2000s >> 2008 >> no-1251-november-2008

The Russian Revolution recalled

Even 90 years after the Russian revolution there are still some who claim that the event shines as a beacon for socialism. We were able to say at the time that whatever was happening in Russia it was not a socialist revolution.

In August 1918 the Socialist Standard pointed out that, while there were industrial towns in Russia, the country was largely agricultural with about 80 per cent of the population still living on the land. The answer to the question whether “this huge mass of people” (about 160 million), which indeed included some industrial and agricultural wage slaves, was “convinced of the necessity and equipped with the knowledge requisite for the social ownership of the means of life?” was “No!”; beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claimed to be Marxian socialists there was no justification for terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution.

Our analysis of the situation was based upon Marx’s definition of capitalism as a relation of wage-labour and capital and on the conditions necessary for that relation to be ended and replaced by socialism. Before “the Communistic abolition of buying and selling, of the bourgeois conditions of production”, as the Communist Manifesto put it, can happen, there must be a sufficient development of the productive forces, and the class which has to sell its labour power in order to live – the working class – must fully understand what is involved and be ready to take the necessary political action.

The conditions envisaged by Marx to be necessary for the ending of capitalism and establishing socialism did not exist in Russia in 1917, so why have the events been claimed as socialist?

Russia in 1917

The country had suffered huge losses during the war against the more heavily industrialised Germany, the economy was in a mess and there were food riots. The Tsar had been forced to abdicate in March 1917 – while both Lenin and Trotsky were out of the country – and the situation was confused. There was a provisional government which included capitalist and landowning representatives. In July Kerensky became leader with support from the Committee of the Duma (the Russian parliament) but with increasing support from the councils of Workers and Soldiers – the Soviets. However he continued with the war despite its unpopularity.

There was widespread discontent with soldiers, workers and peasants reacting against the adverse conditions, which the Bolsheviks were able to take advantage of the discontent. They gained control of the Soviets using slogans like “All power to the Soviets”, and crucially “Peace! Bread! Land!” In other words, this was what the war-weary, hungry workers and peasants wanted – they were not after socialism. That there was not a majority ready for socialism would not have concerned Lenin. The situation fitted his vanguard theory that the working class by its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness and needs to be led by professional revolutionaries. There were enormous difficulties including the backward state of the country and the civil war; also the expected uprisings in other European countries did not take place. The development of capitalism was all that could happen and the Bolsheviks as the new rulers would have no choice but to do their best to aid it.

That it was a minority revolution is illustrated by the way in which Lenin dealt with the political situation. The All-Russia Soviet Congress had met in November 1917 and had passed resolutions in favour of peace, ending landowners’ rights to possession of the land, and the setting up of a ‘workers and peasants’ government, headed by Lenin and dominated by the Bolsheviks, pending the election of a democratic ‘constituent assembly’.

However when the Constituent Assembly was elected the Bolsheviks did not have a majority and it was dissolved. Trotsky’s excuses for this are instructive – the election had taken place too soon after “the October Revolution” and news of what had taken place spread only slowly. “The peasant masses in many places had little notion of what went on in Petrograd and Moscow. They voted for ‘land and freedom’”. Precisely, for that, not socialism. So, not only did the Bolshevik takeover not have majority support, majority support for socialism not present either.

By the middle of 1918 the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks were now called) had firmly established its dictatorship and freedom of the press and assembly were restricted. The All-Russia Soviet Congress had ostensibly taken all power to itself but this was a façade. The Congress elected the 200 members of the Central Executive Committee but the credentials of delegates to the Congress were verified by Communist Party officials. Lenin claimed that what he called “Soviet Socialist Democracy” was “in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person; that the will of the class is at times best served by a dictator” and this was approved by the Central Executive Committee in 1918 (Martov The State and the Socialist Revolution, p.31).

Labour discipline

Raising the productivity of labour was a priority. In an address before the Soviets in April 1918 (The Soviets at Work) Lenin declared that not only was it necessary to halt ‘the offensive against capitalism’, they also had to employ capitalist methods which included strict discipline at work. They should immediately introduce piece work and measures which “combine the refined cruelty of bourgeois exploitation and valuable attainments in determining correct methods of work.” The previously stated aim of equal wages for all was abandoned and a “very high remuneration for the services of the biggest of the bourgeois specialists” was agreed. State control was seen as the “means to establish the control and order formerly achieved by the propertied classes” and he chided those who considered the “introduction of discipline into the ranks of the workers a backward step”.

In January 1920 the Bolshevik government abolished the power of workers’ control in factories and installed officials who were instructed by Moscow and given controlling influence. Democratic forms in the army had also been abolished.

The need to use capitalist methods to control and discipline workers in order to increase production, illustrates the absence of the absolute pre-requisite for socialism – the conscious participation of the majority of the working class.

State capitalism

In 1921 the Bolshevik government adopted a New Economic Policy. In proposing it Lenin argued that permitting some private industry and allowing peasants to keep surpluses were not dangerous for socialism. “On the contrary, the development of capitalism under the control and regulation of the proletarian state (in other words ‘state’ capitalism of this peculiar kind) is advantageous and necessary in an extremely ruined and backward peasant smallholder country…in so far as it is capable of immediately improving the state of peasant agriculture.”

Our criticism of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks is not that they did not achieve what was not possible at the time, i.e. socialism. It is rather that they adjusted theory to suit the circumstances: seeing the necessity for capitalist development they claimed that state-monopoly capitalism was socialism. In Can The Bolsheviks retain State Power? Lenin wrote about the “big banks” as the “state apparatus” needed to bring about socialism. “A single state bank…will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus”.

It was also Lenin who said in The State and Revolution in August 1917 that the first phase of communism was usually called socialism, when Marx made no such distinction between the terms. (In the 1888 Preface Engels refers to the Communist Manifesto as the most international of all Socialist literature). In Marx’s conception of the first phase of communism there was still common ownership, an end to buying and selling, and no money. (Marx mentions the possibility of labour time vouchers despite their obvious drawbacks). What happened in Russia did not qualify even as a “first phase of communism”.

Contemporary Trotskyists still call their aim of state capitalism socialism. The former Militant Tendency (now called SPEW) think that nationalising 150 big corporations would express in today’s language the demand in the Communist Manifesto for the “abolition of private property”. They also support Lenin’s vanguard theory that a revolutionary minority can by their leadership turn protest movements into a ‘socialist’ revolution. So it is hardly surprising that they claim the events in Russia in 1917 to have been a socialist revolution, blaming the backward state of the country, civil war and Stalin for what went wrong.

Both Lenin and Trotsky thought that democracy was not appropriate to their situation. Having taken power in a minority revolution they had to rule by force. This included the use of secret police – the Cheka. Trotskyists excuse Lenin’s red terror on the grounds that it was the outcome of civil war necessity, likewise with the measures taken to deal with the problems of production. However, it was precisely the conditions and the absence of a majority for socialism that made capitalism the inevitable outcome.

The rule of Lenin supported by Trotsky paved the way for Stalin. The legacy of the Russian Revolution, of Lenin and Trotsky, is that socialism/communism has come to be identified with state capitalism. It was not a victory for the working class, but a tragedy since it brought socialism into disrepute and diverted attention away from the vital need to reject capitalism in whatever form.


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