Reflections on the Russian Revolution 7

Red Guards from an electrical factory Petrograd 1917

Two common charges levied against the Russian Revolution is that it was violent and undemocratic.

The allegation of violence rests largely on the experience of the civil war that followed the October revolution, as the October events themselves were remarkably bloodless.  During the civil war violence was ubiquitous – no one involved eschewed violence – not least the partisans of European liberalism and social democracy, at that time up to their knees in the blood and carnage of the First World War, and which the Bolsheviks strived to end.

But nor is it even true that the October Revolution sparked this bloody civil war.  In fact, a good argument could be made that the Kornilov revolt of that reactionary general commenced the civil war in August.  It was therefore not a result of Bolshevik violence, nor even simply the reactionary violence of the old Tsarist regime and imperialism, but of the incompatibility of the interests of the two contending forces in the revolutionary process that were inevitably to clash violently.  The civil war was simply a question of who would win and what would be left to rule over.

Stephen Smith in his book already quoted in these posts argues that –

“In fact, purely in relation to the 1920s (Stalinism in the 1930s was a different matter), it is not obvious that Soviet society was more violent than its tsarist predecessor.  Historians often fail to convey how ingrained violence was in late-imperial Russia, evinced in colonial conquest, police repression, counter-insurgency, terrorism by left and right, and anti-Jewish pogroms, extending, too, into more everyday forms of violence, such as practices of samosud (‘self-judgement’), meted out by peasant communities on those who transgressed their norms, to the flogging of prisoners, to beatings in the workplace, child abuse, and wife-beating.”

As for the charge that the revolution was undemocratic – we have already noted that the vast majority of the Russian people wanted an end to the war and land distribution and that this was incompatible with the old regime, incompatible with ‘moderate’ socialists who refused to break with the ‘liberal’ capitalist bourgeoisie, who in turn refused to break with all the old reactionary forces of tsarism.

Where the charge may have some force is that in a country with only a small working class, it was not possible to have a ‘pure’ working class revolution, one that could fully satisfy its class interests.  This explains the compromises, changes of direction and Lenin’s “radical modification” of what socialism was that we looked at in previous posts.

In the latest issue of the journal Science and Society, the author August H. Nimtz goes to some length to explain just how important it was for the Bolsheviks that they had the majority support of the working class before organising the October revolution.  He analyses the approach of Lenin in 1917 and how it consciously rested on the views of the founders of Marxism – Marx and Engels.

He quotes Engels in the conclusion to his 1884 book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, that “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state; but that,” he continued, “is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.”

He quotes Engels again:

“Do you realize now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people know how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it’s even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favorable position to make the revolution. (MECW, 50, 29.)”

This last sentence might seem to anticipate the Kornilov revolt and the spur to Bolshevik support and ultimately revolution that this reactionary conspiracy helped create. Engels words also set out the problem that the Bolsheviks grappled with and which we have reviewed in the previous posts –

“a “revolution in Russia” could save what was left of the peasant communes. And such a revolution would “give the labor movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism” (MECW, 27, 433). Contrary, therefore, to all future Stalinist distortions of M&E’s [Marx and Engels] views, Russia could “never achieve a socialist transformation” without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe by its own proletariat. Engels could not have been more prophetic.” (Nimtz)

Nimtz, then records the approach of Lenin in seeking to know whether the revolutionary forces were winning the hearts and minds of the working class, and the careful study he undertook to understand whether, and to what extent, they had done so –

“By the time of the Fourth Duma elections in 1912, the Bolsheviks, now devoid of the boycotters, were in near-unanimous accord for participation. Lenin’s assessment of the results reveals once again how seriously he took elections. “It is beyond question,” he wrote after analyzing them, “that elections supply objective data. Testing subjective wishes, sentiments and views by taking into account the vote of the mass of the population representing different classes should always be of value to a politician who is at all worthy of the name. The struggle of parties — in practice, before the electorate, and with the returns summed up — invariably furnishes data serving to test our conception of the balance of social forces in the country and of the significance of particular ‘slogans’” (LCW, 18, 505). That’s exactly, I argue, why Lenin would pay such close attention to elections in Russia five years later. The entire record makes clear that these weren’t aberrant pronouncements on his part about elections. They registered how thoroughly he had absorbed the lessons drawn by M&E, specifically, the need for the workers’ parties to “count their forces.”” (Nimtz)

Nimtz explains that during 1917, Lenin used elections to determine the support of the working class for revolution and the necessity of this support in order to resort to an armed uprising.

This is not presented here as an argument, as I have previously stated, that we should hold on to the revolution in Russia in 1917 as some sort of model for revolution today, but only to argue that in this precise aspect – the absolute necessity for the working class to support revolution – we should absolutely seek to guide our thinking, programme and activity to just such a commitment to working class democracy.  Such democracy must be the conscious activity of the working class itself and not ‘support’ in any passive sense of this word for leaders or movements that substitute themselves for this self-activity.  Or even for leaders or vanguards that do the same, in the name of the working class but separate from it.

Just as bourgeois productive relations entail private ownership of productive forces and working class productive relations require collective and cooperative ownership, that by definition entails conscious self-direction and activity, and not indirect delegation or support to an exterior body such as a state – however benign; so the nature of socialism reduces the role of all separate elements of society apart from the activity of the working class itself.

In the approach to October Lenin explained that the Bolsheviks now had the support required for revolution, or a mandate, as it might be expressed today –

“The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands. . . . The majority gained in the Soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side. . . . Compare the elections to the city councils of Petrograd and Moscow with the elections to the Soviets. Compare the elections in Moscow with the Moscow strike of August 12. Those are objective facts regarding that majority of revolutionary elements that are leading the people.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

Lenin explained the approach later when looking at the possible repetition of revolution in Germany –

“As matters stood in October, we had made a precise calculation of the mass forces. We not only thought, we knew . . . with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side in September and in early October. We knew . . . that the coalition [provisional government] had also lost the support of the peasantry — and that meant that our cause had already won.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

The alternative route of bourgeois democracy, which as I have noted excludes working class participation, was closed in Russia in 1917, in a way I have also noted, that has not been the case in other more recent mass working class struggles such as France in 1968 or Portugal in 1974-75.  As Nimtz explains –

“The Socialist Revolutionary–Menshevik leadership of the executive of the soviet convened in mid-September the “Democratic Conference,” basically an attempt to divert the energy boiling from below, and increasingly led by the Bolsheviks, into the parliamentary arena. Lenin urged the party’s leadership not to be enticed. “It would be a big mistake, sheer parliamentary cretinism on our part, if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament; for even if it were to proclaim itself a permanent and sovereign parliament of the revolution, it would nevertheless decide nothing. The power of decision lies outside it in the working-class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow”

This did not mean either capitulation to the false democratic norms of bourgeois democracy or a rejection of what these norms often tell us –

“A comparison of the data on the “parliamentary” [local duma] elections and the data on the . . . mass movements [since April 20] fully corroborates, in respect of Russia, an observation often made in the West, namely, that the revolutionary proletariat is incomparably stronger in the extra-parliamentary than in the parliamentary struggle, as far as influencing the masses and drawing them into the struggle is concerned.” (Lenin Collected Works, 26, 33.)

Nimtz quotes as a summary of Lenin’s views his brochure Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in which he says, with reference to the various fake tsarist parliaments, that –

“We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917).”

Those thinking that 1917 can simply be repeated today in very different and more advanced conditions might want to reflect that 1917 required 1905 and that both entailed defeat in war.  Hopefully some other sort of preparation is required by the working class today in order that it make itself capable of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.

It is necessary to learn and re-learn these lessons.  For example, the issue of the correct socialist approach to reactionary bourgeois institutions was recently debated in relation to the Northern Ireland Stormont parliament on this blog here.

It is natural to assume that the relevance of events that have celebrated their one-hundred-year anniversary will then inevitably recede.  It is not to condemn the 1917 revolution to say that it must be hoped that this is the case, because it will only retain its significance for socialists if it remains the only (very imperfectly) successful example of what we seek to achieve.


Back to part 6

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