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International Socialism, Autumn 1967



The 1917 Revolution


From International Socialism, No.30 (1st series), Autumn 1967, p.1.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Much of this issue is devoted to the Russian Revolution, the fiftieth anniversary of which falls this autumn. To the new generation of socialists, this might seem an excess of adulation, idolatry or sentimentality; for, after all, the problems of 1917 are quite remote from our world, part of ancient history.

The attitude is perhaps in one sense a healthy one, for it shows that we have digested the past. It is no longer a precondition for being a revolutionary that one must come to terms with 1917. No longer must one pursue the fine distinctions of a subject sometimes over-explored by zealots in the past to support differences that were irrelevant to the problems facing the labour movement, even if they were useful attempts to establish an independent theoretical position between the blank rejection of 1917 by the social democrats and the post-1930 mindless worship of Communist parties. The decay of both organisations makes much of the old debate merely dreary. The two old monoliths have done their worst to destroy the meaning of 1917, and the ‘healthy reaction’ is one sign of how far they have been successful.

For what is crucial for us today in the Russian revolution is not all the quaint historical detail, the praise or the blame, but the portrait presented of men in action to achieve human freedom. For a moment, on a world-wide scale it became possible to hope, to see the reality of universal emancipation. The message of Russia sped out round the globe as the signal that the highest ideals of men were practical, could be achieved, and that the movement for their achievement had begun.

The events of 1917 also shows how far it was possible for conscious Marxists to frame for themselves a meaningful strategy for action. It was still easy for them to go astray, to be sucked along by minor currents of opinion and miss the central tide. Yet the opportunity for the final unification of theory and practice in the task of securing victory for the majority was also there. 1917 is a vindication of human rationality, of self-direction, of mastering events instead of being a prey t them.

Thus, it is wrong if socialists fail to look closely at the greatest historical demonstration of what I possible when the industrial proletariat sets out to try and shape its own future and thereby the future of society as a whole. The task was undertaken in the worst possible conditions, fighting both a pre-industrial autocracy, foreign powers in the midst of war, and the barbarism of primitive Russia; yet for a moment, it worked.

The subsequent decay of the revolution does not effect the initial nature of the victory, nor does it show any inevitable decay in ideals. For the decay only became inevitable when others refused to act. On a grand scale, it was the failure of solidarity. Isolation of Russia meant that the backwardness of the Soviet Republic could only be conquered by the time-honoured brutality of ‘primitive capital accumulation‘. The barbarism of Stalinism and the barbarism of Nazi-ism were the two products of the failure of solidarity, the failure of the German revolution, and thereby the failure of the world revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.

Socialists have few other demonstrations of the realism of what they have pursued. Faced with day-to-day problems in which, most often, people refuse to resist, refuse to fight except on the narrowest of issues for the most limited ends, we forget what happens in times of revolution, when the local and immediate merges with the national and international, when men become filled with hope that all things are possible, not for themselves, but for mankind as a whole. Modern technocratic society increasingly denies the possibility of responsible action by the majority to determine the society in which they live, and any attempt to do so is hedged by the narrow perspective of experts. When even the limited concessions of parliamentary government become ever more mythological, there is a great need to remember the immense potential of self-liberated mankind.

For the battle of 1917 has not ended. It survives wherever men hope to be free – and it will continue to survive so long as men dare to hope.

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