The 1917 Russian Revolution and 21st century socialism

[The following is an abridged version of a talk presented to a Sydney Direct Action forum on November 6. Doug Lorimer is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]

Waving a copy of Lenin’s book The State and Revolution, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told the 772 delegates assembled on November 21, 2009, for the opening session of the First Extraordinary Congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela that he agreed with the book’s central message: that it is necessary “to create a new revolutionary state from below that is a real mechanism for the construction of socialism of the 21st century”. Chavez recommended that the delegates read Lenin’s book as a theoretical guide for how to accomplish this task.

The State and Revolution is perhaps the most famous of Lenin’s writings. Written  during the revolutionary events of 1917, it takes the form of an extensive commentary on the works of Marx and Engels on the Marxist theory of the state and the tasks of the proletarian revolution. Its central message is the necessity for the working class to create its own class organisation of state power in order to replace the capitalist social order with socialism, a classless society of associated producers

Russian capitalism

At the beginning of the First World War, tsarist Russia was the world’s sixth largest national producer of industrial goods, and like the other major industrial powers at the beginning of the 20th century, it had entered capitalism’s imperialist stage, in which the various branches of production are dominated by monopolistic associations of capitalists, by a small number of big capitalist corporations - what US bourgeois commentators have subsequently called “corporate capitalism”. The rate of monopolisation in industry and banking in Russia was higher than in France and Britain, being behind only Germany and the US.

In his 1917 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin observed that Russia was a country “where modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed … in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations”. While tsarist Russia had entered the war as an imperialist power, with imperialist goals, 80% of its population were peasants. Serfdom, which held the peasantry in bondage to the aristocratic owners of large estates, had been annulled only 56 years earlier, in 1861. Its abolition remained more juridical than real. The great majority of peasants remained landless and crushed by debts to the big landowners.

Russia was also a major colonial power, having an empire that, in population, was the third largest in the world — after Britain’s and France’s. Russia’s colonial possessions, however, were not overseas territories, but countries on its borders on the Baltic Sea, in eastern Europe and in central Asia. Since the great majority of the populations within Russia’s colonial empire also consisted of peasants, the struggle for their national liberation was closely tied to the peasants’ struggle for land.

1905 and the army

In a January 1917 lecture in Zurich on the 1905 revolutionary upsurge in Russia, Lenin said that the combination of advanced capitalist industry with the serf-like exploitation of the peasantry had determined the peculiarity of this upsurge, which he later described as a “dress rehearsal” for the successful October 1917 revolution. Lenin pointed out that the 1905 revolution “was a bourgeois-democratic revolution since its immediate aim … was a democratic republic, the eight-hour [work] day and confiscation of the immense estates of the nobility — all the measures the French bourgeois revolution in 1792-93 had almost completely achieved. At the same time, the [1905] Russian revolution was also a proletarian revolution, not only in the sense that the proletariat was the leading force, the vanguard of the movement, but also in the sense that a specifically proletarian weapon of struggle — the strike — was the principal means of bringing the masses into motion and the most characteristic phenomenon in the wavelike rise of decisive events.”

Lenin went on in his lecture to observe that in 1905 the “combination of the proletarian mass strikes in the cities with the peasant movement in the rural areas was sufficient to shake the ‘firmest’ and last prop of tsarism. I refer to the army.” Elaborating on this key point, Lenin said: “The workers and peasants in military uniform were the soul of the [military] mutinies. The movement spread to all sections of the people, and for the first time in Russia’s history involved the majority of the exploited. But what it lacked was, on the one hand, persistence and determination among the masses — they were too much afflicted with the malady of trustfulness — and, on the other, organisation of revolutionary [socialist] workers in military uniform … At any rate, the history of the Russian revolution, like the history of the Paris Commune of 1871, teaches us the incontrovertible lesson that militarism can never and under no circumstances be defeated and destroyed, except by a victorious struggle of one section of the national army against the other section.”


Due to rising discontent among the workers and peasants with Russia’s participation in the first inter-imperialist war, in February 1917 a mass worker-soldier revolt in the then capital of St Petersburg (at the time named Petrograd) brought down the tsar’s regime. It was replaced by an unelected Provisional Government made up of liberal politicians within the tsarist regime’s advisory legislature (the Duma). The worker-soldier revolt also led to the formation of a potential alternative government, the elected soviets (councils) of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates, supplemented by factory-based workers’ militias, The Red Guards.

The refusal of the Provisional Government to withdraw Russia from the imperialist war and to implement a radical agrarian reform enabled the Russian Marxists organised in the Bolshevik Party headed by Lenin to win a majority in the soviets of the two main urban and industrial centres, Petrograd and Moscow. On November 6, 1917, the Petrograd soviet organised a mass-supported insurrection that overthrew the Provisional Government. The next day, the Petrograd soviet handed over power to the All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which elected a new cabinet, the Soviet of People’s Commissars, headed by Lenin.

The new Soviet regime, officially designated the Workers and Peasants’ Government, began with measures to meet the immediate needs of the workers and peasants - withdrawal from the war; support for active peasant participation in abolishing the semi-feudal landed estates; support for the right of national self-determination for the non-Russian nations within the now dissolved Russian Empire; and workers’ control over the capitalist managers of industrial production. The latter measure was seen as a transitional step toward the creation of a workers’ administration of industry when the new government was ready to take over the ownership of industry.

However, the Russian capitalists and big landowners soon resorted to full-scale civil war. Beginning in the northern summer of 1918, Britain, France, Japan and the US invaded Russia with 155,000 of their own and allied troops. The invading armies provided material support to the counter-revolutionary White armies organised by the Russian capitalists, former tsarist generals and the former owners of the landed estates. Increasing industrial sabotage by the capitalists forced the Soviet government to carry out sweeping nationalisations of industry under a crude centralised administration that at least could supply the needs of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.

Economic policy

After the Soviet regime won the 1918-20 civil war, a substantial retreat from this emergency policy, known as “War Communism”, became necessary. The New Economic Policy involved major concessions to market relations and the leasing of smaller industrial enterprises to Russian owners of capital and the formation of joint ventures between the Soviet state and foreign capitalists. Theses on the NEP adopted by the 1922 congress of the Bolshevik-initiated Communist International recognised that such a policy was not something peculiar to the conditions of Soviet Russia coming out of the civil war. The theses stated: “It is perfectly clear that a lengthy epoch must necessarily elapse between the capitalist regime and complete socialism; and that during this epoch the proletariat must, by making use of the methods and organisational forms of capitalist circulation (money, exchanges, banks, commercial calculation), assert an ever increasing control of the market, centralising and unifying it and thereby, in the final analysis, abolishing the market in order to replace it by a centralised plan…”

At the time of the initiation of the NEP inApril 1921, Lenin advised the Communists of the newly formed Soviet republics of the Caucasus to “refrain from copying our tactics”. He noted: “Oil, manganese, coal … and copper are some of your immense mineral resources. You have every possibility to develop an extensive policy of concessions and trade with foreign countries … This must be done on a wide scale, with firmness, skill and circumspection, and it must be utilised to the utmost for improving the condition of the workers and peasants, and for enlisting the intelligentsia in the work of economic construction. What the republics of the Caucasus can and must do … is to effect a slower, more cautious and more systematic transition to socialism.” Lenin added, “We fought to make the first breach in the wall of world capitalism. The breach has been made … You, Comrades Communists of the Caucasus, have no need to force a breach ... You must … learn to build the new with greater caution and more method.”

This is the general approach that the Venezuelan working people’s government headed by President Hugo Chavez has taken in its efforts to build a “socialism of the 21st century”. Chavez had led an uprising in 1992 by 6000 soldiers against the neoliberal policies imposed on Venezuela by US imperialism and Venezuela’s capitalist government. He won the 1998 presidential election with 56% of the popular vote.

Building mass movement

With Venezuela lacking the vibrant mass social movements that exist in many other Latin American countries, Chavez’s first act as president in February 1999 was to launch Plan Bolivar 2000, which aimed at creating a joint civilian-military mass movement for social change. It united the country’s 60,000 military personnel with the civilian poor in an effort to tackle some of the economic and social needs of urban poor neighbourhoods, such as building water supply and sewage systems, and repairing roads.

In 2001, Chavez began a campaign to bring the country’s nominally state-owned oil company, PDVSA, under his government in order to use its revenues to eradicate poverty rather than enrich US oil corporations and Venezuela’s capitalist oligarchy. On April 11, 2002, a US-backed military coup was led by army commander in chief, General Efrain Vasquez. Chavez was taken prisoner, held incommunicado, and an employer-military dictatorship installed. This was headed by Pedro Carmona, chief of the Fedecameras employers federation, who immediately closed down the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, repealed the hydrocarbon law and ordered the police to shoot any protesters. During the coup hundreds of Chavez supporters were rounded up and imprisoned.

Prior to the coup, the growing confrontation over who would control PDVSA had begun to radicalise the political outlook of the masses, including the junior officers and ranks of the army, who had been recruited among the families of the poor majority. Against the coup, hundreds of thousands of poor people poured out of the neighbourhoods and surrounded the presidential palace and military barracks. The armed forces split along class lines. A soldier-civilian poor mass insurrection smashed the capitalist-led coup regime on April 13 and restored Chavez as president. In the months that followed, the Chavez government dismissed from the armed forces 70 generals and admirals and 340 other military officers who had supported the coup.

Free of capitalist control

While in form the defeat of the coup meant simply the restoration of the Chavez government, in content it meant that the government now rested on armed forces that were independent of the capitalist class’s control. From then on, Venezuela had a government that had the capacity to act in the interests of the working people. Through what is now referred to by the Chavistas as the “April Revolution”, the working people of Venezuela had won the battle for democracy.

The reliability of this new state power to act in the interests of the working people was demonstrated a few months later, when the capitalist oligarchy launched a “strike” within PDVSA in an attempt to cripple the country economically and force the Chavez working people’s government out of power.  In December 2002 the top capitalist managers of PDVSA sabotaged the company, reducing oil production from 3 million barrels a day to 150,000. They were joined by 18,000 middle and lower managers and well-paid technicians.

Five days after the bosses’ lockout began, more than 2 million workers and small farmers from across the country flooded the streets of Caracas to support the Chavez government. The lockout was broken by a government-directed campaign waged by oil production workers and an army purged of its pro-capitalist officers. They took control of PDVSA installations and restarted its refineries. By the end of January 2003, the Chavez government had taken control of PDVSA, which in revenue terms was Venezuela’s and Latin America’s largest company. Nearly all of the 18,000 managers and highly paid technicians involved in the sabotage were sacked.

Social gains

Taking control of PDVSA transformed the reach of the government. PDVSA not only had massive revenues, but its staff and offices also provided the working people’s government with the equivalent of a new civil service to administer government programs. With assistance from the Cuban socialist state, the Chavez government’s “social missions” have brought substantial social gains to Venezuela’s working people -  the eradication of illiteracy; a 49% reduction of the number living in poverty; a 63% reduction in unemployment; the highest minimum wage in Latin America; free education through university level and a doubling in the number of students; an expanded free health system with 10 times the number of primary health professionals and five times the number of clinics as before; improved nutrition through the setting up of 15,000 subsidised food markets. Some 2.5 million hectares, or 40% of privately owned landed estates, have been expropriated and turned over to agricultural cooperatives.

Since the expropriation of PDVSA, the Chavez government has gone on to take over the commanding heights of the economy. According to the US State Department website’s February 2010 Background Note on Venezuela: “The Venezuelan government dominates the economy. The state oil company, PDVSA, controls the petroleum sector. Government companies control the electricity sector and important parts of the telecommunications and media sectors. In 2008, the government nationalised cement and steel producers, as well as select companies in the milk and meat distribution sectors. In 2009 it nationalised assets in the oil (including assets owned by US oil services companies), chemicals, tourism, agribusiness (including a processed rice plant owned by a US company), retail, and banking industries.”

Popular power

While the Chavez government still operates within the formal framework of the capitalist parliamentary system with its inherent bureaucratism, it is promoting the growth of an alternative system of popular power: the communal councils, which each organise 200-400 families, number more than 20,000. They bring direct democracy into daily life.

Chavez understands that socialism cannot be brought about by government decree. It requires the prior development of the class consciousness, political organisation and administrative skills of the working class. This is why Chavez has given special attention to building the United Socialist Party of Venezuela as the voluntary mass political force necessary to carry through the transition to socialism. His government has also sought to promote workers’ control of the newly nationalised enterprises, despite the opposition of the pro-government UNT trade union federation, which until July this year falsely saw the setting up of workers’ councils in factories as a threat to the unions. This year the government has promoted public discussion of a new labour law that aims to introduce workers’ control into both state-owned and private enterprises.

Also, the role of communal councils is to be strengthened, beginning on the city-wide level. In February, Chavez wrote in his weekly newspaper column: “The time has come for communities to assume the powers of state, which will lead administratively to the total transformation of the Venezuelan state and socially to the real exercise of sovereignty by society through communal powers”. He has argued: “The Bolivarian Militia, as well as community councils, are expressions of the new communal state, an integral part of the new structure of the communal power we are building.” The Bolivarian Militia now numbers 120,000 workers, small farmers and students.

Chavez has also argued that “the best and most radically democratic of the options for defeating bureaucracy and corruption is the construction of a communal state”. As Lenin observed in The State and Revolution, referring to Marx’s writings on the 1871 Paris Commune, the communal state was the political form “at last discovered” by the revolutionary proletarian movement within which the emancipation of labour could be achieved. This is the theoretical foundation and line of march that guided the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and today is guiding the Bolivarian socialist revolution in Venezuela.