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.
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