A hundred years ago today, the Bolsheviks toppled the unelected pro-war Russian government and handed power to the Soviets – grassroots workers councils, which gave ordinary people control over society unrivalled before and since.
They ended the war with Germany, saving countless millions of lives and sending sparks of insurrection drifting west to Berlin, where a year or so later they helped ignite the German Revolution… which ended, at last, one of the most grotesque crimes ever committed against humanity, the First World War.
Women, gay people, oppressed nationalities within the Russian empire, and of course the working class, all took into their hands genuine power and fought to try and use it to build a genuinely equal and just society. There has never been anything truly like that historical moment, before or since.
It all went horribly wrong, of course. Within a few short years the horror of the First World War near-seamlessly transitioned into the devastation of the Russian Civil War.
Western capitalist governments (including Australia and New Zealand) sent money, guns and soldiers to invade the new-born workers republic, trying to strangle in its crib an infant they feared could grow up to destroy them all.
What were at first seen as temporary authoritarian measures to defend the revolution in war time became institutionalised and permanent, and the resulting bureaucratic dictatorship had little in common with the egalitarian democracy envisioned by those who went to the barricades in 1917.
But none of that changes this fact: with immense, perhaps incomprehensible courage, determination and sacrifice, a desperately poor and traumatised people tried their damnedest to liberate the entire world and make it a better place.
Even if they failed, we can still learn so much from them, and respect what they did manage to achieve. Human history was changed forever, and a lot of what we now take for granted as our rights in Western ‘liberal democracies’ were given as concessions to working people out of fear they might follow the Russian example.
The Chinese revolutionary leader Zhou En-Lai was asked in 1972 what he thought the historic impact of the French Revolution was. He answered, “it’s too soon to tell”. I think the same can be said of what the students, working women, trade unionists and national independence fighters of Russia had a crack at a century ago today.
Lest we forget.