What was the Bolsheviks’ conception of the 1917 revolution?

Submitted by martin on 18 November, 2009 - 11:00 Author: Sean Matgamna

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
By Sean Matgamna
[An Introduction to "Trotsky's 3 Conceptions...". Both were published in Socialist Organiser at the time of the collapse of Stalinist Russia.]

The erstwhile rulers of the Stalinist system — which they said was the realisation of socialism — are now working openly for the restoration of capitalism. So are most of those they rule, and in the first place the working class.

The people trapped inside the Stalinist system have been kept for decades in political, economic and intellectual slavery to the bureaucratic state. Now the iron bands have been loosened, and they look to the bourgeois democracies of Western Europe with famished shining eyes, thinking they see here the ideal society of freedom and prosperity.

Not so very long ago, tens of millions of West European workers, like millions of workers throughout the world, looked to Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s USSR and thought they saw there the model of working-class freedom and prosperity. But it is capitalism which has survived and kept possession of the world’s advanced economies. Stalinism has withered and is dying.

They tell us it is socialism and Marxism that is dying now, dying discredited, in a storm of curses from its victims, interspersed with which can be heard the gleeful cackling of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

And if what existed in the Stalinist states was socialism — socialism in any shape or degree, socialism in its “first stage” or in any of its stages — then socialism is indeed dead, and it deserves to be dead. It should have died a long time ago!

The question is: was it socialism? Part of the difficulty in answering that question is that the very words are worn away. They have long ago lost their meaning.

What is socialism? Yes, on one level, Stalinism was “socialism”. It has for decades been the “actually existing socialism”. What Stalinism was, that is what “socialism” and “communism” have been. But word-juggling like that does not tell us very much. We need to go behind the words.

Socialism, child of capitalism

Our aim, the aim of authentic socialism, is the emancipation of the proletariat from wage-slavery and state tyranny by the creation of a democratically organised common property in the means of production, and by the destruction of the bureaucratic state which is typical of all modern class societies, including the bourgeois democracies like Britain. Such a society presupposes a high level of economic development; it presupposes there being more than enough for everyone of the basics of life.

According to the reasoning we find in the classics of Marxism such a society can only be brought into existence by a victory of the working class over the bourgeoisie in the class struggle which is a normal and prominent part of capitalist society. (For the last decade in Britain, Margaret Thatcher has waged a bitter and unrelenting class struggle, using the state machine as her stronghold, on behalf of the bosses against the working class).

For Marx and Engels, the founders of modern socialism, and for all their followers, including those of them who led the Russian working class to power in 1917, this meant that socialism was impossible in a country as backward and underdeveloped as Russia was in 1917. Socialism had to be the child of advanced capitalism, or it would never exist.

Socialism could not come before advanced capitalism, or grow up in parallel to it. The idea that socialists leading a tiny working class in a nation of peasants could seize power and then over decades develop a socialist economy in competition with advanced capitalism — that would have been dismissed as lunacy by all the Marxist classics, including Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 and after. They would have pigeon-holed it with utopian-socialist colony building and with the idea that the working class can displace the bourgeoisie by setting up cooperatives to compete with them.

The working class had to win state power in the most advanced capitalist countries, as well as in the less-developed world with which the advanced countries are economically entwined — that is, make an international revolution — or there would be no socialism.

Yet, you may say, Lenin and Trotsky and their comrades did make a socialist working class revolution in backward Russia! And so they plainly broke with the idea that socialism had to be the offspring of the most advanced capitalism.

No, they didn’t! Lenin and Trotsky never believed Russia was ripe for socialism. They knew and repeatedly said the very opposite. They did believe, and prove in practice, that Russia was ripe for a workers’ revolution. That is not the same thing.

Because of the collapse in World War I of the rotten old Tsarist order, the workers were able to seize power despite Russia’s lack of ripeness for socialism. But Russia did not become ripe for socialism by virtue of the working class seizing power. On the contrary, the civil war and foreign invasions which followed the revolution wrecked the Russian economy and dispersed the working class itself, and thus made Russia less ripe for socialism than when the Bolsheviks seized power.

Russia’s isolation

So then, was the Bolshevik revolution a crazy kamikaze adventure by Lenin and Trotsky and their comrades, a foredoomed gesture? No. They believed that the seizure of power by the Russian workers would help trigger workers’ revolutions in the West, in the advanced countries such as Britain and Germany and France, which were ripe for socialism. The Russian workers could begin: but the workers of the West would have to “finish”. The Russians could only propose, the working class in the West would dispose.

In fact the workers in Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary did rise, and in Hungary and Bavaria they briefly held power. Either they were defeated, or, as in Germany, their leaders sold out to the bourgeoisie.

Having seized power, the small and depleted Russian working class was isolated in control of a vast country, large swathes of which were economically and socially pre-capitalist. From 1921, they were forced to allow a regrowth of small-scale capitalism, under the control of the workers’ state. Having boldly proclaimed the need to destroy the bureaucratic-military state, they were forced in self-defence (14 states, including Britain invaded the workers’ republic!) to create a vast bureaucratic-military state. It bulked all the larger in a backward society where the old ruling class had been swept away and the working class itself had been dispersed and uprooted by civil-war, famine and invasion.

Out of the state bureaucracy soon crystallised a layer, led by Stalin, which secured for itself ever-growing privileges. They allied with the small-capitalist class, newly regrown under the New Economic Policy after 1921, against those, led by Leon Trotsky, who remained loyal to socialism. Because the working class itself had been pulverised, the Stalinists defeated those Bolsheviks who remained Bolsheviks, the Trotskyists.

At an early stage (1923-25) the struggle between Stalinists and Trotskyists had centred around, focused on, political questions. At the heart of the ideological dispute was the question of the nature and perspectives of the Russian Revolution.

The Trotskyists held to the ideas on which the Bolsheviks had made the revolution. Russia was not ripe for socialism, and socialism could not be built in such conditions. The Russian revolution would be destroyed and capitalism restored unless the international working-class revolution, begun in October 1917 in Russia, could be spread to the advanced countries. The fate of the Russian revolution itself would depend on the world revolution.

Those were no more than the elementary ideas of Marxism. But as Stalin gained power, they became the property of a small, persecuted rearguard of those who called themselves Marxists and Leninists.

"Socialism in one country”

From 1924 the Stalinists proclaimed “Socialism in One Country” as the “realistic” approach. Not only could the Russian revolution survive indefinitely in isolation: socialism, they said, could be built there, in parallel to the vastly more advanced capitalist countries, which it would overtake and surpass. Without, of course, acknowledging it, they thus broke with all the basic ideas of Marxian socialism. For world revolution was substituted the task of developing the Soviet economy.

For the Communist Parties outside the USSR this would mean subordinating everything to helping Stalin’s foreign policy secure the conditions for the peaceful development of the one and only socialist country. It led to such horrors as the peaceful surrender of the powerful German Communist Party to Hitler, and the Stalinists’ bloody suppression and destruction of working-class socialism during the Spanish Civil War. But that is a different aspect of the story.

Paradoxically, in the mid ‘20s, while the Stalinists were still allying with the new bourgeoisie against the working class and the Trotskyists, it was Trotsky who made serious proposals for making the best of a temporary peace to build up the economy. The Stalinists, and their allies, Bukharin and his followers, scoffed.

In 1928-9 the Stalinist state broke with the bourgeoisie and forcibly collectivised the urban and rural economy, with enormous speed and brutality, and at a terrible cost in lost and ruined lives and in economic destruction. Agriculture has never to this day recovered. The bureaucracy was cutting out its bourgeois rival and making itself sole “master of the surplus product” [Trotsky]. For the next sixty years the bureaucracy would lord it over the working class, having crushed the bourgeoisie.

The new Stalinist “model”

In what relationship did Stalin’s social system — which would be replicated in Eastern Europe after the defeat of Hitler in 1945, and then in China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. — stand to the perspectives and conceptions of Marxian socialism, of Bolshevism?

It was its radical opposite at every important point. The working class was not the ruling class. On the contrary, in the ‘30s and ‘40s it was reduced to something like slavery — and many millions of workers were brought to outright slavery, in the labour camps — by an all-powerful terroristic state.

This was no self-regulating society. It had neither the spontaneous self-regulation of the free market, nor the conscious and deliberate socialist self regulation of free self-determining citizens. The political will of the bureaucracy regulated and ruled, limited only by material constraints and the passive resistance of its victims. The bureaucracy took to itself the privileges of old ruling classes, and administered society by crude planning enforced by indescribably savage police-state terror.

The Stalinist state was markedly autarkic, geared to economic development “in one country” — exceptionally so even in the 1930s’ dislocated world of closed-off empires and economic blocs. At its core was the project of economic self-development from its own resources. The later, smaller, Stalinist states would ludicrously follow the example of would-be autarky set by Stalin in the vastness of Russia.

The development of backward countries by way of an economic forced march organised by an all-powerful terrorist state now became the dominant, the core idea on a world scale of what was “socialism”.

It could neither have sufficient access to the fruits of the most advanced capitalist techniques — that is, build on the achievements of capitalism — nor develop its own advanced technique (except, using German scientists, in freak episodes like its rocketry in the 1950s and 60s). The stifling bureaucratic system on which the ruling class depended worked against science and intellectual freedom.

Despite the economic achievements of Stalinism in crude industrialisation, the USSR and the rest remained cut off from the dynamic advanced sectors of the world economy which the bourgeoisie had created after World War 2 — those which, according to unfalsified Marxism, had to be the take-off point for building socialism.

The USSR, and its duplicate societies, thus ceased to have anything to do with working-class political power.

But whatever label you gave them — degenerated and deformed workers’ states, bureaucratic collectivist, state-capitalist — the Stalinist societies continued to have the essential relationship to the world capitalist economy heralded by Stalin with his notion of building “socialism in one country”. They would grow up in parallel to capitalism, competing with it as an alternative system. The totalitarian states were everywhere the creators of great political and economic barrier reefs to wall off their societies from the inevitable consequences of normal market relations between the advanced (capitalist) world and their own world.

Had capitalism continued in its free spiralling decline of the ‘30s, then the Stalinist systems might have become a stable new form of society. That was what Trotsky feared was happening, and, later, people like Max Shachtman believed had happened. But capitalism, after having reduced large areas of the globe to ruins in World War 2, revived and thrived. The Stalinist states became a backward appendage to the dynamic economies of the world, developing less fast, stifled by bureaucracy, and unable to create their own advanced technology. The ill-formed ruling classes sank into paralysis, without even the control of their societies given to Stalin by his unbridled terror.

The result, too long delayed, is the tremendous collapse we see unfolding now, with all its initial horrors and tragedy for the people of the Stalinist states.

It has nothing to do with socialism. The Stalinist phenomenon was only a social mutation arising out of the defeat of the Russian working class in the 1920s by the Stalinist bureaucracy, allied then to the weak Russian bourgeoisie.

The very model of fully collectivised property came not from socialism but from Stalin’s struggle after 1928 on behalf of the bureaucracy to stop the spontaneous growth of petty capitalists as competitors with the bureaucracy for the surplus product. Yet, in so far as the Stalinist states retained their typical peculiar relation to world capitalism, they fell under the self-same laws according to which Trotsky ruled out “socialism in one country”.

You cannot overthrow or supersede advanced capitalism by developing a backward country in competition with it. The workers in power could not do that, and the Stalinist rulers who overthrew the workers couldn’t do it, even with the most savage super-exploitation of the working class. That is what the collapse of European Stalinism means.

I repeat: this had nothing to do with socialism. Workers’ power was destroyed in the USSR long ago. Immense confusion has been caused by the form of its destruction: not the restoration of the bourgeoisie but the rule of an exploiting class ensconced in the state apparatus and based on collectivised economy. Because they had political power, the bureaucrats warded off the pressures of world capitalism for decades, trying to build “their own” society.

The laws of history

They seemed to defy the Marxist laws of history. They seemed the living and developing refutation of the Marxist view that force, brute force, though force can be the midwife of a society ripe with revolution, could not fundamentally shape the course of history.

Now the laws of history which Stalin denied have caught up with Stalinism.

For socialists that is good. The underlying realities are stripped bare. The counterfeit “socialism” of the bureaucrats (“developmentalism”) has truthfully declared itself bankrupt. The bureaucrats are trying to become capitalists.

Nothing socialist is lost, because in the USSR the possibility of socialism without a new workers’ revolution was lost sixty years ago. Much is gained — the freeing of socialism from confusion and from horrible associations.

Right now there is a mass stampede away from discredited “socialism”: but the ground is being cleared for real socialism and unfalsified Marxism.

This collapse of Stalinism vindicates Marxism — the Marxism proclaimed by the Bolsheviks when they insisted that the Russian revolution would live or die by the world revolution, the Marxism defended by Trotsky against the barbarous nonsense of “socialism in one country”. Nothing socialist or Marxist is lost; much is gained.

The collapse of Stalinism vindicates the calculation and perspectives of Lenin and Trotsky and those who led the workers to power in 1917. It has taken a long time — after decades of the Stalinist cul-de-sac social system, walled off from the surrounding world by the Stalinist state power — for the fundamental world realities to make themselves felt. But History does not cheat itself.

Bourgeois triumphalism and the mass renegacy from even nominal socialism of the Stalinists and their fellow-travellers does, of course, exert a great pressure now on all socialists. It presses down even on the Trotskyists, although our version of Marxism is vindicated — the Marxism defending which many thousands of our comrades have died, in a struggle to the death with the murderous Stalinist counterfeit in the Soviet Union, in China, in Spain, and elsewhere.

In the late 1930s C L R James, talking to Trotsky, asked: how is it possible, comrade Trotsky, that you were right about the German revolution of 1923, the British general strike of 1926, the Chinese revolution in 1927, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Spanish Civil War — and yet we are still a tiny, isolated, persecuted little group?

Trotsky replied that to be right is not enough. If your ideas do not prevail, and if as a result the German, Chinese, British, Spanish workers go down to crushing defeat, then being right does not protect you from the general defeat of the class. The defeated movement declines, and we go down: with it. We cannot rise higher than the class whose vigour, elan and combativity are so central and irreplaceable and all-conditioning for our politics. Worse: experience shows that working-class defeat strengthens incumbent bureaucracies and thus further isolates the revolutionaries.

So it is now. The reformists are strengthened, though it was the reformists’ treason to the Russian revolutionary workers and to their own working classes in Western Europe which isolated and defeated the heroic Russian working class. The Trotskyists too share the pressure of the general disillusionment and collapse now.

We have the advantage, however, now as in the past, that we can understand what is happening as Marxists; and because of that we can resist the disillusionment. We can prepare the future.

The future, like the past and the present, will be a world of class struggle, and in those struggles socialists will be able to convince the working class to fight for the programme and the perspective of genuine Marxism. Already in the Stalinist states, where the working class has great cause to hate “socialism”, and does hate “socialism”, the class struggle is rising. The workers will outgrow their confusion. On the ground scorched and polluted by Stalinism, the fresh green shoots of new working class life are already visible.

1990