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Archive for March, 2018

Machiavellian Intrigues Of Pakistan’s ‘Establishment’-Nauman Sadiq

Posted by admin On March - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on Machiavellian Intrigues Of Pakistan’s ‘Establishment’-Nauman Sadiq


In Pakistan’s context, the national security establishment originally meant civil-military bureaucracy. Though over the years, civil bureaucracy has taken a backseat and now “the establishment” is defined as military’s top brass that has dictated Pakistan’s security and defense policy since its inception.

Paradoxically, security establishments do not have ideologies, they simply have interests. For instance, the General Ayub-led administration in the sixties was regarded as a liberal establishment. Then, the General Zia-led administration during the eighties was manifestly a conservative Islamist establishment. And lastly, the General Musharraf-led administration from 1999 to 2008 was once again deemed a liberal establishment.

Similarly, the Egyptian and Turkish military establishments also have a liberal outlook but they are equally capable of forming alliances with conservatives if and when it suits their institutional interests. In fact, since military’s top brass is mostly groomed in urban milieus, therefore its high-ranking officers are more likely to have liberal temperaments.

The establishment does not judge on the basis of ideology, it simply looks for weakness. If a liberal political party is unassailable in a political system, it will join forces with conservatives; and if conservatives cannot be beaten in a system, it will form an alliance with liberals to perpetuate the stranglehold of “the deep state” on policymaking organs of state.

The biggest threat to nascent democracies all over the world does not come from external enemies but from their internal enemies, the national security establishments, because military generals always have a chauvinistic mindset and an undemocratic temperament. An additional aggravating factor that increases the likelihood of military coups in developing democracies is that they lack firm traditions of democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism which act as bars against martial laws.

For the last several years, two very similar insurgencies have simultaneously been going on in Pakistan: the Baloch insurgency in the Balochistan province and the insurgency of the Pashtun tribesmen in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering the American-occupied Afghanistan.

The Pakistani neoliberals fully sympathize with the oppressed Baloch nationalists, but when it comes to the Pashtun tribesmen, they are willing to give the security establishment a license to kill, why? It’s only because the tribal Pashtun insurgents use the veneer of religion to justify their tribal instinct of retribution.

The name Islam, however, is such an anathema to core neoliberal sensibilities that they don’t even bother to delve deeper into the causes of insurgency and summarily decide that since the Pashtun tribesmen are using the odious label of the Taliban, therefore they are not worthy of their sympathies, and as a result, the security establishment gets a carte blanche to indiscriminately bomb the towns and villages of Pashtun tribesmen using air-force and heavy artillery.

The Pashtuns are the most unfortunate nation on the planet nowadays because nobody understands and represents them; not even their own leadership, whether religious or ethnic. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are represented by the Western stooges, like Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani; and in Pakistan, the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) loves to play the victim card and finds solace in learned helplessness.

In Pakistan, however, the Pashtuns are no longer represented by a single political entity, a fact which has become obvious after the 2013 parliamentary elections in which the Pashtun nationalist ANP was wiped out of its former strongholds.

Now, there are at least three distinct categories of Pashtuns: first, the Pashtun nationalists who follow Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s legacy and have their strongholds in Charsadda and Mardan districts; second, the religiously inclined Pashtuns who vote for Islamist political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI-F in the southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and finally, the emerging new phenomena, the Pakistani nationalist Pashtuns, most of whom have joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in recent years, though some of have also joined Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League.

It would be pertinent to mention here that the general elections of 2013 were contested on a single major issue: Pakistan’s partnership in the American-led war on terror, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and has displaced millions of Pashtun tribesmen who have been rotting in refugee camps in Mardan, Peshawar and Bannu districts since the Swat and South Waziristan military operations in 2009.

The Pashtun nationalist ANP was routed because in keeping with its supposedly “liberal” ideology, it stood for military operations against Islamist Pashtun militants in tribal areas; and the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province gave a sweeping mandate to the newcomer in the Pakistani political landscape: Imran Khan and his PTI because the latter promised to deal with tribal militants through negotiations and political settlements.

Though Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif both have failed to keep their election pledge of using peaceful means for dealing with the menace of religious extremism and militancy after they endorsed another military operation in North Waziristan in 2014, the public sentiment was, and still is, firmly against military operations in the Pashtun tribal areas.

The 2013 parliamentary elections were, in a way, a referendum against Pakistan’s partnership in the American-led war on terror in the Af-Pak region and the Pashtun electorate gave a sweeping mandate to pro-peace political parties against the pro-war Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pashtun nationalist ANP.

As I mentioned earlier that security establishment does not have an ideology, it simply has interests. If a liberal political party is unassailable in a political system, it will join forces with conservatives; and if conservatives cannot be beaten in a system, it will strike an alliance with liberals to weaken civilian political forces and maintain its grip on its traditional domain, the security and defense policy of a country.

All political parties in Pakistan at some point in time in history were groomed by the security establishment. The founder of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was groomed by General Ayub’s establishment as a counterweight to Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League during the sixties.

Nawaz Sharif was nurtured by General Zia’s administration during the eighties to offset the influence of People’s Party. And then, Imran Khan was groomed by General Musharraf’s establishment to counterbalance the ascendancy of Nawaz Sharif.

In order to obtain permission for the North Waziristan military operation in 2014, the security establishment executed its divide and rule strategy to perfection by instigating Imran Khan to stage street demonstrations and mass protests and Nawaz Sharif’s government was eventually subdued to an extent that it once again ceded Pakistan’s defense and security policy to the establishment.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.

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Pakistan: Revival of the left-Rashed Rahman  

Posted by admin On March - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on Pakistan: Revival of the left-Rashed Rahman  


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Rashed Rahman blog  — The task of reviving the Left to once again become an effective player in the polity has been exercising minds in the surviving Left parties and groups for long but the achievement of this goal has proved difficult. It is therefore heartening to note the follow-up of the meeting of 10 Left parties and groups in Lahore on December 29, 2017 by the formation of a 17-parties/groups’ platform dubbed Lahore Left Front (LLF).

Even a cursory perusal of the minimum programmatic pronouncements of these two meetings plus the composition of these brotherly platforms will be enough to prove that the LLF is inspired at least partially by the December 2017 moot.

That 10-parties/groups platform agreed on what it considered the main or crucial tasks before it. These included the recovery of missing persons and their being charged through due process if there is any evidence of wrongdoing against them; deportation to their countries of origin of illegal immigrants; halting forced conversions and marriages of minority girls (particularly Hindu); regulation of the sugar mafia; restoration of tenancy rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s protected forest lands; withdrawal of unjust and false criminal cases against the Hashtnagar and Okara Military Farms’ peasants, and the restoration of banned students unions.

The 10-party/groups’ meeting characterised the current narrative dominating politics of corruption as the main if not only problem afflicting society as a phenomenon integral to the bourgeois (capitalist) system, the only solution/alternative to which is provided by socialism. The meeting also dilated on the persistence of feudalism and the need for land reforms.

The participants vowed to wage a concerted struggle against fundamentalism, extremism, intolerance and fanaticism. In their struggle against feudalism they committed themselves to support the workers, farmers and tenants; work for the supremacy of parliament over the national security state; establish Pakistan as a multi-cultural country where every nationality would have full control over its resources; struggle for gender equality, the separation of the state and religion and the creation of a socialist economy in which there would be no class distinction in education and opportunity; implementation of the constitutional guarantees of shelter, employment, education, healthcare, and adherence to a non-aligned foreign policy while promoting friendly relations with all Pakistan’s neighbours on the principle of non-interference.

The follow-up meeting of 17 parties/groups in Lahore on March 24, 2018 adopted a declaration focusing on four main issues to be tackled by the newly formed LLF: fight the growing tide of fundamentalism and terrorism; help develop class-based organisations of the working class; preserve democratic norms, and tackle the missing persons conundrum.

While the 10-parties/groups session on December 29, 2017 set up an eight-member committee to take the process of a dialogue and coming together of the Left forward, the LLF has set up a 17-member organising committee to implement its programme. These two streams, national and local, will hopefully merge as the process plays itself out.

The LLF has kept its doors open to non-Left forces desirous of being part of the endeavour to counter religious radicalism. It also critiqued the current dominant national narrative about corruption as certainly an issue but which fails to challenge the existing system based on exploitation, inequality and injustice.

While the undeniable dearth in numbers on the Left means it has its work cut out for it, the apathy of the intelligentsia, including the progressive intelligentsia, underlines the deep psychological effects of the collapse of the Pakistani Left around 1980-81 and the decade later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since the latter event and the consequent end of the Cold War, the world (and in its wake Pakistan) has changed almost beyond recognition. In this brave new world of the internalisation of the inevitability of unfettered capitalism and so-called liberal (bourgeois) democracy, the Left worldwide struggles to re-establish a coherent and credible narrative based on a penetrating in depth analysis and critique of the workings of the system, how this has changed in the last three decades, and what are the effects on state and society of these developments.

In the case of Pakistan, such a narrative cannot escape our early or recent history, which by now has mired us in international isolation (read ‘conflict’ with the west), at odds with all our neighbours, and internally veering towards a new form of fascism allegedly backed by the ubiquitous establishment and representing a new chapter in the control and manipulation of the polity.

Perhaps the only reason (explicitly stated or implicitly internalised) for the Left to support the struggle for a genuine (bourgeois) democracy over the last 70 years, a struggle still in progress, is because they believed this provided the space for articulation of and struggle for their aims and objectives, central amongst them, and to which all other issues were linked but subordinate, being the establishment of a socialist state.

How far in practice that hope has transpired is there for students of our history to peruse.

Currently, such is the crisis of state and society and the consequent insecurity of the establishment despite no serious challenge to its hegemony that it now seeks (and to a considerable extent has silenced) the smothering through all possible means of the voices of dissent and criticism, whether in the mainstream or social media or in society at large.

The hoped for ‘advantage’ therefore of democratic liberties, including freedom of expression, remains an elusive will o’ the wisp. That merely serves to underline the formidable challenges for the Left, ranging from evolving and being allowed to disseminate its message/narrative to confronting the risks to life and limb emanating from such activism. And of course this does not even compare to the greater risks to safety that is the inevitable outcome of practical organisation and struggle of the masses.

Is history on the side of socialism in the 21st century, as its advocates still are convinced of, or is the dream of a just world passé, as capitalist and pre-capitalist advocates would have us believe? Only time will tell, but it would not be out of place to insert a word of caution about premature triumphalism regarding capitalism’s ‘victory’ and the lack of any alternative. History has a habit of surprising us when least expected.

New front to ‘stem the tide of fundamentalism’

By Amjad Mahmood

March 25, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Dawn — Who could have thought that a social media group formed to better organise the recent Faiz Amn Mela would lead to efforts for uniting the Left-leaning groups, at least in the Punjab capital. But, the unexpected happened as the groups, trade unions and individuals part of the festival organising committee decided to further their joint struggle in the wake of fears of rising religious fundamentalism.

In the first phase, it was decided to keep the attempt confined to Lahore as, what Lahore Left Front (LLF) convener Farooq Tariq put it, a pilot exercise and expanding it to other areas in the later stages.

Mr Tariq says the rising religious fundamentalism, particularly the Islamabad sit-in staged by Khadim Rizvi-led fanatics and their apparent success in getting amended certain laws led the Left groups and liberals to think about working jointly before the fanatics sweep away all that has been gained through secular politics.

The LLF, he says, will organise joint activities on four main themes: to fight against growing tide of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, to help develop class-based organisations of working class in their struggle for a dignified life, to preserve democratic norms, and to campaign for the recovery of missing persons and for rule of law.

A meeting chaired by Mr Tariq the other day was attended by representatives of the Awami Workers Party, the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, the Brabri Party, the Pakistan Trade Unions Defence Campaign, the Communist Party Pakistan, the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab, the Pakistan Kisan Rabita Committee, the Revolutionary Students Front, the Progressive Students Collective, the Peoples Solidarity Forum, the Feminist Collective, the Punjab Union of Journalists, the Railway Mehnat Kash Union and the Progressive Labour Federation.

A 17-member organising committee of the Front was also formed. It included Imtiazul Haque, Irfan Ahmad, Ghulam Mujtaba, Dr Ammar Ali Jan, Dr Sara Suhail, Abdul Ghafoor, Prof Asim Shujai, Haider Butt, Mohiba Ahmad, Sadeeq Baig, Iqbal Haider Butt, Khalid Bhatti, Rashid Rahman, Advocate Ilyas Khan, Mian Mohammed Ashraf and Awais Qarni.

Unlike in the past, says Mr Tariq, those though not believing in the Marxist ideology have also become a part of the endeavour to counter religious radicalism.

Taimur Rahman of the Mazdoor Kisan Party says it’s continuation of the federal level efforts for unity. “In fact, we’re to go down to town level cooperation, where actual activities take place, as a result of the national unification. However, formation of the platform in each town may be different.”

He denies the attempt has anything to do with the revival of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA).

Prof Dr Rashid Ahmad says the need for Left narrative is increasing with the passage of time though class-based politics is on the decline in India and Pakistan.

“Only the Left ideology offers solutions to the contradictions we’re facing at international, national and provincial levels. Its narrative and analysis is relevant for most of problems facing the country though believers of this ideology are so far failing to effectively communicate the message to the masses.”Mr Rahman denies that the Left failed to effectively communicate with the masses and argues that all the three major winners of the 1970 elections – the Awami League, the PPP and the NAP – were proponents of socialism.

17 like-minded parties form Lahore Left Front

March 23, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from The News — Seventeen like-minded parties have formed Lahore Left Front (LLF) with the objective of reviving the left wing politics in the country and to encounter religious fanaticism prevailing in the country.

LLF will run the campaign on four major issues facing the country. Struggle for economic parity will be the main focus. Under the banner of LLF, democratic values will be protected. Religious fanaticism will be encountered. It will struggle for secular and socialist Pakistan. Additionally, equal rights for women, children will be promoted in the country.

More people and organisations will be included in the front; it was decided in a meeting Thursday at Progressive Labour Federation’s office in Garhi Shahu. The parties including Awami Workers Party, Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, Brabri Party Pakistan, Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, Communist Party, People’s Solidarity Forum, Anjuman-e-Mujareen Punjab, Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Progressive Students Collective, Revolutionary Students Front, Anjuman-e-Taraqi Pasand Musanfeen, Punjab Union of Journalists, Railway Mehnatkash Union and Progressive Labour Federation attended the meeting. Seventeen members organisational committee was made.

Imtiazul Haq, Comrade Irfran, Taimur Rehman, Ghulam Mujtaba, Shazia Khan, Ilyas Khan, Mian Muhammad Ashraf, Ammar Ali Jan, Sara Sohail, Asim Shuajee, Haidar Butt, etc were made the members of the committee while Farooq Tariq was made convener of LLF. Its first meeting will be held on April 2.

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The Destruction of History-RÓBERT NÁRAI

Posted by admin On March - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on The Destruction of History-RÓBERT NÁRAI


György Lukács and Árpád Szakasits, a former Hungarian president, at the Central House of the People’s Army on June 27, 1956. Samai Antónia / hirado.hu

Hungary’s right-wing government is attempting to destroy the Georg Lukács’s archive — and his legacy.
e sun had just set one Friday evening when the phone rang. Miklós Mesterházi of the Lukács Archívum in Budapest learned that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) would be confiscating the entire collection of manuscripts and correspondence held at the premises.

The following Monday morning, MTA employees arrived and began examining the collection. They checked the inventory and prepared to relocate the material to the Department of Manuscripts & Rare Books in the MTA’s Library and Information Centre.

According to the MTA, their decision is based on the spirit of “academic integrity” —relocating the manuscripts would allow them to digitize the collection, thus allowing more scholars to access the material.

But we should situate the MTA’s decision within Hungary’s historical and political conjuncture.

Since the transition from state socialism to bourgeois democracy in 1989, the MTA has steadily shed staff, making research and editing projects almost impossible. Housing Lukács’s oeuvre — much of it unpublished and yet to be studied — in such a facility serves neither “academic integrity” nor the interests of “research.” Instead, it will negate them.

Moreover, an authoritarian regime now controls Hungary, and it wants to rewrite the nation’s past. The Orbán regime has worked to rehabilitate Hungary’s nationalist and fascist traditions. It has torn down statues honoring those who fought the Horthy military dictatorship and the Arrow Cross regime, replacing them with monuments that glorify antisemites and Nazi collaborators.

The ruling party Fidesz scapegoats immigrants, Roma, Muslims, Jews, Communists, socialists, liberals, and anyone it deems “alien.” It has taken control of numerous state institutions, and threatened to liquidate numerous civil society institutions, including the Central European University.

In this climate of paranoia and fear, the MTA does not want to appear to support a “communist,” so under the cloak of rationalization and efficiency, they are working to dismantle the archives.
What We’ll Lose

The Lukács Archívum is a unique research facility.

Visitors pass through the very rooms Lukács lived and worked in from 1945 until his death in 1971. The apartment — which ironically overlooks Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) on the banks of the Danube — holds not only his manuscripts but his entire library, complete with his annotations. The scholars who have worked at the facility throughout the years have collected more or less everything ever published on the great Marxist theorist.

But the archive will lose its most valuable asset when the MTA removes the manuscripts. One example offers us a glimpse of their value.

One of Lukács’s most significant theoretical accomplishments was his theorization of the social impacts of commodity production. Under this system, finished products are isolated from the workers who create them. Labor under capitalism is degrading and monotonous; it turns workers into machines. The entire process is designed to maximize profit, transforming the qualitative dimension of human experience — labor — into a quantitative measure of time. “Here,” Lukács wrote in History and Class Consciousness, “the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.”

Despite being a product of human labor, commodity production only expresses itself in inhuman social mechanisms — money, markets, capital, and wages. These take on lives of their own, appearing as natural, hostile, and law-abiding systems that no one can comprehend, let alone control.

Once it becomes universal, this logic subordinates all spheres of human existence to its mathematical rationality. An abstract, formal code designed to process thousands of cases governs a legal system charged with making life-and-death decisions. Politics, separated from everyday life, begins to appear unalterable. Giant chasms divide these worlds, and each sphere of existence seems independent from the other.

Lukács would later repudiate these positions under pressure from the Comintern — first, with Zinoviev at the helm, then later under Stalin. His radical views did not fit with the Thermidorian reaction taking place inside the both the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement.

To date, his clearest attempt to justify himself appears in the 1967 introduction to History and Class Consciousness. There, Lukács argues that he failed to distinguish between objectification (labor) and alienation (a mystified form of that labor).

When I visited, however, Mari Székely, the last remaining employee, informed me of a series of unpublished manuscripts from 1933, written during the early years of Lukács’s Moscow period. In one of these texts, Lukács begins to reassess some of his earlier claims in light of his encounter with Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The publication of this essay in a forthcoming collection — along with other previously untranslated material from 1924–33 — will clarify and deepen the terms of this debate, shedding further light on Lukács’s theoretical shift and uneasy reconciliation with Stalinism.

This discovery represents just one untraveled path in a vast labyrinth that has yet to be fully explored.
Saving the Present

Preserving the archives is not simply about the past. It also concerns our present, and the possibilities that lie within it.

The Archívum regularly hosts meetings and events, where researchers from Hungary and all over the world come together to discuss the critical potential of Lukács’s ideas, many of which remain unpublished, neglected, and misunderstood.

For example, one prevalent misunderstanding has been the place of resistance within Lukács’s account of the commodity form. The dominant logic of capitalism is quantitative, but quality — in the sense of human value — can never be completely banished. Whereas the capitalist experiences the drive to maximize profit as something purely quantitative, workers experience it as something qualitative: an assault on their individuality and humanity. This attack on their quality of life provides the basis for resistance.

The guise of rationalization and efficiency, under which the MTA is confiscating Lukács’s manuscripts, expresses the capitalist’s quantitative logic; the Left’s critical rejection of this move, in the name of human values, expresses the logic of resistance.

It is in this spirit that a petition protesting the MTA’s decision — with over 1,500 signatories, including Agnes Heller, Nancy Fraser, and Fredric Jameson, to name but a few — was delivered to academy on January 25. A similar petition is currently circulating on change.org.

Maintaining the theoretical universe that these archives contain — to paraphrase Lukács in The Theory of the Novel — will help guide us through times of darkness and reveal the stars that rule us.
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.

emocratic production and the Workers’ Opposition of revolutionary Russia-Don Fitz

Posted by admin On March - 29 - 2018 Comments Off on emocratic production and the Workers’ Opposition of revolutionary Russia-Don Fitz


In a post-capitalist society, who should control production? How should decisions about work life be made? Who should decide what is produced, where it is produced and how it is exchanged within a country and between countries? For the first time in history, the great Russian Revolution of 1917 had to confront these issues in more than a theoretical way. The issues became painfully pragmatic during intense conflict between the party majority and the Workers’ Opposition (WO) of 1919-1921.

Too many discussions of the Bolsheviks focus on political battles and treat economic debates as barely secondary. In fact, struggles at the point of production were core; political conflicts reflected many of these differences; and, today, perspectives on top-down control version self-management permeate every vision of a new society.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the task of building communism must be the work of the “toiling masses” themselves. [1] In August 1917, Vladimir Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution that “the administration of industry is well within the competence of any moderately intelligent citizen.” [2] By 1919 thousands of workers across Russia saw these principles slipping away and cohered a group whose best-known leaders were Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov.

Both had been early confidants of Lenin. While Lenin was in exile, Kollontai kept him informed of unfolding events in Russia. Shlyapnikov, a major leader of the Metalworkers Union, was the senior Bolshevik in Petrograd when the February revolution broke out. When Lenin returned to Russia and Kollontai presented his “April Theses” on the need for a continuing revolution, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov were among his most ardent supporters. Yet, by 1922 Lenin had suggested that each be shot. What had the WO done that engendered such hostility from the great architect of revolution?

First days of revolution
Having been a metalworker since he was 13 years old, Shlyapnikov had an intense conviction that working people were most qualified for running industry because they had day-to-day experiences with processes of production. He played a key role in absorbing craft unions into a single industrial Metalworkers’ Union, as advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

As the first Commissar of Labor in the new Soviet government, Shlyapnikov was keenly aware that both Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks had brought success to the October Revolution. The Metalworkers Union and vast numbers of other workers wanted a multi-party revolutionary government.

But as several parties rose in opposition and many of their members joined the counter-revolutionary “White” armies, the Soviets used various methods to restrain them. When Lenin suggested to the Council of People’s Commissars that it arrest leaders of the Kadet Party, Stalin was the only member to vote against the resolution. [3] Though Stalin is often portrayed as waiting for the chance to suppress opponents, unfolding events of the Bolshevik Revolution confirm that history molds people at least as much as individuals create history.

At the very outset of the October 1917 revolution, the Metalworkers’ Union called for workers’ control of production. In March 1919, the 8th Party Congress (now the Russian Communist Party, or RCP) approved the famous economic section of its program, which included in paragraph 5: “Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands management of the entire economy as a single unit.” [4] This clearly distinguished the Bolsheviks both from anarcho-syndicalists, who abhorred any “concentration,” and from super-centralizers, who wanted the economy coordinated by the state rather than the unions. Would workers’ control soon blossom in Russia?

Rancorous collapse of a honeymoon
Despite the favorable resolution, Shlyapnikov sensed a discrepancy between what it said and what he saw being practiced. He was critical of reliance on specialists to run factories and impose top-down discipline on workers. No one disagreed that plunging productivity was threatening the survival of the revolution.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 resulted in the loss of 40% of Russian industry and 70% of its iron and steel production. [5] Supply lines were broken as parts necessary for manufacture vanished. The Civil War that began in May 1918 cost millions of lives from fighting, famine and disease. [6] Mass starvation spread in Russian cities. How could the human misery be ended?

Leading Bolsheviks who had never worked in a factory interpreted the cause of the crisis as absenteeism and slovenly work habits. They saw the solution as more labor discipline with control by technocrats and the growing bureaucracy. Others, like Shlyapnikov, felt that production was hampered by breakdowns in supplies and lack of fuel and food. For them, bureaucratic control could not overcome inadequate raw materials, cold and hunger.

One of the first great blots on the revolution was in Astrakhan, where Bolsheviks authorities dispersed worker assemblies, jailed elected leaders and insisted on greater productivity. In 1919, Bolsheviks fired upon a metalworkers assembly of 10,000 workers, resulting in 2000 injuries. The new secret police, the Cheka, killed hundreds, some by tying rocks to them and throwing them in the Volga River. Renewed assaults resulted in the execution of over 4000 by April. As head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky sent his approval. Shlyapnikov demanded an investigation. [7]

Also in 1919 forced labor camps were created, where people could be sent by orders of the Cheka, revolutionary tribunals or people’s courts. As the tide of the Civil War turned during Fall 1919 and the collapse of White armies was eminent, attention turned to the organization of industry. [8] At the end of that year, when Leon Trotsky was at the height of his popularity, he first proposed the militarization of labor. Labor armies would be run with drafts, compulsion and a top down structure like the military.

Shlyapnikov accepted Trotsky’s use of former tsarist officers as “specialists” in the Red Army (the most centralized branch of “industry”) because workers had no special knowledge of military strategy. But he argued that industrial workers understood production processes better than the specialists assigned by the party to run factories. As more and more rank-and-file party members shared similar concerns they began to cohere as the Workers’ Opposition (WO) in 1919. [9]

Pulling apart
Division within the RCP intensified throughout 1920. The year began with Shlyapnikov’s proposal that unions take control of all levels of the economy. [10] In March Trotsky put forth his idea of “one-man management” of factories and Lenin soon agreed. Kollontai staunchly defended the concept of “collective management” by elected worker representatives.

The debate over economic control spread throughout the party and promised to be intense at the upcoming 9th RCP Congress. Lenin and other party leaders thought it best that Shlyapnikov not be present and assigned him to western Europe for union work. [11] Kollontai criticized Lenin for repeatedly removing those he disagreed with from open party discussions.

In Shlyapnikov’s absence, the 9th party congress overturned the 8th congress’ resolution on unions’ running the economy and instead called for the party to increase its control over union staff. [12] Subsequently, support for the WO spread among industrial unions across the country. Throughout the year, party leaders attacked WO leaders personally and politically as they sought to undermine its influence.

They accused the WO of having ties to counterrevolutionaries. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin claimed that the desire of the WO to include non-Bolsheviks in management of the economy made it “syndicalist,” even though actual syndicalists did not include it in their umbrella. Grigory Zinoviev chided it for failing to understand that the transition to socialism had to be controlled by party specialists rather than workers. [13]

The discord of 1920 did not only center on the WO. In August, Trotsky inspired the merger of railway and water-transport unions into a new Tsektran, which had appointed leaders and widespread labor conscription. Multiple organizers feared that this was merely Trotsky’s first step in centralizing all unions into an appointed state apparatus of militarized labor. Hostility spread so rapidly that the 9th Party Conference presidium left Trotsky and his supporters off its list for the Central Committee (though they were later put back on). [14]

Trotsky’s allies were so adamant in demanding the militarization of labor that they broke party discipline by denouncing the WO in meetings with non-party workers. [15] Defending his proposals, Trotsky wrote: “Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organization compels and whips him in that direction.” [16] In one meeting after another, workers openly worried that if Trotsky’s proposals were put into effect, they could be jailed for breaking minor labor rules. [17]

The anger seemed about to boil over. Lenin’s supporters put together a commission to resolve differences. It included both Trotsky and Shlyapnikov. Yet, both quickly resigned, complaining that Lenin had stacked the deck to ensure that the views of neither would be represented in its proposals. This may have been the only time that Trotsky and Shlyapnikov agreed during this period. [18]

As the infamous 10th Party Congress of March 8-16, 1921 approached, the RCP had three clearly defined factions. On the left, the WO called for increased union control over the economy, decreased bureaucratization, and restoration of internal party democracy. The right, led by Trotsky and Bukharin, called for labor armies controlled by the state. “The Ten,” based on Lenin’s most loyal supporters, proposed that unions be separate from the state, with their major role being education of workers on socialism.

Many meanings of ‘workers’ control’ It would be easy to argue that “workers’ control” was abandoned at the 10th Party Congress. But the phrase “workers’ control” meant very different things to different people at different times. So it’s necessary to dive into socialist theory.

Did “workers’ control” suggest that the labor force at each factory could seize it, do with it whatever they wanted, including selling it to the highest bidder and dividing the proceeds (as actually occurred at least once after the revolution)? Did it mean that each group of workers would decide not only how to organize production but also what products to manufacture and sell in the market? Or, did it mean, as the WO proposed, that elected union leaders would coordinate production at a local and national level, leaving the maximum possible decision-making regarding the organization of production to each group of workers?

Marx’ critique of capitalism’s “anarchy of production” was a central part of the attitude towards workers’ control in the early 20th century. Goods were produced, not due to social need, but because they could sell in the capitalist market. For Marx, economic justice required a plan for production to meet needs. This was supported by virtually everyone calling themselves socialists.

A major difference arose between reformists (like Eduard Bernstein) who felt that workers’ rights could be won gradually by electing socialists to office and those (like Lenin) who saw the necessity for revolution. Both sides rejected anarchist and syndicalist views that would leave production in the hands of each workgroup. For socialists, a series of worker-owned enterprises would leave the market intact and force the workgroups to compete with each other and exploit themselves.

Marx assumed that those who would plan production would be the “toiling masses” themselves. But what if the “toiling masses” were divided from those who had power over the economy? Marx never posed this possible discord between theory and practice, but it was posed by bitter debates within the RCP.

Lenin’s approach to control of industry reflected his approach to land and the peasantry. The Bolsheviks assumed that raising productivity required collective working of the land. When Lenin returned to Russia after the February 1917 revolution and spoke at the Bolshevik April conference regarding a resolution on land, he was adamant that the clause on peasants’ taking control of land should go before the portion on nationalizing land because “it is the revolutionary act which is important.” As peasant land seizures spread across Russia during the following months the Bolsheviks followed Lenin’s lead in enthusiastically supporting them while scarcely mentioning the ultimate goal of nationalizing land. [19]

Likewise, between the two revolutions, workplace seizures grew like an urban wildfire. Lenin unabashedly fanned the flames of discontent as he spoke and wrote in favor of “workers’ control over the production and distribution of goods.” Criticism came from other Bolsheviks such as Solomon Lozovsky who wrote: “It is necessary to make an absolutely clear and categorical reservation that the workers in each enterprise should not get the impression that the enterprise belongs to them.” [20]

Shlyapnikov and Kollontai were among the thousands of revolutionaries who lauded Lenin’s statements. For them, workers’ control was an end in itself and the foundation of a new society. But a careful reading of Lenin reveals that he saw workers’ control as a means of smashing capitalist control of industry that would yield to the greater end of centralized planning. [21]

Thus, three apparitions haunted the Bolshevik spirit in 1917: the wary spirit worried that workers’ control could interfere with building a state-run economy; the undivided spirit beheld self-management as simultaneously the method and goal of establishing socialism; and, the redefining spirit realized that workers’ control could first be used as a method to break up capitalism and then reappear as control by the party unifying production on behalf of the working class. These ghosts wrestled with each other, sometimes within themselves, through 1921 and beyond.

Praise of worker’s control diminished as party leaders saw production falling and centralization became the word of the day. Terrified by mushrooming disorder, they decided to bring back bureaucrats to run the state and economy. Shlyapnikov was shocked when he returned to Moscow in February 1919 to see the extent of pre-revolutionary specialists in control of industry. The same concern echoed across the country. [22]

The Bolshevik factions of 1921 were corporal forms of the three apparitions of workers’ control. The WO advocated workers’ making fundamental decisions about production and coordinating the economy through elected representatives. Endorsing top-down militarization of labor, the Trotsky-Bukharin bloc did not even give lip service to workers’ control. Lenin, the skilled manipulator, cohered the overwhelming majority by co-opting much of the language of workers’ control while adopting a gentler-worded form of much of what Trotsky-Bukharin proposed.

10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party
In late 1920, Lenin and Trotsky each had representatives on the party’s Central Committee (CC) while there were none for the WO. Since Trotsky’s faction was strong, almost winning a CC majority, Lenin had his work cut out for him, which he did most skillfully. [23]

Efim Ignatov was one of many Moscow workers who favored a major role for the soviets and unions in coordinating production. They blocked with WO supporters to obtain a large minority of votes for selection of delegates to the 10th Party Congress. Lenin had the party’s Central Committee (CC) interfere to deny proportional representation – all the delegates went to his faction. [24] It is unknown the extent to which the WO was similarly underrepresented in other parts of Russia.

While support for the WO was strong among industrial workers, it lacked the political skills of Lenin and the writing talent of Trotsky. So several of its leaders turned to Kollontai who wrote the pamphlet entitled The Workers’ Opposition.

As editor of the party’s paper Pravda, Bukharin was able to ensure that Kollontai’s manuscript was published well after those airing Lenin’s and Trotsky’s views. When it did appear, workers read the WO echoing their own complaints: though self-organization of production should be the essence of communism, workers were denied any such role, which was given to party-approved specialists. The party was interfering with workers’ initiative so much that they could not even organize their own canteens or childcare without going to bureaucrats. As former capitalists adapted themselves to the soviet system, they reappeared as the new bosses. [25]

Kollontai quipped that while party leaders regarded unions as “schools for communism,” unions should be its creators as well. She proposed that “all cardinal decisions of party activity” within unions should be subjected to a vote by the rank and file. Instead of concentrating funds for the dominant view, she advocated printing views of all factions. Though Kollontai’s pamphlet clearly stated that “specialists can do valuable work,” it was ridiculed by Lenin’s supporters as ignoring the need for specialists. [26]

Factionalism was even deeper in 1921 than it had been in 1917 when some CC members opposed the seizure of power; in 1918 when there was strong opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk; or during many other disagreements. In earlier disputes different Bolsheviks lined up together and other disputes would see different realignments. But the 1921 division had been brewing for years with opposing sides becoming more intransigent – the sort of conflict that could rip a party apart.

As sailors rallied to the call of many Petrograd workers for democratic elections and coping with food shortages, the Kronstadt Rebellion broke out when the 10th Congress was opening. Timing could not have been worse for the WO, which strongly advocated working within the RCP rather than rising up against it.

Multiple speakers used Kronstadt to associate the WO with counter-revolution. Lenin opened the congress with an attack on the WO, saying it used the same slogans as Kronstadt. He singled out Kollontai, denouncing her pamphlet as the “platform of a new party” and exclaimed: “For this you should not only be excluded but shot as well!” Attempting to link it to another source of discord Bukharin howled that the WO “was complicit in peasant opposition to the Soviet regime.” [27]

Despite the onslaught of Lenin’s full fury the WO pushed forward. It’s ally Ignatov made three proposals designed to reverse the path taken by the RCP: (1) purge non-proletarian, non-peasant party members who had joined since mid-1918, (2) require non-workers to wait 1-2 years before holding party positions, and (3) require all party members to do at least three months of physical labor a year. [28]

As the congress wore on, Lenin’s grip became tighter and votes for WO proposals became smaller. By the end, there was an overwhelming vote endorsing Lenin’s view that workers were not yet ready to run the economy. Two shockers came during the final session. One resolution banned factions and allowed the Central Committee (CC) to expel those engaged in factional activity. The second, aimed specifically at the WO, condemned the “syndicalist and anarchist” deviation within the party.

The icing on the cake was election of Shlyapnikov to the CC and the refusal to allow WO members to leave their position in the party. Together, these destroyed the ability of the WO to organize and specifically forced Shlyapnikov to present Lenin’s views when speaking in public. A question which no one seemed to have asked was: If it was okay for the RCP to have banned factions and muzzled the WO, would it have been okay for the Mensheviks to have done the same to the Bolsheviks when they had the upper hand?

By the end of the 10th Congress, it was unambiguous that the phrase “workers’ control” assumed that the single party in power was alone in representing the true interests of the working class. The party would control industry, including control of management and day-to-day decisions regarding work life. This interpretation implied that the vanguard party, knowing better than workers themselves what their true needs were, could remove and replace those elected to union offices.

The end approaches
After the 10th Congress, anti-WO campaigns multiplied. Party leaders removed former WO organizers from positions and/or transferred them to locations where they would be isolated. The epitome of this strategy was when Lenin, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Vyacheslav Molotov collaborated to oust Shlyapnikov as head of the Metalworkers’ Union and replace him with yes-bureaucrats. It required the big guns from the party center since they were strongly resisted by the union, which voted repeatedly against such maneuvers. When a CC commission noted that the reason for removing specific metalworkers was that they had been WO supporters, Shlyapnikov correctly replied that such targeting violated the 10th Party Congress ban on factions. [29]

Instead of responding to Shlyapnikov’s charges, the center initiated the party’s first show trial of Shlyapnikov for the crime of continuing a faction (which he had not done). This attack accomplished several goals simultaneously. First, it initiated terror against resistance to Lenin’s power. (A side effect was teaching Stalin how to conduct a show trial via false accusations.) Second, by publicly humiliating Shlyapnikov after removing him from union leadership, it further undercut his political effectiveness. [30]

The most important aspect of Shlyapnikov’s show trial was how it fit into the overall plan to slash the power of the Metalworkers’ Union. The 500,000 members of the union outnumbered the membership of the RCP. [31] Forcing such a union to kneel before the smaller organization put the RCP well on its way to being the single political/economic force in the country.

Shlyapnikov was hardly a solitary target of the party’s wrath. The list is quite long, with some of the notable cases being David Ryazanov, Flor Mitin and Kollontai. Prior to the May 1921 trade union congress Ryazanov criticized the party for treating trade unions with scorn, only consulting them on trivial matters, and insisting that their leaders sign decrees whether they agreed with them or not. In order to prevent Ryazanov from presenting such a resolution, they forbade him from attending the congress. (Party discipline meant that leaders could tell followers what meetings they could and could not go to.) When the resolution made it to the floor and passed anyway the party investigated how the resolution could have possibly made its way through its censors. [32]

Mitin discovered how to cope with demotion of WO supporters across the country. He transferred many to a different location but in a higher position than what they had been demoted to. His actions did not violate the ban on factions while the pattern of targeting party loyalists who had been members of the WO did violate the ban. The party center found this irrelevant and had Mitin expelled. [33]

When Kollontai criticized the New Economic Policy (NEP) at a July 1921 Communist International (Comintern) meeting, Trotsky misrepresented her views as merely those of one individual and appealed to the sexism of the audience by referring to her as a “Valkyrie.” Another Bolshevik denounced her for violating party discipline and presenting ideas of the “shitty” Workers’ Opposition. [34]

Anti-WO tactics were not limited to personality attacks, reassignments and expulsions. An odd letter went to Shlyapnikov inviting him to join efforts to create a new international party, which would be an extreme violation of party discipline. Shlyapnikov interpreted it as an effort to entrap him. [35]

Within months of the 10th Party Congress, anti-WO repression had spread rapidly through Russia. In Nikolaev, 84 of the 100 delegates to a local congress supported WO ideas. As a result, 90 of its best-known supporters were transferred to other locations in early 1922. Retaliation against WO supporters and removal of elected union officers resulted in fewer workers being willing to participate in unions. [36]

The third meeting of the Comintern
With opportunities for discussion and organization being closed down, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov realized that there was one avenue still open for getting their ideas heard: the Comintern. One of its 21 points of agreement for joining included the right of a political minority in a country to appeal its case to the international. They organized an “Appeal of the 22” from loyal Bolsheviks to the third Comintern meeting of February 24 – March 4, 1922 regarding the suppression of union activists. [37]

When Kollontai tried to address the Comintern Executive, Trotsky and Zinoviev removed her from the list of speakers. Resisting that decision, Kollontai insisted on speaking and Trotsky repeated his disallowal and ordered Russian delegates to “obey party directives.” (Trotsky’s elimination of the right of a party minority to exercise its right of dissension would soon haunt him.) The Comintern created a commission to investigate the affair and censured the 22, ordering them to abstain from such actions in the future. [38]

Back in the USSR things did not settle down. The Metalworkers’ Union met in March 1922. Despite intense maneuvers WO supporters gained 84 votes against 99 for the slate approved by the party center for the union’s central committee. They asked for proportional representation. The RCP’s Politburo stepped into the union’s affairs and ruled that WO supporters should not have any representation. [39]

WO supporters in the Siberian city of Omsk had a majority of the party’s committee. CC secretary Stalin took the reigns of reorganizing the RCP in Omsk – there were reprimands, expulsions and over 100 transfers to reestablish control of the local party from the center. [40]

As the 11th Party Congress approached, it was clear that Lenin’s view of unions as mediators between workers and state-appointed managers prevailed over Trotsky’s implications that unions should be crushed and the WO orientation that they be managers of industry. Party leaders such as Bukharin were threatened by the continuing loyalty to WO ideas. The existence of Shlyapnikov was living contradiction to Bukharin’s belief that workers could not generate an “intellectual elite” capable of managing the economy. The need to destroy Shlyapnikov and co-thinkers figured large in frequent complaints that the “Appeal of the 22” had fallen into the hands of reactionaries and thereby threatened the revolution – complaints which prefigured those that would appear against Trotsky. [41]

The 11th Party Congress took place March 22-April 2, 1922. Since Lenin had theorized that conditions in Russia meant that the proletariat no longer existed as a class, Shlyapnikov congratulated the congress “on being the vanguard of a non-existent class.” [42] Lenin reminded the congress that those who create panic in an army are shot and denounced participants in the “Appeal of the 22” for starting panic in the party. Unambiguous was the implication that Shlyapnikov, as originator of the Appeal, should be shot.

Kollontai challenged the atmosphere of terror engulfing the party’s persecution of those who supported WO beliefs. She noted that the ban on factions created an atmosphere whereby two comrades engaged in discussion would be fearful of a third entering the room because that person could accuse them of having a “factional” meeting. [43]

As the party discussed whether Shlyapnikov and Kollontai should be expelled for holding “factionalist” meetings, Shlyapnikov mocked them for not presenting evidence that “meetings” had a chairperson, agenda, votes or minutes. [44] When reading this period of Soviet history, it is easy to get lost in a discussion of whether Shyapnikov, Kollontai and hundred of groups across Russia were or were not adhering to the ban on factions and lose sight of the fact that “party discipline” in 1922 required surrendering basic democratic rights.

Throughout 1922, the secret police was increasingly used to ferret out what the party center saw as its enemies. Shlyapnikov strongly suspected that police provocateurs were behind the woman who sought to entice him into creating a “fourth international,” an act that would have verified Lenin’s accusations. Secret police kept close surveillance of party opposition groups such as Workers’ Truth and Workers’ Group, whose members were later arrested. Earlier, the Cheka had destroyed a group that dared to actually split from the RCP and call itself the “Worker-Peasant Socialist Party.” [45]

How do you strangle an opposition?
Suppression of dissent within the RCP was not an aberration of the 10th Party Congress – it both preceded it and intensified after it. Lenin’s illness resulted in his being out of the picture during most of 1923. (He died in January 1924.) The following are actions and trends that preceded Stalin’s rise to power:

a. Probably the most frequent complaint among WO supporters was transfer to other locations to prevent them from organizing, speaking or attending congresses or conferences.

b. Perhaps tied for first place among complaints was removal of elected worker representatives and/or appointment of those who would be more compliant.

c. Publication of minority views was delayed or dissidents were not allowed to defend themselves from attacks.

d. Conference dates were moved up to prevent membership discussion of issues.

e. Votes were overturned or minorities were disallowed proportional representation on higher bodies.

f. Rules against “factionalism” were applied vigorously to party minorities while majorities could engage in such behavior without rebuke.

g. Many were prohibited from resigning from party positions, thereby compelling them to represent views they did not agree with when speaking publicly.

h. Oppositionists were prohibited from presenting a proposal for a vote and banned from appealing the decision to a higher body.

i. Oppositionists were repeatedly attacked as playing into the hands of counterrevolutionaries.

j. The secret police was used against critics inside the Communist Party via surveillance, interrogation, entrapment and arrest.

k. Oppositionists were expelled from the RCP for disagreement.

j. Lenin’s singling out opponents who he suggested should be shot was not a way to build solidarity among comrades.

Those who seemed to most frequently engineer the destruction of the WO were Lenin, Zinoviev, Trostky and Bukharin. Though Stalin’s name does appear among those carrying out the suppression, it does not appear as prominently as these. History suggests that Stalin successfully learned the lessons they taught.

Battle for supremacy
As Lenin’s health faded, conflict over succession became extreme. The “triumvirate” of Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev manipulated election to the January 1924 13th Party Congress as seamlessly as the party center had done against the WO. Though Shlyapnikov stood outside of the ensuing factional fights, he publicized strong opposition to Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” which resulted in his being denied the right to speak at the 14th Congress in May 1925. That year, Zinoviev and Kamenev echoed Shlyapnikov’s concern and created the “United Opposition” (UO) with Trotsky. Stalin then made sure that they were removed from positions, just as the party center had done to the WO. [46]

Shlyapnikov wrote of his agreements and disagreements with Trotsky and concluded that Trotsky had little chance of grabbing party leadership. Accusations of who did what to whom and why during 1923-27 became weird. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev did their best to woo WO supporters to their group and denounced the increasing variety of tactics Stalin used against them, despite their similarity to the tactics that they had used against the WO. Stalin simultaneously aimed his guns on Shlyapnikov with the falsified “Baku Letter,” a document that had been altered to imply WO supporters wanted to dissolve Communist Parties in western Europe. [47]

After Stalin’s thugs disrupted their meetings, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted that the UO had lost, denounced Shlyapnikov for his WO ideas, and promised to dissolve their group. Historian Isaac Deutscher wrote that Shlyapnikov gave in to Stalin although it was actually the UO that did so. In fact, a Pravda article by Valerian Kuibyshev denounced Shlyapnikov for failing to recognize his errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done. [48]

The UO became outraged at Stalin’s bungling of foreign affairs and, despite their pledge to end factionalism, in May 1927 issued the “Declaration of the 83.” [49] Shlyapnikov and his allies were not cosigners and have been criticized ever since for not doing so.

Shlyapnikov’s biographer Barbara Allen interprets his unwillingness to sign the declaration as due to (1) Trotsky’s refusal to invite Shlyapnikov to participate in writing or editing it, and (2) Trotsky’s refusal to withdraw his condemnation of the WO made the previous year. [50] Though it is clear that a prominent leader like Shlyapnikov would not attach his name to a document for which he was excluded from drafting and omitted multiple WO beliefs, issues separating the WO from the UO ran far deeper.

In 1927 Leon Trotsky was one of the most politically unstable leaders of the RCP, having occupied virtually every position on the Social Democratic spectrum. First, he was a Menshevik denouncing Lenin’s authoritarianism; then, he organized his own group around his personality; then, he was reborn as the unquestioning disciple of Lenin; then, in 1919, he and Bukharin cohered the extreme right wing faction in opposition to both Lenin and the WO. As a Menshevik, Trotsky had praised internal party democracy; then, he flip-flopped to become a major opponent of party democracy, wrote several chapters in the book of suppression of dissent, and helped develop practices to crush party opponents; and finally, he stomped his foot in fury as he became the victim of the very rules and practices for which he was the co-author. Realizing that having been a right-wing Bolshevik did not worked out so well, Trotsky reappeared as a left oppositionist. His disciples have worshiped him as “leftist” ever since.

Trotsky had ridiculed Kollontai’s lack of faith in specialists and bureaucrats during the 1921 Party Congress, but zigzagged in 1923 to demand that the industrial bureaucracy be “destroyed.” [51] Meanwhile, Shlyapnikov and Kollontai maintained the same position they had had for years – preserve specialists as advisers and elect managers. The contrast was deep because Shlyapnikov’s political life had centered on workplace democracy while Trotsky pulled the democracy rabbit out of his hat when convenient.

Trotsky’s inconsistency, along with Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s alignment and realignment of factional allies would make any reasonable person ask: “What will the UO do to our economic program if they actually defeat Stalin and Bukharin?” Since those who became the UO had scorned WO ideas throughout the 1919-21 debates and repeated that scorn in 1926, there was no reason to believe that it would not happen again. It would not have been out of character for Shlyapnikov to have asked himself if the same group which helped remove the WO from influence was now toying with it to get support while covertly planning to dump it once getting the upper hand over Stalin. The UO’s absence of interest in soliciting input from WO supporters when drafting its program must have exacerbated suspicions of its long-term objectives.

Though both Kollontai and Shlyapnikov continued to work inside the RCP, the infighting led them in different directions. Kollontai wrote that early in life she had been shy and unsure of herself. The severity of attacks on her views and personality seem to have traumatized and embittered her. Kollontai played a critical role in arranging a treaty of mutual recognition between Norway and the USSR in February 1924 and followed that with diplomatic work in Mexico. She continued to address the oppression of women, even when Trotsky’s opposition would not. [52]

In his autobiography Trotsky attacked Kollontai for “bowing” to Stalin. Trotsky seemed to assume that anyone who did not bow to him supported every proclamation from Stalin. In 1927, she wrote that “… the masses distrust the opposition … The formation of a bloc with yesterday’s opponents is completely incomprehensible.” [53] This slap at the unnamed Kamemev and Zinoviev was hardly groveling to Stalin. Shlyapnikov nevertheless told her of his disapproval. [54] Though Kollontai’s articles became infrequent, she occasionally wrote about women’s issues and continued diplomatic work with Norway and Sweden until her death in March 1952. [55]

Shlyapnikov under Stalin
As Stalin consolidated power Shlyapnikov continued his course of working within the RCP while trying to do what he could to improve the condition of workers. This required him to repeatedly deny accusations of factionalism. During 1926-27 a Trotskyist detained in Omsk tried to deflect attention with claims that a secretly formed WO group had illegal literature and printing equipment and had tried to link up with other cities. Shlyapnikov had to assure the secret police that he had warned his colleagues against doing any of these. [56]

As Shlyapnikov retreated into writing memoirs of the revolution, he was sharply criticized for failures to glorify Stalin. Refusing to recant, he was purged from the RCP in 1933. The hate campaign went into high gear: Stalin’s supporters began condemning those who failed to condemn Shlyapnikov. [57]

Until the end, Shlyapnikov was a worker-intellectual who focused on how the organization of labor could be improved. Throughout his life workplace democracy and industrial productivity were one and the same goal. The WO’s central concept was that those who labor every day understand the best ways to sustain and enhance production processes. Even before the revolution, Shlyapnikov had opposed speed-up, noting that he saw more industrial accidents with an 8-hour day than the old 11-hour day. As Trotsky preached that labor productivity must be increased by cracking the Bolshevik whip, Shlyapnikov patiently explained that the real problem was bottlenecks that prevented supplies from reaching factories. He realized that ultra-specialization of factories intensified the bottlenecks and countered that each factory should be able to produce as much basic machinery as feasible. [58]

A fundamental breach with the party center was the WO belief that effective management of industry could only occur if non-Bolsheviks were included in decision-making. Lenin, Trotsky and others insisted that decisions be left to Bolsheviks who were required to vote as directed by party discipline. Understanding that hunger and cold would worsen low productivity, the WO stood aghast at Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) that would prioritize creating rich peasants over increasing food and fuel for industrial workers.

Instead of relying on the NEP’s use of the market to help peasants, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry and improving wages so peasants could more easily sell bread to urban workers. Shlyapnikov’s approach to the peasantry was to urge voluntary formation of cooperatives to improve agricultural productivity (in contrast to the forced collectivization that Stalin would carry out). [59]

When Trotsky proposed to close small factories and concentrate industry in 1923, Shlyapnikov pointed out that unemployment was already ravaging Russia’s cities. Having faith in Russia’s workers, Shlyapnikov advocated building up industry by better use of resources, such as using gold to build domestic machines rather than buying foreign products. [60]

Nevertheless, Shlyapnikov had such a strong knowledge of industrial processes that in 1927 he was sent to western Europe to purchase high quality machinery. Back in Russia, he realized that a major factor interfering with planning was that distortions in data increased with each level of management. [61]

As the Soviet Union began its first 5-year plan, Shlyapnikov was made leader of the metal ware-industries association in 1931. There he coordinated the transition to making precision instruments required for airplane, auto and tractor manufacture. [62]

Even after his 1935 arrest Shlyapnikov worked as an assistant director of transportation in Astrakhan where he was in exile. His son Yuri, who was allowed to visit him in 1936, was impressed with Shlyapnikov’s design of a timesaving machine for unloading bread. This was the year before his execution. [63]

Since Shlyapnikov’s ideas for workers’ control of industry were known throughout Russia, Stalin needed to destroy him, especially after the widespread labor discontent of 1932. Shlyapnikov was also a thorn in Stalin’s side because he refused to admit errors as Trotsky and Zinoviev had done in 1926. Praise of the great leader was in vogue during the 17th Party Congress in 1934, but Shlyapnikov never joined the chorus. Shlyapnikov’s unwillingness to bend to Stalin could well have been the reason that there was no public show trial for him as there was for luminaries who confessed to “counter-revolutionary” activity, including Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and many others. [64]

Shlyapnikov was dangerous to every team in power since the revolution because he elbowed room for his ideas while playing by their rules. When the 10th Party Congress forbade factions, the WO was dissolved (even though the party center continued its own factional behavior). As the concept of factional behavior broadened, Shlyapnikov worked with his co-thinkers to operate as best they could, unlike Trotsky who enthusiastically enforced rules when part of the ruling clique and ignored the same rules when he was on the outside looking in.

Throughout his life as a dissident, Shlyapnikov continually made quips at those who failed to grasp the holes in their own rules. When Shlyapnikov’s interrogators first questioned him about “anti-party views,” he asked if they were attributing “their own thoughts to him.” When asked why he did not criticize his own historical writings, he retorted that the party had not assigned him to write historical fiction. In court for his 1933 purge trial due to a long list of anti-party crimes, he queried as to how such criminal activity could have occurred for 16 years with no one noticing. Under interrogation in 1935 for an alleged conspiracy, he noted the absurdity of claiming that he would secretly work with Zinoviev in 1932, when Zinoviev’s opposition was defeated, even though he had nothing to do with it in the 1920s when it was strongest. [65]

Stalin was never known for having a keen since of humor. He decided that Shlyapnikov would have the same fate as other thought criminals. Shlyapnikov was re-arrested in September 1936 as one of thousands caught up in the Great Terror. The only thing laughable about Stalin’s cabal was the charges they came up with for their victims. On September 2, 1937 the court found Shlyapnikov guilty of heading the “anti-Soviet terrorist organization” called the Workers’ Opposition, which had conspired with “Trotskyist-Zinovievist and right-Bukharinist terrorists.” Shlyapnikov was shot in Moscow the same day. [66] The isolation and persecution of Shlyapnikov by Lenin had facilitated his execution by Stalin.

Looking forward
Yes, Stalin was very wicked. But he was not a particularly creative thinker. Stalin carried out an enormous expansion and modification of techniques of suppression of those who preceded him. Understanding of what led to his consolidation of power is essential to building organizations today that are democratic and revolutionary.

The ghost of the WO haunts every scenario of progressive activity. Whether we seek to create democratic unions, establish independent political parties, grow local and healthy food or build consumer cooperatives, we repeatedly confront those who would control us from above. Learning from the legacy of the WO requires exploring its weakness as we appreciate its strengths.

During each phase of the Russian Revolution, there were those who criticized WO leaders for failing to leave the RCP and form an independent party. There is no agreement on when that should have occurred. Would it have been too early in 1919 when Shlyapnikov returned to Moscow and heard that complaints against top-down management were spreading across Russia?

Was the time ripe in 1920 when the Civil War was over and militarization of labor was becoming the word of the day? Or was the critical hour the 10th Party Congress that, in 1921, forbade the WO from using its name or organizing? Or, perhaps 1922, when former WO members were barred from sharing concerns internationally? Would it have been too late in 1929 when Stalin’s policies of forced collectivization resulted in millions of deaths? Despite worker protests in 1932, Stalin had consolidated power to such an extent that an opposition party could scarcely have survived.

Whatever the “correct” date might have been, it most definitely was not 1927, when the United Opposition issued the “Declaration of the 83.” By then, virtually everyone supporting WO ideas understood that siding with Trotsky over Stalin would mean replacing one authoritarian egomaniac with another. To bloc with those who had utter contempt for workplace democracy until it became politically expedient to feign solidarity would have betrayed everything the WO had worked for.

Was the steady (though often circuitous) march toward economic centralization inevitable, as historian E. H. Carr thought? [67] If so, WO concepts were whimsical fantasies that must be brushed aside now as then. Central control remains an essential part of Leninist thought, whether it appears as Trotskyism or Maoism. The assumption is that the only form a post-capitalist society can take is having one ruling clique over a single party that controls the economy and work life. Why the WO challenge to this view was defeated remains critical today.

In a world being devastated by climate change, racist xenophobia, neoliberalism and the mindless worship of object possession, the end of capitalism could well be as terrifying as the starvation which engulfed Russian cities at the time of its revolution. Desperate people, robbed of their self-confidence, are prone to bending to strong leaders rather than keeping power in their collective hands. Struggles by the WO show the need to never let power-mongers cohere their control and become a new ruling class. Worker self-management, agricultural collectives, and consumer cooperatives can join together to create a democratic society without being dominated either by corporate markets or vanguardist elites.

The ultimate failure of the WO was, in part, due to a lack of the political/manipulative adroitness of Lenin. It was, in part, due to the lack of writing brilliance of Trotsky. More than anything else, it was a lack of self-confidence that led the WO to look for support from those determined to destroy it. Shlyapnikov spent his entire political life having faith in the Bolshevik organization. He was an outstanding figure in the revolution because his ultimate weakness was the same as his greatness – his failure to act as though he would be Prince.

Observers saw Shlyapnikov as easily outmaneuvered and no match for Lenin. When she broke off her romantic relationship with him in 1916, Kollontai concluded that, in political battles, Shlyapnikov was “helpless and clumsy.” [68] While Kollontai may have hit the nail on the head in recognizing Shlyapnikov’s political naiveté, the hammer rebounded. Lenin’s friends often referred to him as “Ilyich.” She ended her most famous work, The Workers’ Opposition, completed before the 10th Party Congress, with the prophesy “Ilyich will be with us yet.” [69] Even as Lenin was devising a strategy to destroy the WO, Kollontai fantasized that he would advance its cause. Kollontai’s placing her hope in Lenin manifests the pathos of those who sought for the underclass to become its own master.

Many believe that honoring the great accomplishments of leaders like Lenin and Trotsky requires (1) overlooking the enormity of their mistakes and (2) denigrating the contributions of those like Shlyapnikov and Kollontai. The Russian Revolution shows us that when oppressed people partner with those who have the intellectual capabilities of Bolshevik leaders, sooner or later the underclass will need to wrest control from their hands, even as the new leaders shriek that they must be able to dominate society because the counter-revolution is so strong.

In hindsight, all but the most blind can see that ultra-centralization which dismembered workplace self-management, created not socialism, but a new type of rule, which has been called a vanguard, bureaucratic or coordinator ruling class. Building a classless society requires ending the dichotomy between controllers and controlled. Leaders must be aware of the power they have and be willing to step aside rather than holding onto power for decades.

More important, we need to build a culture of those not in leadership positions stepping up to the plate to use the abilities they may have never known they had. Even more important, rank-and-file members must insist and demand that leaders teach them the organizing, speaking and writing skills that are necessary to replace them. Every progressive group – not just unions, but also political parties, and groups focused on community organizing, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, and rights of the specially oppressed – need to vastly expand the practice of rotating the role of coordinators. This is what it means to develop a leadership that negates itself in the process of becoming.

This article is based on a January 2018 presentation at Legacy Books & Cafe in St. Louis, Missouri. Don Fitz, who can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought and is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis.


1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”. In Selected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Vol 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969).

2. V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution”. In Selected Works of V. I. Lenin, Vol 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970).

3. Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2015), 106.

4. Ibid., 133.

5. Edward Hallet Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923. Vol 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 85.

6. Allen, 122.

7. Ibid., 131.

8. Ibid., 137-139.

9. Ibid., 1, 158.

10. Ibid., 141.

11. Ibid., 143.

12. Ibid., 146-147.

13. Ibid., 174, 160.

14. Ibid., 162.

15. Ibid., 167.

16. Carr, 215.

17. Allen, 166.

18. Ibid., 167.

19. Carr, 29-30.

20. Ibid, 65, 68.

21. Ibid., 58.

22. Allen, 132.

23. Ibid., 163-164.

24. Ibid., 72-73.

25. Alexandra Kollontai, The Workers’ Opposition. In Alix Holt, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), 152, 163-164.

26. Ibid., 179, 195-197.

27, Allen, 182-184.

28. Ibid., 184-185.

29. Ibid., 191, 204.

30. Ibid., 216.

31. Ibid., 209.

32. Ibid., 200-202.

33. Ibid., 211-212.

34. Ibid., 213.

35. Ibid., 214.

36. Ibid., 212, 218, 229.

37. Ibid., 232.

38. Ibid., 233.

39. Ibid., 237.

40. Ibid., 240.

41. Ibid., 238.

42. Ibid., 245.

43. Ibid., 247.

44. Ibid., 248.

45. Ibid., 210, 241, 254-257.

46. Ibid., 262.

47. Ibid., 262, 270-272.

48. Ibid., 274-277.

49. Ibid., 279.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., 261.

52. Alix Holt, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980), 29, 293, 297.

53. Ibid., 298.

54. Allen, 281.

55. Holt, 23.

56. Allen, 293-305.

57. Ibid., 309, 313.

58. Ibid., 46, 306.

59. Ibid., 261, 265.

60. Ibid., 261.

61. Ibid., 288-290, 343.

62. Ibid., 305.

63. Ibid., 360.

64. Ibid., 277, 320, 331-332.

65. Ibid., 319, 323, 327, 344.

66. Ibid., 363.

67. Carr, 55-95.

68. Allen, 70, 80.

69. Kollontai, 200.

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.

Lenin for today-Reviewed by Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On March - 28 - 2018 Comments Off on Lenin for today-Reviewed by Paul Le Blanc


Lenin for Today
By John Molyneux
Bookmarks, 2017
289 pages
£12.99; $44.01
The first chapter of John Molyneux’s newest book, Lenin for Today, is one of the best discussions one can find of the relevance of Lenin. It is also the best part of the book. Far from being an organic whole, Lenin for Today offers seven distinct essays, each of which can more or less stand alone. Some offer analysis and explication of Lenin’s own ideas and perspectives, with indications of their continuing relevance. Others – increasingly as the book goes along – present discussions of current issues and recent events from the standpoint of the author and his organization (the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and its sister organization of the same name in Ireland, where he currently resides.)

In addition to the first chapter, Molyneux offers a second chapter focusing on Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, a third chapter focusing on The State and Revolution, a fourth chapter discussing the necessity of the party, a fifth chapter entitled “Lenin and the fight against oppression” (beyond simply the class struggle between workers and capitalists), a sixth chapter arguing that Leninism does not lead to Stalinism, and a summing-up chapter entitled “Leninism today.”

Lenin’s relevance
The brief introduction to Lenin for Today has what strikes me as the quite reasonable title: “We need a revolution.” And Molyneux makes the case quite succinctly and persuasively. This leads quite naturally into the opening chapter. He begins with this three-sentence assertion:

Lenin is relevant in the 21st century because the Russian Revolution is relevant. The Russian Revolution is relevant because the revolution of the 21st century will be a workers’ revolution and the Russian Revolution was a workers’ revolution. These are big claims that require justification. (p.28)

He goes on to make the case beautifully. “The working class here signifies that class of people who live exclusively or almost exclusively by the sale of their labor power,” he tells us. “It includes, therefore, both blue collar and white collar workers, teachers and nurses as well as factory workers and fire fighters, administrative staff along with office cleaners, shop workers and bus drivers.” Socialism, meaning rule by the people over the economy, must mean rule by such people as these, who make up the great majority (70 percent or more) of those living in the advanced capitalist countries, and more than 50 percent of the global labor force, with the numbers and percentages continuing to grow year after year.

This dynamically growing and diversifying social entity has more and more been encompassing humanity’s majority since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels urged “workers of all countries unite” almost two centuries back. “If we take seriously the necessity of global revolution, and the crisis facing humanity compels us to take it seriously,” writes Molyneux, “then we have to talk about a social force that can defeat the immense economic and political power of global capital,” and he concludes: “There is only one force remotely capable of doing this: the 1.5 billion-strong international working class . . .” (28).

Molyneux goes on to observe: “What distinguishes the Russian Revolution of 1917 from all other successful revolutions . . . and numerous failed attempts at revolution . . . is that in it and through it the working class actually came to power in society, at least for a few years” (33). He then proceeds to summarize what a substantial number of serious eyewitnesses and later social historians have conclusively demonstrated – that a “swift and dramatic radicalization of the Russian working class along with the soldiers and sailors [themselves made up of peasants and workers in uniform] is the main feature of the spring, summer and autumn of 1917 and the driving force of the Revolution” (37). He quotes Julius Martov, Lenin’s Menshevik adversary in the Russian workers’ movement, that with October 1917 “what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising” (44).

As indicated in Martov’s comment, Lenin was a key element in the making of the working-class revolution. How did Lenin do this? Molyneux goes on to present and demolish what he terms “the Machiavellian interpretation” – advanced by innumerable mainstream academics and the mass media – that “Lenin’s relationship to the mass of working people was elitist and manipulative,” and that “he was, more or less from the outset, a would-be dictator” (44). Combing through Lenin’s actual writings over the decades, probing the psychological improbability of someone motivated by power-lust becoming part of a persecuted movement struggling on behalf of the oppressed against existing power structures (as opposed to worming his way into such existing power structures), and making reference to serious scholarship (such as that of Lars Lih) on Lenin and other Russian Marxists, he concludes that “of all the socialist writers in Russia at the time, Lenin was the most consistently enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential politicization of the working class” (53) and that his orientation – organizationally, strategically and in regard to the society he was fighting for – was permeated by a deeply democratic ethos.

Scholars who insist on “the Machiavellian interpretation” of Lenin without confronting the kind of argument that Molyneux develops here are not being serious. And activists who refuse to come to grips with the challenge that he is posing are selling themselves short.

Interpretive differences
Yet scholars and activists who are in basic agreement on so much (as is the case with Molyneux and myself) should not avoid taking issue with each other when there are actual differences. Only through such confrontations can political clarity and collective understanding advance. In this spirit, several interpretive differences (some quibbles, some more than that) can be offered here.

One quibble is related to the fact that Molyneux’s sustained examination of only certain Lenin texts – What Is To Be Done; Imperialism; State and Revolution – results in less attention being given to other essential texts: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back; Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution; Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, etc. If this volume is to remain a manageable size, perhaps this choice is inevitable – though one wonders if engaging with more of what Lenin has to say might have forced somewhat different and more nuanced interpretations.

Another quibble involves a tendency, hardly unique to Molyneux, in highlighting Lenin while filtering out some of the other voices and currents of thought that helped form the context in which Lenin evolved. There is, in much writing, insufficient comprehension of Bolshevism as a complex and democratic collectivity, which contributed, enhanced and sometimes corrected what Lenin himself was inclined to think and say. Here too, of course, the need to avoid an overly complex and cumbersome volume – and the validity of focusing on the contributions of a single theorist and activist such as Lenin – justifies the pathway that Molyneux has followed.

Overall, the author has done a good job in presenting complex material in a clear and yet also critical-minded manner. At the same time, one can differ with some of the details – in some cases questioning the manner in which he defends Lenin, and in others questioning the manner in which he criticizes him.

There is a factual slip as Molyneux presents what has been a standard interpretation of the Bolshevik/Menshevik split within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) of 1903: “At issue was a difference about the definition of membership of the party – Lenin and the Bolsheviks were for a ‘hard’ border based on participation in a party organization; Martov and the Mensheviks was a ‘softer’ looser definition – and a dispute about the composition of the editorial board …” (163). In fact, Lenin lost the vote on “hard” definition of party membership at this party congress, and far from wanting to split, was willing to accept that defeat, assuming that he could win this fight a later day. In addition, within a few years the Mensheviks themselves adopted this very same “hard” definition. The initial split, which astonished Lenin and many others, was actually over the absolute refusal by those who then became Mensheviks to accept a democratic decision to reduce the editorial board of Iskra from six to three (which was seen as an insult to the respected old veterans being removed, Pavel Axelrod and Vera Zasulich).

What soon emerged as a far more decisive issue separating Bolsheviks from Mensheviks, a year after the 1903 split, involved divergent conceptions of the necessary alliances and strategic orientation for carrying out the democratic revolution that would overthrow Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. Since this was to be a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” leading to the thoroughgoing development of a capitalist economy that would be the eventual basis for socialism, the Mensheviks believed in the need for a worker-capitalist alliance, with the socialist workers’ movement making necessary compromises to ensure the possibility of such an alliance. Rejecting such class-collaboration, Lenin’s Bolsheviks called for a militant worker-peasant alliance to lead the democratic revolution, with no compromises to pro-capitalist liberals. This more militant approach was in harmony with the outlook of some socialists who had disagreed with Lenin on the initial organizational split (Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and – despite Molyneux’s simplistic reference to “the reformist nature of Kautskyism” on page 164 – the pre-1914 Karl Kautsky).

The question of Kautsky’s revolutionary Marxism up to 1910 or 1914, and of his influence on Lenin’s thinking, has been contested by some scholars, but in my view has been argued well and persuasively by Lih, for whose outstanding study Lenin Rediscovered Molyneux himself expresses considerable respect. A younger scholar, Eric Blanc, has also been doing path-breaking work on the early Russian working class movement – especially in the so-called “borderlands” of the Russian empire. (See Eric Blanc, “Anti-imperial Marxism: borderland socialists and the evolution of Bolshevism on national liberation,” International Socialist Review #100, Spring 2016, 111-40.) The work of Blanc and others stands as a thoughtful challenge to the position of Lenin and others (including those who became prominent Mensheviks) in the early RSDLP. As a run-up to his critique of “identity politics,” Molyneux praises Lenin’s insistence in What Is To Be Done and elsewhere that the Jewish Labor Bund should not be allowed a separate existence – as he puts it, “there should be a single united organization, not separate organizations for women or Jews (or Blacks etc.)” (199). But Blanc’s research as to the logic, the actual politics, and the contributions of the Bund (and other separately organized oppressed nationalities in the Russian empire) will need to taken into account, and wrestled with, before Molyneux’s stark assertions can be accepted without question.

From a different angle – one that advances a critique of aspects of Lenin’s thinking – Molyneux challenges the conception of an “aristocracy of labor” (a privileged working-class layer) being “bribed” into settling for a limited reformism through the super-profits that capitalists make through the lucrative economic expansion of imperialism. Molyneux quite correctly emphasizes that it is not the most oppressed, downtrodden, impoverished layers of the population that are most radical or revolutionary or class conscious. In fact, crushing oppression can often make it difficult for the victims to think clearly about their objective situation as opposed to simply, almost blindly in some cases, trying to survive. As Molyneux emphasizes, “in the Russian Revolution itself and in the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1919-1920 and on many other occasions, it was precisely the better paid skilled workers, such as engineers and metal workers (in the Putilov works, in the Fiat factories in Turin and in the Clyde shipyards) who were the most advanced and most militant, not only in terms of economic struggle but also in political consciousness” (86). A problem with this is that Lenin himself was quite aware of the point that Molyneux uses to “refute” him.

There is no doubt that some of the profits gained – for example – through US imperialism in the early twentieth century facilitated a tendency to buy-off a privileged layer of skilled workers who embraced Samuel Gompers’ ideology of “pure and simple trade unionism” in the American Federation of Labor. Gompers’ soul-mate (despite a mildly socialist gloss) Karl Legien, heading the massive General German Trade Union Federation, represented a similar layer of imperialist-inclined working-class reformists. There were other examples in Lenin’s time as well as before and after. But Lenin hardly believed in the notion too often attributed to him, that the better-off workers inevitably sell out to imperialism and only the poorest of the poor can be trusted to be truly revolutionary. Instead, he insisted that the better-off workers can and should become an essential part of the revolutionary vanguard – provided that the revolutionary workers’ party does its job in advancing class consciousness (as opposed to deferring to economistic reformism) among its ranks. In short, a valid point is overstated in a manner that obscures Lenin’s actual position.

A different overstatement involves Molyneux’s assertion that Lenin was “keen that socialist propaganda should not give offense to people’s religious feelings” (195). Although Lenin opposed all religious persecution, as Molyneux shows, and although he wanted to work with workers, peasants and others who held religious views, asserting that religious people should be able to join the revolutionary party, he also argued for an approach by such a party that would certainly have given offense to some people’s religious feelings. A Marxist party, Lenin insisted, must work to spread the understanding, flowing from science and the Enlightenment, that religious views are superstitions drugging the minds of those who hold them, and that Marxist education is necessary to facilitate the outright rejection of religion, which he believed would die out naturally with the triumph of socialism and science after the revolution. Whether Molyneux’s impulse or Lenin’s makes more sense is a matter that can be debated by socialists of today and tomorrow.

There is one more issue – and this one quite important – that should be raised here. Molyneux does, on the whole, an admirable job of confronting the question of why the working-class power established in 1917 lasted only “a few years” and in fact soon gave way to one of the worst dictatorships in human history – the murderous bureaucratic authoritarianism associated with one of Lenin’s comrades, Joseph Stalin. Stalin always insisted on a unity of his perspectives and those of Lenin’s, and Cold War anti-Communists were happy to agree. In the chapter “Does Leninism lead to Stalinism?” Molyneux marshals a considerable amount of historical material and lucid analysis to explain what happened and why and how. In doing this, he makes the case that what Stalin represented from the mid-1920s up to his death in 1953 was increasingly and profoundly in contradiction to all that Lenin had stood for and struggled to accomplish.

Yet in analyzing why and how Stalinism triumphed over the 1917 revolution, his emphasis very definitely is on objective factors: the impacts of World War I and the civil war, the relentless assaults of imperialist powers and domestic counter-revolutionaries, the economic blockade, the backwardness of Tsarist Russia, the isolation of the revolution in a hostile capitalist world as the expected spread of socialist revolution failed to triumph.

But did Lenin and his comrades do absolutely nothing that also contributed to the tragic outcome? Molyneux seems willing to consider that Lenin and his comrades made mistakes in the post-1917 period, but he also seems inclined to veer away from considering to what extent such mistakes may have contributed to the rise of Stalinism. He asserts that “what really matters is not forming an exact estimation of the degree of the responsibility of Lenin and the Bolsheviks for later Stalinism,” but instead building a Leninist revolutionary party that will “succeed in leading a successful revolution” (245, emphasis added).

Yet the odd fixation on exactitude hardly justifies skittishness among those of us who agree that a contemporary equivalent of Bolshevism is needed to advance the socialist cause. We can afford to look critically at our revolutionary predecessors. Learning from possible mistakes is no less important than learning from what was done right. This is something with which, I imagine, Molyneux would not disagree when all is said and done.

Debating the present, creating the future
More than issues of historical fact and interpretation, there are more current political differences worth raising. This should be comprehended within the context of considerable political and theoretical kinship. For example, Molyneux offers a beautifully articulated critical analysis of how capitalism (political liberals to the contrary notwithstanding) systemically and necessarily makes an utter sham of genuine democracy. And as already noted, his arguments for the necessity of revolution and a revolutionary party are of high quality.

The question of questions is how such a revolutionary party is to be brought into existence. Molyneux suggests the answer when he writes, “in order to be able to grow into a truly mass party in such [a revolutionary] situation, the revolutionary organization needs already, at the onset of the revolution, to have reached a certain critical mass; it needs to appear to the masses as a potentially credible force and it has to have a voice in the national political debate” (254, emphasis added). This suggests the revolutionary party already exists in embryo, its nucleus being a specific revolutionary organization which has a politically correct program and leadership around which a critical mass – and ultimately a majority of the working class – gathered around it.

In the specific context of 1920 – one year after the founding of the Communist International, with a European working class that had more than three decades’ experience through mass socialist-oriented labor parties, reform struggles, and trade unions – this approach made obvious sense. But our context is different – our working class is a quite different one from that of Lenin’s time, as is its experience and consciousness. To forget this is to risk an outcome against which Lenin himself warned in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, when “attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.” A revolutionary party, he insisted, can be “created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience,” guided by theory which “assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”

In our own specific context, so different from the one that Lenin was writing about, this warning and advice must be even more deeply taken to heart and applied. To assume or pretend otherwise can lead to disastrous mistakes that will set back the creation of a genuinely revolutionary party. Certainly in such countries as Britain and the United States, no single organization is the nucleus of the future party – reality is presently too much in flux and contradictory for that.

Other theoretical rigidities crop up. For example, Molyneux intones against “the banners of separatism …, identity politics of one kind or another and, more recently, of privilege theory and intersectionality” (191). This disdainful and simplistic amalgam can get in the way of understanding and fruitfully engaging with the radicalizing consciousness of various oppressed sectors of the working class majority. Some activists are currently most conscious and engaged around non-class aspects of their specific oppression (having to do with race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

Molyneux himself acknowledges (citing Lenin’s call for revolutionaries to be “tribunes of the people” opposing all forms of oppression) that there is an elemental validity in each and every struggle against oppression of any element in the human identity. As Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James emphasized, sometimes it is necessary for an oppressed group (such as African Americans) to organize separately in order to wage their struggle for liberation. And as theorists of “intersectionality” have insightfully demonstrated, to perceive the interconnections of racial, gender and other forms of oppression with each other, and particularly with class oppression, can contribute profoundly to a revolutionary understanding of one’s own life and of the need to struggle for socialist liberation.

Nor is the consciousness of today’s working class sufficiently developed, nor are the experiences of our class sufficiently evolved, for some of Molyneux’s other strictures to be on target. His clarion-call against “an alliance between reformists and revolutionaries” (181) seems to assume a different reality than the one in which we live. Actually, it may be precisely through alliances of theoretically/politically diverse forces, in actual struggles, that many reformists-of-the-moment as well as would-be revolutionaries (of various currently-existing organizations) will be enabled to develop the genuinely revolutionary consciousness that Molyneux is projecting in his stern warning.

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that Molyneux pushes against dogmatic and sectarian inclinations. This comes through in advice that he generously offers to US socialists near the end of his book – a suggestion that the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative (both of which he sees as “serious Leninist groups”) find a way to merge with the newly expanded mass membership of the Democratic Socialists of America “to launch a credible national alternative to the Democrats” (259, 283 n458). Readers with experience either in or with these specific organizations will need to consider the extent to which such advice is practical or problematical.

Nonetheless, the growth of each of the groups Molyneux mentions reflects a developing socialist consciousness in the United States. Such a radicalization process is proceeding, with distinctive variations, in other countries as well. In this context, efforts to consider the relevance of “Lenin for today” may contribute to fruitful discussions and debates among activists. To the extent that this brings greater clarity, activists can more effectively challenge the oppressions and destructiveness of global capitalism, in the quest for a future of the free and the equal.

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.

80 Years Since the Russian Revolution-Ahmed Shawki

Posted by admin On March - 27 - 2018 Comments Off on 80 Years Since the Russian Revolution-Ahmed Shawki

80 Years Since the Russian Revolution

by Ahmed Shawki

THE RUSSIAN Revolution of October 1917 remains to this day the most decisive event of the international workers’ movement. The Russian events took place in the midst of the barbaric carnage known as World War I. The swift overthrow of the Tsar in February of that year and the almost bloodless Bolshevik-led insurrection in October held out the hope for millions across Europe.

The Bolshevik revolution was by no means a specifically “Russian” phenomenon. As Lenin was later to put it, Bolshevism had become “world Bolshevism” by virtue of its revolutionary tactics, theory and program. By indicating the “right road of escape from the horrors of war and imperialism…Bolshevism can serve as a model of tactics for all.”1

The significance of the revolution was not lost on ruling classes and politicians around the world, especially in Europe. Fear that the revolution would spread gripped the bourgeoisie. Not a friend of revolutionary socialism, British Prime Minister 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 the 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.2

The prospects of revolution which produced paroxysms of fear in the rich were eagerly welcomed by socialists. Victor Serge wrote:

The newspapers of the period are astonishing…riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact the whole of Europe is in movement, clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything.3

Anti-war socialist and journalist John Reed cabled the New York Call with news of the Bolshevik victory. Under the headline, “John Reed Cables the Call News of the Bolshevik Revolt He Witnessed.” The subhead read: “First Proletarian Republic Greets American Workers.” Reed began his article with characteristic bluntness:

This is the revolution, the class struggle, with the proletariat, the soldiers and peasants lined up against the bourgeoisie. Last February was only the preliminary revolution…The extraordinary and immense power of the Bolsheviki lies in the fact that the Kerensky government absolutely ignored the desires of the masses as expressed in the Bolsheviki program of peace, land and workers’ control of industry.4

The “proletariat, the soldiers and peasants lined up against the bourgeoisie.” This was the essence of the Russian Revolution. October was not a coup conducted by a secretive and elitist band. Above all, the revolution was about the mobilization of the mass of ordinary Russians—workers, soldiers and peasants—in a struggle to change their world. That is to this day the most important legacy of the Russian revolution. And this is why such considerable effort is still devoted to distort, slander and misrepresent the events of 1917. This article does not pretend to take up all questions of the revolution—let alone what went wrong—but aims to outline its main themes.5

In the autumn of 1932, a Danish Social Democratic student group invited exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to speak in Copenhagen on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This speech stands out as one of the most forceful and concise accounts of the October Revolution.6

Trotsky outlined a series of historical prerequisites that was necessary for the October Revolution:

1. The rotting away of the old ruling classes—the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy.

2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.

3. The revolutionary character of the peasant question.

4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nations.

5. The significant weight of the proletariat.

To these organic preconditions we must add certain conjunctural conditions of the highest importance.

6. The revolution of 1905 was a great school, or in Lenin’s words, the ‘dress rehearsal’ of the revolution of 1917. The soviets, as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the revolution, were created or the first time in the year 1905.

7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility and thereby prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.

But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the revolution. For this victory one condition more was needed:

8. The Bolshevik Party.

This article will try to elucidate these basic features outlined by Trotsky.

The Coming of the Revolution

IMPERIAL RUSSIA lumbered into the 20th century a much weakened power than it had been 100 or even 50 years earlier. Russia had lost considerable ground both militarily and economically relative to its main rivals. The government of Alexander II, in the wake of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, took steps to implement reforms—to modernize the economy, to modernize the ancient legal system, to “de-feudalize” the army by making service compulsory, to allow a certain degree of local autonomy. In short, it tried to drag Russia out of its medieval past. But the measures adopted were often half-hearted and designed to prolong the status quo rather than change it. Thus, explaining the decision to abolish serfdom in 1861, Alexander II said he decided to end serfdom because “it is better to get rid of serfdom from on high than wait for its abolition from below.”7 Of course this was true, but it overlooked the fact that the key institution that needed overhauling was the autocracy itself. The strength of the autocracy, the servility of the nobility and the relative weakness of the bourgeoisie, was a key factor in explaining Russia’s growing economic gap with the other European powers. And while there was a spurt of industrial growth in the last two decades of the 19th century, this was in the main organized and carried out by the Tsarist state.

The state was also the main beneficiary of the program of reforms and grew even more powerful in relation to the nobility and bourgeoisie. As Marcel Liebman put it: “The nobility was politically sterile, the bourgeoisie utterly impotent. The entire history of Russia was molded by this negative factor, by the absence of vigorous or even viable social classes and so counterbalancing the weight of the autocracy.”8 The defects of such an antiquated set up were exposed even more clearly given the mediocrity and incompetence of those who were born to run it—the Tsars themselves.

Throughout the 19th century they were men without vision, courage or imagination. Their hatred of the intelligentsia was but a reflection of their own intellectual incapacity. “Brute force had become a vigor, and the most hidebound conservatism served them all for a political creed and a program.”9

The reforms that were designed to restore Russia’s might, would instead contribute to Tsarism’s downfall. The effect, for example, of the attempt to maintain Russia as a “Great Power” would be profound domestically and internationally. As one historian put it: “[O]ne result of this was the effort to sustain the armed forces and defense industries of a modern great power strained both the Russian economy and domestic political stability. In addition, relative backwardness called into question the empire’s ability to survive in a war against the other powers.”10

To focus only on Russia’s economic backwardness in understanding the course of events would be mistaken. The key to understanding Russia, as Leon Trotsky argued so well, is the combination of the backward and the advanced, the old and the new. In Trotsky’s words:

Russia’s development is first of all notable for its backwardness. But historical backwardness does not mean a mere retracing of the course of the advanced countries a hundred or two hundred years later. Rather it gives rise to an utterly different “combined” social formation, in which the most highly developed achievements of capitalist technique and structure are integrated into the social relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and dominating them, fashioning a unique relationship of classes.11

The consequences of such uneven and combined development are made clear by looking at Russia’s economy. Trotsky points out that while “peasant cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the seventeenth century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them.”12 This “combined development” in Russia produced a bourgeoisie that was weak and heavily dependent on the Tsarist state and foreign capital for investment. It also produced a working class, though small in size, that was highly concentrated in the most modern enterprises. In 1914, 54 percent of workers in Russia were employed in factories of over 500, whereas in the U.S. the figure was 32.5 percent. The Putilov metal works, which employed 30,000 workers in 1917, was the largest factory in the world at the time. In Petrograd, 60 percent of the workforce was metal workers.13

Trotsky summarized the importance of the character of Russia’s development in understanding the October revolution in these words:

The first and most general explanation is: Russia a backward country, but only a part of the world economy, only an element of the capitalist world system. In this sense Lenin exhausted the riddle of the Russian Revolution with the lapidary formula, “The chain broke at its weakest link.”

Trotsky goes on:

But the young, fresh, determined proletariat of Russia still constituted only a tiny minority of the nation. The reserves of its revolutionary power lay outside of the proletariat itself—-in the peasantry, living in half-serfdom, and in the oppressed nationalities.

The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian question. The old feudal-monarchic system became doubly intolerable under the conditions of the new capitalist exploitation. The peasant communal areas amounted to some 140 dessiatines.14 But thirty thousand large landowners, whose average holdings were over two thousands dessiatines, owned altogether 70 million dessiatines, that is, as much as some 10 million peasant families or 50 million of the peasant population. These statistics of land tenure constituted a ready-made program of agrarian revolt.

In order for the Soviet state to come into existence, therefore, it was necessary for two factors of different historical nature to collaborate: the peasant war, that is, a movement which is characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development, and the proletarian insurrection, that is, a movement which announces the decline of the bourgeois movement. Precisely therein consists the combined character of the Russian Revolution.…15

Russia’s Revolutionary Movement

THE COMBINED character of Russia’s economic development also affected the development of politics and culture in Russia. Again, Trotsky explains:

Precisely because of its historical tardiness, Russia proved to be the only European country in which Marxism, as a doctrine, and the Social-Democracy, as a party, enjoyed a powerful development even prior to the bourgeois revolution—and naturally so, because the problem of the relation between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism were subjected to the most profound theoretical examination in Russia.16

The works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels became available in Russia because the censor opined that they were “an abstract speculation” and therefore of little relevance for Russia. Their works would help shape Russia’s revolutionary movement, but not quite in the way they had expected. The main current among Russian revolutionaries, the Narodniks (or populists), took Marx’s denunciation of capitalism as showing that Russia would be better off if it could bypass capitalism altogether. The populists argued that the peasant Mir or traditional commune could become the basis of moving straight to a socialist society.

The later generations of populists, perhaps best represented by an organization called Zemlya I Volya (land and freedom), vacillated between two strategies—both of which started with the assumption that the populists would act on behalf of the people. On the one hand they went “to the people” and tried to foment peasant rebellion, and when that failed they took matters into their own hands and launched a campaign of terror against the Tsar and his government.

The development of Marxism in Russia was very much influenced by, and developed against, the ideas of the populist movement. While Lenin accurately described populism as reactionary (in its historic philosophical sense) he also acknowledged the important role it played in the development of a revolutionary movement in Russia.

The break with populism and the turn to the working class came in 1883, when G.V. Plekhanov founded the Emancipation of Labor Group. Plekhanov had enthusiastically endorsed militant populism which tried to rouse the peasantry. But by the 1880s several factors led him towards Marxism. First, despite considerable heroism on the part of idealistic revolutionaries, the great hopes of Zemlya I Volya failed to ignite a social revolution, or even to produce any revolutionary activity among the peasants.

Second, after the failure of Zemlya I Volya, populism took a turn to individual terror, which Plekhanov rejected. Third, Plekhanov began to doubt the economic viability of the peasant commune as the basis of a new society. And, fourth, a newly emerging industrial working class began to make itself felt, leading Plekhanov to see workers as the key force in Russia’s revolution.

Plekhanov developed what became the basic ideas of Russian Social Democracy (synonymous with revolutionary Marxism today). Two propositions of Plekhanov’s deserve mention.

Plekhanov argued that because the productive forces were too low, the immediate political objective of the proletariat had to be the victory of the democratic or bourgeois revolution. But Russia’s bourgeoisie, a diminutive late-comer, was not going to lead such a struggle or even give the struggle consistent support. Echoing Marx, Plekhanov argued “that whenever the ‘red specter’ took at all a threatening form, the ‘liberals’ were ready to seek protection in the embraces of the most unceremonious military dictatorship.” This led Plekhanov to the central operational question. “In conclusion,” he wrote, “I repeat—and I insist upon this important point: the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working class movement or it will never triumph!”17

For 10 years after its founding in 1883, the Emancipation of Labor Group remained largely an exile organization. But it nevertheless played a tremendous role in spreading the ideas of Marxism within émigré circles and in Russia itself. By the early 1890s, Marxist study circles, composed primarily of students and intellectuals, existed in many Russian cities and towns. Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov—Lenin—the future leader of the Bolshevik Party, joined such a group when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1893.

Lenin was typical in many respects of the second generation of Russian Marxists. Initially attracted to populism, he was profoundly influenced by Plekhanov’s critique and by the growing ferment among Russian workers. In this period, Lenin’s efforts were directed in the main to fusing Marxism with the working class movement. Lenin believed that “by directing socialism towards a fusion with the working-class movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did their greatest service,” because the previous “separation of the working-class movement and socialism gave rise to weakness and underdevelopment in each: the theories of the socialist, unfused with the workers’ struggle, remained nothing more than utopias, good wishes that had no effect on real life; the working-class movement remained petty, fragmented, and did not acquire political significance, was not enlightened by the advanced science of its time.”18

Therefore, Lenin concluded, “the task of Social-Democracy is to bring definite socialist ideals to the spontaneous working-class movement, to connect this movement with socialist convictions that should attain the level of contemporary science, to connect it with the regular political struggle for democracy as a means of achieving socialism—in a word, to fuse this spontaneous movement into one indestructible whole with the activity of the revolutionary party.”19

Marxism, for Lenin, was therefore, not simply a set of economic laws or doctrines, nor simply a world view, but a guide to action which had definite practical implications.

Marxism makes clear “the real task of a revolutionary socialist party: not to draw up plans for refashioning society, not to preach to the capitalists and their hangers-on about improving the lot of the workers, not to hatch conspiracies, but to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organization of a socialist society.”20

Lenin’s conclusions were not shared by all Marxists at the time. Indeed, the very success of the Marxist study circles’ turn to agitation in the latter 1890s produced a distinctly “anti-political” current, Economism, which glorified the economic struggles of the proletariat. This current, echoing the “revisionism” of the German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, who argued “the movement is everything, the final goal nothing,” aimed to limit workers to purely economic struggles, leaving the political struggle to the liberals. In these views, the Economists were the political forerunners of the Mensheviks, who formed the moderate wing of Russian socialism after a split in 1903.

Lenin responded to the Economist challenge by arguing against the arbitrary separation of economics and politics. It would be counterproductive for a revolutionary to “adapt himself to the lowest level of understanding” in a manner that would “put the ‘demands and interests of the given moment’ in the foreground and…push back the broad ideas of socialism and the political struggle.” Revolutionaries should rather “connect socialism and the political struggle with every local and narrow question.”21

Lenin’s words have tremendous relevance and meaning for socialists today. Revolutionary socialists, he argued, should not simply talk to workers about factory conditions and workplace struggles, but also about the “Brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.” The reasons for making sure that political agitation of this kind is carried out are not based on some abstract “Marxist” principles, but flow directly from what is needed in the struggle. Working class consciousness “cannot be genuine political consciousness,” Lenin further argued, “unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected—unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social Democratic point of view and no other.”22

These ideas would become the cornerstone of the revolutionary wing of the Russian socialist movement—the Bolsheviks.

Three Views of the Russian Revolution

IT WAS widely accepted among Russia’s Marxist revolutionaries that the coming Russian revolution would be a bourgeois revolution. The founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, stated:

The further east one goes in Europe, the meaner, more cowardly and politically weak the bourgeoisie becomes, and the greater are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat. On its own sturdy shoulders the Russian working class must, and will, carry the cause of the achievement of political liberty. This is an essential step, but only an initial step, to the realization of the great historic mission of the proletariat, the creation of a social order in which there will be no place for the exploitation of man by man.23

Russia was an economically backward country, with a weak bourgeoisie, a weak industrial base and a small working class. The country was overwhelmingly agricultural with only 4-5 million industrial workers out of a total population of 160 million.

The Mensheviks argued that because the revolution was a bourgeois one, its leadership belonged to the bourgeoisie. The working class would have to consciously subordinate its demands and interests to those of the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks drew direct parallels between the Russian bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie of France at the time of the French Revolution of 1789. It was a vital imperative for the Mensheviks that all be done to safeguard the interests of the bourgeoisie and to make sure that they were not frightened by the prospects of a movement from below.

The role of social democracy was to “exert revolutionary pressure on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie,” and “to force the upper strata of society to lead the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusions.” 24

Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not challenge the idea that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois. “The democratic revolution will not extend beyond the scope of the bourgeois social-economic relationships,” wrote Lenin.25 He maintained this position until mid-1917.

But unlike the Mensheviks, Lenin refused to subordinate the demands of the working class to those of the bourgeoisie or to compromise the independence of the labor movement politically and organizationally. Though Russia’s economic level permitted only a bourgeois revolution, the development of a combative working class meant that the bourgeoisie would be incapable of taking the lead:

The bourgeoisie as a whole is incapable of waging a determined struggle against the autocracy; it fears to lose in this struggle its property which binds it to the existing order; it fears an all-too-revolutionary action of the workers, who will not stop at the democratic revolution but will aspire to the socialist revolution; it fears a complete break with officialdom, with the bureaucracy, whose interests are bound up by a thousand ties with the interests of the propertied classes. For this reason the bourgeois struggle for liberty is notoriously timorous, inconsistent and half-hearted.26

Because of this, Lenin argued, the working-class would take the lead in the democratic revolution. He went on to argue that since the peasantry had a real interest in ending Tsarism and destroying the remnants of feudalism, the “only force capable of gaining ‘a decisive victory over Tsarism’ is the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry.… The revolution’s ‘decisive victory over Tsarism’ means the establishment of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry…

But of course it will be democratic, not a socialist dictatorship…At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favor of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic…and—last but not least—carry ‘the revolutionary conflagration’ into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution.27

Leon Trotsky rejected the Mensheviks’ reliance on the Russian bourgeoisie as strongly as the Bolsheviks. But this led him to conclusions quite different from those of Lenin.

Following Marx (and largely in agreement with the Menshevik theoreticians) he argued that the peasantry would not play an independent political role in the revolution.

The peasantry cannot play a leading revolutionary role…Because of its dispersion, political backwardness, and especially of its deep inner contradictions which cannot be resolved within the framework of a capitalist system, the peasantry can only deal the old order some powerful blows from the rear, by spontaneous risings in the countryside, on the one hand, and by creating discontent within the army on the other.28

Because “the town leads in modern society,” only an urban class can play the leading role and because the bourgeoisie was not revolutionary, this role fell to the working class:

The conclusion remains that only the proletariat in its class struggle, placing the peasant masses under its revolutionary leadership, can “carry the revolution to the end.”29

But if the working class must lead the revolution, then the working class cannot be expected to stop its struggle after the overthrow of the autocracy. Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship” is an impossibility.

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.30

But this proposition clearly leads to a difficulty—one that all Russian Marxists understood: Russia was economically and culturally too backward for socialism. How did Trotsky propose to overcome this problem? Given that Russia in isolation did not have the economic prerequisites to build socialism, the Russian revolution would have to be a prelude to revolutions in Europe and elsewhere.

The Russian revolution will become the first stage of the socialist world revolution.

The present productive forces have long outgrown their national limits. A socialist society is not feasible within national boundaries. Significant as the economic successes of an isolated workers’ state may be, the program of socialism in one country is a petty bourgeois utopia. Only a European and then a world federation of socialist republics can be the real arena for a harmonious socialist society. 31

Trotsky called his analysis the theory of “permanent revolution.”

The Revolution of 1905

THE REVOLUTION of 1905 was the first mass rising against the imperial regime. It was, in Lenin’s words, the “great dress rehearsal” for 1917. All of the elements of 1917 were there in less developed form. Russia was embroiled in a losing war with Japan, and troop discontent mingled with peasants’ desire for land and the mass strikes of workers in the main cities for economic and political rights. Also of critical importance was the emergence of the soviets—or workers’ council—which first made their appearance in St. Petersburg at the height of the revolution.

The revolution began in January 1905 with Bloody Sunday —when the Tsar’s troops massacred more than 800 workers in a mass procession to humbly ask the Tsar for reforms. This led to an explosion of mass strikes, mutinies in the army and scattered peasant revolts. It ended in December of that year with a failed uprising in Moscow under the slogan “the eight hour day and a gun,” inspired and led by the Bolsheviks. Though it ended in defeat, 1905 was also significant because it cemented the political differences between the Mensheviks, who concluded that the revolution had “gone too far” and had therefore frightened the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction, and the Bolsheviks, who were confirmed in their view that only the independent mass struggle of workers could carry the revolution to success.

The soviet was a kind of workers’ government, made up of elected delegates from Petrograd’s factories and workplaces, concentrating all the forces of the revolution. Wrote Trotsky, its president:

It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which would immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control—and, most of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.32

The soviet’s premises, wrote Trotsky,

were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kinds—mostly workers domestic servants, shop assistants, peasants, soldiers and sailors. Some had an absolutely phantasmagorical idea of the Soviet’s power and its methods. There was one blind veteran of the Russo-Turkish war, covered with crosses and decorations, who complained of dire poverty and begged the Soviet to “put a little pressure on Number One” [that is, the Tsar]…

Trotsky recounts another case where an old Cossack sent the soviet a letter asking for some help with a problem. He addressed the letter “simply to The Workers’ Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal service.”33

The experience of the revolution’s high point—the Soviets, the workers’ councils—would not be lost. Nor would the violence unleashed by the state. After the suppression of the Soviet by force, many workers drew a critically important lesson: “In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realized that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy.”34

The 1905 revolution did not only exposed clearly the character of the revolution in Russia, but also showed in practice what the arguments between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks meant in practice. It also exposed the different currents in the movement internationally. For example, it sparked a heated debate inside the largest social democratic party—the SPD—in Germany. Rosa Luxemburg brilliantly summed up the revolutionary implications of 1905:

But for international social democracy, the uprising of the Russian proletariat constitutes something profoundly new which we must feel with every fiber of our being. All of us, whatever pretensions we have to a mastery of dialectics, remain incorrigible metaphysicians, obsessed by the immanence of everything within our everyday experience…It is only in the volcanic explosion of the revolution that we perceive what swift and earth-shattering results the young mole has achieved and just how happily it is undermining the very ground under the feet of European bourgeois society. Gauging the political maturity and revolutionary energy of the working class through electoral statistics and the membership of local branches is like trying to measure Mont Blanc with a ruler!35

Finally, 1905 had a massive impact around the world as Julius Braunthal, one of the historians of the Internationals, writes:

It was an unforgettable experience, this first revolutionary uprising of the workers since the Paris Commune of 1871, and, for many contemporaries, the first experience of revolution. To some it seemed that they were living through a turning-point in world history and witnessing the start of a new epoch of European revolutions.36

Years of Reaction

The years after 1905 saw repression on an unprecedented scale. As the repression intensified, it was harder and harder to keep any organization going. One historian writes:

The movement inside Russia had exhausted itself and its remnants were being methodically cut down by Stolypins’ [Chairman of the Council of Ministers ] draconian policies. To all intents and purposes the Party as an organized structure had ceased to exist.… All the major centers of Social Democratic activity were repeatedly hit by mass arrests followed by an inevitable decline in the number of party members. In Moscow, for instance, where the Bolsheviks had had 2,000 members in 1905, their numbers shrank to 500 by the end of 1908 and by mid-1909 there remained only 260 members of the Party.37

Many of the problems facing the party were made worse by the fact that the intellectuals took fright and fled the movement—and were never to return. One worker-Bolshevik, Martsionovsky, a carpenter, wrote:

In a whole series of cities where I took part in illegal work, almost everywhere the party committee consisted exclusively of workers. The intelligentsia was absent, with the exception of those on tour who came for two or three days. In the most difficult years of the reaction, the workers remained almost without leaders from the intelligentsia. They said that they were tired…We, the underground workers, had to work without the intelligentsia, with the exception of individuals. But on the other hand, after the February Revolution, they showed up, they beat their breasts and shouted “we are revolutionaries,” etc., but in fact, none of them had conducted revolutionary work, and we had not seen them in the underground.38

The period between 1911 and the outbreak of World War I saw a revival in militancy and a corresponding growth in the Bolshevik Party. In April 1912, the police fired on a demonstration of striking miners in Lena, Siberia—killing 170 and provoking huge sympathy strikes in Moscow and Petersburg. The revival of the workers’ movement is reflected most clearly in the strike statistics for the years leading up to World War I. One study gives the following figures:

Strikes in Russia 1910-1914 39

Number of Strikes Working Days Lost (in thousands)

Total Economic Political

1910 222 214 8 256

1911 466 442 24 791

1912 2032 732 1300 2376

1913 2404 1370 1034 3863

1914 3534 969 2565 5755


World War I and the Collapse of Tsarism

FOR MANY years, the Second International had proclaimed its opposition to militarism and war. The 1907 Resolution of the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart reads:

If a war threatens to break out it is the duty of the working class and its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the consolidating activity of the International [Socialist] Bureau, to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the accentuation of the class struggle and of the general political situation.

Should war break out none the less, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.40

These resolutions proved hollow. World War I saw the main parties of the Second International abandon the slogans of peacetime and throw their support behind their ruling classes’ own war effort. In every belligerent country, the socialist movement split between “social patriots” and “internationalists.” The anti-war camp was, in turn, sharply divided between advocates of “peace” and those, like Lenin, who called for revolutionaries to turn the world war into a civil war against their own ruling classes.

For Lenin, the betrayal of principles and the about face of the German SPD was quite unexpected. When he first heard of the reports that German socialists in the Reichstag had voted for war credits, he did not at first believe them. And the anti-war forces were small. Rosa Luxemburg sent out an anti-war circular to 20 of the most left-wing members of SPD Reichstag group and received only two responses. In 1915, the anti-war socialists met at Zimmerwald in Switzerland and reaffirmed the principles of international socialism. Trotsky wrote of the meeting:

The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains. The passers-by looked on curiously at the strange procession. The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches.41

But this nucleus also formed the basis of a new, revolutionary international—the Third International. The coming revolutionary storm was to swell the ranks of the revolutionaries into the hundreds of thousands across Russia and Europe.

The war exacerbated the crisis of Tsarism in several respects. The scale of the carnage and the human toll it exacted was massive. Trotsky writes in his History of the Russian Revolution: “The Russian army lost in the whole war more men than any army which ever participated in a national war—approximately two and a half million killed, or 40 percent of all the losses of the Entente.”42

The war and its cost domestically began to split the ruling order in Russia. Some, with the Tsar at their head, believed the war would cement Russian society through a patriotic outpouring and would stave off social revolution. To make matters worse, the Tsar decided to take personal command of the army and war effort in the late summer of 1915. Even members of the Tsar’s cabinet could no longer ignore the decay and stench. The Acting Minister of Agriculture, A.V. Krivoshein:

Historians will not believe it, that Russia conducted the war blindly and hence came to the edge of ruin—that millions of men were unconsciously sacrificed for the arrogance of some and the criminality of others. What is going on at headquarters is a universal outrage and horror.43

As the war dragged on, it became more and more unpopular—both at home and at the front. In the towns, food shortages became frequent. Inflation and fuel shortages became permanent features of the lives of workers in the cities. Dissent began to grow in the factories and in the army. The Bolshevik leader, Shlyapnikov, records in his memoirs:

By the end of 1916 the idea of “war to the end,” to the “final victory,” was largely undermined. Anti-war feelings were rampant…Despair and hatred gripped the laboring masses…The government…stepped up their repressive methods of fighting isolated manifestations of protest. Intensive agitation was conducted against us in the press and through the various organizations working for the “organization of defense.” Every resource was set in motion: accusations of provocation, or German intrigues and bribes. But slander could not halt the workers’ movement either: just like the bourgeoisie’s other ploys it proved incapable of rousing the proletariat to.…[fight].44

A sign of the decline and decay of the autocracy was the growing influence of a drunk mystic, Gregori Rasputin. The Tsarina called on Nicholas to act as strongman, but it was too late—even if he’d focused his attention long enough to act decisively. Instead, despondency accompanied decline.

Even the Tsar’s police could see that a revolution was imminent. At the end of 1916, the police department compared the situation in the main cities to ten years earlier and concluded that “now the mood of opposition has reached such extraordinary proportions as it did by a long way among the broad masses in that troubled time.”45 Trotsky’s remark about the 1905 revolution, “Every Paris concierge knew…in advance that there was going to a be revolution in Petersburg on Sunday, January 9,”46 applied equally to 1917. Revolution was in the air, not only because those at the bottom of society wanted a change, but so too did those at the top. In Lenin’s words,

For a revolution to take place, it is not usually sufficient for the ‘lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that the ‘upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.47

The February Revolution

THE PRELUDE to the February revolution consisted of a series of strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd commemorating Bloody Sunday. The strike movement spread and deepened after workers at the giant Putilov Works were locked out for demanding a wage increase. Even the most militant section of the Bolshevik Party, the Vyborg district, urged that the strikes end for fear that conditions weren’t yet ripe for mass, militant action. Then on February 23—International Women’s Day—women textile workers poured into the streets of Petrograd demanding bread. As Trotsky explained:

The 23rd of February was International Women’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended…meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organization called for strikes that day.48

The women textile workers of Petrograd came out on strike and dragged behind them the Bolshevik-led metal workers of the Vyborg district. As one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Vyborg District Committee, Kayurov, put it, “with reluctance, the Bolsheviks agreed to this.”49 Indeed, Kayurov later remarked that he had tried to talk the women workers out of taking any action at all.50

Trotsky remarks, “Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat—the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives.”51

By the end of the day, 90,000 workers were on strike—without the shootings the Bolsheviks had feared. The next day, the 24th, about half of Petrograd’s workers were on strike and large numbers of them were demonstrating in the streets. The slogan “Bread!” writes Trotsky, “is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: ‘Down with the autocracy,’ ‘Down with the war!’” Fearful that the infantry would not obey orders to shoot on unarmed workers, the government brought out its most reliable troops, the Cossack cavalry. The Cossacks did not mutiny, but neither did they act as they were expected to:

…the Cossacks constantly, though without ferocity, kept charging the crowd…The mass of the demonstrators would part to let them through, and close up again. There was no fear in the crowd. “The Cossacks promise not to shoot,” passed from mouth to mouth.52

The disintegration of the Tsar’s armed forces was evident to the demonstrators. In the streets of the Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd a Bolshevik worker and demonstrator saw the front ranks of the crowd, pressed forward by those behind, come closer and closer to a cordon of soldiers:

[T]he tips of the bayonets were touching the breasts of the first row of demonstrators. Behind could be heard the singing of revolutionary songs, in front there was confusion. Women, with tears in their eyes, were crying out to the soldiers, “Comrades, take away your bayonets, join us!” The soldiers were moved. They threw swift glances at their own comrades. The next moment one bayonet is slowly raised, is slowly lifted above the shoulders of the approaching demonstrators. There is thunderous applause. The triumphant crowd greeted their brothers clothed in the gray cloaks of the soldiery. The soldiers mixed freely with the demonstrators.53

Another three days of this and it was all over for the Tsar. On the night of the 26th the reserve battalions of the Volynsky Regiment mutinied. The following morning they killed their commanding officer and joined the workers’ demonstrations. General Khabalov, commander of the Petrograd military garrison, conceded on the evening of the 27th, saying, “…I cannot fulfill the command to re-establish order in the capital. Most of the units one by one have betrayed their duty, refusing to fight the rioters.”54 The speed of the army’s mutiny was striking. On February 26 there were six hundred mutineers; three days later the whole Petrograd garrison of 170,000 had rebelled.

On February 26, Michael V. Rodzyanko, president of the lame Duma, wired the Tsar:

Anarchy in the capital, government paralyzed…shooting in the streets…supplies of food and fuel completely disrupted…universal dissatisfaction growing…there must be no delay in forming a new government enjoying the confidence of the country. Any hesitation would mean death. I pray to God that in this hour no responsibility falls on the monarch.55

The Tsar’s reply was to delay the opening of the Duma. Its members were at a loss. “I do not want to revolt,” exclaimed Rodzyanko.

I am no rebel. I have made no revolution and do not intend to make one…I am no revolutionary. I will not rise up against the supreme power. I do not want to. But there is no government any longer. Everything falls to me…All the phones are ringing. Everybody asks me what to do. What shall I say? Shall I step aside? Wash my hands in innocence? Leave Russia without a government? After all, it is Russia! Have we not a duty to our country? What shall I do? Tell me, what?56

In the end, Rodzyanko sent another telegram pleading with the Tsar to intervene. “Situation worsening. Immediate steps are necessary, for tomorrow it will be too late. The last hour has come in which the fate of the country and the dynasty is being decided.” Forever vigilant and astute, the Tsar was unmoved. “That fat Rodzyanko has again sent me some nonsense to which I will not even reply,” he commented to Count Fredericks, minister of the court.57

The Tsar’s imbecility achieved a truly remarkable feat: it forced a majority of the Duma’s members to go against his wishes. Not wanting to offend, they refused to disperse, but met only in an unofficial capacity. Rodzyanko, who contemplated the possibility of the Tsar’s abdication with “unspeakable sadness,” had just advised Tsarist authorities to use their firehoses to disperse demonstrators. But the situation needed resolution. At midnight on February 27, the Duma’s leaders proclaimed the formation of a provisional government. Their intent was clear. As the leader of the bourgeois Cadet Party, Miliukov, put it: “to direct into a peaceful channel the transfer of power which it had preferred to receive, not from below, but from above.” The Duma had no choice but “to take power into its own hands and try to curb the growing anarchy,” wrote Rodzyanko.58 As the Duma leaders proclaimed a new government, the last of the Romanovs recorded the proud achievements of his last night in power: “read a great deal about Julius Caesar” and slept “long and deeply.”59 Three centuries of Romanovs finally came to an ignominious end—the Tsar abdicated on March 2.

The February revolution brought a bourgeois government headed by Prince Lvov to office—but it also created another center of power: the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Indeed, in the first days after the fall of the Tsar, effective power was in the hands of the Soviets. The old state had collapsed and the bourgeoisie was reluctant to take power. But so too was the leadership of the Soviets—then in the hands of the Mensheviks and the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs). In their view, the aim of the revolution was the achievement of a bourgeois democratic republic. They were ready and eager to support the new government to see that the tasks of the “bourgeois revolution” were carried out. As the Menshevik Potresov expressed it: “at the moment of the bourgeois revolution, the [class] best prepared, socially and psychologically, to solve national problem is [the] bourgeoisie.”60

The new government was above all concerned with a return to order: restoring the authority of the officers in the army and of management over workers in industrial enterprises over the workers. Before declaring a provisional government they aptly called themselves ‘The Committee for the Re-establishment of Order and Relations with Public Institutions and Personages.” Their sole preoccupation was stabilizing Russian society—and of course to carrying on the war. Until that time, the other issues raised by the revolution—land reform, the demands of the non-Russian nationalities, the election of a Constituent Assembly, and so on, could all wait. One historian summarizes the approach of the new Provisional Government to the crisis it inherited:

How did the government deal with the problems it had inherited? It prolonged the war and trod in the Tsar’s footsteps. To continue Tsarist foreign policy and combine it with an adventurous military offensive would, it was hoped, divert attention from the problems of the home front. In Chernov’s words—”The propertied classes regarded a military victory and its concomitant chauvinism as the only way to avoid aggravation of the social revolution.”61

Right up to its overthrow in October, the Provisional Government would doggedly stick to prosecuting the war—effectively laying the basis for its undoing. “If the revolution did not finish the war,” wrote the Menshevik Sukhanov, “then the war would strangle the revolution.”62

But the provisional government also had a big problem. It didn’t have the power to rule on its own. As the Minister of War and the Navy, Guchkov, wrote to the Commander in Chief, General Alekseev, on March 9:

The Provisional Government has no real authority at its disposal and its decrees are carried out only to the extent this is permitted by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies which has in its hands the most important elements of real power, such as the army, the railways, the post and telegraph.… In particular, it is now possible to give only these orders which do not radically conflict with the orders of the above-named Soviet.63

Reorienting the Bolshevik Party

BOLSHEVIK PARTY leaders in Russia during the February revolution largely accommodated to the Menshevik-SR political line. They clung to the notion that the Russian revolution had to limit itself to a bourgeois aims. They tried to take a verbally critical stance, but effectively served as the left face of the soviet majority, which itself covered for the Provisional Government. The new editors of Pravda, Kamenev and Stalin, who returned from exile in Siberia, “Pronounced that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government ‘insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution’ forgetting that the only important agent of counter revolution at the time was this same Provisional Government,” writes Tony Cliff caustically.64 Although there was considerable opposition within the party to the political line adopted towards the Provisional Government, it would take Lenin’s return from exile, on April 3, 1917, to decisively shift the party—indeed, the whole course of the revolution.

At a meeting in March of the Provisional Government, when ministers were discussing Bolshevik agitation, Kerensky blurted out: “Just wait, Lenin himself is coming. Then the real thing will start.”65 The “real thing” did indeed start—but in a way noone anticipated.

Lenin arrived at the Finland railway station—which was located in the Bolshevik stronghold of the Vyborg district. Like Plekhanov, who had returned a few days earlier, Lenin was welcomed by a group of dignitaries including Chkheidze, the Menshevik chair of the Petrograd Soviet. The description of the official meeting deserves to be quoted in full, despite its length:

Behind Shlyapnikov, at the head of a small cluster of people behind whom the door slammed again at once, Lenin came, or rather ran, into the room. He wore a round cap, his face looked frozen, and there was a magnificent bouquet in his hands. Running to the middle of the room, he stopped in front of Chkheidze as though colliding with a completely unexpected obstacle. And Chkheidze, still glum, pronounced the following “speech of welcome” with not only the spirit and wording but also the tone of a sermon. “Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petersburg Soviet and of the whole revolution we welcome you to Russia…But—we think that the principal task of the revolutionary democracy is now the defense of the revolution from any encroachments either from within or from without. We consider that what this goal requires is not disunity, but the closing of the democratic ranks. We hope you will pursue these goals together with us.”

Chkheidze stopped speaking. I was dumbfounded with surprise: really, what attitude could be taken to this “welcome” and to that delicious “But-”

But Lenin knew exactly how to behave. He stood there as though nothing taking place had the slightest connection with him—looking about him, examining the persons round him and even the ceiling of the imperial waiting-room, adjusting his bouquet (rather out of tune with his whole appearance), and then, turning away from the Ex.Com. delegation altogether, he made this reply:

“Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors, and workers! I am happy to greet in your persons the victorious Russian revolution, and greet you as the vanguard off the worldwide proletarian army…The piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe…The hour is not far distant when at the call of our [German] comrade, Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their arms against their own capitalist exploiters…The worldwide socialist revolution has already dawned…Germany is seething…Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash. The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!”

Appealing from Chkheidze to the workers and soldiers, from the provisional government to Liebknecht, from the defense of the fatherland to international revolution —this is how Lenin indicated the tasks of the proletariat.66

Sukhanov summed up Lenin’s speech to a Bolshevik party meeting that day:

I shall never forget that thunder-like speech, which startled and amazed not only me, a heretic who had accidentally dropped in, but all the true believers. I am certain that no one had expected anything of the sort.67

The response to Lenin’s speech was that of stunned silence. He was denounced from all sides. “A man who talks that kind of stupidity is not dangerous,” exclaimed Stakevich, a moderate socialist. Bogdanov, a Menshevik: “That is raving, the ravings of a lunatic! It is indecent to applaud this claptrap!” A member of the Bolsheviks, Zalezhki, noted: “On that day (April 4) Comrade Lenin could not find open sympathizers even in our own ranks.” Lenin’s speech, she remembers “produced on everyone a stupefying impression. No one expected this. On the contrary, they expected Vladimir Ilych to arrive and call to order the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee and especially Comrade Molotov, who occupied a particularly irreconcilable position with respect to the Provisional Government.68

On April 9, Pravda, the Bolshevik party newspaper, ran an editorial attacking Lenin written by Central Committee member, L.B. Kamenev:

As for the general schema of Lenin, its seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.69

But Lenin refused to be cowed. He launched an attack of his own. As he had done in 1905, he attacked those “old Bolsheviks” who continued to apply policies and methods which were appropriate for one period, but now acted as a hindrance to the aims of the revolution. For example, he attacked Kamenev’s “old Bolshevik” formula that “the bourgeois revolution is not completed” as “obsolete.” “It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.” He criticized the old Bolsheviks for refusing to abandon the formula of the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”—which was his slogan at the start of the 1905 revolution. Those who wanted to hang on to that idea, said Lenin, “should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘Old Bolsheviks’).70

Lenin answered his critics by hammering home the central point: the workers can only rely on themselves.

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday.

Our is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians and teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.71

In effect, Lenin was adopting Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ position. The first stage of the revolution had created a situation of “dual power,” in which the working class and rebellious soldiers were not yet conscious of the need to sweep away the bourgeois Provisional Government. The task now was to win over a majority of the proletariat to the side of Bolshevism.

No support for the Provisional Government.… Exposure (of) the impermissible, illusion-breeding “demand” that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government… The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the needs of the masses. As long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticizing and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience. Not a parliamentary republic.…but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.72

Lenin’s isolation among the leaders of the Bolsheviks can be gauged by the outcome of a debate and vote on Lenin’s views at a Petrograd Committee meeting on April 8. Those opposing Lenin handily won the vote thirteen to two, with one abstention. Similar results were recorded in Moscow and other local Bolshevik committees.73

But several factors worked in Lenin’s favor. First, many of the rank and file members of the party were already unhappy with the line of accommodation to the Provisional Government being pushed by Kamenev, Stalin and the former Duma deputy M.K. Muranov. Indeed some members in Petrograd had called for their expulsion from the party.

Moreover, even if the Bolsheviks’ Petrograd leadership tailed behind the Mensheviks and SRs, the Bolshevik members did not have the same instincts as those of the Mensheviks. As Trotsky notes, the whole history and training of the Bolsheviks led them in the direction of identifying with the masses rather than the new bourgeois government. Trotsky writes:

The worker-Bolsheviks immediately after the revolution took the initiative in the struggle for the eight-hour day; the Mensheviks declared this demand untimely. The Bolsheviks took the lead in arresting the Tsarist officials; the Mensheviks opposed “excesses.” The Bolsheviks energetically undertook the creation of a workers’ militia; the Mensheviks delayed the arming of the workers, not wishing to quarrel with the bourgeoisie. Although not yet overstepping the bounds of bourgeois democracy, the Bolsheviks acted, or strove to act—however confused by their leadership—like uncompromising revolutionists. The Mensheviks sacrificed their democratic program at every step in the interests of a coalition with the liberals.74

Second, the very course of the revolution, and in particular the government’s continued escalation to the war effort, was a confirmation of the validity of Lenin’s views. Third, the numbers of workers, soldiers and peasants drawn into the revolution continued to grow—as did their hostility to the government and their gravitation to the Bolsheviks; fourth, the Bolshevik party itself entered a period of explosive growth. In the two months since February, party membership swelled from 24,000 to 80,000. Finally, Lenin carried enormous political weight among the cadres of the Bolshevik party. Indeed, Trotsky is undoubtedly right in saying that only Lenin could have reoriented the party so quickly and with so little damage. By mid-April, Lenin’s attempts to win over the party reached an important turning point: He succeeded in winning a majority at a conference of Bolsheviks held in Petrograd on April 14. By the end of April, Lenin had decidedly won the party over to his views.

No sooner had Lenin won the party over did the opposite danger come to the fore. The same militants who supported Lenin’s “no support for the Provisional Government” slogan tended to be involved in head-on clashes with the government. The slogan of “no support” was soon transformed into one of “Down with the Provisional Government.” Lenin now swung from the party’s left to its right, calling such slogans “premature” and “adventurist.” Petrograd’s workers were well ahead of the rest of the country, and the danger existed of a premature confrontation with the government which would leave the most militant sections of the movement isolated. The Bolshevik strategy was to rely on peaceful agitation and propaganda to win over a majority in the Soviets. This was the strategy that the Bolsheviks intended to follow, but the actual course of the struggle forced them to adopt a different course.

On May 1, Guchkov, Minister of War and the Navy, resigned his post from the Provisional Government. He announced that he was no longer able to fulfill his duties because of the continued disintegration and open rebellion in the army: “conditions which I am powerless to alter and which threaten the defense and, freedom and even the existence of Russia with fatal consequences.”75 One graphic symptom of the collapse of the Russian army was the ever rising number of deserters. The total number of registered deserters (as opposed to a much larger but unknown total number of deserters) from the outbreak of war to February 1917, was 195,130, or 3,423 per fortnight. From the beginning of the revolution to May 15, the number rose to 85,921 or 17,185 per fortnight.76

The collapse of the army was one reflection of the growing rebellion among peasants throughout the country. Writes Lionel Kochan: “The storm in the countryside burst in April. Statistics, necessary incomplete, show an unmistakable and sudden upsurge. In March the number of districts affected by peasant disorders had been 34; in April it was 174; in May 236; in June 280; and in July 325.”77

The government’s response to this crisis was to try to expand its base of support—especially among the Mensheviks and the SRs who still held a majority in the Soviets. In late April, these parties entered the Provisional Government. The right-wing SR Alexander Kerensky became minister of war. From May onwards, the revolution’s advance required fighting not only the bourgeoisie, but the leaders of the Mensheviks and SRs. From May to the October seizure of power, there is a visible and steady decline in the levels of support to both Mensheviks and SRs and a sharp swing to the left.

The swing left is best illustrated by the events of the “July Days.” Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership had attempted to temper the most militant sections of the party. But this proved no easy task. Already in April, there had been clashes between pro- and anti-government forces, as demonstrations of some 30,000 workers and sailors were organized by the Bolsheviks. On June 9, the Bolsheviks found themselves having to call off a peaceful demonstration in Petrograd where their supporters were going to demand the government resign. The majority in the Soviets, citing the fear of anarchy, had banned the demonstration. The party protested, but submitted. This only infuriated thousands of workers—mainly against the Provisional Government, but many also questioned the party’s decision to avoid confrontation. An alternative, official Soviet demonstration held some days later paraded overwhelmingly pro-Bolshevik slogans.

The unavoidable confrontation came in July. Nearly a million demonstrators took to the streets of Petrograd on July 4, demanding an end to the war and the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks, having failed to restrain the demonstrators, decided to join them. In the confrontations that followed, there were hundreds of casualties. There is little doubt that had the Bolshevik Party called for the overthrow of the government, it could have achieved that aim. But Lenin and others were clear that the rest of Russia wasn’t yet ready to overthrow the Provisional Government. Aware of the Bolsheviks’ growing strength—and now terrified—the Provisional Government banned the Bolshevik Party. Warrants were issued for the arrest of key leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolshevik press was banned and the printing presses smashed to bits. Sukhanov writes in his memoirs that the Bolshevik Party was finished.

But instead, it was the Provisional Government whose days were numbered. With every passing day, it grew more unpopular, its position more tenuous. Bolshevik Party membership increased dramatically—transforming the party completely. In a report to the Sixth Party Congress, held in August, Sverdlov reported that party membership stood at 240,000. The report showed that in Petrograd there were now 41,000 members, as against 15,000 in April. In Moscow 50,900 as against 13,000. By October, the party numbered 350,000.78

The growth of the party is all the more remarkable given that the party was virtually driven underground after July. Alongside the repression and intimidation came a well orchestrated propaganda campaign to discredit and smear the Bolsheviks. Lenin, in particular, was “exposed” as an agent of the Kaiser and anything else they could invent—a slander campaign which is still alive in many history books today! The repression was not strong enough to crush the Bolsheviks. They continued to win members and wider layers of support. The government campaign against the left had one unintended effect—to virtually finish any base the Mensheviks had among workers. As an historian of the Mensheviks writes:

A few statistics tell the tale. In June the Mensheviks elected 248 delegates to the first Congress of the Soviets, whereas the Bolsheviks managed to elect only 105. But at the second Congress of the Soviets, which met in October, there were only 70 to 80 Menshevik delegates as against 300 Bolsheviks. During the early stages of the revolution the largest Menshevik organization in Petrograd consisted of 10,000 members; but by October it had virtually ceased to exist. “Membership dues,” so wrote a Menshevik at the time, “were not being paid, the circulation of the Workers’ Gazette declined catastrophically, the last all-city conference did not take place for lack of a quorum…The withdrawal from the party of groups and individuals is an everyday occurrence.”79

The government’s hard line also helped push large sections of the SRs towards the Bolsheviks. But if the Mensheviks and the SRs no longer had a mass base, they were of no use to the reactionaries that made up the officer caste in the army, to the bourgeoisie or to the middle classes. The call for a military coup from the right began to be raised openly. In mid-August, the Provisional Government tried to muster public support by organizing a State Conference. To protest the conference, the Bolsheviks called a general strike in Moscow that shut much of the city down—yet another sign of the Bolshevik’s resurgence from the July repression. During the proceedings General Kornilov, Commander in Chief, talked about the need to restore order in the army and at “the rear.”

The army is conducting a ruthless struggle against anarchy, and anarchy will be crushed…By a whole series of legislative measures passed after the revolution by people whose understanding and spirit were alien to the army, this army was converted into the most reckless mob, which values nothing but its own life…there can be no army without discipline.… The prestige of the officers must be enhanced…There is no army without a rear…The measures that are adopted at the front must also be adopted in the rear.80

General Kornilov launched a coup attempt in late August. On August 26, he sent a representative to demand the surrender of the Provisional Government. He had the backing of all the top generals, big business and the British and French governments. But Kornilov’s coup failed largely because of the organized resistance led by the Bolsheviks.

Lenin’s response to the Kornilov revolt was clear and immediate: “The Kornilov revolt is a most unexpected and downright unbelievably sharp turn in events. Like every sharp turn, it calls for a revision and change of tactics.”81 The Bolshevik Party must lead the resistance to Kornilov, Lenin argued, because a successful coup from the right would be a tremendous setback to the revolution. Thus, Bolsheviks and their supporters were organized to fight Kornilov. This did not mean, however, extending support to the government. “Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled.… We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.82

“We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him.”83

After four days, the coup collapsed. “The insurrection,” Trotsky noted, “had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth.”84 The forces of reaction were completely demoralized, and the Kornilov’s defeat only accelerated the decomposition of the Provisional Government.

The Masses On the Stage of History

THE GREATEST historian of the revolution, and one of its most important participants, Leon Trotsky, described the significance of revolution:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.85

Passivity gave way to self activity. As historian Marc Ferro put it, “the citizens of the new Russia, having overthrown Tsardom, were in a state of permanent mobilization.” “All Russia,” wrote Sukhanov, “was constantly demonstrating in those days.”86

The revolution awakened a sense of power in ordinary people.

From the very depths of Russia came a great cry of hope in which were mingled the voices of the poor and downtrodden, expressing their sufferings, hopes and dreams. Dream-like, they experienced unique events: in Moscow, workmen would compel their employer to learn the bases of the workers’ rights in the future; in Odessa, students would dictate a new way of teaching universal history to their professor; in Petrograd, actors would take over from the theater manager and select the next play; in the army, soldiers would summon the chaplain to attend their meetings so that he could “get some real meaning in his life.” Even “children under the age of fourteen” demanded the right to learn boxing “to make the older children have some respect.”87

No longer were discussions of the main issues facing ordinary workers limited to the privileged and powerful. All questions of politics and economics, of war and peace, of how to organize society, were now the property of the masses. Krupskaya, Lenin’s partner, describes the mood:

The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events.… These street meetings were so interesting, that it once took me three hours to walk from Shirokaya Street to the Krzesinska Mansion. The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audience—usually some of the cooks, or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight you could catch snatches of talk—”Bolsheviks, Mensheviks.…” At three in the morning “Miliukov, Bolsheviks.…” At five—still the same street-corner-meeting talk, politics, etc. Petrograd’s white nights are always associated in my mind with those all-night political disputes.88

John Reed described how the thirst for knowledge and culture was insatiable:

All Russia was learning to read, and reading—politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know…The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute [headquarters of the Soviet] alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts—but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky…

Then the talk…Lectures, debates, speeches—in theaters, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, union headquarters, barracks.… Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories.… What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.…

…We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?”89

The Road to October

ON SEPTEMBER 1, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. On September 5, the Moscow Soviet followed suit. On September 9, Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet. A clear majority of the working class was behind the Bolsheviks. Lenin launched an offensive within the party to prepare for an armed uprising and seizure of power. He met stiff resistance from the Bolshevik Central Committee. For almost a month, Lenin insistently argued for the party to prepare for an insurrection. Bukharin describes the response of the Central Committee to one of Lenin’s letters.

The letter [of Lenin] was written with extraordinary force and threatened us with all sorts of punishments. We all gasped. Nobody had yet posed the question so abruptly…At first all were bewildered. Afterwards, having talked it over, we made a decision. Perhaps that was the sole case in the history of our party when the Central Committee unanimously decided to burn a letter from Lenin…90

Finally, on October 10, after bitter debate, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party voted in favor of a rising.

Like every other ruling class, the Russian bourgeoisie and aristocracy thought that nothing and no one could do without it. The conservative daily Novoe Vromia, wrote on the morning after the insurrection (October 26, 1917):

Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us then: the cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stable boys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush off to a meeting of the Council of State between the diaper washing sessions? Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theaters, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters, the post office. Who will it be? History alone will give a definitive answer to this mad ambition of the Bolsheviks.91

The principal responsibility for organizing the insurrection fell to Trotsky, who, as president of the Soviet and head of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (formed originally during the Kornilov revolt), organized the insurrection. The actual seizure of power involved relatively small numbers of people and had the trappings of a military operation. As Sukhanov wrote, the broad masses

had nothing to do on the streets. They did not have an enemy which demanded their mass action, their armed forces, battles and barricades…This was an especially happy circumstance of our October Revolution, for which it is still being slandered as a military rising and almost a palace coup. It would be better if they asked: Did the Petrograd proletariat sympathize or did it not with the organizers of the October insurrection?… There are no two answers here. Yes, the Bolsheviks acted on the mandate of the Petrograd workers and soldiers.92

The months of advance and retreat, of revolutionary struggle, ended on October 25. Trotsky describes the situation the morning after the insurrection:

Next morning I pounced upon the bourgeois and Menshevik-Populist papers. They had not even a word about the uprising. The newspapers had been making such a to-do about the coming action by armed soldiers, about the sacking, the inevitable rivers of blood, about an insurrection, that now they simply had failed to notice an uprising that was actually taking place. In the meantime, without confusion, without street-fights, almost without firing or bloodshed, one institution after another was being occupied by detachments of soldiers, sailors, and the Red Guards…

…A delegation from the municipal Duma called to see me and asked me a few inimitable questions. “Do you propose military action? If so, what, and when?” The Duma would have to know of this “not less than twenty-four hours in advance.” What measures had the Soviet taken to ensure safety and order? And so on, and so forth.

“Will you dissolve us for being opposed to the transfer of power to the Soviets?”

I replied: “The present Duma reflects yesterday: if a conflict arises, we will propose to the people that they elect a new Duma on the issue of power.” The delegation left as it had come, but it had left behind it the feeling of an assured victory. Something had changed during the night. Three weeks ago we had gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. We were hardly more than a banner—with no printing-works, no funds, no branches. No longer ago than last night, the government ordered the arrest of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, and was engaged in tracing our address. Today a delegation from the city Duma comes to the ‘arrested’ Military-Revolutionary Committee to inquire about the fate of the Duma.93

Trotsky then describes a conversation he has with Lenin:

The power is taken over, at least in Petrograd.… Lenin …looks softly at me, with that sort of awkward shyness that with him indicates intimacy. “You know,” he says hesitatingly, “from persecution and life underground, to come so suddenly into power.…” He pauses for the right word. “Es schwindet [it makes one giddy],” he concludes, changing suddenly into German, and circling his hand around his head. We look at each other and laugh a little. All this takes only a minute or two; then a simple “passing to next business.”94

The promise of human emancipation was paramount in the minds of those who led the revolution. In one of his most moving passages, Lenin wrote:

Hitherto the whole creative genius of the human intellect has labored only to give the advantages of technique and civilization to the few, and to deprive the rest of the most elementary necessities—education and free development. But now all the marvels of technique, all the conquests of civilization, are the property of the whole people, and henceforth human intellect and genius will never be twisted into a means of oppression, a means of exploitation. We know this: surely it is worth striving with all our might to fulfill this stupendous historic task? The workers will carry out this titanic historic labor, for there are vast revolutionary powers slumbering in them, vast powers of renovation and regeneration.95

In a similar vein, Trotsky writes in his autobiography, My Life:

Marxism considers itself the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process. But the “unconscious process” in the historical-philosophical sense of the term—not in the psychological—coincides with its conscious expression only at its highest point when the masses, by sheer elemental pressure break through the social routine and give victorious expression to the deepest needs of historical development. And at such moments the highest theoretical consciousness of the epoch merges with the immediate action of those oppressed masses who are furthest away from theory. The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls ‘inspiration.’ Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history…96

Rosa Luxemburg, who leveled some strong criticisms of the Bolsheviks, summed up the Russian Revolution’s historical significance:

The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.…

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.…

Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy…

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity forced upon them by these fatal circumstances…and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.…

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks.…

It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism.’97

Today, we still need to fight for the “great awakening of the personality,” as Trotsky put it. The day will come, not easily, not automatically, but it will come, when we can talk once more of “a great awakening of the personality” in the U.S. and internationally.


1 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 28 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), pp. 292-293.

2 Quoted in John Rees, “In Defense of October,” in International Socialism 52, Autumn 1991, London, p. 9.

3 Ibid.

4 Philip Foner, editor, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labor (International Publishers, New York, 1967), p. 20.

5 For those interested in pursuing any particular aspect of the Russian Revolution see the suggested reading list for a good start.

6 Isaac Deutscher writes in The Prophet Outcast: “For two hours, speaking in German, he addressed an audience of about 2,000 people. His theme was the Russian Revolution. As the authorities had allowed the lecture on the condition that he would avoid controversy, he spoke in a somewhat professorial manner, giving the audience the quintessence of the three volumes of his just concluded History. His restraint did not conceal the depth and force of this conviction; the address was a vindication of the October Revolution, all the more effective because free of apologetics and frankly acknowledging partial failures and mistakes. Nearly twenty-five years later members of the audience still recalled the lecture with vivid appreciation as an oratorical feat.” Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky: 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press, London, 1970), pp.184-185.

7 Marcel Liebman, The Russian Revolution (Jonathan Cape, London, 1970), p. 17 (see foot 50).

8 Ibid., p. 24.

9 Ibid., p. 19.

10 Dominic Lieven, “Russia, Europe and World War I,” in Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William Rosenberg, eds., Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1997), p. 37.

11 Leon Trotsky, Stalin (Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1941), p. 422.

12 Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press, London, 1997), p. 31. Hereafter referred to as HRR.

13 S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1983), pp. 9-10.

14 One dessiatine equals 2.7 acres.

15 Leon Trotsky Speaks, pp. 252-255.

16 HRR, p. 19.

17 Neil Harding, ed., Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879-1906 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 16.

18 Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1990), pp. 17-18.

19 Ibid., p. 18.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., pp. 45-46.

22 Ibid., pp. 66-67.

23 Neil Harding, op. cit., p. 224.

24 Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg (Pluto Press, London, 1970), p. 89.

25 V.I. Lenin, “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” in Collected Works, Volume 9 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), p. 57.

26 Quoted in Cliff, Lenin, Volume 1, p. 143.

27 V.I. Lenin, Volume 9, op. cit., pp. 56-57.

28 Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (Pluto Press, London, 1978), p. 15.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Leon Trotsky Speaks, Ed. by Sarah Novell (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972) p. 256.

32 Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1973), p. 122.

33 Ibid., pp. 238-239.

34 Leon Trotsky, My Life (Penguin Books, Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1974), p. 180.

35 Ernest Mandel, “Rosa Luxemburg and German Social Democracy,” in Revolutionary Marxism and Social Reality in the 20th Century (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1994), pp. 37-38.

36 Julius Braunthal, History of the International, 1864-1914 (Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1967), p. 298.

37 Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1983), p. 249.

38 David Mandel, “Intelligentsia and the Working Class in 1917,” Critique 14, 1981, London, pp. 69-70.

39 Lewis H. Siegelbaum, The Politics of Industrial Mobilization in Russia, 1914-1917 (The Macmillan Press, Ltd., London, 1983), p. 18.

40 Quoted in Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War: The Origin of the Third International (Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif., 1976), p. 59.

41 Leon Trotsky, My Life, p. 257.

42 Trotsky, HRR, p. 42.

43 Tony Cliff, Lenin: All Power to the Soviets, Volume 2 (Pluto Press, London, 1976), p.64.

44 Alexander Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917: Reminiscences from the Revolutionary Underground (Allison & Busby, London, 1982), p. 224.

45 Paul Dukes, October and the World: Perspectives on the Russian Revolution (Macmillan Press, London, 1979), p. 85.

46 Leon Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., p. 91.

47 Quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, op. cit., p. 62.

48 HRR, p. 121.

49 Ibid.

50 Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (Jonathan Cape, Ltd., London, 1975), pp. 117-118. The Bolshevik Party did not issue its first leaflet until February 27. Sukhanov notes that the Bolshevik Party leaders present at the start of the February Revolution were unsure of themselves. He describes a meeting on February 25th at which their “flatfootedness or, more properly, their incapacity to think their way into the political problem and formulate it, had a depressing effect on us.” Quoted in Liebman, op. cit.,p. 117.

51 HRR, p. 102.

52 Ibid., p. 123.

53 Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1966) p. 186.

54 Ibid., p. 187.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid., p. 188.

59 Ibid., p. 189.

60 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 121.

61 Kochan, op. cit., p. 212.

62 Ibid.

63 Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, p. 94.

64 Lenin, op. cit., 1p. 104.

65 Kochan, op. cit., p. 207.

66 Quoted in Cliff, Volume 2, pp. 119-120.

67 Quoted in Cliff, Volume 2, p. 121.

68 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 129.

69 Ibid., p. 131.

70 Ibid., p. 130.

71 Quoted in LeBlanc, op. cit., p. 252

72 Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 24 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), pp. 22-23.

73 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 132.

74 HRR, p. 337.

75 Kochan, op. cit., p. 223.

76 Ibid., pp. 229-230. The total number of deserters reached more than 2 million by October 1917.

77 Ibid., p. 235.

78 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 158.

79 Duncan Hallas, “All Power to the Soviets,” in International Socialism 90, July/August, 1976, London, p. 19.

80 Quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, pp. 290-291.

81 Ibid., p. 298.

82 Ibid., p. 299.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid., p. 304.

85 HRR, p. 17.

86 Liebman, op. cit., p. 201.

87 Marc Ferro, October 1917 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980), p. 2.

88 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (International Publishers, New York 1979), pp. 351-352.

89 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 14-15.

90 Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, p. 339.

91 Tony Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged, Volume 3 (Pluto Press, London, 1978), pp.1-2.

92 Quoted in LeBlanc, op. cit., p. 282.

93 Trotsky, My Life, op.cit., pp. 338-339.

94 Ibid., pp. 351-352.

95 Liebman, op. cit., p. 197.

96 Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., pp. 348-349.

97 Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1980), pp. 394-395.
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The Russian Revolution: a brief reading guide – Phil Gasper

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The Russian Revolution: a brief reading guide

By Phil Gasper


The Russian Revolution in October 1917,1 led by the Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin, is the most important event in history for revolutionary socialists. For the first time, a revolution led by the working class won power in an entire country and began attempting to construct a socialist society based on the ideas of workers’ control and real democracy. For a brief period there was a glimpse of what such a society might look like, before the experiment was destroyed by civil war, foreign intervention, economic devastation, and—above all—the failure of revolutions to spread successfully to more economically advanced countries. This led by the late 1920s to the entrenchment of a bureaucratic dictatorship in the infant Soviet Union. A decade after the revolution’s initial amazing success, the dreams on which it had been based had been destroyed.


But despite its eventual defeat—indeed, partly because of it—the Russian Revolution remains a key event for all socialists to study. There are rich lessons to be learned concerning how it came about, its considerable early successes, and why it eventually failed—and one hundred years after the revolution took place there is a daunting literature on all of these topics. The aim of this very brief review is to make a few suggestions about what to read, mainly for those new to the topic.2


For those who have never read anything about the Russian Revolution, an excellent starting point is the article that Ahmed Shawki wrote for this journal twenty years ago, “80 Years Since the Russian Revolution,”3 which traces the path from the revolution’s roots in nineteenth-century Russia, through the failed revolution of 1905, World War I, and the February Revolution which overthrew the tsar, to the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power.4 For those who want a longer discussion of the same history that can still be read relatively quickly, the first two parts of Neil Faulkner’s recently published A People’s History of the Russian Revolution is highly recommended.5


Another recently published book, October 1917: Workers in Power6 with writings by Paul Le Blanc, Ernest Mandel, and David Mandel, is not a narrative history of the entire revolution, but includes a chronology and brief overview, as well as a useful glossary of people, places, events, and organizations, together with essays taking up some key issues, including whether the seizure of power was nothing more than a coup d’état, and the role of factory committees in the revolution. It also includes writings by the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (often misrepresented as an opponent of the revolution, but who was in fact a critical supporter), Lenin, and Trotsky.


A useful collection of primary documents, with statements from many participants in and observers of the events in Russia in 1917, is Michael C. Hickey’s Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution.7 The sources included range from “government officials and political party leaders” to “ordinary men and women who tilled fields, toiled in factories, worked in offices, or served in the military.” To get a visual feel for the revolution, take a look at some of the photographic collections put together by the late David King, which include Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin8 and Trotsky: A Photographic Biography.9


But undoubtedly the most important book on the revolution is Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution,10 written in 1930 and first translated into English in 1932. Indeed, Trotsky’s account of the revolution has a strong claim to being the single greatest work of Marxist history. The book was originally published in three volumes and runs over 900 pages, so it requires a serious commitment to read it, but every socialist should at some point make time to do so. Trotsky was a magnificent stylist, and the book is a page-turner, even though we already know the outcome. As a history book, there is little to compare it with. Trotsky, along with Lenin, was the leading figure in the events leading up to and following the October Revolution, so he brings the knowledge and insight of a participant to his narrative (although Trotsky makes clear at the outset that “this work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections,” and it is based on “historically verified documents”).11 But beyond that, Trotsky combines deep theoretical understanding with the ability to weave together events ranging from long-term historical changes to the microdynamics of a specific street protest. Consider, for instance, his description of a demonstration that took place on February 24 (March 9), the second day of the uprising that brought down the tsar:


The workers at the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg district, after a morning meeting came out on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kayurov [a Bolshevik leader in the Vyborg district] recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams. This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together. Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers’ questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline, there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second.


More than this, Trotsky’s book offers a continuing reflection on the nature of historical change—how individuals are shaped by the historical circumstances in which they live, how the slow accumulation of small changes can give rise to sudden and enormous historical ruptures, and how at crucial points both collective agency and individual choices can play a decisive role. Trotsky’s book covers Russia’s economic backwardness, its combined and uneven development as it imported technology and capital from the West, the impact of World War I, the February Revolution and the overthrow of tsarism, the contest for power between the provisional government and workers’ soviets (councils), and the eventual triumph of the soviets in October. He does not devote much space to the failed revolution of 1905, but for that there is his earlier book 1905,12 which he published soon after what Lenin called the “dress rehearsal” for 1917 had been defeated.


Eyewitness accounts


There are numerous eyewitness accounts of the revolution, but pride of place must go to Ten Days That Shook the World,13 originally published in 1919, by the radical American journalist and socialist activist John Reed. Reed was present in Petrograd during the October Revolution and gives a vivid blow-by-blow account of what took place in the days preceding and following the seizure of power. Stalin hated the book because it barely mentions him and correctly portrays Lenin and Trotsky as the revolution’s key leaders, but Lenin wrote a short introduction in which he unreservedly recommended the book “to the workers of the world” and praised it for providing “a truthful and most vivid exposition” of key events.


Another American journalist, Louise Bryant (a collaborator with Reed, who was her husband at the time), was also in Petrograd and wrote her own account of the revolution, Six Red Months in Russia,14 published in October 1918 (a few months before Reed’s book because his notes were temporarily confiscated when the two of them returned to the United States), which is well worth reading. It includes interviews with leading women revolutionaries, including Maria Spiridonova, who was a member of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries,15 and the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, the only woman to serve in Lenin’s cabinet.


The Left Socialist-Revolutionary Sergei Mstislavskii played an active role in both the February and October Revolutions, and wrote his own account in 1918, published in English as Five Days Which Transformed Russia.16 The five “days” he focuses on (the first of which actually spans three) are the February Rising (February 27–March 1); the founding of the Provisional Government (March 3); the arrest of Nicholas II (March 9), an event in which Mstislavskii personally took part; the October Revolution (October 25); and the day of the Constituent Assembly (January 5, 1918).


Morgan Philips Price came from an upper-class background in Britain, but started moving to the left as a result of his opposition to World War I. He became a war correspondent and was in Russia before, during, and immediately after the revolution. His sympathies were soon with the Bolsheviks, and as a result his reports for the Manchester Guardian were often heavily edited or suppressed at the time. Price later became a left-wing Labor MP. Long after his death in 1973, a collection of his first-hand reports from Russia was finally published as Dispatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916–1918.17 Price traveled widely in the country during his time there, and is an invaluable guide to what was going on outside Petrograd and Moscow. His short pamphlet, Capitalist Europe and Socialist Russia, published in May 1919 by the British Socialist Party, is also available online at the Marxist Internet Archive.18


A first-hand account of the revolution, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record,19 written by a Menshevik Internationalist and one of the founding members of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, N. N. Sukhanov, is a source mined by many historians covering this period (including Trotsky). It is very much worth reading in its own right.


Lenin and the Bolsheviks


The key role played by the Bolshevik Party over the course of 1917 deserves close examination by socialists. The second volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, All Power to the Soviets: Lenin 1914-191720 provides an excellent overview. The February Revolution took all the established parties by surprise, although Bolshevik militants at the local level played important roles once it had begun. Bolshevik leaders like Kamenev and Stalin returned to Petrograd shortly afterwards but lacked a clear strategy and offered critical support to the Provisional Government. It was only after Lenin’s return in April that the slogan of “All power to the soviets!” became the Bolsheviks’ rallying cry.


But while Lenin’s leadership of the Bolsheviks was never in question, it was far from the case that he dictated their policies by fiat. There were fierce arguments inside the party about the way forward, both before and after the revolution, and Lenin did not always win them. Alexander Rabinowitch provides an excellent account of the months leading up to the October Revolution in The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd,21 which demonstrates beyond any doubt that the Bolsheviks were not monolithic, and that disagreement and debate were central to the way the party operated. The book provides perhaps the most detailed presentation of the role the Bolsheviks played, top to bottom, in the months leading up to the October Revolution.


Trotsky’s short book The Lessons of October,22 written in 1924 soon after Lenin’s death as part of a political debate against the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, who by that time were leading the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves in 1918), is also essential reading. Against the triumvirate’s efforts to portray themselves as the guardians of an infallible “Leninist” tradition, Trotsky analyzed the actual course of the revolution to show the mistakes that leading Bolsheviks (and especially the triumvirate) had made along the way. He argues that “events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible,” but he also claims that in a revolutionary situation, it is “almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from the preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power.”


Lenin’s own writings from his return to Russia until July 1918 can be found in volumes 24–27 of his Collected Works.23 There is a lot to read in these volumes, but some of the key works are The April Theses, The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution, War and Revolution, The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, “Left-Wing” Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality, and Theses On The Present Political Situation.


Two other important guides to Lenin’s political career and the history of the Bolsheviks are Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party24 and Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin.25 Both have excellent chapters on the party’s role in 1917. And for those wondering whether this history still has relevance for today, Le Blanc’s Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine,26 is a must read.


The working class and revolution from below


Modern historians have done a considerable amount of work uncovering the active role played by workers in the revolution. Steve A. Smith’s Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917–1827 looks at the attempts to establish workers’ control in factories from the February Revolution to the middle of 1918. Two volumes by David Mandel are also important: The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Régime: From the February Revolution to the July Days, 191728 and The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power: From the July Days 1917 to July 1918.29 All three books show the debates within, and the initiatives taken by, Petrograd’s working class.


Smith’s research is summarized more briefly in his essay “Petrograd in 1917: The View From Below,” in The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917: The View From Below, edited by Daniel H. Kaiser,30 which includes articles on Moscow as well as Petrograd. Smith’s work serves as an antidote to the myth that the Bolsheviks used “demagogy and lies” to win working class support. According to Smith:


Bolshevik agitation and organization played a crucial role in radicalizing the masses. But the Bolsheviks themselves did not create popular discontent or revolutionary feeling. This grew out of the masses’ own experience of complex economic and social upheavals and political events. The contribution of the Bolsheviks was rather to shape workers’ understanding of the social dynamics of the revolution and to foster an awareness of how the urgent problems of daily life related to the broader social and political order. The Bolsheviks won support because their analysis and proposed solutions seemed to make sense. A worker from the Orudiinyi works, formerly a bastion of defensism [i.e., support for the war] where Bolsheviks were not even allowed to speak, stated in September [1917] that “the Bolsheviks have always said: ‘It is not we who will persuade you, but life itself.’ And now the Bolsheviks have triumphed because life has proved their tactics right.”


For the role of women workers in particular, see Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917,31 which considers the position of women in Russia before the revolution, the activities of prominent women revolutionaries, such as Nadezhda Krupskaya and Alexandra Kollontai, and the crucial role played by women workers in Petrograd in 1917.


Achievements of the revolution


The Bolshevik victory in October was followed in the next days, weeks, and months by a flurry of radical reforms. The new government announced its intention to immediately withdraw Russia from the war. Peasant land seizures in the countryside and worker control of the factories were legalized. Government officials were to be paid only the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.


The death penalty was abolished in the military (it had been abolished for civilian offenses following the February Revolution). Freedom of religion was established (ending the legal oppression of Jews), and the state and education were separated from the church. Free education was introduced and mass literacy campaigns were begun, descibed in Megan Behrent’s, “Education, Literacy, and the Russian Revolution,” in ISR 82, March-April, 2012.


All the old legislation that had served to oppress women was also swept away. Equal pay for women became the law. Marriages could be ended at the request of either partner. Children born out of marriage were given equal rights. All legal restrictions on abortion were ended. State-funded maternity homes and free nurseries were established, and Women’s Departments were set up in all areas of the country with the aim of bringing women together to play an active role in changing society. Part one of William G. Rosenberg’s anthology Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia,32 a collection of writings by Kollontai, Trotsky, and many other participants in the revolution, covers “The Culture of a New Society: Ethics, Gender, the Family, Law, and Problems of Tradition,” and is essential reading on these topics. Also see Wendy Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–193633 and Elizabeth A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia.34


All references to sex practices were removed from Russia’s criminal code and homosexuality ceased to be a crime. In 1923, Dr. Grigory Batkis, the director of the Moscow Institute for Sexual Hygiene, described the new approach:


Soviet legislation . . . declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against public morality, Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called “natural” intercourse.


Dan Healey examines the experience of gay men and lesbians before and after the revolution in Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent.35


The vibrancy of the new society was reflected in a huge surge of activity in the cultural field. There was a flowering of artistic endeavor in the visual arts, drama, filmmaking, and literature. Some of this is described by Victor Serge (a Belgian-born anarchosyndicalist who joined the Bolsheviks shortly after the revolution) in his outstanding book Year One of the Russian Revolution,36 first published in 1930, which provides a detailed narrative of the revolution’s first twelve months:


Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere. Innumerable fresh initiatives laid open the teaching of unheard-of, totally unexplored domains of learning. In this period too, the museums were enriched by the confiscation of private collections: extraordinary honesty and care characterized this expropriation of artistic riches. Not one work of any significance was lost.


Part two of Rosenberg’s anthology Bolshevik Visions focuses on “Creating Soviet Cultural Forms: Art, Architecture. Music, Film, and the New Tasks of Education.” Also well worth a look is Abbott Gleason, Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution.37 For examples of Russian revolutionary art see John Milner, et al., Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932,38 produced to accompany a centenary exhibit in Britain. Another wonderful visual collection is David King’s Russian Revolutionary Posters: From Civil War to Socialist Realism, From Bolshevism to the End of Stalinism.39


The national question


The Russian Empire was a vast edifice encompassing many smaller nations. In a series of writings before and during World War I—including “Theses on the National Question” (1913), “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (1913), “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914), and “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1915), Lenin argued that socialists in dominant countries must unequivocally support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, while socialists in oppressed nations should argue for the necessity of international working-class solidarity.


Following the October Revolution, these principles were put into practice. The old Russian Empire was replaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and its constituent nations were given the right of self-determination. Special efforts were also made to win the support of oppressed nationalities—see especially two volumes edited by John Riddell: To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920—First Congress of the Peoples of the East, and Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920.40 Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question41 is a useful guide. Also see Eric Blanc, “Anti-Imperial Marxism: Borderland Socialists and The Evolution of Bolshevism on National Liberation,” ISR 100, Spring 2016.


How the revolution was lost


The achievements of the first few months and years of the revolution were impressive, but the Bolshevik government soon found itself faced with severe difficulties. Despite pockets of advanced industry, Russia was an economically backward country which had been set back even further by the disruption and destruction of the war. By the summer of 1918 there was a cholera epidemic in Petrograd and severe food shortages throughout the country. An assassination attempt left Lenin seriously injured. Shortly afterwards, Russia was invaded by armies from many of the major capitalist powers, including the United States, Britain, and France. These countries gave vital support to the White Armies of the deposed ruling class, plunging Russia in to a full-scale civil war, which further devastated the country.


The best overview of this period can be found in third volume of Cliff’s biography of Lenin, Revolution Besieged: Lenin 1917–192342 and, to a lesser extent, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917–1923,43 the second volume of his biography of Trotsky. Revolution Besieged in particular provides a clear sense of the impossible conditions faced by the Bolsheviks and how the material privations, war, and economic collapse in the context of the revolution’s failure to spread rendered the building of a society based on workers’ control impossible.


The standard history of the civil war is W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War.44 It is, however, marred by its unconcealed hostility to the revolution: the first sentence describes the months between February and October 1917 as an “orgy of proletarian self-indulgence.” For Trotsky’s own account of how he organized and led the Red Army to victory, see Trotsky’s Military Writings.45


There are also a number of eyewitness reports of the difficulties Russia was experiencing during these years. Arthur Ransome, a British journalist (and later a well-known author of children’s books) who married Trotsky’s personal secretary, published Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia (1920), both reissued by Redwords in 1992, but now most easily found online.46 Some of Victor Serge’s articles from the same period are collected in Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921.47 Alfred Rosmer, a French syndicalist who joined the Communist movement after the revolution, regularly visited the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and published his recollections in Lenin’s Moscow48 in the 1950s.


From the outset, Lenin and Trotsky were both clear that in order to survive, the revolution needed outside support. As Lenin put it in March 1919: “The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.” Germany did experience its own February Revolution in November 1918, when an uprising overthrew the kaiser and ended the war, but despite several years of political instability after that, there was no equivalent of the Russian October. In other countries, Russia’s revolution inspired high levels of militancy, factory occupations, and even workers’ councils, but no successful working-class revolution.


In Russia itself, the Red Army, led by Trotsky, eventually defeated the counterrevolution, but only at a huge human and material cost. Food shortages resulted in a mass exodus from the cities to the countryside, and the number of workers in urban areas fell from 3 million to 1.25 million. Thousands of the most dedicated working-class militants died in the civil war. The combined effects of international isolation, scarcity, and the disintegration of Russia’s working class, put the revolution’s gains under threat. In Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory,49 Kevin Murphy shows that in some factories workers retained considerable control over production until as late as 1927, winning regular wage increases, but in many others workers’ power had become an abstract slogan long before then, while the soviets became little more than talk shops.


In the dire conditions of the civil war and its aftermath, the Bolsheviks felt compelled to outlaw political parties that were critics of the revolution, some of which had openly sided with the counterrevolution. The Western capitalist powers had been unable to crush the workers’ state directly, but they had created the conditions for decay from within, manifested in serious and sometimes violent tensions between the working class and the peasantry.


As the democratic soviets withered, the Communist Party fell under the control of a bureaucracy of full-time officials and opportunists. Stalin, who had played an inconsequential role in the October Revolution, had maneuvered himself into the position of general secretary of the party. In Lenin’s Last Struggle,50 Moshe Lewin shows that Lenin fought against the growing bureaucratization of the revolution in the final months of his active political life, including writing a testament in which he advocated that Stalin be replaced as general secretary. But Lenin suffered a series of strokes in 1922. By early 1923 he was physically incapacitated and the attempt to remove Stalin failed. By the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Communist Party was very different from the workers’ organization it had been in 1917.


In the course of the 1920s, Stalin defeated his political rivals until, by 1928, he reigned supreme. The last gains of the revolution were destroyed, the remaining members of the Bolshevik “old guard” were physically eliminated, and the Soviet Union was industrialized on the backs of the working class and the peasantry, resulting in millions of deaths. The river of blood that separated the early years of the revolution from Stalin’s dictatorship is the proof that Stalin’s rise represented the triumph of counterrevolution—as Victor Serge argued in his 1937 book From Lenin to Stalin51—not a continuation of the Bolshevik revolution.


Chris Harman outlined the underlying causes of the revolution’s eventual defeat in his 1967 article “Russia: How the Revolution was Lost,”52 reprinted in Anthony Arnove et al., Russia: From Worker’s State to State Capitalism.53 Neil Faulkner covers the same ground in part three of his People’s History. Both Harman and Faulkner draw on the analysis in Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed,54 originally published in 1936, which offers a Marxist materialist analysis of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, both Harman and Faulkner disagree with Trotsky’s claim that the Soviet Union remained some kind of workers’ state in the 1930s, and argue instead that the bureaucracy had transformed itself into a new ruling class.


Was the defeat of the Russian Revolution inevitable? I would argue it was not, but I will leave the final word to Serge:


It is often said that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning”. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?55


Top five


This survey has referenced many books. Read as much as you can, but here are my top five recommendations:


Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution


John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World


Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution


Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power


Neil Faulkner, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution


Russia was such a backward country in 1917 that it still used the old Julian calendar, abandoned by the rest of Europe centuries earlier, by this time running thirteen days behind the modern Gregorian calendar. So the seizure of power took place on October 25, by the Russian calendar, which was November 7 for most of the rest of the world.

Publisher information for titles mentioned is included in the endnotes, below.This guide will focus on positive recommendations, but there are also books to avoid. Included on the latter list would be the numerous works of professional anticommunist Richard Pipes (for many years a professor of history at Harvard), who scrupulously ignores evidence and research contrary to his views. Also worth a miss is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 (Viking, 1997) by British historian Orlando Figes, which relies on dubious sources and distortion to paint a negative picture of the revolution.

International Socialist Review, Issue 3, Winter 1997, http://www.isreview.org/issues/03/russia….

This article, along with Trotsky’s 1932 speech, “In Defense of the Russian Revolution,” will be published by Haymarket Books later this year.

Published by Pluto Press, 2017. The British science fantasy writer and Marxist China Miéville’s book from Verso Books, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, also looks like a promising guide, but I have not yet read it. See Paul Le Blanc’s review of Miéville’s book, along with Neil Faulkner’s new book on the Russian Revolution, elsewhere in this issue.

For Trotsky’s personal recollections of the revolution, see chapters 24–28 of My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Dover Publications, 2012), originally published in 1930.

The Socialist-Revolutionary Party was a populist party based on the peasantry. In the course of 1917 it split into moderate (right) and radical (left) factions.

“Reply to Ciliga,” New International, Vol. V, No. 2, February 1939, https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1…. Ante Ciliga was a Yugoslav Communist who was at one time a supporter of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. He later abandoned Marxism for Croatian nationalism.

Source : ISR Issue no.105

The Third Camp, Socialism From Below, and the First Principle of Revolutionary Socialism-Daniel Randall

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“The socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness. The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause; everything that slows it down as harmful.”

—George Plekhanov

An old Jewish story tells of a student who visited the great rabbis of the day and asked each to tell him the entire Torah while standing on one leg. All dismissed him, insisting the task was impossible, except for Rabbi Hillel, who said, “‘Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.’ That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.”

With all the necessary qualifications about the differences between a religious text and a necessarily materialist and critical politics, might it be possible to distill revolutionary socialism down in a similar way? Of course, it is not; but then “do not do unto others that which is hateful to you” isn’t really “the whole Torah”; it’s a literary exercise for Hillel to communicate the golden rule, or first principle, that he considers to be the essence of Jewish faith. One can argue, convincingly, that revolutionary socialism has two such principles: first, that value in capitalist society, and wealth in all societies, derives from labor. From this we get the foundational and irreplaceable focus on class. Second, and more significant for this article, the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. This idea, that liberation from the exploitation and oppression that are necessarily integral to capitalism cannot be carried out for us by any external force, handed down from above, or done on our behalf, but rather must be our own act, consciously and independently organized by our class—this is our first principle, our golden rule, if we have one.

It is this golden rule that underpins the two related but distinct concepts this article explores: the third camp and socialism from below.

The Third Camp

Even those of us who consider ourselves partisans of the tradition that bears its name must admit that the concept of the third camp is not well known beyond some small corners of the revolutionary left. Even there, it is often considered a relic of the world that bore it.

Although its conceptual roots lie further back, “third campism” as a discrete political tradition cohered in the 1939-1940 schism in the American Trotskyist movement. Grasping for an adequate response to the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Russian invasions of Poland and Finland, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) split, effectively down the middle, in a debate about whether they could still maintain their position of unconditional defense of the Soviet Union.

Leon Trotsky’s supporters on the “majority” side of that debate compiled a collection of his essays, In Defense of Marxism, that covers it. The debate was also surveyed, with explicit editorial sympathy for the “minority,” in two volumes entitled Fate of the Russian Revolution, published by Workers’ Liberty. The “minority” perspective came to be summarized by the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but the Third Camp of international socialism.” The SWP split apart, and in 1940 the “minority” founded the Workers Party, which would become the Independent Socialist League in 1949.

The roots of the concept of the third camp go deeper. It was not merely an attempt to create a theoretical framework to understand developments in Russia, although it emerged through that, but a reassertion of something integral, even foundational, in socialist politics: the idea that the working class cannot rule except by and for itself. In his reply to Trotsky in the debate that split the SWP, Max Shachtman, the leader of the “minority,” put it like this:

I repeat, I do not believe in the bureaucratic proletarian (socialist) revolution [that is, the ability of the Stalinist bureaucracy to advance the cause of socialism]. … I reject the concept not out of “sentimental” reasons or a Tolstoyan “faith in the people” but because I believe it to be scientifically correct to repeat with Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. The bourgeois revolution … could be made and was made by other classes and social strata; the bourgeoisie could be liberated from feudal rule and establish its social dictatorship under the aegis of other social groups. But the proletarian revolution cannot be made by others than the proletariat acting. … No one else can free it—not even for a day.1

Shachtman’s conclusion represented a form of return to first principles. In 1853 Marx and Engels, both of whom emphasized that democratic forms are necessary to working-class rule, had referred to the revolutionary potential of burgeoning working-class movements as a “sixth power in Europe,” which could “assert its supremacy over the whole of the five so-called ‘great’ powers.”2 Trotsky himself had coined the term when, in 1918, he described the revolutionary working class as an independent “third camp” in the 1917 February Revolution, opposed to both the first camp of “all the property-owning and ruling classes,” and the second camp of “the compromising groups.”3

At the end of his life, Trotsky was wrong to argue, against Shachtman and others, that the gains of the 1917 revolution were still expressed, in however degenerated a form, in the Stalinist state. But his vital roles in making that revolution and then in defending it from Stalinist sabotage showed that for Trotsky, the golden rule of revolutionary socialist politics was precisely that all efforts must be directed toward building up working-class consciousness and political independence. This was the thread of his politics, which those who would found the third-camp tradition saw themselves as picking up and extending.

That tradition today is scattered and semi-submerged.4 But it contains much that could help reinvigorate and renew socialist politics, and reorient a left in disarray.

Socialism From Below

In 1960 Hal Draper, who emerged as one of the foremost theorists, writers, and organizers of the third-camp tradition, and who co-founded the journal in which this article appears, wrote the pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism. Draper argues that socialist thought throughout history can be divided between “socialism from above” and “socialism from below”—the former advocating utopian-elitist conspiracies, or statist dictatorship, to deliver socialism to the masses, and the latter advocating the masses’ self-activity and self-organization. He describes working-class self-emancipation as the “First Principle” of revolutionary socialism.5

As a literary device, the concept of socialism from below is useful. But to extrapolate from these three words a “way of doing politics,” as Dan Swain called socialism from below in a June 2015 article for rs21, republished by New Politics,6 obscures more than it clarifies.

The diffuse, loosely networked social movements of the past decade—the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, the Spanish “Indignados,” the global Occupy movements—caught many leftist imaginations, seeming to express a potential new grass-roots politics from below that was brushing aside the old orthodoxies and staid structures of parties and unions.7 But it was in large part precisely because these movements had no adequate, permanently organized structures, able to impose above—at the level of politics, government, and society—the demands and aspirations generated below, that the movements dissipated—or, as in the case of the Arab Spring, were effectively confiscated by reactionary movements that were organized above.

We require, in other words, a comprehensive perspective for working-class power, from below and above. To achieve that, our class needs its own political organizations: democratic revolutionary parties. An overemphasis on socialism from below as the summarizing concept of revolutionary politics can lead, and, in Draper’s case, perhaps did lead, to de-emphasizing the vital necessity of permanent political organization. The idea of socialism from below can serve us as a literary device, but only if it is part of a more thoroughgoing independent working-class politics.

The Left in Disarray: The Long
Retreat from the First Principle8

These are odd times to be a partisan of class politics and moreover of the idea that authentic socialist politics are the politics of working-class self-liberation. The economic crisis of 2008 shook the immense mystique that neoliberal, free-market capitalism had built up in the minds of millions, and the consequences and sequels of that crisis are still working themselves through. Looked at from one angle, that crisis provided, and continues to provide, an epochal opportunity to spread the idea that the working class, the global social majority, which produces society’s vast wealth, should also control that wealth.

But 2008 found much of the revolutionary left in the midst of a long-term “retreat from class.” That was the phrase used by the Marxist writer and historian Ellen Meiksins Wood in her 1986 book, The Retreat from Class: A New True Socialism. The book was a polemic against those socialists, mainly but not exclusively from Stalinist or Stalinist-influenced backgrounds, who were galloping away from class-struggle politics in the direction of a hodgepodge of post-modernism and barely reformist liberal identity politics. Some of those criticized remained in the tent of broad leftist or even labor movements, but largely on their right wings. Yet much of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, without ever really going over to the right or explicitly abandoning principles, had also undertaken its own version of the same retreat, a systematic backing away from the idea of independent working-class politics as the foundational core of socialism, a retreat from the first principle of working-class self-emancipation.

Utterly disoriented by their Biblicist adherence to the claim that the Stalinist states somehow represented historical progress, post-Trotsky “orthodox” Trotskyists were able to substitute a whole variety of locums for the independently organized working class—other forces and movements that they argued could be unconscious bearers of the socialist project, or at least potential allies, and whose victories against imperialism would be beneficial for socialist interests no matter how murderously hostile they were in practice to actual working-class organization.

The retreat from class has taken a variety of forms, not always in the direction of passive support for anti-imperialist locums. Elsewhere on the left, other tendencies recoiling from a low ebb of class struggle and disoriented by changes in capitalism have argued that automation, atomization, and precarity have rendered the workplace no longer privileged as a site of anti-capitalist organization, and organized labor no longer privileged as an agency for socialist change.9 Some eco-socialists, responding to climate crisis, have also argued that there is no longer any privileged agent of socialist transformation nor or any privileged role to be played by the international proletariat.10

These arguments deserve a hearing. The socialist movement is not a religion, and no idea should be sacred in left thought. If the two golden rules for revolutionary socialism proposed at the beginning of this article no longer stand up to reality, they should be amended and reshaped or ditched entirely, and our politics should be reassessed. If it is no longer the case that labor creates wealth, giving the working class a privileged position as an agent of revolutionary social change, we should indeed move to some kind of post-class politics. But the evidence does not suggest this.

Far from disappearing from the historical stage, the wage-working proletariat is expanding. It has become the biggest single class only recently. Capitalist globalization has led to the creation of vast new working classes, and with them, new labor movements, throughout the world: in South Korea, in Brazil, in India, in Mexico, in Nigeria, and elsewhere. It is a profound historic tragedy that, at moments when the international left should have been seizing the potential for labor-movement growth and renewal by building movements of internationalist class solidarity, much of it was instead focusing on cheer-leading the enemies of labor. When an independent labor movement, an embryonic third camp, began to emerge in Iraq following the U.S.-British overthrow of the Ba’ath regime, the global far-left largely ignored it, preferring instead to idealize the so-called resistance to U.S.-British occupation, led by competing factions of Sunni-supremacist sectarians and Shi’a clerical-fascists.

There are certainly challenges inherent in attempting to reverse the retreat from class: Independent labor organization is still weak throughout much of the world. Neoliberal ideology has sunk deep and increasingly global roots that organized socialists must struggle to confront. Debates about tactics, strategies, and forms of organization are all vital. But is there anything objective, material, in today’s world which suggests that socialist politics must reassess its foundational principles that class is central and that our politics must be one of working-class self-emancipation? The evidence suggests not.

In returning to class, we can learn much by rediscovering the theorizing and practice of those socialist traditions that have, at times of upheaval and crisis on the left, cleaved to the idea that the only consistent socialism is socialism as working-class self-liberation.

Renewing the Third Camp,
Reasserting the First Principle

It might seem odd to look to a semi-submerged historical tradition, shaped in and by a different world, as a source for contemporary socialist renewal. But the third-camp tradition as it developed was not the product of some obscure quibble over the theoretical characterization of a particular state. Rather, it was an effort to reorient the revolutionary socialist movement, undertaken by activists who could see clearly how Stalinism was deracinating, distorting, and destroying socialist politics.

In attempting to renew socialism as a politics of working-class self-emancipation, the third campists emphasized both aspects: independent working-class self-activity and organization, and emancipation and freedom. Kicking back against the bureaucratic statism, top-down command structures, and enforced, monolithic ideological homogeneity that Stalinism had made hegemonic in left politics, both as models for the “socialist” society and the cultures of organizations aspiring to build it, the third campists sought to reconnect socialism with its libertarian core.

What does it mean, then, to aspire to the renewal of the third-camp tradition today? It certainly does not mean adopting a religious attitude to tradition, claiming some unbroken chain of political doctrine from Marx and Engels through Lenin and Trotsky to Shachtman and Draper. Neither does it mean excluding all that is valuable in working-class socialist traditions outside this genealogy.

The renewal of the third camp, in a world of left disarray and insurgent populism (occasionally on the left but largely on the right) fundamentally means reasserting independent working-class politics. It means reconnecting to the first principle of revolutionary socialism, that working-class emancipation cannot be won by hitching our wagon to the parties or politics of other classes, but only on the basis of our class organizing by and for itself. To renew the third camp today means a return to class as the key axis for political organization; a return to understanding struggle between classes, within every country, as the motor of social change; and a re-forging of socialism as a project of working-class self-liberation.

The literary emphasis that the concept of socialism from below places on mass, grass-roots upheaval, with all that this implies in terms of a vibrant, fructifying democracy rather than systems of command and control, whether in our own organizations or the society we aspire to build, can aid that renewal. But ultimately it is the concept of the third camp, of independent working-class politics, that is key.

This first principle of revolutionary socialism goes right back to its conception as a discrete politics. The work of Marx and Engels was dedicated to helping the working class understand itself, organize itself, become a class for itself. Class remains the fundamental social conflict, the relationship that holds the key to unlocking revolutionary social change. Renewing the third camp, helping our class become a class for itself, remains the key task of socialists today.

Everything that helps this is useful to our cause; everything that slows it down is harmful. That is the essence of revolutionary socialism; that is our golden rule. Everything else is commentary, strategy, and tactics.
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.

Karl Marx: The Passing of a Colossus-Anjan Basu

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The Marx memorial at Highgate Cemetery in north London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On March 15, 1883, the day after Karl Marx died, Friedrich Engels wrote to the German-American Socialist leader Friedrich Sorge to give him an account of the illnesses that led up to Marx’s death. He went on to tell Sorge just how Marx breathed his last, and how Engels himself was trying to come to terms with the loss of his dearest friend and comrade of forty years:

“All events that take place by natural necessity bring their own consolation with them, however dreadful they may be. Medical skill may have been able to give him a few more years of vegetable existence, the life of a helpless being, dying – to the triumph of the doctors’ art – not suddenly, but inch by inch. But our Marx could never have borne that. To have lived on with all his unfinished works before him, tantalised by a desire to finish them and yet unable to do so, would have been a thousand times more bitter than the gentle death which overtook him. ‘Death is not a misfortune for him who dies, but for him who survives’, he used to say, quoting Epicurus. And to see that mighty genius lingering on as a physical wreck to the greater glory of medicine and to the scorn of the philistines whom in the prime of his strength he had so often put to rout – no, it is better, a thousand times better, as it is – a thousand times better that we shall in two days’ time carry him to the grave where his wife lies at rest.”

A little later in the same letter, Engels adds, quite simply: “…mankind is shorter by a head, and the greatest head of our time at that”.

Few men have paid a more moving tribute to a friend. Two days later, on Saturday, the March 17, as Marx was being lowered into the same grave as his wife’s, Engels spoke in the same vein:

“On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but for ever”.

Incredible as it may sound, there were no more than 11 or 12 mourners as Karl Marx, the colossus who was to tower over the 20th century as perhaps no other individual did, was laid to rest that early spring day in Highgate Cemetery at Camden, north London. This, despite the fact that by then Marx had lived in London for close to 34 years, or more than half his life – an exile disowned and disenfranchised by the country of his birth and declared persona non grata by several others where he had sought to live and work as a fugitive from his native Germany. He had established no place of significance in the politics and intellectual life of Britain.

Indeed, at his death Marx did not have a lot to show for his life’s work: his major political effort since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the First International, had foundered by 1873. He had written some brilliant pamphlets and polemical treatises, besides of course the first part of  Das Capital, which together were to form the primary intellectual equipment of the initiators of some the most important revolutionary movements in history. His sundry theoretical explorations were eventually to leave their permanent imprint on sociology, historiography, anthropology, aesthetics and even the cognitive sciences in a manner without parallel.

But all that was as yet in the future, and for now, but for a not insignificant group of followers in the continental socialist movements, Karl Heinrich Marx was a little-known man. His influence on British socialism had indeed waned in the wake of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the implacable hostility of the British propertied classes to all ideas of social change had sent even English trade union leaderships scurrying for cover, away from all variants of radical ideology.

An unremarkable grave

So, Engels led a tiny group of family and admirers to the cemetery comprising, besides Marx’s two surviving daughters Laura and Eleanor, the French socialist leaders Paul Lafargue (Laura’s husband) and Charles Longuet (husband to Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny), Prof Roy Lankaster and Prof Schorlemmer (both revered men of science and members of the Royal Society), the German Socialist leader Wilhelm Liebknecht, G. Lochner (a veteran of the Communist League), another battle-scarred German socialist F. Lessner (sentenced in the 1852 Cologne Communists’ Trial to five years’ hard labour), and writer-editor Gottlieb Lemke. It is possible that Helene Demuth, long the Marx family’s devoted housekeeper and friend, who would be buried alongside the family a few years later, was also in attendance. Highgate Cemetery traditionally had a section set apart for agnostics and atheists, making it the obvious choice for the Marx family to bury their dead in.

The proceedings were brief. Lemke laid two wreaths with red ribbons upon the coffin, one each in the name of the journal of the German Socialists  and the London Communist Workers’ Educational Society. Then Engels made the funeral oration in English. He spoke of how his friend had been “the best-hated and most calumniated man of his time”, but also “beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow-workers – from the mines of Siberia to California”.

Wilhelm Liebknecht spoke on behalf of German workers, in German, and Longuet followed with three messages from Russian, French and Spanish socialists, all in French. Once it was all over, the cortege wended its way back to Marx’s Maitland Park home. A few days later, Karl’s name was etched into the simple stone tablet that stood over his wife’s grave. Just five days later, some of these same mourners would be back again in Highgate, this time to bury five-year-old Harry Longuet, the youngest child of Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny who had pre-deceased her father.

The grave was as unremarkable as the burial. Hidden away in a little-known part of the cemetery, it was known to have baffled visitors who wanted to pay their respects at the grave but found it hard to locate. At a British Socialists’ conference in 1923, a leader rued how he had “some difficulty in finding it” and, once he managed to reach it, how  “an old withered wreath, which appeared to have been lying there for years, and an old flower-pot with a scarlet geranium in bloom, were all that commemorated that great leader”.

It was on a sun-drenched late summer’s day in 2012 that I made my way to Highgate. It was no longer difficult to find the grave. Far from it, indeed. The East Highgate Cemetery,  home to the Marx tomb since 1956, had a large number of visitors, mostly elderly men and women with chirpy grandchildren in tow. The few  younger visitors appeared to have all come from China and Japan. There were no geraniums to greet me, but beds of white gladiolas splendidly set off bushes of red carnation and yellow iris, and rows of blue lilacs ran along the sides of the graves.

Presiding over it all, on a granite plinth some ten or 12 feet high, sat a bronze bust of the great man himself, looking on as all the commotion gathered  around him, his bushy eye-brows and formidable beard twirling into a wry smile. The ringing words with which the Communist Manifesto ends,  “Workers of All Lands, Unite” were emblazoned in gold letters on the plinth, as was another equally famous quote, on the lower end of the pedestal, this time from the Theses on Feuerbach: “The Philosophers have only Interpreted the World in various ways. The point however is to change it”.

While the general air could  not have been described as charged by revolutionary fervour,  two middle-aged couples sat in solemn contemplation on one side, apparently oblivious to the animated goings-on around them. The August breeze rustled in the silver birch and aspen trees strung around the graves.
Marx’s sundry theoretical explorations eventually left their permanent imprint on sociology, historiography, anthropology, aesthetics and even the cognitive sciences in a manner without parallel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Marx’s new ‘home’ dates back to 1956, when the Communist Party of Great Britain decided that it would no longer do to leave the Master’s grave hidden away in an obscure corner. So, a more prominent plot was procured in the eastern part of the great cemetery, apparently at significant cost, and the Marx graves were relocated in a ceremony where Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the CPGB, unveiled the new monument on March 14, 1956, the 73d anniversary of Marx’s death.

The socialist sculptor Lawrence Bradshaw had been charged with designing the new monument, and he created the bust that now crowns the memorial. It is the massive head that dominates the bust, though. One is reminded of Engels returning again and again to his theme of the loss, in Marx’s passing, of one of mankind’s great ‘heads’.

There is a certain irony about the timing of the new tomb. Through the 1940s, as communism gained ground internationally up to a point where one-third of humanity lived under regimes that professed allegiance to Karl Marx, his grave lay in a mostly non-descript corner. On the other hand, 1956 was the year when the communist monolith that claimed to have modelled itself on Marx’s teachings, showed its first cracks. The USSR’s invasion of Hungary and the suppression of a genuine uprising in Budapest were unmistakable pointers to the fault-lines within a system that had laid the most serious claim yet to Marx’s legacy.

Just a few months after Pollitt did the honours at Marx’s grave, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary’s capital city, sparking outrage not only in liberal democracies in the west but even within the CPGB itself. The Communist Historians’ Group, led by E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm wrote an open letter to the party leadership, decrying its silence over the invasion. At any event, after 1956 the world of Marxian socialism was never quite the same again.

Only a couple of months after I went and paid my respects at Marx’s grave, Hobsbawm passed away, to be buried, like some other Marxists, British and non-British, close to the man they probably admired most. But while it is not surprising to find men such as Yusuf Dadoo, the great South African communist and anti-apartheid activist, laid at rest in their teacher’s shadow, you cannot miss the irony of the grave of Herbert Spencer, the well-known  liberal theorist and Marx’s ideological antithesis, lying  almost  directly opposite Marx’s.

There is more news yet. With 2018 marking Marx’s birth bi-centenary, a fresh sprucing-up of the monument at Highgate has been planned for this year. The plan, supported by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn among others, includes installing slabs of black granite “with a flamed finish”. As the British Labour Party tries to reinvent itself, a new-look Marx monument now awaits visitors.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, translator and commentator. He has published a book of translations from the work of noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.

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.

Peasant Uprising in the Russian Revolution of 1917-Chris Kinder

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“The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian problem.” —Trotsky

The Russian Revolution was, above all, a workers revolution. It put the working class in power for the first time in history, and promised a world revolution to come, which would abolish war, national oppression and exploitation forever. It inspired workers’ rebellions around the world, and came close to succeeding in its ultimate goal. But workers were not the only ones to rebel in Russia in 1917. Without peasant support, indeed without the peasant uprising to throw off their own chains of oppression, the Russian Revolution never could have survived.

Unlike most of Europe, Russia was a backward, primarily agrarian society, in which capitalism had a late start, and still, at the opening of the Twentieth Century, held no political rights under the Tsarist autocracy. The overwhelming majority of its populace were peasants. As in most peasant societies, there was a long history of rebellions, all of which were defeated, but which were memorialized in legend and song for centuries. When in February of 1917—in the midst of the devastation of World War I—urban workers and soldiers rose up and toppled the fragile Tsarist autocracy in a matter of days, peasants immediately took notice. Could their grievances, so long ignored, be addressed in this new situation?

Peasant rebellions were endemic in Russia
Peasant rebellions dated back as far as the Russian defeat of the Mongols, and the establishment of the Tsar as the “ruler of all Rus” in 1503. People of Mongol origin—Tatars, Kirghiz, Kalmuks, etc.—were deprived of all rights and could be forced into serfdom by the Russian nobility, and even into outright slavery (slave markets were legal until 1828.) Serfdom in Russia was slave-like feudalism—peasants were not allowed to leave the land they were born on. This soon produced uprisings, including major revolts in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The leader of the first of these, Stepan Razin, was memorialized in a statue dedicated by Lenin in 1918; and the second, led by Yemelyan Pugachev, amassed a great army and took several cities before its eventual defeat, and Pugachev’s public beheading.

These rebellions were remembered by the peasants, but also by the landed gentry and the autocracy. When Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War in the 1850s, at the hands of the decrepit Ottoman Empire and its British and French allies, Russian rulers began to think about modernization. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 under Alexander II was the immediate result. This decree took a step away from feudalism, and at first, peasants were thrilled. The communal land on which peasants toiled had belonged to the landlord, but now it was “allocated” to the peasant commune (the village mir.) But the devil was in the details, and the problems were many.

Fearful of revolution—such as those of 1848 in Western Europe—the gentry at first had wanted serfs to be freed, but without any land. The also fearful Tsar however, did not want to create a proletariat of landless workers. A compromise ensued, but it did not provide enough land for a growing population of peasants to survive on and still maintain their traditional three-field system.1 Furthermore, the landlords retained the best lands for themselves, and large sections of what had been commons, including forests, roads and rivers, were now accessible only for a fee. The forests were important to the peasants for building material and for fires in winter. Finally, the peasants were also required to make redemption payments for the land they did receive for 49 years, with interest! The peasants were still tied to the communal land, could not sell their portion of it, and often had to take jobs working on landlords’ farms, to the neglect of their own plots. In short, life remained grim for the peasants.

Capitalism creeps in
Underlying the land situation in 1861 was the insinuation of capitalism onto the scene. Just as in the latter days of feudalism in Western Europe, the landed gentry in Russia was accumulating debt to urban financiers. The redemption payments demanded of the peasants were to be the source of financing of bonds issued to the landlords by the state, so that the loss of ownership of the land could be turned into capital. But the redemption payments were essentially uncollectible from the poor peasants, who lacked sufficient land to be able to survive, let alone sell their produce.

The 1861 reforms had the effect of stimulating a capitalist market, however. The amount of grain for sale on the open market increased, as did non-gentry ownership of farms. The rural proletariat of landless laborers, composed of peasants who couldn’t make it as farmers, also increased. Here we have the background to uneven and combined development: an ancient but still dominant feudal aristocracy was becoming more intertwined with a nascent capitalism.

The 1905 revolution
As the Twentieth Century dawned however, the Russian autocracy failed another big test on the international stage. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Tsar’s naval fleet was demolished by the Japanese Empire, which the Tsar had seriously under-estimated. This debacle quickly sparked the Revolution of 1905. Workers rose up, went on strike, established workers soviets, and chose a revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, to lead the St. Petersburg Soviet. Peasants rose as well; not all, but enough to make the Tsar pick very carefully for a loyal regiment to shoot down protestors outside the Winter Palace in the Bloody Sunday massacre, killing at least 1,000. The 1905 uprising was put down, but the autocracy knew it had to do something to prevent further risings, and accelerate its modernization without undermining its still feudalistic noble ruling class. A fake parliament called the Duma was created, and the “solution” on the land was, essentially, more capitalism.

Based on earlier assessments of what was needed, Pyotr Stolypin, Chairman of the Tsar’s Council Ministers, laid out a plan in 1906, which was based on “banking on the strong ones.” The traditional communal land system was to be undermined by empowering peasants with the right to privatize the land by “cutting out” and selling their section of the commune. The reform also enabled the formation of peasant co-operatives, which became dominated by kulaks and middle peasants, who could operate on the market. This was “an explosive capitalist shell” aimed at the commune. The purpose was to promote capitalist farmers who would be a support for the regime. To facilitate this, the redemption payments of 1861, destined to expire anyway in 1910, were abolished.2

Peasants remained hungry and rebellious
Again, the penetration of capitalism on the land produced a stronger market, including international grain sales, as a minority of peasants were able to break away from the communes. Meanwhile, peasants who sold out their land because it was insufficient for them to live on added themselves to the ranks of landless farm laborers. Most peasants were enraged, and opposition to the land sales grew. In a year or two there were incidents of peasants seizing land that had been “cut out” from the commune, as well as attacks on big landlords, including the burning of mansions. The peasants, having gone through all the Tsar’s reforms, were still land hungry and rebellious.

The numbers illustrate the situation. In 1905, about one-half of all arable land was private (including church and state-owned land), and about half of that was owned by 30,000 great landed gentry. The other half of all arable land—and often the worst land—was in the hands of some ten million peasant families, mostly in the communes, or small ownership plots.

The final disaster for the Tsar
Enter the next, and, as it turned out, final disaster for the fragile regime of Tsardom: World War I. War recruitment carried away ten million workers and peasants, and stripped away two million horses, as well as food stuffs for the army and other resources, while defeats in the trenches mounted. Peasants who could no longer sow the land increased in number, and in the second year of war even some middle peasants began to go under.

An initial surge of patriotism was a setback for the revolutionary left (the Bolsheviks had been gaining strength in recent years,) but that didn’t last long. Workers’ rebellion soon infected the cities, and peasant hostility exploded from month to month. The stress on the economy was shown by the steady decline in bread rations for workers in (newly renamed) Petrograd. This provoked women workers to take to the streets in protest on International Women’s Day 1917; and they were soon followed by the rest of the workers and the soldiers who were garrisoned in and around Petrograd. Tsar Nicholas II, who had foolishly thought he could save his futile war by himself going to the front, abandoned his throne within days. The February Revolution was on.

Workers and peasants rise up
The workers immediately formed soviets again as in 1905, and peasants began to take action against the landlords, slowly at first, but soon ramping up. The February Revolution had dramatically increased the already high rate of desertions of peasant soldiers from the trenches. Returning to their home villages, these men were armed, impatient and ready to promote radical action. They took a leading role in events that were soon to envelop the countryside. The first weeks in February saw villages remain inert, but by March, the specter of a peasant war hung over the landlords. This was a mixture of paranoia and reality: in some provinces, peasant committees were arresting landlords, banishing them, seizing the land, or “readjusting” their rents arbitrarily. As some of the frightened nobles began selling properties, often to foreign investors, kulaks began buying them up as well. Poor peasants’ resentment of landlords began to extend to rich peasants as well, and objection to land sales mounted.3

The Revolution thus far had unleashed a torrent of organizing activities among the masses, and peasants were no exception. In May, a month-long All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies was held in Petrograd. This conclave, though, composed primarily of representatives of the upper layers of the peasantry, provided an opportunity to assess the peasants’ state of mind. Delegates came from the zemstvos, or elected local assemblies, established by Tsar Alexander II in 1864, which were dominated by village shop keepers, as well as the co-ops of the more well-off peasants; and a few from the village mir. The representatives were overwhelmingly of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), the descendants of the Narodniks, who were intellectuals who proclaimed going “to the people” as the path to end Tsarist rule. While they proclaimed “land to the tiller,” their plan now was to pressure the bourgeoisie to implement land reform, through the projected Constituent Assembly, and were resolutely opposed to workers demands for peace or the eight-hour day, or peasants acting on their own to solve the land question.

Lenin addresses peasant congress
The Bolshevik delegation to this assembly was small, but Lenin addressed the congress on May 20th, and he proclaimed a program of land nationalization through organized direct action by the peasants regardless of legality. According to eyewitness Nicolai Sukhanov, “It would seem that Lenin had landed not merely in a camp of bitter enemies, but you might say in the very jaws of the crocodile.” But Sukhanov went on to report that, “The little muzhiks listened attentively and probably not without sympathy. But they dared not show it…”4

In fact, Lenin (not for the first time) had put his finger on the central problem facing the revolution: the fact that the bourgeoisie, which was tied in with the landed aristocracy, was incapable of making a democratic revolution. The Bolshevik position, in distinction from the Mensheviks, had always been that the working class alone was capable of making the democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks’ formula for this was the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. With the influence of Lenin’s thinking, and Trotsky’s promotion of the Marxist understanding of the revolution in permanence, this formula was revised to assert the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. And that alliance, while it would expect the workers to take the lead in making their own revolution, and establishing a workers’ state, would not depend on the workers substituting themselves for peasant action. This was to be an alliance, not an over-lordship.

The key to the Russian Revolution
The revolution would necessitate that the workers put forward their own demands, not limiting themselves to the democratic simplicities of the capitalists. After all, the masses had rebelled in February against the imperialist war, yet it went on; and against the approaching famine (largely due to the war,) yet that went on; workers demanded the eight-hour day, but that was ignored; and the peasants were rebelling against the icy grip of the aristocracy over the land, yet the Provisional Government let that go on. Of all the supposedly “revolutionary” parties—Mensheviks, SRs, etc.—the Bolsheviks alone said that the masses should act for themselves in putting forward their own demands.

And that is the key to understanding the Russian Revolution: it was not a “coup;” it was a coming together of what the masses wanted and needed, and a leadership prepared to facilitate their success. That formula included the peasants, and explains the Bolshevik’s Land Decree, and its relation to the theory of permanent revolution.

For most of 1917 however, the peasants were represented by the SRs, not the Bolsheviks. At the peasants’ congress in May, at which Lenin spoke, the SRs promoted and passed an extremely radical resolution, calling for: “Conversion of all land into national property for equal working use, without any indemnity.” But they didn’t mean that the peasants should act on their own! As Trotsky explains, “To be sure, the kulak understood equality only in the sense of his equality with the landlord, not at all in the sense of his equality with the hired hands. However, this little misunderstanding between the fictitious socialism of the Narodniks and the agrarian democratism of the muzhiks would come out in the open only in the future.”5

SRs or Bolsheviks,
who should lead?
That “future” came quick. As the congress was winding down, reports came in of peasants taking the Congress’ resolutions seriously in the localities, and appropriating the land and equipment of the landlords. The SRs, at their own conference in early June, immediately sounded a retreat! They condemned all land seizures done arbitrarily by the peasants, and insisted that they wait for the Constituent Assembly. Their line was based on the fact that they were in alliance with the Provisional Government, in which they would soon be a part (their representative Alexander Kerensky became Minister of War, and then Minister Chairman.)

And so it went for months. The peasants clung to the SRs at the local level because of their avowed aims, but the SR leaders were all about compromising with the bourgeoisie, which was financially interlinked with the landed gentry. The landlords complained of the mounting confiscations of their land, and the Kadet (bourgeois liberal) bankers loaned out against the real estate for billions of rubles. So the SR tops supported the bourgeois government’s feeble attempts to defend the gentry’s land. They planned to dicker with the landlords over reconciling their utopian slogans with bourgeois interests at the Constituent Assembly; but the peasants were not waiting around for this pie in the sky.

Assault on the landlords
The action in the countryside soon became a stampede, with kulaks in the lead, with poor peasants drawn in on the general assault on the big landlords. The rich peasants had horses and wagons with which to sack the estates and carry off the goods, while the less well-off followed their lead in a wholesale demand for land. This was certainly not what the SR compromisers wanted, but it wasn’t exactly what the Bolsheviks wanted either. Lenin had called for organized confiscations, with peasant organizations taking over the big estates to work as collectives; and he emphasized the need for the landless workers and poor peasants to form soviets to present their own needs for socialization of the land. With some exceptions, neither of these calls were being heeded.

Yet the Bolsheviks, by October, though still a minority in local peasant organizations, had been the only party to call for peasant direct action, and peasants were listening. Trotsky reported that, in the escalating rush to attack the gentry’s estates, the SR leadership was increasingly pushed aside. This was documented by Trotsky in the Volga region: “The muzhiks called [their SR leaders] ‘old men,’ treating them with external deference, but voting in their own way.” Trotsky continues, “It is impossible to weigh the influence of the revolutionary workers upon the peasantry. It was continuous, molecular, [and] penetrating everywhere…”6

The October Revolution: Bolsheviks conquer power
This was the situation, as of the Bolshevik conquest of power on October 25th: the peasant masses, in opposition to their own SR leadership, and under the influence of revolutionary workers and Bolsheviks, were seizing the land. While carrying out the SR program of land to the tiller, rather than the Bolshevik plan for organized takeovers to establish collectivization, the peasants were staking their claim as a petty bourgeois class: they wanted the land. The brilliance of Lenin’s leadership now lay in accepting this, for the present, as the will of the masses.

The working class took power in alliance with the peasantry, who were the vast majority in the country, and Lenin knew that simply declaring the Bolshevik program as law would not change the reality of what the peasants were doing. The workers were in power, but no revolution can impose socialism by decree; it must be built brick by brick. The Land Decree, the second (after the peace decree) to be passed by the 2nd Congress of Soviets, was based on the resolutions of peasant organizations, passed under the leadership of the SRs. But while the SRs saw this as a bargaining chip to present to the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks saw it as the will of the peasants, taken by direct action, and endorsed it as such.

But how does this square with the theory of Permanent Revolution, which affirms that the working class in a backward country such as semi-feudal Russia, must not only make the democratic revolution that the bourgeoisie could not make, but must also put forward its own demands for socialism and workers’ rule? The workers’ own demands, for bread, peace and land, had been out there on the street from the February beginning. But complaints were heard, both within the Bolshevik Party and from without, about how the Bolsheviks failed to implement the socialist revolution on the land.

Rosa Luxemburg’s critique
Foremost among these critics was that of the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Writing from prison in 1918, Luxemburg asserted that, “the direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy.” And, she goes on, “In the first place, only the nationalization of the large landed estates…can serve as the point of departure for the socialist mode of production on the land.” In the second place, she asserts that, “one of the prerequisites of this transformation [is] that the separation between rural economy and industry…should be ended in such a way as to bring about a mutual interpenetration and fusion of both.”

All of this is right on the mark. Luxemburg then continues, “That the soviet government in Russia has not carried through these mighty reforms—who can reproach them for that!” She insists that the Soviet government, “in the brief period of their rule, in the center of the gripping whirlpool of domestic and foreign struggles,” could not have been expected to have accomplished these reforms, which she calls, “the most difficult task of the socialist transformation of society!” Again, well and good.

But then we come to the crux of the matter: Luxemburg says that, “A socialist government which has come to power must…take measures which lead in the direction of that fundamental prerequisite for a later socialist reform of agriculture…” This, she says, the Bolsheviks did not do by calling for “immediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants,” or, she says, Lenin’s slogan of “go and take the land for yourselves,” which “simply led to the sudden, chaotic conversion of large landownership into peasant landownership.” (Emphasis in original)7

Lenin promotes organized
land seizures
What Luxemburg missed here was probably not her fault. News of the Russian Revolution was highly restricted in Germany in 1918 under a government of Social Democrats who were soon to be her murderers; and especially if one was in prison, as she was. But the truth she missed is that Lenin tirelessly made clear two things: First, the call for the peasants to seize the land themselves was directed explicitly against the program of the SRs, which called for land nationalization, but instructed the peasants to wait for “negotiations” with the landlords, or for the bourgeois Constituent Assembly to decide. Secondly, Lenin consistently called for land seizures to be organized. As he said at the aforementioned Peasant Congress in May 1917, “Let him [the peasant] know that the land he is taking is not his land, nor is it the landowners, but the common property of the people…” and, “Until [the power of the working people is established], the local [peasant] authorities…should take over the landed estates and should do so in an organized manner according to the will of the majority.”8

In order to facilitate these aims, Lenin tried to promote the organization of landless and poor peasants, both before and after October, with, unfortunately, little result at first. Lenin also consistently argued for the preservation of gentry property for peoples’ use, rather than its destruction, which is what many peasants were doing. (In this, peasants were remembering their long experience with failed rebellions. They were saying, you must destroy everything, lest they come back.)

But Lenin’s Land Decree was very clear in laying down what Luxemburg advocated, i.e., “measures that lead in the direction [of] a later socialist reform of agriculture.” According to the Decree, “All land…shall become part of the national land fund. Its distribution among the peasants shall be in [the] charge of the local and self-government bodies, from democratically organized village and city communes, in which there are no distinctions of social rank, to central regional government bodies.”9

Peasants withhold grain in famine
Nevertheless, it’s true that the peasants’ appropriation of the land for themselves led to trouble for the workers state, in that peasants began to withhold grain to the cities, sparking threat of famine, as Rosa Luxemburg noted. But Luxemburg’s plea for a “fusion” of agriculture and industry, much to the chagrin of the Bolsheviks, was impossible just then. Starting with the early days of the Revolution, factories began to lock out workers in defiance of the Bolsheviks, and the trickle of workers who went back to the peasant villages where they were from increased.

Then, with the start of the Civil War, workers and peasants were called upon to form the Red Army, which they did with little hesitation, further interrupting what little production capacity was left. This became a key to the famine which gripped urban Russia in 1918-19: the workers—and their new state—had nothing to offer the peasants in the way of manufactured tools and goods in exchange for foodstuffs. Forced requisitioning of grain became essential. But without this Land Decree, solidifying the removal of the landlords, the Bolsheviks would have lost the civil war.

Bolsheviks finally make headway on the land
This dismal situation ironically improved somewhat with the resignation of the Left-SRs from the Soviet government after the ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which ended Russia’s participation in World War I. I say “ironically,” because under the treaty, the Bolsheviks had to cede the Baltic States to Germany, and they had to recognize the independence of the Ukraine, which quickly came under German influence: not good. This is not to say that signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was not necessary: it was of utmost importance to end the imperialist war that had devastated Russia and Europe. But the Ukraine was the most highly developed, most capitalistic, and most productive of agricultural areas of the former Russian Empire.

However, with the SRs out of the government, their influence over the peasants declined. The SRs had tended to favor individual action by the richer stratum, while the Bolsheviks, whose influence now increased, continued to support poor and landless peasants. The “improvement” was that with this rising influence, and with the onset of the civil war in mid-1918, Lenin finally succeeded in mobilizing poor and landless peasants, through Poor Peasants Committees and Communes. This signaled that the Bolsheviks had succeeded in splitting the peasantry along class lines.

Lenin explains collectivist goals
Lenin explained this in a speech to a peasant congress of the Poor Peasants Committees and Communes, in December of 1918: “At first there was the general drive of the peasants against the landowners…This was followed by a struggle among the peasants themselves, among whom new capitalists arose in the shape of the kulaks, the exploiters and profiteers who used their surplus grain to enrich themselves at the expense of the starving non-agricultural parts of Russia.” Lenin emphasized that now, “…our common task and our common aim is the transition to socialist farming, to collective land tenure and collective farming.” This was to be done gradually, using persuasion and “transitional methods,” and involving middle peasants as well as poor.10

The Kulaks and poor peasants had been united in overthrowing the landlords, but now rich peasants were selling their grain on the black market at high prices, defying the workers’ state’s monopoly, and even threatening its survival. The organization of poor peasants promoted the state monopoly on the sale of foodstuffs, aided in grain seizures from the rich peasants, and supported the mobilization of peasants in support of the workers state in the face of imperialist and White army reactionaries mobilizing to destroy it.

The drive to collectivize would not be completed in Lenin’s lifetime, nor would it prevent the “one step back” that the Bolsheviks had to take at the end of the civil war in 1921, in the form of the New Economic Policy, or NEP, which became necessary to jump start Russia’s devastated economy. However, the Bolshevik’s commitment to the permanent revolution is fully confirmed by their handling of the peasant question. Just barely out of feudalism, the peasant majority in Russia, oppressed by the landlords and hungry for land, had to go through the stage of making the bourgeois revolution on the land, which they could only do with the alliance, and leadership, of the urban proletariat.

But this “stage” of the peasant revolution must not be confused with the stagism of the Mensheviks or the Stalinists who later led the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In the Menshevik/SR/Stalinist worldview, the bourgeois revolution had to come first, while the working class waited for the bourgeoisie to complete a revolution (which it was incapable of completing.) But the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky were not so inclined. They showed that indeed, the working class had to press forward with its own demands in order not only to complete the bourgeois revolution (including that of the peasants), but to move forward toward socialism for workers, and in timely fashion, for the peasants as well.

Throughout history, peasant revolts had never been capable of leading to a peasant revolutionary state. The peasants, being class divided among themselves, could only prompt a new dynasty (as in China,) or a new urban petty-bourgeois layer into power. They had never been so capable, that is, until the Russian Revolution, when, together with the working class, they made history.

1 The three-field system, in which two fields were planted and one left fallow, rotating each year, was a standard throughout feudal Europe. This helped prevent soil depletion from over-working, and from the planting of single crops endlessly on the same fields. Modern agriculture attempts to circumvent this with artificial fertilizers, but that is another story.

2 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, Vol. I p. 59

3 Trotsky, Vol. I, p. 364-65

4 N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, Harper, 1962, Vol. 2, p. 371. Sukhanov was a Menshevik with a wide range of contradictory opinions, but he was a great eyewitness reporter. A “Muzhik” is a Russian peasant.

5 Trotsky, Vol. I, p. 371.

6 Trotsky, Vol. III, p. 24.

7 Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970. This was written in mid-1918 and not published until years later.

8 Lenin, “Speech On the Agrarian Question,” to First All Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, May 22 (June 4th) 1917, Collected Works (CW), Vol. 24. pp. 486-505.

9 Lenin’s Decree on the Land, in Mervyn Matthews, ed., Soviet Government: A Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policies, New York, 1974, p. 319.

10 Lenin, “Speech To The First All-Russian Congress of Land Departments, Poor Peasants’ Committees and Communes.” December 11, 1918, in CW, Vol. 28, pp. 338-48. Transitional methods included state support and incentives for collective farms.

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