Remembering the Russian revolution

Submitted by Matthew on 1 February, 2017 - 12:36 Author: Max Shachtman

Less than three months after the victory of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin remarked at a meeting that the soviet power of the Russian workers and peasants had already lasted longer than the Paris Commune of 1871 which lived for only 10 weeks.

The statement was made with pride, but no doubt with some wonderment. It reflected the conditions, incredibly complicated and difficult, under which the Russian proletariat took power into its own hands. We live in an age when change is rapid, frequent and profound. The thirty-one years since the Russian Revolution have seen epochal changes. None is so deepgoing, so unexpected and so confounding as the change in the direction of that revolution. The attempt made in 1917 failed. The hideous reality of Stalinism is nothing like the noble purpose of socialism which the Bolsheviks set out to achieve. In almost every respect, the former is the grusome caricature of the latter.

In the great initiative of the Bolsheviks, millions through-out the world saw the beginnings of the new freedom. In the present-day outcome in Russia, millions see the new slavery and millions more suffer in silenced anguish under it. When it began, there began also a stormy and confident offensive [around the world] of revolutionary socialism, of Marxism, whose principles and programs were embodied in the Bolshevik movement.

With the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution, Marxism is today everywhere on the defensive. The ideas of Bolshevism were summed up in this: the road to freedom lies through the establishment of socialism; the road to socialism lies through the overturn of capitalism by the revolutionary power of the working class. The offensive against Marxism is directed against these ideas. It is an offensive on an unparalleled scale. It is sponsored by the highest government authorities. Dutifully and enthusiastically, it is carried out in virtually every number of every daily, weekly and monthly periodical. The theme of this offensive is quite familar: “Bolshevism leads to Stalinism. The Stalinist totalitarianism was inherent in Bolshevism itself.” The Russian Revolution could have produced nothing else than what we have in Russia today...

The aim of this offensive is a political one; its effects certainly are. And its political aim is a reactionary one. The whole capitalist world including that part of the working class world whose ideas and activities are decisively influenced by it. Is now mobilised for preparations for the third world war, the war between the US and Russia. War preparations are inconceivable nowadays without ideological preparation of the people to accept the war ... The abysmal degeneration of Stalinist Russia and of the Stalinist movement everywhere has provided the enemies of socialism with all the basic materials for the weapons in their offensive, with materials of such a kind and in such quantity as they never dreamed of having in their century-long struggle against socialism. They have slashed and mutilated the true portrait of the Bolshevik revolution so that it can no longer be recognised.

We know a good deal already, thanks above all to Leon Trotsky, of the Stalinist school of falsification. We do not realise however that there is another school of falsification about the Russian Revolution that is actively at work. It is the school run by the social-democrats, zealously assisted by turncoats from the revolutionary movement. It is at once the complement of the Stalin school and of the reactionary imperialist campaign against so­cialism. Like all falsifiers of history, it operates with outright lies, with half-truths, with significant omission, with snapshots of events ripped away from the attending circumstances, and in the best of cases with an utter failure to understand what a revolution is, or with criterias applied to a revolution which belong at best in a drawing room discussion or a game of cricket.

The fact which enemies of socialism are most anxious to keep in the dark is that the Bolsheviks represented not only the most revolutionary socialist movement of their time, but also the most consistently vigorous democratic movement. There is no other intelligent or intelligible explanation for the big fact that the Bolsheviks, starting as a tiny party even after the overturn of the rule of the Tsar, took power and were able to maintain it for years with the support of the decisive sections, of the people of Russia.

Whatever the forms it may take, democracy must express the will of the people. In 1917, the people of Russia were completely exhausted by the war, tired of the horrible bloodletting, tired of fighting for the imperialist aims not only of Russian Tsarism but of British and French bankers and monopolists. They wanted peace above all other things. They wanted it so passionately that they overthrew the regime of the Tsars. What they got in place of Tsarism [after the revolution of February 1917], was a government of the Russian capitalists which wanted to continue the war, which wanted to maintain the reactionary landlordism of Russia, which feared and hated the aroused masses and sought to circumvent the will of the people and to thwart their aspirations by all the vicious devices of modern governments.

This government, the provisional government of Kerensky, was supported by the two non-Bolshevik parties which enjoyed popular support, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (SRs). soviets The Bolsheviks gathered millions and ever more millions of workers, soldiers and peasants around them by militantly supporting the demands of the people. They did not talk about them but fought for them. They were for immediate peace, for land to the peasants, for workers control of the factories, for immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly, for a truly democratic republic. And that is the fundamental reason why the soviets rallied, in one locality after another, to the support of the Bolsheviks. The taking over of power by the soviets was the greatest victory in history for democracy, and this victory was made possible by the Bolshevik leadership and no other.

The Bolsheviks had not invented the soviets in some cellar or house of dogma. The soviets were first brought into existence in 1905 by the Mensheviks. In the 1917 revolution, they were constituted and for a long time led by the Mensheviks and SRs and not by the Bolsheviks. But it was only the Bolsheviks who said that these most democratic organs and representatives of the people shall rule in the name of the people and in their interests. Once in power, the Bolsheviks did everything in their power to bring peace to war-exhausted Russia. If Russia was to know very little peace within its own frontiers for the next few years, the responsibility was in no sense that of the Bolsheviks and the soviet power.

The Bolsheviks took Russia out of the imperialist war, even if it meant great sacrifices in the form of tribute to the armies of the German Kaiser. The Bolsheviks actually gave the land to the peasants, which no other political group in Russia was prepared to do except the allies of the Bolsheviks, the left-wing SRs. The Bolsheviks proceeded to suppress the counterrevolutionary forces and movements of the Tsarists, the bankers, the clergy, the reactionary generals and the landlords. And as is befitting in a revolutionary upheaval, they proceeded by revolutionary means.

When rifles were raised against the soviet power, the soviets replied with rifles. No revolutionary government in history worthy of the name has ever acted differently. The criticisms of the Bolsheviks in this case are made by people who seem never to have heard of the Great French Revolution or even the American Revolution and the Civil War. Every revolution has its traducers and its detractors who complain because it acted like a revolution and did not deal with its opponents the way you deal with them at a game of bridge. The Bolshevik revolution is no exception.

One of the great difficulties about a revolution is that these who oppose its victory seldom understand its purpose and its determination, seldom reconcile themselves to its working existence.

Here too the Bolshevik revolution was no exception. The Bolsheviks, for example, did not even start with the idea of suppressing the capitalist parties or of disfranchising the capitalist class. Nor did they start with the idea of confiscating all capitalist property and nationalising all industry. On the contrary, they opposed it. They knew the backwardness of Russia. They knew the lack of experience and culture not only of the workers in general but of themselves as well. They not only wanted the capitalists to remain in the factories but even guaranteed them a reasonable profit. But the logic of the class struggle is inexorable. The Russian capitalist class could not reconcile itself with the idea of a soviet state ruled by the workers and peasants. They sabotaged their own plants; they refused to cooperate in any way.

Confronted with this situtation, with the fact that complete economic chaos threatened the already chaotic country, the Bolsheviks proceeded to take over industry, to nationalise it, or more accurately, to legalise the seizures of the industries which the workers themselves were spontaneously carrying out. What held for the Russian capitalist class, held in substantially the same way for the two big popular parties, the Mensheviks and the SRs.

They could not reconcile themselves to the decisive fact that a great revolution had taken place which brought the Bolsheviks to power. They could not understand the decisive fact that the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants were the most democratic and the most widely supported organisations in existence. Instead, these two parties championed the Constituent Assembly which finally convened two months after the Bolshevik Revolution but which no longer represented the people of Russia. Not only the Bolsheviks withdrew from this Assembly but also the Left SRs. who had split with the right wing but which represented the big majority of the peasants.

The Constituent Assembly could only become a rallying center, a war-cry, for the counter-revolution in Russia, and that is why it was dispersed by the revolutionary regime. That is what the Mensheviks and Right SRs did not understand. But its truth was soon demonstrated. The Assembly became the program of every counterrevolutionist inside and outside of Russia — from the Cossack generals to Winston Churchill who was soon to spend millions of pounds sterling in the attempt to overturn the workers and peasants power in Russia.

• Abridged. First published in Labor Action 15 November 1948.