1950s >> 1954 >> no-601-september-1954

The Russian Revolution – Its Impact on the Socialist Movement

When the Russian Revolution broke upon war-weary Europe in 1917 most of the present members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were wither unborn or very young. To most of us the Russian Revolution is past history, as indeed it is to most people living to-day.

Whilst a knowledge of events relatively so recent is easy to acquire, the emotional impact of those events on politically-minded working men and women in this country, reformist and self-styled revolutionary alike, is harder to recapture. The fervour aroused by this impact even seeped into the S.P.G.B. Growing up into manhood in the years following the first world war, it is difficult for any young politically-interested worker, unbriefed in Socialist theory, to escape the influence of the emotionalism and the fervour which clouded opinion on the happenings in Russia. The Socialist revolution had started in Russia and would sweep through Europe! The workers would rise (at the psychological moment), form their own councils (Soviets) and take over land, the mines and the factories. Parliament had been shown by the events in Russia to be “useless”—a “gas house.” Every strike was interpreted by the new, self-appointed Bolshevik theorists in this country as a move in the strategy of the coming struggle for Socialism. Those who seemed quite unaware of this development were the workers generally, though the English Bolsheviks seemed not to notice the fact.

One result of the Russian Revolution was the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920. The Socialist Labour Party, an organisation formed in 1903 and allegedly Marxist, split and some of its prominent members became leaders of the new organisation, which devoted itself to preparing for the “psychological moment.” So seriously did it take this mumbo-jumbo that at one time in the late twenties Communists wrote to the S.P.G.B. declining a challenge to debate on the grounds that there was not time to debate Socialism—”it was round the corner.” Others who joined the early Communist Party came from the I.L.P. and the Labour Party, it being possible at that time to be a member of each party at one and the same time, the assumption being that the different branches of the “working class movement” were moving towards the same goal even if “tactics” differed. Even one or two members of the S.P.G.B. found their way into the Communist Party.

As a political party, however, the Socialist Party remained unshaken in its basic attitudes by the events in Russia. It would be an understatement to say that the Socialist Party showed a disinclination to identify itself with the “working-class movement” on Russian questions. Whilst not unmoved by the events in Russia we rejected what Communists claimed were the lessons to be applied from it to England. We saw nothing in the Russian upheaval which would make it necessary for the Party to deviate from the course it has set itself at its foundation in 1904. We rejected the propositions that a Socialist revolution had taken place in Russia, that the working class had come to power, that “intellectual minorities” could “lead” an unprepared working class to Socialism, that Parliament was “useless” and that Russia had forged new instruments for working class emancipation. We expressed our views forcefully and objectively on these issues which resulted in bitter opposition from our opponents, as the Socialist Standard and propagandists of twenty and more years ago testify. Our attitude on the Russian question is unchanged to-day and there is nothing that was written by our comrades in 1918 about it that we would withdraw. In contrast, prominent members of the Labour Party, who, whilst making pious reservations about the “violent methods” of the Bolsheviks in the early years, expressed approval of their aims and thought Russia was Socialist: but to-day see Russia as an empire-building, police state. It is an odd thought what the next thirty years might bring when one reflects that early Communist M.P.s like Newbold and Saklatvala owed their seats in Parliament to the fact that they were candidates of the Labour Party whilst at the same time being members of the Communist Party. Time and events have brought changes of attitudes among erstwhile supporters of the Bolsheviks. Having little or no theoretical knowledge, support, idolatry and tolerance have given way to criticism and bitter opposition. The Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed the basic assumptions of the Bolsheviks and their English supporters as unsound and non-Marxist, and the consequent development of affairs in Russia since the Revolution has occasioned us no surprise.

Without reservation the Socialist Party refuted the claim that the Bolsheviks could introduce Socialism in Russia. We were critical of their aims and methods. Socialism was impossible before large scale, industrial production has developed, and with it also, a dispossessed working class had been formed and won over to Socialism. The position in Russia was that it was a country largely populated by a peasantry, dominated by a semi-feudal aristocracy. Capitalist production was small in relation to the economy as a whole. Politically, the land-owning aristocracy were dominant and in control. the capitalist class were weak and insignificant, the working class was relatively numerically small though its organisations were semi-insurrectionary, vigorous and well organised. Parliamentary government in the Duma was a facade and creaked under the burden of aristocratic privilege and power: the franchise made a mockery of democracy.

Unable to deal with the complex problems thrown up by the war, the Russian Imperial Government, in 1917, began to lose authority and prestige. Lack of transport, food and arms, led to seething discontent among the soldiers, workers and peasants. It was in these circumstances that the Soviets (loosely organised councils or committees) established themselves among the workers, the soldiers and the peasants. The weaker and the more incompetent the Government were to control the situation the stronger the Soviets became and the more authority they assumed. The tottering Imperial government  gave way in March, 1917, to the Kerensky regime. Kerensky was leader of the Mensheviks, who were, like the Bolsheviks, a section of the Social Democratic Party. The Kerensky regime lasted until November, 1917. Its failure resulted from its complete inability to assess the widespread discontent with the war among the soldiers, workers and peasants. Where the Mensheviks failed the Bolsheviks succeeded. They realistically exploited these discontents in the meetings of the Soviets. As the authority of the new regime declined so the Bolsheviks gained in popularity in the Soviets and the prestige of the Soviets grew. There were instances of some constitutional powers passing from the government to the Soviets. The slogan of the Bolsheviks became “All Power to the Soviets” and “Peace, Land and Bread.” They crystallised the discontents and spread rapidly throughout Russia. The Kerensky regime, following its corrupt predecessor, came to its end.

The Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia. The Soviets, despite their spontaneous and improvised character had assumed constitutional forms and power. Amid all the excitements and the interest in the Russian Revolution aroused outside Russia the S.P.G.B. remained calm. From the outset it knew it could repudiate the wild claims that were being made. Whatever the merit of the slogan and object of “Peace, Land and Bread,” we said, this was not Socialism, and that, in the absence of knowledge and understanding among the majority of the population, could not lead to it. Further, we argued, this knowledge and understanding could not arise in the absence of maturity in productive relations and social development. Any government which assumed power in such circumstances, whether it claimed to be Socialist or not, must make itself responsible for the problems of capitalism and bring upon itself the opposition of the workers—they must fail. We were right.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks kept an earlier promise in arranging for free elections to a Constituent Assembly. When the result of the elections showed a majority opposed to the Bolsheviks, the government of the latter, which controlled the armed forces through the Soviets, decisively suppressed it. That was one of its first openly terroristic acts. It was certainly not the last. What idealism, principles or Socialist ideas might have existed in the pre-1917 Bolshevik movement in Russia, soon became lost in the evolution of the autocratic tyranny that soon established itself and remains firmly in the saddle to-day.

If there are lessons to be learned from Russia and other parts of the world where capitalism is administered in the name of Socialism and by men who sprang from the workers it is that the only was to Socialism is through working class understanding and democracy.

H. W.

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