Celebrating the Russian revolution: from the ox-drawn plough to nuclear power and Sputnik



I was six years of age when ‘Sputnik’ became the first artificial earth satellite. It was sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. I have a vague memory of my parents taking me into the street that night and, with curious neighbours, peering into the dark star-lit skies over West Brunswick, Melbourne. I’m fairly sure someone said they could see it, and maybe I saw it, or something, among the stars too.

I also recall my father, Loreto, remarking on how the success of Sputnik highlighted ‘the superiority of socialism’. Of course, I didn’t understand what that meant. What was socialism? And what was it meant to be superior to? He was a Labor voter, but very much to the left, and it wasn’t uncommon for Labor men and women to talk favourably about socialism in those days.

About a decade later, when I was 16, my dad and I would sometimes take the number 19 tram from Brunswick to the City on Saturday mornings and visit the International Bookshop in Excelsior House, 17 Elizabeth Street. An antiquated rickety old lift would take us up to the second floor where we’d be greeted by the Communist Party shopkeeper, Jack Morrison.

Sometimes a couple of dad’s young workmates from the factory where he worked would meet us there. We’d browse through copies of glossy propaganda magazines like ‘Soviet Pictorial’ and ‘China Pictorial’, marvelling at the photographic evidence of bumper harvests and advanced technology. I was a reader of science fiction and the images of gigantic tractors and huge pumpkins enthused and fascinated me.

By this stage of my life I had an understanding of socialism and identified with it in a gut kind of way. It was about progress, about eradication of poverty, about imagining a better future based on scientific discovery and technological innovation – and about the working class who produced society’s wealth taking control of the means of producing it.

At a time when censorship laws in Australia and the west were ridiculous, it was also about greater freedom. The International Bookshop flaunted censorship laws by stocking some of the books that had been banned by the government for political or sexual content. (D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was in the latter category).

An example of political censorship was a ban on a pamphlet that exposed US war crimes in Vietnam. I forget its title now but remember obtaining copies from the Eureka Youth League in 1968 and distributing them, surreptitiously, at my high school. The pamphlet was banned under the Obscene Publications Act, from memory.

* * * *

My father had served in the Second World War, volunteering in 1940 for the Royal Air Force in his homeland, Malta, when the Italian Fascists started bombarding the main island of the Mediterranean archipelago. He remembered the priests opposing British imperialism from the pulpit in the lead up to the War and assuring their congregations that Malta’s future was best served by accepting Mussolini’s Italia Irredenta.

By any measure, British imperialism’s crimes at that time were far worse than those of Italian imperialism, but on the other hand, British bourgeois democracy was much preferable to Italian/German fascism.

During the War, my father served in Africa, the Middle East, Palestine, and France, before being stationed in London after the War.

The War changed his world, everyone’s world, and in mixing with other RAF men, his eyes were opened to new ways of seeing and thinking. He remembered Jewish and Scottish airmen telling him about Stalin, the Soviet Union (“where the workers ruled”) and communism. (Note, they are called ‘airmen’ but they served on the ground, in regiments, and never flew).

The troops knew that Stalin’s Red Army were routing the Nazis in Europe and my dad’s comrades told him the story about the early British appeasement of Hitler and the west’s refusal to heed Stalin’s calls for collective security against fascism as early as 1933.

After the War, in London, still in uniform, my father thrived in the cosmopolitan environment of one of the world’s biggest cities. Servicemen in uniform were given free tickets to the West End theatres and to lectures given by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’. My dad took advantage of such opportunities.

He started buying the ‘Daily Worker’ regularly, the organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and found that while there were strong pockets of anti-communism, in general Londoners were tolerant of it and there was sympathy for Stalin and the Red Army.

My dad told me about an occasion when he went to work at his job in the Air Ministry in London after the War, having purchased the Daily Worker that morning. Walking through the main office, one of the heads of the ministry – a ‘Lord’ no less – noticed him and asked, ‘What’s that paper you’re carrying?’ My dad saluted and replied, ‘Sir! It’s the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party’. Lord-so-and-so responded: ‘Oh, I thought it was. May I borrow it after you’ve finished with it? I forgot to buy mine this morning’.

It’s easy to forget that communism was popular after the War and that the Cold War arose in part because of communism’s popularity in Europe, west and east. If it’s true that reactionaries tremble at the mere rustle of leaves, then you can imagine how they responded to elections in places like France and Italy where between a quarter and third of the people voted Communist.

* * * *

I want to celebrate the centenary of the Russian revolution because it was an attempt to build socialism after the old feudal order had been overthrown by the people, led by the communist Bolsheviks. That it was led by communists was a rather flukish situation. The overthrow of the feudal order required a bourgeois democratic revolution that would develop capitalism. As David McMullen says in Rescuing the Message of the Communist Manifesto:

‘There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution’.

The Russian revolution also shows how the old order never just gives in. Civil war followed the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, with the old order backed by military forces of more than a dozen foreign governments.

Then there came the rise of fascism in Europe and the active pro-fascist fifth columns in various countries, especially the Soviet Union. Hitler hated communism, which he called Judeo-Bolshevism. In the Soviet Union, the fifth columnists engaged in sabotage and collaboration – as they did in some western countries too. In the west, the fascist sympathisers promoted isolationism in foreign policy. It’s “over there”, not our problem, we’ll only make things worse, blah blah blah. Such is the mentality that thinks in terms of ethnic identity and nationality rather than humanity.

As if things couldn’t become more difficult, there came the Second World War which, initially, the Soviet Union tried to keep out of; though Stalin had sought collective security agreements with Britain and other powers in the early 1930s when Hitler’s Nazis took power. Britain declined and instead entered into the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1934. Poland agreed to a non-aggression pact with Hitler, rather than collective security to thwart him, also in 1934.

The Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, and Soviet resistance, resulted in 25 million mainly Russian deaths. The Soviet Union instigated the greatest military action in world history known as Operation Bagration, codename for the 1944 Soviet Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation, which secured the defeat of the Nazis. Women were mobilised along with men and the Red Army’s women’s sniper force became legendary in the Soviet Union. Lyudmila Pavlichenko shot 309 Nazi soldiers as a Ukrainian Red Army Soviet sniper during the war. (Woody Guthrie wrote a song for her in 1942).

It was understood at that time that the Soviet Union, despite what it had been through – a revolution followed by a civil war caused by the military intervention of forces backed by a dozen foreign governments, the subversive activities and sabotage of a pro-fascist fifth column, and an invasion by the German Nazis and their Finnish and Romanian allies that killed 25 million Soviet citizens – had achieved plenty through its socialist system.

Industrialisation, massive dam construction and electrification of the countryside had lifted millions from the acute poverty experienced under Tsardom. Stalin wanted to create “a second America” in terms of industrial progress. For the first time, the socialist republics of the USSR developed their own motor, aircraft, tank, tractor, machine tool, electrical and chemical industries – with the assistance of European and American experts.

The dam built on the Dnieper River from 1927 was the biggest hydro-electric station in Europe and was consistent with Lenin’s slogan: ‘Communism is soviet power plus electrification’.

lenin electrification soviet

New cities were built, most notably Magnitogorsk, which was based on iron ore mining and steel production. Hundreds of experts were brought in as advisers, including Americans, as the city was to be based on US steel-cities, Gary (Indiana) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania).

Roads, railways, canals also helped move Russia and the Soviet Union further from the feudal era of the ox-drawn plough. The Volga-Don Canal and the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal were achievements of a system in which need and progress motivate planning and production. And, in 1954, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to harness nuclear power for peaceful use, with the operation of the APS-1 nuclear power plant at Obninsk, the ‘Science City’.

This material progress, the application of human ingenuity in the creative-destructive transformation of Nature through labour, is a key reason as to why so many working class people in the west were attracted to socialism.

If the unleashing of the productive forces in a backward economy like Russia in the early C20th could produce such results via social ownership, then what could be achieved under socialism in the advanced industrial west where progress was held back by concentrated private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of maximum profit for those private owners as the goal of production?

Despite the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, these questions remain. They just need to be put back on the agenda of public discourse. Instead, we can expect the same old ritualistic denunciations based on the false premise that ‘the History is settled’.

Celebrating the Russian revolution

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Eye-witness accounts

The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

The specific achievements under socialism

Homeless children 1927

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

Baku oil fields

Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

* * * *

The Russian revolution may be 100 years old but reactionaries of all stripes, if they must see it at all, want to see it dead and rotting. In this state its use to them is in glorifying its actual and putative failures and turning a blind eye to its successes.

If the communists and their allies were able to achieve what they did in such backward conditions, what is that saying about the bourgeoisie today? Slovenly, past their use by date and basically backward (lift your game or get out of the way!)

Bourgeois leadership may have been fine against the feudalists. However it was pretty pathetic in Russia and China – to the point where the proletarian parties had to do it for them and did a vastly better job in the process. This last point is an irony of significance. And that’s the point about the advances of the 1920’s in the USSR: they need to ‘live’ and be exciting for us now – and be used as a contemporary point of comparison.

‘It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership.

‘There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it’.*

* * * *

Eye-witness accounts

In browsing on the topic of the Russian revolution, I came across a 40 page pamphlet, Women in Russia. It was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1928 and reveals some of the changes and improvements in everyday life for women in Russia in the short space of ten years after the revolution.

women in russia

Karl Marx once said that you can measure the progress of a society by looking at the condition of women within it and that great social changes were not possible without ‘the feminine ferment’. I think he was – and is – right.

The pamphlet is the report by a group of five English women who visited Russia on the occasion of the revolution’s first decade to see what was happening. They were Beth Turner, Rose Smith, Lily Webb, Fanny Deakin and Florence Maxwell.

I can’t find out much about them individually, except for Fanny Deakin who at some point in time joined the Communist Party. Fanny was also a graduate with distinction from the ‘University of Life and Hard Knocks’. The Working Class Movement Library outlines her story thus:

Fanny Deakin (1883–1968) was a lifelong activist from Silverdale in the North Staffordshire coalfield. Of the five children born to her marriage with Noah Deakin, only one survived into adulthood.  This experience, typical of that of many working class communities, led to lifetime campaigning for better maternity services.  But her political involvement incorporated membership of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party and, later, the Communist Party.  Her political experience was shaped by disputes in local collieries and, above all, by the 1926 General Strike where Fanny was involved in leading processions, holding protests and speaking at large gatherings. Her motivation was summed up as ‘Fighting for the Mothers’.

The five women visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kharkov and Baku in order to learn about health services, kindergartens, birth control and abortion. They also visited coalfields in the Don Basin and the newly developed oilfields in Azerbaijan. Their trip was funded by local collections in England.

If you want to know why so many working class people around the world were pro-communist or pro-Soviet back then, before the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the development of today’s openly authoritarian oligarchy, ‘Women in Russia’ is one among many eye-witness accounts that helps explain the reasons.

Women had fought in the revolution and in the civil war. During the latter, for instance, 14,000 women took part in the military defence of Leningrad against the ‘White’ army forces of the anti-communist anti-Semite General Yudenich.

Women’s liberation from feudal autocracy was a promise of the revolution, and it was certainly achieved.


The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

In the decade after the Bolshevik-led victory, many foreign delegations visited to see for themselves what was happening, including some from the United Kingdom, which was geographically close and had a great militant working class socialist tradition of its own.

Could the seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks, the redistribution of land and the taking over of the principal means of production by the workers, lead to anything good? It’s amazing what was achieved so quickly, given the obstacles.

The mass poverty and suffering under Tsarist autocracy was bad enough – the Bolshevik-led government in 1917 was starting off under terrible socio-economic conditions. Russia was very backward economically with little industry.

And then, with the revolution’s success, a civil war instigated by the anti-communists in Russia and supported militarily by more than a dozen western governments made things extremely difficult for the new socialist government. About 8 million people were killed in the civil war, for which responsibility lay with the instigators. In the areas controlled by the anti-communist ‘White’ armies, such as the Ukraine, massacres were carried out by the ‘Whites’ against communists and Jews.

On top of that, Britain and its War allies blockaded Russia from 1918 to 1920, making trade (and the wealth arising from it) impossible.

In 1921, to make matters even worse (if that were possible), lack of rainfall led to famine.

Yet, under conditions of social ownership based on workers’ control, with production geared to social need rather than private profit, much progress was achieved.


The specific achievements under socialism

The five English women properly contrasted the things they saw and experienced in Russia in 1927 to what they understood about conditions prior to the revolution:

In comparison with pre-revolution standards and conditions, the lot of the workers and peasants has improved almost beyond belief and is still on the upgrade.

Among the changes introduced by the Soviet government that particularly impressed the women were:

Equal pay for equal work enforced.

Laws against child labour. No child under 14 could be employed and those aged between 14 and 16 could not work more than four hours a day.

Allowance for single mothers. Unheard of in Tsarist times, the revolutionary government compelled fathers to pay one-third of their income in child support.

Birth control information was freely available and ‘secret abortion’ (what we would call ‘backyard abortion’) was countered by the provision of ‘skilled medical assistance’.

Workers’ committees established in each factory to make decisions, including the power to recall foremen and bosses. (In the Rabotchi textile factory which the women visited, the factory committee was dominated by women workers. The factory employed 5,750 workers and was previously owned by English capitalists. Under workers’ control, the factory abolished the humiliating practice of fines for lateness and introduced a medical clinic, crèche and kindergarten, subsidised meals, study groups, a library, games, sporting activity and a theatre).

Reduction of the working day from 10-and-a-half hours to 8 hours, with plans to reduce it to 7 hours in 1928. (This happened in January 1929).

Child care. Any workplace with more than 40 workers had to provide a crèche for the children of parents in the factory (paid for by the industry). Larger factories had kindergartens as well.

Free health care, including dentistry, introduced, with a program of new clinics and hospitals being built in cities and towns.

Expansion of maternity hospitals – 12,221 new ones built between 1917 and 1927.

– ‘Mother and child institutes’ set up to provide pre- and post-natal care.

– Conversion of the mansions and palaces of the rich into ‘rest homes’ for the workers.

Maternity leave. Workers received two months leave on full pay plus an allowance for staying at home to nurse the baby for nine months.

– Attachment of vocational schools to some large factories.

– Provision of rent-free accommodation for workers in places where factories owned the residences.

Free travel on public transport for workers who lived far from their workplaces.

– Programs introduced to improve health and safety in the workplaces, such as regular health checks, ventilation, drinking fountains and appropriate work clothing.

Expansion of formal education. In 1914, there were seven million children at primary school. In 1927, there were 10 million. In 1914, Russia had 90 universities. In 1927, there were 136.

Consumer co-operatives. Retail shops set up, with 15 million share-holders, along with state shops, accounted for 80% of business transactions.

* * * *

Homeless children

The ‘big enduring problem’ observed by the women in Russia was ‘one of the biggest problems’: homeless children. These were children ‘orphaned by war, famine and blockade’. The issue had been taken up by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, and was, in part, a cultural problem. The children ‘prefer to roam about in bands… the wanderlust is in their blood’.

The state was trying to assist them, however, and the five women visited a former monastery that was now being used as a home for vagrant children. The chapel was still being used for religious purposes.

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

As some of the women came from coal mining families and areas, they were also able to compare with the situation in England, as they experienced it. They visited two coal mines in the Don Basin and were favourably impressed. The Russian miners, for instance, worked a 6 hour day or an 8 hour day depending on the depth at which they worked underground. Under the Tsar, it was either 10-and-a-half or 12 hour day.

The mine workers enjoyed a month off each year, on full pay, whereas in England, the women said, coal miners dreaded holidays as it meant financial hardship. Fanny Deakin knew this from experience, as her husband was a coal miner.

Mine workers mostly lived in new housing developments, which the women said were based on the ‘English garden cities’, near the mines.

Under workers’ control, every pit-yard had a medical clinic and health-and-safety inspectors were brought in, for the first time. Medical treatment was free – an impossibility under the old order.

Work gear was also supplied free of charge, and mine workers retired at the age of 55 on a pension. When in between jobs, miners received ‘generous’ unemployment insurance.

Unlike under capitalism, coal production was increasing in the Soviet Union because of modernisation, not because of the workers being compelled to work faster.

Experts from Germany were recruited by the Soviet government to assist with new mines that were being sunk and the construction of power plants to supply electricity to areas that had lacked it.


Baku oil fields

The women visited part of the Baku oil field, and this is what they experienced:

In Baku we saw oilfields of enormous extent. They cover over a hundred square miles. Oil is exported from here to India, France, Britain, Italy, Turkey, Persia and America, and the wells now dug will last for fifty years.

Fabulous wealth is represented in this wonderful oilfield, and it is easy to see why it is coveted by the British capitalists.

On our way, we saw the place where the British General Thomas set fire to several oil tanks in 1917, when he was compelled to retreat. He blew up many buildings and a large part of the population.

When capitalists owned the oilfield, the workers were housed in mud huts without windows — places that reminded us of the middens in some of our English slums.

Now, 20,000 men are employed erecting houses. On one estate alone, accommodation has been provided for 10,000 families. Rents average 1s. 6d. a week, and each group of houses has an up-to-date wash-house and each estate its own social club for recreation.

The houses are built in family flats on the American style, each with its verandah… Gas, electricity and heating are all free. The average wage is about 35s. a week.

The workers have, in addition, many benefits from social insurance for which there are no deductions from their wages. When they are ill, they receive full pay for a month. Women get eight roubles a month (4s. a week) for nine months while nursing a baby, and 30 roubles (£3) at their confinement. At death, 45 roubles (£4 10s.) is paid for funeral expenses.


Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

The report says:

It was in their work amongst the Eastern peoples, particularly the women, that the Bolsheviks encountered some of their most serious difficulties.

A backward and illiterate population, bound by superstition, religion and prejudice to keep its women in a state of seclusion, hidden from the eyes of men, bought and sold like cattle, subject to the whims and wishes of their husbands, had to be made to realise that the revolution had come, bringing with it freedom for women as well as men.

Under the influence of Bolshevik organisers tens of thousands of Eastern women threw off the “parandjak,” a hideous black veil of horsehair they had previously been compelled to wear when walking abroad, and dared to show their faces unveiled.

Although this was but a symbol of their new-found freedom, it was strenuously resisted by the priests and wealthy peasants. Women were beaten, in some cases to death, and murder and violence were frequent. Some of the organisers themselves met their death at the hands of the infuriated men.

Laws had to be passed for the protection of women who dared to unveil themselves, and funds were raised for the relief of the families of those who were killed during the campaign.

In spite of these difficulties the work progressed, and Eastern women are being drawn into the work of the co-operatives, the factories and even of the Soviets. In 1926-7 some 951,812 Eastern women took part in the elections to the rural Soviets, and 36,258 were elected as members of the Soviets.


Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

The progress made in the first decade laid the basis for the first Five Year Plan adopted in 1928, which saw further rapid progress in the economic and social realms. The successes of the first 5 Year Plan influenced US President Roosevelt’s decision to officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1933.