February and the Red calendar

In Text Messages this week, Russian Marxist revolutionaries shared the view that the ‘gravediggers of capitalism’ were in the minority and ‘a Russian revolution could not and would not be socialist’.

October is not the only Red month. February is rich with communist anniversaries, from the publication of the manifesto of the Communist Party on 21 February 1848 to the February Revolution in 1917 that saw the Russian imperial government overthrown as a prelude to the Bolsheviks taking power in October.

The first thing to add is that the February Revolution took place in March and the October Revolution in November. That anomaly is because Russia was still using the Julian (Roman) calendar whereas Western Europe had long since been on the Gregorian calendar, which was 13 days ahead. (When Pope Gregory XIII introduced the modified Julian calendar in 1582, there were riots, with people objecting that they had lost almost a fortnight of their lives.) 

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World War I was the active ingredient in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than 300 years. Badly trained, poorly equipped and provisioned, and appallingly led, the Russian armies suffered loss after loss. The war effort wrecked the economy, pushing the Romanovs to the edge of the precipice they had occupied since the 1905 revolution that had effectively hobbled tsarism. 

When food riots broke out in Petrograd (St Petersburg) during the last days of February 1917, and the capital city’s garrison joined the revolt, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. The throne was offered to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, but declined, leaving the way open for a provisional government appointed by the Duma. Opposing the new government was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies that within days flexed its latent power and issued Order No. 1, compelling the military to obey the Soviet and not the provisional government. The way was opened to October (November!), when Lenin and the Bolsheviks would claim control.

‘The starting point’

There is a direct line between the events of February and October 1917 and the publication in London 69 years earlier of Manifesto of the Communist Party (as translated from its German title). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not affix their names to their creation, the Communist Manifesto, publishing the declaration anonymously on either 21 February or around 24 February, the older given date.

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But what Marx thought in 1848 and his hopes for what a revolution in Russia might spark were adjusted over time. Most telling is the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, undersigned by Marx and Engels on 21 January of that year, and so a little under 14 months to Marx’s death on 14 March 1883.

Marx and Engels write:

“The Communist Manifesto had as its object the proclamation of the inevitably impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face to face with the rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: Can the Russian obshchina [village community], though greatly undermined, yet a form of the primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constituted the historical evolution of the West?

“The only answer possible to that today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”

Changing the ‘prospects of revolution’

What this means is explained incisively by one of history’s greatest historians, the late Eric Hobsbawm. In The Age Of Capital (1975), he writes that a Russian revolution “might conceivably – though Marx never fully committed himself to this hypothesis – lead to a communist development, bypassing the development of a mature capitalism. As Marx foresaw quite correctly, a revolutionary Russia changed the prospects of revolution everywhere.”

Advance to 1917, and also to Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (1994), and we see Marxian aspiration and revolutionary reality collide. Hobsbawm again: 

“And yet, with the exception of those romantics who saw a straight road leading from the collective practices of the Russian village community to a socialist future, it was equally taken for granted by all that a Russian revolution could not and would not be socialist. The conditions for such a transformation were simply not present in a peasant country that was a byword for poverty, ignorance and backwardness and where the industrial proletariat, Marx’s predestined gravedigger of capitalism, was only a miniscule, though strategically localised, minority. The Russian Marxist revolutionaries themselves shared this view.”

It is what happens after accepting that the situation on the ground in 1917 is not propitious for socialist revolution that shows the genius of Lenin. But that story belongs to other months and other years. With the Communist Manifesto and the overthrow of the tsar to boast about, February is no less significant than October in the Red calendar. And given that the Communist Manifesto is the most read and most influential text of modern socialism, one can argue that February eclipses even October in communism’s red-letter days.

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