Taking the side of socialism: speech by Trevor Rayne

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SPEECH ON THE CENTENARY OF THE FEBRUARY 1917 RUSSIAN REVOLUTION:

TAKING THE SIDE OF SOCIALISM given by Trevor Rayne in LONDON 16 February 2017

The Bolshevik October Revolution showed to the people of the world that poor people, the masses, can take power and begin to build a society without exploitation, without the systematic oppression of half humanity that is female – women. Its targets were to overcome capitalism, imperialism, perpetual war between nations and peoples and to end the use of productive powers for purposes of destruction, and to end poverty.

The construction of socialism is possible, humanity can move forward and begin the process of transforming itself and liberating itself.

Today, capitalism is in crisis. There is a financial and economic crisis, a social crisis and environmental crisis. Public services in the US, Britain and other imperialist nations are under attack; health care, education, social welfare, housing are all under attack. Racism is on the rise, extreme reaction, militarism and a pronounced tendency to wage war are more evident. There is growing inter-imperialist rivalry and the British media maintain a constant tirade against Russia, even though it is now capitalist.

As the economic and social bases of privilege within the US, European and British working classes are undermined, so the ruling classes turn up the volume of anti-socialist rhetoric: ‘socialism failed’ they say, ‘it brings only tyranny and poverty’. This is precisely when capitalism is demonstrably not meeting people’s needs. When inequality within nations and between nations has reached obscene levels, with eight men, just eight men being richer than 3.6 billion people, half of humanity; when the company Apple sits on a cash pile of $246bn. This is surplus, parasitic capital, feeding bloated on interest and paying 0.005% taxes on its profits, that is £5 in every £1,000 made. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness and it is now dangerous and destructive and socialism is necessary and that is why we celebrate the Russian Revolution.        

I found this on the Financial Times website earlier today: ‘Nearly a third of people in the UK live in a household where there is not enough money for adequate food, clothing and housing and the basics of a social life, up from a quarter at the start of the financial crisis, according to new research. The number of people living in households with income below a minimum standard rose from 15 million in 2008-09 to 19 million in 2014-15, according to analysis by researchers at Loughborough University for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Most of the increase happened in the three years until March 2012 and was not then reversed. The minimum income standard is defined as the income required to purchase a basket of goods and services that allows a household to be adequately fed, clothed and housed, as well as being able to participate in society.’ That is why we are socialists and communists.

The Russian Revolution was an inspiration; it swept through the Tsarist Empire to produce the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, founded in 1922, with its motto ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ It was followed by the Spartacist Uprising in Germany, November 1918 to August 1919 which was drowned in blood with the connivance of the social democratic equivalent of Britain’s Labour Party. Within four years of the Bolshevik Revolution there were revolts in Hungary, Italy, Malta, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Mongolia, Iraq and Egypt (which gained its formal independence in 1922) and there were others. In 1920 Communist Parties were founded in Britain, France and elsewhere, at the initiative of the Third International or Comintern (Communist International) headed by Lenin.

Britain and the Bolsheviks

In response to the February Revolution the British Parliament sent a message of support to the new Provisional Government in Russia. The British political parties, Conservative, Liberal and Labour, thought that the new government would put up a better fight against Germany than the Tsar had done. Plus there was hope for more investment opportunities in Russia for British capitalism.

As the Bolsheviks grew in numbers and influence so the British government did what it could to stop them, for example, printing forged copies of Pravda in London, sending money to the Provisional Government and speakers to Russia, including Labour Party leaders, to argue for keeping the war going. Lenin denounced them and their French counterparts as labour aristocrats and called them ‘bourgeois-trained socialists’ acting on behalf of Lloyd George and the English bankers. Kerensky, who headed the Provisional Government from July 1917, spoke at the 1918 Labour Party Conference. Bolsheviks broke into one British Labour Party MP Arthur Henderson's Moscow hotel and stole papers to investigate his ties to the British government. They also stole his clothes, for good measure.

Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, the October Revolution, The Manchester Guardian, predecessor to today’s The Guardian, expressed fear that Bolshevik propaganda would spread the virus of revolutionary ideas among combatants on both sides of the First World War. Labour leader and later first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald told his Leicester constituents that Lenin led a party of ‘thoughtless anarchists… whose minds were filled with hatred and violence’. The leader of the railway workers’ union, forerunner of the RMT, JH Thomas, said the Bolshevik’s tyranny was worse than the Tsars’ and that the German Kaiser was morally superior to Lenin.

There were state attacks by police and secret agents on Russian refugees in Britain before and after the February Revolution; many refugees were sympathetic to the socialists. 200 Russian sailors left their warship anchored in the River Clyde to join a protest in Glasgow at the imprisonment of John Maclean and Peter Petroff, a hero of the 1905 Russian Revolution. After the October Revolution, the new Soviet government publicised the network of Russian and British secret agents employed against Russian refugees and revolutionaries in Britain.

British Empire troops landed at Vladivostok in July 1918 and then Archangel. Some 40,000 British troops invaded Russia. They were directed by the Minister for War, Winston Churchill who said he intended to ‘strangle [Bolshevism] at birth’. The British Royal Air Force used chemical gas against Bolshevik soldiers south of Archangel in August 1919 and continued chemical attacks through September. British forces dumped chemical weapons in the White Sea where they remain to this day in 40 fathoms of water. Over 155,000 foreign soldiers occupied Russia, including up to 30,000 US soldiers; such was the hatred and fear of the Bolsheviks, and they were defeated by the Red Army, led by Bolsheviks.

In Britain, the impacts of the Russia Revolution included the 1918 introduction of universal suffrage for men aged 21 and over and for women aged 30 years and over; this was a concession to the working class. There were incidents of mutiny among the British soldiers and sailors, but they were not widespread; however, the British state feared the reliability of its armed forces. There were mutinies in Germany. The Bolshevik Revolution hastened the ending of the slaughter of the First World War. Many workers’ leaders in Britain were arrested and gaoled and the state attempted to consolidate the position of reliable trade union leaders who would be loyal to capitalism. This was in the context of increased worker militancy.

The Hands off Russia! campaign was formed in 1919 and in 1920 dockers in East London refused to load the SS Jolly George, headed for Russia with arms to fight the Bolsheviks. This could not have happened without genuine socialists handing out leaflets in the streets, selling papers, agitating and holding meetings. Harry Pollitt, one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, recalls in his autobiography a Mrs Walker of Poplar: ‘She toiled like a Trojan. If on a shopping morning you went down Chrisp Street, Poplar, you could rely upon seeing Mrs Walker talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution.’ The Hands off Russia! campaign included the best revolutionaries in Britain, among them Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean, William Paul and early members of the Communist Party.

Social achievements

The victory of the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union established a barrier against imperialist exploitation. The social achievements of the Soviet Union are deliberately overlooked and avoided by the bourgeois media and the ruling class’s hired academics. In 1918 the Soviet Union became the first country to promise universal cradle to grave health care, to be provided by socialised medicine. Life expectancy in pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia was 32.3 years. By 1926/27 it was 44.4 years and by 1958/59 it was 68.6 years. It exceeded that of the US, but fell in the 1970s, partly due to alcohol abuse. After the collapse of the Soviet Union average life expectancy fell from 64 in 1990 to 57 in 1994. Alcohol related deaths rose by 60% and the incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases doubled, as the achievements of socialism were dismantled.

Under the Tsars the literacy rate was 28.4% of the population but that for women was just 13%. A 1919 decree launched the ‘Liquidation of illiteracy’ programme. By 1926 the literacy rate had risen to 56.6% of the population and by 1937 it was 86% for men and 65% for women. This was in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that included what were previously feudal societies of Central Asia, where traditional repression of women was hard to uproot. By the early 1980s the Soviet Union had four times the number of doctors and hospital beds per head of population as had the US.

The social advances in the Soviet Union and later in Central and Eastern Europe were a challenge to capitalism and imperialism and helped wring the welfare spending reforms out of ruling classes in Britain, the US and western Europe after the Second World War. The capitalists had to make concessions to the working classes for fear that they would follow the example of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union and choose socialism.

The Second World War and after

Among the greatest debts, perhaps the greatest debt, the world owes to the Soviet Union is the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union lost between 25 million and 27 million people in the Second World War, or over 14% of its population. The United Kingdom lost 386,000 people or 0.8% of the population. At the Battle of Stalingrad the red Army suffered 487,741 killed or missing – more than all UK and US casualties throughout the Second World War. Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad told their Nazi enemies as they looked upon the ruins of the city, ‘One day Berlin will look like this’, and it did! Hitler told his General Runstedt before the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union: ‘You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ This is what the British and US ruling classes also believed. By summer 1942, 80% of the German army was on Soviet territory. The Soviets asked the US and Britain to open a second front in the west. They did not. The US and Britain only mobilised for the invasion of France when the Red Army was driving west and the US and British leaders feared that it would proceed to the Atlantic coast of France, Portugal and Spain.

The Soviet victory could only be achieved with the moral and political commitment of the people to the Soviet state and the industrialisation of the Soviet Union under Communist leadership, which could not have been achieved under the Tsars. This was critical.  

After the Second World War the locus of revolution swung to the oppressed nations, to the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. Imperialism divides the world between oppressed and oppressor nations. The oppressed took inspiration from and were given support by the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks. The revolutions in China, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba, the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Kenya, southern Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Afghanistan, the Philippines and so in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Bolshevik Revolution was a great victory for the working class and oppressed people everywhere. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a terrible blow and a triumph for imperialism and its ruling classes.

How shameful and ridiculous are those British left groups that applauded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the socialist states in eastern and central Europe. They did this often in the name of Trotsky – this is nonsense. They did it in alliance with the British bourgeoisie, its Labour Party and its banks, whatever language they used to dress their allegiances up in. Today, the banner of socialism is held aloft in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution would not have survived without the support of the Soviet Union. The banner flies in the barrios of Venezuela and on the high peaks of the Andes and Kurdistan and in Palestine.

The lessons of the Soviet Union are invaluable to humanity. We will begin to learn them, and we must begin by understanding that from the outset the attempt to build socialism was surrounded by hostile forces of imperialism who worked tirelessly to undermine and destroy it…and their headquarters is in this city, London. When Fidel Castro died in November those who applauded the collapse of the Soviet Union called Castro a dictator, a Stalinist. They once again included sections of the British left that are allied to the Labour Party which was, from the outset, on the side of imperialism against Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill was to declare that the Parliamentary Labour Party was ‘a stable and not an unstable element’ which had ‘added greatly to the wisdom and the earnestness and consequently the dignity of the House’. What an endorsement of its imperialist credentials. This is the first lesson to be learned.