‘Even before the revolution, and likewise after it, our thought was: immediately, or at any rate very quickly, a revolution will begin in other countries, in capitalistically more developed countries – or, in the contrary case, we will have to perish’.
Vladimir Lenin: Teachers’ Congress in Moscow, May 1919.
‘In the largest and most sophisticated multinational corporations, planning and subsequent monitoring of plan fulfilment have reached a scope and level of detail that, ironically, resembles more than superficially the national planning procedures of Communist countries’.
Report of the Tariff Commission, 1973.
A revolution! Doesn’t that mean Russia? Didn’t Russia have a revolution led by socialists? And look at Russia now. Russia is a tyranny. Its government will not tolerate dissent of any kind. Its workers are exploited and disciplined out of all resistance. Russia’s government has launched imperialist conquests throughout Eastern Europe. Isn’t that what happens, inevitably, every time there is a revolution!
Nothing deflects working people more from the idea of socialism or communism than what they see or read about Russia and Eastern Europe today. Very few workers show the slightest enthusiasm for exchanging our system of society for the system which exists in Russia. And quite rightly so. Because Russia and the Eastern European countries are tyrannies. Workers there are exploited. There is less freedom not just for writers and musicians but for all working people in any of those countries than there is in capitalist Britain.
Yet the Russian government call themselves ‘communist’. The colonies in Eastern Europe are described as ‘the socialist countries’. USSR stands for Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, and a soviet is a workers’ council. Doesn’t the experience of Russia and Eastern Europe prove that socialism and communism are just different words for tyranny and exploitation?
The answer to these questions has nothing to do with what the Russian government calls itself or what people in this country call the Russian government. It comes out clearly from the history of Russia over the last 60 years.
In October 1917, in the Russian towns and cities, among the densely-concentrated working class, there was a socialist revolution, led by a socialist Party, the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks had built up majority support in the Soviets, the workers’ councils, which had grown up during eight months of crisis under the old capitalist regime. When the Bolsheviks gave the call for revolution, it was answered immediately by the working masses, who overthrew the capitalist government without any difficulty or violence.
The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks but it was carried through by the industrial working class. The Bolsheviks had more than 250,000 members at the time of the revolution, and those members had, through action, organisation, argument and example, gained clear majorities in most of the Soviets.
This was the most exciting moment in all history. More people were involved in running their own lives than at any other time before or since.
Leon Trotsky one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party described in his autobiography the deep involvement of the Russian working people:
‘I usually spoke in the evening, sometimes quite late at night. No speaker, no matter how exhausted, could resist the electric tension of the impassioned human throng. They wanted to know, to understand, to find their way. At times, it seemed as if I felt with my lips the stern inquisitiveness of this crowd that had become merged into a single whole. Then all the arguments and words thought out in advance would break and recede under the imperative pressure of sympathy, and other words, other arguments utterly unexpected by the orator but needed by these people, would emerge in full array from my subconsciousness. On such occasions I felt as if I were listening to the speaker from outside, trying to keep pace with his ideas, afraid that, like a somnambulist, he might fall off the edge of the roof at the sound of my conscious reasoning.
‘Such was the Modern Circus. It had its own contours, fiery, tender and frenzied. The infants were peacefully sucking the breasts from which approving or threatening shouts were coming.
‘The whole crowd was like that, like infants clinging with their dry lips to the nipples of the revolution. But this infant matured quickly’.
It matured so fast that within months of argument and discussion such as that which took place in Petrograd’s Modern Circus, the Soviets rose up and threw out the rotten administration of Kerensky and set up their own form of power. The American journalist John Reed attended the dramatic meetings at the Smolny Institute which immediately followed the revolution. He also visited the front where Kerensky’s army was routed. He returned to Petrograd in a truck driven by an old workman.
‘Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital with an exultant gesture. “Mine!” he cried his face alight. “All mine now! My Petrograd!”‘
These extracts are not exaggerations or sentimentalities. They were expressive of the feelings of masses of working people who saw the possibility of controlling their own lives and their own production.
The structure of power which was set up after the revolution fitted this mood. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, is usually painted as a tyrant. In fact, he was the opposite. ‘I calculate solely and exclusively,’ he wrote, soon after the revolution ‘on the workers, soldiers and peasants being able to tackle better than the officials, better than the police, the practical and difficult problems of increasing the production of foodstuffs and their better distribution, the better provision of soldiers etc. etc’.
The Soviets which took power after the revolution were founded on that calculation. They were founded on the belief that power and access to power must get its thrust from below.
Local Soviets were elected through workers collectives in factories around which were gathered all the people who wanted to vote but who were not working: old people; women who were looking after young children and so on. The members of the soviet were not allowed privileges or perks. Their salaries were based on the average salaries of the people they represented. They were subject to instant right of recall by the people who had elected them. These Soviets then elected delegates (or organised elections for delegates) to the full-time All Russian Executive of Soviets and to the All Russian Congress of Soviets which met at regular intervals.
The structure was not perfect. Local Soviets quarrelled with the executive and provincial and national executives about the scrutiny of their budgets; about the holding back of part of the tax revenue and thousands of similar problems. But the structure held together at least in early years because of its dependence on the rank and file.
Victor Serge, a Belgian revolutionary who went to join the Revolution – and was later locked up and almost executed by the Russian government, wrote:
‘In the years of the greatest peril the Soviets and the central executive committee of the Soviets included left social revolutionaries (who were part of the government in the first nine months), Maximalists, anarchists, Menshevik social democrats, and even right social revolutionaries – the latter unalterable enemies of the new power. Far from fearing discussion, Lenin seeks after it, having Martov and Dan, who had been expelled from the All-Russian executive, invited to come to take the floor. He feels that he has something to learn from their merciless criticism’.
Martov and Dan were Mensheviks. Their politics were similar to those of the Left wing of the British Labour Party. They had implacably opposed the revolution. They had called for opposition in the streets to the government, even when foreign capitalist armies were marching on Petrograd. Yet through those three years, Mensheviks played an active part in soviet life. Periodic purges of the Mensheviks were met with decrees from the All Russian Congresses of Soviets restoring their right to participate. Throughout 1920, for instance, the Mensheviks had party offices and a club in Moscow. In local soviet elections, held freely in 1920, the Mensheviks won 46 seats in Moscow, 250 in Kharkov, 120 in Yaroslav, 78 in Kremenchung and a number of other seats in smaller towns. They were losing to the Bolsheviks all along the way, not because of repression, but because the Bolsheviks were winning the argument.
The clearest sign of the astonishing power of the revolution was the change in the role of women in the new society. Czarist Russia had been backward in every sense – but especially backward in its dreadful exploitation and humiliation of women. In a flash, the revolution turned this reaction on its head. Women forced their way to the leadership of many of the Soviets. A series of decrees in 1918 and 1919 and 1920 established the right to free abortion, free contraception and swept away the old, dark ‘legitimacy’ laws about marriage and children.
Yet the soviet structure and with it the whole inspiration of rank and file control was quickly done to death in Russia. There were two main reasons, neither of which had anything to do with the ‘inevitability of revolutionary collapse’.
The first was the war. The Russian revolution terrified the ruling classes all over the world, who responded in the only way they knew: with violence. Armies invaded from every side.
Dispossessed Russian landlords and noblemen found the coffers of Western European capitalism open to them. The revolution armed itself against their invading armies and a bloody civil war resulted.
The Red Army of the revolution won the war and drove the invading armies out. But in doing so, it lost the driving force of the revolution: the rank and file of the working class which had created it.
The socialist revolution in the Russian cities had been made by three million industrial workers. By 1921, three years later, the number of industrial workers had slumped to 1,200,000. Those that remained were the least enthusiastic and active. The workers, who had shown the most courage and initiative during the revolution died in the front line of battle – or became the new administrators. The Russian Communist Party remained – without a communist working class. It became a rudderless bureaucracy.
Over the next few years, the factories and workplaces of Russia started to fill up again. But the new working class was not a socialist or revolutionary force. It came from the countryside, where there had been – in 1917 – a very different revolution to the socialist one in the towns and cities.
The peasants in the countryside had risen in order to seize bread and land for themselves from the landlords. They were not interested in a cooperative society. They were not susceptible to socialist ideas. When they came to take industrial jobs in the cities, they were not a revolutionary working class at all.
From well before the revolution Lenin and other Russian leaders had predicted the difficulties about a socialist revolution in Russia. They saw the basic contours of their class society: three million industrial workers and more than 100 million peasants. They saw that if Russia was left to its own resources, the small socialist element of the revolution would be swallowed by the larger, non-socialist revolution in the countryside.
They therefore pinned all their faith on exporting their revolution to other countries. They wanted to light a spark to ignite the workers’ movements throughout Europe and America. A revolution in Europe, they believed, would be able to sustain the Soviets in Russia, and build a world socialist society.
All the leading Bolsheviks knew that without international revolutions the Russian working class would be isolated. Therefore they used all their abilities and influence to unleash revolution in other countries.
It did not come. The German revolutions of 1919 and 1923 were beaten down. The Hungarian Communist government was toppled in blood in 1919. In France and Britain the workers preferred to ‘have a try’ at electing Labour parties into government. The Russian revolution was isolated – and the revolutionary working class of Russia had been annihilated.
In the vacuum, slowly at first, and then with increasing confidence reactionary forces inside Russia took the power. Under the leadership of Stalin, the Soviets lost their influence – and their democracy. The right to dissent in them (or anywhere else) was denied. Old Bolsheviks and followers of Trotsky, who was exiled and later murdered for opposing the reaction, were slaughtered by the thousand in concentration camps. In every corner of Russian life the blackest reaction was installed. The right to free abortions, for instance, was abolished in 1935. Abortions were made illegal. The decrees recognising unions between men and women which were not tied by marriage were repealed in a flood of propaganda about ‘the family’ borrowed from the days of Ivan the Terrible.
The women of Russia were returned to conditions of enforced maternity. Even divorce was made taxable beyond the means of most working people.
In the factories and workplaces, all power was assumed by a handful of bureaucrats. Gradually, these bureaucrats started to demand wealth and privileges to go with their ‘enhanced position’. The priorities of production, forced on Russia by the need to compete with a capitalist world, assumed capitalist proportions. There was no stock exchange, no dividends. But the bureaucracy, with its army, its secret police, its privileges and perks, assumed the role of the ruling class. Russia became a state capitalist country, with its workers as impotent and exploited as anywhere else in the world.
The Russian revolution was lost because of a specific set of circumstances which do not apply to any industrial country today. In Britain, for instance, only 2.8 per cent of the population works in agriculture, in France 12 per cent, in West Germany 11 per cent, and even these percentages are shrinking. They compare with more than 80 per cent in agriculture in Russia in 1917. No revolution can possibly take place in Europe, America or Russia today without involving the mass of the industrial working class.
The chief reason why the Russian revolution was not followed by revolutions elsewhere was that social democracy – the election of Labour governments in these other countries – had not at that time been properly ‘tried’ as a means of advancing workers’ interests. Now it has been tried – and found grimly wanting.
People who say: ‘Look what happened in Russia; that is bound to happen in any revolution’ ignore the vital differences between Russia in 1917 and the world today. Theirs is a purely superstitious argument, which doesn’t deal with real facts or real conditions. We look to the Russian revolution as an inspiration as to what workers can do in a revolution – and as a reminder that the only people who can sustain a revolution are the people who create it. The only people who can create it are the rank and file of the industrial working class. No revolution has yet taken place in a country where the industrial working class is the majority. That has yet to come – and no previous revolution is a guide to its development.
The losing of the Russian revolution had a profound effect outside Russia. The revolution had inspired the setting up of Communist Parties in almost every other country of the world. These parties were formed with a single aim: socialist revolution. They aimed to organise the workers to seize power from the capitalists and landlords as the Russian workers had done. They found themselves defending the
Russian revolution against the full hysteria of the rest of society: from mealy-mouthed Labourites to Tory newspapers.
In the first years of the Russian revolution these parties were seen by the Russian government as the seeds of revolution in their countries. The Russian government encouraged the maximum participation between Russian revolutionaries and communists in other countries.
As the revolution in Russia was lost, so the Communist parties were used by the Russian government not as agents of revolution in their own countries but as agents of Russian foreign policy.
Again and again, the workers of different countries came to the brink of revolution – only to be ‘dissuaded’ by powerful Communist parties representing the whims of Russian policy. This happened in the great strike waves in China in 1927; and in France in 1936. It happened during civil wars in Spain in 1936-9, and in Greece after the war. It drove Stalin to sign a treaty with Hitler in 1939 – and Communist parties everywhere to welcome the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan in 1945. There was no explanation for these betrayals save the immediate interests of Russian foreign policy. And since Russia was no longer a socialist country, Russian foreign policy was often blatantly reactionary.
Communist Party members, fearing no doubt that to desert Russia was to bolster capitalism and imperialism, obediently fell into line. In the late 1930’s, many of the old Bolsheviks – the heroes of the revolution – were subjected to the indignities of the ‘show trials’, forced to confess and shot. British Communists rejoiced. One sympathiser at the time wrote:
‘A party of Left-wing undergraduates staying in the country, diverted themselves on a rainy day by enacting one of the trials, pouring out Radek’s repentance, mouthing Vyshinsky’s rage, until a maid brought in tea and buttered scones’. (Malcolm Muggeridge: The 1930s).
John Strachey, one of the finest socialist intellectuals ever to have written in English, wrote of the trials;
‘I believe that no one who had not unalterably fixed his mind on the contrary opinion could read the verbatim account of the trials without being wholly convinced of the authenticity of the confessions ... I can only say that no man can advance his political education more than by studying the report on the trials – the supreme historical document of our time’.
This disgusting intellectual humiliation degraded the minds of all Communists. In the atmosphere of total subordination to the Russian line, dissent, debate and discussion, so crucial to the life of any revolutionary organisation, were ruthlessly cut.
The result was inevitable. The Communist parties lost faith in their rank and file. They relied increasingly on ‘the line’ from on high. They slipped into an obsession with elections and reforming from above. Their attitudes and policies are now indistinguishable from those of the Labour Party Left.
In Italy, the Communist Party is the equivalent of a leftish Labour Party. In France, Spain and Portugal, it is striving to that aim. In Britain, where the Communist Party have never been able to establish any credibility with the masses, the Party seeks with less and less enthusiasm to make gains in local and national elections. In the trade unions, its eyes are fixed almost exclusively on the offices which it has captured and hopes to capture, whether by election or by appointment and intrigue.
Because of what happened in Russia, the Communist Party has changed into an organisation whose basic flaw is exactly the same as that of the Labour Party.
I remember in 1962 attending a meeting of Young Socialists in a hotel in Glasgow. We had been called together to be lectured by Bessie Braddock, who, at the age of 63, had been selected by the Labour Party to represent its youth. For an hour of frothy rhetoric, Bessie berated us for being ‘splitters and sectarians’. She said that the party mattered above everything else. She told us that we were being deceived and side-tracked by ‘fellow-travellers’ and ‘Russian agents’.
As she sat down, puffing and fuming, a young engineering worker from Clydebank got up and, in the mildest possible way, asked her:
Tm afraid I don’t understand. I’ve just left the Communist Party because I was constantly being told I was a splitter and a sectarian; and that the party mattered above what I had to say. I was fed up being given the line, so I decided to join the Labour Party because I thought it would be more democratic.
‘Now I’m told I’m a splitter and a sectarian and the party still matters more than what I think. Well, I think you’d be very happy in Russia because they don’t allow dissidents there, and you don’t like them here. They have their ways of dealing with splitters and sectarians. Surely you and they when it comes to working class people like me who have their own ideas, surely you and the Russian Communists are just the same. What’s the difference?’
For the first (and I understand the only) time in her life Bessie Braddock was speechless.
Last updated on 7.1.2005