In the picture you see Vladimir Lenin yelling slogans like ‘Peace, Land, Bread’ and ‘All power to the Soviets.’ Soviets refers to ‘councils’ and the promise was that from now on the people would rule.

It’s 1917 and the world has come to grips in the First World War. A war which can be summed up as: imperialist empires clashing to gain bigger spheres of influence, colonies, markets, resources. Or as George Orwell famously said: ‘War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.’ That’s it. That’s why most wars happen.

A revolution born out of war weariness

The first world war went terribly for Czarist Russia. The country was undergoing rapid development, but it was still lagging behind other countries such as France, Germany and England. On top of this industrial weakness its population was particularly unmotivated to fight. Lots of Russian were still illiterate peasants who had never ventured far outside of their village. The last Czar, Nicholas II, was entirely estranged from what was really going on in the country. Note that the country also got thrashed by the Japanese in war back in 1905… This shocked the world, as the Japanese had only recently been able to built a modern navy and there they went and defeated the Russian bear.

So something was clearly rotten in Denmark, as the expression goes, well, in Russia, to be more precise.

The October Revolution, which happened in November -due to different calendars used at the time- was the accumulation of a long string of social tensions and violent eruptions in Russia, going way back. Just think of the Decembrist uprising, to name just one example. In 1917 there were several revolutions, but the one in November was the most radical one. Long before World War I there had been bloody reprisals against attempts at social reform. Serfdom in Russia was only abolished in 1861 and for a long time the monarchy and the church sort of conspired to keep an autocratic rule going.

The Germans were happy about it, initially

germans and russians celebrate.jpg

Lenin was actually used as a secret weapon by the Germans to destablize its enemy, Russia. Lenin had been living abroad, in exile, when the Germans led him slip back into Russia in a sealed train. He arrived at the right time. So many people were absolutely tired of the war that they were willing to flock to anyone who could promise them peace. That’s what Lenin did, he took Russia out of world war I. The result was the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the picture you see some Russian and German soldiers celebrating the signing of that treaty. The price for peace was astonishingly high. Lenin signed away a huge chunk of territory and a massive amount of resources. The allies were not happy, because the treaty freed a lot of German divisions who could now be sent to the western front. This invigorated the German war effort for a while. According to historian Sebastian Haffner Imperial Germany did not take full advantage of this… See his excellent book Die sieben Todsünden des Deutschen Reiches im Ersten Weltkrieg’ (The seven capital sins of the German empire during world war I)

Worst place to try this

Karl Marx never expected the workers’ revolution to happen in a country like Russia that was still very agriculturally oriented, though this was slowly changing. It would have made more sense if the revolution had happened in a country like Germany. So the first thing the communists had to do was to go through an accelerated build-up of its industry. This was done by basically robbing the farmers of their produce to fuel the activity in the cities. Especially under Stalin this move was most brutal, but it worked. It cost a river of blood, but it worked and the Soviet-Union saw a truly astonishing industrial take-off. It became very productive especially when it came to tractors, tanks, machines, etc. What it failed to do was producing lots of good consumer items. Fridges, televisions, etc. Not their forte. The massive production apparatus, plus the material aid of the allies would later help the Soviet-Union triumph over Nazi Germany. Again at a massive cost in human lives, because Soviet tacticians and the Soviet command structure weren’t exactly aiming at preserving the lives of their own men… Individual lives were cheap.

The revolutionary spirit did electrify the nation, for a while. It filled people with enthusiasm AND large parts of the country finally got electricity. Lots of people learned to read. They wouldn’t be allowed to read whatever they wanted, but at least now they were literate.

Only the terror under Stalin could have been a sufficient incentive to pull off the extraordinary feat of pulling a ruined nation out of the ashes. The country flourished, at least in industrial terms, despite having been devastated by the first world war, a vicious civil war that followed the revolution, a foreign intervention to quell this anti-capitalist experiment, famines, more wars, and grotesque purges… The only way to keep a communist party as the champions of the proletariat is to liquidate all party members who show the slightest inclination to become as lazy as the bourgeoisie that it has replaced.

Clearly a lot worse than our current, far from perfect, system

All in all the Soviet-Union paid a very high price to become a superpower nonetheless, with a succesful space programme, a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, a decent transport system, a tolerably functioning healthcare system and fairly good schools. In the end it ran out of money, out of motivation, fell victim to ethnic tensions, and the freebies the people got did not outweigh the shortages in consumer goods. In the end people prefer to slave away paying off massive debt to drive a BMW and have an apartment and having shops where you can buy bananas till 10 pm every day of the week than to have relative comfort, nice social security, but no cheap city trips to any place in the world, no freedom of speech, no BMW to drive to the office in a suit, waiting for a lada that may never come, and not much bananas, but maybe cabbage and beetroots.

It’s also nice that at least under capitalism you are not forced to join any political party, you have the illusion of choice in the voting booth, you can choose which representative of the big corporations you want to hear optimistic speeches from, and nobody will ever lock you up because you say something against the system. The system doesn’t care, unless you expose too much like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden or Chelsey Manning, but those did more than just express an opinion. Dissidents, not even very vocal ones, are not really a threat to the capitalist system, because they don’t have a real power base and the mainstream media will underreport them, see the difference in coverage Donald Trump got and what Bernie Sanders got. Communism is much more fragile and can’t allow dissidents to speak their minds.

So all in all, you’re better off under capitalism, at least in the west. The victims of our system are safely removed from our eyesight, making your next pair of shoes somewhere in factory in Bangladesh that could collapse any time. In this video Peter Joseph says our current systems kills 18 million people a year due to ‘structural violence’, a concept that should really become more know. For now, you live in the best conditions the world has ever seen. For now. Because if the economy crashes badly enough, out will come the pitchforks. The October revolution of 1917 does show that there’s a limit to how desperate the toiling masses can become without rising up. And the result is bloody, messy and fearful.

For a short leftist leaning, yet reasonably fair, explanation of what happened in a nutshell, see the latest episode of the Empire Files:

Recommended reading:

Storming the Gates: How the Russian Revolution Changed the World

A people’s tragedy, the Russian Revolution,  by Orlando Figes

And for a right wing view (because all the deaths are mentioned the left won’t like her work, according to today’s extreme left Soviet Russia was some sort of paradise) of communism and all its horrors, you can turn to Anne Applebaum