Date: Sat, 15 Nov 97 17:20:00 CST
October 1917 changed the 20th century
By Deirdre Griswold, Workers World, 20 November 1997
[The following is excerpted from a speech by Workers World editor Deirdre Griswold to a New York meeting celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.]
The Soviet Union has been such an overwhelming presence in world affairs that it is hard to imagine the 20th Century without it.
How long would the First World War have lasted without the Russian Revolution? Would the German, British, French and American generals who sent millions to their deaths in the trenches have suddenly become pacifists and called off the war?
In 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, 60,000 soldiers lost their lives in one day--more than the U.S. lost in the entire Vietnam War--but that didn't stop the slaughter. The imperialist generals finally ended it only out of fear that the revolutionary fervor in Russia would engulf them too.
All the imperialists held colonies. The Russian Revolution inspired these oppressed nations to fight for their liberation. Ho Chi Minh, for example, wrote about his great excitement on first reading Lenin. When the socialist revolution spread to China, this was taken by all the colonized peoples as a sign that their time had come. Would decolonization have happened without these great revolutions?
There are plenty of people in the progressive movement, however, who were so disappointed at the Soviet Union's imperfections, at what it did not or could not do, that they would write it off altogether. Wish it had never happened. Perhaps they think that then, somehow, the struggle to get rid of capitalist oppression and bring down the ruling class would have been easier, gentler.
They look at the collapse of the USSR as proof that the revolution was ill-timed, that the Bolsheviks went too far, that it was an impossible mission in the first place.
Such a view is totally subjective and shows not a shred of social consciousness. First of all, a revolution is not something manufactured from above. It is the result of a great upheaval of the masses.
There were three revolutions in Russia in the first part of this century. Each one went further than the one before, but only the October Revolution, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, was able to break up the repressive state machinery--the army, the police, the right-wing armed bands--that had served the exploiting classes.
That revolution put in power the most democratic form of rule yet devised--the Soviets--councils of workers, peasants and soldiers deputies. Didn't that shake the world!
But could the revolution transform Russia--and the other parts of the vast former czarist empire that joined the socialist federation--from a woefully underdeveloped country into an industrialized one overnight, or even in a few years? Not without help from the more advanced countries where capitalism had taken root centuries earlier.
But revolutions in the West didn't succeed. Nevertheless, over decades of struggle, the USSR was able to raise the means of production on a socialist basis to a level infinitely higher than that before the revolution, even though in the main it could not overtake the imperialists. The capitalists, we should remember, had accumulated much of their early wealth through the atrocious exploitation of literally enslaved peoples. The South in the U.S., Haiti, other sugar and rum producing islands of the Caribbean, the lands of West Africa, the Dutch East Indies, the British Raj, French Indochina--what were they but giant slave plantations during the colonial period? And the wealth flowed back to Europe or the United States, making possible rapid industrial development.
The USSR, by contrast, had to pull itself up by its own bootstraps while aiding in the liberation of the oppressed. And it had to do so in a hostile capitalist world, fighting invasion, as in World War II, and a costly cold war. It is truly amazing that in spite of all this, the USSR pioneered in so many areas.
Take the role of women, for example. Just last week, the European Union released a report saying that the percentage of women in government has dropped sharply. But, on closer examination, you see that the decline has been almost entirely in Eastern Europe and Russia since the counter-revolutions.
The Soviets had a much larger percentage of women than did any of the parliaments of the so-called Western democracies-with the possible exception of the smaller Scandinavian states. Soviet doctors were mostly women at a time when women here could barely get into medical school. Working women got many months of paid leave before and after giving birth. Every large workplace had a crSche or nursery. Women could retire at 55. Education was free, and women entered the sciences, sports and the arts in great numbers.
We heard only about the long lines in stores and the male chauvinism. Was there chauvinism? Sure. The chauvinists who now run Russia didn't spring up over night. But then they couldn't openly promote and profit from prostitution, as they do now. They couldn't fire women from their jobs for taking time off to care for a sick child, as they do now. They had to give all workers their wages, on time, or there was hell to pay.
Because, no matter how badly it was deformed, it was a workers' state and both sides knew it.
We live in a society that can overproduce almost anything-food, real estate, cars, computers. Yet our work day has become longer, not shorter. Many, many people are working two jobs or more. The intensity of labor is tremendous. Shop clerks now handle hundreds of customers a day. Workers on assembly lines have every motion timed, down to the second. Phone company supervisors listen in to make sure operators don't "waste" a minute by acting human.
But in the USSR, where goods were not as abundant nor the infrastructure as advanced as in the capitalist countries, workers enjoyed earlier retirement, much longer vacations, job-related spas and holidays, free education and health care, access to sports and recreation, cheap public transportation, low-cost food and shelter, guaranteed jobs, and many other benefits. And the intensity of work was much less.
All these social benefits introduced first in the USSR made it very difficult for the capitalists in Western Europe, especially, to grind down workers there in the usual manner.
The social democratic parties in Western Europe used to love to take credit for the so-called "welfare state"--but once the Soviet Union crumbled, they joined the chorus led by the reactionaries and began giving away much of what the workers had won. Tony Blair in Britain is but the latest of this breed. He will never admit it, but the Labor Party after the war was able to institute a national health plan, for example, because the European ruling classes were damned afraid of communism in those years.
And so was the U.S. That's why Washington spent $20 billion on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. And it is now openly admitted that the CIA helped put the social democrats in power in Italy in that period in order to counter the strong communist influence.
It has only been since the destruction of the Soviet Union that the European Gingrich types have been able to mount a vicious offensive against social benefits. No wonder Margaret Thatcher liked Gorbachev so much!
When the Wright brothers' plane crashed at Kitty Hawk after only a few minutes' flight, some said it proved flight was impossible. Only birds can fly. But for most of thinking humanity, that flight, brief though it was, was a splendid confirmation of the laws of aerodynamics.
The Soviet Union lasted more than 70 years. It took to a new level the struggle for workers' power begun with the Paris Commune. It gave aid and support to other revolutionary struggles around the world--one of the reasons we are meeting in this House of Cuba today. We will study its lessons and apply its revolutionary spirit in our own struggle for the socialist future.
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