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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