The Significance of the Russian Revolution

Workers Democracy in Practice

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the greatest events in history. If we leave aside the heroic episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time millions of downtrodden workers and peasants took political power into their own hands, sweeping aside the despotic rule of the capitalists and landlords, and set out to create a socialist world order. Destroying the old Tsarist regime that held sway for a thousand years, they had conquered one-sixth of the world's land surface. The ancien régime was replaced by the rule of a new democratic state system: the Soviet of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. It heralded the beginning of the world revolution, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions who had lived through the nightmare of the first world war. Notwithstanding the terrible backwardness of Russia, the new Socialist Soviet Republic represented a decisive threat to the world capitalist order. It struck terror in bourgeois circles, who rightly regarded it as a threat to their power and privileges, but comforted themselves with the notion that the Bolshevik regime was likely to only last a matter of weeks. The nationalised property relations that emerged from the revolution, the foundations of an entirely new social system, entered into direct conflict with the capitalist form of society. Despite the emergence of Stalinism, this fundamental antagonism existed right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today events in Russia continue to haunt world politics, like some Banquo's ghost that continually overshadows the festivities of the capitalist class.

In order fully to appreciate the scope of these achievements, it is necessary to remember the point of departure. In their eagerness to discredit the ideas of genuine socialism, the apologists of the "free market" conveniently forget a few details. In 1917, Tsarist Russia was, in fact, far more backward than present-day India. It lagged far behind the West. It was the barbaric land of the medieval wooden plough, used by peasants who had only achieved emancipation from serfdom two generations before. Russia had been ruled by Tsarist despotism for centuries. The industrial working class was a small minority – less than four million out of a total of 150 million. Seventy per cent of the population could neither read nor write. Russian capitalism was extremely feeble and rested upon the crutches of foreign capital: French, British, German, Belgian and other Western powers controlled 90 per cent of Russia's mines, 50 per cent of her chemical industry, more than 40 per cent of her engineering, and 42 per cent of her banking stock. The October Revolution attempted to transform all this, showing the way forward to the workers everywhere and preparing the road for the world socialist revolution. Despite the immense problems and obstacles, the planned economy revolutionised the productive forces in the USSR and laid the basis for a modern economy. The prewar period saw the build up of heavy industry through a series of Five-Year Plans and laid the foundations for the advances of the postwar years.

Suffice to say that, despite the bureaucratic stranglehold of Stalinism, the successes of the planned economy were demonstrated, not on the pages of Capital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth's surface, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. As Trotsky explained: "Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history." (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 8.)

The most striking thing about 1917 is precisely the active involvement of the masses at each stage. This, in fact, constitutes the essence of a revolution. In normal periods the majority of men and women are prepared to accept that the most important decisions affecting their lives are taken by others, by the "people that know" – politicians, civil servants, judges, "experts" – but at critical moments, the "ordinary" people begin to question everything. They are no longer content to allow others to decide for them. They want to think and act for themselves. That is what a revolution is. And you can see elements of this in every strike. The workers begin to participate actively, speak, judge, criticise – in a word, decide their own destiny. To the bureaucrat and the policeman (and some historians whose mental processes function on the same wavelength) this seems like a strange and threatening madness. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. In such situations, men and women cease to act like automatons and begin to behave like real human beings with a mind and a will. Their stature is raised in their own eyes. They rapidly become conscious of their own condition and their own aspirations. Under such conditions, they consciously seek out that party and programme that reflects their aspirations, and reject others. A revolution is always characterised by the rapid rise and fall of parties, individuals and programmes, in which the more radical wing tends to gain

The argument that the Bolsheviks were able to take power without the masses (a coup) is usually linked to the idea that power was seized, not by the working class, but by a party. Again, this argument is entirely false. Without organisation – the trade unions and the party – the working class is only raw material for exploitation. This was already pointed out by Marx long ago. True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organisation, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated in the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organised and concentrated in a single point. This can only be done through a political party with a courageous and far-sighted leadership and a correct programme. The Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky was such a party. Basing themselves on the movement of the masses – a magnificent movement that represented all that was alive, progressive and vibrant in Russian society, they gave it form, purpose and a voice. That is its cardinal sin from the standpoint of the ruling class and its echoes in the labour movement. That is what lies behind their hatred and loathing of Bolshevism, their vitriol and spiteful attitude towards it, which completely conditions their attitude even three generations later.

Without the Bolshevik Party, without the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian workers would never have taken power in 1917, despite all their heroism. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasised the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life and death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the "spontaneous", movement of the masses with organisation, programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics – in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres. There is no other way.

It is necessary to add that at every stage the Bolsheviks always had before them the perspective of the international revolution. They never believed that they could hold power in Russia alone. It is a striking testimony to the vitality of the October Revolution that, in spite of all the vicissitudes, all the crimes of Stalinism and the terrible destruction of the second world war, the basic conquests were maintained for so long, even when the revolution, deprived of aid from the rest of the world, was thrown upon its own resources. Even in the last period, the collapse of Stalinism was not the result of any inherent defect of the nationalised planned economy, but flowed from treachery and betrayal of the bureaucracy which, as Trotsky brilliantly predicted, sought to reinforce its privileges by selling out to capitalism.

In the October Revolution, the victorious proletariat first had to tackle the basic problems of the national-democratic revolution, then went on, uninterruptedly, to carry out the socialist tasks. This was the very essence of the permanent revolution. Capitalism had broken at its weakest point, as Lenin explained. The October Revolution represented the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The revolution of February had spontaneously thrown up committees of workers and soldiers, as had the revolution of 1905. The committees, or soviets, became transformed from extended strike committees into political instruments of the working class in the struggle for power, and later into administrative organs of the new workers' state. They were far more democratic and flexible than the territorially elected bodies of bourgeois democracy. To paraphrase Marx, capitalist democracy allows the workers every five years to elect parties to misrepresent their interests. In Russia, with the establishment of peasants' soviets, they embraced the overwhelming majority of the population.

Throughout the nine months between February and October, the soviets represented a rival power to the capitalist state. It was a period of "dual power". One of the key demands of the Bolsheviks throughout this time was: "All power to the soviets!" Months of patient explanation and the harsh experience of events won over the overwhelming majority of the workers and poor peasants to Bolshevism. The October Revolution brought to power a new revolutionary government, which took its authority from the Congress of Soviets. Contrary to common belief, it was not a one-party regime but originally a coalition government of Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries. The urgent task facing the government was to spread the authority of Soviet power – the rule of the working class – throughout all Russia. On the 5th January 1918, the government issued a directive which declared that the local soviets were from then on invested with all the powers held by the former administration, and added: "The entire country must be covered with a network of new soviets."

The system of soviets was not, as the reformists claim, an exclusively Russian phenomenon. The November 1918 Revolution in Germany spontaneously threw up similar bodies. They were the embodiment of workers' self organisation. In every German port, town and barracks, workers', soldiers' and sailors' councils were established and held effective political power. Soviets were established in Bavaria and during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. In Britain also, Councils of Action were established in 1920, which were described by Lenin as "soviets in all but name", as well as during the 1926 General Strike (committees of action and trades councils). Although the Stalinists and reformists tried to prevent the reappearance of soviets, they re-emerged in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, with the creation of the Budapest Workers' Council.

In its origins, the soviet – the most democratic and flexible form of popular representation yet devised – was simply an extended strike committee. Born in mass struggle, the soviets (or workers' councils) assumed an extremely broad sweep, and ultimately became transformed into organs of revolutionary direct government. Beside the local soviets, elected in every city, town and village, in every large city there were also ward (raionny) soviets as well as district or provincial (oblastny or gubiernsky) soviets, and finally delegates were elected to the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets in Petrograd. The delegates were elected at every unit of labour to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies, and subject to immediate recall. There was no bureaucratic elite. No deputy or official received more than the wage of a skilled worker.

The Soviet government issued a whole series of economic, political, administrative and cultural decrees in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. At a grassroots level, there was a mushrooming of soviet organisation. Everywhere attempts were made to do away with the distinction between legislative and executive functions, to allow individuals to participate directly in the application of decisions they had made. As a consequence, the masses began to take their destiny into their own hands. In November 1917 Lenin wrote an appeal in Pravda: "Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of stateÉ Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone." (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 297.) He was anxious for the masses to involve themselves in the running of industry and the state.

In December 1917 Lenin wrote: "One of the most important tasks of today, if not the most important, is to develop [the] 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." (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 409.)

The October Revolution was almost peaceful because no class was prepared to defend the old order, either the Provisional Government or the Constituent Assembly, as Kerensky here acknowledges. The peasants were not prepared to fight to defend the Constituent Assembly. By contrast, in the civil war which followed, the majority of the peasants rallied to the Bolsheviks once they had experienced the rule of the White Guards, and saw the role of the right SRs and Mensheviks who invariably paved the way for the White counter-revolution. Under the dictatorship of the various White generals, the old landlords returned. The peasants maybe did not understand much about politics, but they understood that the Bolsheviks alone were prepared to give them the land – which they did by decree on the day after the revolution – whereas the so-called peasant parties were merely a fig leaf for the return of the old slave owners. And that was enough to decide the issue.

A lot of noise is made about the so-called Red Terror and the violent means used by the Revolution to defend itself. But what is conveniently forgotten is that the actual October Revolution was virtually peaceful. The real bloodbath occurred in the civil war when the Soviet republic was invaded by 21 foreign armies. The Bolsheviks inherited a ruined country and a shattered army. They were immediately faced with an armed rebellion by Kerensky and the White officers, and later by the armies of foreign intervention. At one stage, the Soviet power was reduced to just two provinces, the equivalent of the ancient Principality of Muscovy. Yet the Bolsheviks managed to beat back the counter-revolution. Even if we assume (incorrectly) that Lenin and Trotsky somehow managed to seize power at the head of a small group of conspirators without mass support, the idea that they could go on to defeat the combined might of the White Guards and foreign armies on such a basis, is frankly absurd.

War necessarily involves violence, and civil war more than any other. The weak and embattled workers' state was compelled to defend itself arms in hand, or else surrender to the tender mercies of the White armies, which, in common with all counter-revolutionary armies in world history, used the most bestial and bloodthirsty methods to terrorise the workers and peasants. Had they triumphed, it would have meant an ocean of blood. There is nothing more comical than the assertion that, if only the Bolsheviks had not taken power, Russia would have embarked on the road of a prosperous capitalist democracy. How does this idea square with the facts? As early as the summer of 1917, the rising of General Kornilov showed that the unstable regime of dual power established in February was breaking down. The only question was who would succeed in establishing a dictatorship – Kerensky or Kornilov.

To all the hypocritical attacks against the Bolsheviks for the so called Red Terror there is a very simple answer. Even the most democratic capitalist government on earth will never tolerate the existence of armed groups which attempt to overthrow the existing order by violent means. Such groups are immediately outlawed, and the leaders put in jail, or executed. This is regarded as perfectly lawful and acceptable. Yet the same standards are not applied to the embattled Bolshevik government, fighting for survival and attacked by enemies on all sides. The hypocrisy is even more nauseating if we bear in mind the fact that precisely these "democratic" Western governments organised the most military offensives against the Bolsheviks at this time.

In the civil war that followed October, one reactionary general succeeded another. But the idea that democracy would have been implanted on Russian soil on the bayonets of the White guard is a self-evident nonsense. Behind the White's lines, the old landlords and capitalists returned and took their revenge against the workers and peasants. The great majority of the peasants were not socialists, although they sympathised with the Bolsheviks for their revolutionary agrarian programme. But once they realised that the White armies were on the side of the landlords, any support they might have had melted away. The White generals represented Tsarist reaction in its most naked form. They anticipated Fascism, although they lacked its mass base. But that would not have made their rule any more pleasant. In payment for the fright they had suffered, and in order to teach the masses a lesson, they would have unleashed a reign of terror on a massive scale. The Russian workers and peasants would have been subjected to the nightmare of a bourgeois totalitarian regime for years if not decades, on the lines of Franco or Pinochet. This would have been a regime of terrible social, cultural and economic decline.

This victory of the oppressed underdogs in open struggle against their former masters is without doubt one of the most inspiring episodes in the annals of human history, so rich in defeated slave rebellions and similar tragedies. Again, we are entitled to ask the question to the slanderers of October: How does it come about that this tiny, unrepresentative group of conspirators succeeded in defeating the powerful White guard armies, backed by 21 foreign armies? Such a feat was only conceivable on the basis that the Bolsheviks had the active support, not only of the working class, but also of broad layers of the poor and middle peasants. At this point, the whole myth of the conspiracy of a minority collapses under its own weight. The Bolshevik Revolution was no coup, but the most popular revolution in history. Only this explains how they were able, against all the odds, not only to take power, but to hold onto it firmly. And all this was done on the basis of a workers' democracy, a regime which gave the working class far greater rights than even the most democratic bourgeois regime.

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