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The Importance of Communes

The Russian Revolution & the experience of the Soviet Union helps clarify two important aspects of political theory:

1. The nature of working class democracy
2. The stages involved in the transition to communism

The form of working class democracy was first clearly identified in what was the first workers’ revolution: the Paris Commune of 1871. This lasted just two months before the Communards were massacred in their thousands. The democracy of the Commune was not a parliamentary one. It was a working body as well as a law-making institution. Both executive & legislative. Not a talk-shop for puffed-up egos. Those holding office were paid the salary of an average manual worker. They could be recalled at any time. It was a much more participative democracy than the ‘vote once every five years’ so-called representative democracy of Westminster.

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The Transition to Communism

The Russian Revolution was not the first workers’ revolution. In 1871 the Communards set up the Paris Commune. It lasted for just two months before the French army massacred them. Between 10,000 to 20,000 were killed with many more put in prison & thousands deported. Lenin’s book State & Revolution, written a year before the October Revolution, has the experience of the Commune at its heart. He repeats Marx’s assertion that the Commune is the form of working-class democracy, not bourgeois parliament. It was to be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that waged on-going class struggle after the revolution to create the classless society of communism.


The Soviet Union failed. In 1991 it ceased to exist. The people of the ex-Soviet Republics then experienced a collapse in living standards of historical proportions, with life expectancy plummeting & the oligarchs plundered the economy with the intellectual support of western neo-liberal economists. Marx was dead & the market reigned. But what did the Soviet Union achieve?

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The Legacy of the Russian Revolution

There was considerable debate in Marxist circles before the Russian Revolution as to whether Russia could have a proletarian revolution or not. Whether it should limit itself to a bourgeois revolution, like the French one. Marx being the scientist that he was, was open to the possibility; as we couldn’t know for sure, in advance, that it wasn’t possible.


However, given the fact that workers made up probably less than 5% of the population, a pure workers’ revolution didn’t seem realistic. But could an alliance with the peasants, rather than the emerging capitalist class, defeat the feudal class of landowners & continue to communism rather than stopping at capitalism? Trotsky, who was initially a Menshevik, not a Bolshevik, thought so & his theory of permanent revolution won over Lenin, who was initially sceptical. Lenin knew though that Russia could only be the ‘weak link’ in the world economy & that ‘socialism in one country’ wasn’t a possibility. The revolution had to spread, preferably to Germany, France & Britain for it to be successful. It didn’t, largely due to the reformism of the Social Democratic Party in Germany & the Labour Party in Britain. Not forgetting the involvement of British & other foreign troops in fermenting civil war.

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Historical Materialism

The problem is many people in politics have a poor understanding of what drives human history. They have a view based upon idealism rather than science. In philosophical terms, idealism rather than materialism. They think that it is purely a battle of ideas without understanding the material basis for these ideas.

Historical Materialism

If we look at the broad brush of human history we see technological change as a driver of changes in economic systems: pre-agriculture hunter-gather societies, slave & feudal systems of agricultural societies & capitalist society of industrialised societies. With these changes come changes in relations in society. With agriculture we get class based societies with those who control the land & those who work the land, e.g. landlords & serfs; with capitalism we get those who control (own) capital, whether in the form of factories or just money capital, & those who have to work – hence the class based nature of our society. All profit comes from the workers’ labour, hence the class struggle between profit & wages.

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