This year marks the 100 years of the Russian Revolution. The centenary is being commemorated in a radically different way than it was done 50 years ago. Back then, the Soviet Union was still the beacon of hope for revolutionary movements all over the world and celebrations were largely positive. One large part of the globe was either living under Marxism-inspired governments or was struggling to form governments or gain independence with a view to shaping a new society inspired by the ideals of the Russian Revolution.
Now with the fall of the Soviet Union and the unprecedented rise of neo-liberalism, the centenary is being marked by contradictory responses. In the western world, the centenary is being pored over for its relevance by the historians and political commentators. Within Russia, the celebrations are a low-key affair.
President Putin is reportedly positive about the Revolution for its role in consolidating the Russian state which he wields to his advantage nowadays. The talk of erecting a monument to the 100th anniversary is deadlocked with no budgets allocated and the place of commemoration yet to be determined. Beyond Russia, however, the centenary has sparked off a passionate debate about the meaning and legacy of the Russian Revolution.
Sheila Fitzpatrick, an eminent historian of the revolution, has grown ambivalent about its gains and its emancipatory potential. She seems decidedly set against the idea of revolutions in general for unleashing their disruptive potential. So much so that she is even hesitant to call the February events as the Revolution for triggering the formation of a government conservative in character attracting endorsement from the leading Western powers. (One of the least discussed aspect of the February revolution was the role of women. In fact, the February events were sparked off by women’s protests against rationing of bread and other hardship imposed because of the war).
In the US, the historians have squabbled furiously over the Russian revolution. Some historians have gone so far as to term the October Bolshevik Revolution a coup by a small group. Another American historian, Glenny Young, has spoken of the Revolution and its global effects. In her view, the Russian Revolution inspired the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.
The Russian Revolution was also instrumental in the cross-fertilisation of guerilla tactics in different revolutionary uprisings. The Soviet advisors were instrumental in helping the Republican side in the Spanish. In turn, Spanish republicans helped the Soviet Union repel German invasion in the Second World War.
Similarly, one of the veterans of the Spanish civil war played an important advisory role in both the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions. This heroic act of resistance preserved democratic governments in the West — an aspect hardly ever acknowledged in the mainstream commentary in the West.
The other long-range effect of the Russian Revolution was the inauguration of the welfare state in the Western world. Fearful of the contagion effect of the Russian Revolution, the Western government set about putting in place foundations of the welfare state. The overarching aim was to reduce the Russian revolution’s appeal for the hungry and the unemployed. The cross-party consensus forged over the welfare state was long lasting only to fracture in recent years for lack of effective and robust challenge to economic neo-liberalism.
Renowned Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, was largely appreciative of the long-term emancipatory effects of the Revolution on the rest of the world. Yet Sheila is of the view that Eric Hobsbawm was growing ambivalent about the gains of the Revolution in his history of the short 20th century. She maintains he would have judged the Russian Revolution differently had he been writing today.
British historians, uninfluenced by fights in the US academia, are putting forth a more balanced viewpoint. Professor S.A Smith’s books on the Russian Revolution are more nuanced. In his interview with Tariq Ali, he reckons it as the most ambitious undertaking which made a radical break with an oppressive, monarchial system ushering in its train the world-shaping events. The gains of the Russia Revolution are enormous in terms of imaging the possibility of another world.
On the other hand, writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali believes that keeping alive the memory of the emancipatory aspects of the revolution constitutes in itself an act of resistance. With this purpose in view, Tariq Ali has written a new book on Lenin. The book charts the life of Lenin and various influences which shaped his politics. In the various interviews and talks centering on the centenary, he appears to be suggesting that although history is made collectively, individuals sometimes play an oversized role in directing events and shaping history. Lenin is one such individual who played an outsized role in directing the Russian Revolution with his sharp analysis and timing.
Unlike most Marxists, Lenin was the one to see clearly the time for the Revolution. Other Marxist maintained that bourgeois revolution was the first stop on the road to full-blown revolution. Trotsky also shared Lenin’s view.
Extending Tariq’s argument about the role of the individual, Fidel Castro also fits this category. The Cuban Revolution would have been dead in its tracks had it not been for Fidel’s forceful personality and correct analysis of the political forces of the time. It is often said that it was Fidel Castro who willed the Cuban Revolution into being by sheer force of his convictions and personality. Nobody could have predicted how a small band of revolutionaries landing on the Cuban shores on a rickety boat would one day storm Havana and drive out the hated military dictator.
The centenary of the Revolution will be remembered in vastly different ways in Eastern Europe, too, where the hold of neo-liberal politics is firmly entrenched. According to Professor Tamas Krausz, the new elite wants to erase the memory of the Revolution because of its threat to the existing order erected on neo-liberal politics and free-market.
In India, the left parties are also planning to commemorate 100 years of the Russian revolution. its role in defeating fascism is being highlighted as an inspiration to fight the BJP fascism.