[Book] Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

1. The Balance Sheet of October

The advances of the planned economy

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be. (Alfred Tennyson)

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the greatest events in history. If we leave aside the heroic episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time millions of downtrodden workers and peasants took political power into their own hands, sweeping aside the despotic rule of the capitalists and landlords, and set out to create a socialist world order. Destroying the old tsarist regime that held sway for a thousand years, they had conquered one-sixth of the world’s land surface. The ancien régime was replaced by the rule of a new democratic state system: the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. It heralded the beginning of the world revolution, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions who had lived through the nightmare of the First World War. Notwithstanding the terrible backwardness of Russia, the new Socialist Soviet Republic represented a decisive threat to the world capitalist order. It struck terror into bourgeois circles, who rightly regarded it as a threat to their power and privileges, but comforted themselves with the notion that the Bolshevik regime was likely to only last a matter of weeks. The nationalised property relations that emerged from the revolution, the foundations of an entirely new social system, entered into direct conflict with the capitalist form of society. Despite the emergence of Stalinism, this fundamental antagonism existed right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today events in Russia continue to haunt world politics, like some Banquo’s ghost that continually overshadows the festivities of the capitalist class.

In order to fully appreciate the scope of these achievements, it is necessary to remember the point of departure. In their eagerness to discredit the ideas of genuine socialism, the apologists of the ‘free market’ conveniently forget a few details. In 1917, tsarist Russia was far more backward than present-day India. It lagged far behind the West. It was the barbaric land of the medieval wooden plough, used by peasants who had only achieved emancipation from serfdom two generations before. Russia had been ruled by tsarist despotism for centuries. The industrial working class was a small minority – less than four million out of a total of 150 million. Seventy per cent of the population could neither read nor write. Russian capitalism was extremely feeble and rested upon the crutches of foreign capital: French, British, German, Belgian and other Western powers controlled ninety per cent of Russia’s mines, fifty per cent of her chemical industry, more than forty per cent of her engineering, and forty-two per cent of her banking stock. The October Revolution attempted to transform all this, showing the way forward to the workers everywhere and preparing the road for the world socialist revolution. Despite the immense problems and obstacles, the planned economy revolutionised the productive forces in the USSR and laid the basis for a modern economy. The pre-war period saw the build-up of heavy industry through a series of Five-Year Plans and laid the foundations for the advances of the post-war years.

In 1936, Trotsky wrote that the “underlying service of the Soviet regime lies in its intense and successful struggle with Russia’s thousand-year-old backwardness… The Soviet regime is passing through a preparatory stage, importing, borrowing and appropriating the technical and cultural conquests of the West.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 20.) Since that time, the Soviet economy advanced with seven league boots. In the 50 years from 1913 (the height of pre-war production) to 1963, despite two world wars, foreign intervention, civil war, and other calamities, total industrial output rose more than 52 times. The corresponding figure for the USA was less than six times, while Britain struggled to double her output. In other words, within a few decades, on the basis of a nationalised economy, the Soviet Union was transformed from a backward agricultural economy into the second most powerful nation on earth, with a mighty industrial base, a high cultural level and more scientists than the USA and Japan combined.

From a Marxist point of view, the function of technique is to economise human labour. In the 50-year period from 1913 to 1963, the growth of productivity of labour in industry, the key index of economic development, advanced by 73 per cent in Britain and by 332 per cent in the USA. In the USSR, labour productivity rose in the same period by 1,310 per cent, although from a very low base. The periods of tremendous economic advance in Russia largely coincided with periods of crisis or stagnation in the capitalist West. The strides forward of Soviet industry in the 1930s coincided with the great slump and Depression in the capitalist world, accompanied by mass unemployment and chronic poverty. Between 1929 and 1933, American industrial production dropped 48.7 per cent. The American National Research League estimated the number of jobless in March 1933 was 17,920,000. In Germany, there were more than six million unemployed. These comparisons alone show graphically the superiority of a planned economy over the anarchy of capitalist production.

In the former USSR, whilst the population grew by 15 per cent, the number of technicians grew by 55 times; the numbers in full-time education by over six times; the number of books published by 13 times; hospital beds nearly ten times; children at nurseries 1,385 times. The number of doctors per 100,000 people was 205, as compared to 170 in Italy and Austria, 150 in America, 144 in West Germany, 110 in Britain, France and Netherlands, and 101 in Sweden. Life expectancy more than doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. Between 1955 and 1959 urban housing space (state and co-operative) more than doubled, while private space more than tripled in size. By 1970, the number of doctors had increased from 135,000 to 484,000 and the number of hospital beds from 791,000 to 2,224,000.

Despite the terrible blow to agriculture by Stalin’s forced collectivisation in the early 1930s, from which agriculture never fully recovered, progress was made, allowing Russia to feed her population adequately. Such economic advance, in so short a time, has no parallel anywhere in the world. The amount of cultivated land was increased in just three years, between 1953 and 1956, by a staggering 35.9 million hectares, an area equivalent to the total cultivated land of Canada. This achievement lies in stark contrast to the dire position of the masses in India, Pakistan and the rest of the third world. This advance of the Soviet economy is even more incredible given the chronic backwardness that characterised its starting point. The old tsarist economy, a semi-feudal country with outcrops of modern industry mainly owned by foreign capital, was shattered in the First World War. Then came two revolutions, the civil war, the imperialist blockade and foreign intervention and a famine in which six million people died. To this must be added the countless millions of workers, peasants, technicians, and scientists who perished, first in the period of forced collectivisation, then in the Great Purges of the 1930s. Bureaucratic planning pushed the economy forward, but at three times the cost compared to the industrial revolution of the West. The dead weight of mismanagement, waste, corruption and bureaucracy weighed down heavily on the economy, eventually dragging it down to a standstill.

The Second World War in Europe was a further testimony to the achievements of the planned economy. The war had in reality been reduced to a titanic battle between the USSR and Nazi Germany, with Britain and the USA as mere spectators. It cost the USSR an estimated 27 million dead. A million died in the siege of Leningrad alone. Vast areas of Russia were annexed by Hitler or completely destroyed in the Nazi’s ‘scorched earth’ policy. Almost fifty per cent of all urban living space in occupied territory – 1.2 million houses – was destroyed, as were 3.5 million houses in rural areas. “Many towns lay in ruins. Thousands of villages were smashed. People lived in holes in the ground. A great many factories, dams, bridges, which had been put up with so much sacrifice in the first Five-Year Plan period, now had to be rebuilt,” stated historian Alec Nove. (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 292.)

In the post-war period, without any Marshall Aid programme, the USSR made colossal advances on all fronts. Thanks to the nationalised economy and the plan, the Soviet Union rapidly built up its devastated industries, with growth rates of over 10 per cent. Alongside US imperialism, the USSR had emerged from the war as a world superpower. “World history knows nothing like it,” states Nove. As early as 1953, the USSR had built up a stock of 1.3 million machine tools of all kinds – double what it had pre-war. Between 1945 and 1960, steel production had grown from 12.25 million tons to 65 million tons. In the same period, oil production had risen from 19.4 million tons to 148 million tons, and coal from 149.3 million to 513 million. Between 1945 and 1964, the Soviet national income rose by 570 per cent, compared to 55 per cent in the USA. Let us not forget that the USA emerged from the war with its industries intact and two thirds of the world’s gold in its vaults. In fact, it had benefited enormously from the war effort and was able as a result to impose its domination throughout the capitalist world.

Before the war, the Soviet Union was still far behind not only the USA, but also Britain and Europe. Astonishingly, by the mid-1980s the USSR had overtaken Britain and most other capitalist economies, with the exception of the USA. At least in absolute terms, the USSR occupied the first position in many key fields of production, for example, in the production of steel, iron, coal, oil, gas, cement, tractors, cotton, and many steel tools. In the mid-1980s the Massachusetts Cambridge Engineering Research Association described the Soviet natural gas industry – which doubled production in less than ten years – as a “spectacular success story”. (Financial Times, 14/11/85.) Even in the field of computers, where Russia in the 1970s was said to be ten years behind the West, the gap had been narrowed to a point where Western experts admitted it was only about 2-3 years. The most spectacular proof of the superiority of a planned economy, where it was run well, was the Soviet space programme. Since 1957 Russia had led the ‘space race’. While the Americans landed on the moon, the Russians were building a space station that would take them to the far reaches of the solar system. As a by-product, the Soviet Union was selling the cheap and reliable Proton rockets on world markets at a price some £10 million less than the European Ariane space project.

As late as 1940, two-thirds of the population lived in conditions of rural backwardness. Now, the entire position has been reversed. Two-thirds live in the cities and only one-third on the land, in other words, we have witnessed the same processes that we saw in the West over the last 50 years, i.e. the development of industry leading to an enormous strengthening of the proletariat at the expense of the peasantry and middle layers of society. In the USSR, however, the process (‘proletarianisation’) had been carried to unheard-of lengths, with the concentration of the workforce into gigantic industrial enterprises of 100,000 or more. Today the Soviet proletariat, far from being backward and weak, is the strongest working class on earth. The position as regards education has been transformed. This was one of the main historical gains of the October Revolution. In the USSR, about one worker in three was qualified, and a large number of working class youth had access to university. The total numbers of pupils receiving both higher and secondary technical education quadrupled between 1940 and 1964. By 1970, there were 4.6 million students in the USSR, with 257,000 graduates in engineering (in the US by comparison there were 50,000 graduates in this field). Four times as much per head of population was spent on education in Russia than in Britain. A mere glance at the figures indicates the superiority of a planned economy over all the petty fussing of the reformist leaders in the West who have accepted the need to drastically curtail spending on education, health and welfare generally.

The growth of the economy meant a steady improvement in living standards. The great majority of Russians in the past period[1] possessed such things as TV sets, refrigerators and washing machines. And all this had been achieved without unemployment or inflation. Rents were fixed at about 6 per cent of the monthly income, and were last increased in 1928. A small flat in Moscow, up until recently, cost about £11 a month, which included gas, electricity, telephone and unlimited hot water. Again, bread was around 16 pence a kilo and, like sugar and most basic foodstuffs, last went up in price in 1955. Meat and dairy produce prices were last increased in 1962. This situation only began to change in the 1980s. With the move towards capitalism, this situation has radically changed since subsidies were cut and price controls abolished. In 1993 inflation reached 2,600 per cent and, although it has fallen back since then, still remains high.

Yet the colossal advantages created by a society which had abolished capitalism and landlordism were revealed, at least in outline, by this unprecedented growth. The advances of the Soviet economy over the first sixty years were however extremely uneven and contradictory. They were far from the idyllic picture painted in the past by the ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’. Without doubt, a regime of workers’ democracy would have far outstripped what had been achieved under Stalinism with all its corruption and mismanagement. Within this contradictory development of the Soviet economy lies the key to understanding the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s and the move towards capitalist restoration.

The laws of the development of capitalism as a socio-economic system, were brilliantly analysed by Marx in the three volumes of Capital. However, the development of a nationalised planned economy, which is a prerequisite to the movement towards socialism, takes place in an entirely different manner. The laws of capitalism are expressed in the blind play of market forces, through which the growth of the productive forces takes place in an automatic fashion. The law of value, expressed through the mechanism of supply and demand, allocates the resources from one sector to another. There is no plan or conscious intervention. This cannot be the case where the state centralises the economy into its hands. Here a workers’ state occupies the same position in regard to the whole economy as an individual capitalist occupies in the context of a single factory.

For that very reason, the actions of the Soviet government over the past seven decades have played a decisive role – for good or ill – on economic development. “There is no other government in the world,” noted Trotsky, “in whose hands the fate of the whole country is concentrated to such a degree… The centralised character of the national economy converts the state power into a factor of enormous significance.” Under these circumstances, the policy of the regime was decisive. It was the blind alley of bureaucratic rule that brought the fireworks display of economic advance to a shuddering halt. Unlike the development of capitalism, which relies on the market for the allocation of resources, a nationalised economy requires conscious planning and direction. This cannot be undertaken successfully by a handful of bureaucrats in Moscow, even if they were Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Such a state of affairs requires the involvement of the mass of the population in the running of industry and the state. Only a regime of workers’ democracy would be capable of harnessing the talent and initiative of society. A regime of bureaucratic mismanagement would inevitably lead to the eventual seizure of the economy as it became more sophisticated and technologically advanced. By the 1970s, the Soviet economy had reached a complete impasse. But the reasons for this are the subject of a later chapter.

Suffice to say that, despite the bureaucratic stranglehold of Stalinism, the successes of the planned economy were demonstrated, not on the pages of Capital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. As Trotsky explained:

Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution, a backward country has achieved in less than ten years, successes unexampled in history. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 8.)

Was the October Revolution a coup?

In an attempt to discredit the Bolsheviks, no effort has been spared to falsify the historical record. The usual trick is to describe the October Revolution as a coup d’état, that is, a movement carried out by a small minority using conspiratorial methods behind the backs of the majority. The Bolsheviks, so the argument goes, seized power from the Provisional Government which issued from the February Revolution and which, supposedly, represented the democratic will of the people. If only Lenin’s ‘conspiracy’ had not prospered, the story goes, Russia would have entered on the road of Western parliamentary democracy and lived happily ever after. This fairy story has been repeated so many times that it has been uncritically accepted by many. Like any other fairy story its purpose is to lull the wits to sleep. And also like any other fairy story, it is convincing only to very small children.

The first thing which springs to mind is: if the Provisional Government really represented the overwhelming majority, and the Bolsheviks only an insignificant group of conspirators, how did the latter succeed in overthrowing the former? After all, the government possessed (at least on paper) all the might of the state apparatus, the army, the police and the Cossacks, whereas the Bolsheviks were a small party which, at the beginning of the revolution in February had only about 8,000 members in all Russia. How was it possible for such a tiny minority to overthrow a mighty state? If we accept the argument of a coup, then we must assume that Lenin and Trotsky possessed magical powers. This is the very stuff of fairy tales! Sadly, it has no place in real life, or in history.

In reality, the conspiracy theory of history explains nothing. It merely assumes what has to be proved. Such a superficial mode of reasoning, which assumes that every strike is caused by ‘agitators’ and not by the accumulated discontent in a factory, is typical of the police mentality. But when it is seriously advanced by self-styled academics as an explanation for great historical events, one can only scratch one’s head in bewilderment – or else assume that an ulterior motive is present. The motive of the policeman who seeks to attribute a strike to the activities of unseen agitators is quite clear. And this mode of argument is really no different. The essential idea is that the working class is incapable of understanding its own interests (which are, naturally, identical to those of the bosses). Therefore, if they move to take their destiny into their own hands, the only explanation is that they have been misled by unscrupulous demagogues.

This argument, which incidentally can be used against democracy in general, also misses the point. How could Lenin and Trotsky ‘mislead’ the decisive majority of society in such a way that in the short space of nine months, the Bolshevik Party passed from an insignificant minority to win the majority in the soviets, the only really representative organs of society, and take power? Only because the bourgeois Provisional Government had revealed its complete bankruptcy. Only because it had failed to carry out a single one of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. And this can be demonstrated very easily by one fact alone: the Bolshevik Party took power in October on the basis of the programme of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. This is the most graphic illustration of the fact that the Provisional Government had failed to achieve any of the most burning needs of the Russian people. This, and this alone, explains the success of the Bolsheviks in October.

The most striking thing about 1917 is precisely the active involvement of the masses at each stage. This, in fact, constitutes the essence of a revolution. In normal periods the majority of men and women are prepared to accept that the most important decisions affecting their lives are taken by others, by the ‘people that know’ – politicians, civil servants, judges, ‘experts’ – but at critical moments, the ‘ordinary’ people begin to question everything. They are no longer content to allow others to decide for them. They want to think and act for themselves. That is what a revolution is. And you can see elements of this in every strike. The workers begin to participate actively, speak, judge, criticise – in a word, decide their own destiny. To the bureaucrat and the policeman (and some historians whose mental processes function on the same wavelength), this seems like a strange and threatening madness. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. In such situations, men and women cease to act like automatons and begin to behave like real human beings with a mind and a will. Their stature is raised in their own eyes. They rapidly become conscious of their own condition and their own aspirations. Under such conditions, they consciously seek out that party and programme that reflects their aspirations, and reject others. A revolution is always characterised by the rapid rise and fall of parties, individuals and programmes, in which the more radical wing tends to gain.

In all Lenin’s speeches and writings of this period, we see a burning faith in the ability of the masses to change society. Far from adopting ‘conspiratorial’ methods, he based himself on appeals to the revolutionary initiatives of the workers, poor peasants and soldiers. In the April Theses, he explained that:

We don’t want the masses to take our word for it. We are not charlatans. We want the masses to overcome their mistakes through experience. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 36, p. 439, henceforth referred to as LCW.)

Later on, he said:

Insurrection must rely, not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class… Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. (LCW, Vol. 26. p. 22.)

The fact that Lenin here counter-poses the masses to the Party was no accident. Although the Bolshevik Party played a fundamental role in the Revolution, this was not a simple one-way process, but a dialectical one. Lenin pointed out many times that the masses are a hundred times more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party. It is a law that in a revolution, the revolutionary party and its leadership come under the pressure of alien classes. We have seen this many times in history. A section of the leadership at such moments begins to doubt and hesitate. An internal struggle is necessary to overcome these vacillations. This occurred in the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s return to Russia, when the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd (mainly Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin) adopted a conciliatory attitude to the Provisional Government and even considered fusing with the Mensheviks. The line of the Party was only changed after a sharp internal struggle in which Lenin and Trotsky joined forces to fight for a second revolution in which the working class would take power into its hands.

In this struggle, Lenin appealed directly to the advanced workers over the heads of the Central Committee. He said that “the ‘country’ of the workers and the poor peasants… is a thousand times more leftward than the Chernovs and the Tseretelis, and a hundred times more leftward than we are”. (LCW, Vol. 24, p. 364.) The motor force of the revolution at each stage was the movement of the masses. The task of the Bolsheviks was to give a clear political and organisational expression to this movement, to ensure that it was concentrated at the right moment for the seizure of power, and to avoid premature uprisings which would lead to defeat. For a time, this meant actually holding the masses back. The key Vyborg Committee in Petrograd stated in June: “We have to play the part of the fire-hose.” (Quoted in M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 200.) Podvoisky admitted at the Sixth Party Congress in August: “We were forced to spend half our time calming the masses.” (Ibid., p. 200.)

Permanent mobilisation

Numerous witnesses from all parties testify to the extraordinary degree of participation by the masses. In the words of Marc Ferro: “The citizens of the new Russia, having overthrown Tsardom, were in a state of permanent mobilisation.” (Ibid., p. 201.) The prominent Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov recalls that “all Russia… was constantly demonstrating in those days. The provinces had all become accustomed to street demonstrations”. (Ibid., p. 201.)

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, recalls:

The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events. Discussion that nothing could interrupt!… The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audience – usually some of the cooks or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight you could catch snatches of talk – “Bolsheviks, Mensheviks…” At three in the morning: “Milyukov, Bolsheviks…” At five – still the same street-corner-meeting talk, politics, etc. Petrograd’s white nights are always associated in my mind now with those all-night political disputes. (N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, pp. 351-2.)

The same picture is presented by John Reed:

At the Front the soldiers fought out their fight with the officers, and learned self-government through their committees. In the factories those unique Russian organisations, the Factory-Shop Committees, gained experience and strength and a realisation of their historical mission by combat with the old order. All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know… In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky…

Lectures, debates, speeches – in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks… Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories… What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway-trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere. (John Reed, op. cit. p. 14-5)

The thirst for ideas was reflected in an enormous interest in the printed word. John Reed describes the situation with the soldiers in the front line:

We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?” (Ibid., p. 16, emphasis in original.)

The Bolshevik Party gained because it stood for the only programme that showed a way out. Lenin’s celebrated slogan was – ‘Patiently explain!’ The masses were able to experience the programmes of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in practice, and discarded them. The votes for the Bolshevik candidates in the soviets steadily increased to the point where, by September they had won the majority in Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and all the major cities. At this point, the question of a transfer of power from the discredited Provisional Government, which represented only itself, to the soviets, the democratic organs of the mass of workers and soldiers (overwhelmingly peasants) was an imperative necessity. The growth of the Bolshevik Party in this period is something without precedent in the history of political parties. From only around 8,000 members in February, it grew to 177,000 by the Sixth Congress in July. Moreover, we must remember that this was achieved despite an extremely weak apparatus, and in conditions of severe persecution. Krupskaya writes:

The growth of Bolshevik influence, especially among the troops, was obvious. The Sixth Congress welded the forces of the Bolsheviks still closer. The appeal issued in the name of the Sixth Party Congress spoke about the counter-revolutionary position taken by the Provisional Government, and about the impending world revolution and the battle of classes. (N. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, pp. 369-70.)

The numerical growth of the Party only partly expressed the rapid growth in its mass influence, above all in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Marcel Liebman describes the Party’s progress thus:

Lenin’s Party recorded, all through the year 1917, remarkable and almost constant election successes. Whereas at the beginning of the revolution it had only small representation in the Petrograd Soviet, by May the Bolshevik group in the workers’ section of that institution possessed almost an absolute majority. One month later, during the first conference of the factory committees of Petrograd, three-quarters of the 568 delegates expressed support for the Bolshevik theses. Yet it was only at the end of the summer that the Leninists reaped the full harvest of their policy of opposition to the Provisional Government. In the Petrograd municipal elections in June the Bolsheviks received between 20 and 21 per cent of the votes; in August, when the Party was still suffering from the consequences of the July days, it received 33 per cent. In Moscow in June the Bolsheviks had received a little over 12 per cent of the votes. In September, they won an absolute majority, with 51 per cent of the votes. That their grip was especially strong among the working class is clear from the advance of their representation at the factory-committee conferences. In Petrograd, by September, there were no more Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries present at the regional meetings of these bodies, their places having been taken by Bolsheviks. (Liebman, op. cit. p. 206.)

We will give the last word on this subject to a prominent opponent of Bolshevism, who was also an eye witness and historian of the Russian Revolution, the Menshevik Sukhanov. Describing the situation in the last days of September, he writes:

The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory-benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses, they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks. They had become the sole hope… The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. (Ibid., p. 207.)

Party and class

The Russian Revolution took place over nine months. During that period, the Bolshevik Party, using the most democratic means, won over the decisive majority of the workers and poor peasants. The fact that they succeeded so easily in overcoming the resistance of the Kerensky forces can only be explained by this fact. Moreover, as we shall see, there is no way that the Bolsheviks could have held onto power without the support of the overwhelming majority of society. At every stage, the decisive role was played by the active intervention of the masses. This is what set its stamp on the whole process. The ruling class and its political and military representatives could only grind their teeth, but were powerless to prevent power from slipping from their hands. True, they were involved in constant conspiracies against the Revolution, including the armed uprising of General Kornilov, which aimed at overthrowing Kerensky and instituting a military dictatorship, but all of this foundered on the movement of the masses.

The fact that the masses supported the Bolsheviks was accepted by everyone at the time, including the staunchest enemies of the Revolution. Naturally, they put this down to all kinds of malign influences, ‘demagogy’, the immaturity of the workers and peasants, their supposed ignorance, and all the rest of the arguments which are essentially directed against democracy itself. How it came about that the masses only became ignorant and immature when they ceased to support the Provisional Government must be one of the greatest mysteries since Saint Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. But if we leave aside the obvious motivation of spitefulness, malice and impotent rage, we can see that the following passage from a right-wing paper constitutes a valuable admission that the Bolsheviks indeed enjoyed the support of the masses. On the 28th October, Russkaya Volya wrote the following:

What are the chances of Bolshevik success? It is difficult to answer that question, for their principal support is the … ignorance of the popular masses. They speculate on it, they work upon it by a demagogy which nothing can stop. (Quoted in J. Reed, op. cit., p. 298, my emphasis.)

It is impossible to understand what happened in 1917 without seeing the fundamental role of the masses. The same is true of the French Revolution of 1789-94, a fact which historians frequently fail to grasp (there are exceptions, notably the anarchist Kropotkin, and, in our own times, George Rudé). But here for the first time in history, if we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, the working class actually succeeded in taking power and at least beginning the socialist transformation of society. That is precisely why the enemies of socialism are compelled to lie about the October Revolution and slander it. They cannot forgive Lenin and the Bolsheviks for having succeeded in leading the first successful socialist revolution, for proving that such a thing is possible, and therefore pointing the way for future generations. Such a precedent is dangerous! It is therefore necessary to ‘prove’ (with the assistance of the usual crew of ‘objective’ academics) that this was all a very bad business, and must not be repeated.

The claim that the October Revolution was only a coup is often justified by pointing to the relatively small numbers actually involved in the insurrection itself. This apparently profound argument does not resist the slightest scrutiny. In the first place, it confuses the armed insurrection with the revolution, that is to say, it confuses the part with the whole. In reality, the insurrection is only a part of the revolution – a very important part, it is true. Trotsky likens it to the crest of a wave. As a matter of fact, the amount of fighting that took place in Petrograd was very small. One can say that it was bloodless. The reason for this was that nine-tenths of the tasks were already accomplished beforehand, by winning over the decisive majority of the workers and soldiers. It was still necessary to use armed force to overcome the resistance of the old order. No ruling class has ever surrendered power without a fight. But resistance was minimal. The government collapsed like a house of cards, because nobody was prepared to defend it.

In Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks, who did not act with sufficient energy, the counter-revolutionary Junkers initially went onto the offensive and carried out a massacre. Despite this, incredibly, they were allowed to go free on giving their word that they would not participate in any further violent acts against the Soviet power. This kind of thing was quite typical of the early days of the Revolution, characterised by a certain naïvety on the part of the masses who had yet to understand of what terrible violence the defenders of the old order were capable. Far from being a bloodthirsty regime of terror, the Revolution was an extraordinarily benign affair – until the counter-revolution showed its real nature. The White General P. Krasnov was one of the first to lead an uprising against the Bolsheviks at the head of the Cossacks. He was defeated by the Red Guards and handed over by his own Cossacks, but again was released on parole. Of this Victor Serge writes correctly:

The revolution made the mistake of showing magnanimity to the leader of the Cossack attack. He should have been shot on the spot. At the end of a few days he recovered his liberty, after giving his word of honour never to take up arms again against the revolution. But what value can promises of honour have towards enemies of fatherland and property? He was to go off to put the Don region to fire and the sword. (V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, p. 87.)

Do the relatively small numbers involved in the actual fighting mean that the October overturn was a coup? There are many similarities between the class war and war between nations. In the latter, too, only a very small proportion of the population are in the armed forces. And only a small minority of the army is at the front. Of the latter, even in the course of a major battle, only a minority of the soldiers are normally engaged in fighting at any given time. Experienced soldiers know that a lot of time is spent waiting in idleness, even during a battle. Very often the reserves are never called into action. But without the reserves, no responsible general would order an advance. Moreover, it is not possible to wage war successfully without the wholehearted support of the population at home, even though they do not directly participate in the fighting. This lesson was carved on the nose of the Pentagon in the latter stages of the Vietnam war.

The argument that the Bolsheviks were able to take power without the masses (a coup) is usually linked to the idea that power was seized, not by the working class, but by a party. Again, this argument is entirely false. Without organisation – the trade unions and the party – the working class is only raw material for exploitation. This was already pointed out by Marx long ago. True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organisation, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated in the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organised and concentrated in a single point. This can only be done through a political party with a courageous and far-sighted leadership with a correct programme. The Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky was such a party. Basing themselves on the movement of the masses – a magnificent movement that represented all that was alive, progressive and vibrant in Russian society, they gave it form, purpose and a voice. That is its cardinal sin from the standpoint of the ruling class and its echoes in the labour movement. That is what lies behind their hatred and loathing of Bolshevism, their vitriol and spiteful attitude towards it, which completely conditions their attitude even three generations later.

Without the Bolshevik Party, without the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian workers would never have taken power in 1917, despite all their heroism. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasised the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life and death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the ‘spontaneous’ movement of the masses with organisation, programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics – in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres. There is no other way.

It is necessary to add that at every stage the Bolsheviks always had before them the perspective of the international revolution. They never believed that they could hold power in Russia alone. It is a striking testimony to the vitality of the October Revolution that, in spite of all the vicissitudes, all the crimes of Stalinism and the terrible destruction of the Second World War, the basic conquests were maintained for so long, even when the revolution, deprived of aid from the rest of the world, was thrown upon its own resources. Even in the last period, the collapse of Stalinism was not the result of any inherent defect of the nationalised planned economy, but flowed from treachery and betrayal of the bureaucracy which, as Trotsky brilliantly predicted, sought to reinforce its privileges by selling out to capitalism.

All power to the soviets!

As a corollary of the slanders against October, we have the attempt to paint the February Revolution in glowing colours. The ‘democratic’ regime of Kerensky, it is alleged, would have led Russia into a glorious future of prosperity, if only the Bolsheviks had not spoilt it all. Alas! The idealisation of the February Revolution does not stand up to the least scrutiny. The February 1917 Revolution – which had overthrown the old tsarist regime – had not solved one of the tasks of the national-democratic revolution: land reform, a democratic republic, the national question. It was not even capable of bringing about the most elementary demand of the masses – for an end to the imperialist slaughter and the conclusion of a democratic peace. In short, the Kerensky regime in the course of nine months gave ample proof of its total inability to meet the most basic needs of the Russian people. It was this fact, and this alone, which enabled the Bolsheviks to come to power with the support of the decisive majority of society.

Emerging from the ravages of the first world war, tsarist Russia was a semi-colony particularly of France, Germany, and Britain. Russia produced less than 3 per cent of world industrial output. It could not compete on a world scale. For every hundred square kilometres of land, there were only 0.4 kilometres of rail track. Around 80 per cent of the population eked out a bare existence on the land, which was fragmented into millions of smallholdings. The Russian bourgeoisie had entered onto the stage of history too late. It had failed to carry out any of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that had been solved in Britain and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the contrary, the Russian capitalists leaned on imperialism on the one hand and the tsarist autocracy for support on the other. They were linked by a thousand threads to the old landlords and aristocrats. Horrified by the 1905 Revolution, the bourgeoisie had become more conservative and suspicious of the workers. They had no revolutionary role to play. “Whereas in the dawn of its history it was too unripe to accomplish a Reformation,” states Trotsky, “when the time came for leading a revolution it was overripe.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, p. 28.)

The only revolutionary class in Russia was the young, small, but highly concentrated proletariat. Arising from the law of uneven and combined development, a backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. It does not slavishly reproduce all the stages of the past, but skips over a whole series of intermediate stages. This gives rise to a contradictory development, where the most advanced features are superimposed upon extremely backward conditions. Foreign investment had meant the creation of highly advanced concentrated factories and industries in Russia. The peasants were uprooted, thrown into industry, and proletarianised overnight. It fell to this youthful proletariat – which had none of the conservative traditions of its counterpart in the West – to take Russian society out of the impasse it faced. The attempt to counter-pose the February regime to October has no foundation whatever. Had the Bolsheviks not taken power, the future that faced Russia was not one of prosperous capitalist democracy, but fascist barbarism under the jackboot of Kornilov or one of the other White generals. Such a development would have signified, not advance, but a terrible regression.

In the October Revolution, the victorious proletariat first had to tackle the basic problems of the national-democratic revolution, then went on, uninterruptedly, to carry out the socialist tasks. This was the very essence of the permanent revolution. Capitalism had broken at its weakest point, as Lenin explained. The October Revolution represented the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The revolution of February had spontaneously thrown up committees of workers and soldiers, as had the revolution of 1905. The committees, or soviets, became transformed from extended strike committees into political instruments of the working class in the struggle for power, and later into administrative organs of the new workers’ state. They were far more democratic and flexible than the territorially elected bodies of bourgeois democracy. To paraphrase Marx, capitalist democracy allows the workers every five years to elect parties to misrepresent their interests. In Russia, with the establishment of peasants’ soviets, they embraced the overwhelming majority of the population.

Throughout the nine months between February and October, the soviets represented a rival power to the capitalist state. It was a period of ‘dual power’. One of the key demands of the Bolsheviks throughout this time was: “All power to the soviets!” Months of patient explanation and the harsh experience of events won over the overwhelming majority of the workers and poor peasants to Bolshevism. The October Revolution brought to power a new revolutionary government, which took its authority from the Congress of Soviets. Contrary to common belief, it was not a one-party regime but originally a coalition government of Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries. The urgent task facing the government was to spread the authority of Soviet power – the rule of the working class – throughout all Russia. On the 5th January 1918, the government issued a directive which declared that the local soviets were from then on invested with all the powers held by the former administration and added: “The entire country must be covered with a network of new soviets.”

The system of soviets was not, as the reformists claim, an exclusively Russian phenomenon. The November 1918 Revolution in Germany spontaneously threw up similar bodies. They were the embodiment of workers’ self-organisation. In every German port, town and barracks, workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils were established and held effective political power. Soviets were established in Bavaria and during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. In Britain also, Councils of Action were established in 1920, which were described by Lenin as “soviets in all but name”, as well as during the 1926 General Strike (committees of action and trades councils). Although the Stalinists and reformists tried to prevent the reappearance of soviets, they re-emerged in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, with the creation of the Budapest Workers’ Council.

In its origins, the soviet – the most democratic and flexible form of popular representation yet devised – was simply an extended strike committee. Born in mass struggle, the soviets (or workers’ councils) assumed an extremely broad sweep, and ultimately became transformed into organs of revolutionary direct government. Beside the local soviets, elected in every city, town and village, in every large city there were also ward (raionny) soviets as well as district or provincial (oblastny or gubiernsky) soviets, and finally delegates were elected to the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets in Petrograd. The delegates were elected at every unit of labour to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, and subject to immediate recall. There was no bureaucratic elite. No deputy or official received more than the wage of a skilled worker.

The Soviet government issued a whole series of economic, political, administrative and cultural decrees in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. At a grassroots level, there was a mushrooming of soviet organisation. Everywhere attempts were made to do away with the distinction between legislative and executive functions, to allow individuals to participate directly in the application of decisions they had made. As a consequence, the masses began to take their destiny into their own hands. In November 1917 Lenin wrote an appeal in Pravda: “Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of state… Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.” (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 297.) He was anxious for the masses to involve themselves in the running of industry and the state.

In December 1917 Lenin wrote:

One of the most important tasks of today, if not the most important, is to develop [the] independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs, we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called upper classes, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society. (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 409.)

The myth of the Constituent Assembly

Among all the numerous legends put into circulation in order to portray the October Revolution in an unfavourable light, that of the Constituent Assembly is perhaps the most persistent. According to this, the Bolsheviks before the revolution had advocated a democratically elected parliament (Constituent Assembly), yet after the revolution they disbanded it. Since they were in a minority, the argument goes, they decided to dissolve the democratically elected parliament and resort to dictatorship. This argument overlooks a number of fundamental questions. In the first place, the demand for a Constituent Assembly – which undoubtedly played a progressive role in mobilising the masses, especially the peasantry, against the tsarist autocracy – was only one of a series of revolutionary-democratic demands, and not necessarily the most important one. The masses were won over to the revolution on other demands, notably ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. These, in turn, became a reality only because they were linked to another demand – all power to the soviets.

The February Revolution failed precisely because it was not capable of satisfying these most pressing needs of the population. The complete impotence of the Kerensky regime was not accidental. It reflected the reactionary character of the Russian bourgeoisie. The capitalist class of Russia was a very weak class, tied hand and foot to the landlords, and subordinate to world imperialism. Only the revolutionary transfer of power into the hands of the most resolutely revolutionary part of society, the working class, made possible the ending of the war and the distribution of land to the peasants. This was the function of the October Revolution.

The calling of elections to the Constituent Assembly the following year was almost in the nature of an afterthought. The Bolsheviks intended to use this to try to mobilise the majority of the peasantry and rouse them to political life. But above all from the standpoint of the peasantry, formal parliamentary democracy is worse than useless if it does not carry out policies that solve their most pressing needs. Under certain circumstances, the Constituent Assembly could have played a progressive role. But in practice, it became clear that this Constituent Assembly could only be an obstacle and a rallying point for the counter-revolution. Here, the slow-moving mechanism of parliamentary elections lagged far behind the swift current of revolution. The real attitude of the peasantry was revealed in the civil war, when the right Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and most of the Mensheviks collaborated with the Whites.

At the time of the October Revolution, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies represented all that was alive and dynamic in Russian society. The working class voted for the Bolsheviks in the soviets, which were much more democratic than any parliament. At the same time, the soldiers, of whom a big majority were peasants, also voted overwhelmingly for the Bolsheviks.

The figures in table 1.1 show, on the one hand, a growing polarisation between the classes, to the right (note the vote of the bourgeois Kadet party) and the left, and a collapse of the parties of the ‘centre’, the Mensheviks and SRs. But the most striking feature is the sweeping victory of the Bolsheviks, who, from a mere 12 per cent in June were now in an absolute majority. What this shows is that the Bolsheviks had the support of the overwhelming majority of the workers, and a sizeable section of the peasants. In November 1917, the Menshevik leader Y.O. Martov himself had to admit that “almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin”. (Quoted in Liebman, op. cit., p. 218.) Precisely on this basis, the Bolsheviks were able to overthrow the discredited Provisional Government and take power with a minimum of resistance. These facts alone give the lie to the myth of the October Revolution as a coup.

(1.1) Election results in the Soviets in June and September 1917



Percentages %


























Thus, the democratic legitimacy of the October Revolution was clearly established. But this was not reflected in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the Bolsheviks only got 23.9 per cent of the votes (to which must be added the votes of the Left SRs).

Despite this, the Bolsheviks remained firmly in power. Why? The Right SRs had traditionally led the peasants, going back to the time of the Narodniks at the turn of the century. These middle-class elements were the traditional village aristocracy – teachers, lawyers, and the ‘gentlemen who spoke well’. During the First World War, many of them became army officers. At the time of the February Revolution, these democratic revolutionaries exercised a considerable influence among the peasant soldiers. Their vague and amorphous ‘revolutionism’ corresponded to the first stirring of consciousness among the peasantry. But the tide of revolution flows fast. Soon after the February Revolution, the Right SRs betrayed the peasantry by abandoning the programme of peace and the revolutionary struggle for land.

(1.2) 1917 Constituent Assembly (in votes)

Peasant Parties

Russian SRs


Ukrainian SRs


Ukrainian socialist coalition


Total SRs and allies


Workers Parties





Other socialists


Bourgeois and other right-wing Parties



Conservative Russian groups


Nationalist groups


(1.3) 1917 Constituent Assembly (in seats)

Russian SRs


Ukrainian SRs


Left SRs






Other socialists






Nationalist groups


Where could the peasants in uniform turn for support? Once awakened to political life, the peasant masses, especially the most active layer in the army, whose experience of the war raised them to a higher level of understanding than their brothers in the villages, soon came to understand the need for a revolutionary overturn in order to conquest peace, bread and land. This could only be achieved by a revolutionary alliance with the proletariat. The realisation of this fact was registered in the Soviet elections by a sharp swing to the left. By the autumn of 1917, the old Right SR leaders had lost their base among the soldiers, who went over in droves to the Left SRs and their Bolshevik allies.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly were organised in a hurry after the revolution on the basis of electoral lists drawn up before October. The peasantry had not yet had time to understand the processes that were taking place. The split between the left and right SRs had not yet taken place. There was not time for the peasantry as a whole to grasp the meaning of the October Revolution and Soviet power, particularly in the vital fields of land reform and peace. The dynamics of a revolution cannot be easily translated into the cumbersome mechanism of parliamentarism. In the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the inert masses of the backward countryside were thrown into the balance. Weighed down by the ballast of a thousand years of slavery, the villages lagged behind the towns.

These right SRs were not the political representatives but the political exploiters of the peasantry. Implacably hostile to the October Revolution, they would have handed back power to the landlords and capitalists in the kind of democratic counter-revolution which robbed the German working class of power in November 1918. There were two mutually exclusive centres of power. The reactionaries rallied around the slogan: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly.’ Faced with this situation, the Bolsheviks, with the support of the Left SRs, did not hesitate to place the interests of the revolution before constitutional niceties. Basing themselves on the soviets, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly. There was no resistance. This incident now causes an indignant reaction in some quarters. And yet, we are left with a self-evident contradiction. If the Constituent Assembly really represented the will of the masses, why did nobody defend it? Not a hand was raised in its defence, precisely because it was an unrepresentative anachronism. The reason for this was very well explained by the celebrated English historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr:

The SRs had gone to the polls as a single party presenting one list of candidates. Its election manifesto had been full of lofty principles and aims but, though published on the day after the October Revolution, had been drafted before that event and failed to define the party attitude towards it. Now three days after the election the larger section of the party had made a coalition with the Bolsheviks, and formally split away from the other section which maintained its bitter feud against the Bolsheviks. The proportion between Right and Left SRs in the Constituent Assembly – 370 to 40 – was fortuitous. It was entirely different from the corresponding proportion in the membership of the peasants’ congress, and did not necessarily represent the views of the electors on a vital point which had not been before them. “The people,” said Lenin, “voted for a party which no longer existed.” Reviewing the whole issue two years later Lenin found another argument which was more cogent than it appeared at first sight. He noted that in the large industrial cities the Bolsheviks had almost everywhere been ahead of the other parties. They secured an absolute majority in the two capitals taken together, the Kadets here being second and the SRs a poor third. But in matters of revolution the well-known principle applied: ‘the town inevitably leads the country after it; the country inevitably follows the town.’ The elections to the Constituent Assembly, if they did not register the victory of the Bolsheviks, had clearly pointed the way to it for those who had eyes to see. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1, pp. 121-2.)

This was admitted in so many words by Kerensky himself, who wrote the following in his memoirs:

The opening of the Constituent Assembly ended as a tragic farce. Nothing happened to give it the quality of a memorable final stand in defence of freedom. (Alexander Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs – Russia and History’s Turning-Point, p. 470.)

The peasantry and the soviets

The October Revolution was almost peaceful because no class was prepared to defend the old order, either the Provisional Government or the Constituent Assembly, as Kerensky here acknowledges. The peasants were not prepared to fight to defend the Constituent Assembly. By contrast, in the civil war which followed, the majority of the peasants rallied to the Bolsheviks once they had experienced the rule of the White Guards, and saw the role of the right SRs and Mensheviks who invariably paved the way for the White counter-revolution. Under the dictatorship of the various White generals, the old landlords returned. The peasants maybe did not understand much about politics, but they understood that the Bolsheviks alone were prepared to give them the land – which they did by decree on the day after the revolution – whereas the so-called peasant parties were merely a fig leaf for the return of the old slave owners. And that was enough to decide the issue.

In his recently published book A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 which, for some reason or other, purports to be a serious study of the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes loses no opportunity to display a particularly poisonous hostility to Bolshevism. This is typical of the new style – one might almost call it a genre of ‘academic’ histories, the sole intention of which is to slander Lenin and identify the October Revolution with Stalinism. Yet even this author is compelled to admit that:

There was an even more profound indifference among the peasantry, the traditional base of support of the SR Party. The SR intelligentsia had always been mistaken in their belief that the peasants shared their veneration for the Constituent Assembly. To the educated peasants, or those who had long been exposed to the propaganda of the SRs, the Assembly perhaps stood as a political symbol of ‘the revolution.’ But to the mass of the peasants, whose political outlook was limited to the narrow confines of their own village and fields, it was only a distant thing in the city, dominated by the ‘chiefs’ of the various parties, which they did not understand, and was quite unlike their own political organisations. It was a national parliament, long cherished by the intelligentsia, but the peasants did not share the intelligentsia’s conception of the political nation, its language of ‘statehood’ and ‘democracy,’ of ‘civic rights and duties,’ was alien to them, and when they used this urban rhetoric they attached to it a specific ‘peasant’ meaning to suit the needs of their own communities. The village soviets were much closer to the political ideals of the mass of the peasants, being in effect no more than their own village assemblies in a more revolutionary form. Through the village and volost soviets the peasants were already carrying out their own revolution on the land, and they did not need the sanction of a decree by the Constituent Assembly (or, for that matter, the Soviet government itself) to complete this. The Right SRs could not understand this fundamental fact: that the autonomy of the peasants through their village soviets had, from their point of view, reduced the significance of any national parliament, since they had already attained their volia, the ancient peasant ideal of self-rule. To be sure, out of habit, or deference to their village elders, the mass of the peasants would cast their votes for the SRs in the election to the Constituent Assembly. But very few were prepared to fight the SR battle for its restoration, as the dismal failure of the Komuch would prove in the summer of 1918. Virtually all the resolutions from the villages on this question made it clear that they did not want the Assembly to be restored as the ‘political master of the Russian land,’ in the words of one, with a higher authority than the local soviets. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, pp. 518-9.)

And as an illustration of this fact, Figes quotes the words of the Right SR Boris Sokolov, who was closely acquainted with the opinions of the rank and file peasant from his work as an SR agitator in the army:

The Constituent Assembly was something totally unknown and unclear to the mass of the front-line soldiers, it was without doubt a terra incognita. Their sympathies were clearly with the soviets. These were the institutions that were near and dear to them, reminding them of their own village assemblies… I more than once had occasion to hear the soldiers, sometimes even the most intelligent of them, object to the Constituent Assembly. To most of them it was associated with the State Duma, an institution that was remote to them. “What do we need some Constituent Assembly for, when we already have our soviets, where our own deputies can meet and decide everything?” (Ibid., p. 519.)

Incidentally, the indignant protests of bourgeois historians on this subject reveal either complete ignorance of history, or else a highly selective memory. The leader of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell, used his Model Army to disperse the Parliament for reasons very similar to those that convinced the Bolsheviks of the need to close down the Constituent Assembly. The moderate Presbyterians who dominated the Parliament represented the first unclear incoherent awakening of the Revolution. At a certain stage, they became transformed into a conservative force, blocking the road of the radicalised petty bourgeois masses who wanted to go further. There is no doubt that the removal of this obstacle was fundamental to the victory of the Roundheads.

Analogous processes occurred in the French Revolution, when the most consistent revolutionary trend associated with the Jacobins repeatedly purged the National Convention and indeed sent its opponents to the guillotine. Again, it is clear that without such determined action, the revolution could never have triumphed against the powerful enemies ranged against it inside and outside the borders of France. All kinds of legalistic and moralistic arguments have been levelled against the Jacobins. But these miss the point. The essence of a revolution is that it is a decisive break with the old order. The ferocious resistance of the old possessing classes sometimes compels it to take drastic measures for its own self-preservation. But nobody has yet explained how Cromwell or Robespierre could have acted in any other way and succeeded in carrying out the Revolution. After dispersing the Long Parliament, Cromwell commented that: “There was not so much as the barking of a dog or any general and visible repining at it.” (Sir Charles Firth, Oliver Cromwell, p. 319.) The same could be said of the reaction of the masses to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. At any rate, up to the imperialist intervention, the Bolshevik Revolution was infinitely more peaceable than either of its great precursors.

At the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets in January 1918, Lenin said:

Very often delegations of workers and peasants come to the government and ask, for example, what to do with such-and-such a piece of land. And frequently I have felt embarrassed when I saw that they had no very definite views. And I said to them: you are the power, do all you want to do, take all you want, we shall support you… (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 468.)

At the Seventh Party Congress, a few months later, he emphasised that “socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it themselves”. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 135.)

These statements of Lenin, which can be duplicated at will, reflected his deep-rooted confidence in the ability of working people to decide their own future. It contrasts sharply to the lies of the bourgeois historians who have attempted to smear the democratic ideas of Leninism with the crimes of Stalinism. This ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was in every sense a genuine workers’ democracy, unlike the later totalitarian regime of Stalin. Political power was in the hands of the masses represented through the soviets. At first even the capitalist parties (apart from the extremely reactionary and anti-Semitic Black Hundreds) were left free to organise. It was only the exigencies of the subsequent civil war and the dangerous activities of the saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries that forced the Bolsheviks to ban other parties, as a temporary measure. For instance, the Left Social Revolutionaries moved into opposition and threatened to sabotage the revolution by murdering the German ambassador Count Mirbach in order to push Russia into war with Germany. The Left SRs also carried out a failed assassination attempt against Lenin in 1918, but which eventually cut short his life six years later.

No sooner had the workers and peasants taken power, than they were faced with armed imperialist intervention to overthrow the Soviet power. Early in 1918, British and French naval forces occupied Murmansk and Archangel in northern Russia. Within days their forces were marching on Petrograd. In April, the Japanese landed at Vladivostok, and an “Omsk All-Russian government” was established. Within two months this government was overthrown by a coup which established Admiral Kolchak as dictator. Meanwhile, German imperialism occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine in collusion with White Guard Generals Krasnov and Wrangel. The pretext used was to assist the “population struggling against Bolshevik tyranny”. In a pincer movement, the Bolsheviks were in danger of losing Petrograd in the autumn of 1919. “We were between hammer and anvil,” wrote Trotsky. (My Life, p. 411.)

A lot of noise is made about the so-called Red Terror and the violent means used by the Revolution to defend itself. But what is conveniently forgotten is that the actual October Revolution was virtually peaceful. The real bloodbath occurred in the civil war when the Soviet republic was invaded by 21 foreign armies. The Bolsheviks inherited a ruined country and a shattered army. They were immediately faced with an armed rebellion by Kerensky and the White officers, and later by the armies of foreign intervention. At one stage, the Soviet power was reduced to just two provinces, the equivalent of the ancient Principality of Muscovy. Yet the Bolsheviks managed to beat back the counter-revolution. Even if we assume (incorrectly) that Lenin and Trotsky somehow managed to seize power at the head of a small group of conspirators without mass support, the idea that they could go on to defeat the combined might of the White Guards and foreign armies on such a basis, is frankly absurd.

War necessarily involves violence, and civil war more than any other. The weak and embattled workers’ state was compelled to defend itself arms in hand, or else surrender to the tender mercies of the White armies, which, in common with all counter-revolutionary armies in world history, used the most bestial and bloodthirsty methods to terrorise the workers and peasants. Had they triumphed, it would have meant an ocean of blood. There is nothing more comical than the assertion that, if only the Bolsheviks had not taken power, Russia would have embarked on the road of a prosperous capitalist democracy. How does this idea square with the facts? As early as the summer of 1917, the rising of General Kornilov showed that the unstable regime of dual power established in February was breaking down. The only question was who would succeed in establishing a dictatorship – Kerensky or Kornilov.

To all the hypocritical attacks against the Bolsheviks for the so called Red Terror there is a very simple answer. Even the most democratic capitalist government on earth will never tolerate the existence of armed groups which attempt to overthrow the existing order by violent means. Such groups are immediately outlawed, and the leaders put in jail, or executed. This is regarded as perfectly lawful and acceptable. Yet the same standards are not applied to the embattled Bolshevik government, fighting for survival and attacked by enemies on all sides. The hypocrisy is even more nauseating if we bear in mind the fact that precisely these ‘democratic’ Western governments organised the most military offensives against the Bolsheviks at this time.

Already at the Versailles Peace Conference, the governments of the victorious Allies were preparing to overthrow the Bolsheviks:

Bullitt in his testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee thus described the prevailing mood at the Paris conference in April 1919: “Kolchak made a 100-mile advance, and immediately the entire press of Paris was roaring and screaming on the subject, announcing that Kolchak would be in Moscow within two weeks; and therefore everyone in Paris, including I regret to say members of the American commission, began to grow very lukewarm about peace in Russia, because they thought Kolchak would arrive in Moscow and wipe out the Soviet government”. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 121, footnote no. 1.)

The anti-democratic nature of the Russian bourgeoisie was evident even before the October Revolution, when they yearned for a Napoleon to restore ‘order’. According to the capitalist Stepan Georgevich Lianozov:

Revolution is a sickness. Sooner or later the foreign powers must intervene here – as one would intervene to cure a sick child, and teach it how to walk… Transportation is demoralised, the factories are closing down, and the Germans are advancing. Starvation and defeat may bring the Russian people to their senses. (Quoted in Reed, op. cit., p. 34.)

Incidentally, the revolting slander that Lenin was a ‘German agent’, which is, incredibly, still in circulation, is at complete variance with the facts. It was not Lenin but the Russian bourgeoisie that were pro-German and wanted to sell Russia to the enemy in 1917, as Lianozov’s remarks show. This was not the exception but the rule after October. These ‘patriots’ actually longed for the arrival of the German army. They preferred the foreign jackboot to the rule of the Russian workers and peasants. This pro-German mood was widespread among the propertied classes. Louise Bryant recalled a conversation at the house of a well-to-do Russian family:

At the table the talk drifted to politics. Every one began to malign the Bolsheviki. They said it would be wonderful if the Germans would only come in and take possession… A discussion of the Germans followed and most of the company expressed themselves in favour of a German invasion. Just for a test I asked them to vote on what they really would rather have – the soldiers’ and workers’ government or the Kaiser. All but one voted in favour of the Kaiser. (Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia, pp. 126 and 131.)

Naked reaction

In the civil war that followed October, one reactionary general succeeded another. But the idea that democracy would have been implanted on Russian soil on the bayonets of the White guard is self-evident nonsense. Behind the White’s lines, the old landlords and capitalists returned and took their revenge against the workers and peasants. The great majority of the peasants were not socialists, although they sympathised with the Bolsheviks for their revolutionary agrarian programme. But once they realised that the White armies were on the side of the landlords, any support they might have had melted away. The White generals represented tsarist reaction in its most naked form. They anticipated Fascism, although they lacked its mass base. But that would not have made their rule any more pleasant. In payment for the fright they had suffered, and in order to teach the masses a lesson, they would have unleashed a reign of terror on a massive scale. The Russian workers and peasants would have been subjected to the nightmare of a bourgeois totalitarian regime for years if not decades, on the lines of Franco or Pinochet. This would have been a regime of terrible social, cultural and economic decline.

The horrible atrocities of the White armies under A.I. Denikin, A.V. Kolchak, N. Yudenich, P.N. Wrangel, and others, reflected the panic of a doomed elite. Wrangel boasted that, after shooting one Red prisoner in ten, he would give the others the chance to prove their ‘patriotism’ and ‘atone for their sins’ in battle. Red prisoners were tortured to death, rebellious peasants hanged, and ghastly pogroms were organised against the Jews in the occupied areas. And everywhere the power of the landlords was restored. As a means of self-defence, the Bolsheviks resorted to taking hostages. Victor Serge recalls:

Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalised and legal. Already the Cheka (the Extraordinary Commission for Repression against counter-revolution, speculation, and desertion), which made mass arrests of suspects, was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control by the Party, but, in reality, without anybody’s knowledge. It was becoming a State within the State, protected by military secrecy and proceedings in camera. The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous… (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, p. 80, emphasis in original.)

In such a situation, excesses were inevitable, although Lenin and Dzerzhinsky did their best to prevent them. White atrocities provoked a violent backlash:

However, the massacres at Munich did reinforce the terrorist state of mind, and the atrocities committed at Ufa by Admiral Kolchak’s troops, who burned Red prisoners alive, had lately enabled the Chekists to prevail against those Party members who hoped for a greater degree of humanity. (Ibid., p. 83.)

The main defence of the Revolution did not lie in the Cheka, but in the revolutionary internationalist policies of the Bolsheviks. Their revolutionary propaganda was having an effect on the war-weary troops of the imperialist armies. Discontent and open mutiny in the armies of intervention forced the imperialists to withdraw. The international solidarity of the working class saved the Russian Revolution. The following extract gives a rough idea of the situation:

Serious mutinies in the first months of 1919 in the French fleet and in French military units landed in Odessa and other Black Sea ports led to an enforced evacuation at the beginning of April. Of the troops of several nationalities under British command on the Archangel front the Director of Military Operations at the war Office reported in March 1919 that their morale was “so low as to render them a prey to the very active and insidious Bolshevik propaganda which the enemy are carrying out with increasing energy and skill.” The details were disclosed much later through official American reports. On the 1st March 1919, a mutiny occurred among French troops ordered to go up to the line; several days earlier a British infantry company “refused to go to the front,” and shortly afterwards an American company “refused for a time to return to duty at the front”. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 134.)

After the defeat of Kolchak, the Bolsheviks attempted to normalise the situation. In January 1920, with the approval of Lenin and Trotsky, Dzerzhinsky recommended the abolition of the death sentence throughout the country, except in districts where there were military operations. On the 17th January, the decree was passed by the government and signed by Lenin as president of the Council of People’s Commissars. But within three months the situation changed again. Supported by Britain and France, the reactionary Polish regime of Pilsudski attacked Soviet Russia. The Poles captured Kiev. The Revolution was in mortal danger. The death penalty was reintroduced and the Cheka was given enlarged powers. Here, yet again, we see how foreign intervention aimed at restoring the old order in Russia compelled the Revolution to use violent methods to defend itself.

Only a hypocrite would deny the right of a people to defend itself against the threat of bloody counter-revolution by all the means at its disposal. Of course, if one considers that it is better for the masses simply to turn the other cheek and meekly accept oppression, then the methods of the Bolsheviks must stand condemned. Such a philosophy can only mean the permanent acceptance of each and every reactionary regime that ever existed. It would, in fact, rule out the process of social progress in general. Not morality or love of humanity, but only the cowardly defence of the status quo, that is the rule of the exploiters, is the real motive of those who slander the October Revolution.

What crushed the White generals was not superior force of arms, but mass desertion, mutiny and constant risings in occupied areas. Under Trotsky, the Red Army was built into a revolutionary fighting force of more than five million soldiers. The White General Count Kidovstev could offer the masses very little: “To start with, it is clear that you must have a military dictatorship, and afterwards that might be combined with a business element…”

Only the Bolsheviks prevented this catastrophe, organising the revolutionary people on a war footing. Under the inspired leadership of Leon Trotsky, the shattered remnants of the old army were rapidly welded into a new force – the Red Army. The very fact that the Red Army could be so rapidly created out of nothing is sufficient proof of the mass base of the revolution. At the outset, few people would have given much for the survival of the new regime. Against all the odds, the Red Army beat back the enemy on all fronts.

Trotsky’s remarkable achievement was recognised even by the enemies of the revolution, as the following quotations from German officers and diplomats prove:

Max Bauer afterwards paid tribute to Trotsky as “a born military organiser and leader,” and added:

“How he set up a new army out of nothing in the midst of severe battles and then organised and trained his army is absolutely Napoleonic.”

And Hoffmann passed the same verdict:

“Even from a purely military standpoint one is astonished that it was possible for the newly recruited Red troops to crush the forces, at times still strong, of the White generals and to eliminate them entirely.” (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, p. 326.)

This victory of the oppressed underdogs in open struggle against their former masters is without doubt one of the most inspiring episodes in the annals of human history, so rich in defeated slave rebellions and similar tragedies. Again, we are entitled to ask the question to the slanderers of October: How does it come about that this tiny, unrepresentative group of conspirators succeeded in defeating the powerful White guard armies, backed by 21 foreign armies? Such a feat was only conceivable on the basis that the Bolsheviks had the active support, not only of the working class, but also of broad layers of the poor and middle peasants. At this point, the whole myth of the conspiracy of a minority collapses under its own weight. The Bolshevik Revolution was no coup, but the most popular revolution in history. Only this explains how they were able, against all the odds, not only to take power, but to hold onto it firmly. And all this was done on the basis of a workers’ democracy, a regime which gave the working class far greater rights than even the most democratic bourgeois regime.

Lenin’s internationalism

The tide of revolution was sweeping throughout Europe. In November 1918, the German Revolution swept away the Hohenzollern dynasty, forcing Kaiser Wilhelm to seek safety in the Netherlands. The revolution put an end to the First World War, as soviets were formed throughout Germany. General Golovin reported on his negotiations with Winston Churchill in May 1919 concerning continued British military intervention as follows: “The question of giving armed support was for him the most difficult one; the reason for this was the opposition of the British working class to armed intervention…” Mutinies in the French Fleet off Odessa, and in the other Allied armies, finally sealed the fate of further military expeditions to Russia. In 1920, the dockers of London’s East India Docks refused to load the Jolly George with secret munitions for Poland – for use against Soviet Russia.

The British prime minister Lloyd George wrote in a confidential memorandum to Clemenceau at the Versailles Peace Conference:

The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other. (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923,Vol. 3, pp. 135-6.)

With the cessation of foreign intervention, the Red Army quickly mopped up the remnants of the White armies. The news of revolution in Europe led the Bolshevik Karl Radek to declare: “The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over.” Tragically, this proved premature. The first wave of revolution handed power to the leaders of Social Democracy, who derailed and betrayed the movement. Lenin saw the defeat of the first wave of the European revolution as a terrible blow that served to isolate the Soviet republic for a period. This was no secondary matter, but a matter of life or death for the revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had made it abundantly clear that if the revolution was not spread to the West, they would be doomed. On the 7th March 1918, Lenin weighed up the situation:

Regarded from the world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries. When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries and that in the end – but not at the very beginning – no matter what difficulties we experienced, no matter what defeats were in store for us, the world socialist revolution would come – because it is coming; would mature – because it is maturing and will reach full maturity. I repeat, our salvation from all these difficulties is an all-European revolution. (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 95.)

He then concluded: “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German Revolution does not come, we are doomed.” (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 98.) Weeks later he repeated the same position: “Our backwardness has put us in the front-line, and we shall perish unless we are capable of holding out until we shall receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries.” (Ibid., p. 232.)

The main task was to hold on to power for as long as possible. Lenin never envisaged the prolonged isolation of the Soviet state. Either the isolation would be broken or the Soviet regime would be doomed. Everything depended upon the world revolution. Its delay created enormous difficulties that were to have profound consequences. Instead of the withering away of the state, the opposite process took place. On the basis of destitution aggravated by the civil war and economic blockade, the “struggle for individual existence”, to use Marx’s phrase, did not disappear or soften, but assumed in succeeding years an unheard-of ferocity. Rather than building on the foundations of the most advanced capitalism, the Soviet regime was attempting to overcome pre-socialist and pre-capitalist problems. The task became “catch up with Europe and America”. This was very far from the “lowest stage of communism” envisaged by Marx. The Bolsheviks were forced to tackle economic and cultural problems that had long ago been solved in the West. Lenin once declared that socialism was “Soviet power plus electrification” to illustrate the basic task at hand.

This was no recipe for a ‘Russian road to socialism’. On the contrary, it was always linked to the perspective of world revolution. Nevertheless, it was an attempt to grapple with the isolation of the workers’ state encircled by hostile capitalist powers. This terrible backwardness of Russia, coupled with the isolation of the revolution, began to bear down on the Soviet working class. Civil war, famine and physical exhaustion forced them into political apathy and gave rise to increasing bureaucratic deformations in the state and party. International assistance was vital to ensure the survival of the young Soviet republic. All the Bolsheviks could do was to hold on to power – despite all the odds – for as long as possible until assistance came from the West.

History gives nothing free of cost. Having made a reduction on one point – in politics – it makes us pay the more on another – in culture. The more easily (comparatively, of course) did the Russian proletariat pass through the revolutionary crisis, the harder becomes now its socialist constructive work. (L. Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p. 20.)

It would not be difficult to establish beyond doubt Lenin’s position on the necessity for world revolution. Indeed, unless the Soviet state succeeded in breaking out of its isolation, he thought that the October Revolution could not survive for any length of time. This idea is repeated time after time in Lenin’s writings and speeches after the Revolution. The following are just a few examples. They could be multiplied at will:

24th January 1918:

We are far from having completed even the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. We have never cherished the hope that we could finish it without the aid of the international proletariat. We never had any illusions on that score… The final victory of socialism in a single country is of course impossible. Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army, which at present has been split by the world war, but which is striving for unity… We can now see clearly how far the development of the Revolution will go. The Russian began it – the German, the Frenchman and the Englishman will finish it, and socialism will be victorious. (LCW, Vol. 26, pp. 465-72.)

8th March 1918:

The Congress considers the only reliable guarantee of the consolidation of the socialist revolution that has been victorious in Russia to be its conversion into a world working-class revolution. (LCW, from Resolution on War and Peace, Vol. 27. p. 119.)

23rd April 1918:

We shall achieve final victory only when we succeed at last in conclusively smashing international imperialism, which relies on the tremendous strength of its equipment and discipline. But we shall achieve victory only together with all the workers of other countries, of the whole world… (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 231.)

14th May 1918:

To wait until the working classes carry out a revolution on an international scale means that everyone will remain suspended in mid-air… It may begin with brilliant success in one country and then go through agonising periods, since final victory is only possible on a world scale, and only by the joint efforts of the workers of all countries. (LCW, Vol. 27, pp. 372-3.)

29th July 1918:

We never harboured the illusion that the forces of the proletariat and the revolutionary people of any one country, however heroic and however organised and disciplined they might be, could overthrow international imperialism. That can be done only by the joint efforts of the workers of the world… We never deceived ourselves into thinking this could be done by the efforts of one country alone. We knew that our efforts were inevitably leading to a worldwide revolution, and that the war begun by the imperialist governments could not be stopped by the efforts of those governments themselves. It can be stopped only by the efforts of all workers; and when we came to power, our task … was to retain that power, that torch of socialism, so that it might scatter as many sparks as possible to add to the growing flames of socialist revolution. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 24-5.)

8th November 1918:

From the very beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us. Not merely because from now on all the states of the world are being firmly linked by imperialism into one, dirty, bloody mass, but because the complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active co-operation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia… We have never been so near to world proletarian revolution as we are now. We have proved we were not mistaken in banking on world proletarian revolution… Even if they crush one country, they can never crush the world proletarian revolution, they will only add fuel to the flames that will consume them all. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 151-64.)

20th November 1918:

The transformation of our Russian Revolution into a socialist revolution was not a dubious venture but a necessity, for there was no other alternative: Anglo-French and American imperialism will inevitably destroy the independence and freedom of Russia if the world socialist revolution, world Bolshevism, does not triumph. (LCW, Vol. 28, p. 188.)

15th March 1919:

Complete and final victory on a world scale cannot be achieved in Russia alone; it can be achieved only when the proletariat is victorious in at least all the advanced countries, or, at all events, in some of the largest of the advanced countries. Only then shall we be able to say with absolute confidence that the cause of the proletariat has triumphed, that our first objective – the overthrow of capitalism – has been achieved. We have achieved this objective in one country, and this confronts us with a second task. Since Soviet power has been established, since the bourgeoisie has been overthrown in one country, the second task is to wage the struggle on a world scale, on a different plane, the struggle of the proletarian state surrounded by capitalist states. (LCW, Vol. 29, pp. 151-64.)

5th December 1919:

Both prior to October and during the October Revolution, we always said that we regard ourselves and can only regard ourselves as one of the contingents of the international proletarian army… We always said that the victory of the socialist revolution therefore, can only be regarded as final when it becomes the victory of the proletariat in at least several advanced countries. (LCW, Vol. 30, pp. 207-8.)

20th November 1920:

The Mensheviks assert that we are pledged to defeating the world bourgeoisie on our own. We have, however, always said that we are only a single link in the chain of the world revolution, and have never set ourselves the aim of achieving victory by our own means. (LCW, Vol. 31, p. 431.)

End of February 1922:

But we have not finished building even the foundations of socialist economy and the hostile powers of moribund capitalism can still deprive us of that. We must clearly appreciate this and frankly admit it; for there is nothing more dangerous than illusions… And there is absolutely nothing terrible … in admitting this bitter truth; for we have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism – that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 206.)

Lenin’s uncompromising internationalism was not the product of sentimental utopianism, but on the contrary, of a realistic appraisal of the situation. Lenin was well aware that the material conditions for socialism did not exist in Russia, but they did exist on a world scale. The world socialist revolution would prevent the revival of those barbarous features of class society which Marx referred to as “all the old crap” by guaranteeing at its inception a higher development than capitalist society. This was the reason why Lenin placed such strong emphasis on the perspective of international revolution, and why he devoted so much time and energy to the building of the Communist International.

Quite rapidly on the basis of a worldwide plan of production and a new world division of labour, this would give rise to a mighty impulse to the productive forces. Science and modern technique would be used to harness nature and turn deserts into fertile plains. All the destruction of the planet and the appalling waste of capitalism would be brought to an end. Within a generation or so the material basis for socialism would be laid. Over time, the tremendous growth of production would eliminate all material inequality and provide for a superabundance of things that would universally raise the quality of life to unheard-of levels. All the basic human needs would be satisfied by such a planned world economy. As a consequence, classes would dissolve into society, together with the last vestiges of class society – money and the state. This would give rise to genuine communism and the replacement of the domination of man by man with the ‘administration of things’, to use Engels’ expression.

Yet the overthrow of capitalism did not follow this pattern. Rather than the working class coming to power in the advanced industrial countries, the capitalist system was to break, in Lenin’s words, ‘at its weakest link’. Weak Russian capitalism paid the price for the bankruptcy of world capitalism. The Russian bourgeois had come on to the historic stage too late and was incapable of carrying through the tasks of the national-democratic revolution, which had been carried through long ago in the West. However, through the law of uneven and combined development[2] , foreign capital had established the largest and most modern industries in the cities of Russia, uprooting the peasantry and creating a proletariat virtually overnight. This new working class, on the basis of experience, was to look towards the most modern ideas of the workers’ movement that reflected its needs – Marxism – and was the first proletariat to carry through the socialist revolution to a conclusion.

The fact that Russia was a backward country would not have been a problem if such a revolution was a prelude to a successful world socialist revolution. That was the aim of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky. Internationalism was no sentimental gesture, but was rooted in the international character of capitalism and the class struggle. In the words of Trotsky:

Socialism is the organisation of a planned and harmonious social production for the satisfaction of human wants. Collective ownership of the means of production is not yet socialism, but only its legal premise. The problem of a socialist society cannot be abstracted from the problem of the productive forces, which at the present stage of human development are worldwide in their very essence. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1237.)

The October Revolution was regarded as the beginning of the new world socialist order.

The price of isolation

The foregoing is sufficient to prove that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party never envisaged the Russian Revolution as a self-sufficient act, but as the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution acted as a beacon to the workers of the world. In particular, it gave a mighty impetus to the German Revolution. But the cowardice of the Social-Democratic leaders in Western Europe led to the defeat of the revolution in Germany, Italy and other countries, and the isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of appalling backwardness. Under these circumstances, the Stalinist political counter-revolution became inevitable. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution did not emerge from some theoretical flaw in Bolshevism, but from crushing backwardness.

The young Soviet Republic had been saved by international working class solidarity, but isolation was the cause of enormous cost and suffering. The Russian working class was stretched to breaking point. Physically exhausted and numerically weakened, they were faced with insurmountable cultural, economic and social obstacles. Herculean efforts were needed simply to hold out against imperialist encirclement.

Lenin had an honest and realistic attitude to the terrible problems that the Russian proletariat faced as a result of isolation and backwardness. In January 1919, he explained in a speech to the Russian trade unions:

The workers were never separated by a Great Wall of China from the old society. And they have preserved a good deal of the traditional mentality of capitalist society. The workers are building a new society without themselves having become new people, or cleansed of the filth of the old world; they are still standing up to their knees in that filth. We can only dream of clearing the filth away. It would be utterly utopian to think this could be done all at once. It would be so utopian that in practice it would only postpone socialism to kingdom come. (LCW, Vol. 25, pp. 424-5.)

As a result of the civil war and the sabotage by the Russian capitalists, the Soviet government was forced to introduce a sharp change in policy. Originally, the Bolsheviks had intended to leave the bulk of industry in private hands until the small Russian working class had learned to manage industry themselves. This would take time. Given the cultural backwardness of Russia, it was thought that, through workers’ control, the proletariat would acquire the necessary knowledge, learn the art of management, and eventually take over completely the running of industry and the state. In the meantime, the workers’ state was forced to bide its time, maintain private industry under workers’ control, and rely to a large extent on the old state bureaucracy to run the state apparatus. This could be maintained, it was hoped, until help came from the workers in the West. The Russian workers could take power, but they could not hold onto power indefinitely: everything depended on the world revolution. Even in an advanced capitalist country, it would have been difficult at that time to have immediately introduced workers’ control and management of industry and the state. In that case, how much more so in backward Russia?

The military defence of the Revolution was paramount. The millions who enrolled into the Red Army had to be fed and clothed. Requisitioning was vital if the workers and soldiers were to survive. The whole of Soviet society was put on a war footing. The so-called policy of War Communism represented a desperate and heroic attempt to defend the revolution against all the odds. But the sabotage of big business, which looked to the counter-revolution to restore its position, the pressure of the workers themselves, as well as the needs of the civil war, forced the Bolsheviks to carry through the wholesale nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy sooner than they intended. Between July and December 1918, a total of 1,208 enterprises were taken into state ownership. These were the heavy industries, the decisive basis of the Russian economy.

The first years of the Soviet power were characterised by acute economic difficulties, partly the result of war and civil war, partly as a result of shortages of both materials and skilled manpower, and partly the opposition of the peasant small property owners to the socialist measures of the Bolsheviks. During the civil war nine million perished through famine, disease and freezing conditions. The economy was in ruins and on the verge of collapse. In order to put a stop to this catastrophic decline, drastic measures were introduced to get industry moving, to feed the hungry workers and to end the drift from town to country. For a temporary period, it meant the militarisation of labour. The critics of October point an accusing finger at Bolshevism for this policy, as if there was any alternative under conditions of war and famine. The real responsibility for this situation lies at the door of imperialism, which inflicted unspeakable horrors on the Russian people in its armed intervention against the Revolution.

There is no more disgusting distortion than the attempt to smear the memory of Lenin and Trotsky by linking the policy of War Communism and the harsh measures necessitated by the defence of the revolution in war with the monstrous totalitarian regime of Stalin. As a matter of fact, even the most democratic bourgeois government finds it necessary to restrict democratic rights in time of war. During the Second World War, the British workers temporarily accepted all kinds of limitations on their rights, and did so in the main willingly, in the belief that they were fighting against Nazism to ‘defend democracy’. To a far greater degree the Russian workers accepted the need for stern discipline to defeat the White armies. Power was in the hands of the workers’ soviets. Even in conditions of terrible civil war, there was more democracy than in any other period in history. One only has to glance at the minutes of the Congresses of the Communist Party and the Third International, which were held annually even in these conditions, to see the complete freedom to debate, discuss and criticise. Nothing could be further from a totalitarian regime than the atmosphere of freedom which characterised the workers’ state during the first five years of its existence. However, in the last analysis, the possibility of maintaining and deepening Soviet democracy depended on the material conditions.

A key question was the relation of industry to agriculture. This was just another way of expressing the relation of the proletariat to the peasantry. The mass of peasants supported the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks as a means of obtaining land. But after the revolution, the attitude of the peasants to the Soviet regime was determined more and more by its ability to provide the villages with cheap commodities in exchange for agricultural produce. Normally, the peasants’ food and grain surpluses would be exchanged for the products of industry. But with the collapse of production, there were no goods to exchange for the peasants’ product. To stave off starvation in the towns, armed detachments requisitioned grain to keep the war industries going. There was no alternative. That was the essential meaning of War Communism. Despite these measures, the period was one of economic disruption and falling production. The relations with the peasantry were being stretched to the limits. This system of regimentation, based upon strict centralisation and the introduction of quasi-military measures into all fields of life, flowed from the difficulties of the revolution isolated in a backward, war-shattered country, under conditions of civil war and foreign intervention.

The conditions of civil war, together with the chronic inflation of the period, brought trade between town and countryside to a virtual standstill. This meant the workers in the towns and cities were on the point of starvation, and famine was widespread. The ghastly conditions of the workers in the towns led to a mass exodus to the countryside in search of food. Already by 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76 per cent of the 1917 level, while that of building workers fell to 66 per cent, railway workers to 63 per cent. The figure for industrial workers generally fell to less than half from 3,000,000 in 1917 to 1,240,000 in 1920. The population of Petrograd alone fell from 2,400,000 in 1917 to 574,000 in August 1920.

Unprecedented collapse

In 1920, the production of iron ore and cast iron fell to 1.6 per cent and 2.4 per cent of their 1913 levels. The best record was for oil, which stood at 41 per cent of its 1913 level. Coal attained 17 per cent. The general production of fully manufactured goods in 1920 stood at 12.9 per cent of their 1913 value. Agricultural production dropped in two years (1917-19) by 16 per cent, the heaviest losses being sustained by those products exported from the villages to the town: hemp fell by 26 per cent, flax by 32 per cent, fodder by 40 per cent. Lenin described the period of War Communism as “communism in a besieged fortress”. In these years, there had been an unprecedented collapse of industry and agriculture. Inflation spiralled out of control. 1921 marked a year of further economic decline. The harvest reached a mere 37.6 million tons, only 43 per cent of the pre-war average. As a consequence, millions more perished of starvation and disease. According to Pierre Sorlin:

Epidemics spread easily. Contagious diseases that had not been brought under full control at the beginning of the twentieth century again spread rapidly. Between 1917 and 1922, about 22 million people contracted typhus; in 1918-19, the official mortality for this disease was 1.5 million, and the census was probably incomplete. Cholera and scarlet fever caused fewer deaths but affected 7 or 8 million Russians. The death rate was astronomical … and, in the country as a whole, … doubled. The birth-rate, on the other hand, declined considerably, barely reaching 13 per thousand in the important towns and 22 per thousand in the country. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920, epidemics, hunger and cold had killed 7.5 million Russians; world war had claimed 4 million victims. (Quoted by M. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 346.)

In July 1918, Lenin said: “The people are like a man who has been thrashed within an inch of his life.” In January 1919: “The hungry masses are exhausted, and [their] exhaustion is sometimes more than human strength can endure.” In December 1919: “We are suffering from a desperate crisis”: “a [further] scourge is assailing us, lice, and the typhus that is mowing down our troops… Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!” In December 1920 he spoke of the “frightful conditions…”; in April 1921 of “the desperate situation.” In June 1921 he said: “No country has been so devastated as ours”. (Ibid., p. 214, emphasis in original.)

War, hunger and disease wiped out millions. In 1920, cases of cannibalism were reported. Overall, the small working class was reduced to 43 per cent of its former size. Even these figures do not convey the full extent of the catastrophe since they leave out of account the decline in labour productivity of those ragged half-starved workers who remained in the factories.

The industrial proletariat… owing to the war and to the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e. dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to exist as a proletariat. The proletariat is the class which is engaged in the production of material values in large-scale capitalist industry. Since large-scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared. It has sometimes figured in statistics, but it has not been held together economically. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 65.)

This unparalleled situation where the working class as a class had almost ‘ceased to exist’ had extremely serious consequences for the possibilities of establishing a viable regime of workers’ democracy. The workers’ state was resting upon an atomised working class. Whole layers of advanced workers, the bedrock of the revolution, had perished on the front lines during the civil war and in the famine conditions. Many starving workers were forced to scavenge for food in the countryside. This produced a chronic political problem. The Soviet structures simply ceased to operate. The soviets, as organs of workers’ rule, fell into disuse. How could it be otherwise given the economic and social conditions that prevailed?

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the supreme authority of the republic, only met annually between November 1918 and December 1922. The Executive Committee of the Soviets met less regularly and its power passed to its small presidium. Workers’ control disappeared when the factories ceased to function. Increasingly, power was concentrated and centralised in the hands of the government and the party apparatus, which in turn became more enmeshed in the state apparatus. The proletariat did not exist in a form that could carry on its shoulders the levers of political power. No government decree could alter this fact. Lenin recognised the dangers and took measures to at least partially alleviate the situation. But there was no solution outside of the world revolution.

“The country, and the government with it, were at the very edge of the abyss,” states Trotsky. The fate of the revolution was again in the balance. Peasant uprisings in Tambov and elsewhere brought matters to a head. Things could not continue as they had done any longer. With the end of the civil war, the need for a drastic change in policy was increasingly evident. The essential thing for the Bolsheviks was to hold out for as long as possible until assistance arrived from the West.

A most serious situation arose when the naval garrison at Kronstadt mutinied. Many falsifications have been written about this event, which has been virtually turned into a myth. The purpose, as ever, is to discredit Lenin and Trotsky and show that Bolshevism and Stalinism are the same. Interestingly enough, the hue and cry over Kronstadt unites the bourgeois and Social-Democratic opponents of October with anarchists and ultra-lefts. But these allegations bear no relation to the truth.

The first lie is to identify the Kronstadt mutineers of 1921 with the heroic Red sailors of 1917. They had nothing in common. The Kronstadt sailors of 1917 were workers and Bolsheviks. They played a vital role in the October Revolution, together with the workers of nearby Petrograd. But almost the entire Kronstadt garrison volunteered to fight in the ranks of the Red Army during the civil war. They were dispersed to different fronts, from whence most of them never returned. The Kronstadt garrison of 1921 was composed mainly of raw peasant levies from the Black Sea Fleet. A cursory glance at the surnames of the mutineers immediately shows that they were almost all Ukrainians.

Another lie concerns the role of Trotsky in the Kronstadt episode. Actually, he played no direct role, although as Commissar for War and a member of the Soviet government, he fully accepted political responsibility for this and other actions of the government. The seizure of the Kronstadt fortress by the mutineers placed the Soviet state in extreme danger. They had only just emerged from a bloody civil war. It is true that the negotiations with the garrison were badly handled by the Bolshevik negotiating delegation led by Kalinin, who inflamed an already serious situation. But once the mutineers had seized the most important naval base in Russia, there was no room for compromise.

The main fear was that Britain and France would use their navies to occupy Kronstadt, using the mutiny as a pretext. This would have placed Petrograd at their mercy, since whoever controlled Kronstadt controlled Petrograd. The only possible outcome was capitalist counter-revolution. That there were actual counter-revolutionary elements among the sailors was shown by the slogan ‘Soviets without Bolsheviks’. The Bolsheviks were left with only one option. The fortress had to be retaken by force. These events occurred during the 10th Party Congress which interrupted its sessions to allow the delegates to participate in the attack. It is interesting to note that members of the Workers’ Opposition, a semi-anarcho-syndicalist tendency present at the Congress, also joined the attacking forces. This nails yet another lie, which attempts to establish a clumsy amalgam between Kronstadt – anarchism – Workers’ Opposition – three things that have absolutely nothing in common.

Victor Serge, who had many sympathies with anarchism, was implacably opposed to the Kronstadt mutineers, as the following passage shows:

The popular counter-revolution translated the demand for freely-elected soviets into one for ‘soviets without Communists.’ If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian. Dispatches from Stockholm and Tallinn testified that the émigrés had these very perspectives in mind: dispatches which, incidentally, strengthened the Bolshevik leaders’ intention of subduing Kronstadt speedily and at whatever cost. We were not reasoning in the abstract. We knew that in European Russia alone there were at least 50 centres of peasant insurrection. To the south of Moscow, in the region of Tambov, Antonov, the Right Social Revolutionary school teacher, who proclaimed the abolition of the Soviet system and the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, had under his command a superbly organised peasant army, numbering several tens of thousands. He had conducted negotiations with the Whites. ( Tukhachevsky suppressed this Vendée around the middle of 1921.) (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, pp. 128-9.)

The New Economic Policy

Far from representing the interests of the working class, the Kronstadtites were reflecting the pressures of the peasantry, who were increasingly disaffected because of the constant requisitions and forced collections of grain, for which they received no manufactured goods in return. This can easily be proved. Among the demands of the mutineers was included the demand for a free market in grain. After the mutiny was put down, Lenin drew the conclusions and sounded the retreat. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) meant that the peasants were allowed to sell their grain on the market, in exchange for a tax to the state. After this measure, there were no more Kronstadts and Tambovs. The peasants had got what they wanted.

Was the NEP a step forward for the working class and the revolution? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were forced to retreat because of the potentially dangerous situation that arose from the opposition of the peasantry. Tambov and Kronstadt – and other uprisings in the rural areas – were only part of this. But the NEP in effect served to strengthen the rich peasants (the kulaks) and NEPmen (capitalist speculators) to the detriment of the proletariat. This was a big step back, although there was no alternative, given the delay of the European revolution. Together with the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, the NEP was really the origin of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev based themselves on the kulaks and NEPmen to strike blows against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. But the NEP did give the revolution a breathing space by conciliating the peasants.

Faced with the implacable opposition of the peasant masses – exhausted by years of civil war and requisition – Lenin and Trotsky explained the need for a retreat from War Communism and the need to restore the market in order to heal the dislocation of town and countryside. In practise, this meant as far as possible developing a stable relation with the peasantry, which made up 80 per cent of the population. “It became clear to us,” reported Trotsky to the 12th Party Congress, “during 1920 and 1921, with absolute clarity, that the Union of Soviet Republics would have to go on existing, perhaps for a rather long time, in the midst of capitalist encirclement. We shall still not receive tomorrow any direct and immediate aid from a proletariat organised in a state, a state of a much higher type and with greater economic might than ours. That is what we told ourselves in 1920. We did not know whether it would be a matter of one, two, three, or ten years, but we knew that we were at the beginning of an epoch of serious and prolonged preparation. The basic conclusion from this was that, while awaiting a change in the relation of forces in the West, we must look very much more attentively and sharply at the relation of forces in our own country, in the Soviet Union.” (Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 137.)

The New Economic Policy was born. This served to reintroduce market relations between town, country and the state. The requisition of grain was abolished and replaced by a tax in kind. The peasants were then allowed to dispose of any surplus themselves. The NEP favoured the richer elements in the countryside and allowed the buying and selling on the market and some accumulation of capital. The market was restored to encourage a measure of private trade and promote output. However, the commanding heights of the economy remained in state hands. Trade would establish the essential link between the mass of peasants and the nationalised industries.

Lenin characterised this as a retreat in the face of mounting difficulties. However, this retreat, which had been forced on the Soviet regime, was always described by Lenin as a temporary state of affairs, as a ‘breathing space’, before the next dramatic developments of the international socialist revolution. He was nevertheless also acutely aware of the dangers that lay on that road, especially the dangers of a revival of bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements that could provide the basis for counter-revolution. Lenin also understood the other dangers of a proletarian revolution isolated in a backward country.

At the Ninth Congress of Soviets in December 1921, Lenin remarked:

Excuse me, but what do you describe as the proletariat? That class of labourers which is employed by large-scale industry. But where is this large-scale industry? What sort of proletariat is this? Where is your industry? Why is it idle? (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 174.)

In a speech at the 11th Party Congress in March 1922, Lenin pointed out that the class nature of many who worked in the factories at this time was non-proletarian; that many were dodgers from military service, peasants and declassed elements:

During the war people who were by no means proletarians went into the factories; they went into the factories to dodge war. Are the social and economic conditions in our country today such as to induce real proletarians to go into the factories? No. It would be true according to Marx; but Marx did not write about Russia; he wrote about capitalism as a whole, beginning with the fifteenth century. It held true over a period of six hundred years, but it is not true for present-day Russia. Very often those who go into the factories are not proletarians; they are casual elements of every description. (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 299.)

It is impossible to understand the policies pursued by Lenin and Trotsky in this period unless we bear in mind the real position in Russia described above. Given the economic catastrophe, the extremely low cultural level of the masses, the atomisation of the proletariat, and the decay of the soviets – all consequences of the delay of the international revolution – how was the workers’ state to be preserved? The pressures of world capitalism, expressed through the petty bourgeois masses, were redoubled in the period of the NEP. This explains Lenin’s fear that alien class pressures might manifest themselves in a split in the Communist Party, which would lead inevitably to the downfall of the Soviet state and a capitalist counter-revolution. This is the reason why he advocated a temporary ban on factions in the Party as an exceptional measure.

At the time of Kronstadt, the relations between the Soviet state and the peasant masses reached an all-time low. The workers’ state did not exist in a vacuum, and was subject to the pressures of alien class forces expressing themselves through groups in the Party. It was this danger, heightened by the political monopoly of the Bolshevik Party, which led the 10th Party Congress in early 1921 to temporarily ban factions within the Party itself. This was a temporary measure brought in to deal with an exceptional situation, as Lenin made clear:

The banning of opposition in the Party results from the political logic of the present moment… Right now, we can do without an opposition, comrades, it’s not the time for it!… This is demanded by the objective moment, it is no use complaining… The present moment is one at which the non-party mass is subject to the kind of petty bourgeois wavering which in the present economic position of Russia is inevitable. We must remember that the internal danger is in certain respects greater than that which was threatened by Denikin and Yudenich[3], and we must show unity not only of a nominal but of a deep, far-reaching kind. To create such unity, we cannot do without a resolution like this. (Quoted by Roy Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 62-3, emphasis in original.)

Moreover, Lenin favoured a flexible interpretation of this rule, and rejected all attempts to give it a wider application. When Ryazanov proposed that the elections to party congresses on the basis of factions be banned, Lenin opposed this:

I believe that comrade Ryazanov’s proposal is, however unfortunate that may be, unrealisable… The present Congress cannot make binding decisions that would in any way affect elections to the next congress. If circumstances provoke fundamental disagreements, how can one forbid their submission to the judgement of the party as a whole? We cannot! (Ibid., p. 63, emphasis in original.)

As a matter of fact, despite the formal ban on factions, these still continued to operate in the Party after the 10th Congress. Lenin himself broke the rules, as A.I. Mikoyan recalls in his memoirs, where he recalls an incident at the time of the 10th Party Congress, when Lenin organised a strictly conspiratorial meeting of his faction for which invitation tickets were privately printed. Ironically it was Stalin who voiced the fear that the opposition might get wind of it and accuse them of factionalism, to which Lenin replied, with his customary good humour: “What’s this I hear from an old dyed-in-the-wool factionalist?” (Ibid., note 16 on page 351.)

Lenin was afraid that, in a situation where there was only one party, the Communist Party might begin to reflect the pressures of alien classes, which could express themselves in factions and eventually a split on class lines. This would mean the overthrow of the Revolution, since, given the partial atomisation of the working class, it was only the Communist Party that guaranteed the existence of the workers’ state. However, under the given circumstances, this emergency measure, which circumscribed the democratic rights of the Party membership, increased the unhealthy bureaucratic tendencies within the Party. It was regarded as a ‘necessary evil’ imposed upon the Party by harsh necessity. As soon as conditions eased, full democratic rights would be restored. But in fact, after Lenin’s death what was intended as a temporary measure was made permanent through the manoeuvres of the triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev as part of their struggle against Trotsky. This was a violation of the whole historical tradition of Bolshevism, which was steeped in democracy.

As we have seen, immediately after the seizure of power, the only political party which was suppressed by the Bolsheviks was the Black Hundreds, a precursor of Fascism. Even the bourgeois Kadet party was not illegalised. The Soviet government itself was a coalition of Bolsheviks and Left SRs. But, under the pressure of the civil war, a sharp polarisation of class forces took place in which the Mensheviks, SRs and Left SRs came out on the side of the counter-revolution. Contrary to their intention, the Bolsheviks were forced to ban opposition parties and introduce a monopoly of political power. This monopoly, which was regarded as an extraordinary and temporary state of affairs, created enormous dangers in a situation where the proletarian vanguard was coming under increasing pressure from alien classes.

Within a short space of time industry began to revive. Production doubled in 1922 and 1923, although from a low base, and had managed to reach its pre-war level by 1926. More modestly harvests were increasing. The NEP had provided a breathing space, but the market had brought increasing social differentiation in its wake. This retreat was completely justified, with increased production as a consequence, but it also gave rise to restorationist dangers with the enrichment of those hostile to socialism in town and country. The growth of the nascent bourgeois elements – the NEPmen and kulaks – were a by-product of this new policy. Alongside the re-emergence of class divisions, the rising bureaucracy in the state and party began to flex its muscles, hoping to consolidate and extend its position and influence. Under these conditions, the growth of these alien class and bureaucratic elements represented a mortal danger to the Revolution. Out of the continued isolation of the workers’ state arose the threat of an internal bureaucratic degeneration.


[1] Editor’s note: Chapters 1 to 8 were written by Ted Grant in 1997, in the first edition of the present work. See the preface and introduction for further information.

[2] History develops not in a straight line, but according to the laws of uneven and combined development. A backward country assimilates material and intellectual conquests of the developed countries, not as a carbon copy, but in a contradictory fashion. The grafting of the most advanced technique and culture on to pre-capitalist formations leads to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, combined character.

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