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

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 6

While the dominant view among the Bolsheviks was a statist one: that socialism would be the further development of the tendencies towards socialisation of production within capitalism – through centralisation and concentration of production by the state, including large private trusts supported by it, this was not the view of Marx.

For him it was not a task of replacing capitalist state ownership of the productive forces with ownership by a workers’ state, although some formulations of his would have led to this conclusion.  Even for Lenin, the question could be asked – how on earth could the state wither away, as set out by Lenin in his 1917 work ‘State and Revolution’, if the economy was to be directed and developed as part of the state?  As a body separate from, and on top of, society, the state could not be the representative of the community as a whole, a point Marx had argued from his earliest years.  Neither could it play such a role by becoming totally predominant: it could not become one with society and erase its separate character.

The transitional road from capitalism to socialism was not to come through a new socialist state simply replacing and increasing the growing economic role of the capitalist state.  As Marx explained:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

“They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” Marx Capital Vol III)

At the end of 1917 Lenin had declared that “The first step towards the emancipation of the people from this penal servitude is the confiscation of the landed estates, the introduction of workers’ control and the nationalisation of the banks. The next steps will be the nationalisation of the factories, the compulsory organisation of the whole population in consumers’ societies, which are at the same time societies for the sale of products, and the state monopoly of the trade in grain and other necessities.”

He announced that “accounting and control–this is the main economic task of every Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasant’ Deputies, of every consumers’ society, of every union or committee of supplies, of every factory committee or organ of workers’ control in general”.

He went on to say that “one of the most important tasks today, if not the most important, is to develop this 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 . . . The workers and peasants are still “timid”, they have not yet become accustomed to the idea that they are now the ruling class; they are not yet resolute enough. The revolution could not at one stroke instill these qualities into millions and millions of people who all their lives had been compelled by want and hunger to work under the threat of the stick.”

The only way this can be read is that state control did not necessarily entail control and management by the working class itself.

But then, at the beginning of 1923, Lenin wrote that – “we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism”; which, on the face of it, is a pretty radical admission to have made.

Giving the phrase its fuller context explains how much of a change was involved –

“Now we are entitled to say that for us the mere growth of cooperation (with the “slight” exception mentioned above) is identical with the growth of socialism, and at the same time we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism.”

“The radical modification is this; formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organisational, “cultural” work. I should say that emphasis is shifting to educational work, were it not for our international relations, were it not for the fact that we have to fight for our position on a worldscale. If we leave that aside, however, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education.”

“Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch—to reorganise our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganise it.”

“Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organise the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organised in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organisation of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.”

Lenin thus reevaluated the role of cooperatives:

“Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class.”

“In the capitalist state, cooperatives are no doubt collective capitalist institutions. Nor is there any doubt that under our present economic conditions, when we combine private capitalist enterprises—but in no other way than nationalised land and in no other way than under the control of the working-class state—with enterprises of the consistently socialist type (the means of production, the land on which the enterprises are situated, and the enterprises as a whole belonging to the state), the question arises about a third type of enterprise, the cooperatives . . . Under our present system, cooperative enterprises differ from private capitalist enterprises because they are collective enterprises, but do not differ from socialist enterprises if the land on which they are situated and means of production belong to the state, i.e., the working-class.”

“It is forgotten that owing to the special features of our political system, our cooperatives acquire an altogether exceptional significance. If we exclude concessions, which, incidentally, have not developed on any considerable scale, cooperation under our conditions nearly always coincides fully with socialism.”

Lenin now put forward a different overall perspective arising within the New Economic Policy (NEP), which had been introduced as an admitted retreat on behalf of the Bolsheviks:

“All we actually need under NEP is to organise the population of Russia in cooperative societies on a sufficiently large-scale, for we have now found the degree of combination of private interest, of private commercial interest, with state supervision and control of this interest, that degree of its subordination to the common interests which was formerly the stumbling block for very many socialists. Indeed, the power of the state over all large-scale means of production, political power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured proletarian leadership of the peasantry, etc. — is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society out of cooperatives, out of cooperatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to treat as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society? It is still not the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for it.”

“We went too far when we reintroduced NEP, but not because we attached too much importance to the principal of free enterprise and trade — we want too far because we lost sight of the cooperatives, because we now underrate cooperatives, because we are already beginning to forget the vast importance of the cooperatives from the above two points of view.”

However, cooperatives were not in themselves the answer to the backwardness of Russian economic development – “There are now no other devices needed to advance to socialism. But to achieve this “only”, there must be a veritable revolution—the entire people must go through a period of cultural development. . . . But it will take a whole historical epoch to get the entire population into the work of the cooperatives through NEP. At best we can achieve this in one or two decades. Nevertheless, it will be a distinct historical epoch, and without this historical epoch, without universal literacy, without a proper degree of efficiency, without training the population sufficiently to acquire the habit of book reading, and without the material basis for this, without a certain sufficiency to safeguard against, say, bad harvests, famine, etc.—without this we shall not achieve our object.”

The new importance given by Lenin to cooperatives was clear – “given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilised cooperators is the system of socialism.’

Today, unlike Russia in 1923, there has been no socialist revolution, in the sense that the capitalist state has been smashed and replaced, even if only by an unreconstructed one that Lenin admitted to in 1923.  On the other hand, for many countries, the peasantry is small or insignificant, while for others it is larger but not so preponderant as it was in Russia one hundred years ago.

The mass of the population is also more advanced and cultured than one hundred years ago, so that any successful revolution will not suffer from the same debilitating backwardness that Lenin believed would require another revolution taking “a distinct historical epoch.”

But before that, the question of a socialist revolution does not even arise among  today’s more advanced population, unless it becomes fully and completely committed to such a project.  It is not therefore the objective conditions for socialism that today are absent, in the sense of the broad cultural development of the working class, although this is far from fully developed, but the subjective perspective of the working class, recognising that this too has its own objective basis.

Rather than cooperatives being the sequel to socialist revolution, it may be better now to think of cooperatives as vital preliminary grounds upon which can be developed the political consciousness necessary to make socialist revolution a practical proposition.  The subjective ignorance of the working class of its interests in creating a new self-managed society might have its own objective roots in capitalist domination and in the lack of the prior development of cooperative production within existing class society.

In the final reflection on the Russian Revolution I will look at the key inspiration of that revolution – that it was a revolution desired and fought for by the majority of the working class.

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 5

In 1921 Lenin wrote the following on ‘Concessions and the Development of Capitalism’:

“The Soviet government is inviting foreign capitalists to obtain concessions in Russia.”

“What is a concession? It is a contract between the government and a capitalist who undertakes to organise or improve production (for example, felling and floating timber, extracting coal, oil, ore, etc.) and to pay the government a share of the product obtained, keeping the rest as his profit.”

“Is it right for the Soviet government to invite foreign capitalists after expelling the Russian landowners and capitalists? Yes, it is, because, seeing that the workers’ revolution in other countries is delayed, we have to make some sacrifices in order to achieve a rapid and even immediate improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants. The sacrifice is that over a number of years we shall be giving away to the capitalists tens of millions of poods of valuable products. The improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants is that we shall immediately obtain additional quantities of petroleum, paraffin oil, salt, coal, farming implements, and so forth. We have no right to forego the opportunity of immediately improving the condition of the workers and peasants, for our impoverishment makes it essential, and our sacrifices will not be fatal.”

“But is it not dangerous to invite the capitalists? Does it not imply a development of capitalism? Yes, it does imply a development of capitalism, but this is not dangerous, because power will still be in the hands of the workers and peasants, and the landowners and capitalists will not be getting back their property. A concession is something in the nature of a contract of lease. The capitalist becomes, for a specified period, the lessee of a certain part of state property under a contract, but he does not become the owner. The state remains the owner.”

In this view, the proletarian nature of the state guaranteed the socialist character of an economic construction carried out upon the foundations of state capitalism.  The undeveloped and crisis conditions in Russia meant that the state capitalist foundations had themselves to be built under the workers’ own state in alliance with forms of state capitalism that involved individual capitalists, and including foreign capital.  In these circumstances “the worker will never be afraid of such
 a [capitalist] leader, because he knows that Soviet power is his power, that it will stand firm in his defense, and because he knows that he wants to learn the practicalities of organization.”  This was considered a requirement all the more pressing because of the low cultural level of the Russian working class we noted in our earlier posts.

One such collaboration shows what this might involve but also the differences within the Bolsheviks and the new state over the policy and its practical implementation.  In January 1918 the head of the Mining-Metallurgy Department of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (Vesenkha), reported discussions with Alexis P. Meshchersky, a self-made industrialist, 
on the formation of a metallurgical trust.

This would involve creation of a milliard-and-a-half ruble trust combining some 20 industrial enterprises to control approximately 60% of railway wagon and 85% of locomotive production, or 50-60% of Russia’s machine construction and metallurgical industries. Initially, Meshchersky offered the government one-third of the trust’s shares (corresponding to the number of enterprises to be included which were already nationalised) and the same representation on the central administrative board of the trust. Each factory would be run by a board consisting of the existing ‘specialists’ and a commissar representing Vesenkha.

The idea for the trust met with a positive response on the part of leaders in Vesenkha but opposition from some local metallurgical trade unions, who called for complete nationalisation of the factories involved.  Meshchersky then began to back off from his original proposal, in particular with regard to the relative proportions of private/state control.

Meshchersky was forced to reveal that almost 20% of the stocks in the proposed trust were in the hands of German banks and opposition to possible foreign control resulted in readjustment of the shares in the proposed trust from 60% private and 40% government to 50-50, 20-80, and finally to a 100% government share and complete control. However, included in this final proposal was a ‘loophole’ from which Meshchersky never retreated: that 20% of the shares be held in reserve to be returned to the original owners with accumulated dividends should the government ever offer the trust’s shares for sale. When Meshchersky refused further concessions, Vesenkha voted to break off the talks but to proceed with the formation of a unified metallurgical trust.

Vesenkha continued to circulate the Meshchersky proposal to unions and representatives of workers but while they supported creation of trusts or national syndicates they rejected Meshchersky’s proposal because he had refused from the beginning to cooperate with the trade unions and because of the potential influence of foreign capital in the trust.  Eventually Vesenkha nationalised the Sormovo-Kolomna industrial complex in June and other factories in November

Similar negotiations took place in the spring of 1918 between owners and managers of the sugar, textile, and leather industries and trade union representatives, which resulted in formation of a joint or state controlled trust.  The typical pattern for creating joint trust organisations in these cases involved the addition of trade union representatives to pre-revolutionary regulatory boards (usually privately initiated, state sanctioned organisations) which were authorized by Vesenkha to take control of the whole industrial branch.

Lenin cited these organisations as exemplary of state capitalism’s role in the transition period: “The situation is best among those workers who are carrying out this state capitalism: among the tanners and the textile and sugar industries, because they have a sober, proletarian knowledge of their industry and they want to preserve it and make it more powerful-because in that lies the greatest socialism.”

The pursuit of this state capitalist road reflected not only the relative backwardness of Russian capitalism exacerbated by war and economic collapse, but an analysis that socialism could only be built on the grounds of capitalism and not from simply ‘smashing’ the capitalist state and creating socialism ex nihilo.

In neither of these could Lenin be criticised for being wrong.  What was wrong was (1) that the weak development of Russian capitalism could not be overcome within Russia itself and socialism could neither be created through state capitalism (with a workers’ state place on top of it) nor could this stage be leapt over by going ‘straight’ to socialism and (2) the socialisation created under capitalism upon which socialism could be built was not limited to the centralisation and concentration of production by state capitalist trusts.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 4

The Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors, caused by war and economic collapse.  It was their ideology that determined their particular responses.

This element of choice has nearly always been considered true in the case of the alternative policies advocated by Stalin and Trotsky in the dispute over the future course of the revolution.  This choice ultimately entailed the former’s forced collectivisation and the Great Terror.  The various policies pursued by the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s life showed that alternatives were possible before as well.  It is not the case that the conditions of crisis determined Bolshevik policies, rather than severely constraining them.

I’m reminded of the exhibition on art and the Russian Revolution held in the Royal Academy in London earlier this year, which felt more like a museum exhibition than an art gallery and which had an audio guide that, in its increasingly reactionary commentary, managed to both present the series of policies pursued after the revolution while implicitly condemning revolutionary single-mindedness.

Policies of War Communism, New Economic Policy (NEP) and forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture were presented in such a terse and dismissive way that it would have been impossible for the untutored to make any great sense out of it; other than perhaps that the Bolsheviks capitulated to capitalism under the NEP and then turned 180° to ‘socialism’ (why did they not bother to do it in the first place?)

No appreciation was in evidence that socialism can only be built on the achievements of capitalism. Socialism is not an alternative route to ‘modernisation’, which has proved over the twentieth century to be a route not to socialism but to Stalinist dictatorships; or to ‘national liberation’ and an end to colonial rule, that has simply been a route to capitalist development through greater or lesser intervention by the state.

Some misconceptions derive from the mistaken views of the Bolsheviks themselves, which were understandable when they arose but indefensible now.

Less often noted, is that the Bolsheviks were not united or always very clear themselves on how socialism could be constructed in Russia, even allowing for a shared recognition that they could not ultimately be successful without successful socialist revolution in the more advanced countries in Europe.

In his speech at the First Congress Of Economic Councils in May 26, 1918 Lenin stated that “in such a gigantic task, we could never claim, and no sensible socialist who has ever written on the prospects of the future ever even thought, that we could immediately establish and compose the forms of organisation of the new society, according to some predetermined instruction and at one stroke.”

“The task which we set ourselves is a task of world-historic difficulty and significance.”

“Of all the socialists who have written about this, I cannot recall the work of a single socialist or the opinion of a single prominent socialist on future socialist society, which pointed to this concrete, practical difficulty that would confront the working class when it took power, when it set itself the task of turning the sum total of the very rich, historically inevitable and necessary for us store of culture and knowledge and technique accumulated by capitalism from an instrument of capitalism into an instrument of socialism.”

“All that we knew . . . was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganisation; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganization.”

“With the transition of all power . . . to a new class, and, moreover, to a class which for the first time in the history of humanity is the leader of the overwhelming majority of the population, of the whole mass of the working and exploited people—our tasks become more complicated.”

“We must build our economic edifice as we go along, trying out various institutions, watching their work, testing them by the collective common experience of the working people, and, above all, by the results of their work. We must do this as we go along, and, moreover, in a situation of desperate struggle and frenzied resistance by the exploiters.”

“We know . . . that organisation, which is the main and fundamental task of the Soviets, will inevitably entail a vast number of experiments, a vast number of steps, a vast number of alterations, a vast number of difficulties, particularly in regard to the question of how to fit every person into his proper place, because we have no experience of this . . .“

What preconceptions Lenin did have, which were reinforced by the social and political circumstances under which the revolution took place, were of the central role of the new state in construction of the new socialist economy, something taken for granted by many socialists since, but not at all obvious from a careful reading of Marx.

So Lenin could, at the beginning of his speech, say that:

“There is not the slightest doubt that the further the gains of the October Revolution go, the more profound the upheaval it started becomes, the more firmly the socialist revolution’s gains become established and the socialist system becomes consolidated, the greater and higher will become the role of the Economic Councils, which alone of all the state institutions are to endure. And their position will become all the more durable the closer we approach the establishment of the socialist system . . . After the resistance of the exploiters has been finally broken, after the working people have learned to organise socialist production, this apparatus of administration in the proper, strict, narrow sense of the word, this apparatus of the old state, is doomed to die; while the apparatus of the type of the Supreme Economic Council is destined to grow, to develop and become strong, performing all the main activities of organised society.”

This statist conception of economic construction viewed the increasing socialisation of the socialist economy as almost a linear continuation of the socialisation present and theorised in the existing capitalist economies.

Development of the capitalist system had involved monopoly, increasing domination by finance, and the increasing role of the state.  This form of capitalism was categorised as imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.  According to Lenin, this had brought capitalism to the ‘threshold of the most complete socialisation of production. In spite of themselves, the capitalists are dragged, as it were, into a new social order, a transitional order from free competition to complete socialization’.

The ‘war has accelerated the development of capitalism, which advanced from capitalism to imperialism, from monopoly to state control. All this has brought the socialist revolution nearer and has created the objective conditions for it.”

However, the Russian Revolution took place in particularly unfortunate conditions and

“The capitalism described in 1903 remains in existence in 1919 in the Soviet proletarian republic just because of the disintegration of imperialism, because of its collapse.”

“If we had had an integral imperialism before us, which had entirely altered capitalism, our task would have been a hundred thousand times easier. It would have resulted in a system in which everything would be subordinated to finance capital alone. It would only have remained to remove the top and to transfer what remained to the proletariat.”

The transition from socialised capitalism to the socialisation of production under the rule of the working class was explained in this way: ‘as for the organizational form of work, we shall not invent it, but shall take it ready-made from capitalism: the banks, syndicates, the best factories, experimental stations, etc. …. Our problem here is only to lop away that which capitalistically disfigures this otherwise excellent apparatus and to make it still bigger, still more democratic, still more comprehensive.’

This view was contested by other leading Bolsheviks such as Bukharin and Osinsky.  For the latter, a Bolshevik policy of state capitalism as proposed by Lenin is ‘basically an unchanged continuation of the economic policies of capitalism’, and, therefore, ‘every attempt to establish a truly human society upon the old capitalist foundations is foredoomed.”

Lenin responded to critics in March, April and in May I918, elaborating the transition from capitalism to socialism as an extension of the ‘socialisation process’ begun under capitalism but now under proletarian authority and with new aims. He pronounced Bukharin’s and Osinsky’s reliance on his earlier work ‘State and Revolution’ and the slogan ‘smash the bourgeois state and economic apparatus’ as out of date: ‘this we have already done, it is a task which belongs to a previous day “

For Lenin “the possibility of building socialism will be determined precisely by our success in combining the Soviet government and the Soviet administrative organisation with the modern achievements of capital.”’

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Reflections on the Russian Revolution 3

All political forces in the revolution made their own political choices, which conditioned the choice of others.  As the revolution developed the liberal Cadet party moved increasingly into an alliance with the remnants of the old Tsarist regime and the forces that had supported it, including the nobility, generals and landowners.  Such an alliance demanded continued support for the war, opposition to peasant expropriation of landed estates and defence of the prerogatives of capitalist owners of factories, which were more and more subject to workers’ control.

The ‘moderate’ socialists could have seized power early in the revolution with their leadership of the Petrograd Soviet, but the revolution for them could only be a bourgeois revolution and it was therefore inconceivable it could go beyond the boundaries of capitalism.  This tied them to seeking agreement with the liberals, but these liberals moved more and more to the side of the most reactionary forces opposed to any sort of revolution.

Unlike more recent revolutions and mass worker mobilisations, which had potential to develop in more radical directions, such as the Portuguese revolution in 1974 – 1975 or workers action in May 1968 in France, the power of the moderate socialists was based on the Soviets and not on the institutions of bourgeois democracy, and such institutions could not be made the mechanism of an alliance with the bourgeois liberals.

Acquiescence to counter revolution in Russia could therefore only mean acceptance of destruction of the Soviets and the basis of the power of the moderate socialists over much of the working class, while reaction later in Portugal and France had no such barriers and could be successful through widespread acceptance of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which could neuter the active power of the working class.

The crisis in Russia was of a scale and scope dwarfing that of these later experiences, raising the question – how do we advance the institutional power of the working class without such catastrophic collapse of capitalist society as occurred in 1917, which entails not just a crisis for capitalism but one for any putative socialist alternative?

Refusal to break from the liberal bourgeoisie condemned the ‘moderate’ socialists to refusal to end the war, and refusal to break definitively with bourgeois democratic institutions, which were too weak to be decisive but ever since have been the imagined vehicles for an early twentieth century bourgeois democracy that was simply impossible in Russia in 1917.

The Bolsheviks led by Lenin, on the other hand, were prepared to break with the remnants of the old regime, the liberal bourgeoisie, and the landlords, with their political representatives, and therefore with the moderate socialists who were not prepared to break with these forces.

The ideal, of a united socialist and working class movement, could not exist, except by following the road of disaster pursued by those socialists who believed that because Russia was not ripe for socialism, the revolution must be a bourgeois revolution only.  One that therefore created the best grounds for the development of capitalism in Russia while limiting in advance the political power of the working class.  In this purely theoretical perspective, the task was simply defending and protecting as much as possible the separate class interests of the working class, while letting the bourgeoisie take the lead.  Where it was leading was the problem.

The Bolsheviks however believed, correctly, that the liberal bourgeoisie would not lead a revolution against the Tsarist regime, would not carry out thorough-going land reform and would not end the war, as both the working class and the peasantry demanded.  They were therefore prepared to lead the working class in alliance with the peasantry in a socialist revolution that would overthrow the institutions of capitalist rule and assert the sole supremacy of the Soviets, which by their nature excluded the capitalist forces and old regime from participation.

Far from the October Revolution being a ‘coup’ or ‘putsch’, it represented the wishes of the vast majority of the Russian people – an end to war, land reform, consolidation of workers’ control of industry and definitive rejection of the old regime, including its domination of other nationalities.  The bitter civil war that followed did not demonstrate the unpopular nature of the revolution but the irreconcilable conflict between the forces of the old regime, supported by imperialism, and the working class led by the Bolsheviks.  That it lasted as long as it did and took so many lives was a result of the small size of the working class on which Bolshevik power rested and the nature of the peasantry – which supported the revolution in so far as it impacted on their demand for land and an end to the war, and was either indifferent or hostile when it came to the building of the new state and the requirements of the civil war and of the urban working class.

Thus, it would rally to defeat the White armies when they looked like winning, and go home to their land when this appeared to have been achieved.  They had no immediate interest in consolidating a new workers’ state, revealing the limits of their dispersed and narrow social existence.  It exhibited starkly the Marxist view that the peasantry could not be the leadership of a socialist revolution.

But the Bolsheviks could not simply abolish the immaturity of Russian conditions for socialist revolution that had led other socialists to reject the idea that such a revolution was possible or desirable.  Not only was capitalism undeveloped, and therefore the working class a small minority of society, but what existed was collapsing due to dislocation caused by war and general social and political crisis.

Not only was the working class relatively small, although also relatively concentrated and politically advanced, it was culturally, and in some ways socially, backward, providing a weak foundation for a new ruling class, both in terms of economic management and control, and fashioning the new state apparatus as an effective mechanism of its own rule.  Lenin time and time again complained of its backwardness and of the need for more advanced workers to take it forward.

In his book, Stephen Smith notes that by 1917 there were 18.5 million workers of all kinds in the Russian empire, about 10 per cent of the population. “Something like two-thirds of workers were recent recruits to industry, either peasant migrants or women who had taken up jobs in the war industries (women comprised well over a third of the workforce in 1917) and most of these unskilled, low-paid, minimally literate workers did not have a sophisticated level of political understanding.  Nevertheless, in the course of 1917 they would be drawn into a mass strike movement, would join trade unions, and their disaffection would be given political articulation by socialist activists on the shop floor.”

However, Smith also notes that in some of Lenin’s last writings he argued the need for a ‘cultural revolution’ as a prerequisite for a transition to socialism and the view that Russia was steeped in ‘Asiatic’ backwardness, needing “the propagation of literacy, solid work habits, and the application of science and technology . . vital to socialist construction. Smith notes that ‘culturedness’ could embrace anything from “punctuality, clean fingernails, and having a basic knowledge of biology, to carrying out one’s trade union duties efficiently.”

All these reflect the conditions that led socialists other than the Bolsheviks to reject the view that what was on hand in 1917 was socialism – a workers’ society.  While Marxists since have held fast to the lesson that capitalism could break at its weakest link; that the capitalist/feudal state could be smashed and another one created in its place; many have not appreciated, despite the mountain of evidence, that because socialism could not be built in Russia in 1917, gross distortions in society were inevitable from the start.  These general conditions have not provided the grounds for a model for succeeding generations.  Not for those in developed capitalist countries and not for those developing countries that are now well in advance of the conditions of Russia one hundred years ago.

A weak working class was substituted by the state in the conscious project of creating a new socialist society, and being conscious, this involved misconceptions by the Bolsheviks, not only of the correct policies to be pursued by the state, but of the basic role of the state itself, one very different from that elucidated by Lenin in 1917, before October, in his ‘State and `Revolution’.

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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.

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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.

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