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The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not merely the displacement of one government or party by another but marked a fundamental break with the old order and the beginning of the socialist transformation of society. This was not limited to the narrow sphere that is traditionally thought of as “politics,” but encompassed every aspect of human life and culture, and was not imposed mechanically from above, but, in fact, required the active participation of the working class.
The revolutionary program of the Bolsheviks dialectically built upon and was influenced by the spontaneous initiatives of the oppressed and exploited; programs and policies arose from the depths and, through the instruments of the Bolshevik Party and Soviets, found their way to the heights of power. These policies represented a sharp break with all the old inequality, oppression, and competitive waste. Their goal was to build a cooperative society, a more equal society, and in short a society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
One of most basic measures towards establishing an equal society was the decree on salaries written by Lenin and enacted by the Bolshevik government. This decree limited the income of even the highest ranking government official to that of a skilled worker. Bolshevik officials, even those who oversaw economic functions and had vast fortunes at their fingertips, were not allowed to accumulate personal wealth.
This policy extended well beyond government officials, however, and it was enacted in every sector of the economy. However, due to the isolation and backwardness of the economy, the young workers’ democracy was forced to rely on specialists trained under the old regime, who were granted exceptional salaries up to six times the wage of a skilled worker. The Bolsheviks sought to bring the entire wage system into question, and experiments in the abolition of money took place in some areas. But in the meantime, wages were tied to need and the performance of economic functions. Compare this to the United States today where CEOs made three hundred times more than their employees in 2015 and President Trump’s Cabinet is packed full of billionaires!
Another major policy area was the family, which was inextricably linked with the struggle against women’s oppression. The revolution secured full legal equality for woman, legalized abortion, and reformed the institution of marriage. The wife was no longer considered the property of the husband, as was the case in during the tsarist regime, but was a free and equal citizen. Yet this paper equality was not enough and, inspired by loathing of all oppression and the understanding of society provided by Marxism, the revolution sought to break down the structures of the old family and establish a new socialist family.
Collective dining rooms and laundries were established and experiments were launched in collective housing. A massive education and literacy program was undertaken, universal healthcare was established, and Soviet-run daycares allowed the parents of even small children the opportunity of uninterrupted participation in cultural institutions. Alexandra Kollontai’s 1920 work Communism and the Family shows the sweep and ambition of this process.
In the place of the old society, governed by profit and privilege, a new order based on cooperation and social well-being was coming into its own. Yet the treachery of Second International Social Democracy meant that the revolution was isolated in the miserable conditions of inherited from the tsarist empire and ravaged by a civil war launched by reactionary forces, who would rather have seen the young Soviet republic drowned in blood than give the revolution a chance at success— so do the masters of the old world always seek to strangle the hope of the new! The heroism of the Red Army was sufficient to repel the White onslaught, but not even the devotion of these revolutionary soldiers could prevent the Stalinist bureaucracy from growing out of the poverty and isolation of the Soviet republic.
The Russian Revolution fell victim to the cancer of Stalinism, but its red flag still flies in the movement to reconstruct the world on a socialist basis, to build a society of cooperation rather than competition. We must learn the lessons of the past and draw inspiration from the struggles and the triumphs of our class. In the end, we will be victorious!