The October Revolution brought about a revolutionary change in the conception of revolution itself. All revolutions thenceforth, including the October Revolution itself, were to be located within this new conceptual universe. Prior to the October Revolution, socialism had been seen as the revolutionary project exclusively of the proletariat, which could be attempted where the proletariat had come into being as a major political force, and where therefore the polarisation of society between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had been carried far enough. Socialism in short was seen as the project of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries. Marx and Engels had of course seen the possibilities of revolution in what we would today call the countries of the periphery, like India and Egypt; but the nature of such revolutions in the periphery and their connections with the project of socialism had remained undefined.
The October Revolution changed all that. It saw the revolutionary project within each country as part of that country’s transition in phases towards socialism; it saw the revolutionary projects of the different countries as inter-linked, and constituting merely the different moments in an overall worldwide transition to socialism; and correspondingly it saw the revolutionary project within particular countries as being sustained by worker-peasant alliances (together with other oppressed classes) led by the proletariat, with the latter’s leadership being necessary condition for a successful transition to socialism. This last perception was clearly expressed in Lenin’s call to set up “soviets of the working people” (as distinct from the working class) in oppressed and colonised countries.
This change in the conceptual understanding of the revolution arose not from any arbitrary or ad hoc or fanciful thinking, but from the material reality of imperialism. Imperialism had not only knit together the entire world, but was characterized by periodic attempts by rival powers to re-partition an already partitioned world through wars, in a situation marked by inter-imperialist rivalry. Such wars of course brought enormous suffering; but they also helped the development of a revolutionary consciousness, not just among the workers in advanced capitalist countries who were asked to fight their fellow workers across the trenches for enhancing the “economic territories” at the command of “their” respective monopoly combines, but to the working people of the oppressed countries as well, who served as cannon-fodder in such wars.
This conceptual change in the vision of revolution did not come all at once. The fact that in countries coming late to capitalism, the bourgeoisie could not carry the democratic revolution against the feudal order to its completion, since it feared that any attack on feudal property could rebound into an attack on bourgeois property, had already been noted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks earlier. The peasants’ desire for freedom from the feudal yoke, they saw, could not be fulfilled by the praxis of the bourgeoisie; it required a revolution which only the proletariat could lead. This made the peasantry an ally of the proletariat in the democratic revolution, and it therefore made the democratic revolution itself a stage in the process of transition to socialism, during which the precise allies of the proletariat would of course keep changing.
This idea of a new kind of democratic revolution based on a worker-peasant alliance, where the working class would not remain content with merely completing the anti-feudal tasks of such a revolution but would carry the revolution forward to socialism, with its allies changing along the way, had found theoretical expression in Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution and had been practically incorporated into the programme of the Bolsheviks which visualised a “Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of Workers and Peasants”.
What this entailed was a fundamental change in the attitude to the peasantry; but this change again was an outcome not simply of a different way of thinking, but of a different material reality. A democratic revolution of the kind that the French Revolution had been, where the bourgeoisie had played the leadership role and had destroyed feudal property and redistributed land to the peasants, was no longer possible in countries arriving late on the scene of bourgeois development. Correspondingly, therefore the relationship between the three classes, the bourgeoisie, the working class and the peasantry, had to be different in the new context from what it had been in the old context.
Earlier, the fact of the bourgeoisie having led the democratic revolution that brought landownership to the peasantry, had made possible a unity of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry against the working class. It is this which had defeated the Paris Commune, with Adolphe Thiers putting the fear into the minds of the French peasants that any attack on bourgeois property would also entail an attack on peasant property. But, now, in countries like Russia there was an altogether new situation: because of the bourgeoisie’s inability to attack feudal property, the proletariat had the historic opportunity to form an alliance with the peasantry, which via a democratic revolution, would lead on to socialism.
Many have interpreted this shift in the attitude to the peasantry on the part of the Marxists wrongly. They have argued that Marxism before the October Revolution had been hostile to the peasantry, while the October Revolution signified an overcoming of this hostility. This is not true: the Russian Marxists’ changed attitude to the peasantry was not a mere matter of an altered attitude;it too was based on a change in the material reality, namely the bourgeoisie’s incapacity to carry out the anti-feudal democratic revolution in the new situation.
It is the historic achievement of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that they recognised this change in material reality. In their doing so however there is no doubt that the entire Russian revolutionary intellectual tradition, encompassing Vera Zasulich, Danielson and others, who had underscored the infirmities of Russian capitalism and whom Lenin had attacked for their Narodnik views, also played a role. Notwithstanding their very different perspective from the Bolsheviks, they left an imprint on Bolshevik thinking on the specificity of the new situation.
But while this particular conceptual break involving the role of the peasantry occurred at an earlier date (there was to be a further revision in the Bolshevik position on the agrarian question at the time of the Revolution, when the distribution of landownershipamong peasants replaced the earlier Bolshevik demand for the “nationalisation of land”), the conceptual break involving imperialism followed the outbreak of the First World War. In the entire debate between Lenin and the Narodniks on the possibility of a direct transition from the mir to socialism, and between Lenin and several Menshevik writers on whether to ally with the bourgeoisie or the peasantry in the democratic revolution, the focus had always been on a revolution in Russia in isolation. There had hardly ever been any reference to imperialism.
With the First World War however this changed, and imperialism came to the forefront of discussion. If imperialism had knit the world, and no major issue of the time could be discussed, as Lenin later put it, without reference to imperialism, then the fate of the Russian revolution too was linked to imperialism. But here it became clear that the very phenomenon of inter-imperialist rivalry that caused wars and hence brought revolutions on the agenda, also made possible the survival of revolutions where they occurred. This rivalry actually provided the space for revolutions to survive.
The world in short had entered an era of revolutions. The imperialist chain was breaking, starting with its weakest link. The point was clearly to press ahead with the agenda of revolution, “going it alone” where necessary without waiting for the various “vacillating” elements in the working class leadership to join the revolutionary struggle.
Even in one of his last writings, Lenin emphasized that the Russian Revolution had survived because of inter-imperialist rivalry. And even after the failure of the German Revolution he was hopeful that China and India would witness revolutions, and added that Russia, China and India together constituted a large chunk of humanity. Revolutions in other words could no longer be considered in isolation; they were all inter-linked. They were simply the moments of a world revolutionary transformation, confined not just to the advanced capitalist countries but covering the oppressed third world countries as well. Accordingly the Third International that was set up following the Bolshevik Revolution was something the like of which the world had never seen: at its Congresses, delegates from Germany, France and Britain rubbed shoulders with those from China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. It was an International in the true sense of the term.
The Soviet Union has collapsed; the conjuncture of inter-imperialist rivalry that had characterised Lenin’s period and indeed the entire period till the end of the Second World War, has given way to a new world situation characterised by the hegemony of international finance capital. The precise manner in which revolutions will occur in this new situation may not be identical with the way they had occurred earlier; this is something which will have to be worked out afresh. But the basic perspective on world revolution that had informed the October Revolution, namely of a set of inter-linked revolutions, some sustained by the “working people” (where the worker-peasant alliance is the need of the hour), and others by the “working class” (where the peasantry is no longer a significant force), remains valid to this day. Indeed, the theory of revolution underlying the October Revolution which is built around the phenomenon of imperialism and the fact that it has knit the world, will remain valid as long as imperialism exists.