The Russian Revolution and the Communist Manifesto

By Greg Butterfield

Talk given at the December 1998 conference “The Communist Manifesto in the Age of Imperialism” in New York City.

It is often forgotten-and sometimes deliberately overlooked-that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto” was originally called “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.”

The famous pamphlet was written 150 years ago, not only as the world view of two individuals but as a program of action for a revolutionary organization-the Communist League, which included German, French, British, Spanish and Dutch workers.

The Communist League was a small organization with little influence in the recently born industrial working class. But its Manifesto became the road map for revolutionary workers worldwide.

It was 69 years later, on Nov. 7, 1917, that Russia’s working class took power in its own name, under the banner of revolutionary Marxism.

V.I. Lenin and other leaders of the Russian Revolution-history’s first successful socialist revolution-based their strategy and tactics on the perspective Marx and Engels set forth in “The Communist Manifesto.”

How did workers and the rural poor in Russia come to embrace the program of “The Communist Manifesto”-and what’s more, take action to make it a reality?

And what are the lessons from that 1917 convergence of mass consciousness and Marxism for revolutionaries today?

2017, coming soon …
Russia’s workers did not develop a socialist consciousness at one stroke. In part, it came about from decades of class struggles between the workers and poor peasants on one side, and the wealthy capitalists and landlords on the other.

But even with this rich experience, a socialist revolution would have been impossible without a communist organization that carried on the revolutionary tradition of that earlier “Manifesto of the Communist Party.”

That organization was Lenin’s party, popularly known as the Bolsheviks.

In its ranks, the Russian communist party counted some of the most experienced activists and dedicated revolutionary workers. It embodied the historical experience of the working-class movement.

What role did this Marxist party play?

During the revolutionary events of 1917, the workers’ movement would have lost its way or even faced annihilation if not for the program, slogans and tactics employed by the Bolsheviks.

Bolsheviks & the Paris Commune

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels taught that “the emancipation of the proletariat can only be achieved by the workers themselves.”

Under capitalism, Marx and Engels explained, workers must sell their labor-power to a boss. Workers create all value. But by not paying workers the full value of what they produce through their labor, the bosses rob the fruits as profit.

The workers have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seizing political power and taking over the factories, stores and banks. Then a rational, planned restructuring of the economy can begin.

In 1871 workers in Paris arose and began to carry out these measures. They created the Paris Commune, a new form of political power based on workers’ rule.

But the Parisian workers were isolated. Their leaders lacked a clear strategy. After three months they were defeated by the French and German armies.

From the Paris experience, Marx concluded that the working class “cannot simply take hold of the ready-made state machinery” inherited from capitalism. The workers must break up the old repressive state-government structures, courts, police and military-and build their own state modeled on the Commune.

‘All power to the soviets!’

It was later, in the 1890s, that “The Communist Manifesto” and other Marxist literature began to circulate widely in Russia, alongside the explosive growth of railroads, mining, and of factory labor in Petrograd and other cities.

Russian revolutionaries studied Marx’s teachings on the Paris Commune. They popularized these ideas among the working class. Marxist study circles were formed among the most political workers in factories, where they labored 12 to 14 hours a day.

In 1905, during an uprising against the hated Czar Nicholas II, Russian workers created the first soviets, or workers’ councils.

The soviets looked and acted much like the Paris Commune.

The 1905 uprising was put down in a bloodbath. Leading workers and activists were jailed, exiled or killed. A long period of setbacks followed. But the lessons of the 1905 revolution and the soviets were preserved and taught by the Bolsheviks to a new generation.

By 1917 Russia was neck-deep in the First World War. Nicholas II sent uncounted millions of underfed and often unarmed peasant- and worker-soldiers to their deaths.

Russia’s army, still commanded by the rotting feudal class, was no match for the forces of its German imperialist rival.

Rebirth of the soviets

A mass strike by women garment workers in March 1917 set off an uprising that finally toppled the czar.

This first stage of the revolution was not socialist in character. It was a bourgeois democratic revolution-that is, it brought to power the capitalist class that grew up in the cracks of old feudal Russia.

But within this revolt lay the seeds of a socialist transformation: the rebirth of the soviets.

Lenin recalled this in his report to the Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in March 1918:

“The spontaneous formation of Soviets of Workers’ Deputies in the March Revolution was a repetition of the experience of 1905-we had to proclaim the principle of Soviet power.”

A coalition of capitalists and social-democrats formed a provisional government.

But another power was also growing at the same time: the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants.

The communists charged that the new “official” government was loyal to the exploiting classes. They advanced the slogan: “All power to the soviets!”

The socialist parties that predominated in the soviets wanted to reach a compromise with the capitalists.

Only the Bolsheviks-after being convinced by Lenin, and basing themselves on Marx-believed the soviets could take power and feed the hungry, end the war and redistribute the land.

The communists proved right.

The provisional government did not make a fundamental break with the czar’s imperialist policies. The new government continued the war. It refused to break up the big holdings of the landlords and distribute land to the peasants. Hunger spread.

‘Bread, peace & land’

The rallying cry of the November 1917 revolution, led by the Bolsheviks, was “Bread, peace and land.”

How could such basic demands become a call for the overthrow of the ruling classes and usher in the most radical reconstruction of society ever attempted?

Russia’s people desperately needed bread, peace and land. But capitalism’s need to expand its markets compelled the bosses and landlords to continue the war.

The hungry and suffering masses learned that their needs could only be realized by overthrowing capitalist rule.

At each step, the communists protested alongside the workers, propagandized in the soviets and agitated among peasant-soldiers at the front.

When troops led by czarist general Kornilov threatened to restore the monarchy in August 1917, it was the Bolsheviks-not the capitalist provisional government-that organized workers and soldiers to defend their democratic gains.

In November, the communists organized the insurrection that overthrew the provisional government. The soviets, with a Bolshevik majority, seized power.

Companies of soldiers deserted the old army. Workers occupied factories. Peasants drove out the landlords.

“A wave of civil war swept over the whole of Russia, and everywhere we achieved victory with extraordinary ease precisely because the fruit had ripened, because the masses had already gone through the experience of collaboration with the bourgeoisie,” Lenin said.

“Our slogan, ‘All Power to the Soviets,’ which the masses had tested in practice by long historical experience, had become part of their flesh and blood,” he added.

Through civil war, intervention by 13 imperialist armies, and decades of unrelenting Cold War, the Soviet workers built a society where jobs, education, health care and housing were the rights of all.

In 1991 internal political corrosion, after decades of imperialist economic and military pressure that included threats of nuclear annihilation from the U.S., resulted in a capitalist counter-revolution in Russia and the other republics of the Soviet Union.

But like the Paris Commune, the lessons of the 1917 victory and its aftermath will strengthen the coming struggle for socialism.

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