Reflections on the Russian Revolution 2

If we consider the conditions that gave rise to the Russian Revolution, these were massive economic dislocation caused by war on an unprecedented scale and an equally unprecedented social and political crisis that rocked the existing state to its foundations, creating a revolution outside the control of any political force.

Stephen Smith[i] quotes the preface to a ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, which is currently the subject of my series of posts on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  Many of the points made in that series apply to the circumstances of the Russian Revolution, although also in a contingent way, the way real history develops, as opposed to the perspectives of theory.

So, for example, capitalism was underdeveloped in Russia and the working class was a tiny minority, neither of which are the grounds on which Marx set out as necessary preconditions for replacement of capitalism by socialism.  The revolution did not prove Marx wrong however, rather its failure proved him right, at least in the negative sense, a sense that is as yet inadequate to ultimately confirm his alternative of socialism in a positive fashion.

The international isolation of the revolution ultimately condemned it, as the leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky knew well it would – if they did not anticipate the particular way in which this would be confirmed through internal counter-revolution.

As Smith also notes, the Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors – crisis, modernisation, war and foreign state competition – and it was their ideology that determined their particular responses and solutions.  Their ideas are not therefore rendered immaterial to either what happened then or how we might judge the revolution now.  In fact, we are obliged to see how, even if it was under the most unfavourable circumstances, their ideas about socialism contributed to advancing the cause of socialism or failed to do so.

The different programmes put forward by the different Bolshevik leaders, while Lenin was alive and afterwards, are usually and correctly deemed to have had the potential to lead to significantly variant outcomes to that which eventuated.  So, for example, a different outcome to the contest between Stalin and Trotsky would have made a significant difference to the policies of forced collectivisation and the Great Terror, not to mention the policy of communist parties world-wide and their perspectives for revolution. It is hard, even today, to read Trotsky’s writings on Germany and the rise of fascism without thinking of how much suffering might have been avoided if the criminal policy of Stalinism had not been employed in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power.

The experience of revolution in Russia led to ideas that capitalism would break ‘at its weakest link’, sometimes forgetting that socialism could not be built at these weakest links; that how it broke in the first place determined the dynamic and potential for some sort of healthy workers’ society to emerge from the rupture, especially if in a surrounding sea of capitalism.  That not all ‘ruptures’ are anti-capitalist, never mind socialist.

The idea that socialism could emerge through a process of permanent revolution out of initial democratic revolution, sometimes simply forgot the preconditions upon which socialism could be built, and the limits of any such process given undeveloped initial conditions.

Attempting to define the problem as one of the ripeness of socialism, considered not by individual country but at the international level in no way removes the practical problems of an isolated revolutionary regime and did not, as it should have, lead to honest assessments of just how undeveloped the revolutionary socialist forces of the working class were internationally that were supposed to support otherwise isolated struggles.  Only these international working class forces could balance the superior development of capitalism outside of, and in opposition to, the isolated revolutionary breeches of capitalism.

The theory of breaking capitalism at the weakest link might not only downgrade in importance consideration of what could possibly replace it, but also reinforce a fixation with the purely negative – destroying capitalism by smashing its state – but then having to debate just what exactly had replaced it because it wasn’t socialism (a degenerated workers’ state? deformed workers’ state? bureaucratic collectivism? state capitalism? etc.).

This negativity also led to searches outside the working class for forces that could attack and destroy the state, regardless of whether this destruction had anything to do with creating socialism.  So, revolutionary nationalism – ‘national liberation’, Stalinist-type parties, or guerrilla movements all became agents of socialism because state destruction was seen as decisive, forgetting that it could only be decisive if the working class had already begun to wield its social and economic power so that the new state had something to defend, as opposed to it being the mechanism to create this social power, forgetting that no state, no matter how ‘progressive’ can replace the role of the working class itself in creating socialism.

In this sense, the Russian Revolution is not a model to replicate.  The new Russian State struggled to create the rule of the working class when its fundamental problem was that this is not the task of a state, even of the workers, which is to defend the already existing economic and social power of the working class.  The working class cannot achieve self-emancipation by the power of a state, which by definition is a separate body from the rest of society, including the working class.

The working class can wield state power to defend its position as the new ruling class but it is very unlikely to become the ruling class through state power putting it there; that is a separate body placing the working class into power.  The Revolution rather saw the state eventually subsume society under its direction, in the process defining both as ‘socialist’, where socialism would have involved the working class directing society itself, with a much reduced state machinery, playing a subsidiary role in society’s development.

Such anyway would have been a healthy development of the revolution, one unfortunately that the real circumstance pertaining could not allow.  In so far as this happened due to the mass participation in the revolutionary overthrow of the old regime, it became dominated by the state itself becoming the embodiment of socialism, of the rule of the working class, because the state was the dominant force in society that alone could determine the future of the country in the midst of war, civil war and economic crisis.  As a body of men and women separate from the working class, even if in the majority drawn from its ranks, the state formed its own material interests and became a bureaucracy in its own right, even if resting on the foundation of a disenfranchised working class with an expropriated capitalist class.

The specific conditions within which the Russian Revolution occurred were particularly unconducive to healthy socialist revolution and Smith quotes prominent Second International leaders who noted this.  So, he records French socialist Jean Jaurès, stating that “If the social revolution emerges from this chaos instead of coming about as the supreme expression of progress, as a higher act of reason, justice, and wisdom, it will be part of this universal mental crisis, an excess of the contagious fury brought about by the suffering and violence of war.”

He also quotes Kautsky, with perhaps lesser acuteness, that “revolution which arises from war is a sign of the weakness of the revolutionary class, and often the cause of further weakness because the sacrifices it brings with it, as well as by the moral and intellectual degradation to which war gives rise.”

Unfortunately, we are reminded of Marx’s aphorism that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  The Bolsheviks could not posit socialist revolution in better circumstances, with better prospects, but could only decide whether they would make it with what was at hand.

They subsequently had choices over how this revolution would be spread, be consolidated and built upon, but again not simply or only upon circumstances they had created but under those over which they had no control, “under circumstances existing already.”  To what extent were their failures due to unavoidable circumstance and to what extent wrong political choices?

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 1

We have just celebrated the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the key reference point for Marxists and their politics during these one hundred years.

In his recent book on the revolution[i], Stephen Smith notes correctly that –

“Through the twentieth century, capitalism displayed immense dynamism and innovation, permitting the raising of the standard of living of millions of people even as it concentrated immense wealth in a few hands and created new forms of alienation.”

He goes on to say that –

“Everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage belief that it can be organised in a more just and rational fashion.  Yet that is what the Bolsheviks tried to do.”

and –

“Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear, and despair that motivated it; the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society.  That is why millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.”

The Russian Revolution has been the key reference point for Marxists over the last one hundred years because we want to repeat it – repeat its attempt “to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom” – through revolution, which is the mass of ordinary working people becoming politically active to overthrow the existing exploiting system and create a new society, free of oppression and exploitation.

Of course, when we say repeat it, we don’t actually mean repeat all of it.  We mean a revolution that seeks a society that gives every individual the freedom to develop themselves to their full potential, and, of course, does not repeat its mistakes, and the descent into Stalinist monstrosity that the society created by the Revolution became.

One very important additional reason for what appears to non-Marxists to be a fixation on Russia and its Revolution is the contribution to Marxist thought by the leaders of the revolution, particularly Lenin and Trotsky.  Hence our continual reference to what ‘dead Russians’ have said about this, that, and the other.

But even the neophyte will want to know – what do you mean by the mistakes and what caused them?  And if you celebrate the Revolution, are you sure you have learnt its lessons, which will prevent these mistakes re-occurring or equally awful new ones emerging?

The debates within Marxism are certainly labyrinthine to those new to its politics.  That much debate still revolves around the lessons of the Revolution demonstrates that while success can teach us much, failure is much harder to learn from.  But if failure was the Revolution’s ultimate result then this is perhaps the more important terrain from which lessons must be learnt.  Except of course, that we cannot assume that what worked 100 years ago will work, mutatis mutandis, again today.  Not only failures but previous successes may have to be revised, with all due respect to the heresy hunters for whom the word revise immediately conjures up the spectre of ‘revisionism.’

To talk about the Revolution and to attempt to analyse its lessons is an enormous undertaking and I’m not going to do it here in any even semi-comprehensive fashion.  As the key attempt to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new socialist society everything written on this blog, and every other piece of socialist analysis, implies a view of the Revolution, whether explicitly stated or not.  However, rather basic questions can be posed initially, some of which are rather obvious.

Why is the Revolution still, after 100 years, the key reference point for Marxists and their programme for socialist revolution?  Why, if we are living in a period that is the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, or even more boldly, of the decline of the system, is there no other example of such momentous and significant revolution, which is the only way that capitalism can be overthrown?  If we live in an era of ‘wars and revolutions’, why do we have such little experience that compares in importance to 1917?  Is the experience of the Russian Revolution therefore so central to understanding the future of capitalism and socialism as the space it has so far occupied in our thought might seem to suggest?

Stephen Smith notes the massive changes wrought by capitalism in the last 100 years. What has this to say about the ability of the bourgeoisie to revolutionise “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . .  are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . .” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto).  And all this without having brought down its own system through this constant overturning of its own conditions for existence?

What have the changes wrought by capitalism to say about how different the conditions facing socialists are today and what this implies for our programme?  If the Russian Revolution is in any sense the model to be copied or emulated, what does this imply for the conditions upon which it will be repeated?  Must they too be similar?

I can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily and am not going  attempt to do so.  What I will attempt do is to approach the problem, considered broadly, from two aspects, and in doing so make my own contribution to reconsideration of the Revolution and its lessons.

These two aspects are consideration of the material conditions giving rise to the revolution and the particular approach taken by the victorious Bolshevik Party.

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

Forward to part 2

Visiting Sachsenhausen

When I visited Dachau concentration camp, I was shown round by a young Irishman.  When I visited Sachsenhausen I was given the tour by a German man in his sixties, who said he was among the first to have the story of the camps and the Nazis taught at school.  It should be remembered that Sachsenhausen was in the old German Democratic Republic.

The visitors to the camp on a dreary and damp day were made up of groups of tourists like myself and school parties of German teenagers; some of whom were having chats with their friends, but most of whom were in various states of interest, dismay and shock, while their teachers explained the exhibits and left them to wander round the various displays.

The camp had a small bookshop at the entrance, featuring ‘Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1936 – 1945 Events and Developments’, which notes correctly that the buildings that survive in the camp do not divulge its history.

The short book quotes a Dutch camp survivor – Ab Nikolaas – that the camp was primarily screaming, stench, cramped conditions and the violence that existed in and around the prisoners.  Everyday life resembled a perpetual succession of exceptional circumstances, despite, or rather because of, the daily routine imposed by the SS guards, dictated by them to the smallest detail.  Total control and order was accompanied by arbitrary terror, torture and murder in a hierarchy within what was the “most extremely class-ridden society.” (Primo Levi)

It is therefore impossible to appreciate the horrors of the concentration camps by visiting them.  Even visitors at the time of their operation were met with blooming flowers and well-tended lawns, with one newly arrived prisoner admitting in 1939 that “I thought I was going to go mad over it.”

Inside the overcrowded barracks lay the reality of foul and diseased bodies, eating rotting food and throwing up in the process while still starving, leaving prisoners to steal food from each other.  In 1941, when a young French prisoner took two carrots from a sheep pen he was battered to death by the SS.  The alternative of starvation however, could lead to exhaustion, illness, disease, punishment and then death.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built less than 25 miles north of Berlin in Oranienburg in 1936 following visits to the site by Heinrich Himmler, the first of many such camps that also included Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück.  It came to rival that of Dachau as the new model for such camps, specifically built to function as sites of terror, and was originally planned to hold six thousand prisoners at a time when the entire existing system held less than five.

The camp also contained the infamous wrought-iron slogan “Work makes Free” on its gates, as in Dachau, Flossenbürg and Auschwitz, while the guards would taunt prisoners by pointing to the crematorium – “there is a path to freedom, but only through the chimney!”

While some Sachsenhausen camp prisoners would be released, some would never, especially including those infected with the “poison of Bolshevism.”  Some were former SS guards, fallen from grace, who were housed in relatively lenient conditions and who were often employed to attack other prisoners.

The camp was infamous for its death squad, made up of SS NCOs – block leaders who supervised prisoners in their barracks and in labour details.  Death came to one prisoner because he was too slow to greet a guard and to another because he stumbled, while others were killed because of who they were.  The Austrian state prosecutor Karl Tuppy, who had tried the Nazi killers of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934, was beaten for twenty minutes until another prisoner was called in to drag him away – “His face was gone.  Just a piece of completely undefined meat, full of blood, cuts, the eyes completely swollen up.”

Another prisoner in 1939, a former union official, told his guards that he was previously a Prussian officer in the First World War who now had two sons fighting at the front.  He was battered for days, dying after only two weeks in the camp.

Along with Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen became a centre of violence following the invasion of Poland, an invasion the Nazis blamed on Poland itself, accusing the Poles of horrific war crimes – Hitler for example claimed that the Poles had butchered ethnic Germans “like animals”.

One Polish-born Jew from Berlin became incarcerated in Sachsenhausen after first managing to board a plane to London without a visa, arriving in the city only to be sent back by the British immigration authorities, and finding himself a prisoner in the camp only two weeks later.  He later became one of the last Jewish prisoners to be released by the Nazis, following the order from Himmler in March 1940 that no more could be released except those with valid visas who could emigrate by the end of April.

Many other Jews died in the camp within days or weeks of arrival.  Extermination of European Jews thus became a reality within the concentration camps before it became Nazi policy outside, although the camps at this time held only selected Jews and did not yet become the centre of anti-Jewish policy.

Mass murder became common just later, with the first coordinated killing across several of the camps in November 1940, when more than 200 Poles were murdered in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Auschwitz.

In July 1941 the Nazi occupiers of France repressed a mass strike of one hundred thousand in the Pas-de-Calais coalfield, as workers protested against poor working conditions, unpaid wages and starvation.  Of the 430 miners arrested, 244 were sent to Sachsenhausen with more than 100 of them failing to survive their incarceration.

The first Soviet prisoners of war arrived in early autumn 1941 following the German invasion, many dying in the trains that brought them to the camps from the East.  Their treatment, some of which came to public attention, was so bad that one SS boss thought it might sully the reputation of the SS among local public opinion.  For him the transports were unnecessary, since they were “going to die anyway”, as many of them did upon arrival.  So quickly that the SS did not even bother to register them.

The mass murder of the prisoners in Sachsenhausen, as usual justified by claims that German prisoners had been killed by the Soviets, was planned in August and required construction of a special killing chamber.  The first of these prisoners arrived on 31 August, disoriented, dishevelled and dirty, young and worn out.  The photographs taken for an SS publication ‘The Subhuman’ were published to show that their appalling condition was proof of their subhuman nature.

In the separated section of the camp the Soviet prisoners were told that they were to be medically examined, and therefore had to undress before being led individually to what looked like a doctor’s surgery, within which was an SS man dressed in a white coat.  After appearing to carry out some medical checks that were designed to discover any gold fillings, the prisoner was led to a smaller room with an upright length of wood fixed to the wall, which appeared to be used to measure height and to which the prisoner would stand with his back to the wall.

A small slit in the wall at the wooden pole was used to shoot the unsuspecting prisoner in the back of the neck, sometimes with a dum dum bullet, while a gramophone playing in the first room helped cover the noise of the shot in the execution room, which was itself sound-proofed. Within ten weeks in the autumn of 1941 over 10,000 had been shot.  The newly arrived prisoners rarely lived longer than a couple of days.

After two weeks, some SS bigwigs were shown the set-up in action; the new operation recommending itself to Himmler because the murderers did not have to look their victims in the eye.  However, the enthusiasm of the killers varied, with those less enthused branded as a ‘limp dick.’

Faced with growing labour shortages, Nazi policy moved away from these mass killings to using the prisoners as slave labour, although by this stage the capture of Soviet prisoners on the scale witnessed during the first months of the war was not to be repeated.

At this time, while death among the Polish and Jewish prisoners was common, there were no plans to kill all of them, while the opposite was the case for the Soviet POWs who arrived between September and November 1941. When gas chambers were introduced in 1943 the first victims were again Soviet prisoners.  The camp had come a long way since 1937 when in one month only one prisoner had died.

On May 2 1942 Sachsenhausen again became the site of mass execution, this time of 71 Dutch resistance fighters.  Two hundred and fifty Jews were also murdered between May 28 and 29, most having been taken from Berlin, while some were selected randomly from the prisoners inside the neck-shooting barracks built for the Soviet POWs.  A month later, during a visit to the camp, Himmler ordered that the remaining Jewish prisoners be deported from German soil.

Some however were retained because of their skills and were also freed from the worst treatment they could normally have expected being Jewish. A small group, employed to forge foreign banknotes and stamps, grew from 29 to more than 140, most of whom had arrived from Auschwitz.  The better treatment made them feel “as if I had come from hell onto heaven”, as one prisoner put it.   Since the project had to be kept secret, the SS considered Jews perfect for it since they could be killed as necessary.  The prisoners did however survive, as did their banknotes, which continued to circulate for years afterwards.

By this time Sachsenhausen had already provided prisoners for the construction in 1938 of what was planned to be the largest and most advanced brick factory in the world.  But this most advanced factory was built in the most primitive circumstances imaginable and in working conditions brutal even by concentration camp standards.  It was built and operated on the basis that the dead could easily be replaced.

In the end this massive SS project was a disaster and not a single usable brick was manufactured.  The SS covered up its incompetence by demolishing and rebuilding the factory and killing yet more prisoners in the process, even eventually producing usable bricks from clay pits described as “hell inside hell” by the prisoners forced to work in them, though never making near the original targeted quantity.

Those too ill to work or simply not employed were sometimes crammed into barracks where they had to stand all day, with just a brief break at lunch time; pressed like sardines, forbidden to move, talk, sit or lean against a wall, with no motion at all permitted and quickly punished if it was attempted.

From 1942 collaboration between the SS and capitalist industry accelerated as prisoners increasingly worked in factories outside the camps, in Dachau with BMW, and in Sachsenhausen with Heinkel.  The camp became a model of such cooperation, with capitalist enterprises such as AEG and Siemens involved. Prisoners were also increasingly employed in clearing bomb damage, building shelters and burying the dead outside the camp.  By summer 1943 however no more than perhaps thirty thousand, of two hundred thousand prisoners, were working in satellite camps engaged in war production or clearing war damage.

As Soviet forces drew near in 1945 the SS began to prepare evacuation of the camp with large groups of prisoners being brought to Sachsenhausen from the subsidiary camps, many dying on the way or being killed when they got there.  On 21 April, the first of over 33,000 were marched 20 to 40 kilometres a day from the main camp towards the Baltic sea on a ‘death march’ that many thousand did not survive.  Eventually the SS guards ran off and the remaining prisoners were found by units of the Soviet and US armies.  In the main camp 3,400 were found by Soviet and Polish troops, although even with medical care at least 300 did not survive.

Upon liberation the camp stayed open, as did others that were used by the Americans, British and French, although the new Stalinist regime kept Sachsenhausen open until 1950, to house those seen as posing a threat to the new regime, including not only Nazis but also some of their former opponents.  Neglect, indifference and ineptitude led to twenty-two thousand deaths among the one hundred thousand prisoners kept in three of the former concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen.

In 1961, the Stalinist regime erected its own memorial, built on the grounds of ‘Station Z’, the site of the crematorium ovens, gas chamber and firing squad area that had been built in 1942, and previously blown up by the East German authorities in 1952/53.  In erecting its memorial the authorities consolidated the foundations and remains of the ovens and erected a large monumental roof, which was demolished and replaced in 2004/05 due to its deterioration.  ‘Station Z’ was the cynical SS term for the site of a prisoner’s last moments of life.

Further photographs of my visit are on the Facebook page.