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WHY and how should we mark or celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution? It is easy to see why many seemingly unlikely organisations are keen to get involved in a commercially exploitable event.
But for those of us who understand that the October Revolution marks the first time in human history that the majority class (workers and peasants) took and held state power, this centenary holds a special significance. Hence the way in which we commemorate it is quite different, ideologically, from that of the British Establishment and its cultural institutions.
Thus, Marx Memorial Library (MML) was pleased to receive a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project examining the impact of the Russian Revolution enabling us to project a Marxist vision of the event. This includes a travelling exhibition (currently on display at MML), a website, publications and lectures.
The whole project is divided into integrated sections. The first covers the situation in Russia from 1917-22. This section includes Russia’s participation in World War I (WWI); the two revolutions of 1917, the contrast between Menshevik and Bolshevik policy, especially relating to WWI; peace and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; the civil war; wars of intervention and the founding of the Third International, which marked the final split between communists and social democrats.
We then examine the impact of the October Revolution in Britain and more briefly in other parts of Europe — in particular Hungary and Germany.
In the section on Britain, we contrast the hostility to the Bolsheviks displayed by the government, the capitalist class in general and the right-wing leadership of the labour movement with that of the mass of workers influenced by socialist ideas.
The former group supported WWI and were incensed by the Soviet withdrawal from it.
They were even more enraged by the abolition of capitalism in Russia and the loss of their massive investments there.
In contrast, we examine left-wing responses to the revolution and its aftermath citing archival sources from the British Socialist Party and its newspaper The Call; the People’s Russia Information Bureau; the influential Hands off Russia campaign, which opposed Britain’s intervention on the side of the White armies in the civil war.
Finally, we appraise the formation of the Councils of Action. This organisation, by threatening a general strike, eventually forced the government to abandon its interventionist policy.
We have collected copious archive material and images from a range of sources including MML, RIA Novosti, the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies and the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University. We are very grateful for their co-operation and generosity.
The most surprising fact about the Bolshevik Revolution is that it succeeded at all, given that 80 per cent of the population of the Russian empire were peasants and mostly illiterate. In addition, Russia was heavily engaged on the Eastern Front in the inglorious WWI.
During the period between February and October 1917, the Bolsheviks were not initially in a majority anywhere, even in the soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils). Thus, they had only eight months to change things.
This change resulted in the almost entirely peaceful socialist October Revolution. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that the revolution survived five years of civil war and foreign intervention.
The revolution, its impact and its aftermath, is truly inspirational. We should certainly celebrate, study and, above all, learn from it.
It is to be hoped that all the elements of this project will assist in this process and help inspire confidence in the potential power of workers today.
Marx Memorial Library, London: Exhibition until June 16. Lecture by Mary Davis & Tommy Hodgson 7pm today.
SCRSS, London: Exhibition June 16-26. Lecture by Mary Davis 7pm June 23.
British Library, London: Lecture on Sylvia Pankhurst and the revolution by Mary Davis, July 10.
Modern Records Centre, Warwick: Exhibition September 25-October 13.
Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast: Exhibition October 23-27. Lecture by Mary Davis on women in the revolution October 25.
Find out more about the Marx Memorial Library here.
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