Recently, the electronic journal Anti-Capital published a stinging review (issue 13) of our publication Centenary of the Revolution (2017), a collection of articles from the Socialist Standard, dealing mainly with the so-called Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. We are accustomed to having our views caricatured but this particular review seems to have plumbed new depths of misrepresentation.
Amongst the numerous inaccuracies littering the review one in particular stands out:
‘A common theme throughout the SPGB’s writings is an explicit rejection of the class struggle as the motor force of human society (historical materialism) and a rejection of the class struggle as the material basis for the revolutionary movement of the working-class (socialism)’.
Anyone familiar with the Socialist Party would instantly know this is simply untrue. You only have to look at our Declaration of Principles in which the notion of class struggle, far from being ‘explicitly rejected’, is explicitly acknowledged.
What seems to have riled these Leninists is the Socialist Party’s repudiation of the claim that what happened in 1917 was a socialist revolution. We share Marx’s view that the emancipation of the working class must be done by the working class itself, not some Leninist vanguard. For that to happen, workers en masse – not just in one country but across the world – need to want and understand what this basically entails. In other words, there needs to be a conscious socialist majority.
That there was no such majority, or even a significant minority, in Russia (or elsewhere) in 1917 is indisputable. Lenin himself noted that ‘the majority of the population in Russia are peasants, small farmers who can have no idea of socialism’ (speech at Seventh All-Russia Conference of the Party) and that the ‘proletariat and semi proletariat’, had ‘never been socialist, nor has it the slightest idea about socialism, it is only just awakening to political life’. In another speech, he frankly admitted ‘We know how small the section of advanced and politically conscious workers in Russia is’ (Second All-Russia Congress of Commissars for Labour, 1918)
This was precisely Lenin’s justification for his vanguard party, supposedly drawn from this small and politically advanced section of the working class, to take matters into its hands; the great majority of workers and peasants, in his estimation, were not yet imbued with a socialist consciousness so the vanguard had to take power and act on their behalf.
Yet, oddly enough, the Leninist reviewer in Anti-Capital rebukes us for saying much the same thing as Lenin in this case – namely, that there was no mass support for socialism – and goes on to assert: ‘In place of the living dynamics of the real-existing class struggle as it actually exists and the course it actually takes at the heart of Marxist materialism, the SPGB substitutes metaphysics.’
But how is it ‘metaphysics’ to question whether the majority of the Russian population in 1917 were mentally prepared for socialism? If anything seems ‘metaphysical’, it is the belief that you can somehow conjure a stateless non-market socialist society into existence without a majority wanting and understanding what that means beforehand. On the other hand, if you agree that a socialist majority is first needed in order to implement socialism how can you then go on to describe a revolution as ‘socialist’ when demonstrably – as in 1917 – such a majority was conspicuous by its absence?
The plain fact is, given the paucity of socialists at the time, the Bolsheviks, with the best will in the world, had only one course of action open to them, given their determination to seize power – namely, to embrace some form of capitalism. Furthermore, there is only one way in which capitalism can be administered – that is, in the interests of capital and against the interests of workers. That is why the 1917 uprising was nothing like the idealistic picture that Anti-Capital paints.
This is the conclusion any ‘Marxist materialist’ would draw yet, according to the Anti-Capital reviewer, it is precisely ‘Marxist materialism’ that the Socialist Party has renounced. We are accused of ‘crass economic determinism’ for erasing from history the ‘millions of organized workers who were fighting under the red flag for socialism’. How we can be charged with the crime of ‘economic determinism’ while attaching such importance to the subjective preconditions for socialism, is not explained.
The reviewer shows a complete lack of understanding of the relationship between the goal of socialism and the process of class struggle itself – the suggestion that propagating the former somehow ‘substitutes’ for the latter. On the contrary, the former arises out of the latter just as Marx’s ‘class-for-itself’ arises out of his ‘class-in-itself’. Socialist consciousness separates the one from the other. Far from being divorced from the class struggle, putting forward the case for socialism is, in fact, the most politically efficacious way of prosecuting that struggle from the workers’ standpoint. What could possibly be more revolutionary than advancing an objective that directly challenges, and calls into question, the rule of capital itself?
Moreover, the whole point of the class struggle is surely to end it, not indefinitely prolong it out of some misguided masochistic desire to be endlessly exploited by our capitalist employers. You can only end it by eliminating class ownership of the means of producing wealth and establishing socialism and for that, as stated, you first need a conscious socialist majority. There is nothing noble or edifying about the idea of class struggle for its own sake. We demand the right to live as human beings, not mere ‘hands’.
How little the Anti-Capital reviewer understands our perspective is also borne out by the comments about our supposed views on industrial struggles. According to the reviewer this is further evidence that we reject the class struggle:
‘There are a series of bizarre contradictions arising from this rejection of the class struggle. At the same time that they claim that struggles for higher wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions are inevitable and necessary under capitalism, they also claim that the workers’ party has no role in these struggles.’
This is a complete muddle. If anything, the contradiction lies with the reviewer in admitting that the Socialist Party says such struggles are ‘inevitable and necessary’ under capitalism and then bizarrely claiming that it rejects the class struggle. The fact that we do not think it is appropriate to directly engage, as a political party, in the industrial conflicts that workers are embroiled in, in no way means it repudiates class struggle itself. That is a completely unwarranted inference to draw which, moreover, is entirely at odds with our own stated position of principled support for industrial militancy along sound lines.
It is simply that, unlike opportunist Leninist sects that have a habit of wanting to cynically exploit industrial disputes in order to recruit more members, the Socialist Party recognises that workers engaged in such disputes come from many different political backgrounds. Consequently, to sow political divisions among workers (which is precisely what direct party political intervention would do), rather than concentrate on the immediate issue at hand would, ironically, weaken the collective strength and unity of the trade union itself. As individuals, however, many members of the Socialist Party are active trade unionists and there is no contradiction whatsoever between this and their espousal of revolutionary socialism.
However, it is the question of what constitutes a ‘revolution’ that perhaps most sharply separates us from the Leninists. For us, and fully in line with Marxian usage, what this term denotes is, simply, a fundamental change in the socio-economic basis of society.
It is not about how you achieve that change – the methods you use. For the instance, the use of violent force does not necessarily signify a revolution if all it results in is the overthrow of one particular ruling class and its replacement by another. If nothing has really changed substantively in terms of the basic social relationships that define a given society then you have not really had a revolution; merely a pseudo-revolution.
Nor does a revolution have to do with the class character of its agents or participants. No capitalist revolution was ever effected solely, or even mainly, by members of the capitalist class. Invariably, the capitalists called upon the assistance of the far more numerous subordinate classes – like the proletariat or the peasantry – in their bid to overthrow the then existing pre-capitalist social order.
This is true even when the overwhelming majority of the participants in a ‘revolution’ were workers – as in Russia, 1917 – when traditional bourgeoisie were dispossessed only for the Bolshevik regime to step into their shoes, functionally speaking. Indeed, in almost uncanny anticipation of the outcome of that particular event, Marx once noted how the mass mobilisation of workers in a struggle against the bourgeoisie can, in the end, serve only to entrench the rule of capital:
‘If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeoisie, that will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1794, so long as in the course of history, in its movement, the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and thus the definitive overthrow of bourgeois political rule’ (Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality, 1847).
So it is not the methods or the class character of the participants, involved in a revolution that determines its nature but, rather, its outcome – whether it results in a fundamental change in the organisational structure of society. There are basically two ways you can talk about a ‘revolution’. You can call it an ‘event’ – like the political act of replacing capitalism with socialism – or you can call it a ‘process’ (providing such a process is consciously aligned, or congruent, with the desired outcome of establishing socialism). In this latter sense, we can say ‘the revolution’ has already begun and will (hopefully) gather momentum in the form of an expanding movement for socialism, leading up eventually to the revolutionary ‘event’ of capturing political power.
According to Anti-Capital, however, we allegedly maintain that ‘Marx never saw fit to promulgate the seizure of power by the organized working-class in their conception’ – meaning a revolution in the sense of an ‘event’. This is simply untrue. Of course we are fully aware that Marx advocated the capture of political power. Moreover, this is something we advocate ourselves and, again, this is enshrined in our Declaration of Principles. We insist, however, that this political act must be carried out democratically by an organised working class that is genuinely socialist in outlook. Otherwise it cannot possibly amount to a socialist revolution. It cannot possibly usher in socialism.
Again, according to Anti-Capital:
‘For the SPGB, every revolution is a coup d’etat. February 1917 was a capitalist coup d’etat (Ibid, ‘The Russian Situation’, June 1917, p. 23), October 1917 was a Bolshevik coup d’etat (Ibid, p.31); 1905 was a “capitalist movement” (Ibid, ‘The Revolution in Russia: Where it Fails’, August 1918, p. 37).’
This too is misleading. We do not say ‘every revolution is a coup d’etat’. There have been revolutions in the past fully deserving of the term ‘revolution’. These brought about a fundamental change in the socio-economic basis of society – such as from feudalism to capitalism. However, capitalism is now thoroughly global. Consequently, the only legitimate use of the term ‘revolution’ today (at least in Marxian terminology) must entail a social transformation that culminates in genuine socialism. Anything short of that would not truly constitute a ‘revolution’ in our view.
This is why the Socialist Party was, technically, perfectly correct in describing the 1917 Bolshevik ‘revolution’ as a merely a coup d’etat. Capitalist relations of production based on generalised wage labour were not introduced under the Bolsheviks but merely consolidated and extended under their rule in the guise of state capitalism. At best, you could describe 1917 as a culminating moment in a protracted process of capitalist revolution that had begun earlier.
After all, even under the Tsar, capitalist industry was making headway in the towns and some of the factory complexes, like the giant Putilov works, were amongst the largest and most modern in the world. Moreover, at the time, Russia was the most heavily indebted country in the world with capital pouring in from countries, like France and Britain, to finance industrial development. The Bolsheviks’ decision to renege on these foreign debts was one reason for the subsequent invasion of Russia by various foreign powers in alliance with the white armies during the turbulent civil war that followed.
In any event, there can be no justification whatsoever from a Marxian standpoint for describing the events of 1917 as a ‘socialist’ revolution. As we have seen, genuine socialism was simply not on the political agenda. What initially attracted the Russian workers – and the far more numerous peasants – to the Bolsheviks was the promise of sweeping capitalist reform, not socialist revolution. Indeed, under the influence of the Bolsheviks the very term ‘socialism’ itself came increasingly to mean something quite different to the original Marxian concept. Instead of signifying a stateless non-market system of society it came to be redefined by Lenin as a form of ‘state capitalist monopoly’.
The Bolsheviks, for their part, opportunistically and cynically exploited the civil unrest at the time to catapult themselves into power but we should not romanticise the unrest itself as something other than it was. It was driven by such desperate concerns as securing waged employment in a context of widespread factory closures and financial collapse. It was certainly not the opening salvo of a socialist revolution, determined to fashion a completely new kind of society on the ruins of capitalism. That is just naïve fantasy, a retrospective construction put on events by ideologues in love with flowery rhetoric.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Bolshevik regime, having first curried favour with the workers, viciously turned upon them, imposing upon them its brutal dictatorship of the vanguard over the proletariat. The roll call of anti-working class measures implemented by the regime is long and impressive: the crushing of the factory committees, the subordination of the trade unions to the state, the imposition of top-down ‘one-man’ management in the factories, the ruthless suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion on fabricated charges, the introduction of the notorious ‘militarisation of labour’ programme under Trotsky and the systematic elimination of all political opponents both inside and outside the Party.
It is, frankly, quite pathetic in this day and age, especially given the benefit of hindsight, that there are still some people around, like those involved in the Anti-Capital project, so deluded as to feel it incumbent upon themselves to glorify and defend the Bolshevik coup as ‘a necessary obligation for all who work toward the emancipation of labor from capital’. All the available evidence suggests the very opposite was the case. It resulted in the ruthless subordination of labour to the goal of capital accumulation – a classic feature of capitalism. Indeed, according some estimates, the rate of capital accumulation out of surplus value in the early Soviet Union, with its concomitant suppression of working class consumption, was among the very highest in the world at the time (Peter Binns, ‘State Capitalism’, Marxism and the Modern World, 1986).
The development of soviet state capitalism prepared the ground for the emergence of the corrupt corporate capitalism of Putin’s Russia today. Indeed, many of the obscenely rich oligarchs of modern Russia were themselves once high-ranking members of the Soviet ruling class. All they wanted in their ‘revolution from above’ that overthrew the old Soviet system was to modernise the conditions of capitalist exploitation to make it more ‘efficient’ and beneficial to themselves.
If we could turn the clock back to 1917, as our Leninist conservatives, wallowing in their misplaced nostalgia, would have us do, the eventual outcome would still be little different to what it unfortunately happens to be today.