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Archive for November, 2017

The Tragic Fate of Workers’ Russia-Thomas Harrison

Posted by admin On November - 13 - 2017 Comments Off on The Tragic Fate of Workers’ Russia-Thomas Harrison



(    Jessica Smith, Woman in the Soviet Union (Vanguard Press,1928). Quoted in W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921 (Da Capo Press, 1999), p. 340.

2.    Many historians have claimed that the Bolsheviks regarded the policies of War Communism as intrinsically progressive, even as a “leap into socialism.” On the contrary, these measures were considered justifiable only as a temporary, emergency response to the conditions of Civil War and economic collapse.

3.    Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (Verso, 2003), p. 477.

4.    There were, nevertheless, many instances of extreme brutality in Cheka prisons, and the organization, like any police force, attracted a fair number of thugs and sadists. But these practices were often criticized in Bolshevik newspapers and were opposed by the Party’s leaders. The trouble was, the Cheka grew so large and amassed so much power that it was difficult – though, arguably, not impossible — to monitor and control.

5.    Quoted in Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terrorism in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, 2002), P. 254.

6.    Quoted in David Mandel, “The Russian Revolution, Ninety Years On,” Canadian Dimension, October 10, 2007.

7.    The initial success of the Red Army in Poland provoked a sharp debate among the Bolsheviks. Lenin was persuaded that Polish workers would welcome the Red Army and that the appearance of Soviet troops on the Polish-German border would inspire the German working class, which had just crushed a rightwing coup d’etat, the Kapp Putsch, with a massive general strike, to carry out a full-scale revolution. Trotsky argued that, on the contrary, a Soviet invasion would inflame Polish nationalism and that socialism could not be brought “on the point of a bayonet.” The debate was resolved when Polish forces eventually routed the Red Army and forced the Soviet Russia to sue for peace.

8.    Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917-1923 (Bookmarks, 1990), p. 193.

9.    Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3 (W.W. Norton, 1985), pp. 135-136.

10. In fact, the NEP was essentially the same as the Bolsheviks’ economic program in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, the transitional program they planned to implement while awaiting revolutions in Central Europe. War Communism can thus be seen as a temporary and unanticipated interruption to these plans.

11. It was customary for Russian revolutionaries to adopt new names, both to shield their identities for underground work and to symbolize a break from their pasts. Thus Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; he took the name “Lenin” from the Lena River in Siberia, where he was first exiled as a political prisoner. Trotsky’s original name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein; he named himself  “Trotsky” after a guard in the jail in which he was first imprisoned.

Georgians were disproportionately numerous among Russian Social Democrats, particularly the Mensheviks (Chkheidze and Tseretelli).

12. It was at this point that Russian predominance in the Comintern began to turn into Russian control. Once Stalin was in power, the Comintern ceased to be an instrument for promoting workers’ revolutions from below and instead functioned as a cynically-manipulated instrument of Soviet – that is, Stalinist – foreign policy.

13. Neither the Fourteen nor Trotsky, however, advocated legalizing opposition parties. It was only in the 1930s, while reflecting in exile on the degeneration of the Revolution, that Trotsky returned to an understanding of the necessity of a multi-party soviet system.

14. For the next 11 years, Trotsky and his family were forced to move from country to country – first Turkey, then France, then Norway. Few governments were willing to allow a notorious revolutionary to live on their soil, and those that granted him a visa soon cancelled it and expelled him under pressure from Stalin. In exile, Trotsky tried to gather supporters and wrote steadily, producing a stream of books and articles on history and world affairs, but mostly critical analyses of Stalin and the fate of the Soviet system. Wherever he went he was hounded by agents of Stalin’s secret police, who operated undercover throughout the world. On Stalin’s orders, they harassed and murdered his supporters and members of his family. Trotsky’s older son, left behind in the Soviet Union, was executed during the Great Purges. His younger son was killed in Paris, and his daughter was driven to suicide in Berlin.

Finally, in 1937 the government of Mexico offered Trotsky asylum. But there, in 1940, he was murdered by an agent of Stalin as he sat at his writing desk.

15. This new Stalinist social system will be the subject of a forthcoming third article.

16. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor, 1961), p. 79. Despite her criticism, Luxemburg was an ardent champion of the Bolshevik Revolution.)

The Tragic Fate of Workers’ Russia
by Thomas Harrison

Summer 2017 Vol:XVI-3 Whole #: 63
[This is the second of three articles commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 and analyzing its fate under Stalin. The first part, “Glorious Harbinger of a New Society: the Bolshevik Revolution,” was published in the previous issue of New Politics, number 62, winter 2017. The text below is slightly expanded from what appeared in the print issue.]

Soon after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918, the Soviet republic was under siege. Various anti-Bolshevik forces, some supported by the Allies or the Central Powers, were gathering. If these forces succeeded in reversing the October Revolution, what would be the result?

A terrifying glimpse of what a counterrevolution would mean was provided by events in nearby Finland. In January 1918 Finnish socialists, inspired by the Bolsheviks, took power, unleashing a fierce backlash by the Finnish bourgeoisie, supported by German troops. Heavily armed counterrevolutionary White Guards recaptured Helsinki, street by street; workers’ wives and children were forced to walk in front of them as human shields. After other unimaginable cruelties, the socialists were crushed, and at a fearful cost: 20-30,000 workers were massacred or died of starvation and disease in concentration camps. This and subsequent events made it quickly apparent that counterrevolution would mean not a restoration of the pre-October status quo, but a monstrous bloodbath.

Soviet Russia: The Early Years

In his pamphlet, State and Revolution, written in 1917 before the October Revolution, Lenin had called for a radically democratic system, under which Russia would be ruled directly by the workers and peasants through their councils — the soviets — with free elections and several competing political parties. And for about six months after the Bolsheviks came to power on November 7, the Soviet state functioned more or less as Lenin had envisioned. The Council of People’s Commissars, elected by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, governed; its members included Left SRs as well as Bolsheviks. The Right SRs had withdrawn from the Soviets, but the Mensheviks had returned; they and smaller parties, such as the anarchists, operated freely within the Soviets as outspoken opponents of Bolshevik policies. The Bolsheviks’ coalition partners, the Left SRs, often disagreed with Lenin and Trotsky, and the Bolshevik – now Communist – Party itself was frequently divided over issues such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the Communist Party and in the Soviets, differences were decided by democratic votes.

Every party, and every faction within a party, had its own newspaper. Socialists had always regarded “freedom of the press” under capitalism as a sham: even if everyone had the theoretical right to publish a newspaper, the cost of production and printing meant that mass-produced and widely distributed papers were all owned by the rich. The Bolsheviks tried to make press freedom a reality. All printing presses and paper supplies were nationalized; the government then distributed them free to political parties in proportion to the size of their vote and to any group with at least 10,000 members.

Personal freedom was also greatly expanded. In December 1917 the Soviet government repealed all laws against homosexuality. As one Bolshevik commented, the new policy established “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon – concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality – Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In religious matters, a strict separation of church and state was instituted. This was directed particularly against the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been the state religion under the Tsars. The government seized all the Church’s property, which was vast. All remaining restrictions on non-Orthodox religions were abolished. Special protection was given to Jews: anti-Semitic writings were made illegal, and people convicted of fomenting pogroms were severely punished. The teaching of religious doctrine in schools was banned. The Bolsheviks regarded all religions as superstitious and conservative ideologies, so, while citizens were free to practice any faith, the government opposed religion in its propaganda and educational policy, although this was not made a priority.

Major steps were taken to achieve equality for women. Among the Bolshevik leaders, Alexandra Kollontai, commissar of public welfare, was the most prominent advocate for women’s rights. Kollontai argued that a workers’ state must liberate women from enslavement to continuous childbearing and to the drudgery of endless cooking, cleaning and childcare. She predicted that freeing women from these burdens would give rise to a “new woman” – tough, independent, as free as a man to lead an active life outside the home, to experience love outside of marriage, and to pursue her talents through work. At Kollontai’s urging, communal restaurants and laundries were set up and childcare facilities created for working women. In addition, all laws against abortion were repealed, and contraception was made available to all. Women who did the same jobs as men had to be paid the same wages.

Women could divorce their husbands by simply notifying the authorities, and men could do the same. A parent’s – meaning in most cases a man’s – responsibility for children born out of wedlock was the same as that required for children of a marriage. In fact, the very status of illegitimacy was abolished. Blood, not marriage, became the basis for assigning parental responsibility for maintenance, education, and supervision of children. And this responsibility was not affected by divorce.

Another important reform that especially benefited women was mass education. Illiteracy was widespread in Russia, but almost universal among peasant women. According to one observer, the typical peasant woman “dragged through life, working as hard as men in the fields, having and losing her babies [in some rural areas infant mortality was as high as 70 percent], cooking and carrying water, washing the clothes in the river, making the fires, spinning and weaving through the winter months, milking the cows, and for all this getting nothing but abuse and beatings from her husband.”1 If women were ever to be treated as anything more than beasts of burden, they had to learn to read and write.

The literacy campaign was led by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of enlightenment, whose staff was mostly women, including Nadezhda Krupskaya and Natalia Sedova, the partners, respectively, of Lenin and Trotsky. Thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers fanned out through the length and breadth of Soviet Russia, working to stamp out illiteracy. Even in the Red Army, soldiers took literacy classes during lulls in the fighting. The results were dramatic: within two years, 60 percent of the population could read and write, at least at a rudimentary level.

Apart from literacy, however, the government’s efforts to liberate women were limited by a desperate lack of resources. So, for example, some of the childcare centers sought by Kollontai were set up, but they were bleak institutions full of malnourished children cared for by half-starved attendants. Communal restaurants serving watery cabbage soup were not appealing alternatives to a working woman’s kitchen, where she might at least be able, occasionally, to cook an egg or a piece of bacon obtained on the black market. One consequence of poverty that was especially degrading to women was prostitution. Women who worked in factories, for example, earned so little that they frequently took money for sex. Widespread prostitution, moreover, led to an epidemic of venereal disease. The only solution was to raise women’s standard of living, but under the circumstances, this was impossible.

“War Communism”

The bitter reality was that the Russian economy had almost ceased to function. By 1921, the country’s total production was one-third of what it had been before the World War. In retaliation for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allies had imposed a blockade on Soviet Russia in 1918.  Until it was lifted two years later, no food, medicine, or anything else, even mail, could enter the country. For nearly three years, wheat, coal and iron from Ukraine were cut off, first because of German occupation and then because most of the province was controlled by White armies. With no fuel, the bitter winter of 1919 was a nightmare: people froze to death on the streetcars, in hospitals, in their homes. Supplies of oil and cotton from other parts of the former Russian Empire were also severed by the Civil War (see below). Russia’s cities were depopulated as workers left to scavenge for food in the countryside. The working class was reduced in size by half.  Workers who remained in the factories that still functioned frequently fainted from hunger at their machines; many survived only by stealing what they produced and bartering it for food.

Because the factories were producing so few goods, there was nothing for peasants to buy in exchange for their crops. Consequently, they hoarded their surplus grain, hoping for better times to come. But this meant starvation for the cities. To prevent complete disaster the Soviet government initiated a policy of requisitioning grain. Armed battalions were sent out to the countryside, and peasants were compelled to surrender all they produced in excess of what was needed for their families’ survival. Naturally, this policy was bitterly resented by the peasants.

As far as industry was concerned, the Bolsheviks had originally planned only a very gradual taking over of the economy while awaiting revolution in Germany. After the October Revolution, factories were left under private ownership. But workers immediately began taking matters into their own hands, seizing control of factories and driving out the bosses – just as the peasants had earlier seized the land. As a result, the Soviet government began nationalizing industries. The stock market was shut down, and banks and stores were also taken over by the state. Housing was nationalized too. In the cities and towns, economic life was now largely controlled by the government. These policies, together with grain requisitioning, were essentially an emergency response to food shortages, low productivity and industrial chaos. In 1921, when the Party ended requisitioning and suspended nationalizations, Lenin referred to them after the fact as “War Communism,” a term that has been used by historians ever since. Despite the fact that it was Lenin himself who coined the term, however, it was something of a misnomer; in the minds of most Bolshevik leaders, hyper-centralization, authoritarianism, and the coercion of workers and peasants had nothing to do with communism.2

The Civil War

By the time the October Revolution took place, there were few Russians who were willing to fight for the Provisional Government. The old ruling classes – the generals, businessmen, landowners, etc. — were thoroughly demoralized. Many went into exile, and the ones who remained in Russia had no idea what to do. General Alexei Kaledin, one of the first to organize a White Army, said, right before he committed suicide early in 1918: “Our situation is hopeless.  The population not only does not support us – it is definitely hostile. We have no strength, and resistance is useless.”3 But support soon came from abroad. After the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allies sent troops, military advisers, guns and ammunition to the Whites; by supporting the counterrevolution, they hoped to bring Russia back into the War.

Now the Whites began to revive, but essentially as mercenary forces financed by the imperialist powers. The United States funneled millions of dollars to Cossack warlords and then to the White generals in the belief that Russia would only return to the Eastern Front under a military dictatorship; there was no pretense to “restoring democracy.” Without the support of the United States and other imperialists, the Whites would likely have collapsed in less than a year, thus obviating the necessity for the harsh, repressive policies of War Communism and perhaps short-circuiting the authoritarian degeneration of the Bolshevik regime, at least for a time – time that might have a made a critical difference in the prospects for international revolution.

The first serious blow came to the Soviets in June 1919. The Czech Legion consisted of 30,000 prisoners-of-war, who had been captured earlier from the Austro-Hungarian army and organized by the Provisional Government to fight for Czech independence on the side of the Allies. Under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks had agreed to expel them from Russia.  As they were being taken east, the Czechs mutinied and took over the Trans-Siberian Railway, thus severing a vital line of communication. The Legion then proceeded to occupy vast areas of the country, overthrowing local soviets wherever they went. The Russian Civil War had begun.

The Czechs joined forces with Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who, with the support of Japanese and U.S. troops, seized control of Siberia and proclaimed himself “Supreme Ruler of Russia.”  Kolchak’s army sped westward toward Moscow, where the Bolsheviks had transferred the Soviet capital. From southern Russia a second White army, under the command of General Anton Denikin and backed by French and British forces, headed north toward Moscow as well.  And in Estonia General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British support, was getting ready to march on Petrograd. With three White armies advancing toward the Russian heartland from the east, south and west, Bolshevik control was soon reduced to a mere 25 percent of the country.

As commissar of war, Trotsky had to build up a Red Army almost from scratch. There were a few thousand Red Guards, but these were primarily factory workers with only the most elementary military training. At first Trotsky appealed to the Soviets and the Bolshevik Party for volunteers; thousands answered his call, and they became the dedicated core of the Red Army. Then peasants were drafted; they were much less reliable and committed than working-class soldiers, and desertions were a constant problem. Since military expertise was desperately needed, and there was no time to create a big enough corps of trained Bolshevik officers, Trotsky used large numbers of officers from the Tsarist army; eventually 30,000 of them served in the Red Army. There were surprisingly few cases of treason, largely because every commanding officer was assigned a Bolshevik commissar, who kept him under surveillance and had to approve his every order. In addition to the commissars, all Party members were expected to educate and inspire their fellow soldiers – to explain the aims of the war and set an example of courage under fire.

Like any large army under combat conditions, the Red Army was a strictly hierarchical command organization. At the same time, unlike capitalist armies, discipline was extraordinarily lenient. Relatively few deserters were executed; most were simply fined or assigned to work in rear units. Intense efforts were made to educate soldiers, with literacy classes and even libraries and reading rooms. The goal was to prepare soldiers to participate in the institutions of the workers state once peace was restored – not to create professional soldiers.

In July 1918 Kolchak’s forces approached the town of Ekaterinburg, where the former Tsar and his family were being held prisoner. Plans had been made to eventually stage a public trial of Nicholas II, similar to the trials of Charles I by the British Parliament and Louis XVI by the French Convention. But now the Bolsheviks feared the imperial family might be rescued by the Whites and used to strengthen the counterrevolution, which had so far lacked a unifying leader.  For this reason, the local Bolsheviks made a hasty decision to execute the whole family. Early in the morning of July 17, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children were taken down to the basement of the house in which they were being held, and shot.

By August, Kolchak had reached the city of Kazan, 400 miles from Moscow. In the city of Samara, in central Russia, Victor Chernov, leader of the Right Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), and some other members of the former Constituent Assembly had established an anti-Soviet government, hoping for Kolchak’s protection. But Kolchak rudely crushed this would-be government and executed some of its leaders. Neither he nor any of the other White generals were interested in replacing Soviet rule with a parliamentary democracy. Instead they planned either to restore the Tsarist autocracy or become dictators themselves.

At Svyazhk, across the river from Kazan, the Red Army seethed with panic and confusion.  If it failed to stop Kolchak here, the road would be open to Moscow and, probably, the end of the Soviet state. In the nick of time, Trotsky arrived on a special train and rallied the dispirited soldiers. One of the Red Army’s strengths was that it fought for ideals. A gifted speaker and writer, Trotsky knew how to inspire soldiers and urge them on to greater risks and sacrifices.  His train was equipped with a printing press for producing pamphlets and reprinting his speeches, which were then distributed en masse. Trotsky also proved to be a brilliant military strategist, a remarkable accomplishment for an intellectual with no military experience.

Kolchak was defeated at Svyazhk and turned back, but this was only the beginning. For the next two years and more, the Reds fought the Whites. The Russian Civil War was extremely cruel; terrible atrocities were committed by both sides. Back in December 1917, the Bolsheviks had created a special police force to deal with those who supported the Whites – the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counterrevolution and Sabotage, known by its acronym as the Cheka. The Cheka had the power to arrest suspected counterrevolutionaries and imprison or execute them without trial. When the Civil War broke out, it launched the Red Terror, a policy of mass arrests and executions designed to intimidate – to “terrorize” – the counterrevolution and break its will to fight. This was seen by the Bolsheviks as an emergency measure, necessitated by the Whites’ own ferocity and the need to win the Civil War at any cost. One official of this new political police himself declared that the Cheka “has no place in our constitutional system. The time of civil war, the time of extraordinary conditions of existence of Soviet power, will pass, and the Cheka will become superfluous.” Nonetheless, by the time the Civil War ended, an estimated 50,000 people had been executed by the Cheka. About 25,000 prisoners were held in concentration camps — though these were not Nazi-style death camps, and half the prisoners were released when the war was over.

The White Terror was more disorganized than the Red Terror, but it was far more brutal and cost far more lives. The Cheka was not supposed to use torture on prisoners,4 and Red Army soldiers who were caught looting or raping women were shot; these practices, on the other hand, were typical of the White armies. General Lavr Kornilov, who led the first White army before he was killed in combat, once declared that Russia must be saved from the Bolsheviks “even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of three-fourths of all the Russians.”5 In Siberia, Kolchak’s troops hanged men and women from miles of telegraph poles and machine-gunned them by the hundreds in boxcars and open fields. Denikin’s army had occupied Ukraine when German troops were withdrawn after the armistice; there his men launched a pogrom against the Jewish population that far exceeded those of Tsarist times. Vowing death to “Jew-Communists,” the Whites massacred 150,000 Jews.  Whole communities of Jews fled to the Red Army for protection. As fervent Russian nationalists, the White generals also dealt harshly with the other non-Russian nationalities that inhabited the territories they occupied – Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians and others. Had the Whites won the Civil War, it is fair to say that Russia would have seen something very like fascism.

During 1919 Trotsky’s Red Army managed to defeat the Whites on all fronts. Kolchak’s troops were overcome and pushed back into Siberia; Kolchak himself was finally captured and shot. Denikin was driven out of Ukraine. And in the fall, Yudenich came close to capturing Petrograd before he too was defeated. The Whites’ principal weakness was that they lacked significant popular support. Urban workers were generally pro-Bolshevik. Peasants, the most numerous class, had little love for the Bolsheviks, especially after the forced requisitioning of grain got underway, but they regarded the Whites as an even greater evil. Wherever the White armies went, they were followed by the remnants of the old regime, and above all by the landowners. Peasants understood clearly that victory for the Whites would mean the restoration of the landlords’ estates and the loss of all the land they had just won.

Still, if the Whites had acted simultaneously, under unified command, and if they had received stronger support from foreign governments, they might have won. Instead, the three main White armies attacked separately, at different times, and they were led by men who were bitter rivals. On the other hand, the Reds, even though they had virtually no army when the Civil War began, possessed the advantages of centralized leadership.

The imperialist powers, as we have seen, gave crucial assistance to the Whites, but mostly in the form of money and munitions, not vast numbers of troops. This was mainly because of a great upsurge of sympathy and support for the Revolution among Western workers. In France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, dockworkers refused to load ships with weapons and supplies destined for the Whites. Western statesmen quickly realized that a large-scale intervention was too dangerous. Troops were unreliable and might mutiny. When Winston Churchill demanded that more British soldiers be sent to Russia, Prime Minister David Lloyd George replied, “If Great Britain undertakes military action against the Bolsheviks, Great Britain herself will become Bolshevik and we will have soviets in London.”6 In retrospect this seems wildly alarmist, but it reflects the fears of contemporary European elites. The British Labour Party finally succeeded in ending their country’s intervention, and in January1920 the blockade was lifted.

The year 1920 saw the last gasp of the counterrevolution in Russia. In March Polish troops invaded Ukraine from the west, but they were driven back by the Red Army almost to the outskirts of Warsaw.7 In the fall, Baron Peter Wrangel landed on the Black Sea coast, accompanied by French troops, and pushed into Ukraine from the south. The French soldiers mutinied, however, and Wrangel was quickly defeated by the Reds, thus ending the last significant military threat from the Whites.

One consequence of the Civil War was the re-incorporation into Russia of several border regions. When the Bolsheviks took power they declared the right of all non-Russian nationalities to separate if they wished and establish independent states. Poland, Finland and the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – did so successfully. Ukraine also declared its independence, as did the peoples inhabiting the Caucasus Mountain region in the south – Georgians, Azeris and Armenians. But during the Civil War, Ukraine and the Caucasus became bases for the White armies, and in the course of the war they were reconquered. In 1922 Russia was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and several areas in Central Asia became, supposedly, autonomous republics within the larger Soviet federation, but they were not in fact self-governing.

A One-Party State

Another casualty of the Civil War was workers’ democracy. Soon after taking power, the Bolsheviks suppressed all the other political parties. But, as historian E.H. Carr observed, “If it was true that the Bolshevik regime was not prepared after the first few months to tolerate an organized opposition, it was equally true that no opposition was prepared to remain within legal limits.”8

After walking out of the Congress of Soviets in November 1917, the Mensheviks and Right SRs joined forces with the Cadets and industrialists to form a counterrevolutionary committee, which called on the troops to overthrow the Soviet government; not one regiment responded. They then fomented a mutiny of the “junkers” – officer cadets – in alliance with monarchists, while simultaneously supporting Kaledin, who was marching on Petrograd.

Because the Cadets and the Right SRs supported the Counterrevolution, either through their newspapers and other writings, or by active participation on the side of the Whites, they were banned as political parties, their leaders were arrested, and by the summer of 1918, all their newspapers had been suppressed.

Many of the Mensheviks joined the Bolshevik Party, others retreated into silence or left the country, but some remained in opposition and a few joined the Right SRs in advocating the forcible overthrow of the Bolshevik regime. As a result, the Menshevik Party, too, was eventually outlawed. Many of the Left SRs also drifted into the Bolshevik ranks, but others became more and more hostile to Bolshevik policies. As members of the Council of People’s Commissars, the Left SR leaders had vehemently opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and they objected strongly to the forcible requisitioning of peasants’ grain.

Finally, at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets in July 1918, the Left SRs broke their coalition with the Bolsheviks. Amid the splendor of the Bolshoi Theater, a dramatic confrontation took place between Lenin and Maria Spiridonova, the Left SRs’ chief spokesperson. Spiridonova was, like Alexandra Kollontai, a revolutionary of noble birth. A terrorist since the age of 20, she had suffered many years of imprisonment and brutal beatings under the Tsar. Now, she denounced the Bolsheviks for betraying the peasantry.  Lenin replied that the government had no choice but to seize the peasants’ grain; to do otherwise would mean starvation for the cities. On the final day of the Congress, Spiridonova strode into the theater dressed in black, with a red carnation pinned to her breast; raising a pistol above her head, she shouted “long live the revolt!”

The Left SRs tried to seize power in Moscow. In addition, they carried out terrorist attacks on the Bolsheviks. Several Bolshevik leaders were assassinated, and Lenin was shot in the chest by a young woman, Fanya Kaplan; he recovered. The revolt was suppressed, and the Left SRs were outlawed as well. Now the Bolsheviks – the Russian Communist Party — were the only legal party in Soviet Russia.

The Bolsheviks themselves were transformed by the Civil War. A great many Party members served in the Red Army. They were usually in the forefront of the fighting, urging on the others, trying to inspire by their example. But as a result, casualties were particularly high among the Communists, and many of the dead had been the most experienced and dedicated members of the Party. Thus the Party was depleted of some of its most idealistic elements, and these were replaced by new, inexperienced members, many of whom were more interested in a job than in socialist principles.

But even among veteran Bolsheviks, the hardship and cruelty of the Civil War had a coarsening, even a brutalizing, effect. The Red Army, like any army, was not run in a democratic fashion.  Officers gave orders, and expected them to be obeyed without question — when the enemy is bearing down, there is no time for discussions and votes. But after two or three years of this experience, Communists got used to military ways, became accustomed to commanding instead of persuading – a habit that was hard to break after the war was over.

The Communist Party itself became more authoritarian. Prior to the Civil War, it was a fairly free-wheeling organization, within which there were often strong differences of opinion and fierce debates. Party members never felt afraid to challenge the leaders if they disagreed with them, and the leaders often disagreed among themselves. When the Party was divided over an issue – say, whether to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or even whether to take power in November 1917 — organized factions formed around each of the different positions and tried to get the support of a majority of the members. But the need to hold a disintegrating country together during the Civil War convinced most Communists that it was more important to present a united front to those outside the Party and not to be seen as divided and indecisive, which might encourage the counterrevolutionaries.

Debates within the Party continued, but they tended to take place among the leaders; the membership became more passive.  Contributing to this passivity was the increasing centralization of the Party. The Bolshevik Party had always been led by a Central Committee, elected by the delegates to the yearly Party congresses, who were in turn elected by the Party members in their local branches, which were called cells. In 1919 a new, smaller body was created – the Political Bureau, or “Politburo.” The Central Committee, which had dozens of members, met only once every two months, but the Politburo, consisting of only five to seven men, met every week; here was where the important decisions were made.

Once the Politburo made a decision, members were expected to carry it out in a disciplined way, much as soldiers have to carry out orders. Since Communist Party members held leading positions in factories, banks, universities, the army and navy, these institutions all came under the Party’s control. Most Party members were no longer factory workers, as was true prior to the Revolution; most were now officials, bureaucrats, bosses of the new Soviet state. Officially, the Russian government was still in the hands of the elected Soviets; but since the Communists had become the only legal party, political decisions were made by the Party’s leaders, and then rubber-stamped by the Soviet “government.” The Soviets met less and less frequently. The Communist Party had become a tightly-organized control network.

Meanwhile, the economy was going from bad to worse. The Civil War had wreaked complete havoc.  Terrible famines broke out in several parts of the country, followed by epidemics of typhus and other deadly diseases. An estimated seven million people died of starvation and disease during the Civil War. Requisitioning drove down grain production; peasants cultivated only enough land to feed their families, refusing to produce any surplus that might be seized. In the cities, the working class was decimated.

War Communism imposed sacrifices on everyone, including Communists.  In Moscow’s Kremlin, a fortress in the center of the city that now housed the Soviet government, Lenin, Trotsky (when he was not at the front) and the other leaders slept on folding cots in their offices and ate bad food in the cafeteria.  A stern equality prevailed.  But Marxists had always assumed that socialism would be built in a highly developed economy capable of producing an abundance of goods. Inequality would be abolished by bringing up the standard of living for everyone. War Communism, instead, was based on a disastrously scarce supply of goods; inequality was abolished, but by reducing everyone to roughly the same low standard of living. Now all were poor.

This dismal state of affairs could be remedied only by revolution in the West, the Bolsheviks believed. But the success of socialist revolution in Germany and other countries depended in turn on the ability of the Bolsheviks to hold onto power in Russia. If the counterrevolution triumphed here, all would be lost, they thought. So the banning of parties, the suppression of freedom of the press, the death penalty, the use of a secret police, all were seen as necessary, if temporary, expedients, means of clinging to power while awaiting revolution in Europe. The trouble was, the Bolsheviks could not cling to power without some popular support, and this was fast eroding.  The most acute danger came from the peasantry. Once the Whites had been defeated and the Civil War was over, the peasants were no longer in danger of losing their land. Now they saw no reason to tolerate grain requisitioning, and many saw no reason to tolerate the Bolsheviks at all.

In 1920 peasant uprisings began to break out. There were strikes in factories, where harsh wartime conditions had imposed regimentation and strict discipline on the workers. Then in March 1921 sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, on an island that guarded the approach to Petrograd, revolted, demanding the legalization of other political parties and free elections to the Soviets. Among the rebellious sailors were men who had been ardent Bolsheviks back in 1917, but now, influenced by the anger that was spreading through the peasant villages from which they came, they turned against the Bolsheviks. After negotiations failed, the government believed it had no choice but to crush the revolt by force. To do nothing would mean losing most of the Soviet navy, allowing the revolt to spread, and opening the door to the return of the Whites. To give in to the sailor’s demands would mean the end of Bolshevik rule – they would probably lose the elections because of the immense peasant vote – and this too would render Russia helpless against a bloody restoration of the old order in some form.

The Kronstadt revolt prompted the Bolsheviks to take two drastic measures. Until the Party could win back the support of the peasants and workers, Lenin believed that it must stay united.  So, to prevent any splits in the Party’s ranks, organized factions were banned. Vigorous discussion did not disappear from the Party, and members with different opinions continued to argue for them in the Party’s publications. Lenin considered the ban to be temporary, and he hoped it could be lifted in a short time. But in fact the ban on factions was never lifted, and during the next half-decade it played a crucial role in strengthening the forces of authoritarianism within the Party.

The second measure was an attempt to repair the government’s relations with the peasants.  In 1921 the grain requisitions were ended. Peasants were now encouraged to grow as much surplus grain as they could, and they were permitted to sell their surpluses on the open markets.  This was the New Economic Policy (NEP), which will be discussed in more detail below.

The Prospect of International Revolution

Before and during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks saw many signs of an approaching worldwide revolution. Indeed, leaders of the capitalist countries saw the same signs and were deeply troubled.  In 1919 Lloyd George wrote:

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions.  The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population, from one end of Europe to the other. In some countries, like Germany and Russia, the unrest takes the form of open rebellion, in others, like France, Great Britain and Italy, it takes the shape of strikes and of general disinclination to settle down to work, symptoms which are just as much concerned with the desire for political and social change as with wage demands.”9

In 1919, revolution was in the air, and not only in Europe. China’s cities were shaken by violent demonstrations against imperialism. In India, a campaign of mass civil disobedience led by Mohandas Gandhi, brought the country to the very brink of revolution. Even in the United States – which had the most conservative labor movement of any industrialized country, and with a working class bitterly divided by racial and ethnic hatreds – thousands of steelworkers fought pitched battles with police and national guard troops, and the entire city of Seattle was paralyzed by a general strike.

By 1919, conditions in Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had become especially unstable, so it was there, in Central Europe, that the Bolsheviks believed the workers would follow their example and seize power. Afterward, revolution could be expected to spread to France, Italy, Britain – eventually, perhaps, even to the United States.

In November 1918, the German monarchy was overthrown and power was in the hands of workers,’ sailors’ and soldiers’ councils. But the counterrevolutionary leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, having seen what happened in Russia the year before (forewarned is forearmed), were determined to prevent the November Revolution from becoming radicalized and following Russia’s pattern. They did this by allying with the Army and provoking a premature insurrection in January 1919 – the so-called Spartakus Uprising – which enabled them to decapitate the infant German Communist Party; its leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered.

This defeat was a serious setback for the Bolsheviks, but only a temporary one, they hoped.  They were convinced, reasonably enough, that Central Europe was in the midst of a revolutionary situation. The old ruling groups – the capitalists, landowners, generals, etc. — were weak and unpopular. The masses were in a combative mood. The only thing lacking was a trained revolutionary party capable of leading the workers. But how were revolutionary parties to be created? In 1917 the Bolsheviks had already had the benefit of 14 years of experience as an independent revolutionary organization. Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, some revolutionary socialists had only just formed Communist parties, which were generally small and amateurish, while others were still members of the established socialist parties and had no organization of their own. The need for effective Communist parties was urgent. If they did not emerge in time, the workers would lose hope, the revolutionary moment would pass, and the old rulers, with the help of the rightwing social democrats, would regain their self-confidence and recapture their power – as had already begun to happen in Germany. And then Soviet Russia would be truly isolated, thrown back on it own resources – who could tell for how long?

The Communist International

On March 2, 1919, a group of revolutionary socialists from several European countries gathered in Moscow to form a new International. To distinguish it from the Socialist, or “Second” International (The First dated back to Marx and Engels’ day in the mid-19th century), it was called the Communist, or Third, International – Comintern for short. The group was small – only 19 delegates had managed to get through the blockade; together with the Russian representatives, the meeting was attended by a grand total of 35. But it set up an executive committee and published a manifesto, written by Trotsky. The Comintern Manifesto was a call to workers and peasants throughout the world to revolt against capitalism and colonialism. It repudiated the reformism of the established socialist parties and declared that workers’ councils – soviets – should be set up everywhere as the basis for revolution.

In July 1920, the second congress of the Communist International was held. This time, 200 delegates attended, representing organizations in 40 countries. The Bolsheviks drew up 21 Conditions for membership. All parties wishing to join the Comintern had to make serious preparations for revolution. All had to declare their total opposition to colonialism and to support freedom for the colonial subjects of their own countries. The Comintern was organized in a highly centralized fashion. Once the congress of the International, which was to meet every year in Moscow, made a decision, all member parties were expected to pursue essentially the same policies. The Russians, as the leaders of the only successful socialist revolution so far, naturally predominated, and Grigori Zinoviev was elected president of the Comintern. But delegates from other countries also had a say, and there were intense debates over strategy.

By 1921, however, the first wave of revolutionary ferment had receded in Europe. The Bolsheviks now had to find a way to maintain control of Russia until the next wave – which they expected soon. The October Revolution was still a beacon of hope to millions of European workers, but at home the Bolsheviks had lost much of the popularity they achieved in 1917, particularly among Russia’s peasants. Lenin knew full well that without the peasants’ support or, at least, toleration, his government could not last more than a few more years. So he proposed the New Economic Policy. The Bolsheviks’ ultimate goal remained the same: the overthrow of capitalism in at least one major capitalist country – most likely Germany — as the basis for creating a socialist society in Russia.  But in the meantime, there would have to be a temporary compromise with capitalism.10

The NEP Period: 1921-1928

The first thing the NEP did was to abolish grain requisitioning and institute an agricultural tax in its place. Now, instead of turning over all their surplus to the state, peasants only had to surrender a fixed percentage of it. This was called a tax “in kind,” but in 1923 it was transformed into a tax in money. Since peasants could now keep most of their surplus, they had an incentive to increase the size of that surplus. This was especially true because the NEP also permitted free trade in agricultural produce. Peasants could bring their surplus grain – or cabbages, beets, apples, chickens, pigs, what have you – to markets and charge whatever price buyers were willing to pay. Soon a class of merchants emerged that bought up the peasants’ goods and re-sold them in the towns and cities. These middlemen were called  “Nepmen.” They were essentially capitalists, and many began to accumulate small fortunes from the new opportunities provided by the NEP. Among the peasants, the kulaks – the better-off peasants who owned more land and possessed horses for plowing and other livestock – were able to take greater advantage of the NEP than other peasants. Eventually the kulaks were permitted to rent state-owned land and to hire farm workers. In agriculture the new policy brought immediate results: farm production began to increase and within a few years had recovered from the effects of the World War and the Civil War.

The NEP also allowed a limited amount of private ownership in retail trade and manufacturing. Here too enterprising Nepmen went into business, establishing stores and small factories – workshops, really, since the NEP only permitted privately-owned plants with 20 or fewer employees. The government was careful to retain control of what were called the “commanding heights” of the economy – banking, transportation (railways and shipping), foreign trade, mining, oil production and large-scale industry (iron and steel, machinery, vehicles, textiles, etc.). All the big factories and major businesses that had been nationalized in 1918 remained state property.

The NEP now meant that Russia had a mixed economy – part capitalist and part socialist, though the socialist sector was clearly dominant. On the other hand, could even the state-owned part of the economy be called “socialist” in reality? Marxists, and especially the Bolsheviks, had always defined a socialist economy as one that is controlled democratically by the working class itself. But in a one-party state, could democracy be said to exist?  Lenin quite frankly admitted that it could not.  He said that the Bolshevik regime was a workers’ state only in an extremely “deformed” way: the only thing that made it “socialist” was that it was led by a Party – the Communists – that had socialist intentions. These intentions could be fulfilled only when help arrived from successful revolutions in the West.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik dictatorship was somewhat liberalized under the NEP. With the end of the Civil War, there was no more need for the Red Terror. Non-Communists were allowed to speak and write with considerable freedom – although they were still not permitted to form political parties. The death penalty had been abolished even before the Civil War was over. The Cheka, with its power to arrest and execute suspects without trial, had been seen as a temporary necessity, in order to combat the counterrevolution.  In 1922 it was abolished and replaced by a new political police force called the State Political Directorate Administration – to be known by its Russian initials, GPU.  Later, under Stalin, the GPU became a lawless instrument of mass terror, but under the NEP it had to turn over the people it arrested for counterrevolutionary activity to the regular courts. The vast majority of those held in prisons and labor camps were common criminals, not political prisoners.

Also under the NEP there was a flourishing of the arts, especially modern art. Artists involved in more traditional forms – opera and ballet, representational painting – tended to be hostile to the Revolution, and many of them went into exile. But many younger artists – for example painters of non-representational, or “abstract,” pictures and architects who wanted to design modern, light-filled housing for the masses – rallied to the Bolsheviks, and were in turn supported by government funds. Film was an especially important medium, and Soviet film-makers of the 1920s – Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and others – had an enormous influence on the development of cinema throughout the world.

Problems of the NEP

The NEP proved to be highly unstable, and it soon ran into problems. By 1923 agriculture was doing so well that there was actually a glut of farm produce on the market, which brought down agricultural prices. At the same time, however, industry was recovering much more slowly than agriculture. This meant that manufactured goods – especially consumer goods such as clothing, furniture, soap, tools and cooking utensils – were still scarce and their prices high.  Consequently, peasants could buy less and less with the money they were making from their crops and livestock; there were too few consumer goods, and they were too expensive. Peasants began to grumble; what was the point of growing more if there was so little to buy with the profits?

Industry lagged behind because there were so few resources for investment. In the “socialist” sector of the economy there was no overall coordination, no planning.  State-owned industries competed with each other, and they had to finance themselves. That is, each factory had to make a profit or else it went out of business. Since factory managers were desperate to make as much profit as possible, so as to have funds for investment and to keep from going under, they charged high prices for their products and paid low wages to their workers. And since many industries could not compete, they had to lay off their workers or shut down altogether, so there was high unemployment.

The problem of investment was especially acute in heavy industry – metals, machinery, vehicles, mining. Light industry – consumer goods like clothing and furniture – grew slowly, but heavy industry hardly grew at all and was producing far less than before the War. Textile factories needed machinery, however; as mechanical spinners and looms broke down, they had to be replaced. Where were the new machines to come from? What about the steel and rubber to make the machines? And how could even light industry expand without a corresponding growth in the heavy industries that produced the fuel to power the machines – coal and oil?

The Struggle to Succeed Lenin

In May 1922 Lenin suffered a serious stroke. He recovered, but in December he had a second stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Lenin could no longer write — he now had to dictate all his articles – or speak in public, and he stopped attending meetings of the Politburo. Within the Politburo there had always been friction between the “Old Bolsheviks” – individuals who had worked with Lenin since before the 1905 Revolution – and Trotsky, who had not joined the Bolshevik Party until 1917 but had nevertheless played a role second only to Lenin’s ever since. Now that Lenin’s health was jeopardized, the leading Old Bolsheviks – Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin – formed a secret faction calling itself the “Troika,” a Russian word for a sled pulled by three horses. The aim of the Troika was to isolate Trotsky and prevent him from succeeding Lenin as the Party leader.

Trotsky’s most implacable enemy was Stalin. A good part of the latter’s hatred was based on envy. Trotsky was a supremely gifted writer, a passionate and spellbinding orator and a profound Marxist thinker. Stalin was utterly pedestrian and uncouth. His writings were dull and leaden, his personality coarse and abrasive. He had no talent for public speaking and in fact rarely appeared in public. He was incapable of producing an original idea. He was secretive to the point of paranoia. But Stalin did not lack talent.  He was an extremely skillful organizer – patient, meticulous and hard working – and it was this that enabled him to rise in the Party’s ranks.

Like many of Russia’s revolutionaries, Stalin was not ethnically Russian. He was born Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili in the Georgian town of Gori, the son of a poor shoemaker. Young Iosif’s mother wanted him to be a priest in the Georgian Orthodox Church, but he was expelled from the seminary and became a professional revolutionary. Joining the Bolshevik Party, he changed his name to Stalin, meaning “man of steel.”11 Stalin played a very minor role in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but after the Bolsheviks took power he was entrusted with the day-to-day administration of the Party.

In 1922 Stalin was given the post of General Secretary. The Russian Communist Party had, by this point, become a vast and complex organization that, as we have seen, essentially ran the Soviet government. The Party Secretariat, of which Stalin was now the head, consisted of thousands of full-time officials who prepared meetings, collected information, transmitted decisions and kept files on all Party members. As General Secretary, Stalin had the authority to appoint, promote and fire all of them. Because he worked behind the scenes, few ordinary Russians had any inkling of how much power the General Secretary possessed, and most did not even know his name.

Meanwhile, in 1923 Trotsky, who was not yet aware of the conspiracy against him, became an outspoken critic of the NEP and the growing authoritarianism of the Party and the Soviet state. He stressed four points: (1) a plan was needed to speed up the pace of industrialization, (2) workers’ democracy should be revived, (3) the growth of bureaucracy must be reversed, and (4) a greater effort must be made to spread the revolution internationally. Every one of these points was a challenge to the Troika, and especially to the Party bureaucracy headed by Stalin.

Trotsky warned that the shortage of manufactured goods was embittering the peasants and turning them against the Soviet state. The kulaks and the Nepmen were getting richer and more powerful, and they might soon constitute a counterrevolutionary force. More and cheaper goods must be produced as soon as possible. Industry must become more productive, but for that the workers themselves needed to be drawn into factory management. This proposal directly threatened the bureaucracy – the factory managers and Party officials who preferred to manage the economy in a totally authoritarian, top-down manner, with no participation by ordinary workers. Trotsky called on the state to encourage workers to criticize the way things were done and to offer new ideas. With input from the workers, a rational plan could be put together.

Trotsky deplored the bureaucratic condition of the Communist Party, most of whose members had been reduced to a mass of passive, silent hand-raisers. In theory the Party was supposed to be controlled by its members, and Party officials were supposed to be elected. In reality, elections were a farce — officials were, in effect, appointed by the Party secretaries. At Party meetings, the members were given the names of candidates selected beforehand by the secretaries, one for every position, and then they were asked, “who is against?” Most members were afraid to oppose the secretaries’ choice, especially since it might mean losing their jobs.  Trotsky wanted to see real elections, with debates and competing candidates.

Trotsky angrily denounced the bureaucracy’s mismanagement of the Communist International. It was imperative for the Comintern to help prepare revolutions in the West – in principle, all the Bolsheviks still agreed on this point. But Zinoviev, as president of the Comintern, was more concerned to make sure foreign Communist parties were controlled by leaders who were loyal to him, even if they were incompetent. In fact, Trotsky believed that the bureaucracy in Russia was losing interest in the risky business of promoting revolutions elsewhere, even if it still paid lip service to the idea. A successful revolution in Germany, say, would establish a much more democratic socialist state than Russia’s had become, and this might threaten the bureaucracy’s dominance.12

Lenin too had become alarmed by the growing power of the bureaucracy in general and Stalin in particular. He and Trotsky made an agreement to work together on this issue. In December 1922 and January 1923, after his second stroke, Lenin dictated a series of suggestions to the Party – his Testament.  He made several proposals for combating bureaucracy and explicitly called for the removal of Stalin.  The Troika, however, refused to allow Lenin’s Testament to be published, so the public was unaware of its existence. Feeling isolated within the Politburo, Trotsky counted on Lenin’s recovery before making a public challenge to this suppression. But in March Lenin had a third stroke that left him almost totally incapacitated.  Trotsky now stood alone against the four other members of the Politburo: Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin – the Troika – and Nikolai Bukharin, a strong supporter of the NEP and another enemy of Trotsky.

The Left Opposition

Despite the jealousy and hostility of the Troika, Trotsky had many supporters outside the Politburo among idealistic younger Party members and among the older generation of Bolshevik leaders, who were as appalled as he was by the degeneration of Soviet Russia. In October 1923, 46 well-known Old Bolsheviks signed a letter addressed to the Politburo declaring their agreement with Trotsky. The Platform of the Forty-Six, as it became known, denounced the stifling of internal democracy within the Communist Party; it demanded a plan for rapid industrialization and the lifting of the ban on organized Party factions.13 There was now an informal grouping of critics under Trotsky’s leadership that called itself the Left Opposition. It included prominent Bolsheviks such as Karl Radek, a leader of the Comintern, Christian Rakovsky, a Soviet diplomat, Ivan Smirnov, a hero of the Civil War, and the economist Yuri Pyatakov.

When vigorous discussion of the Opposition’s proposals began to break out among Party members, Trotsky’s enemies launched a powerful counter-attack. The Troika controlled the press, so for every article by an Oppositionist there were ten or more by Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin and their supporters. Trotsky was attacked as a latecomer to Bolshevism, a former semi-Menshevik who had always been against Lenin; the Troika, on the other hand, posed as Lenin’s true heirs. The program of the Left Opposition was dismissed as reckless and impractical. Its leaders were accused of trying to destroy the unity of the Party by their insistence on permitting factions. The Opposition’s criticisms of the NEP were branded as “anti-peasant.”  Stalin, who by now controlled an extensive network of Party secretaries, factory mangers and other bureaucrats, expertly choreographed Party meetings so that the Opposition was always outnumbered.

During these debates, as luck would have it, Trotsky himself was unable to participate because he too was felled by serious illness. On a duck-hunting expedition in a marshy area near Moscow, he caught malaria. To recuperate, he was sent to the warmer climate of the Black Sea coast, far from Moscow. Then, on Jan. 21, 1924, Lenin suffered a fourth stroke and died. The Troika organized an elaborate funeral ceremony. As a member of the Politburo, Trotsky should have been a prominent participant, but Stalin sent him a telegram saying that the funeral would take place too soon for him to return to Moscow by train. In fact, the telegram was a lie. The ceremony was to occur a day later than Stalin claimed, but the Troika considered it important to exclude Trotsky so that they could present themselves to the public as Lenin’s only successors.

Spectators were amazed when Trotsky did not appear among Lenin’s pallbearers; it seemed to confirm the Troika’s claim that he was not a real Leninist. The funeral ceremony was the first step in the creation of a Lenin cult. A massive mausoleum was built in Red Square, next to the Kremlin. In it, Lenin’s embalmed body was put on display under glass. Every day, for years afterwards, long lines of Soviet citizens filed past, like pious Christians viewing the body of a saint. Lenin’s brain was sent to a special clinic for analysis and preservation. All his writings and speeches were collected and treated henceforth as sacred writ. The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. All this would have horrified Lenin himself, who was an extremely modest, almost self-effacing man. His widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya objected strenuously, but her complaints were disregarded. Stalin, whose foul-mouthed rudeness to Krupkskaya had provoked Lenin to cut off all personal relations with him some months before his death, is rumored to have threatened her: “If you don’t shut up, we’ll find somebody else to be Lenin’s widow.”

Immediately after Lenin’s death, the Troika admitted 240,000 new members – the so-called Lenin Levy — to the Russian Communist Party, doubling the Party’s membership. For the most part, these new recruits were young, inexperienced and ambitious; admission to the Party was a ticket to a successful career, and they could be relied on to support the bureaucracy. Sure enough, within a few weeks, the Party voted officially to condemn the Left Opposition.

The Troika Breaks Up

Despite this setback, the Left Opposition did not disband, although it was clearer every day that it was swimming against the stream. Within the Party its isolation grew. Outside the Party, among ordinary workers and other citizens, there was a certain amount of sympathy for the Opposition and Trotsky was still widely admired, but most people were too intimidated by the bureaucracy and the GPU – which the Troika controlled – and too exhausted by years of turmoil and hardship. To publicly support the Opposition took courage, and by 1924 courage in Russia was a scarce commodity.

Meanwhile, the Left Opposition continued to warn that the NEP might lead to the complete restoration of capitalism unless Russia embarked on a program of rapid industrialization. But the problem was, without aid from the West, how was the Soviet state going to obtain the capital and machinery needed to invest in industry? Evgeny Preobrazhensky, an economist who belonged to the Opposition, argued that the resources for industrialization had to come from agriculture. He called for increasing taxes on the peasantry, especially the kulaks, and channeling this money into a government fund for industrial investment. At the same time, agricultural productivity would have to be significantly increased. Most of Russia’s peasants farmed small plots of land with primitive tools; they were extremely inefficient. If landholdings could be consolidated into larger units, equipped with modern tools and fertilizers, and if peasants could be induced to work cooperatively instead of competing with each other, Russia’s farmlands could be made to yield far more produce. A larger agricultural surplus, especially grain, could be exported. With the foreign currency Russia would earn, it could purchase machinery and technological know-how from the West and use these to promote industrialization at home.

This was the idea of “collectivizing” agriculture as a way of bringing industrial-style efficiency to farming. Instead of millions of separate, minuscule peasant plots, Russia would have a far smaller number of large, government-owned farms on which the peasants would work as employees, like workers in a factory. Moreover, since far fewer peasants would be needed, many of them could move to the cities and swell the ranks of the urban working class, which would contribute further to industrialization. But Preobrazhensky was against using force to bring this about. Peasants would never give up their customary way of life unless they could actually see that life on a collective farm was better. So Preobrazhensky proposed setting up model collective farms in the countryside. As peasants were shown the advantages of using modern farm machinery rather than horse-plows and scythes, as they saw the benefits of living in new houses with electricity rather than their dilapidated hovels, they would voluntarily join the new collective farms.

Nevertheless, this program was seen by the Left Opposition as no more than a temporary solution to the problems of the NEP. Even by collectivizing agriculture and speeding up the pace of industrialization, Russia could not achieve socialism. For that, help from workers’ governments in the West was still needed. Spreading the revolution remained, for Preobrazhensky and the other members of the Opposition, a question of life or death.

All the members of the Troika, as well as their myriad supporters in the bureaucracy, joined in ridiculing Preobrazhensky’s analysis. The NEP, while not without problems, was still working well on the whole, they insisted; as long as the Soviet state controlled the “commanding heights” of the economy, and as long as the Communist Party held a monopoly of political power, there was no reason to fear that the kulaks and Nepmen might get the upper hand. As for the Left Opposition’s schemes for rapid industrialization, they branded these as totally unrealistic.

Nikolai Bukharin went even further. He regarded the NEP not as a necessary evil, an unavoidable compromise with capitalism, but as a positive good. Bukharin openly encouraged the kulaks to enrich themselves, believing that if they did so the peasantry as a whole would prosper. The result would be greater and greater demand among the peasants for the goods produced by state-owned industries. The “socialist” sector of the economy would grow, even if very slowly; Russia, he said, would achieve socialism “at a snail’s pace” – even without aid from socialist revolutions in the West. The program of the Left Opposition, Bukharin said, was a direct threat to the peasantry that would insure they would turn against the Soviet state.  Bukharin and his supporters – who included Alexei Rykov, the prime minister of the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Tomsky, the head of the trade unions — were known as the Right, though they were not in opposition to the Troika (the “Center”) and were in fact in league with them in their efforts to get rid of Trotsky.

In December 1924 Stalin published an article that seemed to agree with Bukharin. In it he put forward the theory of “socialism in one country.” Attacking the idea that full-scale socialism could not be achieved in a backward country like Russia, Stalin insisted that Soviet Russia could build socialism without help from the outside. To many older Bolsheviks, this was heresy, since Stalin appeared to be abandoning world revolution. But to much of the younger generation of Party officials, to the bureaucracy, “socialism in one country” made sense. It appealed to their nationalism and pride in Soviet achievements.

It was all too much for Zinoviev and Kamenev, however. Alarmed by Stalin’s repudiation of internationalism and acceptance of Bukharin’s pro-kulak position, they broke off their alliance with him. Zinoviev and Kamenev now began to sound like Trotsky: they criticized the NEP, warned that the kulaks and Nepmen were getting too powerful, denounced the growth of bureaucracy, and demanded a revival of workers’ democracy. They admitted that Trotsky had been right all along. In Politburo meetings, they even revealed some of the plots against Trotsky in which they had been involved since 1923. In April 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev, along with Krupskaya, joined forces with the Left Opposition to form the United Opposition.

Crushing the Opposition

The United Opposition looked impressive at first glance, including as it did so many prominent Bolsheviks. But by 1926 Stalin and his supporters in the bureaucracy were much stronger than in 1923. The leaders of the Opposition soon learned how weak and isolated their position had become. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev could not get their articles published in the Party’s newspapers. The Opposition drew up a program, but it was banned; when Oppositionists tried to print it on secret duplicating machines, the GPU found the machines and smashed them, confiscated copies, and arrested all those involved. When Opposition leaders tried to speak at Party meetings, they were booed and interrupted constantly. In July 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev were removed from the Politburo (Trotsky had been ousted seven months earlier).

Nov. 7, 1927, marked the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Massive parades were scheduled for Moscow, Leningrad and other cities. The Opposition planned to participate, but also to appeal peacefully to the marchers with signs and slogans; Stalin made sure they would be silenced, however. Police and Party activists broke up the Opposition’s demonstrations, tore down their signs and beat them up. In Moscow, when Trotsky tried to give a speech to the crowd from an open car, Stalin’s thugs smashed the car’s windshield and fired gunshots; one of them shouted: “Down with Trotsky, the Jew, the traitor!” Fearfully, the parading workers filed past and did nothing.

A few days later, the Opposition was expelled from the Party, charged with trying to start an “insurrection.” Zinoviev and Kamenev panicked: they had always been Bolsheviks and could not imagine life outside the Party. Besides, they reasoned, the time would come when the Party’s cowed membership would revive and turn against Stalin, and they needed to be on hand when that moment arrived. So they “capitulated” – repudiated their oppositional views as “anti-Leninist,” proclaimed the correctness of Stalin and Bukharin’s policies, and begged to be readmitted. Under these humiliating conditions, the two were allowed back into the Party.  Thousands of other members of the Opposition did the same. Others – Radek, Rakovsky, Pyatakov, most of the leaders of the original Left Opposition – refused and were deported to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, however, they too capitulated. Only a small core stood firm.

Trotsky would not give in. In January 1928 he was sentenced to exile at Alma-Ata, a town in Soviet Central Asia, near the Chinese border. Trotsky declined to go voluntarily: in an act of symbolic civil disobedience, he forced the GPU to literally carry him out of his Moscow apartment and put him on a train. A year later he and Natalia Sedova were deported from the Soviet Union.14

Towards the Second Russian Revolution

Almost immediately after the expulsion of the Opposition, the Soviet Union faced a serious crisis. In January 1928 peasants throughout the country went on a “grain strike” – refusing to sell grain to the government unless they were paid much higher prices. The government’s grain supplies were low, and Russia’s cities were now faced with a real threat of starvation.

The Right, led by Bukharin, favored giving in to the peasants’ demands by raising grain prices. Stalin at first didn’t know what to do, then dramatically turned against his former allies on the Right, calling for decisive measures against the peasants. Armed detachments were sent out to force the peasants to surrender their grain. But Stalin wanted to go further than that.  He now began to take up some of the Opposition’s economic program. He demanded increasing the pace of industrialization, a gradual collectivization of agriculture and an overall plan for the economy.  After several months of tussling with the Right, Stalin emerged triumphant. Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov were driven from power, and, ultimately, forced to capitulate just as most of the Opposition had done. Stalin was now completely in control.

By the end of 1929, it was clear that Stalin intended something quite different from the Opposition’s economic program. To collectivize agriculture, he initiated a full-scale violent assault on the entire peasantry. Simultaneously, he launched a Five-Year Plan for industrialization at breakneck speed that devastated workers’ living standards and imposed on them the most draconian working conditions. Terrorized by a brutal system of prisons, secret police and forced-labor camps, the Soviet masses were transformed into something like state serfs. Finally, to sever the last remaining tie to the workers state, even in its degenerated form and even if by this point it was a symbolic tie, almost every living representative of the October Revolution was killed or disappeared into the Gulag. A new society, neither socialist nor capitalist, was born, a society dominated by a new ruling elite of party officials, factory officials and other bureaucrats, who were in turn dominated by an all-powerful, semi-deified dictator, a mass murderer with few equals in history: Stalin himself.15


Just as Lenin and Trotsky feared, the result of Soviet Russia’s isolation was counterrevolution. What they had not foreseen was that this counterrevolution would come not from foreign imperialism or from the domestic forces of capitalist restoration, but from within the Party itself. And they could not have known that many of their own policies would pave the way for the horrors of Stalinism, a system that became the deadly enemy of everything they had fought for in 1917. Since then, however, socialists have no excuse for ignoring or belittling the dangers of a one party state, a state based on coercion rather than democratic consent, simply because it is anti-capitalist or even calls itself socialist.

We still need to ask, however: what could the Bolsheviks, lacking foreknowledge of the nightmare that was Stalinism, have done differently? In terms of specific policies, this is a question that is extremely difficult to answer. Should they have refrained from suppressing the Kronstadt rebellion, or even acceded to the sailors’ demands, for example? To do so would, in all likelihood, have led within a very short time to the Bolsheviks’ loss of power. One-party rule is deplorable in principle, but a strong case can be made, in my opinion, that under the conditions of Civil War, economic chaos and ruin, and a mostly hostile peasantry that was fundamentally anti-socialist and moreover incapable as a class of itself governing Russia, the Bolshevik Party was the only one that possessed the experience, discipline, tactical flexibility, and foresight to prevent a bloody, fascist-style counterrevolution. It was a unique, tested crucible of socialist consciousness, even as that consciousness became distorted and attenuated by the experience of authoritarian rule. Moreover, Russia’s fate was far from the only thing at stake. Through at least the first six years after 1917, while European revolutions remained objective possibilities, the Bolsheviks had to hold on, the Comintern had to exist. I think it is not too much to say that the fate of humanity hung in the balance. Counterfactuals are obviously problematic, but had revolution succeeded in Germany, for example, there is a good chance that the world would have been spared the horrors of Stalinism, the Gulag, Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust – indeed, we might be living in a socialist world today.

Even if this premise is accepted, however, and even if one agrees that most of the Bolsheviks’ policies were the result of harsh necessity, it is true, as Rosa Luxemburg warned, that the “danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forces upon them by these fatal circumstances.”16 In part, the Bolsheviks did succumb to this danger, for example when Trotsky and Lenin took the position that one-party rule was not just a temporary necessity, but the only way a workers’ state can function. Although Trotsky’s life was cut short, he did live long enough, unlike Lenin, to repudiate this idea, fortunately.

It does seem clear that most of the Old Bolsheviks, the leaders of 1917, did not consider the harsh, undemocratic policies of War Communism – again, except for the idea of a one-party state – to be part of a transitional form of socialism; or if they were tempted to think so under the extreme tensions of the Civil War, they came to their senses afterwards. The basic question remains: were they right to try to hold onto power while awaiting – and, of course, promoting – international revolution? I think the answer is yes, mainly because, except for renegades such as Stalin, the Bolsheviks’ ultimate goal – socialism as a system of equality and mass participatory democracy based on the soviets – did not change fundamentally.

Category: Socialism – Culture & History –    Location: Russia/USSR   Whole Number: 63

Romanticizing the Bolsheviks

July 28, 2017 – 8:11pm — Bennett Muraskin (not verified) The Bolsheviks lost popular support and refused to give up power. In my view, the dictatorial die was cast quite early—when in Jan. 1918, the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Its own dictatorial tendencies drove other socialist parties into opposition. In that sense it can be said that the Bolsheviks had a role in provoking the Civil War. If democracy remained a principle for the Bolsheviks, it would have been restored after the Civil War and with the inaugeration of the NEP. But it was never even debated. Instead they banned factions within the party, solidfying the party dictatorship. Assuming the soviets continued to function, the Soviet Union would still have not been a democracy. Non-Bolshevik parties were banned. Millions of people had no right to vote or hold office due to their “bourgeois” origins and there was no direct election of leaders. Real power would have remained with the party leadership–enforced by the secret police. The Bolsheviks openly expressed their contempt for the concepts of civil liberties and fundamental human rights. Many decent people were forced into exile if they were not locked up first. All this before Stalin. Even if the Bolsheviks were well-intentioned, the ends did not justify the
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Herman Axelbank, Max Eastman, and the Documentary “Tsar to Lenin”-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On November - 12 - 2017 Comments Off on Herman Axelbank, Max Eastman, and the Documentary “Tsar to Lenin”-Dan La Botz


The Russian Revolution, the only—if only briefly—successful workers’ revolution took place in the era of photography and film, consequently thousands of hours of film footage from the revolutionary period existed. In the late 1920s, as the revolution’s red star was fading, a Russian-born man decided to collect as much as possible of the existing film—some of it shot by individuals, some by governments, some by new agencies, some by who-knows-who. Eventually, over 50 years this man collected some 271 motion picture film reels. He was a fanatic. Glad he was.

Herman Axelbank, who had been born in 1900 in Nowo Konstantinow, Ukraine (at the time part of the Russian empire) later moved to the Bronx in New York City. In 1920 he began collecting film footage of the Russian Revolution; gradually this became his personal calling, his obsession. Eventually he compiled and edited the film into a roughly chronological account. Then in 1928 he contacted the writer Max Eastman to ask his help in producing an actual film. Eastman described his first impression of Axelbank:

In the late autumn of 1928, a young man named Herman Axelbank came to see me—a persuasive young man. He was broad and short, hairy enough so that his chin was always blue, and his skull, which he kept close-cropped, was so shaped as to give him—but for his eyes—a rather formidable appearance. His eyes were deep blue and warm, and could be very convincing of his nobility of spirit. And he had in his possession a thing of great value to mankind: a collection of all the important films, or most of them, that had been taken of momentous events and personalities in the Russian revolution. He had come down from the Bronx merely to ask me whether I thought a consecutive narrative could be made of them, but before we parted he had offered to give me complete editorial control, and split the profits fifty-fifty, if I could convert hem into a “visible history” of the revolution.[1]

Eastman agreed to take on the job.

Axelbank had come to the right man. Max Eastman had been a socialist virtually all of his adult life, editor of The Masses and later of The Liberator. It was Eastman who raised the money to send John Reed to Russia where Reed wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, first published serially in Eastman’s magazine. In 1922 Eastman went to Russia to see the revolution for himself, spending a year and nine months there. In 1928 a Russian Communist named Eleazar Solnetsev passed on to Eastman a bundle of political papers written by Leon Trotsky, leader of the opposition to Joseph Stalin in Russia. At about the same time, Eastman was contacted by James Cannon, a longtime Communist who has just become a supporter Trotsky and his opposition group in Russia. Eastman edited the papers Solnetsev had given him into a book eventually titled The Real Situation in Russia by Leon Trotsky and gave the proceeds to Cannon’s Trotskyist organization, though Eastman himself never joined the group.[2] At about the same time that Eastman agreed to undertake the editing of Axelbank’s film, he was also working on the translation of Trotsky’s monumental three-volume History of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps no man in America knew more or had thought more deeply about the Russian Revolution. A Trotskyist, Eastman was not uncritical of Trotsky; a supporter of the Russian Revolution, he was willing to discuss its failings and the disastrous turn it appeared to be taking.

Eastman threw himself into the film project. He traveled to Paris to get film from Pathé and Gaumont, and while there he got Alexander Kerensky, whose government Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky had overthrown, to give him permission to use photos of Kerensky made by the surrealist photographer Man Ray. In Berlin Eastman got photos of the Tsar, swimming naked (Russian men then didn’t wear bathing suits) and of the Russian royal family, his wife the Tsarina and his son the Tsarevitch feeding his pony. He had trouble finding film of Stalin, who was not prominent before or even during the Revolution, but eventually found one short piece of Stalin shifting his weight back and forth from foot to foot. Eastman finished “Tsar to Lenin” in January of 1931. Charlie Chaplin, the star of Modern Times, took a look at it; he thought it was good.

Post-production work with Axelbank proved to be difficult. He was understandably extremely possessive of the film that he had birthed and which Eastman had midwifed. Axelbank kept it in a vault, in strongboxes to which only he had a key; he made access difficult by mysteriously disappearing for long periods of time. Axelbank felt persecuted and misused and his cranky behavior destroyed relations with potential financial backers and promoters. Axelbank proved to be not only difficult but also litigious. Eastman found himself embroiled in a series of court cases over the finished film, which ended up in the possession of court-appointed receivers. The receivers leased the movie to the Lenauer Film Company in 1936, but the printed capitions still had to be replaced by a vocal narrative before it was finally ready. The film was finally released in theaters on March 6, 1937, first playing in the Filmarte Theater on West Fifty-eighth street in New York City.

The New York newspaper reviewers praised the film and the public flocked to the theater to see it. By then, however, Stalin had come to power in Russia, took over the Communist International, and determined the policy of the Communist Parties worldwide. Stalin wanted no mention of his adversary Trotsky, who he had exiled, whom he was hunting–killing family, friends, and comrades–and whose assassination he would arrange a few years later. The Communist Party in the United States, consequently, called for a boycott “Tsar to Russia” and the Soviet Union’s film industry made clear to film distributors and theaters in America that if they showed Axelbank’s and Eastman’s film they would never receive any Soviet films ever, this at a time when the films of the Russian Sergei Eisenstein were tremendously popular among the avant garde. So “Tsar to Lenin,” blacklisted by the Stalinists, never had a run in American theaters, though Axelbank put out another version that reached a small audience. Eastman placed a copy of his film in the Library of Congress where it was preserved, but languished.[3] A few years later, Eastman, deeply disappointed by the Russian Revolution, gave up his leftist politics and became an editor of the conservative Readers Digest, a disappointing and profoundly sad end to a brilliant literary and political career. For decades those interested in viewing “Tsar to Lenin” had to satisfied with a much cut version made available through the Library of Congress and the film in its entirely was not made available to the public generally until released by the Socialist Equality Party, a small Trotskyist group, in 2012.

“Tsar to Lenin” is now available on YouTube and well worth watching though it deals only with the revolution in the most narrow sense of the word, that is the upheaval that brought the soviets (workers, peasants, and soldiers councils) to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the bloody civil war that followed. We have no great film of the Russian social revolution, the functioning of the soviets, the workers seizing of the factories, the peasant land seizures, no film of the struggle between democracy from below and what eventually became bureaucratic rule from above–though we have right-wing films of the rise of Stalin. Tremendous film archives exist in Russia and some are available online, though whether or not they contain the filming of everyday working class life and workers’ struggles to preserve and exert their power as the Communist bureaucracy and the state together hardened into a new ruling class and a new state is doubtful. We can only hope that some other fanatic like Axelbank has preserved such film somewhere and somehow, and that some new Eastman (would that be China Miéville, author of October?) would come along to write the narrative.

[1] Max Eastman, Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch (New York: Random House, 1964), Chapter 77, “My Career in the Movies,” p. 57.

[2] Eastman, Love and Revolution, Chapter 75, “A Taste of Rehabilitation,” pp. 510-16.

[3] Eastman, Love and Revolution, Chapter 89, “A Triumph and a Defeat,” pp. 615-17.


Category: War and peace- Socialism – Left Politics –    Location: Russia/USSR

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

What Lenin’s Critics Got Right-Mitchell Cohen

Posted by admin On November - 11 - 2017 Comments Off on What Lenin’s Critics Got Right-Mitchell Cohen


Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov, and Alexander Martinov (Wikimedia Commons)

What Lenin’s Critics Got Right
Mitchell Cohen Fall 2017

This year is the centenary of Russia’s revolutions, the one that overthrew Tsarism and the one that put the Bolsheviks in power. Next year will be the bicentenary of Marx’s birth. It’s a time when not thinking about the left’s history is impossible.
These anniversaries arrive when there are positive rumblings on the left and very dangerous dins on the right. That makes it urgent that those who call ourselves “left”—an expansive term that, for me, signifies an amalgam of democratic, liberal, and egalitarian values—recollect that people who deployed language we still use have, at too many times, caused unmitigated disaster.
The Bolshevik takeover in Russia is a prime example. A number of myths derived from Bolshevism still lurk within parts of the left: “there really was no alternative to Leninism”; “if only Lenin had lived longer”; “if only Trotsky had won out”; “if only Bukharin . . . ” And, most important: “it is acceptable to suffocate democracy for the sake of socioeconomic equality.”
I want to generate a little discomfort on the left but also some on the right by retrieving an airbrushed left. Airbrushing is usually associated with Stalinism and its attempts to eliminate its foes, both physically and from photos. My concern will be critics of Leninism together with Bolshevism’s mindset and its consequences for the left. One historian, Orlando Figes, notes that “tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917 . . . ” Hundreds of thousands died in the “Red Terror,” he continues, with similar numbers perishing in the “White Terror” (factoring in anti-Jewish pogroms). In fact, the Bolshevik record between October 1917 and Lenin’s death in early 1924 would have satisfied any right-wing regime: virtually all left-wing parties and movements were crushed. That was before Stalin. Though later in the century, there were calls for “no enemies to the left,” Bolsheviks had not always seen things that way. Real alliances were a problem for them since alliances entail compromises.
No regime identifying with Bolshevism has led, at any time or place, to anything that can be called “liberation.” The contemporary left can gain a useful perspective by revisiting some of the major arguments once made by leftists on behalf of left-wing principles against Leninism. Some on the left and many on the right will find it disconcerting to recall that the first anti-Bolshevik was a Marxist, Julius Martov. Although he was finally defeated by Bolshevism, and while, much as he tried, he could not save Marxism, his politics represented a plausible, intelligent, and humane left alternative to Leninism in Russia—on almost every issue.
In a famous sentence about a failed mid-nineteenth-century French upheaval in which protagonists engaged in sorry imitations of eighteenth-century French revolutionaries, Marx wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Consider this essay a return to Bolshevism’s repressed—historical endnotes for the future left. It is said that talking frankly about nightmares can help us grasp their causes in order to banish them.

In January 1917, Lenin, then long an exile, gave a talk in Zurich about Russia’s failed revolution of 1905. He did not doubt that the Tsarist autocracy would still be overthrown, but he told listeners that “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” A month later, the Tsar was deposed and replaced by a Provisional Government of aristocrats, liberals, and moderate socialists. Bolsheviks took no part in it; eight months later, they seized the state—or what was left of it. Mounting chaos had undone the Provisional Government, which was inept and constantly made ruinous choices, especially concerning Russia’s stumbling role in the First World War. The Bolsheviks took control in the name of Marxism in a power vacuum, and the last head of the Provisional Government, the ineffectual populist socialist Alexander Kerensky, fled.
Russia had few characteristics of advanced capitalism and an industrialized economy, which Marx believed necessary to create an exploited class of urban wage-earners that would overthrow a bourgeoisie. Peasants made up 80 percent of the Russian empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Its old regime fostered the small part of Russia’s economy that could be called bourgeois, fearing (rightly) that “underdevelopment” made it militarily weak. There is nothing surprising about the fact that the party that came in first in the sole genuine election permitted under Bolshevik rule—for a Constituent Assembly—addressed the problems of rural Russia before anything else. Socialist Revolutionaries, or “SRs,” were populists and wanted to fashion a future on the basis of peasant communalism.
Some 85 percent of the Assembly was comprised of self-identified socialists. But Lenin’s government shut it down in January 1918 after just a single meeting. Dissenting demonstrators were “mowed down unarmed,” protested the novelist Maxim Gorky. He asked, “Do the ‘People’s Commissars’ not realize . . . that they will end up strangling Russian democracy . . . ?” The answer was: yes. An 85 percent socialist majority did not make a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Officially, the Bolsheviks were building a regime based on “soviets,” popular councils that arose with the end of the autocracy and functioned as democratic counter-powers to the Provisional Government. (Similar councils had emerged in 1905.) Yet, the Bolsheviks rendered the soviets impotent not long after they dissolved the Constituent Assembly. The real powers would be the Bolshevik party, the political police, and soon, a standing army.
At its congress in March 1918, Lenin called for a rechristening of his party. It would henceforth be the “Communist Party.” “Social democrat,” the name he renounced, was a term long adopted for themselves by Marxists in Russia and throughout Europe. It had become an epithet hurled by Lenin at anyone who had not embraced “revolutionary defeatism” in the First World War. Lenin wanted soldiers to turn their guns on their officers. Others on the Russian left supported “defensism,” that is, continuing to fight Germany while shunning the spoils of war. Martov also opposed the war—on “internationalist” grounds—but thought Lenin’s stance would not promote an end to the bloodshed and would hinder reconstitution of a broad postwar left. The Bolsheviks in power did pull out of the war. It could be argued, however, that any sensible left-wing government would eventually have had to do something likewise.
Lenin’s other pressing reason for rejecting “social democracy,” he explained to his fellow Bolsheviks, was that the term was “scientifically incorrect.” Democracy was emphatically not the goal as it was simply one form of “state.” All states were means by which classes oppressed other classes. Here, he was following Marx and Engels, if mechanically. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the first phase after the revolution, would be democratic since it would be a state for the vast majority. After socializing the means of production, there would, in Lenin’s view, be a classless society, which meant no state and consequently no democracy. (He had elaborated on this the previous summer in his unfinished book, State and Revolution.)
The problem is less that this argument is “anti-democratic” than that it shows how a theory goes awry when it is comprised of deductions from unquestioned definitions. Bolshevism’s foundational text, Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902) insisted that Marxism was distinguished from other social theories by its “scientific” nature. The repository of Marxist science had to be a vanguard party with “revolutionary consciousness.” Workers could not attain this on their own since they were unlikely to read Capital every evening after long hours of labor. “Spontaneously,” they would only attain “trade union consciousness” and demand better working conditions and pay, not revolution.
Marx also spoke of his project as scientific but with an intellectual acuity and discrimination not found in Lenin. Although Lenin credited his concept of a party to Karl Kautsky, the German social democratic theoretician, he was also indebted—even more so, perhaps—to Russian positivist traditions that emerged in the 1860s. The “nihilist” critic Dmitry Pisarev then asserted that “objectivity” in natural science ought to be the model for social and historical analyses. Lenin would cite and praise him. Pisarev’s contemporary, N.G. Chernyshevsky, wrote a novel informed by similar notions entitled What Is to Be Done? (1863). Lenin acclaimed it for making him over “completely” by depicting “new people” preparing for the future. The radical critic Pyotr Tkachëv, sometimes called a Jacobin, advocated the seizure of the Russian state by a vanguard party with an “infallible ideology” of absolute equality. A “revolutionary dictatorship” would lead the way to social transformation.
Pisarev, Chernyshevsky, and Tkachev wrote not long after serfdom was abolished in 1861. “Emancipation” came, however, with regulations, land distribution, and taxes onerous to former serfs, now peasants. But these authors found populist counterparts, known to history as Narodniks (after narod, Russian for “the people”), too “subjective” in envisaging peasant communalism as the vehicle for the future. They were proved right when, in 1874, young populists in rural garb made a “Pilgrimage to the People” hoping to rouse revolt. Its thorough failure—some were turned over to the police by incredulous peasants—would lead a number of them to terrorism. For intellectuals, however, populism had a certain moral advantage over Marxism, which had also begun to attract interest. Marxism proposed that there were unavoidable stages of development—only capitalist industrialization could bring the abundance required for a classless society—which meant that Russian peasants now had to suffer mass proletarianization. “All this ‘maiming of women and children’ we still have before us,” the populist theorist Nikolai Mikhailovski wrote caustically, “and from the standpoint of Marx’s historical theory, we should not protest . . . the steep but necessary steps to the temple of happiness.”
Such thinking led populists to prioritize the “social question.” Political liberalization of the autocracy would just bring a bourgeoisie to power followed by capitalist misery. Marxists, by contrast, put “politics first.” The coming revolution had to be bourgeois and liberal. In 1885, Georgi Plekhanov, often called the “father of Russian Marxism,” warned: were revolutionaries to take power in Russia’s pre-capitalist conditions to pursue a classless society, the result would be “a political abortion . . . a revival of Tsarist despotism on a communist basis.” The Russian Social Democratic Labor party advocated on its founding in 1898 an “immediate” goal of political liberalization (a constitution, a parliament, universal suffrage, a free press) and an “ultimate” one of socialization.
Lenin, early in his revolutionary career, argued against sharp distinctions between Marxism and populism since both addressed laboring classes. This may have originated in ideas of his older brother, Alexander, who was executed in 1887 for participation in a populist conspiracy to assassinate the Tsar. Alexander’s few publications unevenly combined populist and Marxist notions, suggesting that perhaps stages of development could be “telescoped.” Writing in the 1890s, Lenin asserted that Marxists ought to see the “democratic kernel” in Russian populism and scorn Hegelian “faith in the necessity of each country having to pass through the phases of capitalism and other nonsense.” Still he considered populism flawed because it was “Janus-like”—one face to the future and the other to past, obsolete social forms.

The stress on science among many radical intellectuals also derived from their hostility to the regime’s religious self-justifications: if a higher authority blessed Tsarism, scientific rationality had to challenge it. Yet science could also become a cult in which “objectivity” produced eternal laws all while it came from eternal laws. This cast of mind is hardly amenable to pluralism or democratic politics. Once you have “made progress in science,” Lenin wrote, there is no point to “new views.” He repeatedly invoked Marxism as a “science” while circumventing the implications of Marx’s actual theories, asserting a will to revolution that trumped all else. Russia, after all, lacked the large proletariat that in Marx’s view would overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s temperament was also a factor. “When you speak to him,” recalled Vladimir Medem, a leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, “he looks at you . . . as if to say, ‘There’s not a word of truth in what you are saying! Oh well, go on; me you won’t deceive.’”
Tactical maneuvers, at which Lenin excelled, made his faction of Social Democrats the Bolsheviks, or “men of the majority,” at a party congress-in-exile in 1903. He pushed successfully for resolutions he knew would lead some of his adversaries to walk out. Martov, once his close comrade, then had to challenge him as leader of the Mensheviks, or “men of the minority.” Even though Lenin’s manufactured majority was only temporary, the arguments of 1903 were fateful ones. Lenin advocated that Social Democrats become a centralized, “vanguard party” of professional revolutionaries. Based on the “spontaneity-science” distinction of What Is to Be Done?, this was the core of Leninism, combined with “democratic centralism”—a pyramidal structure of cells and higher committees that inevitably became centralized and not democratic.
Martov and other social democratic critics already saw then where this would lead. Leon Trotsky was initially against Lenin and predicted that after the party substituted itself for workers, a central committee would substitute for the party, and finally a dictator for the central committee. Later Trotsky, who embraced Bolshevism in 1917, would be victimized by what his younger self got right. Yet he too bound himself to an inflexible, positivist notion of science. Pisarev contended that scientifically informed “new men” would “arrange their lives” so that their “personal interests would in no way contradict the real interests of society.” Trotsky insisted that “To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party . . . ”
Trotsky made that statement in the late 1930s, not long before a Stalinist agent assassinated him. The exiled Bolshevik was responding to John Dewey, who had led a commission of intellectuals that exonerated him of Stalin’s trumped-up allegations. But Dewey also made his differences with Trotsky clear. For this American philosopher, scientific endeavor hinged on experiment and experience which, in turn, required accepting that one may be mistaken. Trotsky declared “class struggle” to be the “law of all laws” from which all politics had to be deduced. Experience, Dewey countered, showed human life to be more complicated. Science depended on pluralism, disagreements, and consequently democracy and liberalism, however “bourgeois” Trotsky found those words.
Dewey’s criticism of Trotsky bore an affinity to the profound flaws that Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg had identified in Bolshevism. She and Lenin had radically different views of “spontaneity.” For Luxemburg, self-mastery learned by workers struggling against oppression was more important than a party’s “correct” consciousness. Lenin, she charged in 1918, veered into dangerous territory when he maintained that as a bourgeois state oppressed workers, a proletarian state would oppress the bourgeoisie. A bourgeois state, she pointed out, meant rule of a minority for its own benefit and with no need to educate the majority to take power into its own hands. She compared the Bolsheviks to Jacobins in the French revolution during the 1790s. Their minority rule had made state terror indispensable. But real freedom was not bourgeois or proletarian:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only of the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.
She accused Lenin and Trotsky of imagining socialism by decree. By contrast, Luxemburg’s revolution had to be a “school of public life.” Against Lenin’s party, with its “dictatorial force of the factory overseer,” she insisted that “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only bureaucracy remains as the active element.” For both the Marxist Luxemburg and the liberal-democratic Dewey, true freedom was inseparable from experimentation.
Lenin had an immediate reply: Luxemburg chased fantasies. In fact, a Tsarist official, Sergei Zubatov, had organized unions under police watch and thereby controlled by the authorities, just at the time Lenin was writing What Is to Be Done? (Not complete control: when some waged strikes, Zubatov was dismissed.) Police unions like these exemplified why Lenin thought it imperative to “combat spontaneity.” What Lenin wouldn’t—or couldn’t—admit was that a party with “objective” consciousness would lead to a police state. Martov, notes his biographer, Israel Getzler, thought a social democratic party had to see itself as incomplete until it was an organization of mass democracy. If professional revolutionaries were a necessity under Tsarism, they were emphatically not the point of social democracy. “The wider the title of party member is spread,” said Martov, “the better. We could but rejoice if every striker or demonstrator, when called to account [before a police court] . . . could declare himself a party member. . . . ” Lenin would charge (with some distortion) that “Comrade Martov’s fundamental idea—self-enrolment in the party” in order to build it “from the bottom up” was “false ‘democracy.’”
By 1912, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had split from each other entirely. Lenin opposed reconciliation so fervently, notes historian Orlando Figes, that when, after the Tsar’s fall, he planned to travel from Zurich to Petersburg masquerading as a deaf and dumb Swede, his wife urged against it. She fretted that he would expose himself by denouncing Mensheviks in his sleep. Sectarianism bears a curious relation to consciousness.

Russian Marxists expended extraordinary energy analyzing both whether and how to foment revolution in their country, with its weak bourgeoisie and peasant majority. In the abortive 1905 revolution, the Socialist Revolutionaries advocated bypassing capitalism while Lenin, whose role in the events was minimal, spoke of a vanguard party making bourgeois revolution through a “democratic dictatorship of proletarians and peasants.” A dozen years later, after the Tsar’s fall, he argued that Russia could head directly into socialism, which inevitably meant that the peasantry had to suffer proletarianization and become urban wage-earners.
It was Trotsky who came up with a theoretical innovation that proposed that Russia could advance to socialism without going through an extended period of capitalism. In his 1906 pamphlet “Results and Prospects,” he argued that “uneven development” of the global economy made “backwardness” the key to worldwide revolutionary change. Capital’s pursuit of markets “telescoped” features of different developmental stages in “backward” lands, creating conflicts of feudal classes against the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Upheavals triggered by this combination would then spread internationally. The move without “interruption” toward socialism was possible since proletarians in industrialized countries would take power and harness advanced economic capacities now in their hands to aid their comrades everywhere.
This was dexterous theorizing: the universal class would attain socialist consciousness in advance of high capitalism, while the “socio-historical process” still depended on the development of productive forces. Trotsky’s assessment dovetailed significantly with Lenin’s 1916 theory of imperialism as “the highest” and “final stage of capitalism.” Lenin traced the origins of the First World War to the clash of European states serving imperialist pursuits. These theories would together provide “Marxist” justification for the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Martov, by contrast, believed consistently that it was impossible to plunge from semi-feudal realities into socialism. Like Lenin and Trotsky, he called Marxism “scientific,” but that told him that there were stages of development and so his politics parted strikingly from theirs. He concluded that the alternative to plunging was democratization. How, he asked on the eve of the 1905 upheaval, could Russian Marxists coordinate “immediate” efforts for democracy with “tasks” pointing to a socialist future? His solution: Marxists should not try to grab state power but work to strengthen the soviets and to enhance local self-government, both as means to democracy. “Municipalization” could counter-balance whatever “bourgeois” regime arose. Instead of nationalizing land ownership, for which most Marxists called, Martov wanted it also municipalized. His positions in 1917 followed from this kind of thinking.

Lenin, Trotsky, and Martov all returned to Russia from political exile in the spring of 1917. The first two became allies in the ensuing commotion. The Mensheviks had attained considerable popularity—together with the SRs, they dominated the soviets—only to lose it as they were consumed by internal discord about the war and their relationship to the Provisional Government. Martov, an opponent both of the war and of joining the government, wanted to strengthen the soviets and press for further democratization of Russia. But he led a minority among the Mensheviks and was unable to master the party or the political situation.
So, the Mensheviks fragmented while mass mobilization and turmoil surrounded them. They had some 200,000 members in the summer of 1917 but garnered a meager 3 percent of the votes for the Constituent Assembly later that fall. After Lenin disbanded the Assembly, however, Martov continued to defend the Assembly’s legitimacy in the belief that a democratic republic, not a leap into socialism, ought to be atop Russia’s agenda. While he was usually, almost inevitably, on target intellectually, he proved no match for Lenin’s organizational agility and willfulness.
In October 1917, Martov opposed the Bolshevik capture of power and proposed an alternative at the Second Congress of Soviets: a broad-based government including all socialist parties. Voted down, he started to walk out. Trotsky, who was chairing the meeting, called out what became famous words: “Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history.” Another voice shouted that Bolsheviks had hoped Martov would be with them. Martov replied: “One day you’ll understand the crime in which you are taking part.” A little over a month later, the Cheka, the state political police, was established. Lenin wanted it headed by a “proletarian Jacobin.” Trotsky had, years earlier, urged against pretending that Jacobinism was a “supra-social ‘revolutionary’ category” and warned about the emergence of a new Robespierre; he even referred explicitly to “Maximillian Lenin.” But in December 1917, he enthused about the “remarkable invention of the French revolution which makes men shorter by a head.”
Martov, as Getzler observed, intractably opposed state terror and kept trying to rescue the revolution. It was futile, yet he did expose, with remarkable lucidity, what was happening and and its implications. In January 1918, he spoke at a Trade Union Congress against the Bolshevik proposition that independent unions were no longer necessary in the “proletarian” state. Socialism, Martov argued, could not come about without a mass urban proletariat in advanced industry; this did not yet exist, and Russia’s small working class was comprised largely of former villagers who had come to cities for work but were still tied to the rural world. They lacked managerial and industrial skills while those who had them, white-collar workers, opposed socialism. Non-proletarian laborers (peasants) did not favor socialism. Consequently, workers, both as they were and might be, needed independent unions to defend themselves.
Contrast Martov’s line of reasoning with that of Trotsky two years later at another Trade Union Congress. Mensheviks had denounced use of forced labor by the “proletarian” state. Trotsky’s retort: Mensheviks were “captives of bourgeois ideology.” Without forced labor, “the whole socialist economy is doomed . . . there is no other way of attaining socialism except through the command allocation of the entire labor force by the economic center. . . . ”
The real issue was a broken economy, not because of the civil war (by 1920, the Red Army was clearly winning), but because the Bolsheviks were trying to create a socialist economy in conditions in which they could not possibly succeed. Despite their “science,” they swerved from one program to another. In 1921, the Bolsheviks had to abandon “war Communism” and adopt a “New Economic Policy,” that is, economic liberalization. This was accompanied by fierce political repression.
Martov left Russia in 1920, as the regime was arresting most of his Menshevik comrades. He died in Germany in 1923. In his final years, he wrote a series of essays compiled as The State and Socialist Revolution. Lenin, he wrote, claimed that Russia’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” followed measures taken—with Marx’s praise—by the Paris Commune of 1871. Martov then went down the list. Unlike the Commune, Russia had no popular elections nor regular recall of officials. There was an expansive political police and no popular control of courts. Production remained hierarchical. Local communities were deprived of self-government.
In a brilliant insight, Martov pointed out that the Bolsheviks repudiated the “democratic parliamentarism” of bourgeois society, but not “instruments of state power”—the bureaucracy, the police, and a standing army—to which parliamentarism was “a counterweight” in bourgeois society. Moreover, the state and the party were, step by step, merging. The Leninist party claimed to represent the consciousness of a non-existent, homogenous majority and this was an illusion that could only be maintained through state terror.

Where does this leave Marx? To say he was culpable for either Leninism or Stalinism fails to take seriously Bolshevism’s distinctiveness and its departure from his ideas (and from those of most social democrats of Lenin’s era). But if the right, simplistically and often demagogically, can still make Marx the original sinner, leftists ought not to have made him an infallible oracle. In that same essay in which Marx spoke of the “nightmare,” The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), he chastised “die Sozial-Democratie.” Marx had a very specific target in mind: a political coalition that amalgamated a workers’ movement and “petty-bourgeois” republicans, requiring the former to yield some of its radical social thrust and the latter to become more “social.” This alliance faltered, losing to conservatives and to a rising autocrat. Marx criticized it in canny ways but without fully appreciating the implications. To contest fiercely the exploitation of workers is one thing; to envisage the proletariat as the universalizing agent of history another. Marx’s scorn for “social democracy” rested on a belief in the world-historical mission of that sole social class. What, however, if the proletariat was not to universalize all interests? What if classes and societies were to become more differentiated? What if other factors in addition to classes, real and imagined, shape history?
Certainly, all those “what ifs” no longer need posing, and even if the social democracy Marx chastised failed, it still pointed to the only plausible, if often unsatisfying, alternative for democratic egalitarianism: social and political coalitions forged by unavoidable compromises. That is how majorities are created that can be drawn leftward. Not by substituting an imaginary new universalizing agent—say, the Third or post-colonial worlds, as has been the wont of some on the left—for the one that did not do the job as the theory defined it. These are two different kinds of movements: a left that substitutes protagonists wherever things don’t seem to go its precise way and a left that fashions ever broader alliances to tug a society towards democratic egalitarianism.
Coalition-making was not Lenin’s scientific way, not with social-democratic comrades in 1903 nor with other left-wing parties in October 1917. Bolshevism’s practical and theoretical answer to challenges from the left or, simply, from reality, was finally, “so what?” Revolutionary will dissolves them. Martov understood that it does not, and his dissent pushed him so far as to recognize in 1921 that “The state of the world is at present so exceptional that it does not at all fit our usual schemes of Marxist analysis.” After all, men and women do make their own history but not in circumstances they choose. Martov’s pained statement remains so today, apart from the assertion of exceptionality.
Mitchell Cohen is an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart (Princeton University Press, 2017), The Wager of Lucien Goldmann (Princeton University Press, 1994), and Zion and State (Columbia University Press, 1992). He is professor of Political Science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Author’s note: My sources for this article include Martov’s The State and Socialist Revolution; Israel Getzler, Martov; Abe Ascher, The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Brovkin, The Mensheviks after October. Vera Broido, Lenin and the Mensheviks.  I have found especially helpful books by Andrzej Walicki, particularly A History of Russian Thought, and The Controversy over Capital and Vladimir Vucinich, Social Thought in Tsarist Russia: The Quest for a General Science of Society, 1861-1917.
This website and its content © Dissent Magazine 2017. All rights reserved.
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Remembering the ‘Revolution Against Das Kapital’-ADITYA NIGAM

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Remembering the ‘Revolution Against Das Kapital’
BY ADITYA NIGAM ON 02/11/2017 •
Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist leader, welcomed the Russian revolution for straying from Marx’s blueprint for overthrowing the system.
Patrol of the October revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.

The event known to the world as the ‘October Revolution’ in Russia – or simply as the ‘Russian Revolution’ – took place on November 7-8, a hundred years ago. But then why call it the October revolution? Thereby hangs a tale – the tale of modernity, myth-making and of a new imagination of time.

As a matter of fact, the revolution occurred on October 25-26 according to the Julian calendar (so called because it had been promulgated by Julius Caesar), which Russia, along with a large part of the Western world, followed at the time. It was only in January 1918 that the Soviet government decreed the shift to the Gregorian calendar. The reason was that Russia should join ‘all cultured nations in counting time’, as a decree cited by historian Mark Steinberg put it. Accordingly, the first anniversary of the revolution was celebrated on November 7, 1918 throughout the Soviet Union.

What is interesting here is not so much the shift but the reason assigned for it: joining other ‘cultured nations’ of the world, which, in the language of the early 20th century, meant only one thing – the modern West, which had long been setting the norm for everything desirable. Ways of ‘counting time’ too had to be aligned with Europe, lest one be considered insufficiently modern. Spatially, the Czarist Russian empire straddled both Europe and Asia, which had already, in the new reckoning of time, been cast as ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ respectively. The desire to become modern and join the ‘cultured nations’ was to run through the history of the revolution and its consolidation into the new Stalinist state. This desire was to be manifested in its deep distrust of the peasantry and rural life on the one hand, and in the frenetic drive to ‘catch up’ with Western Europe. As Stalin would say, he wanted to accomplish in a couple of decades what Europe had in a few centuries, compressing time, as it were, into one dizzying experience for entire society. The continuing ‘past’ had to be annihilated.

Writing in December 1917, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist leader, welcomed the Russian revolution as a revolution against Das Kapital. “In Russia,” he wrote, “Marx’s Capital was more a book of the bourgeoisie than of the proletariat. It stood as a critical demonstration of how events should follow a predetermined course: how in Russia a bourgeoisie had to develop, and a capitalist era had to open, with the setting-up of a Western-type civilization, before the proletariat could even think of…its own revolution.”
Antonio Gramsci. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gramsci was writing long before the story was known of Marx’s later troubled engagement with the Russian peasant communes and Eastern societies like India. That story was excavated decades later by the Japanese scholar Haruki Wada in the 1960s, and brought before the English-speaking world only in the 1980s. Wada brought before us the strange story of the suppression by his followers, of Marx’s four drafts of a reply to Vera Zasulich, precisely on the peasant commune. Very briefly, Zasulich, a former ‘populist’ (Narodnik) when she turned Marxist, had internalised the entire story of capitalism as narrated by Marx. Like most Marxists, she had begun to believe that in Russia too, a bourgeoisie and Western-style capitalism had to develop before any proletarian revolution could take place. But the Narodniks argued that in Russia this was not necessary, for the traditional peasant commune could actually form the basis of a future socialism based on common property. Zasulich’s question to Marx was about this difference of opinion, to which he wrote four drafts of a reply, but ended up not sending them. These drafts indicate he was rethinking.

Later, in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that Marx and Engels jointly wrote, the duo conceded that indeed, “the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development”.

While Gramsci hailed the Russian Revolution as “the revolution against Das Kapital“, because of its not following the blueprint laid down in that text, he erred seriously in believing that the Bolsheviks had a very different understanding regarding the ‘inescapability’ of capitalist development.

As a matter of fact, the entire Bolshevik imagination – and Stalinism as its most virulent form – was predicated upon a fascination with capitalism and large-scale industry. The inescapable violence of large-scale industrialisation, founded almost always on mass dispossession of agrarian and artisanal communities, that was spread over a few centuries in England, for example, was sought to be accomplished within a few decades in the USSR. Even though, for Lenin and his followers, ‘worker-peasant unity’ constituted an apparent article of faith, the peasant really was required only for the Bolsheviks to capture state power.

Also read: On the Russian Revolution’s Centenary, Will History Defeat Rhetoric?

The war on the peasantry began immediately after the revolution. Lynn Viola, in her fascinating study Peasant Rebels under Stalin, brings to light a long suppressed story of the revolution, where it becomes apparent that in dealing the with the peasant as an exclusively economic category, the Bolsheviks erred from the very beginning. As the civil war raged, communists formed committees of the village poor to requisition and forcibly seize grain from the rich peasants, in order to feed the cities. But the poor peasants too considered themselves peasants, and were unwilling to turn in all their grain to those committees. As early as in May 1918, Lenin declared that ‘owners of grain who possess surplus grain’ but refuse to turn it in, regardless of social status, ‘will be declared enemies of the people’, against whom a ruthless war would be launched.

Undoubtedly, the exigencies of the civil war forced a certain ‘war communism’ on the peasantry in particular, but the roots of the idea lay deep in the philosophy itself: the peasants as a class, with their attachment to land and crop, had to be eliminated and transformed into propertyless workers. However, by March 1921, the communists had to retreat. A new economic policy was introduced that replaced forcible grain requisition with a ‘tax in kind’ and eventually, ‘money tax’. The peasant question, so to speak, was at the centre of this retreat.
The day of the 1938 October Revolution in the USSR. Credit Wikimedia Commons
Yet this was merely a ‘tactical’ retreat, for what was now in the offing was the programme of large-scale industrialisation. The only way this could be done was by turning the terms of trade against agriculture, in favour of industry – with higher prices for industrial goods and lower for agricultural. This led to the peasants once again trying to secure their existence by refusing to part with their grain. Indeed, Evgenii Preobrazhensky, a significant leader of the Left Opposition, ultimately propounded his thesis of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ that made a theoretical argument for squeezing the peasantry in order to facilitate accumulation for industrialisation. Then, and later during the forced collectivisation drive of the early 1930s, Viola tells us, when hundreds and thousands of peasants were deported and dispossessed, the violence was seen as ‘revolutionary necessity’.

Equally interestingly, through these decades, peasants saw in the coming of the Bolshevik state ‘the reign of Antichrist on earth’. The key question that most political histories of the revolution overlook is that which pertains to the great disjunction between the virtually exclusively economic view of classes and the way these ‘classes’ actually see themselves. Viola claims therefore, that the “nightmare of apocalypse pervaded the rumours of collectivisation. Antichrist and the four horsemen of the apocalypse became figurative symbols in rumours portending the end of traditional ways of life.”

In a sense, such notions of doom, fuelled by rumours, were nothing new: they have been noticed elsewhere in peasant societies under stress of rapid and inexplicable transformation, just as they had been seen in Russian society at large, during the time of the revolution. However, larger questions of popular consciousness are indicated here. Gossip and rumours tied to notions of the Jews and Germans as ‘the enemy’ had been important in what Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii call the ‘desacralisation of the monarchy’, just as much as they had figured in the delegitimisation of Kerensky, the charismatic leader of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, formed after the February Revolution.

Thus ‘dark forces’ of speculative traders, Germans and Jews, and corrupt officials were seen to be conspiring to profit from people’s hunger. Such a perception helped turn bread queues ‘into food riots and demonstrations against the monarchy’, suggest Figes and Kolonitskii. It is a fact often brushed under the carpet that anti-Semitism was a fairly widely prevalent sentiment even among the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Bolshevised’ masses. Neither the February revolution nor the October revolution actually can be understood as purely class phenomena. What is more, there is no ‘pure’ revolutionary subjectivity in evidence anywhere: the revolutionary element always co-existed with elements like anti-Semitism in the same social groups and individuals.

Kerensky recalled that as he fled the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917, he saw, written on the wall ‘Down with the Jew Kerensky, Long Live Trotsky’. The graffiti, say Figes and Kolonitskii, was doubly ironic, for Kerensky was not Jewish and there were no Jews in the Provisional Government – although it was often referred to as the Jewish government because it had given equal civil and religious rights to the Jews. And on the other hand, ‘Leon Trotsky (a.k.a. Bronstein) was the best known Jew that Russia ever had.’

Figes and Kolonitskii explain that the terms ‘Jew’, ‘German’ and ‘burzhooi (bourgeois)’ had become confused and even interchangeable in the plebeian language of the streets. ‘Kerensky had become the metaphoric “Jew” – a symbol of the fears and prejudices which had won the Bolsheviks their militant support’, they conclude.

Unfortunately, a lot of celebratory writing on the hundredth anniversary of this game-changing event of the 20th century continues to be problematic for two interrelated reasons. First, it makes no attempt to come to terms with the ‘past’ the socialist revolution sought to annihilate. For this ‘past’ was actually the predominant present of peasant existence. Despite the predominance of capitalist relations in urban Russia, its society taken as a whole still embodied a coexistence of different times. Second, this writing skirts important questions of the revolution’s secret history that has much to tell us about the complex relations between classes and the traditions and culture they inhabit; about forms of popular consciousness with all its complex and messy dimensions. Revolutions and projects of social transformation invariably flounder because they pay insufficient attention to culture and tradition.

Aditya Nigam is a professor of political science at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
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The Russian Revolution Catalysed an Array of Experiments in Art-SHUKLA SAWANT

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The Russian Revolution Catalysed an Array of Experiments in Art
BY SHUKLA SAWANT ON 07/11/2017 •
Avant-garde artists of the time were primarily concerned with projecting different kinds of future work spaces.
Ekaterina Zernova’s ‘Collective Farmers Greeting the Tank’, 1937. Credit: mcah.columbia.edu
A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.

In 1937, at a time when Stalin was consolidating his policy of collectivised farming in Russia, Ekaterina Zernova, a member of  “Izobrigada” (group of art workers), made a painting depicting an army tank rolling down a dirt track through a green meadow, being greeted by workers of a collective farm with bouquets of flowers in their hands. This celebration of an industrial war machine, painted in a manner that was to become the dominant visual language across authoritarian regimes, was far removed in content and style from the body of work that was produced by artists in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. This pivotal movement in the visual arts, informed by a utopian outlook, subsequently acquired great currency in many parts of the world.

There is no single route to abstraction. It is worth noting then that the Russian Revolution threw up a fascinating array of experiments in nonrepresentational arts; a revolt against the illusionary character of art associated with religion and representation of the aristocracy that was the mainstay of art practice till the 19th century. The political focus of the new socialist ideology in Russia lay in transforming a rural economy into an industrialised society and artists, it was believed, would play an important role in this transformation if given the autonomy to frame a new artistic vision. Not directed towards the production of aesthetic objects, the art of this period flourished through the support of an institutional infrastructure and intellectual engagement of artists that believed in endorsing “truth to materials”. This had enormous bearings on the field of functional design, typography and architecture that developed out of an analysis of the fundamental properties of materials: faktura, combined with tektonika, their spatial presence.

The impulse towards nonrepresentational art, however, was inaugurated a little earlier, in the first two decades of the 20th century, through the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, and the activities of short-lived artists groups from Russia, intent on provocation and bearing absurd names like the ‘Jack of Diamonds’ or the ‘Donkey’s Tail’. What emerged though from this labyrinth of irreverent activities was a style of painting called Suprematism, steeped in spiritualism and practiced by  Kasimir Maleavich from Kiev. His Black Square on a White Ground (1913) is an early example of trying to pare art down to the bare essentials of form.
Black Square on a White Ground. Credit: tate.org.uk
Yet, there was another dimension to experimentation with pure form. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, a 1919 poster designed by El Lissitzky drawing upon Vladimir Mayakovsky’s declaration ‘the streets our brushes, the squares our palettes’, is a politically-charged work that used the language of formalism rather than academic realism. It is, however, also a partisan political statement in favour of the Bolshevik revolution, visualised through the pure geometry of triangles and squares. Designed to stand on a street corner, the poster prefigures what came to be called Constructivism in the Russian avant-garde.
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. Credit: designishistory.com
The formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 was a turning point for artists, and the desire to foreground proletariat expression led to the formation of ‘Proletkult’ – an organisation that advanced the idea of a spare, functional art in consonance with thinking about art and its social role. This was supported by the government of the day with an independent network of studios being created to give artists the space for autonomous experimentation. Subsequently, institutions such as ‘VKhUTEMAS’ (The Higher Art and Technical Workshop) with Vladimir Tatlin, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo and Alexander Rodchenko as faculty, UNOVIS (The Champions of the New Art) helmed by Maleavich and other organisations, connected artists who sought to repudiate easel painting for utopian functionalism. Textile designs, posters, furniture for workers clubs and clothes for the factory worker, athletes and modern working men and women were developed to  flatten class and gender hierarchies in the workplace. Essential to this transformative vision were designs developed by women artists like Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova.

One fundamental text of Constructivism is The Realist Manifesto, authored by the sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, which positions art as the fulcrum of modern life “at the workbench, at the office, at work, at rest, and at leisure; work days and holidays, at home and on the road, so that the flame of life does not go out in man”.
Liubov Popova Textile Design 1923–4, Ink and gouache on paper, reproduced on the cover of Lef, no.2, 1924. Credit: tate.org.uk
Indeed, the overwhelming concern of artists of the Russian avant-garde was to make enlightened projections for the future of the workspace, an example of which is Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International or Tatlin’s Tower as it came to be called; a spiralling mass of steel and glass that was envisaged to stand taller than the Eiffel Tower. It was to be constructed out of the three basic forms of the cone, cube and cylinder and also have a temporal character as each unit was meant to rotate at a different cadence. This architectural design, a monument to the revolution was planned to serve as a centre for the Communist Third International, or the Comintern, even though it was probably impossible to realise on the ground. Several experiments in architecture however did see the light of day such as the futuristic designs of the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition, and even the designs for residential units such as the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, which included communal kitchens and crèches releasing women from domesticity to enable them to join the workforce.
Fig. 4. Monument to the Third International. Credit: tate.org.uk
Industrial forms that could replicate images such as printing and photography had an important place in the visual lexicon developed by Constructivist artists. Photomontage as imagined by them was quite different from the Dadaist “destructive” collages. The photograph was a construction unit that was often combined with text and painted areas, to dismantle the idea of one point perspective. With the background eliminated by cutting, the image could be re-contextualised and animated through variations in scale and contrasts of colour that would be added as activating elements. Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina’s Dynamic City or the poster The Electrification of the Entire Country are early examples of this form of montage technique.
Fig. 5. Gustav Klutsis, Design for a poster The Electrification of the Entire Country. Credit: monoskop.org
Unlike photography of an earlier period that was intimately connected to acts of memorialisation, these images, published primarily in periodicals such as LEF (Left Front of Art) created a unique space for image – text relationships, beginning with the cover page, a distinctive location for professing a social agenda. However, in this space of futuristic projections there was also space for emotional entanglements and the celebrated romance between Mayakovsky and Lilya Birk found a place in the periodical as an illustrated poem Pro eto (About this).

The longue durée of the avant-garde project, even if it was to subside momentarily in Russia, extended across diverse locations and continents, taking root through institutions that were inaugurated when decolonised nations sought to imagine a new future for themselves. It is a bequest that did not always maintain a dialectical relationship with local social conditions and geography, because of which this historical project of modernity today finds itself at a crossroads.

Shukla Sawant is a visual artist and professor of visual studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.
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How far was the Russian Revolution made by the Bolsheviks?-Steve Smith

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A review of Dave Sherry, Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed (Bookmarks, 2017), £12.99.

At a time when it looks as if capitalism can’t—and shouldn’t—survive through the 21st century, it’s timely to remind a new generation of activists that the 20th century witnessed a massive challenge to capitalism in the shape of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Dave Sherry has written a rousing account of the revolution that will serve that new generation well. He rightly insists that “out of the bloodbath of the First World War, it [the Revolution] opened up the prospect of a better world. Its message of international solidarity and working class self-emancipation sped round the globe” (p9). His account of the extraordinary events of 1917 is lucid and lively, and he provides some fine set-piece descriptions of the critical turning points, such as the July Days and the October insurrection. He is especially good in bringing to the fore the level of organisation and militancy of the working class. His ability to explain complex political issues is also commendable. He has read widely and chosen some excellent quotations to substantiate his points (although he doesn’t seem actually to have read Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy, since both references to it are quite misleading). His account is conventional, following closely that of Leon Trotsky’s towering history of the Russian Revolution, but there are original emphases throughout and some sharp observations. In particular, he emphasises the role played by women workers in a way that is novel, and he makes valuable comparisons between events in Russia and those without.

But Sherry’s book is far from being a “warts and all” account. He presents Lenin’s views as consistently correct, and a thoughtful newcomer might be left wondering about issues that are passed over quickly or in silence. (Why, for example, if Lenin was a principled rather than a tactical believer in soviet power did he present the Second Congress of Soviets with a government made up entirely of Bolsheviks?) Similarly, the working class is presented as solidly behind the Bolsheviks, so the same newcomer might wonder why so many workers supported the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (the latter, incidentally, were a working class as well as a peasant party) in spring 1917 and why some shifted back to the Mensheviks in spring 1918. These are just a couple of instances where I would have liked to see a more critical analysis and less cheerleading.

More fundamentally, Sherry gives a cogent account of the deeper causes of the February Revolution, yet like so many Marxist histories, his deviates from a materialist analysis of developments in 1917 towards one that places huge emphasis on human will and agency. Few would doubt that without Lenin there would not have been a seizure of power in October 1917, but the potentiality for revolution was not created by Lenin and the Bolshevik party, or even by the working class. Lenin’s great contribution was to appreciate that objective ­conditions—the carnage of war, the collapse of the Tsarist state and a devastating socio-economic breakdown that was causing massive popular suffering—had created the possibility for revolutionaries to seize the political initiative. Sherry fails to give full weight to these objective conditions, which, incidentally, sprang directly out of the First World War and only indirectly out of a crisis of the capitalist system.

One consequence is that in underplaying the specificity of the crisis in Russia, he exaggerates the extent to which Europe as a whole was on the verge of Bolshevik-style revolution. Certainly, levels of working class militancy were on an unprecedented scale. Yet in contrast to Russia, the Social Democratic government in Germany, backed (reluctantly) by the generals and by a powerful bourgeoisie, and unthreatened by an insurgent peasantry, was able ruthlessly to suppress the stirrings of social revolution. Three times the German communists struggled to seize power and each time they were crushed. Contrary to the standard account, this was not primarily a problem of poor leadership: it was about the depth of the social crisis and the relative balance of class forces. Incidentally, we shouldn’t assume that ruling class fears of Bolshevik revolution were necessarily proportionate to the actual threat posed by revolutionaries, as the “red scare” in the United States underlines.

I’m sure many readers of this journal will disagree with this analysis. My point is that to present the revolution as a “festival of the oppressed” is to make light of the fact that it emerged out of mass slaughter and a catastrophic deterioration in living standards and social security. Certainly, October opened up a wide range of opportunities for emancipation, especially of colonial peoples and of women. Yet, as a product of these baleful circumstances, it was also scarred by the effects of war and social collapse. Sherry brings out the positive legacies of October very well but ignores negative legacies, such as a conviction that the party could substitute for the working class; that one-party rule was compatible with socialist democracy; an intolerance of dissent, and contempt for law and human life. These were early features of the Bolshevik power that predate the rise of Stalin and that cannot simply be ascribed to a crippling civil war. Why, otherwise, was there no attempt to combat these phenomena after 1920? Dave Sherry claims that the “lessons” of October are as vital today as they were in 1917. If so, those fighting for a better world need to recognise that there are negative as well as positive lessons to be learned.

Steve Smith is the author of Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 (Oxford, 2017).

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The 19th Party Congress and Chinese Foreign Policy-MICHAEL D. SWAINE

Posted by admin On November - 7 - 2017 Comments Off on The 19th Party Congress and Chinese Foreign Policy-MICHAEL D. SWAINE

The 19th Party Congress and Chinese Foreign Policy
Source: Getty
ArticleOctober 16, 2017
Summary:  Comparing Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Party Congress to earlier such documents provides an excellent indicator of continuities and recent changes in Chinese foreign policy.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congresses are usually not occasions for presenting the details of the country’s foreign policy. Such details usually are revealed as part of the major work report on state policies presented during the annual gatherings of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s national legislative body, held during the spring following every party congress. Instead, most of the news-making events that take place at the CCP’s national party congresses focus on party leadership changes and general statements of national strategic orientation applicable to many policy realms.

That said, since at least the advent of the reform era in the late 1970s, CCP congresses have invariably addressed three general areas of direct or indirect relevance to foreign policy: 1) the Chinese leadership’s assessment of the overall features of the global and Asian diplomatic, economic, and security environments; 2) China’s basic national development goals of direct relevance to foreign policy; and 3) the country’s major foreign policy initiatives and priorities.
Michael D. Swaine
Senior Fellow
Asia Program

More from this author…
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Together, these serve as guidelines for more detailed presentations of Chinese foreign policy that take place during the NPC and various party and state meetings. Hence, variations and continuities in the themes struck in each of these areas during successive party congresses can provide an excellent indicator of both the enduring foundations and the new departures occurring in China’s foreign policy over time. Based on an examination of relevant statements from the 16th–18th party congresses (held in 2002, 2007, and 2012 respectively), as well as geopolitical developments that have been taking place since 2012, one can obtain a reasonably reliable impression of what to expect regarding Chinese foreign policy statements at the upcoming 19th Party Congress due to convene on October 18, 2017.


The 19th Party Congress will without a doubt stress a number of old bromides commonly observed in Chinese foreign policy statements as well as a new focus on defending globalization. Many of these long-standing features have been evident in Chinese analyses of its external environment since at least the beginning of the reform era: the development toward a multipolar world in which no single power dominates, a generally stable international situation, and an emphasis on “peace and development” as the “underlying trend” of the times.1

This generally positive overarching assessment of the world outside China has allowed Beijing to remain focused for decades on the implementation of an outward-oriented, cooperative, long-term economic development strategy, seen as essential to achieving the country’s national development goals. Given China’s ongoing need to maintain relatively high (if somewhat lower than before) levels of economic growth while transitioning toward a more efficient, value-added technology-focused and information-driven development model, there is no reason to think that Beijing will alter this assessment.2

At the same time, over several party congresses, Chinese leaders have paired this positive viewpoint with remarks indicating the continued presence of potential threats to Chinese security and prosperity. The latter usually involve some variation of the following statement:

Hegemonism [read: U.S. behavior] and power politics still exist, local conflicts and hotspot issues keep emerging, imbalances in the world economy are [present or] worsening, the North-South gap is widening, and traditional and nontraditional threats to security are intertwined.

In addition to these views, the Chinese leadership for the first time highlighted so-called neo-interventionism (that is, efforts or supporting arguments by the United States, and other usually Western states to intervene militarily in the domestic affairs of various countries) alongside hegemonism and power politics at the 18th Party Congress. This addition was primarily due to the U.S.-led or U.S.-supported military interventions that occurred or were threatened in Libya and Syria after the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

This phrase might not appear or be given as much prominence at the 19th Party Congress, however. This is because, while the Syria situation has arguably grown worse since 2012, with some outside (albeit limited) intervention by foreign powers, the only significant new example of large-scale intervention has been carried out against Ukraine and Crimea by Russia, China’s increasingly friendly strategic partner. It is unlikely that Beijing would seek to call attention to Moscow’s misbehavior, although this possibility cannot be discounted entirely.

In addition to these past negative features, the 19th Party Congress will probably also highlight a new set of potential threats to peace, continued growth, and stability, in the form of growing imbalances in global economic development, and a troubling backlash against greater global economic integration and the forces of globalization. Just last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated:

We live in a world that is witnessing profound changes in the international landscape and balance of power, prominent traditional and non-traditional threats, insufficient driving force for global growth and a growing backlash against globalization. There are unprecedented challenges for mankind’s pursuit of lasting peace and sustainable development.

The 19th Party Congress will likely for the first time include language similar to this. In addition, Beijing will probably present itself as a strong opponent of protectionism and a proponent of greater global and regional economic integration. This has become a noticeable theme in Chinese statements by Xi Jinping and other senior leaders, especially since the election of Donald Trump and the rise of similar “me-first” nationalists in Europe. For instance, while giving a speech at the 2017 World Economic Forum annual meeting, Xi stated that “pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”3


At the 19th Party Congress, China’s top leaders will likely focus on two of the country’s overarching, long-standing national development objectives, while connecting these goals to a relatively new term, the China Dream, that Xi first coined in late 2012 to describe the country’s aspirations for national rejuvenation. Specifically, the rhetoric at the congress will doubtlessly continue to emphasize China’s double centenary tasks of building:

“A moderately prosperous society” by 2021, the centenary of the founding of the CCP, a project ratified in Jiang Zemin’s report to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, and later reaffirmed in Hu Jintao’s subsequent congress reports in 2007 and 2012, as part of his efforts to build a “harmonious society”4
A “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the PRC
These two long-standing goals were first announced during the Jiang Zemin era at the 15th Party Congress in 1997. However, they arguably did not become highly prominent until Xi became CCP general secretary in 2012 at the 18th Party Congress. After that event, these goals came to be identified as the main development features of Xi’s China Dream concept. There is little doubt that this concept will be highlighted at the upcoming Party Congress, as an indication of Xi’s dominant stature within the CCP leadership.

The general characterization of China’s current and future foreign policy principles or guidelines that appear at the 19th Party Congress will also likely be similar to those found in recent party congresses. The key phrases will probably involve references to China’s ongoing efforts to

continue to hold high the banner of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit and strive to uphold world peace and promote common development [and] . . . unwaveringly follow a win-win strategy of opening up and promote robust, sustainable and balanced growth of the global economy through increased cooperation.

These stock phrases will likely be paired with more recent references to “a new type of international relations,” and “a new model of major-country relations”; these two oft-used slogans originated during the Hu Jintao era but have been raised to greater prominence under Xi.5 Some observers believe that these slogans have been downplayed in recent months, and thus might be omitted from the 19th Party Congress documents. This is unlikely, however, given their very close association with Xi and his policies, and the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to echo them in March 2017 during a meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. Tillerson stated that “the U.S. side is ready to develop relations with China based on the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”6

Also likely to be included in the 19th Party Congress remarks on foreign policy is a repetition of the need for China to advance multilateral diplomacy, and, most notably, to reform the international system and the structure of global governance, especially regarding the representation and views of developing countries. Past party congresses have stressed this latter theme many times. As a representative example, in a July 2017 speech, State Councilor Yang Jiechi explained that “In response to major issues and challenges confronting global governance, General Secretary Xi Jinping has put forth a series of new propositions on global governance, security, development, justice, interests and globalization which are aimed at promoting a global governance system that is fairer, more equitable, inclusive and balanced.”7

Alongside these long-standing statements of Beijing’s central foreign policy features, the 19th Party Congress will also undoubtedly repeat the past 17th and (especially) 18th PC statements of China’s need to “safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and ensure its peaceful development.” The most recent and pointed reference to this now core element of Chinese foreign policy under Xi occurred last summer, in a speech by State Councilor and head of Chinese foreign affairs Yang Jiechi, who formerly served as foreign minister. Yang remarked that China must unequivocally make clear China’s positions on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and other issues concerning China’s major core interests, adding: “We have drawn a clear line of what is unacceptable, and acted forcefully to defend our core interests as well as legitimate rights.”

This emphasis on protecting China’s sovereignty and rights is central to the concept of weiquan or “rights protection” that the Xi Jinping regime has now placed alongside the long-standing concept of weiwen or “stability maintenance.” Although the protection of national sovereignty and rights certainly predates the Xi period, the two concepts became identified as equally important goals of China’s foreign and defense policies, and raised to prominence, only after Xi became CCP general secretary.8

One important question is how much greater prominence will be given to the weiquan concept during the 19th Party Congress, if any. Many observers believe that if, as expected, Xi Jinping is able to strengthen further his dominance over the Chinese leadership at the congress, he will likely adopt a more aggressive stance toward territorial disputes and the advancement of China’s maritime rights. Hence, the argument goes, a greater emphasis on weiquan at the congress would perhaps herald such a shift. However, this assumes that Xi thus far has been prevented from advocating those elements because of leadership resistance, which is a very dubious assumption. There is no evidence that any of Xi’s senior colleagues question or oppose the increased emphasis on weiquan.

In the defense and security realm, the 19th Party Congress will almost certainly repeat Xi’s post-18th Party Congress stress on fostering a “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” environment for the Asia-Pacific. Xi first coined this slogan and defined its contents at the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in May 2014.

It has been repeated several times since then, perhaps most notably by Yang Jiechi at the opening session of the fifty-first Munich Security Conference in February 2015.9 Essentially, the four aspects of this concept are intended to serve as the basis for an Asia security system that is all-inclusive, covers all types of security problems, centers on cooperative dialogues, recognizes the importance of development and regional integration to security, and thus does not seek “absolute” security for any single nation nor use alliances to target third parties. These views challenge, in part, what Beijing regards as U.S. efforts to seek absolute security and strengthen alliances aimed at countering China.

The 19th Party Congress might also refer to another set of security-related concepts coined since the previous party congress: the so-called three principles for handling hotspot issues. These include:

Adherence to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs and opposition to the practice of imposing one’s will on others
A willingness to uphold fairness and justice as well as opposition to the singular pursuit of selfish interests
Adherence to political settlement and opposition to the use of force in handling hotspot issues
Although these concepts are fundamental to Beijing’s well-established support for win-win cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, their combination in a set of explicit principles for handling “hotspot issues” such as maritime sovereignty disputes in East Asia is new. If mentioned, these concepts will likely be placed alongside any reference to support for “a new type of international relations.” But they will probably receive a more detailed treatment at the 2018 NPC, given the more detailed presentation of foreign and defense policy issues that occur at that event.

Regarding military policies in particular, the 19th Party Congress will likely reiterate the statement that appeared for the first time at the 18th Party Congress of the need to construct a “strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests,” as well as the need for the Chinese military “to increase cooperation and mutual trust with the armed forces of other countries, participate in regional and international security affairs, and thus play an active role in international political and security fields.”

Although these statements seem rather innocuous and unremarkable on the surface, in fact, this calls for armed forces with a strength and presence beyond China’s borders equal to its growing international standing in 2012 was unprecedented, and it was indicative of the more active and ambitious role expected of the Chinese military under Xi.

Equally important, as part of its efforts to increase China’s military presence overseas, the 19th Party Congress will almost certainly follow the previous congress in stressing China’s maritime interests, and perhaps again explicitly refer to the need to “build China into a maritime power.”10 Although the latter statement certainly includes commercial and other nonmilitary maritime elements, it no doubt also refers to China’s need to build up military and paramilitary capabilities across the maritime reaches.

Finally, the 19th Party Congress is likely to repeat the need to also stress space and cyberspace security. These are now recognized as key elements in China’s foreign and defense policies, and the reference to cyberspace was unprecedented in the 18th Party Congress, as was the reference to space in relation to security.


In past party congresses, foreign policy–related statements have included references to specific policy initiatives designed to achieve the type of broad goals outlined above. These are not detailed descriptions of specific policies. Such details usually are unveiled during or just after the subsequent spring NPC meeting, which naturally focuses on government policies. However, the mere mentioning of individual foreign policy initiatives at a party congress usually guarantees their inclusion at the subsequent NPC. Some of these policies are long-standing and foundational, although many reflect a specific spin or new content associated with the paramount leader.

Since the 19th Party Congress will constitute the first major party meeting occurring entirely under the rule of the Xi regime, there is no doubt that policies or concepts associated most closely with Xi since the 18th Party Congress will be mentioned. These will likely include:

the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese-led effort to fund infrastructure and other projects throughout Eurasia
diplomatic relations with nations along China’s periphery
the ongoing search for a new type of great power relationship with the United States and other major powers
a variety of high profile multilateral events, including those that China has organized to promote Xi’s views on issues related to global governance and globalization
These four categories of diplomatic and economic initiatives, all closely associated with Xi Jinping, reflect his activist efforts to promote the previously outlined concepts and goals, from the China Dream to comprehensive security and “rights protection.”11 Hence, it would be surprising if the 19th Party Congress does not in some manner highlight or at least mention each of them.

Beyond these core policy initiatives, it is possible that the 19th Party Congress will also mention Sino-Russian relations, given the notable improvements in this relationship since the 18th Party Congress. However, it is not common for party congresses to mention specific foreign policy relationships (with the exception of invariably indirect references to the United States), so it would not be surprising if this does not occur.

Another question is whether the party congress will make any reference to the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis. This is possible, yet again not likely. Despite the importance of this issue in Chinese foreign policy today, the leadership’s tendency not to mention such particulars at party congresses may mean that it will go unmentioned. However, it is possible that, given the urgency of the matter, the congress might indirectly refer to the North Korea crisis, and Trump’s thinly veiled threats to employ force against Pyongyang, by stressing the need for the peaceful resolution of current crises through negotiation and/or the avoidance of any use of force other than through common agreement in the United Nations.12


Overall, in the realm of foreign policy, the 19th Party Congress will exhibit considerable continuities with previous party congresses of the reform era; it will also doubtlessly highlight some new features most closely associated with Xi Jinping, namely the China Dream and rights protection (weiquan), as well as an expression of Chinese support for globalization and opposition to protectionism and the sort of narrow, me-first nationalism reflected in the trade policies of the Trump administration.

None of this will mark a clear departure from the generally benign and cooperative foreign policy elements of the past several decades. Indeed, Xi and the CCP leadership will almost certainly continue to recognize the necessity of maintaining generally positive relations with Japan as well as the United States and other Western countries. Unlike the current U.S. administration, Chinese leaders recognize that China will continue to profit enormously from the forces of global economic integration and also must cooperate with other major industrial powers to deal with serious transnational security threats such as climate change. They also know that—in order to make a stable transition to a new normal of lower, but still robust, growth rates; higher living standards; and lower levels of corruption and pollution—they must push forward with major structural reforms that will demand a continued focus on their domestic environment for many years to come. These imperatives will make them highly averse to any shifts in the regional or global order that could threaten stability and prosperity, such as a transition to a confrontational foreign policy toward the United States.

However, such realities do not preclude the possibility of greater tensions between China and the United States, its allies, and other Asian states over trade, investment, sovereignty rights, and a variety of activities involving Chinese and U.S. or Japanese military forces in the Western Pacific. There is no doubt that Xi and the Chinese leadership are seeking to more effectively use China’s growing international presence and influence to promote the nation’s interests in such sensitive areas. As a result, tensions with China will in fact likely increase, despite the many positive elements of the 19th Party Congress noted above.

The most serious of these tensions will almost certainly be in Asia, regarding sovereignty disputes and military activities occurring along China’s maritime periphery. Indeed, escalating crises in these realms could adversely affect overall relations between China and other countries, absent the adoption by all parties of new approaches to Asian security involving more extensive confidence-building measures and a series of mutual understandings regarding the major likely sources of conflict in the future, including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, maritime disputes, and the relative military capabilities of and activities between China, the United States, and the latter’s allies.

The good news is that, rather than marking a turn toward confrontation between China and the West and Japan, the 19th Party Congress will likely signal a high level of stability and continuity in Chinese foreign policy. The bad news is that this continuity is unlikely to reduce the most serious challenges facing China’s relations with the United States and its allies.

The author offered an oral version of these remarks at Carnegie on October 6, 2017, as part of several presentations on the 19th Party Congress given by authors of the China Leadership Monitor, an online publication based at Stanford University. The author would like to thank Alexis Dale-Huang for her research assistance and Ryan DeVries for his editorial assistance in the preparation of this article.


1 For examples of past party congress reports, please see the following: “Full Text of Jiang Zemin’s Report at 16th Party Congress,” China.org.cn, November 17, 2002, http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/49007.htm; “Full Text of Hu Jintao’s Report at 17th Party Congress,” China Daily, October 24, 2007, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-10/24/content_6204564.htm; and “Full Text of Hu Jintao’s Report at 18th Party Congress,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America, November 27, 2012, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/18th_CPC_National_Congress_Eng/t992917.htm.

2 “The ‘New Normal’ of China’s Economy,” China Daily, October 10, 2014, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2014-10/10/content_18716671.htm; Ross Garnaut, “China’s New Normal Inches On,” East Asia Forum, July 10, 2016, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/07/10/chinas-new-normal-inches-on/.

3 Also see Stephen Fidler, Te-Ping Chen, and Lingling Wei, “China’s Xi Jinping Seizes Role as Leader on Globalization,” Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xi-jinping-defends-globalization-1484654899; “China, New Zealand Pledge Support for Free Trade to Counter Global Protectionism,” Reuters, February 9, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-newzealand-china/china-new-zealand-pledge-support-for-free-trade-to-counter-global-protectionism-idUSKBN15P058?il=0; Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Views on the Trump Administration’s Asia Policy,” China Leadership Monitor 53 (Spring 2017), https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm53ms.pdf.

4 For details on the content of this goal, see John Ross, “China’s Five Year Plan to Achieve a ‘Moderately Prosperous Society,’” China.org.cn, http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2015-10/30/content_36935303.htm.

5 Qiao Wei, “The Origins of Win-Win Cooperation Concepts,” CCTV, October 20, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/10/20/ARTI1445325120332760.shtml; Yu Hongjun, “China and the United States: Building New Relations Between Major Powers,” China Institute of International Studies, November 25, 2013, http://www.ciis.org.cn/english/2013-11/25/content_6486747.htm; U.S.-China Relations: Toward a New Model of Major Power Relationship edited by Rudy deLeon and Yang Jiemian, (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, February 2014), https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/ChinaReport-Full.pdf.

6 Please also see Laura Rosenberger, “Did Rex Tillerson Misspeak or Intentionally Kowtow to China?,” Foreign Policy, March 22, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/22/did-rex-tillerson-misspeak-or-intentionally-kowtow-to-china/; Feng Zhang, “Tillerson Speaks Chinese,” Foreign Affairs, April 4, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-04-04/tillerson-speaks-chinese.

7 Also see “Full Text of Hu Jintao’s Report at 18th Party Congress” and “Quotable Quotes on China’s Major-Country Diplomacy: Global Governance,” China Daily, September 13, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2017-09/13/content_31933242.htm.

8 “Document: China’s Military Strategy,” USNI News, May 26, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/05/26/document-chinas-military-strategy; Ryan Martinson, “A Salt Water Perspective on China’s New Military Strategy,” RealClearDefense, June 1, 2015, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/06/02/a_salt_water_perspective_on_chinas_new_military_strategy_107997.html.

9 “For a Vision of Common, Comprehensive, Cooperative and Sustainable Security,” China Daily, February 9, 2015, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2015-02/09/content_19530681.htm. The fullest exposition of the concept occurs in a lengthy document entitled “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation” issued by the State Council Information Office in January 2017. See “Full Text: China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation,” Xinhua News Agency, January 11, 2017, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2017-01/11/c_135973695_2.htm.

10 Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Views and Commentary on Periphery Diplomacy,” China Leadership Monitor 44 (Summer 2014), https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm44ms.pdf.

11 “Xi Jinping zai zhoubian waijiao gongzuo zuo tanhui shang fabiao zhongyao yanjiang” [Important Speech by Xi Jinping at the Work Forum on Chinese Diplomacy Toward the Periphery], Xinhua News Agency, October 25, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2013-10/25/c_117878897.htm; Paul Haenle, “What Does a New Type of Great-Power Relations Mean for the United States and China?,” Carnegie Endowment, January 15, 2014, http://carnegietsinghua.org/2014/01/15/what-does-new-type-of-great-power-relations-mean-for-united-states-and-china-pub-54202; Cai Mingzhao, “Quanmian keguan renshi dangdai zhongguo de zhongyao wenxian” [Important documents on a comprehensive, objective understanding of contemporary China: an introduction to The Governance of China by Xi Jinping], People’s Daily, September 29, 2014, http://theory.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2014/0929/c40531-25757337.html; “Xi Eyes More Enabling Int’l Environment for China’s Peaceful Development,” Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, November 30, 2014, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/TopNews/2014-11/30/content_4554680.htm; “Goujian zhongmei xinxing daguo guanxi” [Building a new model of U.S.-China great power relations], People’s Daily, July 21, 2015, http://cpc.people.com.cn/xuexi/n/2015/0721/c397563-27337996.html; “Full Text of President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum,” Xinhua News Agency, May 14, 2017, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-05/14/c_136282982.htm; “President Xi’s Speech to Davos in Full.”

12 Chinese observers have made this argument repeatedly in private conversations with the author and other analysts since early August 2017.

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Is Socialist Revolution Possible – Or Even Necessary?–Bennett Muraskin, Michael Hirsch, and Barry Finger

Posted by admin On November - 7 - 2017 Comments Off on Is Socialist Revolution Possible – Or Even Necessary?–Bennett Muraskin, Michael Hirsch, and Barry Finger


Bennett Muraskin:

I look at the world for many decades now and do not see evidence that the class struggle is alive and well, except to the extent that workers are on the losing end. But even more than that, it does not appear that the class struggle is playing a key role anywhere in the world. All of the major conflicts are being fought on national, ethnic and/or religious grounds.  In these conflicts, whether they are in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Niger or even Catalonia, workers line up with their tribe.

It used to be that the anti-colonial forces at least wrapped themselves in the mantle of socialism, as in the days of the Algerian, Vietnamese or Angolan struggles for independence. Now it is ISIS and kindred groups of fanatics who are pretending to lead the charge against Western imperialism or neo-colonialism.

It looks to me that every attempt to achieve socialism has gone bad. Compare the former East Germany with former West Germany or the current North Korea with the current South Korea. Do the people of China yearn for the “good old days” of Mao Zedong or are they infinitely more prosperous under state capitalism? I was in Poland a few years ago. No one had a good thing to say about the “People’s Republic.” The most recent socialist experiment in Venezuela is going down the tubes.

It was been nearly 170 years since the Communist Manifesto and 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution, where the workers held power for at most two or three years. The left in Russian has been insignificant since the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union over twenty five years ago. What happened to the once mighty Communist parties of Italy and France?  Obviously their demise did not lead to the rise of the rise of the anti-Stalinist left.

I recently met a Socialist Party USA activist at a Labor Day Parade in New Jersey.  When I mentioned that Bernie Sanders working within the Democratic Party was the best alternative, he opined that Sanders is not a socialist. Well, I said, you are right. Generically he is a social democrat. But if he went around calling for workers’ ownership of the means of production, he would have never even been elected the mayor of Burlington, VT. Even Eugene Debs could never garner more than 6% of the popular vote, nor could the original Socialist Party in its heyday elect more than two Congressmen.

Here is my question. If revolutionary socialists have nothing to show for all their efforts for the past 180 years, maybe it is time to give up the ghost and accept that social democracy on the Western European or Scandinavian model is the best we can achieve.

Michael Hirsch:


Yours is a fair question to ask of editors of an eclectic left journal, though one largely committed to the radical vision of socialism from below: why the unblemished optimism over the prospects for radical social change in the face of hideously disappointing, centuries’ long results? Here’s my attempt at clearing the air.

Understand that you’re asking two questions that aren’t necessarily conjoined. First, why have the expectations of revolutionary socialists going back to Marx and Engels that a growing proletariat would act of necessity to overthrow capitalism in its own interest been so dismally unfulfilled. And second, given that, why do we not simply embrace a social democratic coda stressing reforms, or, as Trotsky put it in September 1939 in a moment of despair, resign ourselves to fight to improve the conditions of the slaves.

As to the first, you have to take seriously the economics that came out of World War II. Socialists from Michael Harrington to Daniel Singer cite the ascendance of Keynesian economics, which created a welfare regime in which consumerism didn’t empower working people so much as substantially increase their purchasing power – as a spur to increasing production – during what the French called Les Trente Glorieuses (the thirty glorious years, i.e., 1945 to 1975). What followed, what I call the thirty inglorious years, is still working its way into people’s consciousness as a new and growing subclass of contingent workers – the precariat –typifies the life chances of millions of young people worldwide, while the traditional industrial proletariat – still numerous in absolute numbers though shrinking in proportion to other sectors – is joined by public sector workers battling to defend what is left of the social safety net. In short, the class struggle is still being waged, and with a newly reconfigured working class, though capital holds the high ground. Unions are at least organizing the unorganized in sectors that barely existed a generation ago. That’s one example of class struggle as fought by our side. I think you will agree it is promising.

On social democracy. You have to take seriously its sad history, along with the early degeneration of its main left critics, the Communists. In the United States, what was left of any New Deal politics died with the oil embargo of the mid-1970s and the rise of the New Democrats, who were neither new nor barely Democrats. Increasingly, US liberals and European social democrats in office were administrators of the state and enablers of the capitalist system, not its gravediggers. In France, François Mitterand prior to his 1981 presidential breakthrough made a series of bold promises to nationalize industries, some even under autogestion, a broadly understood French version of workers’ self-management. Within days of his inauguration, all mention of autogestion was gone. Within two years, industries nationalized were reprivatized and Mitterand served out his term as a caretaker for capital. Do I exaggerate?

In Sweden, the Meidner Plan, a real reform that, if implemented, would have nationalized industry under a form of workers’ control, saw the Social Democratic Party abandoning it after Swedish capital moved against them. The Soviet-backed CPs for the most part went from slavish support for all things Stalinist to a warmed-over reformist Eurocommunism without blinking, seeing their vote in Italy reduced from 30 percent to utterly marginal. Those that stayed Stalinist, as in Greece and Spain, shriveled on the vine.

What does all this mean? Capital had a plan and the means to follow it through, whether in good times then or in periodic crises now. The left, as embodied by the social democrats and the then extant Stalinists, did not, have a plan beyond posing as governing arbiters if not mediators. Class struggle was relatively muted – or at least less obvious – in the boom years; it is raging today in what the 1970s United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser presciently called “a one-sided class war.” The left, not to mention the unions as a whole, bears some responsibility too. If Antonio Gramsci is to be taken seriously, we’ve collectively done a languid job of getting our ideas out. As society becomes more socialized, and where social reproduction is now better understood by the left as a corollary to economic exploitation at the point of production, socialism as the logical outcome of a post-industrial socialization ironically takes the form of automation instead of workers control. The alternatives desperate people grasp, such as the noxious nationalism and racial or religio-posturing of a Trump and a Netanyahu, just to name two with whom you are doubtlessly well-familiar, seem to attract supporters by default.

What I’ve written here is hardly exhaustive, but I expect it addresses your concerns. The class struggle is ongoing, economic crisis is endemic, the long-range choices are still as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg argued, a choice between socialism and barbarism, with barbarism understood as genocidal total warfare and/or environmental liquidation. Trotsky’s conclusion, even in his darkest days, that there was no “incontrovertible or even impressive objective data as would compel us today to renounce the prospect of the socialist revolution” (The USSR in War), rings true. Like Pascal’s Wager, what choice do we really have?

Resistance to the system is ongoing, even when it takes bizarre and unaccustomed forms as with the Antifa opposition to the rise of white nationalism or the efforts to tear down the statues of undeserving Civil War generals. Defining whose history is true, which for Gramsci was a necessary adjunct of activist, revolutionary cultural work, is part of the class struggle, too. So are the efforts to rediscover commonalities despite seeming differences. The growing acceptance of intersectionality, not as rhetoric but as an activist, working principle, is proving that class and identity are not at variance, but indissolubly entwined.

So, comrade Muraskin, a Luta Continua.

Barry Finger:

“Here is my question? If revolutionary socialists have nothing to show for all their efforts for the past 180 years, maybe it is time to give up the ghost and accept that social democracy on the Western European or Scandinavian model is the best we can achieve.” – Bennett Muraskin

Fifty years ago, it was the US, with its underdeveloped welfare state, that was out of step with advanced capitalist societies. Neoliberalism, with the complicity of Democrats as well as Republicans, has, in the intervening decades, decimated the labor movement and begun the piecemeal dismantling of New Deal and Great Society gains. This well-recognized dynamic has been replicated on an international scale.

Today it is an open question whether the Scandinavian model can be replicated, expanded, or even defended without a worldwide revival of labor militancy.

Every civilizational upgrade under capitalism with respect to wages, hours and workplace conditions in the “past 180 years” has been inextricably linked to organized working classes asserting their power over the public domain. The exploited classes defend their interests by seeking to inject the principal of social responsibility against the prevailing, seemingly inviolable, rights of private property. It is a perpetual war for position. Where the working classes have been defeated so too has the cause of democracy and progress been set back. The Scandinavian model is now an isolated outpost in the class war. It is the forward operating base of labor, now besieged from all quarters and in full retreat.

If capitalism were a static system, the permanency of class compromise along Scandinavian lines might be an arguable proposition. Labor crusades, above all, for a share of the prosperity its work creates sufficient to permit it economic security, workplace dignity, limitations on social inequality, and a comfortable retirement. Even the most conservative labor leaders contest almost every right of the employer: over hiring and firing; over wages and hours; over the speed and intensity of work; over promotions and transfers. They challenge every right, that is, save one – the “right” to own and manage.

This trade union limitation has been replicated on a broader social scale in the scope and limitations of the modern welfare state, a grand compromise between the aspirations of labor for social control and the entrenched requirements of capital for the “freedom” to pursue profit-making.

On paper at least, the capitalist state is fully capable of exercising the type of social control over the market place – of managing the truncated “economic democracy” needed to minimize the gulf that separates the public from the private domain that labor demands while ensuring, in modified form, the rights of property. It is long well known, after all, how targeted state spending and taxation can regulate output, employment and income to dampen the effects of the business cycle, while ensuring long-run price stability.

It would seem – again on paper – that the welfare state should be a win-win for both classes in society. As long as labor’s circumscribed demands could be satisfied, it had no reason to challenge this compromise. And it didn’t.

But what about capital? It, too, would seem to have benefited greatly from this compromise.  State spending socializes the costs of training, research, and development and subsidizes the investments that allow individual businesses to commercialize the process of innovation.  Infrastructure spending reduces turnover times and assists capital to economize on its costs. State contracts increase the level of capacity utilization and thereby enhance the mass of profits available for investment and capitalist compensation.

The welfare state, it would seem, broadly encourages, by dint both of its secular and counter-cyclical activities, a socially favorable investment climate.

But if we delve a bit further, we can see that the welfare state has a fatal design flaw that has proven all-but disastrous to this rosy scenario. Full employment and working class economic security eliminates the key threat that management holds over the heads of workers. Without it labor discipline breaks down. And not just labor disciple. Tight labor markets endanger profit margins and intensify the always-latent problems that beset capital accumulation. Moreover, state spending on vast social programs of remediation, as envisioned by consistent welfare state advocates, also transfers capacity from the private domain that would otherwise be available for capital accumulation and profit expansion.

Under “normal” circumstances this contagion may be accommodated. We might, with little fear of contradiction, periodize the life expectancy of the welfare state with the relatively exceptional and exceptionally brief period of unimpeded capitalist expansion pursuant to the end of World War II. But what is obscured is this. Productivity under capitalism has to be measured against the effects that the forces of production have on the relations of production; that is, against the production of value and profit. Because capitalist accumulation cannot be separated from labor-displacing innovation, a growing mass of capital investment perpetually seeks profit indemnification against a relatively diminished base of workers directly and indirectly engaged in the production of commodities, the very source of the system’s profits. As long as this fall in the rate of profit can be counterbalanced by a growing mass of profits, the crisis tendencies of capitalism can be averted.

But this is also where welfare state expansion comes into conflict with capital accumulation. Rising real wages and the diversion of production from capital formation to individual and state (public) consumption suppress the accumulation process just when its pace needs to be accelerated. Profits are destroyed rather than contributing to capital formation, because they are diverted from the feedback loop of private production.

Of course, once the crisis fully sets in, the expansion of state spending certainly has the positive effect of mopping up excess capacity that plagues the contraction of sales and markets. State spending can in theory put the growing legion of unemployed to work and assure that social consumption does not decline. But this increase in economic activity, while socially desirable, is capitalistically useless. This non-capitalist stimulus to demand does not increase investment and profitability. Rather it raises the level of economic activity by bringing excess capacity back into play for the purpose of creating public goods instead of capitalist commodities.

What good, then, is the unchallenged “right to own and manage,” if it is exercised under circumstances that imperil the incentive to invest and, which, if left unchecked, all but invites the state to assume responsibility over an increasingly dysfunctional and unresponsive private sector?

Where, of course, the system is being actively challenged from below concessions in the form of countercyclical activities is the lesser evil for capitalists. But the restoration of profitability rests not on state spending, but in speed-ups, rationalization and concentration; the elimination of excess capital and an increase in the degree to which profits can be wrung out of the hides of workers. And having spent decades dismantling and neutering all the organs of working class resistance – unions and parties, there is no reason why an emboldened capital should feel the need to concede power and authority for purposes that do not serve its ends.

Most socialists share with social democrats the view that a thriving and expanding welfare state is more socially desirable than unfettered capitalism. The difference, however, lies in this. Socialists deny, for the reasons stated, that a healthy and vibrant welfare state is a long-term viable option for capitalists. Welcome as it may be to workers and to the broad public, it rests on exceptional historical and economic circumstances that are unlikely to be replicated. Capitalism cannot be housebroken, and will not share authority. It will violate the class consensus – the implied social contract – that underlies the welfare state and actively prepares to do so as as soon as such opportunities permit.

Socialists warn that the welfare state is a privilege extracted from the dominant economic ruling class to be infringed upon and abrogated whenever capitalism finds itself in difficulty or endangered by its continuance.

The scandal of the Great Recession is not the failure of the markets to rationally direct investment. Only true believers continue to think otherwise. No, the scandal is the fact that the capitalist state has within its means, by dint of its ability to freely finance any expenditure consistent with existing productive capacity, to offer jobs on demand at a living wage, to assure health care for all, adequate housing, fully-funded child care and a national pension and yet universally chooses not to do so and to step away from well-established arrangements. There are no financial constraints, the “debt burden” fraud notwithstanding, only a political restraint, the restraint that the power of money casts over democracy.

That is why socialists raise the demand of expropriation. Not because the tools are not technically available for the state to plan and control the economy, including one nominally under private ownership. One need only look to capitalism under war-time conditions to understand this. No, we call for expropriation because social authority cannot be shared between classes. We call for the nationalization of the banks, for instance, not because public expenditure requires access to private bank capital. The Treasury and Federal Reserve can generate and handle any expense public authority calls upon them to manage. We recognize, in our call, that the socialization of the banks is the only means adequate to put an end to the financial engineering that directs wealth unproductively and exacerbates social inequality. We raise the demand for socialization to end the anti-social behavior of tiny minority in society that subverts and circumvents every honest attempt at regulation. And we call, above all, for the nationalization of the financial sector – and all sectors of production and distribution – to eliminate source of capitalist power over the popular will.

More generally, socialists warn that capitalism “permits” and or “allows” democracy only to the extent that it does not endanger the class privileges of the bourgeoisie.

That, and not because we are hidebound dogmatists, is why we will not and should not give up the ghost and accept welfare-state capitalism.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

A Hundred Years After October Revolution, Rethinking the Origins of Stalinism-JAIRUS BANAJI

Posted by admin On November - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on A Hundred Years After October Revolution, Rethinking the Origins of Stalinism-JAIRUS BANAJI


Joseph Stalin and Nikita Krushchev in 1936. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

(To learn from October is to learn from and about its defeat, about why a truly workers’ state never emerged and developed in the years when it should have, and what went wrong to preempt that from happening.)

A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.

It should be obvious by now that the regime that came to be known as Stalinism wasn’t born overnight, but emerged in a succession of fatal steps over the greater part of the early 1920s. If this was not sufficiently clear already from E.H. Carr’s magisterial, multi-volume History of Soviet Russia, it is now abundantly evident in the most recent accounts to appear, based on the wealth of new documentation that has been thrown open in the post-Soviet state and party archives, in work like Barbara Allen’s fascinating biography of Alexander Shlyapnikov and Simon Pirani’s methodical analysis of the revolution’s “retreat” which deals with the period from 1920 to 1924. To this new, post-Soviet scholarship one can now add the expanded translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary published in 2012, restoring nearly 200 cuts that Serge’s translator Peter Sedgwick had been forced to make to the original translation.

That the October Revolution ended in the monstrous counter-finality of Stalinism remains the real challenge for the Left, especially those sectors of it that claim some part of the revolution’s legacy. To learn from October is to learn from and about its defeat, about why a truly workers’ state never emerged and developed in the years when it should have, and what went wrong to preempt that from happening.

Given the fact that Bolshevism stemmed from a tradition of revolutionary socialism, the most startling fact about the revolution itself was how rapidly the goal of workers’ control of the economy was given up. “Workers’ control had been abandoned in the winter of 1917–18,” Carr states laconically in The Interregnum 1923–1924. “The factory committees launched the slogan of workers’ control of production quite independently of the Bolshevik party”, but it was the “willingness of the Bolsheviks to support this demand which was a central reason for their growing appeal”, so runs a crucial argument in Steve Smith’s book Red Petrograd. Yet Vladimir Lenin saw the factory committees “as a means of helping the Bolshevik Party to seize power”. They were, for him, simply organs of insurrection, not, as the Turin factory councils would be for Antonio Gramsci in 1919, “embryos of the proletarian state”. If Lenin abandoned the factory committees in the early part of 1918, as Allen tells us, this was doubtless because “the ‘proletarian’ nature of the regime was seen by nearly all the Bolshevik leaders as hinging on the proletarian nature of the Party that had taken state power” (this is the substance of Brinton’s critique in The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control). Embedded in this assimilation between party and class was the ‘ultra-Bolshevik’ idea that the party was by definition a sort of distilled repository of class consciousness, an incarnation of the ‘advanced sectors’ of the working class.

Following this fatal initial regression, the political trajectory of the revolution is best summed up by a two-fold movement – a growing rift between the party and its working- class base; and a growing culture of repression. It is no accident that both of the strongest challenges to the Bolshevik leadership came from ‘worker communists’, workers who had identified with Bolshevism at an early age and remained in the party till they were either expelled (Gavril Myasnikov’s expulsion was one of the earliest, dating from February 1922) or murdered in Stalin’s great purge of 1937 (Shlyapnikov was executed in September 1937). Myasnikov was a metalworker from the Urals who had joined the party in 1906. He was deeply troubled by the “oligarchical tendencies within the party, the drift towards authoritarianism and elite rule” and lashed out at the rise of bureaucratism, the “arbitrariness and high-handedness of party officials, and the growing number of nonworkers in the party ranks and in positions of power”. In May 1921, Avrich tells us, “[Myasnikov] exploded a bombshell in the form of a memorandum to the Central Committee, calling for sweeping reform… The most striking demand of the memorandum was for unrestricted freedom of the press. Criticizing the Tenth Party Congress for stifling debate, Miasnikov called for freedom of the press for everyone, “from monarchists to anarchists inclusive”, as he put it…Miasnikov was the only Bolshevik to make such a demand. He saw freedom of the press as the only means of curbing the abusive tendencies of power and of maintaining honesty and efficiency within the party. No government, he realized, could avoid error and corruption when critical voices were silenced.”

Shlyapnikov, for his part, formed and led the Workers’ Opposition, the only platform to argue consistently for a workers’ control perspective, seeking management of the economy by the unions. This was a grouping with a purely working-class base, much of this among skilled metalworkers, the milieu Shlyapnikov was most familiar with.

Also read: The October Revolution Is Now a Historical Footnote in Russia

The growing culture of repression ties in directly with these challenges both because it utterly disabled them through reprisals (Myasnikov was closely watched by the Cheka, eventually arrested and finally escaped to France via Iran) and because it was a cardinal symptom of what was wrong with the party: its rapid transformation into an authoritarian-bureaucratic machine, the antithesis of a workers’ democracy which at the very minimum would have meant a regime whose vital principles were ‘freedom of criticism, the right of different factions freely to present their views at Party meetings,and freedom of discussion’, as Alexandra Kollontai puts it in a pamphlet specially written to explain the platform of the Workers’ Opposition.

Kollontai’s pamphlet, never properly published in Russian because it was quickly banned, ended with a scathing attack on bureaucracy and what the Russians called ‘appointism’, the practice of appointments from above, that is, through the secretariat of the Central Committee which, she complained, was ‘breeding an atmosphere altogether repugnant to the working class’. Simon Pirani’s recent study adduces abundant evidence of this. As a new party elite began to emerge in a more forceful way by 1921, many of the civil-war communists were becoming deeply disillusioned and there was a “steady stream of resignations, by valuable worker members among others”. Officials complained that “not only individual workers, but whole worker cells, are leaving”, a statement which substantiates Myasnikov’s charge that in centres like Petrograd, “Bolshevik influence among the workers was swiftly declining. Within the party, favoritism and corruption were rife…” (so Avrich). Pirani argues that by 1922, when the outflow from the party reached epidemic proportions, “As the party further consolidated its role in the state, its base among workers weakened. Its factory-based membership dwindled to a minority, and those who worked ‘at the bench’, rather than in management, to a minority of this minority.” It should be noted, of course, that the CC secretariat was dominated by Stalin once he became party general secretary in April 1922.
Soviet leaders celebrate the second anniversary of the October Revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the welter of dissidence that grew up in the years 1919-23, a third oppositional current emerged as late as October 1923. This was the ‘platform of the 46’ and of the various oppositions it was the one the party leaders (Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Stalin) feared most. Its leading signatory, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, was an able economist known to be close to Leon Trotsky. Like the Workers’ Opposition and Myasnikov before them, the platform, comprising 46 leading party members, complained, “The regime established within the party is completely intolerable”. “We observe the ever increasing, and now scarcely concealed, division of the party between a secretarial hierarchy and “quiet folk”, between professional party officials recruited from above and the general mass of the party which does not participate in the common life” (quoted in Carr, Interregnum). But the platform’s call for ‘internal party democracy’ was almost certainly too late by now (October 1923). To take one example, earlier that year Stalin had gotten away with the outrageous arrest and trial of the Tatar Bolshevik Sultan-Galiev on thoroughly fabricated charges of having ‘factional’ relations with Turkestani and Kazakh nationalists. By cleverly implicating the entire CC, including Trotsky, in the arrest of Sultan-Galiev, Stalin was effectively serving notice that ‘the nationalities could appeal to no one against the apparat’, Stephen Blank wrote in ‘Stalin’s First Victim’. (Blank’s paper underscores the almost overtly racial/Russian-chauvinist aspects of the trial. Sultan-Galiev’s overriding problem was how a revolutionary politics could make any headway in the Muslim world if communists themselves were unwilling to allow for the Muslim cultural heritage. He was executed in 1940, after repeated arrests and ten years of hard labour.)

The emasculation of the Soviets and unions, repression of dissidents, ‘packing’ of conferences, remoulding of the party into a machine and reemergence of mass apathy were all tendencies that had matured fully by the mid-1920s, when, on Victor Serge’s testimony, Stalin was in full control of the party. In short, the Stalinism of the end of the twenties and thirties has inextricable roots in the period 1922–1926.  By 1927 the earlier generation of Bolsheviks whispered among themselves that the workers’ opposition “had been right”; they had “analyzed the bureaucratization of the Party and the condition of the working class in terms that we scarcely dared repeat aloud seven years later”. For Serge himself, “the perpetuation of terror after the end of the Civil War…was an immense and demoralizing blunder”. As GPU repression began to be used against party members, the opposition was both silenced and decimated. By 1930, the prisons were full of some 4,000-5,000 oppositionists. And although Serge himself was an active part of the Left Opposition following Trotsky’s expulsion and exile, he never ceased to retain his critical faculties. He would reproach Trotsky for what he saw as a misconceived ‘Party patriotism’ that had repeatedly led to serious miscalculations. “As for the idea that…a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it. From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party…We were defeated by Party patriotism…”

Jairus Banaji is research professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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Glorious October Revolution:A critical appraisal- I.Hussain

Posted by admin On November - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Glorious October Revolution:A critical appraisal- I.Hussain


Glorious October Revolution-A critical appraisal
One hundred years ago the most democratic revolution in history took place. Led by the Bolshevik Party, the Russian working class, allied with the peasantry and organized into mass democratic institutions—the soviets—took power.

Soviet—The smallest unit of Proletarian Power

The first soviet rose in 1905.This new democratic form of workers’ self-organization arose spontaneously and quickly blossomed independently from the existing political parties, distinguishing the Russian revolutionary process from the beginning and enormously inspiring working people around the world. Soviets were organized democratically, joined voluntarily, enjoyed freedom of speech and representation for all the political currents of the left, and were hotbeds of revolutionary ferment

Let us start with the Feb. Revolution of 1917:


March 8 was International Women’s Day, a date commemorated by the Socialist International every year. The socialist groups in Petrograd—Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were present.Women textile workers decided to go on strike. The men joined them, and by the next day 400,000 workers were on strike in Petrograd. Now the crowds were yelling “Down with the Autocracy” and “Down with the War.” The “February Revolution” had begun.On March 11, some members of the Duma i.e Czarist Parliament, created a Russian Provisional—that is, temporary—Government, a cabinet of ministers consisting of twenty of its most prominent members. Most belonged to the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats), the party of middle-class liberalism.One socialist, namely Kerensky joined the govt.The Cadet leader Paul Miliukov was its dominant figure and Prince Lvov,who replaced Czar, was the Prime Minister.A parallel power had emerged alongside the Provisional Government—the Petrograd Soviet., workers in the factories and soldiers and sailors stationed in the capital started electing 2,500 delegates to a new body, the

Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The Soviet, not the Provisional Government, was the real center of the revolution.The February Revolution had been spontaneous—that is, no one had planned or organized it.When the Petrograd Soviet met for the first time on March 12, it elected an Executive Committee, all of whose members were well-known socialist leaders. The majority of the Executive Committee was held by the Mensheviks, led by Nikolai Chkheidze and Irakli Tseretelli, and the SRs, led by Victor Chernov; the Bolsheviks had only a small minority of committee members. Lenin was not in Russia.

Dual Power;

The coexistence of these two centers of authority, which came to be known as dual power, was a constant source of tension and confusion.Moreover, other soviets quickly sprang up in almost every city and town in Russia, and even in many peasant villages. There were soldiers’ soviets throughout the army and sailors’ soviets at the naval bases and onboard the battleships. All looked to the Petrograd Soviet for guidance. The Petrograd Soviet issued “Order Number One” to the troops: Military units were to be run by elected committees, and officers could issue commands in battle.

“Peace, Land, and Bread”

On April 16 Lenin arrived in, Petrograd Russia .He addressed the people gathered there and said, “We don’t need a parliamentary republic, we don’t need bourgeois democracy, we don’t need any government except the soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and farm-laborers’ deputies!”

When Lenin met with the Bolshevik organization in Petrograd, he presented his “April Theses.Lenin said ” All Power to the Soviets”. But this was not agrreable to , the Mensheviks and SRs who  were still in control of the soviets, and they refused to take

power.Of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which met in Petrograd on June 16. The congress included representatives from 350 soviets throughout Russia, and it elected an All-Russian Executive Committee to be a national leadership for all the soviets. Of the delegates, 285 were SRs, 245 were Mensheviks, and only 105 were Bolsheviks. The new All-Russian Executive Committee, consequently, was dominated by Mensheviks and SRs, just like the Petrograd Executive Committee.
The July Days were, nonetheless, a big setback for the Bolsheviks. The demonstrations were crushed, and thousands of workers and soldiers felt demoralized and defeated. Many

Russians accepted the Mensheviks’ version of events:

The “October” Revolution

Early in September, new elections to the Petrograd Soviet were held in the city’s factories and army barracks. The result, announced on September 13, was a majority for the Bolsheviks.The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets  started on November 7.In the Smolny, the Congress of Soviets had begun to assemble on the previous evening. Out of 650 delegates from all over Russia, 390 were Bolsheviks and another 100 or so were Left SRs.Late in November the elections were held, and on January 18, 1918, the Constituent Assembly gathered in Petrograd. Out of 707 delegates, there were 370 Right SRs, 40 Left SRs, 175 Bolsheviks, 15 Mensheviks, 17 Cadets, and about 80 belonging to smaller parties. The Right SRs were in control, and Victor Chernov was elected chairman of the Assembly.
State Duma was not called.The new  soviet state that was born on November 7, 1917, came closest of any state in history to abolishing the distinction between rulers and ruled.

Treaty Of Breast-Litovsk of March 3, 1918.

As the German forces were fast  advancing Soviet Russia faced a  humiliating defeat . Due to this treaty Russia lost , Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, but its most important acquisition was Ukraine, which contained some of the country’s richest farmland as well as most of its iron and coal and much of its industry. Russia was also required to pay a huge indemnity. Due to this treaty “Left socialist Rvolutioneries”, left the govt.
But a year after the October Revolution less than  six months or so after November 7, the soviet state functioned, for less as Lenin had envisioned , Soviet Russia had become an authoritarian one-party state .

Why Russian revolution Doomed:

It was doomed due to many reasons. The foremost of which is that Political and Economic Power was never transferred to Soviets ( as promised) but was taken over by the Party Elite. Alexadera Kollontai, one of the minister in Lenin’s cabinet, protested in the begining that power should have been transferred to the Soviets, but it has been taken over by the Party bureaucray. Secondly, ” The “All-union Central Councils Of Trade Unions” , was made sub-subservient to the Party.Ideally, the trade unions should have workers’ control over industries.   But it was felt by the Russian Party bureaucracy that there can not be two centres of power in a socialist state. Had these unions been there ,duly controlled by soviets, it would have acted as check and balance on the bureaucracy. There was Concentration of too much power in the hands of power elite.As the soviets were reduced to the appendage of power elite, the workers democracy was
bound to suffer. Party was supreme and ultimately the political coterie assumed absolute power. Lenin himself warned of it, i.e., of bureacreucray in 1922. But that was too late.

With no world revolution coming to the support of backward Russia, Isolation of workers state and Red Terror of “Cheka”,( Soviet Russia Secret Police) headed by Dzerzhinsky, gave emmence powers to the elite to
crush any form of dissent. Those who asked for socialist democracy were dubbed as agents of counter-revolution.
The demise of worker’ control over production, distribution and bereft of any political power were some of the causes of the collapse of soviet state.

What we need today is “Socialism from Below”, i.e., political and economic power in the hands of workers and oppressed, and not in the hands of Political Party, howsoever, its “Socialist” rhetoric is. Centrality of democracy should be the basis of any future socialist project.
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