As the Left celebrates the centenary of the Russian Revolution this month, it is important to learn lessons from its tragic fate.
The Petrograd Soviet in the heady days leading up to October. Photo credit: Time
The Russian Revolution is a startling paradox. It was a revolution largely based on the working class, the first workers’ revolution in history, creating a state that was not a workers’ state. This searing paradox would clinch the fate of the radical left for the rest of the twentieth century, since the chief outcome of the revolution (the regime known as ‘Stalinism’) would exert a preponderant influence on radical sectors of the left in countries like India no less than in Europe, and crucially affect the course of major political events internationally, most notably, Hitler’s unimpeded rise to power at the end of the twenties and the tragic fate of the Spanish Revolution a few years later.
As Don Filtzer showed in his seminal book Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, by the 1930s the working class in the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a collective force, and the sole basis on which a strong opposition might have emerged was therefore preempted. Even more tragically, ‘with Stalin socialism came to mean something altogether different from [its] revolutionary vision, as socialism became identified with top-heavy, centralized bureaucracy, government attempts to control every aspect of social and individual life, a repressive and brutal police apparatus, scarcity, and general economic mismanagement’. The key issue thrown up by the revolution, then, is how this came about or how this was allowed to happen.
The Bolsheviks had seized power in October 1917 by garnering the support of Russian workers because they were seen as endorsing the slogan of workers’ control of production and because of the support they extended to the Factory Committees that mushroomed from the middle of 1917. As the most detailed study of those committees suggests, ‘There is no doubt that the notion of workers’ control of production was very popular at the grass roots, and it was the willingness of the Bolsheviks to support this demand which was a crucial reason for their growing appeal’ (S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd, p. 165). Already by June, factory committees were widespread throughout the bigger establishments, where they were dominated by ‘skilled, experienced, relatively well-paid workers’.
Yet within a few weeks of the Revolution the Bolsheviks were demanding the subordination of the factory committees. The first Congress of Trade Unions held in January 1918 ‘voted to transform the Factory Committees into union organs’ (Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 32). By March that year, Lenin ‘made the first of a series of appeals to return to one-man management’ (Smith, Red Petrograd, p. 241). A year later, when the eighth party congress declared portentously, ‘the trade unions must achieve a de facto concentration in their hands of the whole administration of the whole national economy considered as a single economic unit’, the factory committees had ceased to matter entirely. With a brutal civil war dominating most of 1919 and 1920 and massive supply shortages throughout the country, Trotsky was arguing for the ‘militarisation of labour’, that is, for the unabashed exercise of compulsion in industry and other economic sectors, and for the subordination of the unions to the state. Although this was never officially endorsed, by 1920 industrial workers in post-revolutionary Russia were again subject to what one historian called ‘the familiar forms of capitalist industrial organisation’, as if the clock had moved full circle.
The only significant challenge to all of this, the group known as the Workers’ Opposition, which emerged at the end of 1920 to espouse a vision of an economy run jointly by the unions and factory committees in a sort of articulated system of management, came closest (among the Bolsheviks) to the revolutionary aspirations of 1917 but was met with sharp reprisals by the party leadership, causing widespread disillusionment among more class-conscious workers (many of them part of the Metalworkers’ Union) and effectively ending an earlier tradition of inner-party democracy. When ‘factions’ were banned at the tenth party congress in March 1921, the Workers’ Opposition was almost alone in opposing the ban publicly.
Suspended in a social void for lack of any organised expression of the autonomous power of the workers such as the factory committees, the Party ‘now exercised absolute power and was outside the control of any social force whatsoever’. This was the situation Kollontai would presciently denounce early in 1921. What it entailed increasingly over the 1920s was a ‘dictatorship of the Party over the proletariat’.
Lenin, who had suffered a stroke in May 1922, never fully regained his health. Further strokes followed in December that year, and in the last week he began to dictate a series of ‘notes’ on what he saw as the impending crisis in the party’s leadership. One of these said, in terms that can only be described as prophetic, ‘Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution’ (Lenin cited Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, p. 80). On 4 January 1923 a further note added, ‘Stalin is too rude, and this defect, though quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. This is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way to remove Stalin from that post’ (Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, p. 84; my italics).
This never happened, of course. Lenin himself died in January 1924 and, as Victor Serge tells us, ‘In the meantime Stalin completes the job of packing all the party secretariats…with his creatures. In 1926 his work is done, he is the master of the party, of a party in whose ranks utter silence reigns; a party in which majorities, docile because they profit by being docile, do nothing but vote the resolutions prescribed by the Central Committee…’ (Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, p. 43–44). Stalin’s consolidation of power in the party in a regime where the party was the state, or the state a massive extension of the party, not only clinched the fate of the revolution but came to embody a form of state-power unique in history. Trotsky struggled with its characterization, never abandoning the delusion that somewhere at the heart of this new web of power lay a workers’ state. He continued to believe that a proletarian nucleus would reassert its control over the party (T. M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, p. 187), when the reality was that ‘the main thrust of regime policy was to break down the working class, to undermine its cohesion and solidarity… and destroy its ability to act collectively as a self-conscious historical force’ (Filtzer, Soviet Workers, p. 255). Without a cohesive working class and autonomous organs of struggle, the Left Opposition was doomed, its heroism matched only by its total isolation, Serge estimating that ‘there must be less than a thousand of us’.
The terrible repression of the 1930s extended well beyond this handful of revolutionaries to include entire groups – technicians, ‘kulaks’, ethnic minorities, military leaders (the whole Soviet General Staff!), large sectors of a brilliant intelligentsia, so-called ‘harmful elements’ (vagrants, prostitutes, the homeless, etc.), and of course tens of thousands of workers, peasants and other ordinary Soviet citizens. On the NKVD’s own figures, between the early 1930s and 1953 some 1.1–1.2 million Soviet citizens were executed, three-quarters of them in the years 1937–38. This was, as Serge called it, ‘the incessant massacre of an entire revolutionary generation’ (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 396), but it was also genocide in a stricter legal meaning if only because national communities were being systematically liquidated (for this argument see Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides; on the terror itself there is a magnificent recent account in Karl Schlögel, Moscow, 1937).
Stalin’s consolidation of power in the party in a regime where the party was the state, or the state a massive extension of the party, not only clinched the fate of the revolution but came to embody a form of state-power unique in history. Trotsky struggled with its characterization, never abandoning the delusion that somewhere at the heart of this new web of power lay a workers’ state. He continued to believe that a proletarian nucleus would reassert its control over the party.
The purges and the Moscow show trials ‘served one purpose only – to manipulate public opinion at home and abroad’ (Serge, Memoirs, p. 290). Today the mass media are a simple and effective way for the authorities and ruling groups to achieve the sort of integration that the Stalinist elite sought to achieve by altogether more primitive means. Stalinism produced a ferocious culture of conformity, in part through the intimidation produced by terror but even more importantly through the figure of Stalin himself. Stalin had to be worshipped, wrote Victor Serge, ‘because to the world he was the incarnation of the party…[The Opposition’s] capital error was that their attachment to the past prevented them from seeing that this party is dead’ (Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, p. 82). In the later Marxist tradition the only serious attempt to give a dialectical sense to what Serge might have meant by this ‘incarnation’ is Sartre’s unfinished masterpiece Critique of Dialectical Reason, whose second volume, among the most difficult written by any Marxist intellectual, is essentially an attempt to construct a theory of the Stalinist regime that would make its structure and dynamics intelligible.
Sartre argues that Stalin’s personality cult ‘was the first known attempt to change an entire society into a pledged group’, as if the whole of the USSR had voluntarily joined the party and pledged to work for it and for Stalin. Since Stalin’s power was a ‘condensation of the sovereign powers of the group [the party]’, he was ‘incarnated in the pyramid of ruling bodies’ (that is, the bureaucracy) as they were in him. But beyond this ‘reciprocity of incarnation’, Stalin was everywhere, ‘his millions of portraits were just one portrait’, and he was in everyone, as a structure of ‘interiorized inertia’ and as the ‘living (and deceptive) image of pledged passivity’.
Forced capital accumulation, the dispossession of millions of expropriated peasants, the silencing of the opposition, the banning of abortion and cult of the family, and then the paroxysm of violence known as the Great Terror – if this was socialism, then Stalin’s Russia was discrediting and destroying it for decades to come, and that effectively is what it did.
So the Revolution was tragically betrayed, destroyed or deviated, however one describes its overall trajectory. But behind this lies an important lesson, at least for the Left. In 1917, before October, the soviets and the factory committees had been the only real organised expressions of the power of the masses, veritable organs of mass democracy. Yet, when the Bolsheviks took control of the Petrograd Soviet in September, a more complex dialectic came into play. ‘The party was launched on the road of armed insurrection through the soviets and in the name of the soviets’, wrote Trotsky in his fine History of the Russian Revolution. Here in a nutshell was the dilemma. Where would the locus of real power reside? With the party or with the masses and their own mass organisations such as the soviets and factory committees, or factory councils as they were known elsewhere?
(This article was first published in Hardnews).