The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 opened up a new epoch for humanity. What no other social upheaval before it had ever 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 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, 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’ 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. For 24 years there has been one revolutionary uprising after another, with no continent, with hardly any one country, exempt. 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. 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 is only in its lack of full class consciousness, in its lack of complete independence from the capitalist class, in its lack of fully independent class organisation, class program, class leadership and class aims. social democracy 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 1914-1918 the capitalist class and its social-democratic assistants isolated the 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 lake 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 1923, 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 cooperating directly with them — in 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 millions 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.
In Russia, itself every trace of the great revolutionary promise of 1917 has literally been wiped out by reactionary force. 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 organized, compulsory bootlicking of a vulgar, vain and voracious autocracy, “with Comrade Stalin at its head”.
A small section of the heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution was corrupted; by far the greater 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.
* Abridged from Labor Action, Vol. V No. 46, November 1941