Revolutions swept Europe in 1848. But the working class in the various countries was generally too small, and insufficiently conscious of the role it could play, so most of the revolutions miscarried, without even widening democracy. It was only in 1871, following France’s defeat in the war with Prussia, that the Paris working class rose in arms and was able to establish its own revolutionary government. The Paris Commune lasted for 10 weeks before being drowned in blood by the French and Prussian ruling classes. Yet, during that brief period, it showed how a society under working class leadership could operate.
The Commune was thoroughly democratic, involving mass participation. It enacted laws designed to protect the interests of the poor and the working people - forbidding eviction of tenants for failure to pay rent; requisitioning all flats deserted by their bourgeois occupants; and transferring to the workers all enterprises abandoned by their owners. Most importantly, it abolished the old state machinery, appointing new functionaries from the ranks of the people.
The Paris Commune showed the way forward for the working class. It put into practice the Manifesto’s statement that ‘the first step in the revolution ... is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class’, in order thereby ‘to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie ... and to increase the total of productive forces as quickly as possible’. However, its defeat demonstrated the ruthless lengths to which the capitalists were prepared to go, in order to preserve their property and system of society.
It was another 46 years before a successful working class revolution could be carried out. Again, it arose from military defeat – in this case of Tsarist Russia, then a brutal empire. Again there were attempts by the capitalist powers to destroy the new society, by military force and economic blockade. Fortunately for humanity, these early attempts were unsuccessful.
The Russian workers, soldiers and peasants, united in representative councils or ‘soviets’, were able to carry through and defend their Revolution of 1917 because they were led by a democratic, centrally organised and disciplined party – the Bolsheviks – who had learned from history, had accepted the principles of Marxism embodied in the Communist Manifesto, and had been able to apply those principles to their own particular circumstances.
A major contribution to that revolution was made by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He rescued Marxism from revisionists who were downplaying the need for class struggle and revolution, and he developed it further to take account of the changed political and economic circumstances. Under his leadership, the Soviet Russian Republic was proclaimed, and the task of constructing socialism began.
To distinguish itself from right-wing reformists, who betrayed the working class while claiming to be ‘social-democrats’, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) renamed itself the Russian Communist Party and confirmed its adherence to Marxism. This step was rapidly followed by the formation of communist parties, on
the same principles, in many other countries.
After Lenin’s early death, communists adopted the term ‘Marxism-Leninism’, to indicate the creative application of Marxism in the era of imperialism. Lenin had defined imperialism as the highest and final stage of capitalism – one in which giant companies (‘monopolies’) and cartels strive to dominate the world economically, while their respective states compete to carve it up politically and militarily. Since this description still applies, we continue to use the term ‘Marxism-Leninism’ – although we regard it as incorporating the contributions made by many other leading revolutionaries, such as Rosa Luxembourg of Poland (later Germany), Alexandra Kollontai of Russia, Antonio Gramsci of Italy, Georgi Dimitrov of Bulgaria, Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara of Cuba, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Angela Davis of the USA.
The Russian revolution provided great encouragement to workers throughout the world. It sparked an international revolutionary upsurge. However, capitalism was able to weather the storm, due to its superior military strength and the different economic and political circumstances in the various countries. The defeat of workers’ uprisings in Germany, Hungary and Italy left the Soviet Union to stand alone. Surrounded and invaded by hostile powers, it faced a difficult task in constructing socialism, let alone communism. But there was no alternative – it could not wait for the revolution to catch up elsewhere.
The Soviet Union lasted for over 80 years. During that time it achieved tremendous economic and social advances for its various peoples. Starting from a backward country, the Soviet workers and peasants eradicated illiteracy and built a modern socialist industrial state with a high level of culture. They showed the whole world that it was possible to live without capitalists. For this they attracted hatred and slander from the western powers, invasion and near-destruction by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, and finally subversion and the constant threat of nuclear war from the United States and NATO.
The sacrifices of the Soviet Red Army in liberating Eastern Europe from Nazism inspired those nations to throw out their own pro-fascist landowning and capitalist classes, and to embark on constructing socialism too. Further, the multi-national, antiimperialist character of the Soviet Union gave great encouragement to the ‘third world’ peoples in their struggles for independence and genuine self-determination. China, Vietnam and Cuba, together with the liberation movements of Mozambique, Angola and South Africa, all received political, economic and military support from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.
However, the hostile encirclement of the Soviet Union, the low initial cultural level of its people and the Nazi invasion allowed the development of bureaucratic distortions of socialism, far removed from the democratic ideals of 1917. Despite the tremendous advances made by the Soviet people, a situation arose in which Stalin, Lenin’s successor, received uncritical adulation, dissent was stifled, suspicion reigned and many people – including dedicated Bolsheviks – were unjustly victimised and executed.
Even after Stalin’s death, and the revelations of the crimes committed, bureaucratic practices persisted in the Soviet Union, its Communist Party and the other Eastern European socialist countries. Real decision-making was restricted to a small group of leaders while the working class ruled in name only. It was such practices, which are alien to genuine socialism and communism, which ultimately led to the downfall of state socialism in both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Part of an introduction to the Communist Manifesto, written by Martin Levy of the Political Committee, Communist Party of Britain.