Issue LX: Prelude to the Revolution

10 May

One hundred years ago last month, revolutionary V.I. Lenin boarded a train in Switzerland and headed to St. Petersburg, Russia to begin the second phase of the Russian Revolution. Due to the centennial of World War I and the October Revolution, I felt that a summary of the events 1917 would benefit readers.  Since this is a long topic, it will be multi-post report.  In this post, I will summarize the backdrop leading to World War I and the theories behind the Russian Revolution.

The World of Yesterday

At the start of the World War I in 1914, Europe had undergone a long stretch of (mostly) peace and (mostly) prosperity and development.  From the 1815 defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo until 1914, a conservative consensus developed by the victors at the Congress of Vienna more or less held sway for almost a century.  After Napoleon, the internal challenges of industrialization, reform, and revolution preoccupied Europe.

In fact, the French Revolution kickstarted the process in Continental Europe by overthrowing the ancien régime in 1792.  By killing the king and royalty and even banning the Catholic Church, French revolutionaries ended the centuries-old system where one’s birth determined one’s place in the social order for life.  Instead, a system of merit and one’s accomplishments would determine your role in society.  The Revolution established a system of Grand Schools (grandes écoles) to open up education and government jobs in the military, science, engineering, and civil service to the public instead of passing these out to unqualified nobility.  Sounds great right?

Napoleon’s conquest of Europe allowed him to spread this model across the Continent.  His Napoleonic Code codified this in many nation’s legal systems.  Ending the discrimination of religious minorities, emancipating Jews, and ending hereditary preference across Europe ended up lasting much longer than his military victories.  The three big holdouts to this were the monarchies of Britain, Austria, and Russia, and they eventually ganged up on him long enough beat him.

As the Industrial Revolution swept North America and Europe, the social order fell apart as people moved from the countryside to cities and found new jobs as industrial workers.  Modern industry destroyed artisanal crafts like weaving and blacksmithing and turned them into textile manufacturers and steel mills.  Instead of rural self-employment in a trade or agriculture, people became employees and workers for large corporations.  By selling their labor in exchange for a wage, they ended the traditional feudal order where one worked at one’s family trade or farm.

Eliminating the feudal order while inventing manufacturing technology led to capitalism.  Without the liberal revolutions that ended feudal privileges, capitalism could not exist.  Liberal policies also encouraged public education, taxation of large landowners, infrastructure, free trade, and efficient government.  They also promoted freedom of religion.  Conservatives opposed these because it reduced the power and money of the nobility and the church.  An educated public that can travel around and work where they want will not look up to the old masters who benefited from large rural and ignorant population.

Capitalism started most strongly in Protestant northern Europe, France, and North America.  Internal trade within nations destroyed the need to make most clothes and tools at home or in the nearby town. This concentrated employment in central cities.  Railroads moved these mass manufactured goods out to the public.  This meant that for the first time in human history, people were able to buy non-local goods on a regular basis.  Fewer and fewer local jobs were needed and more things were bought and sold instead of being made at home.  But this also had negative consequences.

After a few decades, it became clear that capitalism concentrated wealth more and more of the wealth in fewer and fewer hands. People complained that instead of a feudal order running things, there was an economic class order.  Instead of aristocrats and commoners, society divided into the bourgeoisie and the proletarians.  The bourgeoisie class were owners and the proletarian class were urban workers.  Specifically the owners owned the means of production (factories, land, equipment), and workers sold their labor (for a wage) to make goods for the owners.  Because of the horrific conditions of urban factories, workers began to rebel and form working class parties.

Amidst the tumult, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848.  They argued that world history is the history of class struggle.  The class struggle against aristocracy was led by the bourgeoisie and now won (he called these revolutions bourgeois revolutions).  Their victory led to the creation of the proletarians who will lead the final revolution… the revolution of socialism to create a classless society.  The working class will create a revolutionary government with the goal of eliminating all class differences.  At that point, the state would wither away and people would live in a perfect state of communism where there was no government and no class differences between people.

To summarize, feudalism ends when merchants and the middle classes overthrow them (bourgeois revolution). These classes become the bourgeoisie and create industrial workers out of the now-employed and no longer hereditary lower classes.  These industrial workers become proletarians should overthrow the bourgeoisie (socialist revolution) to create a worker’s state to eliminate all classes and create economic equality.

The perfect place to do this would be an advanced capitalist nation like France, England, or Germany because the number of industrial workers would be highest and feudal power the weakest. But oddly enough, the first revolution happened in Russia, a rural and backward nation.  But more on that in the next post.

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