Lenin and the Russian Revolution, part 2

Lenin

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In May, Leon Trotsky arrived in Russia. He had spent a brief exile in the USA and, attempting to return to Russia on the outbreak of revolution, had been arrested at sea by the British navy and interned for a number of months.

Trotsky had joined the Martov faction of the RSDLP in 1903. He had soon broken with the Mensheviks and stood alone between the factions for a number of years. In 1912, he had abortively attempted to resist the definitive rupture of relations within the RSDLP.

Fundamentally, he had failed to appreciate the tremendous constructive work that Lenin was accomplishing and had tended, from the vantage point of his theory of Permanent Revolution, to regard both Menshevism and Bolshevism as equally inadequate, though Bolshevism less so.

Almost immediately on his return to Russia, Trotsky started to work with the Bolsheviks, understanding that without the leadership of the Bolshevik party the theoretical projections of Permanent Revolution could not be made reality. He recognised that without the revolutionary party constructed by Lenin over years of struggle, the perspective of socialist revolution could not have been made reality, and the working class would be defeated. He joined the Bolshevik party that July.

Soon Lenin and Trotsky had instilled into the Bolshevik party an understanding of the real possibilities at hand. The Bolshevik party adopted the direct goal of the taking of power by the Russian working class at the head of the peasantry.

"We don't need a parliamentary republic, we don't need bourgeois democracy, we don't need any government except the Soviet of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies".

These Soviets were a higher form of democracy — "an organisation of workers (and) the embryo of workers' government", said Lenin. They raised the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets", although the Bolsheviks still lacked a majority in the soviets.

The economic dislocation became worse; the Provisional Government refused to distribute the lands of the aristocracy; it refused to discontinue the war; deserters drifted back to their homes in droves, bringing to the countryside the radicalism within the army. Both the soil and the seeds were being prepared for the victory of Bolshevism.

But in July the Bolsheviks faced repression from the Provisional Government. Lenin was ridiculously smeared in the press as being a German agent and once again had to go into hiding, while Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders were arrested.

On their release in September, however, the government's situation had deteriorated. That month it faced an attempted right wing military coup by General Kornilov. The prestige and membership of the Bolsheviks also grew by leaps and bounds. Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet in September.

In June Lenin had told the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets that the Bolsheviks were prepared to take power. Now, in October, the Bolsheviks organised the working class in the taking of power from the Provisional Government on the first morning of the Second Congress. Rapid developments at the front and at home had turned June's "ridiculous remark" into the blazing reality of October's victory.

The world's first workers' state had been established. Lenin, opening the October Congress of Soviets, said very simply: "Comrades, we will now proceed to construct the socialist order".

The October insurrection was in fact organised and led by Leon Trotsky. But Lenin was the recognised leader of the Revolution. He became the first Chairman of the Council of Soviets. Here again his actions exemplified what was a constant theme in his life, the dialectical combination of "the strictest discipline, truly iron discipline in our party" and his confidence and reliance on the creativity of the masses. "We must be guided by experience; we must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses..."

The Bolsheviks, who had a majority in the Soviets, became the builders of the new state and the foremost fighters for its defence. It was at first a truly democratic state, with democratic rule by the working class exercised through the network of soviets, at the apex of which was the Supreme Soviet.

In the struggle for power the Bolshevik programme and the needs of the masses had been summed up in the slogan "Land, Peace and Bread". Now, in relation to the war the Bolshevik slogan was "Peace without annexations". But revolutionary Russia, bled white by war and famine and with the remnants of the Tsarist Army simply useless, did not have the strength to impose this peace programme. German imperialism was able to impose a robbers' peace on the new workers' state.

The Bolsheviks were forced to make a retreat, giving massive territorial concessions to the Germans in the forced treaty of Brest Litovsk, signed in February 1918. This was the first of many retreats the Bolsheviks were Forced to make in their isolation. The revolution in Europe still had not broken out. The Bolshevik Party experienced the sharpest factional division on this question. The majority around Bukharin advocated an immediate revolutionary war. Lenin advocated immediate peace, making the necessary concessions to Germany.

Trotsky favoured an attempt to dramatise to the workers of Europe and especially to those who had been told that the Bolsheviks were German agents, the forced character of the concessions the Bolsheviks were having to make to the Germans, but he recognised, with Lenin, that concessions were unavoidable.

Consequently, using the slogan "neither peace nor war", he dragged out the negotiations at Brest Litovsk as long as possible until the Germans launched a new onslaught on the workers' state. Lenin, who had been in a small minority on the Central Committee, now gained the majority against the Bukharin faction for immediate peace, with the support of Trotsky and his allies.

Lenin had faced the situation with brutal realism. Most significant, however, is that in the heat of the argument he insisted on proclaiming his opinion that if necessary the Russian revolution should be willing to sacrifice itself and face defeat in order to hasten the German revolution.

All eyes were now on Germany. The revolution did break out in Europe, beginning towards the end of 1918. A revolutionary wave swept Europe, brushing the monarchies from power in Austria and Germany and putting the right-wing Social Democracy in power.

Revolutionary workers' governments were established briefly in Hungary and Bavaria. In 1919 and 1920, the Italian state virtually collapsed, with the working class seizing the factories. But everywhere the revolution was defeated. Everywhere it was demonstrated negatively that the work Lenin had successfully accomplished, the building of a hard revolutionary party, was irreplaceable if the revolution of the proletariat was to be victorious.

The existence of the Bolshevik party had alone made the October revolution possible in Russia, a revolution made in the belief that Russia was the first link in a necessary chain of proletarian revolutions throughout Europe.

The lack of similar parties in Europe led to the defeat of the proletarian revolutions that erupted as the Marxists had expected, in the wake of the First World War.

This in turn led to the isolation of the one successful revolution, embattled Russia. And from this isolation came, from the middle of 1918, tremendous difficulties for the Bolsheviks and ultimately the Stalinist counter-revolution.

Founding the new International

The victory in Russia in 1917 had been very easy, almost bloodless. The difficulties began afterwards.

Civil war erupted. From 1918, to the internal enemies in arms against the revolution were added the armies of intervention sent by no fewer than 14 states to extinguish the proletarian revolution in Russia.

The Soviet state was forced to defend itself and to build up from scratch a new, Red Army. This was accomplished under the leadership of Trotsky, Commissar for War, and the workers' state fought a long war in which civil war was inextricably linked with war against intervention.

In July 1918, the Left Social Revolutionaries, a peasant-based party which had initially formed a coalition government with the Bolsheviks, assassinated the German ambassador - trying to force Russia into a revolutionary war with Germany - and attempted a coup d'état, using their positions in the Cheka (special revolutionary police). On 30 August the Bolshevik leader Uritsky was killed, and a right SR militant, Dora Kaplan, shot Lenin, failing to kill him, but injuring him very seriously.

In response the Bolsheviks launched a Red Terror. The Cheka, a revolutionary police, was used to fight counter-revolution. No mercy was shown to the enemies of the workers' state.

The Bolsheviks, who had begun by abolishing the death penalty, now did not hesitate at summary execution of counter-revolutionaries. Steeped in the history of revolutionary struggles, they understood that the proletarian revolution, in those conditions, though it aimed at building a society where violence against people would be unthinkable, a socialist society, needed arms and ruthlessness to prevent a counter-revolutionary bloodbath.

Later writers on Stalinism, as for example Solzhenitsyn, have confuse the ruthlessness of the revolutionary working class with the later counter-revolutionary butchery of Stalinism. Thus in Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago the list of crimes begins in 1918 and runs all through the Stalinist period. In reality, there is no continuity.

Whatever mistakes may have been made, the Red Terror of the revolutionary years was the violence of workers and peasants in revolt against capitalism, directed against the bourgeoisie and their agents and presumed agents. The Stalinist terror was the violence of an uncontrolled and self-serving bureaucratic caste, in defence of its own privileged position, against the working population in general and genuine Communists in particular.

There is as much difference between the two as between the violence of a slave against his or her master, and the violence of the master against the slave.

In March 1919, the work bore fruit which the Bolsheviks had begun when the Second International collapsed. A new, Communist, International was founded in Moscow.

Russia, the burning heart of the world proletarian revolution, the object of hate and fear on the part of the world's bourgeoisie, combined its attempt to break out of encirclement with the attempt to establish a world party of the proletariat on firm political foundations.

In the fire of the revolutionary upsurge upsurge then flaring in Europe, the new International attempted to build revolutionary parties out of the debris or hulks of the old Second International parties and, more importantly, out of the newly revolutionised proletarian masses.

At the first Congress of the Communist International no major party was represented except the Russian. The real foundation congress was the Second, in 1920.

The organisation had gained mass support in Italy, France and Germany. It was becoming clear that there would have to be a long struggle and not, as sometimes appeared in 1919, a quick victory throughout Europe.

The International turned its attention to the task of remoulding and rebuilding the European labour movement on revolutionary organisational and political foundations. All the great issues of communist politics were discussed at the Second, Third and Fourth Congresses (those held before Lenin's death).

The national and colonial question, the revolutionary party, the question of the united front of workers' organisations, trade unionism and revolutionary politics, and the question of women. Far from Moscow issuing orders, as it was to do later, the future and conduct of the Soviet state itself was seen as a subject for discussion and deliberation by the world communist movement.

The struggle for Bolshevism had meant an irreconcilable battle against all those tendencies weakening the proletariat as a revolutionary force. The new world party of the proletariat was to be built in the same way — founded on a Marxism now enriched with the fundamental experiences of the struggle against Bernsteinian revisionism, social chauvinism, and the Kautsky centre, and enriched also with the experience of the victorious workers' revolution in Russia.

From the Second World Congress in 1920, an increasing part of the basis of the Comintern was the analysis of the experience of the defeats suffered by the revolution in Europe.

The complex interaction between revolutionary victory in Russia, whose precondition was the existence of Lenin's party, and the defeat of the European revolution, because of the absence of such parties, now manifested itself within the victorious revolution.

During the years of civil war and intervention, the Russian economy had been devastated. The working class, always a small part of the population, had been virtually uprooted from its social role and transformed into the personnel of the new state and the new army, or dispersed to the villages to try to avoid starvation. The soviets were reduced to shells during the civil war and the Red Terror.

A system known as War Communism had been in operation. Essentially this had been a system of direct state seizure and distribution of goods.

The peasantry were willing to allow the direct state appropriation of their produce so long as the threat of counter-revolution and the restoration of the landlords loomed over their heads. But the end of the Civil War inevitably led to intensified frictions and tensions, and to peasant rebellions.

The peasants' ambivalence towards the revolution which gave them the land, but also appropriated their produce was well expressed in the widespread peasant support for the "Bolshevik" Trotsky, military leader against the landlords' armies, and hatred of the "dirty Jew" Lenin, leader of the 'Communists' who sent out the expropriation squads from the towns.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks reacted to this, and to the prospect of a period in which the Russian workers' state would be an isolated revolutionary outpost, by introducing the "New Economic Policy".

This was essentially a policy of limited restoration of free market relations under the strict regulation and control of the workers' state. But this in turn led, by the middle '20s, to a large scale degeneration of the state itself, raising it to a degree of independence in which it balanced between the newly licensed merchants and traders and rich peasants on the one hand and the working class on the other.

The harmful effects on the Bolshevik party of these developments, rooted as they were in the extremely backward conditions of Russia, made worse by civil war, were already visible by the early '20s. They took the form of growing bureaucratism within the Bolshevik party — the transformation of an increasingly dominant section, which had a power base in the state apparatus, into a stifling bureaucracy. J V Stalin, a second rank leader of the revolution, and from 1922 holder of the newly-created position of general secretary of the party, personified this bureaucracy and led it to mastery of Soviet society.

The bureaucracy of the Soviet state crystallised from a section of the revolutionary party, tired and demoralised by Russia's isolation. It grounded itself in material privileges, and the preservation and extension of those privileges quickly became its first rule of existence.

Its domination was made easier because at the 10th Party congress in March 1921 party democracy had been severely curtailed and organised factions banned. Simultaneously all parties were banned, even those like the Martov Mensheviks who now accepted the revolution and were a Soviet opposition.

Intended as temporary measures to aid the party through the dangerous period of transition to the New Economic Policy, these bans became permanent and ultimately shaded off into the Stalinist ice age in which nobody but the "Great Leader" himself dared utter an independent word.

In opposition to the bureaucracy there crystallised out of the old Bolshevik party a determinedly revolutionary section, dedicated to maintaining the revolutionary perspectives of the party and fighting for a restoration of party democracy and later of soviet democracy.

Lenin was one of the first in the field against the bureaucracy.

Lenin resists the Stalinist counterrevolution

In 1922 Lenin suffered a stroke which paralysed him almost totally for a period. After a brief recovery, he suffered another stroke on 7 March 1923. He never recovered, though there were periods in which he was able to dictate notes.

In this period he fought his last battle, against growing bureaucratism and in defence of working class democracy.

On his deathbed he became increasingly aware that things were not going well, and alarmed by the growing power of the bureaucracy. He had, he said, the uncanny sensation of turning a steering wheel which no longer had any control over the vehicle.

Initiative from below was being stifled. The Workers' Inspectorate, far from being a genuine organ of working class supervision, had become merely one more source of bureaucratic power for Stalin.

On the national question, too, "great Russian chauvinism" was restoring itself to power within the new social structures. Stalin and Dzherzhinsky had conducted a savage campaign against the Georgian Bolsheviks, accusing them of nationalism. Lenin knew where the malignant nationalism lay — in the great Russian chauvinism of the central state apparatus.

He resolved to conduct a struggle against the bureaucracy, in favour of the maligned Georgian Bolsheviks and the rights of the Georgian people within the Soviet system. But Lenin the activist was reduced to Lenin the dictator of notes, unable even to write them himself. These notes became his testament.

On 4 January 1923 he wrote: "Stalin is too rude and this defect...becomes intolerable in a general secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think over a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing somebody else differing in all respects from Comrade Stalin by one single advantage — that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to the comrades, less officious, etc.

"I think that from the point of view of assuring against a split and from the point of view of what I wrote above of the mutual relations between Stalin and Trotsky, it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can acquire decisive importance."

Stalin was not removed and in any case he was not himself the new bureaucracy, merely its personification.

No political issue so clearly epitomises the profoundly revolutionary and democratic spirit of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as their policy on the national question. True, they had (rightly) not hesitated to subordinate the national rights of the Poles in 1920 to the needs, as they saw them, of the workers' revolution.

But for most of the long-oppressed nationalities and peoples of the Tsarist empire, the workers' revolution meant liberation, a tearing down of that Bastille of the nations. The revolutionary effects of Bolshevik policy on oppressed nationalities and peoples was felt as far away as among the Blacks in the USA.

The fate of the national minorities under the Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution graphically summed up what that counter-revolution meant, and will do to illustrate what happened in every area of society.

It was one of the most savage ironies of history. While the Austrian prison house of nations had been shattered into fragments, the Bolshevik policy of self-determination had preserved the unity of most of the former Tsarist empire — unity on the basis of freedom of the component nations and peoples.

Now the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration began systematically to convert the free association of Soviet peoples created in the fires of revolution and civil war back into a prison house for the non-Great Russians. Stalin rebuilt the walls and institutions of national oppression. They systematic bureaucratisation of the party and the state apparatus, bureaucratically centralised and unified throughout the "Soviet Union", inevitably meant that the constitutional rights of the nations and peoples became a fiction.

The political and ideological degeneration of the bureaucracy injected the poison of Russian chauvinism into the state structure. By the mid-'20s, the Stalinist faction was already using anti-semitism within the Party against the Trotskyist opposition which continued the anti-bureaucratic offensive of Lenin.

The progressive impulse of the revolutionaries' policy on the national question could still be felt throughout the 1920s, especially in the least developed Eastern regions. But by the early 1930s the Stalinists were able to turn on its head the central teaching on the national question of the revolution and of Lenin.

They now proclaimed that the national problem in the USSR was no longer the poison of Great Russian chauvinism, but "nationalist deviations" among the peoples long oppressed by that chauvinism.

For over 60 years a majority of the people of the USSR had national oppression superimposed on the social oppression experienced by all the population. Whole nations were deported. The Ukraine, a nation of 50 million, the biggest oppressed nation in the world, was made subject to systematic national and cultural oppression, sometimes more savage, sometimes less. The last large-scale purge there began in the 1970s.

There were few states on earth more alien to Lenin's programme on the national question than the Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev USSR - the one where the production of pictures and statues of Lenin, stylised to fit a vulgar Stalinist caricature, was a major industry.

On 21 January 1924 Lenin died. Within a short time all that he stood for had become a dead letter in the Communist movement.

Stalin and his friends used the occasion of Lenin's death to organise the so-called "Lenin levy", a swamping of the revolutionary core of the party by a mass of raw, often careerist, recruits.

At the end of 1923 the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, had taken up the same struggle as Lenin. Within a year of Lenin's death, the bureaucracy had differentiated itself from his programme by proclaiming a programme that lie would have mocked, that there could be socialism in one country. Thus they started on the road to abandoning the struggle for international proletarian revolution.

Over years and decades they were to redefine the very basis of socialism, the self-liberation of the working class, to comply with their own authoritarian police-state rule. The notions of liberty and democracy, and much else that the socialist working class takes over from the great liberation movements of the past, were excised from their state socialism, and an authoritarianism previously associated with the Right inserted in their place. Lenin's properly bitter denunciations of the reformists' parliamentary fetishism were construed as absolute renunciation of democracy and endorsement of bureaucratic tyranny.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition were very soon the only forces still standing on Lenin's programme. The bureaucracy gained control of the young parties of the Comintern, many of them still in the process of formation. In time they were transformed into parties like the Communist Parties which ignominiously collapsed in the early 1990s.

Within little more than ten years of Lenin's death, almost the entire generation of Bolshevik revolutionaries were murdered by the totalitarian state with Stalin at its head.

Lenin, safely dead, was mummified and made into an icon by the Stalinist state. As if foreseeing it, Lenin had written, with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in mind:

"During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slanders. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the 'consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it."

The impossibility even for Stalin of destroying Lenin's published works — which for us remain the real Lenin — now led to endless scholastic reinterpretations of them, quite alien to the spirit of Lenin and the spirit of Marxism.

The Russian Revolution led by way of the Stalinist political counterrevolution to the savagely tyrannical rule of a vast bureaucratic caste which subjected the working class of the USSR and Eastern Europe to unparalleled social and political expression. In conditions of Russian backwardness and the isolation of the revolution, many of the worst features of class society were grafted onto the collectivised property initially established by the workers' revolution.

Does the historical fate of the Russian workers' revolution endorse in retrospect the verdict of those scholastic Marxists like Karl Kautsky who condemned Lenin and the Bolsheviks as adventurists — people who took a leap in the dark?

It is best to let the splendid revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg answer that question. Luxemburg was an ardent supporter of the Russian Revolution, but also a sharp critic of the policy of the Bolsheviks. She differed with them on their land policy and on their national policy. She criticised the Red Terror and argued that the Bolshevik Revolution could and should have been won with less repression and more democracy than the Bolsheviks felt they could foster after the outbreak of civil war in mid-1918.

She wrote against the Kautskys: "That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political farsightedness and firmness of principle and of the bold scope of their policies...

"Surely nothing can be further from (Lenin's and Trotsky's) thoughts than to believe that all the things they have done or left undone under the conditions of bitter compulsion and necessity in the midst of the roaring whirlpool of events, should be regarded by the International as a shining example of socialist policy towards which only uncritical admiration and zealous imitation are in order".

But: "Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour 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 honour of international socialism."

The Bolsheviks, socialists, proletarian revolutionaries, and consistent Marxists, were absolutely right to seize power, to base themselves on the perspective of the international socialist revolution. It was not their fault that the working class was everywhere defeated in the advanced countries of Europe and that the Russian Revolution was isolated and subsequently degenerated.

If a group of old Bolsheviks, led by Stalin, finally betrayed the revolution, they could only feel secure in that work when they had slaughtered almost the entire membership of the revolutionary party that Lenin had built.

If the European labour movement had had more of Bolshevism in it, then the Russian Bolshevik-led revolution would not have led to Stalinism but to the inauguration of the liberation of the working class at least of Europe.

Their method, their programme, and their spirit is today still the only serious working-class answer to capitalism. It was the only working-class to the Stalinist system which came to rule over one third of the globe, before most of it collapsed into market capitalism amidst economic chaos and mass pauperisation.

These articles have traced the outline of Lenin's political activities. Let the writer Maxim Gorky, a friend of Lenin though not always an uncritical one — he opposed the October insurrection, and very bitterly criticised the Red Terror — have the last word on Lenin's character and motives.

"I have never met ... nor do I know of, any man who hated, loathed and despised so deeply and strongly as Lenin all unhappiness, grief and suffering ... Lenin was exceptionally great, in my opinion, precisely because of this feeling in him of irreconcilable, unquenchable hostility towards the sufferings of humanity, his burning faith that suffering is not an essential and unavoidable part of life, but an abomination which people ought and are able to sweep away."