it brought the Bolsheviks to power, the first having been a national-bourgeois revolution, replacing the feudal regime with a bourgeois one.
Those who carried out the revolution looked back to the French Revolution. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had predicted that there would be another revolution like the French Revolution of 1789, though they did not expect it in Russia. However, that is where it happened, repeatedly. It is sometimes forgotten that the October Revolution was the third in Russia, after that of 1905, which made the Czar introduce some reforms even though it totally failed to overthrow him, and that of February 1917, which did overthrow him. However, it is only in October that a true Marxist regime was installed.
Incidentally, it was the world’s first Marxist regime. It was Marxist-Leninist, because its leader, Lenin, had introduced the concept of the vanguard party, which acted on behalf of the proletariat. However, for better or worse, it had set the course for the history of the world for the rest of the 20th century. After World War II came the Cold War, and then the invasion of Afghanistan. The last-named can also be seen as one of the chapters in the Cold War, but it was a shooting war, a ‘hot war’. It also provoked the demise of the USSR.
That demise is the reason that the Russian Revolution’s centenary is not marked much more extensively and fervently. The 1917 Revolution was a failed harbinger of world revolution. It was not meant to do what it did, which was set up a state which acted in opposition to the capitalist world. It was to have been the spark setting off the explosion that should have seen the capitalist regimes of the world, especially Europe, giving way to communist regimes, the merger of these communist states, and a common achievement of the goal of a communist society. Instead of happening in Germany, which was a developed industrial society, the Revolution started in a backward country, which while under communist rule had to industrialise, and there is the famous post-Lenin debate of ‘socialism in one country’ (which Stalin favoured) against ‘world revolution’ (as Bukharin urged).After World War II, the USSR occupied not just Eastern Europe, but also part of Germany. The only other gains to the Communist bloc were China in 1949, and Cuba in 1961. Cuba had first seen a broadbased movement against the regime, and the 1959 Revolution was against the regime, not for communism.
Another area which the USSR influenced was the decolonisation of the Third World. The Revolution had coincided with decolonisation. The liberation struggles took inspiration from communism and socialism, not just because the communist parties of colonial powers were sympathetic, but because of the Marxist analysis that imperialism was actually the last stage of capitalism. The independence of so many former colonies led to the Cold War being fought in newly independent capitals, and though there was much pro-Soviet posturing and Marxist or crypto-Marxist rhetoric, there were precious few gains for the communist camp.
The split with China, and then the invasion of Afghanistan, led to the fall of not just the Berlin Wall, but of the USSR itself, with its colonies, the Soviet Socialist Republics that made up the USSR, winning independence as independent states. There was no one left to celebrate the November 7 centenary any more, except for a Communist Party unused to being in the opposition.
The Russian Revolution was indeed a cataclysmic event, but its relationship to the 1793 French Revolution must not be ignored. The French Revolution can be related to the English Revolution, which began with the English Civil War, included the beheading of King Charles I, and ended with the Act of Settlement of 1700, but it actually was the first of a sequence that included the 1830 Revolution which overthrew the Bourbons finally, the 1848 Revolution that overthrew the Orleanists, and the 1871 War, which ended with the creation of the German Empire and the Paris Commune, which so deeply inspired Marx as to make him give its name to his ideology even though it was so shortlived as to last weeks only. Preceding the French Revolution was the American Revolution, now called the War of Independence. And incidentally, it proved more resilient. There is a USA headed towards its tercentenary, while the USSR did not see its centenary.
Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution had its effect. The development of the welfare state owed itself to the need to counter the workers’ movement, and to answer the critique of capitalism. It also led to the concept of socialism being achieved by winning elections, a basic tenet of social democracy. It was only when the USSR grew weak than the attempts to roll back the welfare state grew strong in the West.
After the Russian Revolution, the next great revolution was the Iranian Revolution. That may be seen as marking an ideological shift. It should not be forgotten that Marxism was based on a critique of capitalism. So was the Iranian Revolution. Resistance to capitalism shifted from Marxism to Islam, to the extent that Marxism has virtually disappeared. However, it has entered the capitalist system, because essentially it flows from capitalism. It is not for nothing that Marx’s great work, venerated rather than read, was named Das Kapital.
Since the Iranian Revolution, resistance to capitalism, and the main imperialist power, the USA, has come through Islam. Part of the problem of the USSR was that its foreign policy was subordinated to Russian needs and aims. For example, the invasion of Afghanistan was a continuation of the Great Game that began under the Czars. Even today, the USSR’s successor, Russia, is pursuing much the same foreign policy.
There is no Islamic Caliphate at the moment, to rival the USA, but if one was established, considering the USA’s current Islamophobic phase, it would be saddled with rivalry from the word ‘go’. Establishing such a Caliphate would mean revolution in one or more Muslim-majority states. Revolutions, according to Marx and Lenin, occur when the government realises it cannot carry on as before, and the people realise that they cannot either. That stage is arriving all over the Muslim world, with the result that its elites, trained to see no further than Washington or Moscow, are finding themselves about as relevant as the Great October Socialist Revolution.