The Significance of the Russian Revolution for Today

Our rulers want us to think there was little good in the Russian Revolution. After all it ended up in a monstrous tyranny under Stalin in which millions were murdered or died in labour camps in the 1930s and after.

But the horrors of Stalinism cannot wipe out the fact that in 1917, for the first and only time, the working class rose up to overthrow the ruling class in a major imperialist power. That is why it remains an inspiration a century later.

The Establishment of Soviet Power

In February 1917, the Russian working class, led by striking women workers, took to the streets of Petersburg demanding the end of the Tsarist regime, the war and starvation. Hundreds died, but the courage of the workers won over the Army sent to suppress them. Within days the strikes and demonstrations became an armed insurrection.

Ruling class histories tell us that this was a “democratic revolution” which was undermined by a Bolshevik “coup” in October. This is a complete lie. Workers were still fighting on the streets when members of the Tsarist Duma pre-empted the outcome and announced that they had formed a Provisional Government. Their aim was to snatch the workers’ victory from them and nip the possibility of socialist revolution in the bud.

Workers already had an alternative. This was the “soviet” which had been crushed by the Tsar in 1905. The soviet, or council, was the working class alternative to a capitalist parliament. It was based on direct democracy where delegates could be recalled if they did not follow the wishes of those who voted for them. But in March 1917, whilst the most revolutionary workers were still on the streets, this first soviet was dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). They wanted to let the capitalists and landowners continue to rule. The soviet held real power but these parties allowed the Provisional Government to steal the revolution.

The Provisional Government was never accepted by the working class. As the imperialist war dragged on (because the capitalists and their supporters wanted “victory”) the conditions of the workers got worse. More and more they turned to the party which expressed their wishes in the slogans “All Power to the Soviets” and “Bread, Peace and Land”. This was the Bolsheviks. It was already based inside the working class in towns across Russia but, thanks to repression and imprisonment, had no more than 8000 members at the start of 1917. By the autumn of 1917 this had risen to over 300,000 and they had now achieved majorities in many soviets across Russia. That the Bolsheviks would be the spearhead of the next insurrection was openly discussed in the press. There was no secret plot. Everyone knew that the Provisional Government’s game was up.

As tension mounted Kerensky, the Provisional Government’s last Prime Minister, tried to re-arrest Bolshevik leaders, shut down the Bolshevik press and close the bridges from the working class areas to the city centre. It was the workers themselves who prevented this and, by doing so, stirred the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee to act. They seized the key buildings in the city with virtually no resistance and almost no casualties. The following day the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets overwhelmingly voted to approve the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the setting up of Soviet power. The vote was supported not only by the Bolshevik delegates but also by some anarchists, Left SRs and those delegates who were in no organisation.

Early Achievements

Revolutionaries knew that, without a world revolution, workers power in Russia could not survive, let alone build socialism. Nevertheless they took some steps towards it.

The new government announced Russia’s withdrawal from the war. It legalised peasant land seizures and workers’ control in the factories. Officials were paid only the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.

Laws brought in equal pay for women, divorce at the request of either partner, abortion and equal status for children of unmarried parents. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Church and State were separated and freedom of religion was established (thus ending the legal oppression of Jews). Other social achievements were the introduction of free education (alongside a mass literacy campaign), free maternity homes and nurseries. And “Soviet Russia was the first nation in history to witness the birth across its land of thousands of communal organizations spontaneously engaging in collective life” (R, Stites Revolutionary Dreams)

Most of this took place in the first six months of the revolution. During this time the soviet principle was extended. 400 or so more soviets were established across Russia, the principle of immediate recall of delegates was established and Congresses of Soviets were taking place every three months.

At this point the Bolsheviks (soon to take the name Communists) understood that the party can lead but it cannot make a revolution. This is the task of the working class itself. Or as Lenin told the Seventh Congress of the RCP(B) “… socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves”. (Collected Works Volume 27 p. 135)

A Workers’ Tragedy

However, this was not to last. After 3 years of war the October revolutionaries had inherited a dire economic situation. This coincided with a failed 1917 harvest to produce a situation which one historian has described as akin to the Black Death. By March Lenin was writing that “without a German revolution we are doomed”. This was the central fact. The failure of the next step in the world revolution to arrive explains why the revolution in Russia could not succeed.

However this does not explain the manner of the failure in Russia and this is where we have to look to the errors of the Bolsheviks. The first error was to set up a government, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) which was not directly elected but subject to the approval of the Executive Committee of the Soviets. After June 1918 both were dominated by a single party. This potentially set Russia on a path to party dictatorship. The Bolsheviks were not completely to blame here since the parties who abandoned the soviet all helped to make soviet power equate with the Bolshevik Party. The civil war and invasion of Russia by 14 foreign armies assisting the reactionaries or Whites worsened this tendency. Instead of workers’ militias, a Red Army was formed; and instead of soviet revolutionary tribunals the Cheka was set up. The death penalty, which had been abolished, was restored and was soon to be administered arbitrarily by the secret police who had become a law unto themselves.

Worse still, millions either deserted the cities in search of food or enrolled in the Red Army in the Civil War. This robbed the Bolsheviks of some of their working class base. That base diminished even further when many workers who were party members entered government service. With its working class base undermined and facing a dire economic collapse, the regime abandoned its early enthusiasm for workers’ self-activity. It re-introduced bourgeois managers (spetsy) and turned to Taylorism to try to build up industry which had fallen to less than 10% of its 1913 output.

The civil war was finally won by December 1920 but at enormous cost (millions died, mainly from disease). The final signals that the road to counter-revolution was open came in March 1921. At home the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt, the banning of factions inside the Bolshevik Party, and the introduction of a New Economic Policy which favoured the peasant majority over workers signalled the triumph of the party-state. This went on to develop a new form of state capitalism which in the 1930s took on the monstrous forms of Stalinism. The failure of the March Action in Germany only underlined the isolation of the Russian workers. Soon after this the Comintern ceased to promote world revolution and simply adopted Russian foreign policy aims. Treaties were signed with Sweden, Britain and Germany in 1921-2. By 1934 Russia had even entered the “robbers” (Lenin) League of Nations.

Despite its final defeat, the Russian experience between 1917 and 1918 demonstrates what a revolutionary working class is capable of. We now know the size of the task that confronts us. Although a revolutionary party will be formed to unite workers in the assault on the capitalist state this cannot be a government in waiting. The task of the party remains international. It attempts to spread world revolution whilst the task of administering the new society is that of the class as a whole through its class-wide bodies like the soviets. By studying the remnants of this defeat the working class can find the promise of our future victory. This will bring about a society of “freely associated producers” governed by the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. The future everywhere belongs to soviet power.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Comments

It would be great if you could elaborate on this please. It seems quite a fundamental point. "The first error was to set up a government, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) which was not directly elected but subject to the approval of the Executive Committee of the Soviets." Several sources seem to say it was in fact an elected body.

  • "The first council elected by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was composed as follows. Many early comissars later ended up in opposition to the party majority led by Stalin and allegedly conspired with the Trotskyist opposition or some other opposition group, which led to their expulsion from the party or being arrested. The party had banned factional opposition groups at the Eleventh Party Congress in 1921. Still the original People's Comissariat included Left-Communists, Trotskyists and other ex-oppositionists." en.wikipedia.org However are you saying that it should have been composed of delgates from the local assemblies? It seems to me that the many local assemblies would produce a higher tier which would still be bulky, nor would all these delegates be able or willing to serve in a permanent organ. It seems that the local delegates would be constrained to produce a higher governing organ. Perhaps this could have been selected and monitored in a different way, but there still needs to be a permanent ruling organ (for the duration of the phase where state measures are required) whatever its composition.

It was elected but not "directly elected" as the document says. The Commissars (in reality Ministers - Trotsky just came up with the name (which was alredy used by the Provisional Government when appointing their representatives in the regions) to stop it sounding like what is was - a Cabinet made up mainly of those who were not delegates to the Soviets (the Soviets from the beginning in February had had a policy of coopting members of political parties to its EC so the Bolsheviks were not doing anything different. But that's the point. A proletarian organisation has to be different. It would have been better to separate the Party leadership from the Soviet leadership and let it remain elected by the Congress of Soviets. In 1917-18 this is a formal point since the Bolsheviks had such overwhelming support but we need to build on their experience (and, of course, none of this is to suggest that these errors at the time contributed to the defeat of the revolution - they simply shaped the manner of that defeat). The Party should be about international revolution and the soviets (or whatever is invented next) as class-wide bodies have to deal with the day to day problems of the class struggle for socialism. The Party members in them fight for the communist programme but the party apparatus/leadership has other tasks to fulfil. And yes, it will be messy and contradictory.

As for 'freely associated producers', the 2017 book by Anne Applebaum 'Red Famine' details how vast numbers of Ukrainian peasant kulaks were forcibly sent to remote regions of Russia, where thousands died during the reign of Stalin. And yet if his regime hadn't forced the production of tanks and weapons sufficiently for the Red Army to drive Hitler's invaders back to Berlin, liberating Hitler's death camps on the way, it seems doubtful that we would be debating all this today, at a time which, yet again, seems to be pre-war, but of more nuclear dimensions, whilst imperialism rages on.

Obviously neither the article nor the subsequent comments are atempting to present the October events as a model to apply in the future, a successful template without blemish.

However there are those who regard the coming to state power of the Bolshevik party, which was not simply an evolution of the situation under Stalin, as the goal of revolution then and now.

Of course those who critique the whole idea of revolution and the possibilities of a post capitalist future denigrate the 1917 events but that does not mean that we are uncritical, even if our aim is not to dismiss revolution to the refuse dump of impractical ideas.

We have to recognise that the setting up of Sovnarkom "a Cabinet made up mainly of those who were not delegates to the Soviets " as the true ruling organ, means that this model cannot be upheld as the template for the future.

The lesson is fundamental, socialism cannot be ruled by a party or a fraction of society. It has to be the rule of the majority through territorial assemblies (which may in fact be open to all?). This could conceivably produce a tiered arrangement with the top tier ruling over the entire revolutionary bastion as it extends globally.

This concept, in my opinion, is alien to both anarchist and stalinist visions, or at least is not clearly stated.

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.