October and its discontents

Submitted by Matthew on 26 October, 2011 - 12:11

By Martyn Hudson

Paul Hampton (Solidarity 221) takes issue with my statement that Stalinism was born of the workers ‘movement.

I’ll reply to the accusation that I am misrepresenting Serge in a forthcoming article on Serge, Trotsky and Kronstadt but for now I would like to correct one misapprehension. Although I think that Serge’s theoretical work on the USSR is important, I think his critical analysis of Stalinism actually lies in his fiction — specifically The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Midnight In The Century; the analysis of the rise of the bureaucracy was in earlier novels such as Conquered City. As Paul explicitly states I shouldn’t be using Serge as some kind of mask for my own views. So here we go.

Firstly, I think that Trotsky never understood the nature of Stalinism. He simply couldn’t understand why the “highest mediocrity” of the party [Stalin] and his acolytes could destroy a revolution from within. This is because he was viewing October through the lens of previous bourgeois revolutions and of course how could he not? He was trying to make a diagnosis and a prognosis with a model that history had given him. This also led him to abdicate arrogantly from the struggle at decisive moments.

Secondly, the development of new class forces as Paul rightly points out is critical. Classes are made and self-made and constantly in a process of recomposition. However what Paul conveniently tries to forget is that most of the Left Opposition came to see Stalinism as a bureaucracy which had swung to the pole of the workers and the peasants by the late twenties and that “primitive socialist accumulation” and the dispossession of the kulaks were seen as “Trotskyist” policies adopted by Stalin as he swung away from the influence of Bukharin, Rykov and the pro-peasant wing of the party.

Neither the capitulators nor Trotsky saw what was really happening — the revolution had been betrayed (but from within, not without) and it had no specific ideology except that of a peculiar, monstrous, bureaucratic “socialism”.

Thirdly, the key point, Stalinism was an extension of October in new directions and not a counter-revolution. October was an adventure and a gamble. It failed and the tiny working class which had forged that revolution was destroyed creating a monstrous, hybrid social formation that could not move forward to socialism. Others, like Luxemburg, warned of imminent despotism. As the revolution fought for its life it committed crimes and a nascent totalitarianism was born in the cellars of the Cheka.

Perhaps the only hope for this revolution in 1921 was to combat these tendencies within the party as the party began to be taken cell by cell by the Stalinist bureaucracy: with political liberties, trade union organisation, the reform of the party apparatus, and so on. The forms and trappings of revolutionary Marxism shrouded the deeper nature of the emergent class dictatorship of the bureaucracy; it was a summation and extension of all that had gone before, not some kind of decisive break with the Bolshevik tradition. It was a scene of almost tragic grandeur. The first workers’ state destroying itself; a left opposition exemplifying the highest form of humanity dying in the prison camps of Stalin; a revolution made by them and destroying them.

The consequence was a century of almost complete defeat for the working class. In retrospect the filth that accrued to the Marxist tradition because of Stalinism was not the least important aspect of that defeat. Better that October had done without the Cheka and gone the way of the Paris Commune — to a different defeat but one which inspires — rather than paving the way for totalitarian darkness and genocide. Who knows? Much like Spain in 1936 an extension of the libertarian and revolutionary gains may have also led to a different kind of victory.

I think one can be pro-October and still not believe that “rivers of blood” separate Bolshevism from Stalinism. But there could have been so many different routes from that moment in April 1917 when Lenin came to the Finland Station. Our tradition should know better than simply defending the assaults on liberty that led to the final victory of the bureaucracy.

I often think that if you had a time machine and you wanted to destroy a revolutionary, liberatory future or you wanted to destroy an imminent future totalitarianism you would choose the same people to go back and eliminate — all of us in that tradition of Bolshevism. The germs of both are embryonic in us today.

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