The October Revolution

By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 22 2021
Focus The October Revolution

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

“Are you still an admirer of the October Revolution in Russia that paved the way for a setting up of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)?” asked a friend who does no longer believe in a socialist possibility. I answer to his question in the affirmative. Almost all the gains of the revolution are dead without a trace. The USSR had disappeared giving rise to at least fifteen independent States. 

In each State, with no exception, capitalist market economies have been established. Thus, the idea that questioned and provided an alternative to the notion and the system of liberal democracy for about six decades was dissolved so that Hegelian philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, was led to read the outcome as an end of history. 

Does dissolution of the USSR signify the October Revolution laid an extremely poor and fragile foundation? The dissolution of the USSR implies two things: (1) dissolution of the socioeconomic system based on nationalised property and centralised planning; and (2) the break-up of the USSR into separate independent States. 

The issue that I am tackling in this article is not why I am still attached to socialist principles and why I envision socialism as one of the possibilities that emanates from the extant contradictions, but why the October Revolution failed after a reasonably long existence. Is it because of its weak and fragile foundation that the USSR finally fell in the 1990s? Or was it because of the emergence of new drivers in the second half of the twentieth century? If so, what were those drivers? Of course, it is difficult to give an exact answer to any of these questions. 

Trotsky’s hypotheses

 It is convenient to begin the discussion on the subject referring to Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR and its politico-economic system. His point of departure is the premise that the October Revolution created a regime of the proletariat supported by peasantry and it had transformed the socio-economic system that existed in backward and semi-feudal Russia. The process was sometime gradual and peaceful but oftentimes speedy and compelling. Tsarist Russia was a backward country and the majority of its population comprised of peasants. 

The October Revolution dissolved the large land holdings of the aristocracy and rich farmers. Adopting the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionaries, the new workers’ regime had distributed land among small and landless peasants. In such a context, in order to raise peasant production, the revolutionary Government had to resort to the reactivation of the market mechanism. 

Similarly, the Government had to depend on a new caste of bureaucracy to manage and control state-owned factories. These two groups politically represented by Joseph Stalin and his clique, according to Trotsky, eventually took the control of the regime seriously threatening the democratic content of the revolution. 

This trend was portrayed by Trotsky as bureaucratisation of the workers’ state. In understanding the USSR under Stalinist oligarchs, answering three questions are crucial: “(1) what is the historical origin of the USSR? (2) what changes has this State suffered during its existence? (3) did these changes pass from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? That is, did they create a historically necessary domination by a new exploiting class?” (In Defence of Marxism. P. 68) Answering these questions in detail Trotsky concluded that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ State” and the ruling oligarchy was not a class but a caste that stood on and protect the nationalised property system in the main sectors of the economy. 

Although the bureaucratic regime of the USSR appeared to be strong and solid, there were forces at work underneath that had undermined its stability. Hence, Trotsky envisioned in his book The Revolution Betrayed that the system was in a state of constant flux and three future possibilities were open theoretically.

 They are as follows: (1) The continuation of the revolution of 1917: The working class of the USSR would topple the bureaucratic regime in order to protect and improve the system of planned economy and the State ownership of property by restructuring the political system on the basis of democratic control of the working class. (2) The counterrevolution: The bureaucracy transforming in itself into a capitalist class would change the State-owned property system establishing private ownership and the market system. Trotsky envisioned that this second possibility would be vehemently opposed by the working class. (3) Remaining the status quo and the bureaucratic rule would be the third possibility. It was the second possibility that was finally materialised in the 1990s, but with no strong objection or resistance from the working class in spite of Trotsky’s projection in the 1930s. 

Nascent capitalist class 

Two questions arise! The first question is: who led the bourgeois counter revolution in the USSR? How do we explain the emergence of a new strong class in a society in which the private ownership was not allowed? It appeared that two closely intertwined processes were at work. The first source of capital accumulation was the high-income earning bureaucracy that engaged in limited black economy operation with the West. Nonetheless, this wealth had to be kept as antivalue since there was no room for them to be invested within the USSR because private ownership was legally prohibited. 

The second source of capital accumulation was a quick process supported by Gorbachev – Yeltsin reforms. As the historian Edward Keenan has shown, the former Government officials and/or their family members were heavily involved in speculative activities when the ownership of state assets was left contested. According to him, “when co-existence of regulated and quasimarket prices created huge opportunities for arbitrage” the situation had allowed an easy access to join the rich men’s club. Chrystia Freeland in her book The Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism has revealed that post-soviet business oligarchs include relatives or close associates of Government officials as well as criminal bosses connected to the Russian Government. 

Break-up of the USSR

 Although the emergence of new bourgeois class with the support of the State bureaucracy explains the systemic change of the USSR from State ownership to private ownership and centralised planning to market economy, it does not account for the break-up of the USSR into number of independent States. Though not completely identical, a similar process was initiated in China under the leadership of Deng Hsiao Ping. 

The nascent bourgeoisie in different republic of the USSR had realized that they can exercise separate power only by creating nationalism as the dominant force. Hence, the communist party bureaucrats in different republics transformed themselves into nationalist leaders representing interests of respective nationalism. The dual metamorphoses from the caste of State bureaucracy to class of capitalists and from socialism to nationalism accounts for the demise of the USSR and how and why the gains of the October Revolution were made reversed.

 The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. [email protected] 

By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 22 2021

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