The October Revolution and internationalism: 1917 – 2017

By John Foster

Peasant looking to the future

Peasant looking to the future

‘Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed. We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists.’

Lenin,Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine(1919)

Peace, Bread and Land

‘Peace, Bread and Land’ was the slogan of the October Revolution. On the day following the overthrow of the Provisional Government the All-Russia Congress of Soviets adopted its Decree on Peace. This ‘Appeal to the Peoples and Governments of the Belligerent Countries’ called for immediate negotiations for a ‘just, democratic peace without annexations’. It declared all secret treaties null and void. It offered an immediate three month armistice. The Appeal ended with a call to the working people of the three foremost capitalist countries, Germany, France and Britain: ‘the workers of these countries will understand the duty that now rests with them of rescuing mankind from the horrors of war’ and linked this fight for peace, as the October Revolution itself had done, to emancipation from ‘all forms of slavery and exploitation’.

War: defensive or imperialist ?

In doing so the Decree on Peace highlighted the key nature of the October Revolution: the way it combined the struggle against capitalism with that for genuine socialist internationalism.

At the onset of war in 1914 socialist internationalism had been betrayed. In 1912 the Socialist International, which united socialist parties across Europe and the world, had unanimously adopted a manifesto which bound the socialist parties of all countries to use their industrial power to halt preparations for war. However, when war came, the great majority of socialist parties failed to do so and instead ended up supporting their own government’s war mobilisation. Each accepted the definition of the war as laid down by their own ruling class as defensive and legitimate. This happened in Germany, Britain, Austria, Italy and, eventually, in France.

Almost alone, Russia’s Bolsheviks did not. Their leader, Lenin, condemned the war as imperialist, fought in the interests of the ruling classes of each country and deriving directly from the nature of the capitalist system in its monopoly phase.

Internationalism begins at home

Internationalism, Lenin argued, was not an abstract, general aspiration. In his book Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism he sought to demonstrate that capitalism in its most developed, monopoly phase, was now inherently imperialist and aggressive. Its own internal contradictions meant that each leading capitalist nation had to grab external territories for their resources and markets. Opposing capitalism could not be waged simply at the economic level. It meant opposing the politics of the ruling class, exposing how the capitalist system demanded the subjugation of other peoples. Workers had therefore to oppose all imperialist wars – not in general but directly in their own countries and link this opposition to the struggle against the capitalist system. To do otherwise, to support the propaganda of their rulers, would disarm the working class movement and subordinate it to the ideology of the ruling class. Internationalism had to start at home.

In Russia it was the growing opposition to war that provided the spark for the October revolution. In autumn 1917 the Soviets, the mass organisations created in the wake of the first February Revolution, were finally won to back the slogan Peace, Bread and Land. Up to that point the right-wing socialists, who had been carrying on the war in alliance the representatives of Russian big business, had controlled the Soviets. Now they were defeated by the Bolsheviks and their allies. The slogan of All Power to the Soviets meant a government that would end the war. That was why its first act was the Decree on Peace and why it also immediately published the Tsarist secret treaties to expose the war’s imperialist character: Russia had sought to grab Constantinople; Britain and France the oil resources of the Middle East.

Opposing war and imperialism brings revolutionary change

The call for peace by Russian workers led directly to action by workers elsewhere – action that hitherto had not taken place. Within eight weeks 400,000 workers had struck work to demand an end to the war in Germany. A similar number took strike action in Austria. In the Adriatic Austrian Navy mutinied and attempted to establish Workers and Soldiers Councils. Later mass strikes against the war took place in France and Italy. On Clydeside 90,000 workers defied the ban on strike action on May Day 1918 to demand solidarity with the Soviet Revolution. Ultimately it was the mutiny by German sailors and the strikes in Berlin that brought the war to a close.

By 1918 this bringing together of the fight for socialism and that against imperialism was transforming the nature of the working class movement across Europe. Workers were moving beyond immediate reforms to demand social system change. In Hungary and Finland Soviet governments were established. In Germany and Austria workers challenged for political power. The pre-existing Socialist International split as the right-wing pro-war socialists now became the front-line of defence for the old order, heading governments in Austria, Germany, Poland and very shortly in Britain too. The Third International united the newly formed Communist Parties. It brought together all those socialists who opposed the imperialism of their own ruling class and were committed to social system change, to socialist revolution.

Internationalism today must also challenge capitalism and imperialism

Today imperialism is different in its outward form. Empires and colonies have long gone. Instead they have been replaced by the soft power of trade treaties, international organisations for the provision of credit and regional economic blocs – all of which lay down rules which subject the weakest to the strongest, require conformity to the needs of the (imperialist dominated) market and bar progress towards socialism. Those who refuse to comply are subject to ‘soft power’ reprisals and ultimately war. As in 1917, there remain those in the working class movement who still define internationalism in terms of these structures that serve imperialism.

The lesson of the October Revolution is that real internationalism demands that working people challenge, especially in the main capitalist countries, their own ruling class and the wider system that sustains oppression and exploitation across the world.