Andrew Coates is an astute critic of the state of the international left, so I’m grateful for his review of the book, The Russian Revolution: When the workers took power.
Andrew is right to identify the Bolshevik party as the main locus of the book, since it was this party that made the difference in 1917 (compared with revolutionary situations in Germany, Italy and elsewhere) and it the Bolshevik model that is most relevant for revolutionary socialists today.
Andrew raises important questions about the party and about democracy after the revolution. The book is mostly about 1917 and the politics that made it possible, along with the key ideas current socialists might learn from it. However chapter 10 attempts to chart the decline and fall of working class democracy and the concomitant rise of Stalinism.
Andrew raises the issue of whether the same pressures that caused the bureaucratisation of the SPD in Germany also contributed to the degeneration of the Bolshevik party. The SPD was undoubtedly Lenin’s model, but this was the SPD before 1905 — perhaps even the SPD in the early 1890s — before it created the kind of reformist apparatus associated with Friedrich Ebert. Lenin was later than many (especially Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others) in understanding the SPD’s decline.
He was nevertheless consistent in his opposition to the Bolshevik party’s bureaucratisation in power. The social and political pressures were different: in the SPD’s case the weight of the militarised capitalist state; in the Bolsheviks’ it was leading an isolated workers’ state in a backward country.
Andrew also raises questions about the form of Bolshevik rule before Stalinism. He is right that Bolshevik mistakes on matters of democracy and the rule of law cannot simply be blamed on circumstances, since all political actors make choices within the given the context.
While some over-exuberant Bolsheviks may have made a virtue out of some necessities (such as war communism), the prevailing mood of the period was summed by Trotsky in 1920: “Russia — looted, weakened, exhausted, falling apart”. The context — civil war, international intervention, economic crisis — cannot be ignored: the Bolsheviks were materialists, not voluntarists.
I think Andrew is wrong to argue that “it was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off”. The book describes the struggle of the Left Opposition for soviet democracy until 1928, when Stalinism snuffed out workers’ rule. The opposition failed, but at least they fought.
That is a key lesson from the Russian revolution that we should not give up lightly.