VLADIMIR Putin wasn’t celebrating the centenary of the Russian Revolution last week. Indeed, he actively ignored the events that put his country at the centre of ideological battles of the 20th century.

That’s not because Russia’s president feels uncomfortable with the Stalinist tyranny that killed and denied human rights to millions of Russians: Putin is actually a cautious admirer of Stalin’s methods, which he sees as a largely benevolent instrument of development.

But the Bolshevik promise to transfer power from a corrupt state down to workers and women cuts sharply against Putin’s vision of Russia’s progress. So Putin, for one, makes a distinction between 1917 – which he hates – and the later Stalinist coup, which he’s happy for schoolchildren to celebrate. And he’s not alone.

For global leaders, the prospect of a mass movement overthrowing a tyrannical government and a decadent ruling elite still incites fear and anguish – even 100 years after the event.

Stalin’s counter-revolution of work camps and forced labour does too, but increasingly less so. Mainstream historical opinion says that 1917 was always likely to end in tyranny. Indeed, it’s sadly often been fashionable to say that any mass protest, no matter its intentions, invariably brings with it the possibility of gulags.

Stalinists, of course, think the same thing for the opposite reason, and actively celebrate 1917 for its role in bringing about an imperialist state with terroristic methods. Others try to reclaim the grassroots, radical democratic and working-class spirit of 1917 without endorsing the horror show that followed it. Important as these debates are, our current world crisis throws up an interpretation that supersedes both.

Socialism and revolution were removed from official political debate after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989. However, many of the methods and the personnel of Stalinism survived it, and thrived in the neoliberal world economy. Putin and the Chinese regime are its most obvious descendants, but others are actively imitating their approaches, which are proving enormously influential outside of the privileged corner of Europe, Australasia and America.

Why has Stalinism proved so compatible with free trade? The answer is not as complicated as we might imagine. One basic formula for capitalism is freedom in the marketplace matched with “unfreedom” in the workplace. Every day, we sacrifice eight or so hours of personal autonomy to our boss in exchange for the money we need to live.

Stalinists, let’s remember, are expert at bossing people around and asserting management’s right to manage. So, by abandoning market controls while keeping a constant regime of surveillance and terror over its workers, the Chinese Communist Party has proved to be the most useful capitalist regime in the world, with growth rates to match.

Meanwhile, economically and politically, Western capitalist democracies are a poor show. In America, the country that drives the world’s ambitions, real wages have stagnated over four decades.

Ground down by a decade of austerity, Europe’s desperate voters are turning to get-rich-quick populism, and mainstream politicians have no answers. Liberals, scared by the illiberalism of the public, are increasingly contemptuous of them, and even of democracy as a concept.

The Western model that won in 1989 is a mess. Where America and its allies have taken on countries as lab rats, they have left a trail of civil wars, economic chaos and brutal politics. The Russian nationalist Putin, let’s remember, came to power after the policies imposed on Russia by the West – “shock therapy”, meaning rapid privatisation of everything – led to economic collapse.

Iraq, a similar experiment, led to more horrifying conclusions. All of this leads me to ask, what about that forgotten side of 1917? The side that cannot be reconciled with the neoliberal world economy? Can it be reclaimed, without endorsing the horrors of Stalinism? I hope so. Our climate crisis is a daily reminder that taking democratic control over the basic necessities of life is not an optional policy extra.

Market rule, in coming decades, is going to prove incompatible with any attempt to reverse the damage we’re doing to the planet. Some move towards economics planning is inevitable. The question is whether that move expands human freedom, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks hoped, or whether it degrades human freedom, as Stalin and his successors would like.

Worryingly, the worst of all worlds is serious possibility: a new oligarchy based on neoliberal economics, glitzy spectacles and authoritarian politics.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 introduced many policies that liberals today take for granted, including rights for women and the principles of national self-determination. These ideas weren’t established by well-paid intellectuals in an advanced country, but by the heroic actions of women, national minorities and workers, groups who had always been treated as talking tools, unworthy even of the right to vote, by mainstream liberals of the time.

Let’s remember, also, that many of Karl Marx’s proposals from the Communist Manifesto are now public policy. Abolishing child labour, free universal health care and progressive income tax seemed like nonsense in his time. Now Conservatives pay (official) homage to them.

These rights, though, weren’t handed down by benevolent leaders. They result from the sacrifices of our grandparents who struggled to make these social rights a reality.

Every year, we celebrate historical events without being forced to defend all of their consequences. After all, the North’s victory in the American Civil War was a triumph for human freedom. The fact that it led to an unaccountable transcontinental Empire that killed millions in Iraq and Vietnam and imposed dictatorships on the world’s poorest countries should not detract from that.

A working-class revolution against capitalism is further away from public debate than ever before. But the effect of capitalism on our relationship with nature, with other nations, and with each other, is manifestly violent and dangerous. We can learn from the failure of the Russian Revolution.

But, clearly, Lenin had a point, because we’re still struggling with same old issues today.