‘Why the Russian Revolution Wasn’t a Socialist Revolution’

October 9, 2018

‘Why the Russian Revolution Wasn’t a Socialist Revolution’

A reprint of Russian Marxist Julius Martov’s pamphlet ‘The State and the Socialist Revolution’.
With an introduction by the Socialist Party, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik coup in Russia.

Cover price £2.00.

Copies from the Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN for £3.50 including P & P. Cheques payable to ‘The Socialist Party of Great Britain’.


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The basic principle defended by Marx throughout his forty years of socialist activity can be summed up in the clause of the General Rules of the First International that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. This is a rejection of the view that socialism can be introduced for the working class or that the working class can be led to socialism by some enlightened minority.

Those who set themselves up as leaders of the working class fall into two groups. First, there are the parliamentary reformists who tell the workers: “vote for us and we will introduce socialism for you”. And then there are the various “vanguards” who see themselves leading the workers in a violent assault on the capitalist state. Both groups, despite being bitter antagonists, share a common standpoint: a denial that the majority of workers are capable of understanding and of organising themselves, without leaders, in order to end capitalism and establish socialism.

But to deny this is to in effect deny that socialism can be established. For socialism, as a fully democratic society based on the common ownership of the means of production, demands, in order to function, the voluntary co-operation and conscious participation of the majority of the population. It is a society which simply cannot be established by a minority, however enlightened, determined or benevolent. Leaders, whether reformist parliamentarians or insurrectionist vanguards, cannot establish socialism; all they can and have established is some form of state capitalism.

During and after the first world war a number of working class thinkers and militants (such as Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and Sylvia Pankhurst) came to recognise that the traditional Social Democratic policy of seeking to win a parliamentary majority on an electoral programme of reforms of capitalism could never lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. They re-asserted that only the working class, socialist-minded and democratically-organised, could establish socialism. However, under the impact of the events of November 1917 in Russia, they imagined that the form of working class organisation to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism has been found in the workers’ “soviets” or councils that had come into being after the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917.

It is understandable, and perhaps excusable, that in the early days of the “soviet regime” people outside Russia should have been mistaken about its nature. War-time censorship and the lies of the capitalist press, together with the exaggerations of some of its supporters, meant that little accurate information about what was happening in Russia was available. On the face of it, in November 1917 the Congress of Soviets, a body of working class delegates from all over Russia, had deposed the capitalist Provisional Government and itself taken control of governmental power; capitalist rule had been overthrown and a socialist regime established—at least this is what appeared to have happened.

But those who had some knowledge of Marx’s theory of social development ought to have quickly had some doubts. Without denying that capitalist political rule had been overthrown or that power had passed into the hands of people calling themselves socialists, they could have questioned whether the outcome could be socialism. Quite apart from the fact that socialism in Russia could only have been established as a world system, part of a wider, international movement for socialism, neither the economic nor the political conditions for a socialist revolution existed in Russia in 1917. Russia was an industrially backward country, with an overwhelmingly peasant population engaged in individual, rather than socialised, production. The workers and peasants of Russia certainly were discontented, but wanted “Peace, Bread and Land” (as the slogans put it) rather than socialism properly understood.

To be fair, those who supported the Bolshevik coup d’état because they believed it to have been a soviet or workers’ council revolution did eventually—by about 1921—come to recognise the real nature of the Bolshevik regime as a minority dictatorship forced by economic circumstances to continue the development of capitalism in Russia. But these “Left Communists” (or “Council Communists” as some of them later called themselves) still continued to believe in workers’ councils as the form of working class organisation for establishing socialism.

One man, however, was not taken in by “sovietism”: Julius Martov. Born in Odessa in 1873, Martov was one of the second generation of Russian Social Democrats who, at the turn of the century, worked to build up the Social Democratic movement inside Russia. With Plekhanov, Lenin and others he was one of the editors of the journal Iskra, in 1900. When, however, the Iskra group, together with the rest of Russian Social Democracy, split over the organisation question Martov was amongst those in the minority who opposed Lenin’s proposal for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries which was supported by a majority of the delegates at a party congress in 1903. Hence the names of “Bolsheviks” (from the Russian word for majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) by which the two groups came to be known. Martov favoured the traditional Social Democratic idea of a mass, open —and, it has to be admitted, reformist — worker party. Unlike most Mensheviks, however, Martov was an opponent of the First World War, being a member of the small group of “Internationalists” who took up a working-class position on this issue. He was a respected writer (even by Lenin) on Marx and socialist theory and, indeed, it was because of his criticism of the Bolshevik regime from a Marxian point of view that he was forced into exile in 1922, where he died a year later.

Three of the articles Martov wrote in the period 1918-23 were translated into English and published in pamphlet form by the New York based International Review in 1938 as The State and the Socialist Revolution, a title suggested by the translator “Integer” (the pen name of Herman [Jenson] Gersom). This pamphlet is republished in its entirety here. The articles in the 1938 pamphlet had formed a substantial part of a 1923 book by Martov published in Berlin in Russian and German entitled World Bolshevism. However, the first part of the book, The Roots of World Bolshevism , was left untranslated by Integer. A recent English version of this article is presented here as an appendix, for the first time in book form.

Reading these articles it is easy to see why Martov was such an embarrassment to the Bolshevik government. Not for one moment was he taken in by their claims that the “soviet regime” represented the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as envisaged by Marx. For him, it was a cover for the dictatorship, albeit revolutionary, of the Bolshevik Party. For Marx the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was the political form of the period during which the working class would be transforming capitalism into socialism. He advocated that it take the form of a fully democratised State controlled by the working class (see Hal Draper ‘Max and the dictatorship of the Proletariat’, New Politics, Vol. I, No 4, Summer 1962).

Martov knew that Lenin’s claim that the soviet system was a higher form of democracy than the “bourgeois” parliamentary system was hypocrisy. Lenin favoured the soviet rather than the parliamentary system because he knew that he could get a majority under the former but not the latter —a sure sign, we may add, that the soviet system was not more representative or democratic than the election of a central assembly by universal, direct, equal and secret ballot.

The reason for this was that the soviets — the soviets as they really existed in revolutionary Russia as opposed to the ideal workers’ councils of Left Communist theory — as loose makeshift bodies were easily manipulable by a well-organised group such as were the professional revolutionaries of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership. Indeed it could be said that it was precisely because they were the best-organised and disciplined group that the Bolsheviks finally emerged as the government of revolutionary Russia following the collapse of the Tsarist regime — and they came to power by successfully manipulating the soviets.

The soviet system served the Bolsheviks’ purpose because elections to the All-Russia Congress of Soviets were neither universal nor direct nor secret. The Congress was composed of delegates from local soviets who were in their turn delegates from local factories. Its members were thus only indirectly elected and urban areas were over-represented. There were no set procedures for the election of the delegates to the local soviets; in most cases they would have been chosen by a show of hands at a general assembly of the workforce of a factory, with all the drawbacks of this method of election.

We mention these points not to defend parliamentary democracy but to show how the soviet system was far from being the highest form of political democracy.

It is of course a reasonable point to say that in a revolutionary situation such as existed in Russia in 1917 democratic perfection was not to be expected. The soviets were makeshift representative organisations which had come into being precisely because working class opinion had been denied expression under the Tsarist regime. They thus played a useful role, filling a void until such time as a more permanent, and structured, system of representation could be set up. To praise their makeshift, unstructured character as being a sign of their ultra-democratic nature is to make a virtue out of necessity and to forget that this made not just for flexibility but also meant that it was easier for a determined minority to manipulate them.

A second argument put forward by the Bolsheviks in favour of the soviet system was that it gave power to the more determined revolutionary elements in Russia whereas to have let power pass into the hands of a parliamentary government responsible to a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage would have led to a slowing-down of the revolutionary process. This is probably true, but it shows clearly that the Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution.

The socialist revolution can only be a revolution carried out consciously by a working-class majority acting in their own interests. In these circumstances any system of universal representation — whether soviets or parliament — would give a majority for the revolution. This, however, is not necessarily the case during a bourgeois revolution (as a revolution to sweep away obstacles to the further development of capitalism in a particular country) where the revolutionaries can find themselves impeded by the lack of revolutionary will of the majority.

That an enlightened minority of revolutionists were justified in ignoring the views of the unenlightened majority in order to carry through the revolution was an idea that had first made its appearance, in the form of Jacobinism, during the French bourgeois revolution. It was inherited by utopian Communists such as Buonarotti, Weitling and Blanqui. And it was, as Martov points out, an element in Bolshevik thinking too and represented a denial of the basic principle upheld by Marx that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”.

The coming to power of the Bolsheviks did not represent, as they themselves believed, progress from Russia’s bourgeois revolution to its “proletarian revolution”. It was, says Martov, echoing what Marx had said about the so-called Reign of Terror in France in 1794, “a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself”.

However, unlike in 1794 in France, where the determined minority were replaced by the traditional bourgeoisie after having done their dirty work for them, in Russia the determined minority remained in power and that it was from amongst their ranks that evolved the ruling and exploiting class of the capitalist Russia they had no alternative but to develop.

So, from a “bourgeois” revolutionary point of view, the Bolsheviks were justified in maintaining their minority dictatorship. Where they were wrong was in imagining, and propagating amongst the workers of the rest of Europe, that this had something to do with “socialism”. Their sympathisers in the West, including the Left and Council Communists, were equally mistaken in imagining that the soviets (or workers’ councils), which had served as a cover for the Bolshevik minority to come to power, were the form of working class organisation for socialism in advanced capitalist countries. To claim that they are the only possible form of working class self-organisation is to make a fetish of a mere organisational form. What is important in working class self-organisation, however, is not the form but the principle.

The principles of democratic self-organisation — which are in fact democratic principles generally — can be applied, given a sufficient democratic consciousness, to any working class organisation, including even organisation to contest elections and to control central parliaments and local councils. There is no reason whatsoever in theory why a workers’ socialist political party could not be organised on the same basis as has been proposed by Left Communists for workers’ councils: no leadership and so no division into leaders and led; the candidates, including those elected, just like the delegates to the ideal workers’ council, could be subject to continual control and, if need be, instantly recalled; they could be strictly mandated to fight for socialism and not to pursue reforms of capitalism. In other words, there is no necessary connection between the principle of democratic working class self-organisation and organisation at the place of work. What is important is not the form of organisation but the democratic — and socialist — consciousness of the working class. This can express itself in a great variety of organisational forms, including a mass political party. Indeed, this was the form Marx himself expected it to take, and is one that the Socialist Party has always advocated.

Martov, whose writings are unfortunately not generally known, must be given credit for having demystified a little the role that the soviets played in Russia in 1917.

The Socialist Party

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A Contemporary Review of Integer’s Translation of Martov’s The State and the Socialist Revolution from the Socialist Standard, No 425 January 1940


By J. Martov. (International Review, New York.)

This pamphlet consists of a number of essays written during the years 1919-23 by the Russian Marxist, Martov

Who was Martov?
“Integer”, the translator, gives a detailed account of Martov in his Foreword. He was a Russian Marxist who accepted neither the point of view of the Bolsheviks, nor that of the Mensheviks, but was very well known in Russia for his writings both before and during the revolutionary days. He was “one if the founders and collaborators on the Iskra, the publication around which the Russian Social Democracy developed”. After 1917 he opposed the infliction of capital punishment on workers who thought differently from the Bolsheviks, and he demanded trial by jury for political prisoners. Because he persisted in examining critically the policy of the Bolsheviks, he was driven into exile, where he died, poverty-stricken and a victim of tuberculosis.

Martov’s writings are of particular interest to the working class, for therein he carefully examines the content and lays bear the meaning of the Russian Revolution. In addition, he covers such important questions as “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “The Commune of 1871”.

It is worthy of note that Martov, possibly ignorant of the S. P. G. B., arrived at conclusions on a large number of subjects which coincide with the views of the Socialist Party of Great Britain expressed in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD in the early years of Bolshevik rule.

Martov on “Soviets for All Countries”
After 1917, the Bolsheviks and their followers in other countries announced to the world that a new weapon, a new political form, had at long last been discovered which would enable the working class everywhere to win its emancipation. This “perfect” political form was, of course, the Soviet. Time and place were of no importance. All that was necessary was for the different peoples to make use of Soviets and each and every one of them would achieve Socialism. Soviets, the Bolsheviks claimed, would be equally efficacious in backward countries like Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary, and in highly industrialised countries like England and the United States. “Soviets are the perfect form of State. They are the magic wand by which all inequalities, all misery, may be suppressed”  (p. 14).

Martov ridiculed the Bolsheviks for their belief that revolutions were ready to break out everywhere, for their belief that workers and peasants, by embracing Soviets (a world merely meaning Council), could establish Socialism. He held the Marxian view that no political form can enable Socialism to be won, unless the material conditions are ripe for such a change, unless capitalism has reached a high degree of development. Says Martov: “No less than mystic is the concept of a political form that, by virtue of its particular character, can surmount all economic social and national conditions” (p. 15).

Marx’s view on the impossibility of peasant communities passing directly to Socialism without passing through the intermediary stage of capitalism, can be found in his preface to the first edition of Capital. There Marx says: “And even when a society has got upon the right rod for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement . . . it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development.”

It can easily be seen, therefore, how little the Bolsheviks understood the teachings of Marx (whose apostles they claim to be), and how badly they followed the advice he had to give.

Reality has shattered all these illusions
To-day, we hear little of Soviets. The reality of experience has taught that they are not “a magic wand”.

Reality, too, shattered many of the Bolsheviks’ early illusions. In his essay on “Dictatorship of the Minority”, Martov shows how the Bolsheviks were forced by conditions of the time to change their tactics and ideas.

In 1917, Lenin urged that the Russian workers would shatter the old bureaucratic and oppressive features of the State, once they had gained political power. He wrote of “the substitution of a universal popular militia for the police”, of the “electiveness and recall at any moment of all functionaries and commanding ranks”, of “workers’ control in its primitive sense, direct participation of the people at the courts” (p. 17). Indeed, Lenin claimed that the triumph of the Bolsheviks would bring to the Russian workers a more real democracy than that found in capitalist countries with the parliamentary system.

This soon proved to be an idle dream. (And yet, perhaps, it was not so “idle”, since such talk helped Lenin and his clique to gain support and power.) In any case, the programme above outlined was soon abandoned. It was found impossible to put it into effect in face of the backward condition of industry and agriculture, and of the peasant outlook. Alread, by1919, Martov could observe that the machinery of State in Russia was being strengthened, and that the apparatus for repression was being improved and extended. Martov sums up the matter in these words:

“Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The ‘Soviet State’ has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials and the commanding staff. It has not suppressed the professional police . . . It has not done away with social hierarchy in production . . . On the contrary, in proportion to its evolution, the Soviet State shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency toward the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialised apparatus of repression than before . . . It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organisms from the tutelage of the electors” (p. 18. Our emphasis).

Again, on page 55, Martov tells us how things developed after 1917.

“In Russia the evolution of the ‘Soviet State’ has already created a new and complicated State machine, based on the ‘administration of persons’ as against the ‘administration of things’ based on the opposition of  . . . The functionary (official) to the citizen. THESE ANTAGONISMS ARE IN NO WAY DIFFERENT FROM THE ANTAGONISMS THAT CHARACTERISE THE CAPITALIST STATE” (Our emphasis).

Naturally, Martov, like the S. P. G. B., held the view that the form of State in Russia was not as advanced as the “democratic parliamentarism” found in Western Europe. Whilst ridiculing the democracy of the more highly developed  capitalist countries, the Bolsheviks did not fail to make use of the features of repression existing in those countries (p. 19).

To put the whole matter briefly, after the Russian upheaval of 1917, as before it, the State Power continued to be in the hands of a minority, though it was a different minority (p. 19).

What was the historic role of the Bolsheviks?
In his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels showed that after the proletariat has gained political power for the purpose of introducing Socialism, the State would become unnecessary, and die out. “State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of the processes of production” (Our emphasis).

If the conclusions of Engels given above contain the truth, the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was not followed by the introduction of Socialism. Or why the continued development and strengthening of the Russian State Power?

What DID the capture of political power by the Bolsheviks mean? Briefly stated, it meant this. The Bolsheviks became the instruments for the furthering of a capitalist revolution in Russia.

After a life-time of experience of working-class movements, Engels, in his preface to The Class Struggle in France, wrote:

“The time has passed for revolutions accomplished through the sudden seizure of power by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses . . . As soon as the situation calls for the total transformation of the social order, the masses must participate in it directly, and they must have an understanding of what is at stake and what must be won. This is what the history of the last half-century has taught us” (Quoted by Martov, pp. 57-8).

Both Engels and Marx knew from experience that before there could be a Socialist revolution, capitalism must have reached a high stage of development for “no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room within it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society” (Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy).

The Bolsheviks, however, thought it possible for an active minority, representing the vague aspirations of the workers, to gain political power before the capitalist revolution itself had been completed. (See Martov, pp. 58-60.) What would happen if such a minority gained a political victory over the capitalist classes?

Marx himself answers this question in clear-cut terms in his article, “Moralising Criticism”. Briefly stated, his answer is the following: In those circumstances, the minority become merely the tools of the capitalist class, which has not been virile enough to gain or hold power. Such a minority finds itself in the position of having to develop and run capitalism for a class unable, at the time, to do it successfully itself. Hence, let it be remembered, in running capitalism, the minority will be compelled to use its power to keep the working class in its slave position. Says Marx:

“Its victory will only be a point in the process of the bourgeois (capitalist) revolution itself, and will serve the cause of the latter by aiding its further development. This happened in 1794, and will happen again as long as the march, the movement, of history will not have elaborated the material factors that will create the necessity of putting an end to the bourgeois methods of production and, as a consequence, to the political domination of the bourgeoisie” (p. 59, Martov’s emphasis).

Hence, we see the real content and meaning of the Russian Revolution. It was “only a point in the process of the capitalist revolution itself”.  The Bolsheviks, finding Russia in a very backward condition, were obliged themselves to do what had not been done previously, i.e., develop capitalism. The Bolsheviks performed the task of setting Russian capitalism on its feet and helping it through a very stormy period. “For the proletariat can score a victory over the capitalists  and not for the capitalists  only when the march of history will have elaborated the NECESSITY (not merely the objective POSSIBILIT) of putting an end to the capitalist methods of production” (p. 59).

We had hoped to include in this article reference to two other essays by Martov; first, “Metaphysical Materialism and Dialectical Materialism”, and secondly, “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but, owing to lack of space, we must leave them for a future issue.

Enough, however, has been said to show that we consider The State and the Socialist Revolution worthy of careful study. Like the books by Gide and Yvon, reviewed already in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, Martov’s appears to add further proof of the correctness of the attitude taken up by the S. P. G. B. anent the Russian Revolution.

We recommend it to all workers. We are confident that, if widely read, it will dispel many of those illusions which have been hindering the growth of a solid Socialist movement during the last twenty years.

(The State and the Socialist Revolution is obtainable from the Literature Secretary, 42 Great Dover Street, London, S. E. 1. Post free, 1s. 1d.)