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October 25, 2017



After the revolution

This month marks the centenary of the socialist revolution of 1917 – also called the October revolution or the Bolshevik revolution. A plethora of literature has been written on this great change of the 20th        century, but there has not been enough research on the achievements of this revolution.

Let us begin with the USSR itself. The revolution occurred in 1917 after 1.7 million Russian had been slaughtered in the First World War and another 4.9 million wounded. Some historians put the total casualties at 9.15 million. Soon after this great political change, the country descended into civil war. The white forces were militarily aided by Western countries that were bent on destroying the nascent socialist government. Several millions perished in the civil war and the famine during those turbulent years.

The war also destroyed the Soviet economy. Industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. The total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20 percent of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced even more drastic decline. The exchange rate with the US dollar declined from two         rubles  in 1914 to 1200 in 1920.

The world did not recognise the Bolshevik government until 1926 and the US only accorded recognition to it in 1933. The country faced a virtual economic, diplomatic and political blockade for years. The socialist state had hardly started standing on its feet in the late 1930s when the Second World War wreaked havoc with it. The human cost of the war was also catastrophic for the socialist state. Out of the 60 million people who perished during the Second World War, the highest number belonged to the communist state.

The devastation of Second World War did not deter the communist state from marching towards rapid economic development and by 1956 it emerged as the second biggest industrial power after the US besides making strides in science and technology and sending Sputnik 1 in space.

Even critics of the USSR had to admit that the country made startling strides in economy. According to Trotskyist intellectual Ted Grant, “In the period of the first five-year plans in the 1930s, there was an astonishing 20 percent annual rate of growth, which has never been equalled by any capitalist economy, not even Japan which occasionally reached 13 percent or more in the period of the post-war upswing, but not as a sustained rate of growth. In the same period, the USSR had an annual growth rate of 10 percent every year, until the mid-1960s.”

It was not only the economy that demonstrated miracles but the social sector also transformed in a few decades. Education, health and housing were almost free. Unemployment was non-existent. Life expectancy that was merely 32.3 years before the revolution rose to 44.4 in 1926-27 and 68.6 years in 1958-59.        

It was the vitality of the Soviet economy that enabled it to extend a helping hand to other socialist and non-socialist states. The USSR propped up the Chinese revolution in the initial years, sending around 22000 advisers there. It provided $122.34 billion in trade and credit subsidies to Eastern European socialist states from 1971 to 1983 alone while Soviet economic assistance to Cuba stood at $31.30 billion during the same period. It may be mentioned that the total foreign aid of the US during the same period was $109.83 billion. Some historians claim the USSR extended a subsidy of $500 billion dollars to Eastern Europe during the cold war.

Perhaps it was this military and economic assistance that helped the Eastern European socialist states achieve stunning results in health, education and housing. These achievements may not be ideal but they put these states in a much better shape than they were in the aftermath of the Second World War. At a later stage these states, along with Moscow, helped less developed countries. The Soviet Union didn’t just help socialist countries; it gifted Pakistan the largest Steel Mills and assisted India in setting up the Bokaro steel plant in Jharkhand.

At the international level, the socialist state along with its allies supported liberation movements across the world, assisting them financially and sometimes militarily. From the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the African National Congress, oppressed nations all over the world pinned their hopes on the socialist block for their liberation. Today, the Soviet Union is accused of suppressing small nations but it was also the first country that granted the right of self-determination to its provinces.

The Soviet Union-led socialist block is compared with advanced capitalist states and in the final analysis is declared the centre of all evils. Some facts need to be taken into consideration: despite the fact that the Soviet Union never claimed to be a democratic country, it was the first to enfranchise women. The UK, the US and France all extended this right after the ‘totalitarian Stalinist state’.

The Soviet Union was accused of achieving rapid industrial progress after ruthlessly exploiting its people and prisoners of war. But critics seem to ignore the aggression of the Western capitalist world against poor states. The West had already colonised 35 percent of the world landmass prior to industrial progress and by 1945 85 percent of the landmass was under capitalist colonial powers. Could the UK have emerged as a global capitalist power without causing the deaths of around 35 million Indians between 1770 and 1947? Could France have prospered without the brutal exploitation of colonies in Indo-China, Africa and other parts of the world? Can Japan’s industrial development be separated from its colonial occupation of China and other parts of Asia? According to some historians today, the G7 countries are industrial because they were never colonised like the African and Asian states. Perhaps China and the Soviet Union were the only countries that used indigenous resources to industrialise themselves. 

The USSR is lambasted for militarising the world and triggering the arms race. In fact, it was the Western world that did that. Which country acquired nuclear bombs and carried out barbaric attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Which country triggered the Star War? The Soviet Union never threatened to nuke any state. Who created this theory of the mad man sitting on the weapons of mass destruction? Was it about Richard Nixon or a Soviet leader?

It is true that the Soviet Union annexed a number of states but this is what the US did as well. Moscow. despite being a ‘totalitarian state’. at least inserted an article in its constitution allowing its provinces or states to secede from the Soviet Union. It may be argued that the Soviet Union did not allow its territorial entities to exercise this right but when they got a chance, they did exercise it and became independent.

It must be emphasised that the system was not ideal or perfect. In the end, political suppression, huge spending on arms and deleterious propaganda against the socialist block were among the leading factors that caused its demise.


The writer is a Karachi-based freelance journalist.