Russia 2017: The Centenary of a Global Revolution

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“V.I. Lenin making a speech at a meeting dedicated to the laying of the foundation stone for a monument to K. Liebknecht and R. Luxemburg, in Dvorstsovaya Square. Petrograd,” 19 July 1920, Wikimedia Commons.

Oleksa Drachewych

On November 7, 2017, the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution passed. One hundred years ago, in Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, formed the world’s first communist regime.[1] Bolshevik Russia survived a bitter and violent civil war, including invasion by Entente forces seeking to replace a government that was antagonistic to them. By the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was a superpower, an ideological, economic, and military counterweight to American ascendency. Other communist nations formed during the Cold War, including Maoist China, Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Cold War dominated international diplomacy for four decades. When the Soviet Union collapsed, dissolving in 1991, some declared Communism dead, but with current references to the broad left, it is clear that some of the ideas encapsulated by the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxism-Leninism thrive.

Many highlight that the Bolshevik Revolution and its results clearly show communism’s failing as a legitimate form of government. It led to one of the most violent and brutal authoritarian regimes in history, the USSR, with millions of victims of repression instigated under the guise of defending the revolution. It inspired other similar regimes, which also governed with violence, most significantly exemplified in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, when over 60 million people died. Other Communist regimes perpetrated great human rights violations and limited political freedoms.[2] These legacies remain relevant today as exemplified by the closed society of North Korea or the poverty of Venezuela.

Many nations have built tributes to the victims of communism. Most famously, in the United States, the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington is one such symbol, supported by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation which continues to condemn the horrors of communism, arguing that the ideology inherently leads to authoritarianism. In many former Soviet satellite states, there are museums, such as the House of Terror in Hungary, which include exhibits reflecting life and repression under communism. Currently, in Canada, initiated in 2015 with the support of the Harper government, the Tribute to Liberty project in part aims to memorialize the victims of communist repression, while also reflecting Canada’s position as a place of refuge for those fleeing communist persecution.

However, this focus on the Revolution’s negative consequences, while justified, ignores the genuine inspiration the principles behind the revolution provided to many around the world. Though some critical of communism are quick to dismiss the project as fundamentally flawed and one that inevitably leads to violence and repression, many of the ideas that underpinned the revolution were incredibly significant outside of Russia and remain relevant today. To many outside of Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution represented a possibility for egalitarianism, for colonial liberation, for racial equality or for positive change through social welfare, labour rights or a promotion of peace and civil rights.

During the interwar period, the Bolsheviks, while engaging in terror against counterrevolutionary forces and arguably re-establishing the Tsarist Empire – just under communist control – were also representative of an active anti-imperial force in the eyes of many colonial nationalists. With many nationalists frustrated that the European powers were not going to extend self-determination to their colonial homelands, they turned to the Bolsheviks, who actively were fighting the imperialist powers and had a message that gave them hope. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, had written a scathing critique of imperialism during the First World War and actively continued, along with other leading Bolsheviks, to excoriate Woodrow Wilson and the European powers for their duplicity and maintenance of exploitative regimes. With the development of the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919, the Bolsheviks created an international apparatus to guide communist revolution internationally and by 1920, it had turned its attention to the colonial world.

D. Orlov, “Death of International Imperialism,” 1919, Wikimedia Commons.

The Comintern’s influence on the developing world should be given an important role in the history of decolonization. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution influenced many on the left to turn to the Bolsheviks for ideological leadership and during the interwar period, communist parties formed all over the world. My research focuses on international communism during the interwar period and its commitments to anti-imperialism, self-determination of nations and race, with a specific focus on the case studies of Canada, South Africa and Australia. In the case of Canada and Australia, the Comintern urged these new parties to consider national rights, for French Canadians or for Indigenous peoples respectively. As I have written elsewhere, this was not necessarily a platform implemented wholesale in all situations; the Communist Party of Canada, for example, failed to offer significant support to Indigenous peoples until after the Second World War. In South Africa and Australia, Communist Parties were progressive forces which frequently gave marginalized groups, black Africans in South Africa or Aboriginal peoples and Pacific Islanders in Australia and New Guinea, an ally in their fights for equality. Many of these platforms were based on ideas of anti-imperialism, nationality, or race, as defined by the Bolsheviks or the Communist International and continued through the remainder of the century.

Nelson Mandela sympathized with communism and some of the African National Congress’ militant anti-apartheid efforts in the 1960s were directly developed by South African communists. Several nationalist leaders applied leftist principles in their efforts to decolonize their regions, exemplified by figures such as Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso or Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. In many cases, communism provided hope and a collection of ideas that could be used to fight for a better world.

The Bolsheviks maintained their commitment to anti-imperialism in other ways. They established the League against Imperialism, a front organization of the Comintern, to unite prominent colonial nationalists, such as India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Nigeria’s Herbert Macauley or Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, with communists all over the world in broad support for colonial liberation.[3] Many affiliated with the League later visited the Soviet Union, either for education or to see the alleged benefits of communism. The Comintern supported racial equality. In one example, it sought to organize the black Atlantic workers through the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW) which, at one point, was led by the prominent Pan-Africanist George Padmore.[4] While later, Stalinism would blunt the Comintern’s efforts, demanding ideological purity, separating itself from these broader movements, individual Communists involved in these efforts maintained their commitment to these ideals.

During the 1930s, the Soviet Union maintained a consistent criticism of fascism until the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Communists followed by launching Hands Off China or Abyssinia campaigns against Italian or Japanese imperialism, and flocked to Spain to help combat fascism.  These are the roots of the left’s present commitment against alt-right forces. Notably, these communists who united over anti-fascism, or anti-imperialism, were genuine in their beliefs, caring deeply about the cause. When Soviet leaders undertook policy shifts which seemed at odds with the ideas international communists agreed with, many grew disenchanted with the Soviet Union, but remained committed to ideas of egalitarianism, racial equality, colonial liberation and anti-fascism.[5] As communists became aware of the excesses of Stalinism after Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, many distanced themselves from the Soviet Union. Some turned to Maoist China, seeking its ideological leadership. Others considered established avenues of leftism, such as Trotskyism or the revival of traditional Marxist-Leninism, or developed new tendencis, such as Eurocommunism or the New Left. Many remained committed to the original goals exemplified by the Bolshevik Revolution, while condemning the violence, terror and repression that were reflected in revolutionary communist states, including the Soviet Union.

To deny this legacy as a result of the actions of revolutionary communist regimes, many of whom justified their actions as necessary to protect the revolution and depended on force to maintain their control, is problematic. The left broadly speaking tended to disavow this violence. Ideas encapsulated by the Bolshevik Revolution remain relevant today, whether in a general call for improved labour rights, an end to xenophobia or racial inequality, or its attack on militarism, war and settler colonialism. So as we pass this centenary, consider the importance of these ideas, while also remembering the victims of those who perverted those goals in their desire to maintain power.  Neither should be forgotten.

 

Oleksa Drachewych received his PhD in History from McMaster University. He specializes in the history of international communism and anti-imperialism during the interwar period. He is currently working on a manuscript for Routledge entitled The Communist International, Anti-Imperialism and Racial Equality in British Dominions and an edited collection with Ian McKay for McGill-Queen’s University Press based on the Transnational Leftism Workshop.


Notes

[1] The Bolshevik Revolution is also known as the October Revolution, named so because according the Julian Calendar, the revolution occurred on October 25. The Bolsheviks switched to the Gregorian Calendar in January 1918.

[2] Most famously, Stephane Courtois et al, The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[3] For more, good starting points include Fredrik Petersson, “Hub of the Anti-Imperialist Movement.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16, no. 1 (2014): 49-71; Jean Jones, The League Against Imperialism (Fulwood: The Socialist History Society, 1996).

[4] For more, see Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013); Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic: African American Agency, West African Intellectuals, and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

[5] For a particularly good discussion on this subject, see Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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