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Sociology Research


David Lane  (First published on

The October Revolution took place against the background of European social-democratic movements which had profound reservations about the idea of instigating a socialist revolution in Russia in 1917. The early twentieth century social-democrats believed that the Tsarist political order and the peasant-based agricultural economy lacked the economic base is of capitalism from which socialism could arise. Lenin had a different vision. Russia he saw as a weak link in the imperialist capitalist system. Imperialism is ‘that stage of development in which domination of monopoly and finance capital has taken shape; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world by international trusts has begun; and in which the partition of all territory of the earth by the greatest capitalist countries has been completed’. The uneven development of capitalism had created a weak bourgeoisie in Russia concurrent with an exploited class of industrial workers and landless agricultural labourers.

The Effects of World War I on Lenin’s Thinking

For Lenin, the 1914 World War had not only destabilised capitalism economically and politically but was also transforming the political consciousness of the Western European working class. While power could be seized in Russia by a social-democratic party, Lenin was insistent that it would be a spark for the ‘…the rising world-wide socialist revolution of the proletariat … We are for the war being ended, as it will be, by a revolution in a number of countries, i.e., by the conquest of state power by a new class, not the capitalists, not the small proprietors …. but by the proletarians and semi-proletarians [2]’.  The Russian revolution was to be the prelude to the socialist revolution on a European scale. 

That this did not happen had momentous consequences both for the future USSR and world politics. This absence of the crucial consequential contingency of a workers’ revolution in Europe has bedevilled the socialist movement ever since. The post-October Bolshevik regime inherited systemic dislocations caused by a society in transition from feudalism to capitalism, and by economic collapse consequent on the 1914 war. Soviet Russia also faced foreign intervention and civil war. 

Limitations on Revolution

The cultural and political heritage of Tsarist Russia, already apparent in Lenin's theory of the Party, had a major impact on Bolshevik policies. There were critical natural conditions which limited the ability of the leaders to put into effect their policies. These stemmed from the immense land mass, the inhospitable climate and the low level of economic resources. The social base on which the Soviet regime developed included a numerically small intelligentsia and urban working class and was largely composed of poorly educated people. The low level of literacy created problems of communication compounded by poor infrastructure such as roads and telephone links. Without a contingent revolution in Europe, Russia, economically, politically and culturally, was unready for a socialist revolution.

Moreover, many factors impelled by the revolution itself created disruption. Revolutions occur in polities that are unable or unwilling to change gradually under conditions of instability. The post-revolutionary years were ones like those following the French Revolution – marred by internal war and oppression.  Two major political forces opposed the Bolsheviks and proved to be persistent opponents of the socialist political order.  First, nationalist groups provided armed resistance in Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia where sovereign states had been declared. Nationalism became a political vehicle for anti-communism.

Second, armed intervention by American, British Empire and Japanese troops illustrated the ways in which the Western powers sought to reverse the changes brought in by October.  Statesmen in the West envisaged a Soviet threat and mobilised troops and public opinion against the Bolshevik order.  The Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919 by the victorious powers (the Bolshevik government in Russia was not represented) considered ways in which the Western European states could intervene against the new Republic. 

As Engels earlier had pointed out, ‘The spectre of communism was haunting Europe’. But the spectre only materialised into state power in those parts of the former Russian Empire under Bolshevik rule. While significant complementary revolutionary uprisings took place in Europe, they were successfully suppressed.  

Consequently, the Bolshevik leadership was confronted with numerous dilemmas: the Tsarist legacy of empire against socialist internationalism; the reconciliation of socialism with nationalism; the maintenance of Bolshevik power against foreign hostility; the expectation that a socialist political order could be built under conditions of a society emerging from feudalism. In all these antinomies, the leadership adopted a politically realist position by adapting socialist presuppositions to geo-political and economic reality. The Bolshevik leadership must be credited with extraordinary courage and political skill in maintaining political power.

The Tsarist Legacy

In the years that followed 1917, Soviet policy evolved from the footprint of Tsarist Russia. Faced with the backwardness inherited from the Tsars and the continuing confrontation with the Western powers, the Communist leadership embarked on a policy of industrialisation and modernisation. The economy was organised on the basis of a plan, central control and direction rather than through a market. Led by the Communist Party, the objective was to create a communist society. Soviet Russia inherited a collectivist and public form of personal integration rather than an individualist one manifested in an autonomous civil society. The Bolshevik regime extended state ownership and control along lines initiated by the Tsarist administration.

Marxism which had arisen as a critique of bourgeois society became transformed into Marxism-Leninism - an ideology of development which provided an intellectual rationale for the economic and political action later undertaken under Stalin. State socialism, as it evolved between the two world wars, became a coherent alternative to the capitalist-market and private-ownership form of industrialisation.

The Disputed Post-Revolutionary Character of the Socialist States

The character and significance of what followed the consolidation of Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union and later the socialist states are matters of considerable disagreement not only in the West but also in the former state socialist countries. The October revolution is perceived from three different and conflicting positions which are not mutually exclusive.

First, there are those who emphasise the economic, social and cultural advances. Some insist that the USSR created an early stage of socialism and others more modestly claim an industrial society with socialist characteristics.

Second are critics who reject the Bolshevik order on the grounds of its dictatorial and repressive rule. This group stresses the absence of representative democracy and the uncontrolled power of the state. Its frame of reference is repression starting from the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising, the murder of Nicolas II, the crushing of the peasants during the collectivisation campaigns, and the terror instituted under Stalin. These early seeds of anti-communism germinated later into an American-led ideology of totalitarianism.

The third approach is shaped by geo-politics. On the Soviet side is the perception of capitalist encirclement and military aggression, of which military intervention in the Civil War was the first manifestation. There is also, in the West, the ideological condemnation of international communism. The fear of communism was fuelled by the views articulated by Lenin (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky) that the Bolshevik revolution of October would be the model for other countries and would hasten the victory of the proletariat in the capitalist countries.

Such critical views are not only held by the dominant classes in the West who condemned and labelled the socialist states as totalitarian, but also by some socialists who considered the communist leadership to have introduced state capitalism with its attendant forms of exploitation.

What Criteria to Evaluate October?

How then can we judge the consequences of the October Revolution?  The crux of the dilemma is whether the Socialist Republics and later the Soviet Union could succeed in moving to an economic and political stage qualitatively higher than capitalism, or at least to supersede it in significant respects. I would suggest six major objectives on which the October revolution might be evaluated.

First, there is the claim that hierarchical political economic coordination is an effective alternative to individualistic market competition. This objective was vindicated by the experience of the Soviet bloc. Modern societies can be organised effectively on the basis of rational forms of planning and without the need for private property and profit.  A caveat here is that the planning system became less efficient as economy became more complex and developed. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had narrowed the gap with the Western states. One important drawback, moreover, is that consumer satisfaction was considerably higher in the Western market economies than in the socialist ones.

Second, there is a contention that abolition of classes is a necessary condition for a planned socialist economy. Soviet type societies were indeed classless and, in a Marxist sense, economic exploitation had been abolished. However, such classlessness was not a sufficient condition to abolish inequalities in the exercise of economic and political power.  Patriarchy, derived from the Tsarist family heritage, and bureaucratic control continued.

Third, October claimed to enhance democracy. Here significant strides have been made in increasing participation in society, and the political leadership secured advances in promoting equality of income and social conditions. However, politically, bureaucratic control exerted a form of administrative domination commanded, not by economic classes, but by elites whose power derived from control of economic and political resources. The political system had not realised the political potential of a more highly participant political culture.

Fourth, October promoted social equality. In this respect all the state socialist societies sponsored real equality of conditions rather than, as under Western social-democracy, the pursuit of equality of opportunity. Differences in levels of income were significantly diminished. The equalising tendencies are illustrated by the redistribution of shares in the national income. As shown below [3], the top 1 per cent of the population possessed 18 per cent of the national income in 1905; from 1927 onwards it fell to between 4 and 6 per cent. During this time the comparable share in the USA averaged around 22 per cent.  


Figures illustrate the distribution of pre-tax national income

However, inequalities continued with respect to access to scarce goods and services and there were still important structural differences between different social strata. The figures illustrate a general convergence of living conditions between different occupational groups. One consequence was that comparisons between the more highly paid executives, owners, managers and professionals in the West led to feelings of relative deprivation in the socialist states.

Fifth, the revolution rejected religion. Secularism strengthened the linkage between promise and reality; rewards would not be forthcoming in another world.  Consequently, a secular society was achieved without any serious lack of moral or social sensibility. Socialist rituals and ceremonies, commemorating May Day and the October Revolution, were effective. However, as the socialist states developed economically, a socialist ethic, the aspiration for a ‘world of comrades’ was overpowered by an ideology of consumerism.

Finally, October sought to establish a focal point for socialism as a world movement. In this respect, the revolution succeeded in providing an alternative socialist model of political control and economic planning.  Forms of state planning and a welfare state were adopted after the Second World War in many Western European countries. October was an immense stimulus for socialism as a world movement for all working people (trudyashchisya), and particularly in countries (such as India and China) opposing colonialism.  However, the Soviet forms of coordination both in politics and economics were increasingly open to criticism for over-centralisation and an absence of real democratic participation. Consequently, the economic and political model introduced in Soviet Russia and the USSR had greatest appeal to the developing world.

Radical Reform and the Move to Capitalism

The reform movement led initially by Gorbachev sought to address some of these deficiencies. In doing so, the Gorbachev and Eltsin administrations dismantled state socialism. They reversed many of the social achievements of the October Revolution.  Not only did the reformers repudiate the claim that the USSR had any political pretensions of extending its geo-political power but also they led the USSR to join the world market system on terms laid down by the West. 

In December 1991 the USSR was dismembered into 15 sovereign states. What consequently was lost in the break-up of the USSR were the social and economic objectives promised by October. Perhaps the most important one was the vision that one could build a society without capitalists, the market and private profit.


David Lane is Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He is author of The Capitalist Transformation of State Socialism. 

[1] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

[2] V.I.Lenin, The Significance of Fraternisation.

[3] Derived from: F. Novokmet, T. Piketty, G. Zucman, From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia 1905-2016. NBER, Working Papers Series. No 23712. 2017. Figure 8A.