The Russian Revolution has had all sorts of things grafted onto the image it projects to us. But what was it in reality?
In the revolution, the workers and the farmers — and the soldiers who were mainly peasants — revolted against the ruling classes and the war. This was a tremendously democratic movement. It was a movement that created soviets, that is workers’ councils. No powerful state made the revolution. It was the people, the workers, the red guards in St Petersburg and Moscow, the factory militias. What they thought they were doing was liberating themselves from all future class rule.
The Bolsheviks who led that revolution declared what they were doing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is a term we would hesitate to use today, as it conjures up totalitarian state rule. The Bolsheviks, and the workers who accepted the term — what did they mean by it?
Dictatorship was an institution that was sometimes put in control in the ancient Roman Republic. A dictator was elected in an emergency and had power to override vested interests. What Marx meant when he talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat — what the Bolsheviks meant, what the workers who had control meant — was a dictatorship of the people, who would override all the laws and institutions of bourgeois rule. Much of that is buried in the account we get of the Russian Revolution.
The revolution in 1917 was the most profound revolutionary and democratic transformation that there has ever been. It was a tremendously democratic movement, the most democratic movement on earth at that point. In other states, including the most advanced capitalist states, women did not have the vote. In England, for example, a very large number of men who did not fit the property qualifications didn’t have the vote.
In Russia a great network of workers’ councils covered the country. Delegates were elected to the councils by various local bodies, and those bodies had the right to recall their delegates whenever they pleased, or when they disagreed with what these delegates were doing. The workers did determine what happened. At first, for example, after taking power, the Bolsheviks did not want to nationalise industry. They thought that was premature. Russia was immensely backward. The Bolshevik government nationalised industry in 1918, ahead of what they would have chosen to do, because the workers in the factories drove out the bosses and demanded the nationalisation of industry.
Our comrades in the middle of the last century used to say that the day the workers took power in St Petersburg was the greatest day in human history. People like Max Shachtman and James Cannon said that. We can’t repeat that now, because when they said that, they thought something could be rescued from Stalinism. Sadly, we know better. There will be other tremendous great days in history. But October 1917 was one of the greatest days in human history. It was one of the greatest manifestations of democratic power in human history. What happened to it?
The Bolsheviks took power. Then for a while they formed a coalition government with a peasant party which probably had the majority support amongst the peasants, the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party. Then the revolutionary government was forced to make a peace with Germany, a wretched peace where Russia surrendered a great deal. The Left SRs revolted against making a deal, quit the coalition, and soon after organised an insurrection against the Bolsheviks in July 1918.
Over 1918, a counter-revolution organised. In September 1918, a leader of the Right SRs shot Lenin, trying to assassinate him. The counter-revolutionary generals and admirals organised armies. They tried to make Russia into a military dictatorship. Generals had tried that in 1917 before the revolution. The Bolsheviks in 1917 believed that the only alternative to the workers taking power then would be some form of military dictatorship, and I think they were right about that. After the revolution, military leaders and the bourgeois democrats organised revolts across Russia. No less than 14 countries intervened in Russia to help the Whites.
The civil war wrecked the country. The Bolsheviks had to fight back and create a new army (they had disbanded the old army in February 1918). Trotsky created the Red Army. They won the Civil War after some terrible years. At the end of the Civil War Russia was wrecked and ruined. Production in the factories was much less than it had been in 1914. Large numbers of workers had been killed. The greatest slaughter of Jews before Hitler’s Holocaust had been carried through by the Whites during the civil war in Ukraine. Vast numbers of workers had returned to their villages, because they were starving in the towns and cities.
In order to win the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had to create a hierarchical army. It was an army that was under the control of the workers, but nevertheless military need forced them to create a hierarchy and a command structure, and a heavy bureaucracy to organise food supplies for the army and the cities. Didn’t the Bolsheviks expect all that? No, they didn’t.
They thought that they could make a revolution in Russia, but also that Russia was so backward that you could not even imagine building socialism in it. The Bolsheviks acted on the belief that the revolution would spread, and their example would spread across Europe. It did, to an enormous extent. There was a revolution in Germany in 1918 that got rid of the Kaiser, but the workers in Germany still looked for leadership from the majority Social Democrats who had become ministers of the Kaiser in the last days before he abdicated. Military gangs under the aegis of the majority Social Democrats killed many of the revolutionary workers and leaders. Rosa Luxemburg was beaten to death.
The Bolsheviks saw the Russian revolution as the first stage. In that they were right. The revolution did spread. Soviets spread to a number of places in Europe — to Germany, for example, though unfortunately the majority within the German workers’ councils was held by the right wing Social Democrats.
Ireland was a very backward country. Yet in Ireland in that period, about three dozen small strike committees in dairy processing factories ran up the red flag during strikes and declared themselves soviets. Limerick is the third city in the 26 counties of Ireland. In Limerick the trades council declared itself a soviet. In 1919 it vied for control of the city with the British Army. It issued money, permits to travel and so on. It was defeated, again because of isolation. There was a great movement, which inspired the imagination of all sorts of people throughout the world, but it didn’t anywhere else succeed.
The Bolsheviks wanted to create a Communist International. In 1914 the old Socialist International had collapsed into chauvinism. Each party backed its “own” bourgeois government, sending workers to kill other workers. The Bolsheviks set out to recreate a viable socialist international. The Communist International was proclaimed in 1919 and regrouped throughout the world who wanted to emulate the Russian revolution. The tragedy of it was that they were in the process of creating revolutionary parties in situations where revolutionary crises were already breaking on them, as in Germany in 1918.
Everywhere the new Communist Parties proved too unprepared. The International was taken over by the ruling bureaucrats in Russia and destroyed. The revolution was defeated in Germany. Step by step, it was defeated everywhere. Russia was left isolated.
Imagine a squad of soldiers scaling a ladder to attack a fortress. They go up the ladders, and then what if only one soldier manages to break through onto the battlements of the enemy and the others are forced to retreat? That soldier is doomed. That is what happened to the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik government was doomed because of its isolation, the ruination in the Civil War, and the poverty of the country. The revolution degenerated, but not quite in the way the Bolsheviks expected.
The Bolsheviks had thought they would be overthrown by the bourgeoisie and the rich peasants. That is not what happened. An element of the state officialdom, absorbing and merging with an element of the Bolshevik party itself, seized control and over time, bureaucratised everything. In the 1920s the bureaucrats allied with the new bourgeoisie which developed under the market-oriented New Economic Policy which the Bolsheviks introduced to revive the economy after the Civil War ruination. That new bourgeoisie was weak in absolute terms, but still powerful compared to the workers. Eventually the bureaucracy gained the strength, solidity, and confidence to kick aside the NEP bourgeoisie, and they created a Stalinist dictatorship.
Yet that dictatorship vastly increased nationalised industry and collectivised the farms. It did those things with the utmost brutality and savagery, recklessly killing millions of people. That was Stalinism. The people who consolidated the Russian revolution — the Bolsheviks — who were they? what were they? Today, we get caricatures of what the Bolsheviks were. The Stalinists, when they took power, conducted a drive to “Bolshevise” the Communist International.
In the course of doing that they bureaucratised the parties, and they made the Communist Parties throughout the world into servants of the Russian state. That did not happen overnight or all at once. Various layers of Communist Parties in Europe, for example, initially sided with Trotsky in the conflict that broke out inside the Russian party. Nevertheless, Stalinism eventually triumphed in the Communist Parties. The revolutionary forces were reduced to very small numbers: the Trotskyists, and a few others.
The Trotskyists tried to base themselves on the Bolshevik Party, but there were and are many caricatures of Bolshevism in circulation. Today there is a sectarian quasi-Trotskyist notion that the Bolshevik party was a machine of obedience to the central leadership, with no democratic rights for its members. In fact the Bolshevik party was a tremendously democratic party. Lenin was certainly the central leader, but he was often in the minority. He was repeatedly outvoted, challenged, and questioned. He had rival ideas to his own counterposed by loyal Bolshevik party members. The party was able to lead the democratic revolution in 1917 because it was itself democratic.
The Bolsheviks had a conception that Lenin summed up in 1906: that there would be full democracy in the party in reaching decisions. Once a decision was reached and an action was agreed upon, discipline would take over. Even if people in the party disagreed with the decision they would carry out the action; but there was no question of forever curtailing discussion and having just one thinking element in the party.
Trotskyists believe that it is our duty to bring the lessons of the past to the working class now. That is fundamentally why we exist. We also recognise that we can learn from the working class, and from new working-class struggles and developments. That was one of the great strengths of the Bolsheviks.
Soviets first appeared in 1905, in a revolution that was crushed. The Bolsheviks initially were very suspicious of them. But the Bolsheviks quickly learned. They supported the soviets in 1905, and they were able to go into the soviets in 1917 and take the lead in a mass movement of workers who at first did not have a clear goal other then they wanted socialism in general. They were able to go into the soviets and lead the workers — that is, propose clear ideas about what needed to be done, win the workers democratically in discussion and give a purpose and a guidance to the revolution. Otherwise the revolution would probably have been defeated.
Victor Serge was a Bolshevik ex-anarchist who lived to write his memoirs. He wrote, in an article on “Lenin in 1917”: “The Bolsheviks are the only ones to express unceasingly these obvious truths. They translate into crisp formulae and elevate to a theoretical understanding the deeply felt and precise feelings of the masses, and in the first place of the masses of combatants. What attracts them to Bolshevism is its precision”.
Without that precision they might have blundered into catastrophe and defeat. In order to learn from the Bolsheviks you have to learn from the working class. You have to learn about the need for workers’ democracy. You have to reject the idea that there is some individual, or three or five person committee, that has all knowledge and must be given all the power to think and all the initiative for action. The implication of that is that they are never wrong, because there is no provision made for what to do if they are wrong, whether partly or completely. It is very like the Catholic Church!
Trotsky in 1938 in the Transitional Programme compared the bourgeoisies in Europe, the German and the Italian, who had made the fascists masters of the state, to a man going helter-skelter down hill on a toboggan, not knowing what will happen next. Something like that is true of all bureaucratically-structured so-called Trotskyist parties. It has nothing in common with the Bolsheviks. They were a democratic party, who accepted discipline following discussion but could think for themselves and judge the party leaders and their proposals. Why do we bother about the Russian revolution?
This was the workers’ revolution that succeeded. Before 1917 there had been a workers’ revolution in Paris in 1871. The Paris Commune held power for nine weeks and was then crushed, with many thousands massacred. The Bolsheviks took power and held it. Trotsky reports a conversation with Lenin in late 1918, when Lenin expressed astonishment that the Bolshevik government had lasted longer than the Paris Commune. Russia was the revolution that took place. It was the revolution where the workers succeeded in clarifying themselves, in acting and taking control. It was the revolution that can be a model for future revolutions.
Of course, the Bolsheviks lived in very different conditions from ours. But we can learn from them the need for clarity, the need for honesty. Honest Read Lenin! Lenin is honest. He does not bluff. When he is retreating, he says so. He tells the truth. He set up a dialogue with the party members and with the working class.
The Bolsheviks were honest people, guided by Marxism. They took Marxism as the means of analysing the world around them. They took the results of that analysis seriously, and at the same time they learned from new experiences like the soviets. They gave themselves an account of what they were doing. They saw what they were doing in a historical perspective.
Rosa Luxemburg was highly critical of some things they did, but she said of the Bolsheviks that they had saved the honour of international socialism which had been betrayed in Germany. The Bolsheviks are a great model a model to learn from — modify maybe, but a model nonetheless. That is one reason why we celebrate the revolution. The Bolsheviks were more democratic then anything that exists now.
We have only bourgeois democracy. There are few restrictions on the franchise compared to the time of the Russian Revolution. But we have a pluto-democracy. Democracy blatantly under the thumb of the rich, most blatantly in the USA. We also celebrate the revolution because we want to continue the revolution. If you had asked the Bolsheviks who fought Stalinism what they were, they would answer that they were the Bolshevik-Leninists, the party of the Russian revolution. If you had asked the Trotskyists outside of Russia what they were doing, they would have said that they were the party of the Russian revolution. We are the party of the Russian revolution! We are the party that understands what the revolution was, and that also understands that between Stalinism and Bolshevism there runs a river of blood — working-class and Bolshevik blood. Or at least we try to be the party of the Russian Revolution.
We honour the Bolsheviks and those who made the revolution. Bolshevism in politics was the fusion of Marxist science and tremendous working-class militancy and creativity. The Corbyn surge, so-called, took us all by surprise. We didn’t expect it. How did it come about?
The Miliband Labour Party leadership created structures to appeal to what they thought would be passive supporters, but then, with the help of a series of accidents, including Corbyn getting onto the ballot for leader, there has been a tremendous transformation. We have tried to help that transformation — or rather help the new members understand what politics is about, from antisemitism to the question of working-class direct action. There are tremendous possibilities available to us.
The state of the labour movement now is not just the result of the labour movement being not very lively. It is a result of tremendous defeats. We suffered tremendous defeats in the 1970s and 1980s. Before that there was an amazing militancy in Britain. There were some two hundred factory occupations between 1971 and 1975. Workers wanted to change things, but they were not able to do so. They put in a Labour government in 1974. The Labour government sold us out and created the way for Thatcherism. It made a counterrevolution against the working-class militancy.
The state of the movement now is a result of those defeats. Whenever it comes to discussing the Bolsheviks or the early Trotskyists, I remember an Irish republican song I learned as a child, in this song there is an old woman who is singing to herself about the revolutionaries of 50 or 60 years in the past, the Fenians, a left wing republican movement. She is singing and mumbling and she says in one of the verses: “We may have great men but we’ll never have better”.
We will have great women and great men and great socialists in the future who will learn from Bolshevism, and they will succeed in doing more and doing it more permanently. But when we think about the Bolsheviks, we say what the old woman in the song says: Glory o, Glory o to the Bolsheviks! Glory and honour to the Bolsheviks!
‘Twas down by the Glenside I met an old woman
A plucking young nettles she ne’er saw me coming
I listened a while to the song she was humming
Glory o glory o to the Bold Fenian Men
‘Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beamin’
On strong manly forms, and on eyes with hope gleamin’
I see them again sure through all my sad dreamin’
Glory o glory o to the Bold Fenian Men
Some died by the glenside, some died mid the stranger
And wise men have told us their cause was a failure
But they stood by old Ireland and never feared danger
Glory o glory o to the Bold Fenian Men
I passed on my way, God be praised that I met her
Be life long or short I will never forget her
We may have great men but we’ll never have better
Glory o glory o to the Bold Fenian Men