Bolshevism, the civil war, and Stalinism

Submitted by martin on 4 February, 2019 - 12:40 Author: Martin Thomas
civil war

A review of Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism (Polity Press, 1990), re-posted from here.

Sam Farber, justly respected for his critical Marxist writings on Cuba, sums up his attitude in this book by quoting Victor Serge, an anarchist who rallied to the Bolsheviks after October 1917, became an activist in the Left Opposition, and then parted ways with Trotsky over his, Serge’s, rejection of Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War.

“It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs… To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse.. is this very sensible?”

Farber amplifies and, I think, subtly skews and transmutes this assessment. His case, in brief, is that Lenin had a consistently and increasingly “flawed” understanding of the importance of democratic checks and balances, and that a better outcome in Russia could have been secured by some amalgam of the propositions of the various “left” and “right” Bolshevik oppositions, and by a will of those diverse oppositions to form a common bloc rather than (as they did do) arguing with each other as sharply as they did with Lenin.

In his chapter 1, mainly discussing developments in late 1917 and in 1918, Farber sums up by saying that an oppositional movement under an old regime can and should (in conditions of ferment) seek to create majority support by bold revolutionary tactics, rather than wait for majority support before it attempts any revolutionary tactics. But, he says, the rights and wrongs change when the revolutionaries are “holding the monopoly of the means of violence in a whole society”.

As a comment on Bolshevik considerations in 1917 and 1918, this is startlingly wide of the mark.

In the weeks after 25 October 1917, the Bolshevik (and then Bolshevik/ Left SR) government had essentially no means to implement its policies other than power and cogency of its political agitation.

It inherited no functioning state machine. On 12 February 1918 the Soviet government officially decreed the total demobilisation of the army, which was anyway in collapse.

Most government officials at first refused to cooperate. The new People’s Commissars had to scrabble just to find an office, a table, some chairs, some ready cash, to begin even nominal operation.

The Red Army was officially inaugurated on 20 February, but at first it could be built into an actual army only by persuasion and agitation.

The Bolshevik party was a functioning, coherent organisation. But, contrary to myth, it had no highly centralised party machine. The central “machine” consisted essentially of Sverdlov, carrying the “files” in his pockets and in his head, and at most half a dozen assistants. Their ability to impose strict organisational discipline on party members and units was slight even in St Petersburg and Moscow, let alone in outside areas with which even basic communication was difficult.

The Bolshevik party was a powerful revolutionary factor because of the force of its ideas and its revolutionary will, not because of any special strength of its organisational machine. Far from the Bolshevik party imposing a centralised structure of its own on the new state, the Bolshevik party acquired a strong centralised machine only as a by-product of its effects to construct a new state centralised enough to fight a civil war. Dangerously, and ultimately tragically, the centralisation of the Bolshevik party was “nested” inside the centralism of the state machine, rather than standing beside it. But there was no way round that.

Arguably, the whole tragedy of the civil war could have been diminished if the Bolshevik party in October 1917 had been more stereotypically “Bolshevik” – ruthless, organisationally tight, capable of having its own centralised machine apart from and alongside any state centralism. In fact, many of the best-known Bolshevik leaders resigned from their positions soon after the revolution in protest at the Bolshevik majority’s refusal to accept the Mensheviks’ and SRs’ conditions for a coalition government (namely, the Bolsheviks to have only a minority in the government, and that minority to exclude Lenin and Trotsky). Lunacharsky, the Bolsheviks’ best-known mass orator in 1917 after Trotsky, resigned because he had heard (inaccurate) reports that the Bolsheviks in Moscow, fighting to take power there, had damaged St Basil’s Cathedral.

Those episodes of wavering cannot but have encouraged all those who hoped to overthrow the new Soviet power by force.

The first attempt at armed overthrow of the Soviet government was set in motion on 31 October, by General Krasnov, leading a body of cossacks. It was defeated by two Bolsheviks smuggling themselves into the cossack barracks at 3am and arguing with the soldiers for five hours until they finally persuaded them to stay neutral and wait and see.

The next day, Bolsheviks were able to arrest Krasnov. They released him as soon as he gave his word of honour not to attempt counter-revolution again. The freed Krasnov immediately headed for the south in order to mobilise a counter-revolutionary army there!

It would be as foolish to mock the Bolsheviks’ “softness” in late 1917 as it would be to recoil in horror from their “hardness” in 1921. In neither era could the Bolsheviks jump over the head of history. Tsarist Russia simply did not give them the possibility of organising a party that could be “ideally” efficient, centralised, and ruthless.

In 1918 maybe the biggest factor in the civil war was the Czech Legion, a body of some 35,000 to 40,000 troops from the former Austro-Hungarian Imperial army who had been taken prisoner by the Tsar’s army. It regained freedom of operation in the ferment of revolution, and decided to throw its lot in with the Whites.

On the scale of the organised, established armies deployed in the World War, it was a tiny splinter. But in the conditions of 1917 and 1918 where there was no consolidated state machine at all – where no-one, least of all the Bolsheviks, had a “monopoly of violence” – that tiny splinter could loom as the most formidable military force in the country.

The Red Army was built, and the civil war was won, only by repeated episodes of daring comparable to that of the Bolsheviks who won over Krasnov’s cossacks. As the Red Army acquired some military clout and structure, the Bolsheviks did indeed use it ruthlessly. But throughout, and right through to the peasant revolts in 1921, agitation, by voice, leaflets, and pamphlets, was primary.

They could only have won the civil war by that agitation being successful. All the advantages of pre-established force were on the side of the Whites, who had most of the old Tsarist generals and top officers, and who had the backing of substantial foreign forces (from no fewer than 14 countries) including the Czech Legion.


Farber presents war communism as a folly of Bolshevik over-confidence. It is true that many follies were committed under war communism; that there was much misguided making virtue out of necessity during it (though it should be born in mind that many of those inventing those “virtues” will have seen them as flowering – soon – with the extension of the revolution to the West, rather than being self-sufficient); that Trotsky’s call for a proto-NEP in early 1920 was surely not too early, possibly would have been better made even earlier, and arguably would more advisedly have been adopted instead of “war communism” right from the start in 1918.

Nevertheless, Farber’s picture is radically skewed.

War communism and the Red Terror were inaugurated following the Left SRs’ assassination of the German ambassador (designed to provoke renewed war with Germany) and abortive insurrection of July 1918; the assassination by SRs of the Bolsheviks Volodarsky (June 1918) and Uritsky (August 1918), and their attempt to assassinate Lenin on 30 August 1918. As Trotsky put it: “It was in those tragic days that something snapped in the heart of the Revolution”. The Bolsheviks were not “over-confident”, except in their hopes of revolution in the West. They were trying to maintain the workers’ revolutionary bridgehead against huge odds.

Significantly for those who think that the inauguration of the Cheka was already dictatorship in embryo, the assassination of the German ambassador was carried out by Left SRs who were also leading figures in the Cheka. Despite withdrawing from the government in March 1918, in protest against the Brest-Litovsk peace, the Left SRs still had a very large role in the Cheka.

War communism and the Red Terror were emergency measures by a government which had just seen even those who had previously been its closest allies attempt an armed uprising against it, and try to tip the country into a new disastrous war with Germany.

Yes, there were examples of Terror before August 1918. Many of these were “from below”. For example, Jean-Jacques Marie reports a massacre of five thousand officers by rank and file soldiers in two incidents in January 1918, which was neither decreed nor agitated for by the Bolsheviks.

Russian peasant life before the Revolution was extremely violent. Not only were the landlords violent: under the village elders’ own justice, for example, “horse thieves could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles” (Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p.96).

Part of the mission of the revolution, of course, was to end that culture of violence. As Trotsky put it: “Where the aristocratic culture introduced into world parlance such barbarisms as czar, pogrom, knout, October has internationalised such words as Bolshevik, soviet, and piatiletka. This alone justifies the proletarian revolution, if you imagine that it needs justification”.

But first the revolution had to happen, and consolidate itself if only for a short while. It had to do that with people as they were.

The Red Terror was partly designed to control and restrain the terror “from below” (there was something of the same with the Terror in the French Revolution, which also started “from below”), and was partly motivated by the fact that, where persuasion could not work – and it couldn’t always – and where you needed to terrify the enemy – and in war you do – mild measures could not work with a population accustomed over generations to such high levels of violence.


Right up until 1917, the Bolsheviks’ practical political programme had essentially been one of radical formal democracy. They did not believe that anything more was possible in Russia than maximum radicalism in clearing away the old Tsarist lumber and instituting a democratic republic.

Far from the Bolsheviks’ motives being a drive to institute “state socialism” without regard for democracy, or (as right-wing writers have it) simply to seek power for its own sake, they had conducted their long and hard struggle on the perspective that the maximum possible was that they might play a brief minority role in a provisional revolutionary government instituting radical democracy.

Formal and procedural democracy was no incidental for them. It was the centre of their agitation for decades.

They were also trained in its importance by the model of German Social Democracy, a great number of whose biggest political campaigns were about formal and procedural democracy in still semi-absolutist Germany.

In 1917 Lenin wrote State and Revolution to argue that there was another dimension to democracy besides the formal and procedural one; that a workers’ government would be not just a radical democratic republic, but a democracy of a different sort because materially more accessible to the workers and peasants than the best bourgeois republic. There is absolutely no reason to suppose he forgot his life-long struggle for formal and procedural democracy while doing so.

After 25 October, the Bolsheviks busied themselves with a very rapid flurry of decrees. They also drafted and adopted a Soviet constitution at high speed (by July 1918 – contrast the 12 years it took the American Revolution to move to a constitution, and the four years it took the French Revolution to move to the constitution of 1793).

They knew those decrees, at first, had virtually no force other than their power as instruments of political agitation.

But that is why they issued them. The priority was to agitate, to mobilise people to build up a new machinery of government. They were also agitating for an audience abroad – in the Western countries whose revolutionisation they considered vital to any hope of survival for the Russian revolution – and for the future.

They knew that the Paris Commune had inspired workers more for the tendency and intentions of its decrees than for its practical ability to push them through in detail. They knew that the French constitution of 1793 had been suspended immediately after its formal adoption, and in fact never implemented before it was replaced by the more conservative constitution of 1795, yet had become, for many years afterwards, the chief manifesto of radical revolutionaries.

They wanted to put down markers for the future.

And those were markers for democracy, for workers’ democracy. As E H Carr notes, the early Bolshevik government very rarely described itself as socialist. It described itself as a “soviet” power, as “workers’ and peasants’ power”, or justified its decrees in terms of “democracy”.

The Bolsheviks knew that Marx had criticised the Paris Commune for its lack of revolutionary ruthlessness, and that the Jacobin Republic of 1793-4 had only been able to maintain itself, even briefly, by the Terror. So they knew already – though they could not yet have envisaged the full horrors of the civil war – that after putting down their markers they would prove unable to live up to some of them.

But, precisely because they valued the formal and programmatic, they laid down those markers.


The Bolsheviks were unclear on whether they would accept being voted out, and failed to express regret about the limitations on democracy?

But “being voted out” in Russia in 1917-21 was not a matter like being voted out in regular parliamentary elections. The Bolsheviks believed, and on the evidence of Hungary, for example, there is little reason to doubt, that their ousting would not lead to some moderate regime but to a Russian version of fascism, with a huge slaughter not only of Bolsheviks but also of class-conscious workers in general and of Jews. It would also lead to a crushing of the prospects of revolution in the West.

So their determination was to hold on as long as they could, which they were sure would not be very long. You can, I suppose, argue that if they had let the counter-revolution happen earlier and more “easily” than it happened with Stalin, then the ensuing fascism would have been milder than Stalin’s regime. But how could they calculate on that basis, in advance?

The remarkable thing about the stories of the Bolsheviks manipulating or delaying soviet votes in 1918 is how high the standards were which they had set themselves, and which they felt they had to infringe on.

For governments in all-consuming war, war which threatens the very existence of the polity, to allow elections at all is rather rare. The British government in World War 2 counts historically as a rare example of relative wartime democracy because it allowed debates in Parliament and a fair degree of press freedom. Yet it pretty much suppressed popular votes – there were no general elections between 1935 and 1945, and in wartime the big parties agreed to renounce all contests in by-elections. Newspapers and politicians (including MPs) favouring the enemy, even implicitly, were banned or jailed (as, for example, the Daily Worker was banned in January 1941).

The Union side in the US civil war also ranks as a rare example of wartime democracy, in that Abraham Lincoln contested a presidential election, which at first it looked as if he would lose, in 1864, three years into the war. Yet Lincoln regularly jailed Copperheads without charge or trial; and the Union was never at any risk of being overrun by the South.

The Bolsheviks, fighting a war in much more desperate circumstances, face critical scrutiny because sometimes they postponed elections, not for ten years, not for three years, not even for the eight months for which the unelected Provisional Government postponed Constituent Assembly elections – but for a few weeks or months, and because they used ambiguities in election procedure to their advantage. Yes, critical scrutiny is a good thing. But it should be remembered that the standards with which we are conducting that scrutiny are standards set by the Bolsheviks themselves, and they are standards higher than any others in history.

By early 1921, the civil war had finished, and so there was no good reason for relaxing the emergency measures?

If Martov’s Mensheviks had been re-legalised in November 1918, and pro-Soviet SRs re-legalised in February 1919, surely all “soviet” parties could easily have been re-legalised in 1921?

Unfortunately, things were not so easy.

Jean-Jacques Marie’s recent book on the civil war is titled “The Russian civil war, 1917-22”. Without making any special polemic on the point, Marie makes clear that large-scale armed conflict continued after the defeat of the main organised counter-revolutionary armies in early 1921. There were very large anti-Bolshevik peasant uprisings in mid-1921, for example.

Meanwhile the country was exhausted, and ravaged by drought, famine, and disease.

The Bolsheviks knew the history of the French Thermidor. They knew about the overthrow of Robespierre – initially, by what presented itself as merely a dissident Jacobin faction, committed to continuing revolutionary government, only with a relaxation and repudiation of Robespierre’s rigour – on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794). They knew it had been followed within a few months, in a gradual and smooth but speedy slide, by a full-scale White Terror, the definitive expulsion of the sans-culottes from serious political influence, and the formal replacement of the revolutionary 1793 constitution by a new, conservative template.

They knew also that Thermidor had been triggered, paradoxically, by the great French victory at Fleurus (26 June 1794). The Fleurus victory produced a desire for relaxation, a backlash against the rigours of the revolutionary regime.

We saw something of the same sort in Nicaragua in 1988-90. The Sandinistas, essentially, won the war against the US-backed Contras, who finally laid down arms in 1988. The electorate, exhausted and strung out, then in 1990 voted in the candidate of UNO, the Contras’ political front. In Nicaragua the 1990 overturn was not followed by a White Terror as in France. The Bolsheviks knew from many examples – Finland, Hungary – that a Thermidor in Russia would be followed by a White Terror vastly greater than that in France in 1795 and after.

They did not believe in exact analogies; and they knew, too, that Marx and Engels had criticised the follies of the Jacobin Terror. But they sought to learn from revolutionary experience. Rakovsky wrote about this in 1928, not to excuse the Bolshevik policies of the early 1920s, or the slowness of the Left Opposition to rebel, but to understand the whole process, from exile.

“Babeuf, after his emergence from the prison at Abbaye, looking about him, began by asking himself what had happened to the people of Paris… In one single phrase, in which can be felt the bitterness of the revolutionary, he gave his observation: ‘It is more difficult to re-educate the people in the love of liberty than to conquer it’.

“We have seen why the people of Paris forgot the attraction of liberty. Famine, unemployment, the liquidation of revolutionary cades (numbers of these had been guillotined), the elimination of the masses from the leadership of the country, all this brought about such an overwhelming moral and physical weariness of the masses that the people of Paris and the rest of France needed 37 years’ rest before starting a new revolution…

“I have never let myself be lulled by the illusion that it would be sufficient for the leaders of the Opposition to present themselves in party rallies and in workers’ meetings in order to make the masses come over to the opposition… the premise should have been that the work of educating the party and the working class was a long and difficult task…”

The Bolsheviks in 1921 faced a far greater mass exhaustion than the Jacobins in 1793. Fourteen million dead since 1914! Four and a half million dead in the civil war! Seven million abandoned children! Industrial production collapsed!

Lenin’s health, so it turned out, had been fatally undermined by the strain of 1917-21. Trotsky was ill for many of the following years: evidently he was at the point of exhaustion too.

“A political reaction set in after the prodigious strain of the Revolution and the Civil War”, wrote Trotsky in Stalin. The Bolsheviks knew at the time that there was a grave danger of reaction.

Harassed, exhausted, they were nevertheless determined to keep the revolutionary possibilities open. They wanted to stave off Thermidor long enough to keep open the possibility of reconstituting the working class and “re-educating in the love of liberty”, and the possibility of victorious workers’ revolution in Western Europe, on which, they knew, any long-term prospects depended. They knew that a Thermidor in Russia, like the defeat of Paris Commune, would disperse and dissipate the new revolutionary parties in the West, removing any possibility of early revolution in the West. The only reliable instrument they had for warding off collapse into the chaos was the tempered working-class vanguard organised in the Bolshevik party.

So, they emphasised closing ranks, keeping the party solid against the triple threat posed to it by the large surviving corps of Tsarist officials, the exhaustion and revolution-weariness of the mass of workers and peasants, and the new layers of merchants and rich peasants who they knew would emerge with NEP.

They were defeated. The party was unable to hold out. It was crushed between the stones of officialdom and mass disillusion, with the assimilation of a part of the party into the officialdom on the one hand, and the Lenin levy on the other.

To say with hindsight that all their emergency measures, whether in 1918-21 or in 1921 itself, were right would be foolish. Trotsky in later years certainly seems not to have thought so. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote earlier, in less dire circumstances: “Surely nothing can be farther from their thoughts [Lenin’s and Trotsky’s] than to believe that all the things they have done or left undone under the conditions of bitter compulsion and necessity in the midst of the roaring whirlpool of events should be regarded by the International as a shining example of socialist policy…”

Some measures seem unambiguously damaging, for example the invasion of Georgia in February 1921. Trotsky, in Stalin, argues that the peace deal between Menshevik Georgia and Bolshevik Russia could not have held for very long anyway, but offers no sustained argument for why. And even so, as he himself cogently argued, the “premature” invasion had enormous damaging effects.

Trotsky in his later years also pointedly refrained from positively defending the 1921 ban on factions in the Bolshevik party, and the blanket ban on non-Bolshevik parties. In fact, we now know, that ban did not stop a dangerous faction (or “party”) growing up within the Bolshevik party, and indeed around its Secretariat, a faction that merged with the old ex-Tsarist officialdom.

We also know that the loyal Bolsheviks had a wrong idea about where the main Thermidorian danger lay – for long they tended to see the Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky faction, with its advocacy of going easy on the rich peasants and slow on industrialisation, as the main danger – and a wrong idea about the shape of the Thermidorian reaction.

But all that is different from saying that the Bolsheviks erred by not understanding democracy. They had a better general schooling in democracy than any socialist is likely to have today. They were not immune to pressures. As Trotsky wrote (again in Stalin):

“The three years of Civil War laid an indelible impress on the Soviet government itself by virtue of the fact that very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders… Stalin, like many others, was moulded by the environment and circumstances of the Civil War, along with the entire group that later helped him to establish his personal dictatorship…”

It is entirely arguable, for example, that the abject failure of the Bolshevik emissary Kuzmin to win over the Kronstadters in February 1921 – whereas in many cases in 1917-21, though surely it cannot have been all, Bolshevik agitators did win over vacillating or rebelling fighters – was to do with a peremptory, impatient tone in what he said, the result in him (and other Bolsheviks) of those years of civil war pressure and habituation.

The Bolsheviks knew about democracy. They knew – to some extent: in such cases it is surely impossible to know completely – about the reshaping effect on them of the huge pressures of the civil war. They knew – in general, though as it would turn out, with errors about identifying the exact shape of it – about the danger of Thermidor. Knowing all those generalities, they had to make judgements on the spot about what emergency measures to take.

Their picture of the situation they were in is summed up in Lenin’s letter to Miasnikov in August 1921:

“We have many maladies. Mistakes… have greatly aggravated the maladies springing from our situation… Want and calamity abound… They have been terribly intensified by the famine of 1921.

“It will cost us a supreme effort to extricate ourselves, but we will get out, and have already begun to do so… We will extricate ourselves because we do not try to make our position look better than it is. We realise all the difficulties”.

In that letter, Lenin also wrote: “Revive the Soviets; secure the co-operation of non-Party people; let non-Party people verify the work of Party members: this is absolutely right. No end of work there, and it has hardly been started”.

Such comments indicate that, despite this or that remark, it was not the case that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had come to see the conversion of the Soviets into rubber-stamps for the party – which they knew had happened on a large scale during the civil war – as a norm, or not a problem. Only, they thought, and not without some reason, that, for fear of Thermidor, the relaxation of civil war tension could only be carried out cautiously or carefully.

It seems to me that the programme of the Workers’ Opposition, with their idea of shifting power from the party to the trade unions, could only have accelerated Thermidor. But it is hardly likely all the emergency measures were just the right ones, or even that all the oppositions of 1920-1 were wrong on every point.

But the general injunction “more democracy” – and the general head-shaking – “the Bolsheviks had their good points, but they didn’t quite get there on the question of democracy” – would not and could not have been sufficient to make better judgements.

Farber’s complaint about the various oppositional groups in the Bolshevik party, “right” and “left”, not supporting each other reflects, I suggest, an misappreciation of the problem. All the groupings in the Bolshevik party knew, more or less, that they faced “many maladies”, already made worse by many “mistakes”, and they needed emergency measures of some sort. They differed, reasonably enough, on the emergency measures. But, rightly, they were not inclined to make a catch-all coalition against Lenin between all those who wanted a set of emergency measures in some way more “democratic” than Lenin’s preference. They could all see that “do anything, as long as it is more democratic than Lenin’s preference” was no answer.

Farber conflates this issue with the different one of the advisability of alliances between the Left Opposition and the Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky Right later on, when the Stalinist group had already become a proto ruling class.


For the future, it seems, Farber wants a socialist movement with, to be sure, some of the vigour of the Bolsheviks, but different from the Bolsheviks in being less ruthless – more careful about the formal and procedural stipulations of democracy, and with “a greater sensitivity to majority wishes”.

Yet the older Bolsheviks, as we have seen, had spent all their pre-1917 political lives fighting above all for the formal and procedural stipulations of democracy. They had probably the liveliest, most genuinely democratic, political party in history, a party vastly different from the Stalinist and cod-Trotskyist models of alleged “Bolshevism”. They had carried out one of the most democratic revolutions in history, and then, in the struggle to convert the Soviet congress vote into an effective revolutionary power, one of the most courageous and daring exercises in winning a majority ever seen in history. That did not guarantee to them correct judgement on emergency measures.

The search for guarantees, outside time and circumstance, that we will be more democratic than the Bolsheviks, is fruitless. In practice it seems to lead to diffuseness and diffidence of organisation, as in the US socialist group Solidarity, where many important political issues are blurred by an overwhelming desire to achieve consensus and avoid sharp conflict. Sam Farber, when I have spoken to him, has been critical of that blurring-for-consensus in Solidarity; yet he himself is not even formally a member of Solidarity, let alone an active fighter for a more militant organisation.


In Farber’s introduction the question is already begged by posing the question as “democracy” in general. It is of course possible to argue that the contrast between workers’ democracy and bourgeois democracy is a false counterposition, serving only to license abrogations of supposedly “bourgeois” but actually general-democratic rights; the point here is that Farber does not make the argument, but only assumes it.

The question is further begged by insisting that China, Cuba, and Vietnam “cannot be considered independent revolutionary experiments” because they followed “the Russian model” – and by equating that “Russian model”, in different sentences in one and the same paragraph, with “the Russian Revolution” and “Stalinist Russia”. There is a slight demur, in which Farber says he is referring to “the eventual outcome of the revolution” rather than to “the October 1917 upheaval”; but no word about an actual counter-revolution coming between the two.

The autocracies in China, Cuba, and Vietnam are explained by “the political upbringing of the revolutionary leaderships”, their “conscious political and ideological choices”, without any word of the social (non-working-class) character of those revolutions. The “key question” is defined – in advance – as “if, and to what degree and for how long, objective obstacles and crises confronting a successful revolutionary movement can justifiably be claimed as reasons to abridge democratic freedoms”.

All that presumes that the Stalinists and Castroites were the same sort of movement, in basic social terms, as the Bolsheviks, but led astray by the malign influence of “the Russian model” which in turn is malign because it reflects bad choices about emergency measures. If given better models to follow on what to do in emergency, they might have installed workers’ democracies.

It is – to give the nearest, though very imperfect, analogy I can think of – as if one were to discuss the repressive measures of France’s Second Empire (which took some models from the First Empire) in terms of the excessive or misguided emergency measures of the Jacobins in 1793-4. The Jacobins may indeed have made bad choices of emergency measures in 1793-4; those bad choices may have contributed to revolutionary exhaustion and demoralisation, and made it easier for the Directory and then the Empire to impose their authoritarian rule. But the point is that both First Empire and Second Empire represented different social forces from the Jacobins of 1793-4.


So the question is mis-posed from the start. In Farber’s whole presentation, there is an assumption that the defining problem, the problem to be addressed, is that the Bolshevik party, starting with emergency measures to save the revolution in dire straits, ended up consolidating those measures into a vicious system of dictatorial rule by itself – a somewhat transformed self, to be sure, but essentially, itself. That is not what happened except in the most nominal sense that Stalin took the old names of Bolshevism to apply to his very different machine. Rather, as Trotsky put it:

“The limitation of the party as a historical instrument is expressed in the fact that at a certain point, at a given moment, it begins to disintegrate. Under the tension of external and internal pressures, cracks appear, fissures develop, organs begin to atrophy.

“This process of decomposition set in, slowly at first, in 1923 [yes, one can reasonably argue that Trotsky should have dated the start earlier], and rapidly increased in tempo. The old Bolshevik party and its old heroic cadres went the way of all flesh: shaken by fevers and spasms and excruciatingly painful attacks, it finally died.

“In order to establish the regime that is justly called Stalinist, what was necessary was not a Bolshevik party, but the extermination of the Bolshevik party”.

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