Russian communist supporters are seen through a flag, displaying an image of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, during a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Stavropol
Russian communist supporters are seen through a flag, displaying an image of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, during a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Stavropol Reuters

It was the event which defined the 20th century and yet it has barely been remarked upon on its 100th anniversary.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the creation of a communist state was a cataclysmic event which had consequences that reached every corner of the earth for the rest of the century. It was a victory for the ideas of Karl Marx, the most subversive of figures for the political hegemony and in the eyes of the global elite. It seemed to be a harbinger of a new world order and for 70 years it caused a split right down the middle of the world: an iron curtain between capitalism and communism.

Ideas about workers' rights spread far and wide, across central and southern America as well as Asia and threatened further revolutions in Europe. For most of the following century the world was divided simply and crudely: East versus West; Left versus Right; Good versus Bad. Which side you were on mostly depended upon where you were. The leaders of both sides were allowed to create a world of certainties in which we depended upon them to prevent the unthinkable.

Yet this most momentous of events is barely registering in the pantheon of centenary anniversaries. Compare the Russian Revolution tumbleweed with the orgy of remembrance around World War One, a conflict so futile, destructive and lacking in achievements it was basically fought again 20 years later.

The horrors of the First World War have been commemorated by global leaders solemnly gathering at one centenary event after another (the beginning, the Somme, Ypres one, two and three, and, coming next year, the end). The hundredth Remembrance Sunday will be a particularly emotionally charged event, and rightly so, but it wasn't the War to end Wars and its lessons are still going unheeded.

Once again we are living in a Europe being torn asunder by the rise of nationalism, fascism and demagoguery. Rather than appreciate the peace brought by European unity and cooperation, remembering the World Wars instead conjures images and ideas about fighting spirit and the dangers of trusting the Hun. The extraordinary losses and casualties from the Somme to Dunkirk are applauded as examples of fighting spirit rather than cases of extreme stupidity and futility.

While World War One seems on the surface to more directly involve Britain than the Russian Revolution, the consequences of the latter were far reaching and affected the lives of far more people who are alive today. In a world where Islamist terrorism has become the biggest fear, most have forgotten that the Cold War, a direct consequence of the October Revolution, left us all in fear of a nuclear holocaust which would have wiped out humanity.

The rise of communism became an excuse for countless imperialist wars, from Vietnam to Angola. The revolution coloured domestic politics around the world too, from McCarthyism to Thatcherism.

In so many ways, the Russian Revolution is the event our leaders would like us to forget. It was the moment when the accepted primacy of political ideas about how the world worked were shaken. The revolution – and Russia's withdrawal from the First World War – triggered mutinies in the Allied armies, and was followed by such radical acts as the 1919 revolution in Germany, the General Strike of 1926 and the Spanish Civil War.

For a while anything seemed possible. Russia's struggle offered hope to those who oppose the iniquities of the dominant political system.

Of course, the revolution failed, or was betrayed, depending upon your political persuasion. Those who hate communism can legitimately point to the millions of deaths in Stalin's gulags as being as destructive as Hitler's death camps. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was a kick in the teeth for those who were hoping for a new world order. A new ruling class grew under the despotism of Stalin. The Death of Stalin (as the new movie is called) merely led to a race for a new leader to take command of a country that was no longer communist, but in fact a state-sanctioned version of capitalism. The profits of the workers were no longer for all, but to feed the military machine.

In 1989 the Wall came down and the communist experiment was over. Capitalist ideas flooded into Russia with the promise of a better more meritocratic society than before. Those dreams seem far-fetched now in a country characterised by grinding poverty for the many while oligarchs buy luxury yachts and football clubs.

The reasons for the failure of the Russian revolution are many, varied and complicated. It was an imperfect revolution – far from the one predicted by Karl Marx – a combination of revolutionary workers, mutineering soldiers and impoverished peasants. The Bolsheviks were only ever a minority. There was a World War going on, and then another world war and then a Cold War. State capitalism arose to fund the Russian war effort. A new ruling class was established and was then seduced by the promises of real capitalism from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

But, instead, a much simpler answer has become the accepted explanation: communism doesn't work. So much easier to deal with difficult questions about how society is organised to claim that the alternative failed and thus should never be tried again. But is capitalism working? Huge wealth inequality in developed countries, widespread poverty and starvation in developing nations. Nevertheless, capitalism is allowed to go on failing time after time because that is how those who benefit from the status quo prefer it.

Communism's ideals of equality are surely to be applauded but are trashed as impossible dreams. Just look at Russia, they say.

So dominant was the idea that 1989 had seen the final disbandment of communism that even the socialist parties of the west swung behind neo-liberal agendas. Socialist ideas were replaced by a belief in caring capitalism. But capitalism doesn't even pretend to be caring any more and the rise of Corbynism suggests that some are again looking for more radical answers.

The leaders of modern Russia have little desire to mark the centenary of the revolution for it would become clear that capitalism has basically put the population back to where they were before 1917, minus the Tsars.

The leaders of the rest of the world don't want to get into too much debate because complicated questions produce awkward answers.

The world has been convinced by a simple untruthful narrative that says communism in Russia failed therefore communism doesn't work. But the evidence that capitalism doesn't work is all around us, so why is it the system that we live under?

The way it is isn't the way it has to be. The Death of Stalin needn't be the final word on the lessons to be learned on the centenary of the biggest workers revolution the world has seen so far.

But we have swiftly and unexpectedly moved into a world where populist movements have gained ground and challenged the status quo. The old certainties are being swept away, so much so that the UK Parliamentary Labour Party completely missed the upsurge in support for the radical ideas that Jeremy Corbyn had always espoused, such as renationalization of the railways and nuclear disarmament.

Before the Left gets carried away there is also an upsurge in nationalism and reactionary politics of the kind espoused by Donald Trump and the Brexiteers. The western world feels closer to civil unrest than it has for some time.

With neo-liberalism shouldering the blame for many perceived ills and the smouldering desire for change, the unexpected has already begun and predictions are increasingly hard to make. Are the people of Russia likely to rise again to unseat Putin and his cronies? They seem untouchable. But then again so did the Tsars.

Could Corbynism morph into communism? Probably not, but we might settle for socialism.