It’s November, and so we celebrate the October Revolution of 1917. The difference in month is due to the different calendars used back then – the Russians used the old Julian calendar, therefore their revolution began on October 25, whereas in the more popular Gregorian calendar the date lands on November 7.
It has been 99 years since the exploited and oppressed masses of Russia rose to show the world that another society was possible, one in which ordinary working people would collectively control their lives for the first time.
Across the world revolt was brewing and popping up; conditions for workers were horrendous and the First World War was a savage slaughter of millions of innocent people for the gains of imperialist nations. The Russians – with calls for “Peace, Bread, and Land" – erupted through Tsardom, through bourgeois democracy, and into a workers’ democracy.
The immediate aim of the Revolution was to bring peace after years of merciless world war, no matter what the cost; the people were dying at home and the front, and they demanded it be stopped. With that, workers, peasants, and soldiers had set up councils from which to control society in a directly democratic manner. The laws of old were thrown out and new ones were written. The poor peasants were given the land that the rich previously had them work on. Women made huge advancements compared to other nations; women could vote, daycares and cafeterias were set up so women could break from domestic labour, and they were encouraged to take a direct role in the revolutionary workers’ state. Decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion were issued. Nations previously owned by the Tsar, e.g., Poland and Finland, were welcomed to either remain connected to the revolution or separate as independent. Religious minorities, especially the Jewish and Muslim people, were reassured that, unlike under the Tsar, they were free to practice their religions without fear of themselves or their synagogue or mosques being attacked.
These were just a few of the gains brought by the Revolution, which was in the context of international revolt. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote in 1919, “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.” And this was not confined to Europe: the same year saw an Egyptian revolution against British rule, and the Winnipeg General Strike.
Sadly, no other revolt toppled the ruling class as the Russian revolution had done, and instead a dozen invading armies were sent to attack the revolution. In the context of isolation and counter-revolution, Stalin rose to power and reversed every gain and built a state capitalist regime.
Celebrate with criticism
The best way to honour this world historic revolution is to apply Marx’s “ruthless criticism,” to it and its leaders; only in that way will we learn the best way forward, by being “ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”
While we acknowledge and praise the successes of the revolution and the Bolshevik leadership, as Marxists we also must acknowledge and criticise the mistakes. As the flatterers under the guise of orthodoxy – the type of “Marxists” to which Marx said “I am not a Marxist” – disapprove of diminishing the glory of certain events and names, we, Marxists, with sharp eyes, analyse so as to be better prepared for advancing future workers’ revolutions to success.
The International Socialists have a history of being critical thinkers, even in regards to our leadership and tradition. Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky – all have been challenged by our minds and pens. Just as Trotsky disagreed with Lenin (on the nature the Revolution would have to take), so did Tony Cliff disagree with Trotsky (on the nature of the USSR under Stalin), and so have some disagreed with Cliff, just as some will surely disagree with me. Challenging our ideas, while remaining in solidarity with each other, is how we sharpen our minds.
One principle the International Socialists organise by is that of “Socialism from Below.” This, in opposition to the “Socialism from Above” of both Social-Democrats and Stalinists, maintains that the working and oppressed masses must take direct democratic control of society by themselves for themselves. It’s what Marx and Engels emphasised multiple times: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” And what Rosa Luxemburg called for until her dying breath. Socialism from Below is the heart of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, i.e., the whole of the working class in power.
Nearly one hundred years ago Socialism from Below was put into practice in Russia, yet due to the incredible circumstances it degenerated into Socialism from Above. It didn’t happen by a sudden coup, or because the very nature of the Bolshevik vanguard party predetermined it, but rather because of demoralising realities that brought about tactical retreats done out of the fear of risking the revolution.
From one risk to another
Socialism cannot be built in one country alone. This was recognised by Engels as early as 1847 when, in his Principles of Communism, he asked and answered: “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? No.” Going on to note that no one “is independent of what happens to the others.”
Therefore, if, after a successful taking of power, a revolution is isolated (especially in a backwards country like Russia in 1917), and surrounded by hostile capitalist nations, it will immediately start to degenerate as its initial burst of momentum from the masses dulls. Lenin and Trotsky knew this; they placed their hopes on the German Revolution erupting over the horizon to lead the world communist revolution.
The revolution happening in backwards Russia before an advanced capitalist nation like Germany or England went against what Marx and Engels had predicted, but that didn’t mean it was lost, merely that it had to hold out until the proletariat in Germany or England rose into power and, in proper internationalist fashion, gave the Russian proletariat revolutionary support.
Besides a few small neighbouring nations – just as, if not more backwards – Russia was alone. Other nations, eager within the international wave of revolt, had failed to build mass revolutionary organisations capable of leading successful revolutions. The German Revolution was crushed along with many of its best leaders – most notably Rosa Luxemburg, who rebuked “the indecisive, half-hearted vacillation of the Berlin leadership” in her final written work hours before being murdered. This heaviest of blows came in the already miserable conditions of post-WWI and the ongoing Civil War (which included 14 invading imperialist armies and economic blockades). Few options were available, the Bolsheviks were stuck, and the Revolution felt as though it was slipping away day by day.
The Bolshevik leaders felt that only two paths existed: one consisting of fighting “from below” until the inevitable fall of the Revolution that such fighting would hasten, or the other of taking a defensive stance while waiting for other successful workers’ states to rise and help them. They took the latter. Their hope was that the new workers’ state could stick it out until the next batch of international revolutions (specifically in an advanced capitalist country like Germany or England) would again rise and this time succeed in taking power.
This path meant the Bolshevik leaders had to try to protect the revolution from the risk of failing by limiting it, by making tactical retreats. Out of the fear of risking the revolution, a standing army took place of the workers’ militias; democratic elections of commanding officers were eradicated; the saluting, the display of position in the military hierarchy, and the privileges of the higher-ups were reverted back to.
To make matters worse, as the Civil War pushed on, the most advanced workers gave their lives for the cause, thus leaving a void back home. With a crippled and shrinking working class in the cities, workers’ control and management was seen as impossible in the devastating conditions at hand, so – just as old tsarist army officials were put back into leading positions – bourgeois “specialists” were put into management positions over the workers at the workplaces they originally were to own. These specialists also got paid well above the average of skilled workers which, based off of the Paris Commune, was originally intended as the highest pay anyone could get.
Through the juggling act of fighting off the White Army of the old tsarist order (and its support from 14 imperialist nations), limiting the workers’ power to better defend them, and trying to sound confident to the masses to maintain their support (thus making a “virtue of necessity”), the Bolshevik leadership, trying to prevent the risk of the revolution failing, overlooked the fact they were producing another risk to the revolution which sprouted later as Stalinism.
Workers’ revolution or death
Revolution is inherently in risk from its inception, there is no way around that, no loopholes to dodge this problem. Degeneration will begin once the workers’ fervour and action stops. It’s the job of the revolutionary vanguard to get the momentum rising again in the masses whenever it halts or drops.
The risk that presented itself to the Russian Revolution came in the form the White Army and its 14 imperialist allies. This resulted in a fear of letting workers advance in such a way that was seen as incapable of defending the workers’ state. What started out as temporary emergency measures from inside and out of the Party became the standard.
Thus what the Bolshevik leaders saw as a way of maintaining the revolution in hard times, protecting it from the risk of counter-revolution, mainly deriving from external forces, was in fact putting the revolution in risk of the internal counter-revolution of the bureaucracy with Stalin at the forefront.
This counter-revolution – the embodiment of the degeneration of the workers’ state and revolution – came, neither with a bang (in 1936 or 1928) nor a whimper (in 1924 or 1921); it was a poison that entered the lifeblood of the revolution gradually, drop by drop, slipping nearly unnoticed into power in the name of defending the very revolution it killed. The leaders mistook the bitterness of this poison for that of a medicine – difficult to swallow but beneficial in the end.
This folly of mistaking poison for medicine sounds as though it were written in a tragedy from antiquity, but it was a real historical event. Because of the reality of the situation, those leaders that drank the poison were not the only ones to succumb to its morbid embrace; rather it flowed through them into the workers’ revolution that it’d soon bury. The sin, mistaken for salvation, of those few above fell heaviest upon the masses below.
Had the revolution maintained its risk of being Socialism from Below, i.e., worker directed and executed, and expanding on all revolutionary fronts (militias rather than standing army, democratic elections of all positions from army to government with the ability to recall the elected, power in the workers’ councils, no one more than a skilled workers’ wage, cooperation between different revolutionary groups, etc.) then more workers in advanced capitalist countries like Germany and England may have seen and learned by their example, built the essential mass revolutionary organisations, and led a successful workers’ revolution themselves.
Between taking the risk of not holding back workers from advancing socialism or the risk of dying slowly into a totalitarian dictatorship, a revolution, already inherently at risk no matter what it does, must take the risk of maintaining Socialism from Below.
Stalinism and the death of the revolution was not inevitable or due to the very nature of the Bolsheviks. Victor Serge, critical Bolshevik and Trotskyist supporter, observed:
“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?”
There are many lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution of ninety-nine years ago, and the International Socialists will do all in its powers to critically study and put them into practice as true Marxists. One of those lessons is that of the relation between Socialism from Below (the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – the whole working class in direct democratic power) and the inherent risk of a revolution failing.
If we are to honestly recognise and practice Socialism from Below, the principal that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” we must see that no risk of failure is worth limiting or pulling back the revolutionary working class. This is neither ultra-leftism nor idealism; it’s recognising what socialism is and how it is built by the whole working class. Retreats and halts will undoubtedly be needed, but they can’t be enforced by any organisation from above the class; the class from below must decide its course of action. We, as a class, will make mistakes, as the Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai recognised, but it’s through self-activity that we’ll learn the best methods.
Dialectically, the ends develop out of the means; as such socialism will never derive from holding back the workers’ revolution. To repel the isolation, nationally and internationally, from which is borne the poison of bureaucracy, revolutionaries must build truly mass revolutionary organisations capable of succeeding and supporting each other within and across borders. Our choice, like that of the famous “socialism or barbarism,” is simple: workers’ revolution or death.