Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Revisiting the Bolshevik Revolution

What lessons can be learned from the history of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as the world marks its centenary this year, asks Walid M Abdelnasser

The world in recent days has been celebrating or observing — depending on the ideological side one is talking about — the passing of 100 years since the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, sometimes also referred to as the October 1917 Revolution to differentiate it from the February 1917 Revolution that took place in the same country.

The anniversary provides us with an opportunity to draw observations and derive lessons regarding the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution both domestically in Russia and in the rest of the world.

The first observation relates to the impact the Bolshevik Revolution had on its main adversary, namely the Western countries with their free-market capitalist economic path and liberal political, social and cultural order. The Western system found itself compelled to revisit and subsequently revise a number of its components and tenets with a view to rectifying the imbalances inherent in this system, particularly between the economic and social aspects, as a result of pressures put upon it by the Bolshevik Revolution. 

The Western countries had, in particular, to introduce massive reforms in their free-market model aimed at paying more serious and substantive attention to the social and distributive aspects of the economic system. They equally had to attach more priority to improvements in the quality of social services, as well as the expansion of the means of their provision, while helping to achieve accessibility and affordability for all citizens to services including education, healthcare, public transportation and housing.

The second observation relates to the positive impact the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the former Soviet Union had on providing invaluable and unprecedented support for the national liberation movements in the Third World countries fighting against foreign, predominantly Western, colonialism and seeking political independence in particularly the 1950s and 1960s.

 It could be argued that without the political, military, diplomatic and moral support of the former Soviet Union for such movements, it would have been virtually impossible for them to achieve the independence of their countries and peoples at the time and with the cost they did, particularly in the period following the end of World War II and during the first three decades of the Cold War. 

The number of developing countries that acquired independence virtually quadrupled over this period, at least partly thanks to Soviet support. This support should of course be perceived in the context of the Soviet/Western rivalry of the time and competition for the expansion of zones of influence during the Cold War. 

The third observation deals with a rather negative effect of the Bolshevik Revolution, again among the Third World countries. Many governments in the newly independent countries of the South in the aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War upheld the banners of “socialism” and “progressivism”, adopting policies closer to “state capitalism” rather than true socialism. The governments of some of these countries adopted policies based on political repression and exclusion, while justifying them on the basis of the need to “protect” the “domestic front” against “conspiracies” from the outside that aimed at aborting “national unity and development efforts” or promoting a “counter-revolution” that would serve the interests of the West. 

They came up with slogans that made political freedoms and democracy second-class priorities after defending political independence and achieving economic and social development and justice and the “progressive accomplishments of the people”. However, in reality, the absence of democracy, freedoms, political rights and pluralism led in several cases to the reversal of whatever real and substantial social, economic or cultural achievements had been realised in the interests of the peoples of these countries.

The fourth observation relates to the fact that the Bolshevik Revolution has led to a number of lessons being learned for human history in general and for the history of human revolutions in particular. The first lesson is that revolutions eat their children, meaning that many, if not most, of those who played leading roles in the preparatory and planning phases of the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as in its actual struggle, making the most precious sacrifices for its sake, ended up being excluded from the centre of power afterwards and from major decision-making circles. 

The second lesson, related to the first, is that the Bolshevik Revolution gave birth to a class of bureaucrats who assumed the ownership of the revolution, while the original revolutionaries were either imprisoned, fled into exile, or rotted in their homes. This bureaucratic class accumulated vested interests that gradually became clearly divorced from the interests of the people for whom and in whose name the revolutions was undertaken in the first place. 

The third lesson, also related to the previous two, is that the revolution, with the passage of time, moved far away from its original ideology, ideals, and objectives. This happened both internally and externally to the extent that some progressive forces and figures began to talk of the “hegemonic” orientation of the Soviet Union, whether in neighbouring areas of strategic interest or in the rest of the world.

The above are just some examples of the observations and lessons that can be learned from the history of the Bolshevik Revolution as we commemorate its centenary this year. There are many more observations that could be made and lessons that could be derived from the revolution’s rich legacy, both in the positive and in the negative aspects. We all eventually learn that history does not simply die with the passage of time and that we can all benefit from its lessons.

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