The Bolsheviks: mistakes and limits

Submitted by AWL on 10 April, 2019 - 10:51 Author: Martin Thomas

Barry Finger's review (Solidarity 497) of In Defence of Bolshevism quotes approvingly Max Shachtman's statement, in Shachtman's 1943 article on "The Mistakes of the Bolsheviks", that "we must... defend Bolshevism".

In its last sentence, though, it declares: "The Bolsheviks themselves – Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin — nevertheless 'took the theoretical lead', in Hal Draper's words, 'in gutting socialism of its organic enrootment in the mass of the people' paving the 'juridical' framework for the counter-revolution in class power."

This has some truth to this, but only within limits, and it is important to investigate the limits.

Think about the Bolsheviks' navigation in the early 1920s as they saw it, groping forwards from the civil war, and not as we see it, looking back from the completed rise and debacle of Stalinism.

The Bolsheviks navigated, as everyone must, only with the guidance which they could get by learning from history.

Their two great historical reference-points were the French Revolution of 1789-1794 and the Paris Commune in 1871.

Revolutionary France was at war with a conservative coalition of European states from April 1792. The winding-back from the radical Jacobin period of the revolution - Thermidor - started with the victory at Fleurus in June 1794, which turned the tide of that phase of the war.

In July 1794, taking advantage of the relaxation of tension which followed Fleurus, Jacobins opposed to Robespierre overthrew him. At first it looked like an adjustment between Jacobin factions. Within weeks, White Terror was widespread.
And from then the revolution wound backwards to the Bourbon restoration in 1814.

Even the Bourbons were unable to reverse many of the social and economic measures of the revolution. But they were able to restore the old monarchy to power. They were able to do so mostly because the human basis of the revolution, the "revolutionary people", had been slackened and reduced by weariness.

The Bolsheviks feared that their victory in the civil war in early 1921 would produce a similar Thermidor.

The overthrow of the Bolsheviks by the new discontent which emerged as people sought an easing-off would not mean a mere going-into-opposition, but full-scale counter-revolution and slaughter on the scale that the Bolsheviks had already seen in Finland and Hungary. Unlike in France, a Russian "Thermidor" would leave no gains intact, other than part of the land redistributions: the capitalists who had gone into exile with the civil war would return in full strength and with a heavy hand.

The defeat of the Paris Commune in May 1871 had been followed by the collapse of the First International and a retreat of European labour movements for many years.

So a Thermidor in Russia looked likely to lead to the collapse of the still-nascent, still-ramshackle network of new Communist Parties across Europe and the world, and a collapse of political confidence among workers worldwide.

The Bolsheviks estimated (and plausibly) that failing to "hold on" would lead to the massacre and demoralisation of the revolutionary workers in Russia (not only themselves) and the closing-off of the prospect of new workers' revolutions in more advanced countries which would help Russia regain the economic basis for a functional workers' democracy.

The Bolsheviks had been educated in the values of democracy, and had risked their lives in the fight for those values, probably much more than socialists today in countries like Britain who take extensive bourgeois democracy as a "given". But democracy is, as often said, an activity, not a set of formalities: they sought the least-bad ways they could see to revive and expand that activity.

Shachtman is right that the Bolsheviks suggested too much and too often that the emergency regime in Russia was something like a norm. Those suggestions were progressively congealed into reactionary doctrine under "Bolshevisation" and then under Stalinism. We should also take into account the counterpoint in the Bolsheviks' explanations, their awareness of aberrations.

This is Lenin at his last Comintern congress, in November 1922, shortly before his second stroke.

"In 1917, after we seized power, the government officials sabotaged us. This frightened us very much and we pleaded: 'Please come back'. They all came back, but that was our misfortune.

"We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them... Often... government employees have arbitrary control and they often exercise it in such a way as to counteract our measures... "It will take many years of hard work to improve the machinery, to remodel it, and to enlist new forces... A few hundred thousand young people are studying; they are studying too fast perhaps, but at all events, a start has been made, and I think this work will bear fruit..."

In 1923, Trotsky developed an eloquent but limited argument for the restoration of democratic life, in The New Course.
As he came to understand that the ex-Bolshevik (Stalinist) "educated forces" were after all "controlling" the "vast army" of officials, but controlling it in such a way as to generate a new social system ruled by an unaccountable bureaucracy, he expanded and redeveloped that case for workers' democracy.

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