The world is paying dearly for the isolation of the Russian Revolution, paying in blood and sweat and tears and in carnage and destruction such as history records nowhere else.
The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 opened up a new epoch for mankind. It contained the promise of a life of security and peace, of abundance and brotherhood, of equality among men in a world freed of classes and class rule.
What no other social upheaval before it had even dared to hope for, the Russian Revolution proclaimed boldly and confidently. Not the great French Revolution, not even the Paris Commune of 1871, not even the rehearsal of the Russian Revolution in 1905 dreamed that it was the immediate forerunner of international socialism.
The Russian revolutionists of 1917, from their leaders down to the most obscure militant, did believe that they had only made the magnificent beginning, and that the flame that they lighted would burn until it illuminated and warmed the whole earth with the victory of socialism.
But the promise of the Russian Revolution required for its fulfilment the victorious organisation of the revolution in all the great and advanced countries of the world. It was required not only in order that the peoples everywhere might emerge from the blind alley into which capitalism had driven them, but in order that the revolution in Russia itself might establish a socialist order and even less than that — that the Russian Revolution might be maintained at all.
Every intelligent person understood this simple truth. That the two great titans of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, understood it, it goes without saying. That the whole Bolshevik Party understood it is equally incontestable. Even the backward peasant understood that what he gained from the Bolshevik revolution was constantly in danger of being lost if imperialism abroad continued to remain in power. Woodrow Wilson understood it, and so did Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Georges Clemenceau and Benito Mussolini and the Emperor of Japan and all the other pillars of the old order, including Adolf Hitler, an obscure corporal in the German Imperial Army whose name was not known at that time to more than 50 people.
Was the immense confidence of the Bolsheviks in the world revolution mistaken? Before saying categorically “Yes” or “No” it would be better to ask whether Lenin or Trotsky were right in arguing from 1914 onward, and especially from 1917 onward, that the world is living in a period of the final decay of capitalism, of dreadful wars, of socialist revolutions and of colonial uprisings.
The Bolsheviks were right in their optimistic confidence, because their complete lack of confidence in capitalism’s ability to restore the old, pre-war, more or less peaceful relationships has been confirmed over and over again in the last quarter of a century. They were right in their optimistic confidence, because for 24 years there has been one revolutionary uprising after another, with no continent, with hardly any one country, exempt. They were right in their optimistic confidence, because capitalism can no longer maintain itself without imposing the most gruesome sufferings upon the hundreds of millions of plain people who make up the world, without spreading the most terrifying devastation everywhere, without destroying all remnants of culture and civilisation.
But they were mistaken in their confidence, too. The Russian Revolution did indeed spread to other countries, but it was not triumphant. Each time it was crushed, and often with the greatest bloodshed. Capitalism proved to be stronger and capable of longer life — if the convulsive agony of capitalism can be called life — than the Bolsheviks thought in 1917 and in 1919.
Yet, wherein is the strength of capitalism represented? In our times, in one thing, and one thing only: in the weakness of the working class which is destined to destroy it. And wherein is the weakness of the working class represented? In its lack of numbers? Not at all; it is numerous enough to crush any enemy. In its social unimportance? No; it remains the indispensable foundation-stone of all modern society. Its weakness lies only in its lack of full class consciousness, in its lack of complete independence from the capitalist class, in its lack of a fully independent class organisation, class programme, class leadership and class aims.
The political name of that weakness, from 1914 on (and even earlier) and especially from 1917 on, was the Social Democracy, the Second International. It saved capitalism during and after the First World War. It mowed down the proletarian revolution in Western Europe with machine guns. It seduced and traduced the working class, trading on its past services to labour, on the inertia of traditionalism on the short memory of the workers. It alternately beat the workers into unconsciousness with clubs or lulled them into paralytic sleep with soothing whispers that, by careful medical treatment of the poisoned body of capitalism, by transfusing workers’ blood into it, it would not only get well but become transformed painlessly into socialism.
By driving back the wave of revolutions that followed the war of 1914-18, the capitalist class and its social-democratic assistants isolated the Russian Revolution from the rest of the world. The products of this isolation of the revolution are uniformly and universally reactionary. Because the workers of Germany did not take power into their own hands, Hitlerism was imposed upon Germany and then upon the rest of Europe. Because the Chinese workers did not take power when they had the chance to do so, the rotten regime of Chiang Kai-Shek kept the power, enfeebled China, facilitated the attack of the Japanese barbarians and helped in general to perpetuate the precarious rule of these barbarians in Japan itself. Because the French and British workers did not take power, they must now fight in an imperialist war against resurgent German imperialism and fight it under menacing handicaps. So it is throughout the world.
Not the least monstrous of the reactionary products of Russia’s isolation, however, is the growth and triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Capitalism’s victory over the revolution in the West gave birth to the bureaucracy in Russia as a powerful social force. The bureaucracy, in turn, has repaid its capitalist midwife by invaluable services rendered to keep it in power throughout the world. What the social democracy could do for only a few years after the end of the war, Stalinism has succeeded in doing since 1933, for 18 long and horrible years.
Masquerading as revolutionary communists, defaming the names of Lenin and Bolshevism under which they operate, the Stalinist bureaucrats systematically undermined the revolutionary and labour movements in one country after another. They took up the work of the social democrats — often co-operating directly with them — if disrupting the unity of the working class. Those organisations they could not dominate, they destroyed. Those revolutionary uprisings they could not misdirect, they crushed, as in Catalonia, with armed force. The hundreds of million of colonial slaves who saw in the great Russian Revolution a beacon of liberty, they cynically betrayed to imperialism. The class-consciousness of a whole generation they tore to shreds. Those they could not win to their ends by persuasion or intimidation or outright bribery, they sought to discredit and isolate by methods that any half-decent capitalist politician would hesitate to employ.
The havoc they wrought in Russia itself was, in a sense even more sinister in its magnitude. Every trace of the great revolutionary promise of 1917 has literally been wiped out by reactionary force. The Soviets, the most wonderful machinery of popular democratic expression and rule known to history, were wiped out, step by step. The Bolshevik Party itself, which never had its equal as a power for social, historical progress, was physically and ideologically destroyed with a thoroughness and brutality that Tsarism, before 1917, never dared to use, that Hitlerism, since 1933, was never successful in using. The great Communist International, which set more of the world’s people into motion for an ideal than did Christianity in all its history, was killed by one hammer blow after another, and a caricature of it set up to do the bureaucracy’s dirty chores abroad.
The workers were reduced to the status of slaves, toiling under the despotism of the new ruling class, the bureaucracy. The peasants were made like serfs again, wiped out wholesale, by the millions, to suit the needs of the bureaucracy. For every big factory set up, another concentration camp rose to surround the victims of a totalitarian regime. All intellectual life was transformed into organised, compulsory bootlicking of a vulgar, vain and voracious autocracy, “with Comrade Stalin at its head.”
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was allowed to stand in the way of the Atilla-like march to power of the Stalinist bureaucracy. A small section of the heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution was corrupted; by far the great part of it that remained alive after the rigours of the civil war was decimated by Stalin. The noblest figures of October were sent to their graves by assassination, including our greatest contemporary, Leon Trotsky. The murder of this gifted incorruptible symbolised the long-drawn out murdering of the Bolshevik Revolution by the new masters of the Kremlin.
Property — the means of production and exchange — was not restored to the capitalists, to be sure. The bureaucracy was not so simple. Instead it established its own absolute monopoly over the property; or, more accurately, it established complete totalitarian control over the machinery of its own new state in which the ownership of all property is concentrated. It was thus able to rest upon an economic foundation which enabled it to exploit and oppress the Russian masses and the still more cruelly subjected peoples of the national republics, like the Ukraine, White Russia and Georgia and the like with a ferocity and arbitrariness rarely seen in ordinary capitalist countries.
Such is the price that the Soviet working class was compelled by the bureaucracy to pay for the isolation of the Russian Revolution. The totality of the payment has meant the destruction of the rule of the proletariat, of the workers’ state and its replacement by the repulsive, reactionary rule of the new bureaucracy.
But just as the idea of building “socialism in a single country” was preposterous and reactionary from its very inception in Stalin’s brain in 1924, so even the idea that the new and isolated bureaucratic-collectivist state can long endure is absurd.
Shift and dodge as it would — and did — the Stalinist bureaucracy could not escape entrapment in the mad whirlpool of contradictions that make up the world of imperialism today. It has been pushed into the Second World War under conditions most unfavourable to it — and, for that matter, to the working class of Russia and the rest of the world. The Russian working class is drawing on all the vast reservoirs of idealism, courage and self-sacrifice that it has tapped on more than one occasion. It is now fighting the armies of Hitler with a courageousness that evokes such universal admiration not because it loves Stalin more but because it loves Hitlerism less; more accurately, because it detests Hitlerism, and indeed all foreign rule, with a fierceness that all the still-unforgotten heroic memories of the Russian Revolution imbue it. They are impelled and resolved in their resistance to the Axis and all it stands for by an even more masterful type of the spirit that animates the workers and peasants of the Balkans of Poland, of Norway, of France, of the workers of Britain, who fear and hate Hitlerism with the same irreconcilability. But like the embattled British workers and the other true enemies of fascism on the European continent, the Russian masses are now being exploited by their rulers for the cynical imperialist directors of the Allied “democracies”. The policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy have driven the fighters of Russia right into the camp of the imperialist democracies it serves today, as it served the imperialist totalitarian states up to yesterday.
What more accurate reflection could there be of the real role of Russia in the World War today than the fact that congenital enemies of the Russian Revolution such as Churchill and Beaverbrook vie with each other to send aid to Stalin, that the Stalinist regime is dependent for its very life upon the good will of Anglo-American imperialism?
The Stalinists here screech with hysterical frenzy for the, “defence of the Soviet Union,” coupling their demand with the call for support of the imperialist war of the democracies and for the self-strangulation of the American working class — another sign that Stalinist self-preservation goes hand in hand with the enslavement of the working class. However much they are actuated by revolutionary considerations, others who now cry for the, “defence of the Soviet Union,” in this war find themselves completely unable to tell the working class just what it should do for this “defence.” For defence of Stalinist Russia in this war, like defence of England in this war, means support of the camp of democratic imperialism. Hence, the impotent clamour of the Cannonites.
The revolutionary defence of Russia, like the revolutionary defence of the working class and its rights in England, can mean only one thing in this war: the unremitting struggle of the working class to acquire state power, to establish working class rule in England and similar countries and re-establish it in Russia. The Stalinist bureaucracy is celebrating a Black October. It not only overthrew the power of the Russian working class, but it has brought the Russian workers to the very edge of the huge concentration camp of Hitlerism, a fate which the Russian workers have been resisting with such fierce doggedness. To preserve his power, the bloody Czar of all the Russians was forced to arm millions of workers and peasants who finally used their arms to establish their own rule over the country. Stalin, too has been compelled, in the interests of self-preservation, to restore the arms he took from the Russian masses.
Whether Hitler finds his grave in Russia or some other land is not yet certain. But the fate of the Stalinist counter-revolution is being settled now. As we are not for the triumph of Churchillism, we are even less for the triumph of Hitlerism in Russia or anywhere else. All our hopes and confidence rest with the international working class and, in Russia, with the Russian working class. Once, in 1917, it put an end to one despotism. It will yet put an end to the new despotism.
“24 years of the Russian Revolution”, Labor Action, November 1941