October Revolution 100 years later: are there any lessons?

The Russian Revolution took place exactly a hundred years ago — November 6, 1917. While the country it created, the USSR, has since broken up, historian Irfan Habib of AMU tells Seema Chishti there are lessons in the revolution’s legacy.

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: November 7, 2017 10:21:13 am
 russia socialist revolution, October Revolution, russia socialist revolution anniversary, Bolshevik Revolution, karl marx, communist manifesto, The Aurora Cruiser during a light show marking the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in St Petersburg, Russia. (Source: AP)

A hundred years since the revolution, the Soviet Union is no more. What has been its impact?

During the seven decades and more of its existence, the Soviet Union altered world history by providing great impetus to national liberation movements throughout the world (including in India); converting a backward country like Russia into a highly industrialised economy in barely a decade (1928-38); destroying fascism by defeating Hitler in World War II, and showing that socialism is practicable and can provide social welfare, equal opportunity and a fast pace of economic development.

There is an argument that communism collapsed in 70 years. But the fact that it survived so long in the context it found itself in, is that worthy of greater attention that it has received?

The collapse of socialism in USSR and Eastern Europe was not brought about by any fundamental defect in the socialist system. This is shown by the continuous contraction of production and employment after the fall of socialism in the former socialist countries. The fact that socialism was successfully implemented and maintained for so long is an indication that it remains (with some modifications, to be sure) as a practicable and equitable alternative to capitalism.

The ideas that led to the revolution remain relevant in a world of rising inequality. But is it correct to say that capitalism, in the end, is more adaptive than communism?

Capitalism has maintained its basic forms, generating higher and higher degrees of inequality and economic insecurity. There has been no ‘adaptation’ in its basic nature. It has been sustained by appeals to individual avarice, neo-colonial ideologies, racialism and religious chauvinism among others, for which, modern means of communication serve as a formidable aid.

A big credit to the Soviet Union was the many identities it brought together, putting out a different idea of ‘nationalism’. What was its impact on countries like India that wrote their Constitution after the USSR came into being?

The Soviet declaration of equality of all nations and assertion that the people can change the entire property system for their own good were ideas that directly affected our National Movement after 1917. This influence is reflected in the Karachi resolution of the Congress (1931) — outlining what free India would be like — in the country’s five-year plans, public sector expansion and land reforms in the first 30 years of Free India. Our Constitution was framed (and amended) so as to make this possible. As our Constitution’s preamble stands today, we ought to be a “secular, socialist” republic.

China, Vietnam are communist. The communists share power in South Africa, but it is said that communism has retreated and we are in a post-communism state.

There is no doubt that socialism takes many forms. It is in Cuba perhaps that its classical form has not only weathered the severest storms but also continues to command popular loyalty. The experience of China and Vietnam shows that in the stage that a country has to be pulled out of a low productive level, capitalism can be promoted along with the presence of a strong socialist sector. The Chinese Communist Party has more and more explicitly begun to recognise the inequalities and corruption this co-existence creates. Hopefully, the capitalist sector would be steadily restricted in the future. With China being the second largest economy in the world, such a process could be of decisive significance for the cause of socialism. In South Africa, so long as the property system is not touched, it is difficult to see what gain flows from the Communists’ participation in government. Even a land-ceiling law of the Indian type could be a game-changer in South Africa.

The ‘Occupy’ movement has been dubbed as a ‘Left’ thing. But in the US or in Europe, working classes, those hit by income inequalities and austerity, seem to have swung to the Right. Where did the Left go so wrong?

As mentioned above, ideologies that point to false enemies (Jews in pre-World War II Europe, Black Africans in White America, non-Muslims in Pakistan and Muslims in India) are the best protection for capitalism in the battle for minds. Almost inevitably a turn to the ‘Left’ in popular opinion is followed by a turn to the ‘Right’. Apparently it is as inevitable an ideological cycle as is the business cycle in capitalism.

In India, what is the biggest lesson that progressives can draw from the Russian Revolution, especially with a force like the BJP in the driving seat?

The ideological impact of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which naturally caused widespread disenchantment with socialism in India, was the immediate rapid growth of communalism fostered by the BJP and marked by the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. That process has continued. The communal slogans are combined with a complete sway of the Corporate Sector (thus the celebration of “ease of business”), while small businesses and factories are facing closure. Unless the major democratic, secular and socialist forces in India combine on a minimum programme, one cannot see how, in the short term, this offensive of what is really a fascist hegemony in the making can be thwarted.

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