On its 98th anniversary, Lessons of the Russian Revolution for today

Following the screening of “Tsar to Lenin” at Rebel Films in Toronto on the evening of November 6, a talk based on this text was presented by Barry Weisleder.

Lessons of the Russian Revolution

The outbreak of World War 1 showed conclusively that capitalism had entered into its period of decline. Enormous material destruction and horrendous human suffering was unleashed, and repeated through the 20th century (the Great Depression, numerous recessions, colonial wars, destruction of the ecological balance). Humanity is faced with the stark choice: socialism or barbarism.

When war broke out in 1914, the reformist parties of the Socialist International capitulated to the wave of chauvinism and to the ruling class of each big power. But the contradictions of social patriotism soon erupted. When revolutions finally broke out, the social democratic leaders, who had given their approval to the massacre of millions of soldiers for the cause of capitalist profit, quickly rediscovered their pacifism. Then they begged the workers not to use violence to overthrow the system.

While the Socialist International fell to pieces, a handful of revolutionary socialists remained faithful to proletarian internationalism: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany; Monatte and Rosmer in France; Lenin, a section of the Bolsheviks, plus Trotsky and Martov in Russia; the SDP in Netherlands; John Maclean in Great Britain; Eugene Debs in the USA; and a majority in the social democratic parties of Italy, Serbia and Bulgaria.

The internationalists regrouped, first at the Zimmerwald conference in 1915 and then at Kienthal in 1916. Lenin predicted a large scale revolutionary crisis that would bring the radical left to the forefront. He was quite correct.

The Russian Revolution broke out in March 1917. In November 1918, revolution broke out in Germany and Austro-Hungary. In 1919-20 a huge revolutionary upsurge shook Italy. At this point, the internationalists fought for socialist revolution, and the social-patriots became counter-revolutionaries loyal to the state and to capitalism.

In March 1917, the Czarist autocracy fell due to hunger riots and the decomposition of the army. While the 1905 revolution had failed because of the inability of the workers’ movement to link up with the peasant movement, this alliance when achieved proved fatal for Czarism in 1917.

The working class played the major role in March 1917, but it lacked a revolutionary leadership and so was robbed of victory. The power taken from Czarism was put in the hands of a Provisional Government, a coalition of bourgeois parties like the Cadets, and moderate labour parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

But the mass movement was so strong that it had its own structures: councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates, backed up by the armed Red Guards. Thus, from March onwards, Russia was in a situation of dual power. The Provisional Government was based on a decomposing bourgeois state apparatus. Opposed to it was a network of ‘soviets’ or workers’/peasants’ councils, progressively constructing a workers’ state power.

Trotsky’s prediction in 1905 that Russia’s future revolution would see the blossoming of thousands of soviets was confirmed. The right wing of Russian and international Marxism believed that Russia, being a backward country, needed a bourgeois revolution like those of the 18th and 19th centuries. What would this entail? The overthrow of absolutism, the winning of democratic rights, freeing the peasants from semi-feudal chains, the liberation of oppressed nationalities, the creation of a unified market to facilitate the rapid growth of industrial capitalism, which would prepare the way for a future socialist revolution. From this was derived the strategy of an alliance between the liberal bourgeoisie and the workers’ movement. Workers would be forced to limit themselves to the fight for the 8 hour day, the right to organize, and to strike, etc.

Lenin rejected this strategy in 1905. He recalled what Marx had said after the revolutions of 1848: that, once the proletariat appeared on the political scene, the bourgeoisie went over to the camp of counter-revolution out of fear of workers’ power. So, Lenin proposed an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry.

But Lenin conceived of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ as being based upon a capitalist economy and state.

As early as 1905-06, Trotsky pointed to the weakness of this idea. He pointed to the chronic inability of the peasantry to constitute an independent political force. Throughout history, the peasantry has, in the end, always followed a bourgeois or proletarian leadership. With the bourgeoisie going to the right, the fate of the revolution depends on the ability of the proletariat to win political hegemony over the peasant movement and establish an alliance between the workers and peasants under its own leadership. In other words, the Russian revolution could win and fulfill its tasks only if the proletariat could conquer political power and establish a workers’ state, backed up by an alliance with the poor peasants.

This is the theory of permanent revolution. It proclaims that in the imperialist epoch, the so-called national or liberal bourgeoisie in underdeveloped countries is subordinate to foreign imperialism and to the old ruling classes and that the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution can only be realized by the dictatorship of the proletariat, backed up by the poor peasants. That is, only a workers’ state could achieve agrarian revolution, national independence, democratic freedoms, and industrial development. Trotsky’s prediction in 1906 was entirely confirmed by the course of the Russian revolution of 1917, and by the course of all the revolutions in under-developed countries since then. Vietnam, Cuba, etc.

When Lenin returned to Russia from abroad in Spring 1917 he saw the immense revolutionary possibilities. With his April Theses he changed the direction of the Bolshevik Party along the lines of permanent revolution. Some old Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, Kamenev and Molotov, resisted. They urged unity with the Mensheviks and critical support to the Provisional Government. But the Bolshevik Party, under the pressure of vanguard workers, combined with Trotsky’s followers, adopted the perspective of permanent revolution and won a majority amongst the working masses.

After the premature July uprising, and the unsuccessful counter-revolutionary putsch by General Kornilov in August, the Bolsheviks won the majority in the soviets of the large towns, from September onwards. In November, the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, under the leadership of Trotsky, seized power and handed it to the soviets. The old state and the Provisional Government collapsed. In the workers’ insurrection, violence was minimal. The first workers’ state was born.

The immediate tasks of the revolution were peace, land for the peasants, putting an end to national oppression, and extending soviet power across vast Russia. But the bourgeoisie set about to sabotage these policies. The workers, now aware of their strength, would not tolerate this. So what began as workers’ control in privately owned firms rapidly passed over into nationalization of the banks, the big factories and the transport system. Except for peasant and small artisan implements, the major means of production were now in the hands of the people collectively.

Still Russia was a backward country. The Bolsheviks were counting on a revolution in the industrial west, especially in Germany and Italy, which would have created a strong basis for building a classless society. Unfortunately, the German and Italian revolutions did not succeed. This was largely due to the counter-revolutionary role played by international social democracy. Isolated, the Russian revolution, led by Lenin and Trotsky, did the best it could, with the available political and material resources.

Soviet Russia was torn by civil war. The former land owners and Czarist officers tried to overthrow the first workers’ and peasants’ republic by force.

The SPD in Germany tried all manner of promises and lies to turn the workers away from the struggle for power (even pledging to nationalize big industry). Noske even called in the Freikorps to beat up leftists (they murdered Rosa Luxemburg). The Freikorps were the nucleus of the future Nazi armed bands.

The new Communist Parties, which founded the Third International, lacked experience and made many errors. The bourgeoisie, fearful of revolution, granted concessions to the workers (including the 8 hour day and universal suffrage). The year 1923 was a turning point. The KPD won a majority in large trade unions; it formed coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia. But the KPD was badly advised by the Comintern and failed to systematically organize an armed insurrection at the most favourable moment. Big business regained the initiative, stabilized the currency, and brought a bourgeois coalition back into power. The revolutionary crisis was over.

Soviet Russia won the civil war in 1921, but it was exhausted. Production had fallen drastically. Famine gripped the country. To remedy the situation, while waiting for a new rise in the international revolution, Lenin and Trotsky embarked on an economic retreat. Big industry would remain publicly owned. But a free market was re-established for the agricultural surpluses, after state taxes. Private trade and private small scale production were allowed. This was the N.E.P. It was a temporary retreat to stimulate production. The petty bourgeoisie enriched itself.

But a far bigger problem, resulting from Russia’s backwardness, took hold. The proletariat was weakened by the drop in industrial production and the exodus into the countryside. It was partly de-politicised by famine and hardship. Many of its best elements were killed in the civil war. Those who survived were absorbed into the Soviet apparatus. Since the state in this period could not train enough qualified personnel from the working class, the bourgeois intelligentsia tended to retain their monopoly of knowledge. The great poverty favoured the defence of material privileges.

In 1920 the Workers’ Opposition within the Soviet CP sounded the alarm. In 1921 Lenin called the Russian state a ‘bureaucratically deformed workers’ state’. In 1923 the Trotskyist Left Opposition was formed, with the fight against the bureaucracy one of its main priorities. The Left Opposition called for accelerating the industrialization of Russia, raising wages, increasing democracy in the soviets and in the party, providing assistance to poor peasants and raising taxes on rich peasants, and reinforcing the perspective of world revolution, including by rectifying errors of the Comintern. This was the programme that could have rescued the Russian Revolution.

Unfortunately, the majority of leaders understood too late the threat contained in the rise of the bureaucracy. This explains the victory of Stalinism in the USSR.

The bureaucracy is not a new class. It is a privileged layer of the working class which has usurped power in the Soviet state and economy, and used this monopoly of power to grant itself consumer advantages, like higher wages, fringe benefits, special shops, etc. It did not own the means of production. Its power rested on the gains of the November socialist revolution: public ownership, planned economy, state monopoly of foreign trade. It was conservative. Like every bureaucracy, it put preservation of its privileges above extension of the revolution. It feared world revolution would revive the political activity of the Soviet proletariat and thus undermine its own power. So the bureaucracy favoured the international status quo. It resists the re-establishment of capitalism, but only to a point, as we saw in 1989 when the bureaucracy split. Some of them are now capitalists who got rich by plundering the social wealth.

The USSR was not a socialist society, that is, a classless society. It was a society in transition between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism was restored by means of a social counter-revolution. The direct power of the workers could have been restored, but only through a political revolution which could break the bureaucrats’ monopoly over the exercise of power.

The label ‘capitalist’ did not apply to the Soviet economy because it was a system where producers were dominated by bureaucrats, not private owners. Capitalism is a specific system of class domination. It is characterised by private ownership of the means of production, competition, generalized commodity production, the transformation of labour power into a commodity, the necessity to sell commodities before the surplus value contained in them can be realized, and the inevitability of periodic crises of generalized overproduction. None of these could be found in the Soviet economy.

Neither was the Soviet economy socialist, which implies a regime of associated producers who themselves regulate their productive and social life, and which is defined by the disappearance of commodity production. The USSR was far from that, regardless the claims of the Soviet bureaucracy. The anti-Marxist theory, propagated by Joseph Stalin, that socialism could be built in one country, was simply a crude attempt to justify the bureaucracy and its actions.

In opposing ‘socialism in one country’, Trotsky and the Left Opposition did not take a defeatist position. They were the first to advocate rapid industrialization, the defence of the USSR against imperialism, the defence of the gains of the revolution against any attempts to restore capitalism in the USSR. But they understood that the fate of the USSR depended on the class struggle at the international level. This remains true today for the only surviving workers’ state, for revolutionary Cuba.

So then, what is Stalinism? Khrushchev called it a cult of personality. But this subjective/psychological explanation is shallow and incompatible with Marxism.

Stalinism is the expression of the bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers’ state, where a privileged social layer usurped power. The forms of brutal repression (police terror, the purges, assassinations, the Moscow trials, etc.) can vary, but the main features are constant. Workers’ democracy is suppressed in favour of rule by a despotic bureaucracy. In the capitalist world, Stalinism signifies the subordination, by the parties which followed the Kremlin, of the interests of the socialist revolution in their own countries to the interests of Soviet diplomacy. It debases Marxist theory into an instrument to justify every ‘tactical turn’ of the Kremlin and the Stalinist parties.

Stalinist ‘tactics’ have contributed massively to many huge defeats: the coming to power of Hitler in 1933, the defeat of the Spanish revolution in 1939, the disarming of the French and Italian communist masses and the reconstruction of the capitalist state and economy in 1944-46, the bloody crushing of the revolutionary movement in Iraq, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile and many other countries since then. The Stalinist ‘tactics’ of class collaboration with liberals and the bosses’ state, and in the so-called ‘popular front’, did not help the USSR. They represented the narrow interests of the bureaucracy and they undermined workers’ interests everywhere, and the very existence of the USSR.

By the 1940s, the USSR ceased to be an underdeveloped country. A new rise of world revolution led to the emergence of new workers’ states in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba, and radicalization of youth in western Europe and the Americas. Under these conditions, opposition tendencies arose and splits within the Stalinist bureaucracies occurred, such as the Stalin-Tito rupture in 1948, the October-November 1956 uprising in Hungary, the ‘Prague spring’ of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and revolts in Poland in the 50s and later.

After Stalin’s death a series of reforms were implemented in agriculture and industry, but these were limited in their effect by the continuing stranglehold of the bureaucracy. Without democratic and public control by the mass of producers and consumers, it is impossible to achieve truly rational and efficient production that also meets the desires of the population. Each bureaucratic reform tends to substitute a new form of bureaucratic abuse and waste. Greater autonomy of factory managers, combined with technological delays and over-commitment to military expenditures resulted in a general stagnation in the 1970s that doomed the USSR.

The victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949 broke the capitalist encirclement of the USSR, stimulated the process of permanent revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and put imperialism on the defensive. This occurred because, in practice, the Maoist leadership broke with the Stalinist line of the ‘bloc of four classes’ and revolution by stages. It led a vast peasant uprising, and destroyed the bourgeois state. However, the Chinese revolution was bureaucratically deformed from the outset. The independent activity of the working class was restricted. Forms of bureaucratic privilege, imitating Soviet Russia, were widespread. Mao tried to channel growing mass discontent by launching the so-called Cultural Revolution in 1964-5, but this was essentially a campaign to purge Mao’s enemies in the CP apparatus. When the ‘Red Guards’ became critical of the entire bureaucracy, they were dissolved.

The Sino-Soviet split reflected the Chinese CP’s rejection of monolithic control by Moscow, which was justified. But the narrow nationalism employed on both sides to the dispute, later duplicated in the China-Vietnam split, dealt a severe blow to the international workers’ movement, and gave imperialism more space to manoeuver.

Maoism is a more flexible, eclectic, off-shoot of original Stalinism in Russia. Its characterization of the USSR as ‘social-imperialist’ served to justify all the turns in Chinese foreign policy, including alliances with the bourgeoisie in various countries in a so-called struggle for independence from the two ‘super-powers’. It substitutes Maoist ideology for fundamental class distinctions. It rejects workers’ democracy, it rejects the united front, and it justifies the use of violence and repression within the workers’ movement. Behind a veneer of mass ‘participation’, it paved the way to capitalist restoration in China. China today is a capitalist society, dominated by foreign corporations in partnership with domestic state and private enterprises – an economy that enriched a few millions, that impoverished hundreds of millions, and that is going from boom to bust.

Since WW1, the objective conditions for building a socialist society have existed. The world division of labour and the interdependence of peoples reached a high level. The numerical strength of the working class and the economic basis for transforming the world economy is present. Political conditions necessary for revolution, including growing divisions within the bourgeoisie, its inability to rule, and growing rebellion against the system by workers, have risen periodically in various countries. Lacking, however, were adequate subjective conditions. These include: the level of class consciousness of the proletariat, its degree of maturity, and the strength of its revolutionary leadership – that is, its revolutionary party. Therefore, the lack of revolutionary victories, particularly in the west, has been essentially a function of the crisis of leadership in the working class.

This analysis, based on the historic failure of reformism and Stalinism, led Trotsky and opposition communists in 1933 to begin creating a new revolutionary leadership for the world working class. In 1938 they established the Fourth International for this purpose.

The FI is not yet a mass workers’ international. But it is able to transmit, sharpen and improve the programme needed by the world working class due to its constant activities within the class struggle in dozens of countries. The FI tries to train leaders based on its theory and practice. It tries to unify the experiences and consciousness of revolutionaries on a world scale, teaching them to build a single world organization instead of vainly waiting for spontaneous unity to occur.

The construction of new revolutionary parties and a new International combines the defence of the Marxist programme, which brings together all the lessons of past class struggles, with a current action programme that integrates what Trotsky called a programme of transitional demands. Socialists intervene in mass struggles to bring the participants, through their experience, to an action programme, and to give forms of organization to these struggles which will enable them to create workers’ councils during revolutionary crises.

I will conclude with just two more points.

Firstly, as an example of the application of the method of the Transitional Programme to conditions in the Canadian state today, I refer you to the booklet “Prospects for Socialism in Canada”. You may also find it useful to read the Manifesto for a Socialist Canada, the platform of the NDP Socialist Caucus.

Secondly, I strongly suggest that a revolutionary programme, incorporating transitional, democratic and defensive demands, is of little use without a democratic-centralist revolutionary organization that educates, agitates and organizes for its realization. I invite everyone here who wants to fight for a better world to take the most important step forward you can in that direction: join Socialist Action today.