The Legacy of the October Revolution (1917) in the Colonies of the World by Vijay Prashad

For more on this subject see

Red Star Over the Third World, by Vijay Prashad

Liberate the Colonies!: Communism and Colonial Freedom 1917-1924, edited by

Vijay Prashad, John Riddell, Nazeef Mollah

On December 24, 1917, just months after the October Revolution conducted by the Bolsheviks in the former Tsarist empire, the Bombay Chronicle wrote an editorial about that event.‘Our ideas of the Bolshevik organisation are very vague, . . . .’ wrote the anti-colonial nationalist editors. ‘We recognise the fact that they could never have met with the present success had there not been something in their programme that was attractive to the people, and a promise which would serve to allay some present fear. . . . The Bolsheviks came with a definite scheme which took into consideration none save the peasants and promised immediate confiscation of all lands for the people’.

In February 1919, Ramanand Chatterji wrote in Modern Review, which had been covering the revolution since early 1918: ‘It is refreshing to turn from the chorus of abuses and misrepresentation directed against the Russian Soviets by the capitalist press to the illuminating sketch of the framework of the Soviet state penned by John Reed in the pages of the Liberator. We are at last, given an insight into the mighty efforts of revolutionary Russia to organise herself and work out her communist ideals. Says the writer.’

Both the Bombay Chronicle and Modern Review acknowledged the remarkable nature of the revolution in the Tsarist empire which formed the Soviet Republic, and later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as well as the ugly propaganda attacks against the revolution and the new socialist state. These anti-colonial nationalists understood immediately the possibilities in this revolution, which confirmed that people’s movements – organised and led by capable and determined leaders – could overthrow empires and could build a new social process. This recognition shaped the view in the colonies from one end of the planet to the other. People in the Dutch East Indies and the British West Indies no longer wanted to be subjects of the Dutch or the British, but nor did they long to overthrow the empire to hand over power to their old feudal lords or to the new capitalist bosses. The impact of the October Revolution was clear to the Surabaya Soviet in 1917 (in East Java) and to the Rand Revolt in 1919 (in South Africa): empires can be brought down and the new society that would replace it need not mimic the old.

The report of the Mont-ford Commission, published in 1918, offered a powerful assessment by the British imperialists of the impact of the October Revolution in rural India: ‘The Revolution in Russia was regarded in India as a triumph over despotism. It has given an impetus to Indian political aspirations. The people in the villages heard of the events in far off Russia from the soldiers returning from various fronts in Europe and the Middle East after the end of the war. This was true of many villages in Northern India, particularly in the Punjab, where the bulk of the Indian Army was recruited, which took part in the war and also in the military operations in Turkestan and Transcaspia and in Central Asia’. These latter regions – Turkestan, Transcaspia, and Central Asia – comprised the old Tsarist empire, where Indian troops were forced by their imperial masters as part of the Malleson Mission to join the White Armies against the Soviet Republic and its Red Army. Indian gunners from the 19th Punjabi infantry helped the anti-Bolshevik forces in Bahram Ali (east of Ashkhabad), in Merv, in Kaka, and in Dushak. But these same gunners, or those who survived, returned home with other opinions, visions for the emancipation of their own lands. In the lands bordering the new Soviet Republic, some of these troops had heard of the Indian revolutionaries such as Maulvi Barkatullah, Shaukat Usmani and Mahendra Pratap Singh – men who had come alongside hundreds of other muhajirs to join the Soviets and to bring arms back to India for their own revolution; they would have met the Ghadarites, the revolutionaries who had formed their party in California in 1913 and then travelled back to Punjab to fight the imperialists and established socialism. Amongst these Ghadarites were Kartar Singh Sarabha, Pandit Kanshi Ram, Bibi Ghulam Kaur, and Vishnu Ganesh Pingale. Soldiers in Rawalpindi, Jhelum, and Peshawar revolted, but were struck down by the imperial forces. Their revolt provoked the British to put in place the Defence of India Act (1915), which was spur for the protest movement that included the demonstration by the unarmed Punjabis and the massacre by the British imperialists at Jallianwala Bagh (1919). Because of the repression, and because of the example of what they heard had been taking place in the Soviet Republic, these Punjabi soldiers and peasants looked northwards to see the Soviet sun rise high in the sky.


Why did the anti-colonial Indian nationalists take such immediate inspiration from the early experience of the Soviet Republic? The main reason was that the Soviet Republic had – very quickly – solved some of the most basic problems faced by Indians who lived under colonial rule.

  1. Established the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Since the early years of the 20th century, Indian nationalists began to say that they would not tolerate colonial rule as a permanent condition. The phrase purna swaraj or complete independence began to be used in the journal Bande Matram as early as 1907, inspired by Japan’s defeat of the Tsarist Empire in 1904-05. When that Empire was defeated by the Soviets, who set up a republic in its place, it inspired colonised revolutionaries from around the world, for example, inspiring the establishment of the Irish Republic in 1919 (which Lenin supported). This meant that a territory of people must be able to exercise their sovereignty over it.
  2. Established the right of nations not to be dragooned into imperialist wars. The British not only built an empire around the world, but also built a military force with a mandate to preserve its own empire and to preserve the idea of imperialism. That is why British troops invaded the new Soviet Republic and sought to return the Tsars family to the throne. The Indian soldiers in those wars – and in the Great War in Europe – understood well that their own political leaders had not sent them to war, but that it was the imperialists who did so. In 1904, Rabindranath Tagore bemoaned this exact problem: ‘Imperialism will go to fight in inoffensive Tibet and our “right” in the matter amounts only to having to foot the bill; a revolution is to be prevented in Somaliland and our “right” is to give our lives for it’. Sovereignty over territory had to be extended to sovereignty over the right of nations to prosecute war. That the Soviet Republic departed from the Great War with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) and that the Soviets published the secret diplomatic deals of the imperialists showed that these aspirations could indeed be met by a revolutionary government.
  3. Abolish land tenure systems that impoverished the masses and enriched both the imperial core and its satraps in the colonies. The cycle of imperialist plunder was elegant and ruthless: Indian peasants had to forfeit at least 35% of their produce, the taxes used by the British to buy various Indian commodities (such as textiles) or to force Indians to produce certain commodities (such as opium and indigo), these goods exported to places such as China (which was forced through wars that ran from 1839 to 1860) to buy these goods (such as opium), and then the profits of the trade – for which the British invested nothing – were held by the British firms and used as a down payment for the industrialisation of Britain. The land tenure system that allowed this was the foundation of a drain of wealth, an excess of at least £45 trillion from 1765 to 1938. The ‘land to the tiller’ policy of the Indian nationalists and the Soviet experience (seen first-hand by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1927) formed the basis for the ‘Fundamental Rights and Economic Programme’ adopted by the Indian National Congress at the Karachi session of 1931. The 1931 Programme followed many aspects of Lenin’s 1917 ‘Decree on Land’ and the Soviet Republic’s Land Code of 1922, which nationalised land, abolished private ownership over land, forest, and minerals under the soil, and forbade the alienation of land.
  4. Promote rapid agricultural and industrial production. In 1927, Nehru visited the USSR to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution. His dispatches to Indian newspapers were later published in a book called Soviet Russia. The USSR, he wrote, ‘interests us specifically because conditions there have been, and are not even now, very dissimilar to conditions in India. Both are vast agricultural countries with only the beginnings of industrialisation, and both have to face poverty and illiteracy’. What Nehru saw in the USSR was that the socialist system, which replaced the ‘present profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service’, had been able to rapidly accelerate both agricultural productivity and industrial production. One anchor of the entire system was the rapid electrification of the country through the ‘State Commission for Electrification of Russia’ (GOELRO), which was able to use the planning system to build thermal and hydroelectric power plants as well as an electricity grid that increased electricity generation by seven times from 1913 (2 billion kilowatt hours) to 1932 (13.5 billion kilowatt hours). ‘Communism’, Lenin said in 1920, ‘is Soviet power plus electrification’. This is exactly what Soviet planning was able to accomplish (when the British were ejected from India in 1947, the total installed capacity in India was 1.36 billion kilowatt hours (less than what it was for Tsarist Russia, whose population was 159 million in 1913, half the Indian population that same year).
  5. Promote mass education, cultural development, and establish the right of people to a civilised living standard. At the time of the Revolution, only 37.9% of men and 12.5% of women were literate, a number that distressed the Bolsheviks. The Likbez (elimination of illiteracy) campaign began in late 1919. Thousands of teachers went to work in trade unions and in peasant groups to establish reading and writing as well as higher levels of culture as the norm. The fight against the deep roots of culture made the going tough. A decade into the Revolution, despite the attack on the Republic by the White Army, more than 50% of the population attained literacy. In 1930, Rabindranath Tagore visited the USSR, where he marvelled at the ability of the Soviets to eradicate illiteracy. ‘If I had not seen with my own eyes, I could never have believed that lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people sunk in ignorance and humiliation could not only be made literate but given the dignity of manhood…How has such a great miracle been possible? The answer that I have received in my mind is that here there is no barrier of greed’. A decade after Tagore left Moscow, literacy rates went to near 90%, and by 1950 the entire population was literate (by 1950, in India, the literacy rate was at 18.33% due to the colonial conditions). ‘The illiterate person’, Lenin wrote in 1917, ‘stands outside politics. First, it is necessary to teach him the alphabet. Without it, there are only rumours, fairy tales, and prejudices – but not politics’. Literacy laid the foundation for cultural development and for the emergence of a politics from below that would demand – for the people – an improvement of living standards. It was exposure to the gains of the USSR that established the principle of literacy as fundamental to the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), created in 1945. Each of the socialist projects in the Third World – from China to Cuba – acknowledged that the first priority of a modern state had to be the eradication of hunger and illiteracy, and that the lesson of the USSR had proved this to be the case.
  6. Establish the right of people of different backgrounds to equality and establish the rights of women. Most of the countries that lingered under colonial rule had been created out of vast social diversity, with the suffocation of ethnic nationalism unavailable to them. The Soviet Union, as the unity of various nationalities, provided many of the anti-colonial movements the experience that it was possible to build complex state systems that did not try and annihilate difference but that lived with them and struggled to establish mutual respect amongst nationalities. Lenin’s formula for ‘self-determination of nations’, did not mean mere balkanisation, but the possibility for small nations to break away if they wish, or to come together in higher confederations with other nations in a mutual unity (the USSR was, after all, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The October Revolution’s great gift to the people who lived in the Soviet Republic and the USSR was that it encouraged the people to fight for their social advancement and did not use the old wretched hierarchies to establish control over people. ‘Divide and conquer’ was not the adage of the October Revolution; instead, it was for the people to advance together. That is the reason why the Soviet Republic and then the USSR so quickly established the rights of women, pushing through a Family Code (1918) that removed marriage from church control and legalised divorce, that provided women with rights to inheritance and to rights in the workplace. The legalisation of abortion followed in 1920, and by 1922 marital rape was made illegal. The idea of equal pay for equal work was established in the 1920s with women winning the right to paid holidays. The USSR established a tradition that would be carried forward in every socialist project, from China in 1949 to Cuba in 1959.

These six points are merely a few instances of the great advances made by the Soviets that inspired people in far off countries that tried to fight off colonialism. The most important point, however, is not easily captured by this or that social advance. It is something more ephemeral and yet extraordinarily significant. This is the sensibility that the future is possible, that utopia is not an impossible place. That feeling that nothing can change, except perhaps the hope that small reforms might to some extent make things better. That feeling that these small reforms in such wretched conditions as colonial rule had produced made it seem as if colonial rule itself and the capitalist conditions that were its foundations would remain forever. It was only after the October Revolution, with all its profound changes, that it became possible to imagine the end of colonialism and the end of capitalism. In 1957, Mao, who led the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people to socialist victory in 1949, visited Moscow to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. His comments do not say anything that was not said by people like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. ‘Before the revolution Russia was relatively backward economically and technically. Now the Soviet Union has become one of the world’s first-class industrial powers’, Mao said. And, as a consequence of the Soviet experience, Mao warned, ‘The imperialist wolves should remember that the days when they could manipulate the fate of humanity and carve up the Asian and African countries as they liked, have gone forever’.

Originally published in Marxistische Blätter (German) and Marxbadi Path (Bengali).