Causes, Consequences, Comintern
Conditions in Russia before the Revolution
- By the early years of the twentieth century, political movements based on the ideas of socialism had emerged in a number of countries in Europe. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, the socialist movement in most countries of Europe suffered a setback. The Second International faced a split on the question of attitude to the War and ceased to function. During this period, however, unrest was brewing in Russia. The Russian Revolution took place in 1917, affecting the course of world history for many decades.
- In the nineteenth century, almost, entire Europe was undergoing important social, economic and political transformation. Most of the countries were republics like France or constitutional monarchies like England. The rule of the old feudal aristocracies had been replaced by that of the new middle classes. Russia, however, was still living in ‘the old world’ under the autocratic rule of the Czars, as the Russian emperors were called. Serfdom had been abolished in 1861, but it did not improve the condition of peasants. They still had miserably small holdings of land with no capital to develop even these. For the small holdings they acquired, they had to pay heavy redemption dues for decades. Land hunger of the peasants was a major social factor in the Russian society.
- Industrialization began very late in Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Then it developed at a fairly fast rate, but more than half of the capital for investment came from foreign countries. Foreign investors were interested in quick profits and showed no concern for the conditions of workers. Russian capitalists, with insufficient capital, competed with foreign investors by reducing workers’ wages. Whether factories were owned by foreigners or Russians, the conditions of work were horrible. The workers had no political rights and no means of gaining even minor reforms. The words of Marx that workers have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ rang literally true to them The Russian state under the Czars was completely unsuited to the needs of modern times Czar Nicholas II, in whose reign the Revolution occurred, still believed in the divine right of kings. The preservation of absolutism was regarded by him as a sacred duty.
- The only people who supported the Czar were the nobility and the upper layers of the clergy. All the rest of the population in the vast Russian empire was hostile. The bureaucracy that the Czars had built was top heavy, inflexible and inefficient, the members being recruited from amongst the privileged classes rather than on the basis of any ability.
- The Russian Czars had built a vast empire by conquest of diverse nationalities in Europe and Asia. In these conquered areas, they imposed the use of the Russian language and tried to belittle the cultures of the people of these areas. Also, Russia’s imperialist expansion brought her into conflicts with other imperialist powers. These wars further exposed the hollowness of the czarist state.
Growth of Revolutionary Movements in Russia
- There were many peasant rebellions in Russia before the nineteenth century but they were suppressed. Many Russian thinkers had been influenced by developments in Western Europe and wanted to see similar changes in Russia. Their efforts had helped to bring about the abolition of serfdom. This, however, turned out to be a hollow victory. The hopes of gradual changes in the direction of constitutional democratic government were soon shattered and every attempt at gradual improvement seemed to end in failure. In the conditions that existed in Russia, even a moderate democrat or reformer had to be a revolutionary. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a movement known as ‘going to the people’ when intellectuals started preaching their ideas to the peasants.
- When the workers’ organizations were set up after industrialization began, they were dominated by ideas of socialism. In 1883, the Russian Social Democratic Party was formed by George Plekhanov, a follower of Marx. This party along with many other socialist groups was united into the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898. However, the party was soon split over questions of organization and policy. One group which was in a minority (hence known as the Mensheviks) favoured a party of the type that existed in countries like France and Germany and participated in elections to the parliaments of their countries. The majority, known as the Bolsheviks, were convinced that in a country where no democratic rights existed and where there was no parliament, a party organized on parliamentary lines would not be effective. They favored a party of those who would abide by the discipline of the party and work for revolution.
- The leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, popularly known as Lenin. He is regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the socialist movement after Marx and Engels. He devoted himself to the task of organizing the Bolshevik Party as an instrument for bringing about revolution. His name has become inseparable from the Revolution of 1917. The Russian socialists, including Plekhanov and Lenin, had played an important part in the Second International.
- Besides the Menshevik and the Bolshevik parties, which were the political parties of industrial workers, there was the Socialist Revolutionary Party which voiced the demands of the peasantry. Then there were parties of the non-Russian nationalities of the Russian empire which were working to free their lands from colonial oppression.
- The revolutionary movement in Russia had been growing when the 1905 Revolution broke out. In 1904, a war had broken out between Russia and Japan. The Russian armies had suffered reverses in the war. This had further strengthened the revolutionary movement in Russia. On 9 January 1905, a mass of peaceful workers with their wives and children was fired at in St. Petersburg while on its way to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the Czar More than a thousand of them were killed and thousands of others were wounded.
- This day is known as Bloody Sunday. The news of the killings provoked unprecedented disturbances throughout Russia. Even sections of the army and the navy revolted. The sailors of the battleship Potemkin joined the revolutionaries. A new form of organization developed in this revolution which proved decisive in the upheaval of 1917. This was the ‘Soviet’, or the council of workers’ representatives. Beginning as committees to conduct strikes, they became the instruments of political power Soviets of peasants were also formed.
- In October, the Czar yielded and announced his manifesto granting freedom of speech, press and association, and conferred the power to make laws upon an elected body called the ‘Duma’ . The Czar’s manifesto contained principles which would have made Russia a constitutional monarchy like England. However, the Czar soon relapsed into his old ways. No longer could one hope for gradual reform. The 1905 Revolution proved to be a dress rehearsal of the revolution that came in 1917.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
- It aroused the people and prepared them for revolution. It drew soldiers and the peoples of non-Russian nationalities into close contact with the Russian revolutionaries.
- Hoping to satisfy his imperial ambitions by annexing Constantinople and the Straits of the Dardanelles, the Czar took Russia into the First World War. This proved fatal and brought about the final breakdown of the Russian autocracy. The Czarist state was incapable of carrying on a modern war. The decadence of the royal family made matters worse, Nicholas II was completely dominated by his wife. She, in turn, was ruled by a friend named Rasputin who virtually ran the government. Corruption in the state resulted in great suffering among the people.
- There was a shortage of bread. The Russian army suffered heavy reverses. The government was completely unmindful of the conditions of soldiers on the front. By February 1917, 600,000 soldiers had been killed in war. There was widespread discontent throughout the empire as well as in the army. The condition was ripe for a revolution.
- In setting forth’ the fundamental law for a successful revolution’, Lenin had included two conditions the people should fully understand that revolution is necessary and be ready to sacrifice their lives for it; the existing government should be in a state of crisis to make it possible for it to be overthrown rapidly. That tune had certainly arrived in Russia in 1917.
Beginning of the Revolution
- Minor incidents usually ‘set off revolutions. In the case of the Russian Revolution it was a demonstration by working-class women trying to purchase bread. A general strike of workers followed, in which soldiers and others soon joined.
- On 12 March 1917 the capital city of St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd, later Leningrad and once again, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg) fell into the hands of the revolutionaries. Soon the revolutionaries took Moscow, the Czar gave up his throne and the first Provisional Government was formed on 15 March.
- The fall of the Czar is known as the February Revolution because, according to old Russian calendar, it occurred on 27 February 1917.
- The fall of the Czar, however, marked only the beginning of the revolution. The most important demands of the people were fourfold: peace, land to the tiller, control of industry by workers, and equal status for the non-Russian nationalities. The Provisional Government under the leadership of a man named Kerensky did not implement any of these demands and lost the support of the people. Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland at the time of the February Revolution, returned to Russia in April. Under his leadership, the Bolshevik Party put forward clear policies to end the war and transfer land to the peasants and advanced the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’.
- On the question of non-Russian nationalities, Bolsheviks were the only party then with a clear policy. Lenin had described the Russian empire as a ‘prison of nations’ and had declared that no genuine democracy could be established unless all tile non-Russian peoples were given equal rights He had proclaimed the right of all peoples, including those under the Russian empire, to self-determination.
- The unpopularity of the Kerensky government led to its collapse on 7 November 1917, when a group of sailors occupied the Winter Palace, the seat of the Kerensky government. Leon Trotsky who had played an important role in the 1905 Revolution returned to Russia in May 1917. As head of the Petrograd Soviet, he was one of the most outstanding leaders of the November uprising. An All Russian Congress of Soviets met on the same day and assumed full political power. This event which took place on 7 November is known as the October Revolution because of the corresponding date of the old Russian calendar, 25 October.
- The Congress of Soviets on the next day issued a proclamation to all peoples and belligerent states to open negotiations for a just peace without annexation and indemnities. Russia withdrew from the war, though formal peace was signed with Germany later, after ceding the territories that Germany demanded as a price for peace. Following the decree on land, the estates of the landlords, the Church and the Czar were confiscated and transferred to peasants’ societies to be allotted to peasant families to be cultivated without hired labour. The control of industries was transferred to shop committees of workers.
- By the middle of 1918, banks and insurance companies, large industries, mines, water transport and railways were nationalised, foreign debts were repudiated and foreign Investments were confiscated. A Declaration of the Rights of Peoples was issued conferring the right of self-determination upon all nationalities. A new government, called the Council of People’s Commissars, headed by Lenin was formed. These first acts of the new government were hailed as the beginning of the era of socialism.
- The October Revolution had been almost completely peaceful. Only two persons were reported killed in Petrograd on the day the Revolution took place. However, soon the new state was involved in a civil war. The officers of the army of the fallen Czar organised an armed rebellion against the Soviet state. Troops of foreign powers — England, France, Japan, United States and other —joined them. War raged till 1920. By this time the ‘Red Army’ of the new state was in control of almost all the lands of the old Czarist empire.
- The Red Army was badly equipped and composed mainly of workers and peasants however, it won over better equipped and better trained forces, just as the citizen armies in the American and French revolutions had won.
Consequences of the Revolution
- The overthrow of autocracy and the destruction of the aristocracy and the power of the church were the first achievements of the Russian Revolution. The Czarist Empire was transformed into a new state called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R) for short Soviet Union. The policies of the new state were to be directed to the realization of the old socialist ideal, ‘from each according to his capacity, to each according to his work’. Private property in the means of production was abolished and the motive of private profit eliminated from the system of production. Economic planning by the state was adopted to build a technologically advanced economy at a fast rate and to eliminate glaring inequalities in society. Work became an essential requirement for every person there was no unearned income to live on.
- The right to work became a constitutional right and it became the duty of the state to provide employment to every individual. Education of the entire people was given a high priority. The equality of all the nationalities in the U S S.R. was recognized in the constitution framed in 1924 and later in 1936. The constitution gave the republics formed by the nationalities autonomy to develop their languages and cultures. These developments were particularly significant for the Asian republics of U S.S R which were much more backward than the European part.
- Within a few years of the revolution, the Soviet Union emerged as a major power in the world. The social and economic systems that began to be built there was hailed by many as the beginning of a new civilization while others called it an evil system After about 70 years of the revolution, the system collapsed and in 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a state.
- In its impact on the world, the Russian Revolution had few parallels in history. The ideas of socialism which the socialist movement had been advocating and which the Russian Revolution espoused were intended for universal application. The Russian Revolution was the first successful revolution in history which proclaimed the building of a socialist society as its objective. It had led to the creation of a new state over a vast area of the globe. It was, therefore, bound to have repercussions for the rest of the world.
- Soon after the revolution, the Communist International (also known as the Third International or Comintern) was formed for promoting revolutions on an international scale.
- The leftwing sections in many socialist parties now formed themselves into communist parties and they affiliated themselves to the Comintern. Communist parties were also formed in other countries, often with the active involvement and support of the Comintern.
- Thus the international communist movement arose under one organization which decided on policies to be followed by all communist parties The Soviet Union was considered the leader of the world communist movement by the communist parties in various countries and the Communist Party of Soviet Union played a leading role in determining the policies of the Comintern. It is generally agreed that Comintern was often used by the Soviet Union as an instrument for pursuing its own objectives However, the formation of communist parties in many countries of the world with the objective of bringing about revolution and following common policies was a major consequence of the Russian Revolution.
- With the formation of the Comintern, the socialist movement was divided into two sections — socialist and communist. There were many differences between them on the methods of bringing about socialism and about the concept of socialism itself. Despite these differences, socialism became one of the most widely held ideologies within a few decades after its emergence. The spread of the influence of socialist ideas and movements after the First World War was in no small measure due to the success of the Russian Revolution.
- The growing popularity of socialism and many achievements made by the Soviet Union led to a redefinition of democracy. Most people who did not believe in socialism also began to recognize that for democracy to be real, political rights without social and economic rights were not enough. Economic and social affairs could not be left to the capitalists. The idea of the state playing an active role in regulating the economy and planning the economy to improve the conditions of the people was accepted. The biblical idea, revived by the socialist movement and the Russian Revolution, ‘He that does not work neither shall he eat’, gained widespread acceptance, adding a new dignity to labour. The popularity of socialism also helped to mitigate discriminations based on race, colour and sex.
- The spread of socialist ideas also helped nip promoting internationalism. The nations, at least in theory, began to accept the idea that their relations with other nations should go farther than merely promoting their narrow self-interests. Many problems which were considered national began to be looked upon as concerns of the world as a whole. The universality and internationalism which were fundamental principles of socialist ideology from the beginning were totally opposed to imperialism. The Russian Revolution served to hasten the end of imperialism. According to Marx, a nation which enslaves another nation can never be free. Socialists all over the world organized campaigns for putting an end to imperialism.
- The new Soviet state came to be looked upon as a friend of the peoples of the colonies struggling for national independence. Russia after the Revolution was the first country in Europe to openly support the cause of independence of all nations from foreign rule.
- Immediately after the Revolution, the Soviet government had annulled the unequal treaties which the Czar had imposed on China. It also gave assistance of various kinds to Sun Yat Sen in his struggle for the unification of China. The Russian Revolution also influenced the movements for independence in so far as the latter gradually broadened the objectives of independence to include social and economic equality through planned economic development. Writing about the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru said,
“It made me think of politics much more in terms of social change”