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Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution – and debating the lessons for today

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Issue 2579
Historian Steve Smith speaking at the Celebrating 1917 conference
Historian Steve Smith speaking at the Celebrating 1917 conference (Pic: Dave Gilchrist)

Hundreds of people marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution at the Celebrating 1917 conference in central London last Saturday.

Hosted by the Socialist Workers Party, it brought together people who want to learn the lessons of the revolution to help the fight today.

In the opening plenary, editor of Socialist Review Sally Campbell drew parallels with the Russia of a hundred years ago and the world today.

She said, “It’s the job of socialists to draw lessons from the Russian Revolution.

“Because it’s not just the era of Donald Trump, it’s the era of movements and figures who want to change the world.”

Over a hundred people joined a workshop on the Bolsheviks in 1917. The role that oppressed groups played in the revolution was stressed in many sessions. 

Marxism and Women’s Liberation author Judith Orr explained how this transformative change was only achieved because the Bolsheviks had a “conscious strategy to break the material basis of women’s oppression”. 

But tragically the revolution was defeated.

There was debate on how the triumph of October gave way to the horrors of Stalinist state capitalism from 1928.

In a session on how the revolution was lost, author Esme Choonara argued that only spreading the revolution beyond Russia could have saved it.

She added that there had been real potential for this to happen.


“It was not inevitable that the wave of revolution that was crashing around Europe failed,” she said.

In the final plenary Steve Smith, one of the leading modern historians of the revolution, emphasised that there was “much to celebrate” about 1917 and praised the Bolsheviks’ “determination”.

But he also claimed that their mistakes provoked “deep and widespread working class opposition to the Bolsheviks very early on”.

This “further constrained” the limited options open to them after the Civil War. Alex Callinicos criticised those who say the revolution came too early, given Russia’s low level of development in 1917.

He argued that there was no moderate or gradual alternative on offer, only the threat of bloody counter-revolution.

Alex said, “History is stacked against us and we may not win, but there are times when we have to try.”

SWP joint national secretary Amy Leather urged those present to emulate the Bolsheviks and “build revolutionary organisation today”.

“If the Bolsheviks had not existed, the parties that wanted to tie the working class to capitalism would have won and the workers’ councils would have been drowned in blood,” she said.

Amy emphasised that the ground has to be prepared before a revolutionary period. “You can’t build an army during a battle,” she said.

“We need to grow now if we are ever to make the kind of difference the Bolsheviks did.”

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