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The Russian Revolution: Still inspiring after 80 years

By Arthur Perlo, People's Weekly World, 8 November 1997

"One of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars" - this was how Vladimir Lenin described the American Revolution.

But it also describes the Russian Revolution which Lenin led, 142 years after the "shot heard round the world" in Lexington, Mass., and exactly 80 years ago Nov. 7. With all the noise today about the "death" of Communism, we would do well to remember how truly liberating that revolution was for the people of the Russian empire, and for the people of the world.

Looking back

At the time of the Russian Revolution, most of the world's people - in Africa, Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe - lived in colonies or semi-colonies. They were forced - directly or indirectly - to labor for the profits of their European and North American masters, and any resistance was brutally suppressed. Europe was in the midst of World War I, in which millions of workers and peasants were slaughtered in a contest to decide which European rulers would get to exploit the colonies and weaker countries.

Russia, the weakest of the "great powers" of World War I, was known throughout the world as a backward, decaying empire. Today, Hollywood portrays its ruler, Czar Nicholas, as a tragic figure. But the Russian royal family, along with the Russian Orthodox Church, were notorious for their corruption, brutality and ignorance, ruling an empire of more than 100 different nationalities, and building grand palaces out of the blood of impoverished subjects.

More openly than today, all the world's great powers were ruled by old nobility and rich capitalists who were contemptuous of ordinary workers and peasants. Then, on Nov. 7, 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks took power in Russia.

The Bolshevik Party (later the Communist Party) was the party of the industrial workers in Russia. Its allies were the parties representing the peasants, especially the poor and landless peasants. With virtually all of the other political parties and classes against them, the new government turned to the working class to run the government and the economy.

The new government immediately implemented their revolutionary program - land to the peasants, an eight-hour day for the workers, and peace from the bloody slaughter of WWI. Equality of all nationalities was proclaimed.

Many Russian Jews, including my great-grandparents, had earlier fled the Russian empire where they were forbidden to own land, pursue professions or live in cities, and were victims of the Russian version of the Ku Klux Klan.

After the revolution, all legal restrictions were abolished, and the first Soviet President was a Jew, Yakov Sverdlov. This sent a powerful message around the world, at a time when Jews faced open and widespread discrimination in the United States, and most African Americans lived in semi-slavery in the American South.

Setting a new standard

The American Revolution of 1776 shook the world with the idea that people should govern their own country, although these governing people were usually rich white men. The Russian Revolution had an equally profound effect, proclaiming that working men and women of all nations and races should both govern and own their country.

)From the start, the world's capitalists feared and hated the Russian Revolution because it challenged their profits and destroyed the myth that ordinary workers can't run things for themselves. Winston Churchill helped organize an army from fourteen capitalist countries (including the U.S.) to "strangle the Bolshevik infant in its crib."

But the workers and peasants of Russia supported their revolution; workers in the United States, Britain, France and Germany refused to be used as cannon fodder against the workers of Russia. Churchill's attempt failed, but the new Soviet Union, formed out of the Russian Revolution, was left to try to rebuild a country, poor and backward to start with, devastated by seven years of WWI and then civil war, and facing continued diplomatic and economic warfare against it by the leading capitalist countries.

Within two decades, the new country had an amazing list of accomplishments. Industry and agriculture were able to supply the country for the first time with its basic needs. Illiteracy was reduced from over half to almost nothing.

The Soviet Union led the world in social services like health care, child care and education, and in labor conditions such as an 8-hour day, paid vacations and pensions.

By the 1930s, when the rest of the world was in the grip of the Great Depression's mass misery and desperation, the Soviet Union had a stable, expanding economy with full employment.

The Soviet Union guaranteed full political and economic rights to women, who were employed in all occupations, as doctors, engineers and political leaders. The many nationalities, formerly oppressed and "Russified" under the Czar's empire, for the first time had the opportunity for education in their own languages and cultures, and produced their own professionals and leaders to develop their rapidly growing economies.

At a time when the U.S. government was forcing Native American children into "English-only" boarding schools to destroy their culture, the Soviet government was helping the indigenous peoples of Siberia to develop written languages, and finding ways for them to blend their traditional lifestyles with the developing modern economy.

Twenty-four years after the revolution, the Soviet Union underwent trial by fire when it was attacked by the Nazi armies. Although the Nazis had triumphed throughout Europe, the Red Army defeated them.

This was only possible because of the huge advances made since the Revolution in industry, agriculture, and education; because of the unity of the many nationalities formerly oppressed by the Russian Czar, and because of the support by the people for their country and their socialist system.

Legacy and inspiration

The Russian Revolution left a rich legacy. Inspired in part by its achievements, workers in many capitalist countries won benefits like social security, unemployment insurance, shorter hours, vacations and health care. The Soviet Union gave diplomatic, economic and military aid to colonial people fighting for their freedom. And here in the United States, the example of the Soviet Union was an important factor in the federal government's decision in the late 1950s and 1960s to begin to end segregation.

The Russian Revolution, and the Soviet system built on it, were far from perfect. Many things have been written about their failings - some of them are even true. Seventy years after the revolution, the unremitting diplomatic and economic warfare waged by the United States and other capitalist countries, combined with internal weaknesses and treachery by its leaders, overthrew the Soviet Union.

In Russia and the other former Soviet republics, working people have seen their living standards slashed, pensions disappear, and education and health care destroyed. They are ruled by gangsters who have virtually turned their country into a colony of foreign capitalists.

This is part of a world capitalist offensive against the working class. People who never had a kind word about the Soviet Union are saying that its fall opened the door to this "New World Order." But the many successes of the Russian Revolution are a continuing inspiration, and even its failures will provide lessons to help the Soviet people to take back their country and rebuild a better socialist society. And the lessons learned from the Russian Revolution will also help us, when the time comes to build our own brand of "Bill of Rights Socialism," of, by, and for the people.

To me, the best ideals of the Russian Revolution are expressed in the words of a popular Soviet song of the 1940s, as sung by the great African American artist Paul Robeson: "To our youth, now every door is open. Everywhere, our old with honor go. Everywhere throughout our mighty union, all our people flourish free from strife. Side by side, the black, the white, the yellow, work to build a peaceful, better life."

Ideals like this inspired the Soviet people for 70 years.

They still inspire working people throughout the world.

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