Text of the talk to be delivered on March 13, 2017, on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, Colombo.

When we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the world situation has changed quite dramatically. Capitalism, which those who welcomed the Russian revolution thought would leave the stage of human history, continues to be around, renewing its usual destructive capacities as well. Capitalism has survived many challenges modeled around the Russian revolution. Despite survival and regeneration, capitalism and its legitimacy has also been continuously subjected to relentless questioning and resistance. At the same time, socialism’s attraction as an alternative to capitalism has also declined. When the twentieth century, the century of socialist-oriented revolutions, ended, that attraction has largely diminished. Socialists are still debating how the socialist alternative to capitalism should be re-thought and re-conceptualized.

Meanwhile, capitalism has not ceased to create problems for itself. The destructive consequences of neo-liberalism and economic globalization have begun to produce a great deal of economic, social and political instability in countries that constitute the centre of world capitalism.  The political events that began to unfold in Europe and America since early last year clearly show that the human societies have reached a stage of history in which discussions on the relevance of socialism are no longer seen as the work of deviants or dreamers. It is quite important for us not to forget that the theme of socialism dominated during the initial stages of the presidential election campaign of the United States, which is also the operational head quarters of global capitalism.

There can be many reasons for the defeat of the Democratic Party candidate at the November presidential election last year. Two of them are relevant to our discussion. The first is that Mrs. Hillary Clinton failed to respond to the very important social and economic issues that Mr. Bernie Sanders raised in the form of a socialist critique of what he called ‘Wall Street capitalism.’ The second is that Mr. Donald Trump, in his own populist style, gave expression to social and economic despair of ordinary American citizens who have, as much as the working and poor people inn the developing world, also suffered from economic globalization and the neo-liberal trade policies that govern it. The Brexit in the UK had the same context and explanation.

Meanwhile, the popular discontent caused by neo-liberalism in advanced industrial societies is likely to produce disturbing political upheavals in Europe as well. The rise of neo-populist and right wing nationalist movements in the advanced capitalist societies reminds us an old question that socialists in Europe raised during the early last century, socialism or barbarism?  What kind of socialism is the question that needs greater clarity in the light of the historical lessons over a century we have learned after one hundred years of the October Revolution.

Thus, when we commemorate the hundred years of Russian Revolution, we are doing it not in an empty historical space. We need to make the discussions on the socialist alternative contemporary. We also need to think about how we in Sri Lanka can relate ourselves to that historical space. As much as the progressives of the US should take up and continue with the reform agenda proposed by Bernie Sanders during the presidential election campaign last year, we in Sri Lanka also need to formulate a progressive agenda that can advance the popular desires for reform and change. In fact, the most important agenda for us in Sri Lanka today is about reform. During the years preceding the revolution, debates among socialists in Russia as well as Europe centered on one fundamental question, reform or revolution? For us today, history has turned that formula upside down.  It is now fundamentally about reform, and how a reform agenda can be advanced to its logical conclusion, with commitment, determination and conviction.

Sri Lanka’s agenda for political reform has its own checquered history. It has repeatedly entered the center of popular imagination as well as political debate. At several elections, it has aroused a great deal of popular hope, excitement and energies. Those reform hopes and expectations have caused making and unmaking of regimes possible several times. The reform agenda has almost all these occasions has also suffered setbacks. Despite such repeated retreats, it has had the capacity to bounce back. A little over two years ago, we saw such a renewal of the impetus for reform. Now, we are once again forced to ask the same question we have asked ourselves several times in the recent past: are we going to miss this opportunity as well? Will the history repeat itself, both as a combination of both tragedy and farce?

Thus, in Sri Lanka, we seem to be confronted with what one may call the dilemma of reform. Two issues, as I have already suggested, appear to constitute this dilemma. The first is the reform agenda has the inexhaustible potential to return to be in the historical agenda, like Freud’s return of the repressed, despite, and because of, setbacks and retreats. The second is the absence of an agential force, or simply an agency, that can, and has the political will to, take forward the reform agenda to successful conclusion.  The question of agency encompasses two components, the social forces as well as political leadership. 


The questions of political space, political will and political leadership that we raised in relation to Sri Lanka’s reform agenda opens up the window for us to look at the lessons of the Russian Revolution. They also link me with the topic of my talk, which is ‘from February to October.’ I want to begin this part of my talk by making the point — as an academic, not as a political activist — that the narratives and analysis of the Russian Revolution have changed and refreshed quite a bit, due to new research carried out by historians.

As political activists, we learned about the October Revolution from two primary sources. The first is the voluminous writings of Lenin, who both his admirers and enemies considered as the architect of the revolution. Second is the three – volume study of the revolution, called The History of the Russian Revolution written by Leon Trotsky, considered as the revolution’s co-leader.  Perhaps, the only book on Russian revolution available to Sinhala-reading political activists was the abridged Sinhalese version of Trotsky’s book, written by LSSP’s Leslie Gunawardena. Meanwhile, the romance of the October Revolution was spread through the political classes held by all Left parties for their members and cadres. Apart from this body of party narratives, there is now a wide body of scholarly literature. Most of it has emerged after the 1980s, when the archives of Russia began to be opened and made accessible to researchers of Russia and the West.

One of the most interesting themes covered in the new scholarly literature on the Russian Revolution is the process between February and October, which is also a part of the theme of my talk today. This new body of literature, based on new archival material available to historians, seems to have made two significant contributions to our understanding of this great historical event. The first is the deepening of the analysis, with new material, of what happened between February and October.  The second is the shedding new light on the conventional narrative of the process that made up the momentous and unexpected political transition occurred between February and October possible. Professor Rex A. Wade, an American historian at the George Mason University, has been making a pioneering contribution in this regard.   He edited a volume, published in 2004, titled Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches. It has brought together a number of new writings that employ a variety of new theoretical perspectives to understand and explain what has been described as the process of revolutionary change. They go beyond the conventional Lenin-centric and Bolshevik-centric narratives.

Why do professional historians, who are not party people or even avowed Marxists, show so much interest in studying the Russian revolution, even after its romantic appeal has largely disappeared? One major reason is perhaps is that, despite the loss of its political appeal, the Russian Revolution has been a decisive historical event that changed the course of twentieth century world politics. Readers of my generation and perhaps the previous two generations admired a book written by an American journalist the title of which captures what the Russian revolution actually did in 1917. It is John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. It was an eyewitness account of that most unexpected world-shaking event of that phase of the twentieth century.  Recent studies re-confirm what the progressives always knew about the Russian revolution. Like in the French revolution of the previous century, the people who have been the victims of history became makers of history.  It is pertinent to recall just two paragraphs of the Preface, which Trotsky wrote in 1930 to his History, which is a classic:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution (‘Preface,’ History of the Russian Revolution).

The immediate events that culminated in the political transition on October 26 began in the first week of February. The most important political event occurred in February was the resignation of the Tsar Nicholas, at the height of a series of factory strikes and demonstrations organized by the workers and soldiers. A democratic parliamentary regime was formed in place of the monarchy. Historians describe this event as the February Revolution. It marked the collapse of the Russian monarchy and a rapid transformation of the nature of the Russian state. The Bolsheviks came into power in October, within just eight months. The Marxist narrative is that the February revolution was a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution. The October revolution was the socialist revolution. Professional historians, even who look at that history with admiration, are reluctant to use the label ‘bourgeois revolution.’ For them, using the categories of bourgeois and socialist to describe the two events an exercise in historical tautology, which assumes that historical events take place in accordance with, and to confirm, prior theoretical schemes. Even the new research that avoid such tautological categories do confirm an important point: the most important dynamic that propelled the February Revolution to its culmination in October was the democratic aspirations and commitment of the ordinary masses, working men and women, soldiers and peasants.

Studies by researchers who have been analyzing the popular political discourse during the Russian revolution have shown that the idea of democracy has been employed by the ordinary people to express many meanings of democracy other than liberal, bourgeois, or parliamentary democracy. Discourse analysis is a useful theoretical approach developed in the social sciences during the 1980s. It seeks to understand the subjective dimensions of social processes by examining the use of language to signify diverse social meanings of phenomena.  Discourse analysis followed what has been termed as the linguistic turn in philosophy and social theory. And it is distinctly post-Marxist in its genealogy. These discourse analytical studies show that the militant and radicalized working masses in Petrograd and other centers of revolutionary action had developed varieties of understandings and conceptualizations of democracy that originated from their own life worlds. Their conceptions of democracy were much more substantive than what the Marxist historians have described as ‘bourgeois democracy’, which, if we use the contemporary theoretical language, is limited to procedural democracy the thinness of which has been a topic of ridicule by Marx, Lenin and all Marxist theorists.  In other words, the Russian workers have imagined democracy as a normative practice relevant to everyday life that went far beyond the limits of bourgeois liberal, democracy.

The following are some of the interesting points made in the book Interpreting Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917. One aspect of the February revolution is its commitment to establishing the ‘bourgeois democracy’ as promised by Lvov and Kerensky, the leaders of the new government. This particular democratic promise included the establishment of parliamentary institutions, the launching of electoral democracy, ensuring of human rights, including civil and political rights. Workers, soldiers and ordinary citizens had a different democratizing and democratic agenda. They had advanced a parallel, but more radical, democracy agenda, which is ‘democracy from below,’ and not ‘democracy from above’, as conceptualized by the provisional government of Kerensky. While workers wanted to bring their factories under self-management, workers as well as other citizens wanted the theatre hall, the church and the school to be immediately democratized. Soldiers wanted to democratize the army. Soldiers were so instrumental in forcing to reform their army that Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the provisional government, could even boast that after February, Russia had possessed the most democratic army in the world. Democratizing the Russian army had even produced the new practice of making military decisions by the vote of the soldiers.

As shown in the book I have just mentioned, the idea and language of democracy of the ordinary masses soon became the ideology and the language of the Russian Revolution as well. The word democratiia became so popular among the workers and soldiers that sailors renamed the Battleship Imperator Nikolai (the name of the Tsar) as Democratiia. A soldier who had the family name Romanov, which was the family name of the Emperor, wanted to change it to Democratov.. The clamour from below for democracy was so strong that political parties, including the Bolsheviks, were forced to respond to the popular desire for democracy by adopting democracy as their political slogan and programme. Soldiers who had become a major revolutionary force even described Lenin as the leader of democracy, and not of socialism.  A group of soldiers sent a letter to the editorial office of the Bolshevik newspaper wrote: “We are sending our greetings to comrade Lenin who is the leader of Russian democracy and the defender of our interests.”

This brief discussion about democracy from below in Russia during the political transition from February to October suggests a few important points. First, to describe the February revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution does not do justice to the radical democratic awakening and imaginations occurred among the ordinary Russian masses, workers, soldiers, and sailors. As a theoretical concept, it fails to account for radical democracy movement and agency from below. Second, can the apparent gap between the two narratives, one by professional historians who emphasize the radical democracy from below and the official party narratives that focus on the socialist expectations of the working masses, be reconciled? Indeed it can, because the democratic and socialist desires of the masses were closely interwoven. They were felt desires for the reconstruction of the entire social and political edifice expressed through spontaneous mass mobilization and action. It is this confluence of the desires for democratic and socialist reconstruction in the political consciousness of the Russian masses that enabled the Bolsheviks to transform February into October, the so-called bourgeois revolution into a socialist one.


The political transition that occurred between February and October 1917 was a truly momentous one. Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Kerensky government by channeling the popular energies for radical socio-political change into a swift movement towards regime change. They took power in October. Lenin is usually credited with the success of the Bolshevik programme to effect regime change. Even a brief account of this rapid political transformation occurred within eight months requires a separate discussion, which is outside the scope of the topic today. Meanwhile, the democratic and socialist expectations of the Russian masses have also met with repeated setbacks and defeats during the past one hundred years. While not ignoring that part of the history, let us try to see what we can learn from that process for the contemporary agenda of political change of our country.

In my view, the link between the Russian revolution and our political challenges today are not direct. That indirect relevance rests on two key questions. First, as I have already suggested at the beginning, the agenda of political reform, not that of revolution, has reached the center of the current historical process of political change in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s political reform agenda appears to be quite complex, subjected to frequent setbacks and periodic renewal. Amidst the twists and turns of the reform politics, the recurrent question of political agency to advance the reform agenda for its successful completion remains unresolved.   The second is the question about the political will — the will to advance a political reform programme in contexts where the political balance of forces tends to reconfigure frequently. The challenge we have in Sri Lanka today is the absence of clear answers to these two crucial questions.

Against this backdrop, Sri Lanka’s political forces seem to have entered a new stage of polarization amidst multiple polarizations. The political debate about reforms is also framed in exceedingly narrow terms, with an excessive focus on the negatives, rather than the positives.  Instead of ‘yes, we can,’ the battle cry seems to be ‘no, we cannot.’ This negative development is most visible in the raging controversies on constitutional reform.  One of the key issues in the current debate is whether a referendum is necessary to effect constitutional reform. It is linked to a hidden question: should it be an entirely new constitution or one with some minor changes?  The dissensus flows from the higher ranks of the ruling coalition, and that is not good news for the reformist constituencies.  This unresolved dispute has the potential to reverse once again the momentum for political change that the Sri Lankan masses, at least the majority of them, expressed repeatedly during the past two to three decades. In fact, there is a genuine apprehension among the reform constituencies in Sri Lanka that there can be a repetition of what happened in 2000 now in 2017.

In my view, this build up of negative politics, both within and outside the ruling coalition, needs to be halted. Similarly, the regeneration of the diminishing momentum for political reform also calls for a new approach. I wish to propose three points for consideration.

The first is that the government’s constitutional reform initiative needs to be rescued from the narrow, shortsighted and partisan politicization to which it has been once again subjected. It requires a new round of re-politicization.  We can advance two arguments for a new agenda of re-politicizing the constitutional reform initiative. The first can be framed in the language of old socialists: constitutional reforms are central to advance and take forward the tasks of Sri Lanka’s unfinished democratic revolution. We can also give a new, contemporary meaning to democratization, arguing that democracy is a process of permanently unfinished revolution that never ends and indeed renews itself periodically. If we take the category ‘revolution’ as a metaphor, the advancement of the democratic revolution is the most important political task with which the Sri Lankan society is confronted today. The second argument is that democratizing constitutional reform is nothing but the democratic path to the maturation of the present historical phase of the unfinished democratic revolution. Such reform should seek to re-build the democratic and pluralist foundations of the Sri Lankan state.

The second I would like to draw your attention to is this: the government should abandon the fear of referendum, in advancing the present constitutional reform initiative. There seems to be a rather misplaced and exaggerated fear about the referendum even among sections of the government.  The referendum is required to remove certain entrenched clauses of the 1978 Constitution. Their removal is a precondition for the democratic and pluralistic reconstitution of the Sri Lankan state and its juridical foundations. This is necessary to address Sri Lanka’s most crucial political problem, the ethnic conflict. With only a two-thirds majority, some piecemeal changes can be affected to the constitution, leaving out the task of addressing the problem that is attached to the very foundation of the Sri Lankan state. Constitutional changes that avoid the foundational crisis of the modern Sri Lankan polity can only make a limited contribution to advancing Sri Lanka’s historical agenda of substantive political change.

In the old Marxist theory, the phenomenon of social revolution is described as a way to resolve a fundamental crisis that a society faces when its forces of production outgrow its existing property relations. In other words, the revolution is conceptualized as an inevitable explosion of the contradiction between the old framework and the new realities. When the old framework turns itself into fetters, the new forces break out of the fetters through the explosion, or implosion within, of its accumulated energies. The phenomenon of political reform can also be described in using the metaphor of the contradiction between the outdated constitutional and the new realities. In fact, the political realities have outgrown the constitutional foundations of the Sri Lankan state, a point so eloquently explained just over a decade ago by some leading opponents of the current reform initiative. A substantial constitutional reform package is necessary to resolve this contradiction. Although Sri Lankan people have demonstrated a number of times that they are ready for such radical reforms, their political leaders have not gone beyond making mere promises. Very often, they have wavered and as a result lost the moment as well as the momentum.

Now, this is perhaps the moment for us to dwell a little on the question of ‘political will.’ We should not confuse it with the Nietzschean concept of  ‘will to power,’ because the latter can be, and has been, used to justify authoritarian, tyrannical and even totalitarian politics of politicians with inherently undemocratic visions. Our concern should be to clarify the concept of political will for democratic reforms and transformation. One can suggest the following components to constitute such a democratic political will of the leadership in Sri Lanka’s current political context.

Unwavering commitment and capacity: This suggests the political leadership’s the renewable ability to sustain and reinvent when necessary the commitment and capacity to transform the political reform discourse available in society into a concrete and realizable political programme

Intellectual and Ideological leadership: In a context where the society is deeply divided and a broad consensus for state reform is hard to form, the political leadership should also provide the ideological and intellectual directions to the masses. Best democratic leadership is also an intellectual leadership that can enrich the political consciousness of society for better. Such ideological and intellectual leadership should be able to transform the members of the present ruling coalition –Ministers, MPs and other political representatives at provincial and local levels as well as party political cadres — a little more aware, conscious of, active, enthusiastic, excited and caring about constitutional reforms.

Strategic vision: Any project of state reform, as Sri Lanka’s recent history testifies, runs the risk of sharpening the existing fissures and deepening the fault lines of the polity. This risk calls for a strategic vision for the political leadership to (a) manage new contradictions and conflicts that may arise from the state reform intervention and, (b) re-configure the nation’s political equilibrium in the direction of the democratic state reform project which it seeks to advance.

Withstand the pressure from reform resistant sections of the state machinery: As Sri Lanka’s recent experience once again demonstrates, reform resistant sections of the state have played a role at key moments to derail political reform initiatives. The subversion of state reform by sections within the state stands sharp in contrast to the reform wishes expressed by the people repeatedly at elections. Sri Lanka’s state is not easily amenable to reform. Politicians who are elected to hold governmental office often find themselves entrapped in a state structure that is conservative, outdated and obstinately reform resistant. Any basic alteration of the structure of such a state, however much it is needed for social progress, requires the pressure of an external force, ideally the people who give meaning and legitimacy to the state. A reform-resistant state such as ours can be reformed only by means of the mobilization of popular pressure through democratic means and sustaining and rebuilding the popular support base for reform. The democratic political will thus makes it necessary for the government leadership not to be prisoners of the counter-reformist sections of the state machinery.

The last point I just made enables us to return to the problem of referendum. What is now very clear is the repetition of a past pattern, that is, the constitutional reform process falling victim to the power struggles among professional politicians who share with the people of the country the monopoly of possessing the legally valid mandate to change the constitution. If our people’s representatives cannot agree on the process as well as content of constitutional reform in the forum of Constitutional Assembly in parliament, they have once again abdicated their democratic duty. It then means that now people, the final repository of the mandate to alter the constitution, should be given the chance to decide on the constitution, since the people’s representatives continue to fail the people on transparently flimsy grounds. It also means that the task, which the professional politicians refuse to take forward, should now be given back to the people, the real source of political power and sovereignty in a democracy. That is why the referendum has become crucially necessary today to advance the democratic state reform agenda. People might accept or reject the reform proposal. Let people decide. And it is the duty and responsibility of the ruling coalition to take wise and prudent steps to ensure that people can and will give their consent to reforms, using their best sense of political judgment. That is precisely why the qualities of political will I have outlined above are crucially relevant today even to face a referendum without being held back by a negative sense of defeatism.

I wish to bring to a close of my talk by mentioning the third component of a new approach. It is about the necessity of a ‘Champion’ to not only to bear the burden of the reform project, but also carry it forward until it succeeds with unshakable political commitment, long-term vision and clarity of purpose. Such a champion should also be ready to identity his/he own personal destiny with the success of the reform project. He/she should not be detracted by minor political agendas with short – term gains. Sri Lanka’s state reform project awaits such a champion with vision, passion and will for its next phase.