Section one. The great illusion: the Russian revolution of 1917 - Claude Bitot

Section one. The great illusion: the Russian revolution of 1917 - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

The Great Illusion:

I. The Russian Revolution of 1917

A Flash of Lightning in the Darkness

When war broke out in 1914 the socialism of the Second International could be considered to be dead, dragged along by the wave of warmongering that seized all of Europe. Despite the resolutions against war that were approved at its previous congresses, it surrendered unconditionally by voting for war credits, while many of its leaders entered “sacred union” governments.

“Bankruptcy of the Second International” Lenin would exclaim, completely astonished by such capitulation. An odd reaction! As if the political and ideological activities of international socialism were in the ascendant only to suddenly veer off towards the pit of a resounding and unexpected collapse in August of 1914. In reality, they had long been on the decline, and the bankruptcy of 1914 did nothing but put the finishing touches upon the melting away of such socialism, which only presented the image of an exhausted movement, ridden with doubts, a prisoner of revisionism. Even its revolutionary remnant had not completely escaped this morbid deficiency, this impotence that characterized it. Bernstein’s revisionism emerged and revealed the extent of the malady. It was endlessly refuted but, having been tossed out the front door, it invariably returned through the window. In 1899, Luxemburg thought she had provided the definitive response to the theory of the final collapse of capitalism, which she openly questioned. It must be kept in mind that she was not yet so sure about her response, since she would later (1915) write: “Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.”1 This proposes the idea of a capitalism that could lead, due to its internal contradictions, to something other than a socialist revolution; if the proletariat, here raised up to the level of supreme savior, should be unequal to the task, civilization will collapse into “decadent barbarism”. With one stroke, socialism loses its “granite foundation”, its character of “objective necessity” that Luxemburg defended in the past against Bernstein.2 History was not, therefore, all so clear as that; since it posed “a dilemma” that had not been foreseen by Marx and his historical determinism, the latter was now undergoing revision as a historical problem.

A Europe buried up to its neck in a horrible war that effectively appeared to be a rejection of civilization and a step backwards, a socialist movement that had completely collapsed, a few internationalist militants who tried to survive politically and ideologically but among whom there was no absence of a multitude of questions; such were the conditions when, all at once, news arrived: down there, in the confines of Eastern Europe, in a country that was still completely backward, semi-asiatic, and essentially agrarian, but which nonetheless had a few industrial centers such as Petrograd, some socialists, called “Bolsheviks”, had seized power in October 1917. Furthermore, not content with having carried out a revolution in their country, they broadcast an appeal to the international proletariat to follow their example and thus to “turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war”. In 1916, in her pamphlet The Crisis in German Social Democracy, Luxemburg ruled out the possibility that the socialist revolution could spread from a backward region: “It can only be from Europe, it can only be from the oldest capitalist countries that, when the time comes, the signal for the social revolution that will liberate humanity will resound.” That Russia did not count as one of the “oldest” capitalist countries was no longer so important when she wrote her reflections on the Russian revolution while in prison in 1918: despite her reservations, she hailed it as a great achievement: “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’”3

They dared! That is certainly the essential thing. In such a period, what did the imperfections and ambiguities that may exist matter, what was important was this flash of lightning in the darkness that the Russian revolution constituted. Here was something that could provide a little consolation. So, all is not lost. Hope is reborn. Under its new name of Bolshevism, socialism seems to have come back to life, shining with a bright light in this distant part of Europe.

It remains to be seen, however, if this living radiance was only a mirage. In fact, we shall show that such a revolution can be nothing but a utopia in action.

The First Aspect of Utopia: Wanting to Establish a Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Russia

When Lenin arrived in Petrograd in early 1917, he first attracted attention with his famous April Theses. This text claimed, essentially, that the “bourgeois revolution”, with the overthrow of czarism in February, had come to an end and that Russia must move forward without delay “to the second stage” of the revolution, that which “must give power to the proletariat and the poor peasants”. What does this mean? By this he meant the organization of a State on the model of the Paris Commune, that is, not a State in the usual sense of the word, but a semi-State, “in the process of extinction” and one that would be characterized by “the suppression of the police, the army and the bureaucrats”. This is therefore the establishment in Russia of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Marx had defined it, in 1871, in The Civil War in France.

Some time later, Lenin wrote a pamphlet of special interest to him, The State and Revolution. This pamphlet is a discussion of “the Marxist doctrine of the State” that, among other things, addresses the question of what this State will be like during the transitional period leading from capitalism to communism. But this work was not intended to be merely a theoretical essay, it had a very precise purpose: to explain what the revolutionary power, or in other words, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in Russia will be like in the near future. In a brief afterword appended in November of 1917, he pointed out that he was obliged to postpone writing a chapter entitled “The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917” and employed these words: “It is more agreeable and useful to live ‘the experience of a revolution’ than it is to write about it.” A sentence typical of him. It is the famous maxim of Napoleon that Lenin liked to repeat: first you commit yourself, then you see. So he was going to see. It is in fact quite unfortunate that Lenin did not write this chapter before committing himself. This might have given him the opportunity to explain to us just how he thought he was going to apply such a dictatorship of the proletariat to Russia....

In reality, this task was by its very nature unrealizable in a country where the working class population was estimated to be around 3 million, while the peasant population was estimated to be approximately 114 million. A dictatorship of the proletariat almost without a proletariat, this is what Lenin was proposing! It is true that he stipulated that this dictatorship would be supported by “the peasantry”. But what was such “support” worth? The peasantry was animated by just one goal: to divide up the great estates of the landlords and to become the owners of their own parcels of land. This petit bourgeois aspiration hardly makes a good ally. This would soon be demonstrated: when the countryside dragged its feet in supplying food to the cities, it was necessary to send workers detachments to carry out requisitions and seize the harvests of the peasants. Under these conditions, such a “dictatorship of the proletariat” was condemned to be no more than, in the best of cases, the expression of a minority (that of the 3 million workers) exposed to the greater or lesser hostility of the immense majority. Obliged to become more and more repressive in confronting the latter, and thus to become stronger, it was correspondingly less capable of realizing the socialist goal of the gradual extinction of the State, such as it had been theorized by Lenin.

It could be objected that the Paris Commune, even though it had affected only one city, in an essentially agrarian country such as France was in 1871, was nonetheless called a dictatorship of the proletariat by Marx and Engels. But they did not transform the Commune into a revolutionary myth that had to be reproduced at any price, regardless of the prevailing conditions, such as was attempted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in backward Russia. Marx had seen the Commune as a useful laboratory with regard to the function of the dictatorship of the proletariat (although the Parisian proletariat had to pay a very high price, with its blood, for such a lesson), but had claimed in a letter to Domela Nieuwenhuis: “One thing you can at any rate be sure of: a socialist government does not come into power in a country unless conditions are so developed that it can above all take the necessary measures for intimidating the mass of the bourgeoisie sufficiently to gain time--the first desideratum [requisite]--for lasting action.”4 In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg denounced the dictatorship of the proletariat that had been established in Russia because it was actually the terrorist act of a small revolutionary minority. It was, she maintained, a false dictatorship of the proletariat, that of “a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins”.5 Dictatorship was necessary, of course, Luxemburg continues, but it must be that of the class and not that of a party (understood as a small minority) that is finally reduced to that of its central committee, however revolutionary and committed it may be. This is the situation that has come to prevail in Russia, the soviets’ purpose being merely that of decoration. The real dictatorship of the proletariat, Luxemburg still maintained, does not exclude democracy, it is in fact the real nursery for democracy in so far as, for the first time, the laboring classes take public affairs directly in their own hands.

Luxemburg explained this “Jacobin” deviation of the dictatorship as the result of “the appalling pressure of the world war, German occupation and the enormous difficulties connected with it, which must disfigure even a socialist policy motivated by the best intentions and inspired by the most noble principles”. In other words, for her, it was external violence that was responsible for such a state of affairs. This was only partially true, for there was another factor, an internal one: for the dictatorship of the proletariat to be a class dictatorship rather than that of a small clique of individuals, as Luxemburg demanded, there was still the problem of the class in question composing a small minority of the population, as was the case in Russia. That the conditions for a real proletarian State were not present in Russia, Lenin himself admitted in 1919 when he referred to what he called “Russian lack of culture”: “We know perfectly well what Russian lack of culture means, what effect it has on the soviet power that has created, in principle, a proletarian democracy infinitely superior to any democracies previously known (. . .). We know that this lack of culture degrades the power of the soviets and has caused the return of the bureaucracy. On paper, the soviet State is at the disposal of all the workers; in reality, and none of us is unaware of this, it is not at the disposal of all, far from it.”6 By “Russian lack of culture” Lenin is referring above all to the enormous mass of illiterate peasants who were mentally still in the Middle Ages and who pressed with all their weight upon the “proletarian” State, making the invasion of the latter by a bureaucracy possible, such as had already occurred during the old czarist regime. In 1917 the Bolshevik leaders had broadcast the slogan: “All power to the Soviets!”; three years later, we can measure the progress made in this respect by listening to the words of those same leaders. Zinoviev: “The soviet power would not have lasted three years, not even three weeks, without the dictatorship of the communist party.”7 Trotsky: “the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the clarity of its theoretical vision and its strong revolutionary organization that the party has afforded to the Soviets the possibility of becoming transformed from shapeless parliaments of labor into the apparatus of the supremacy of labor.”8 Lenin: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is a persistent struggle—bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative—against the forces and traditions of the old society. The force of habit of millions and tens of millions is a most terrible force. Without an iron party tempered in the struggle, without a party enjoying the confidence of all that is honest in the given class, without a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, it is impossible to conduct such a struggle successfully.”9

The party! The party! In 1917, these same leaders swore by the soviets; the soviets that must assume “all power”; the soviets that once in power will create a State “in the process of extinction” and a democracy such as had never before been seen. Now the tune is: a leading role for the party, rule of the latter over the soviets, an iron party, disciplined, like a unit of shock troops, the only one that can exercise and hold onto power. All of this was henceforth loudly and urgently proclaimed, without reply, and any vacillation on this question was immediately denounced as the seed of a petit bourgeois, anarchistic deviation that must be driven out and cast down.... Why didn’t they say this in 1917?

To explain such an apology for the role of the party by a Bolshevik “thirst for power”, however, does not make much sense. This species of explanation, offered up in series both in vulgar and clever versions, is not worth the effort of refutation. The truth lies elsewhere: if the Bolshevik party had power handed over to it by the soviets, this is because the latter, in Russia, were really incapable of assuming the task that they were supposed to fulfill: seizing and exercising power. If they had the ability to carry out this task, they never would have allowed a revolutionary minority to replace them and this minority would certainly have been unable, had it entered the soviets, to achieve its ends. Instead, after February 1917 the soviets were constantly preyed upon by the various parties that contested for power, seeking a base of support to take advantage of in the soviets, which is evidence of the lack of autonomy of the soviets. Having arisen spontaneously as a result of the absence of any legal mass labor organization in Russia, the real vocation of the soviets did not go beyond the immediate demands of the workers (in this case, “workers control of production” and “immediate peace”). It was the political parties, especially the Bolshevik party, which politicized the soviets, attempting to transform them into institutional props of either the new power created in February, or the future power of October. Briefly, “sovietism”, designating the original form of power in Russia, was above all a myth, propagated by both the Bolsheviks with their slogan of “All power to the soviets!”, as well as by the anti-Bolsheviks of the “council communist” variety, who claim that, as opposed to the Bolshevik party, there was another possibility: that of the “councils”, the real expression of workers autonomy. It is unfortunate that they have not demonstrated how to make it victorious!

Second Aspect of Utopia: Foisting a Socialist Character on the Revolution

In his April Theses, Lenin stipulated: “not ‘the introduction’ of socialism as an immediate task, but simply the immediate step to the control of social production and the distribution of products by the soviets of workers deputies.” In fact, the seizure of power in October 1917 was accompanied by slogans that had nothing to do with socialism properly speaking: land to the peasants, immediate peace and workers control of production.

If it is true—and in this regard it is true in any situation that we may encounter—that it is not possible to introduce socialism by decree and by waving a magic wand, this cannot, from the moment that we have committed ourselves to a proletarian revolution, remain a perspective that is put off to a distant future: why make such a revolution? If this is the case, doesn’t it run the risk of leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the masses? Lenin was aware of this situation after October 1917. Which is why he was quickly obliged to clarify his thought: “the socialist revolution in Russia which we began on October 25, 1917—the principal task of the proletariat, and of the poor peasants which it leads, is the positive or constructive work of setting up an extremely intricate and delicate system of new organisational relationships extending to the planned production and distribution of the goods required for the existence of tens of millions of people. Such a revolution can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history. Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class-consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and perseverance, will the victory of the socialist revolution be assured.”10

Finally, October 1917 therefore inaugurated, for Lenin, a socialist process that would be pursued to the end thanks to the tenacity of the Russian masses (including the poor peasants). Were the material conditions in Russia suitable for moving in a socialist direction? We recall Gramsci’s observation: “The revolution of the Bolsheviks is made more of ideology than of facts (. . .). It is the revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital.”11 For Gramsci, this revolution shattered “the doctrines of historical materialism”, which were nothing but simple “positivist and naturalist excrescences” within “Marxist thought, which never dies, which is the continuation of Italian and German idealist thought”. We shall not enter into a polemic with Gramsci here, who made Marxism an idealism derived from Hegel and Croce, we shall merely restrict ourselves to noting that Gramsci was right; he perfectly characterized what motivated the Bolsheviks, supporting them as good idealists who, philosophically speaking, plunge into the revolution: revolutionary idealism, which can, under certain historical circumstances, be transformed into an active force—knowing whether it can be victorious, that is another question entirely. The Bolsheviks, in fact, unable to rely upon a solid material foundation for the journey on the road to socialism, are led to replace it, as Lenin indicates, with unadorned will-power: If the workers provide evidence of “devotion”, of “self-sacrifice”, etc., then “the victory of the socialist revolution is assured....”

If you are not convinced of this voluntarism, we will quote this passage written shortly thereafter by Lenin: “state capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. If in approximately six months’ time state capitalism became established in our Republic, this would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold and will have become invincible in our country.”12 Thus, within one year it will be “the promised land”, socialism; at present, this means that ... State capitalism must be built, or in other words, another form of exploitation, of wage labor, of industrialization, of accumulation, everything that is necessary to create the material foundations of socialism, which do not yet exist in Russia; that is why, Lenin points out, “our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it. Our task is to hasten this copying even more than Peter hastened the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, and we must not hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting barbarism”;13 furthermore, Lenin emphasized that it was not just German-style State capitalism that was suitable, but also American-style capitalism, with respect to the methods of increasing labor productivity that had been implemented there: “We must organise in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our own ends.”14 By proposing as an immediate task the construction of State capitalism, Lenin clashed with the “left communists” of the Bolshevik party, with Bukharin at their head, who did not want to even hear about capitalism but demanded the immediate introduction of communism, thus only upping the ante of Lenin’s voluntarism, with his State capitalism in six months. Lenin replied to them at the time: “The best of them have failed to understand that it was not without reason that the teachers of socialism spoke of a whole period of transition from capitalism to socialism....”15 It is in fact true that the “masters of socialism”, that is, Marx and Engels, spoke of a transitional stage, which for them was to be located between a mature capitalism and socialism, not between a semi-feudal and semi-asiatic country like Russia in 1918 and socialism. The “transition” that Lenin referred to is therefore not the same and he confused the issue. If State capitalism is established in six months, in one year socialism will be “definitively consolidated”, he said in 1918. In 1921, in The Tax in Kind (where he recalled his prediction from 1918), he was compelled to change course: “The arguments mentioned above, dating from 1918, contain a series of errors in terms of timing. The time frame has since been revealed to be much longer than was previously assumed.” He then offered an explanation for the causes that led to the delay: the predominance of the petit bourgeois element in the countryside, the civil war, the bad harvest of 1920. What should be done? Lenin answered: “Not to try to prohibit or obstruct the development of capitalism, but to strive to orient it to follow the road towards State capitalism.” In the future, then, the goal is only to aim for State capitalism. This time Lenin had the prudence not to provide an exact time frame. A question did arise, however: is such an objective compatible with maintaining the Bolsheviks in power? Apparently it was, as Lenin calmly responded, “it is possible to effectively combine, ally and associate the soviet State, the dictatorship of the proletariat, with State capitalism.” The unfolding of events, with the victory of the Stalinists, would utterly refute this prediction.

Recall that Engels, in The Peasant War in Germany, evoked the tragedy of a leader of an extremist party that took power when the real conditions would not allow him to implement his program. We cannot refrain from once again quoting this text of Engels which applies so well to Lenin: “In the interests of the movement he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class [In fact, since 1918 Lenin admitted that an appeal would have to be issued to the “specialists” who “in their vast majority are necessarily bourgeois”, in order to manage production “on the basis of higher pay scales”] and to feed his own class with talk and promises [as we have seen, Lenin promised in 1918 that socialism will be “invincible”16 if, in six months, State capitalism is established] and with the asseveration that the interests of that alien class are their own interests [Effectively, Lenin never ceased to repeat that the use of “specialists” and modern capitalist methods of management and production, German and American, operate in the interest of the proletariat because in this way the material foundations of socialism are being constructed, although, we must add, this is what the bourgeoisie and private capitalism are also doing in the West!]. He who is put into this awkward position,” Engels concludes, “is irrevocably lost.” The rest is well known: after the 1920s, degeneration of the Bolshevik party and victory of Stalinism.

We must be fair to Lenin, however: although he did claim in 1918 that socialism would soon be invincible if State capitalism was rapidly established, he never confused the latter with socialism, as the Stalinists would thereafter unceremoniously do.17

Third Aspect of Utopia: The War Will Lead to Revolution in Europe

When they launched their bid for power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks had this idea: the Russian revolution is nothing but the first act in an international revolution that would result from the war, thus allowing the weaknesses of the Russian revolution to be mitigated. But was such an outcome possible? If so, all of our objections with regard to the Russian revolution are without cause. Ultimately, the calculation of the Bolsheviks would not have been false in 1917 if this outcome were to have been realized: their revolution would have been relieved by that of the German, French, Belgian, Italian and, why not, English and American proletarians....Under these conditions, as courageous pioneers, they provoked a revolution in a backward country, taking the calculated risk that they would be seconded rapidly by foreign forces that have access to much more powerful means than they did. For Rosa Luxemburg, there could be no doubt: “That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political far-sightedness and firmness of principle and of the bold scope of their policies.”18 It remains to be seen, however, whether they had seen clearly when making this wager.

First of all, let us quickly go back in time. When the war broke out in 1914, the eminently reformist development of international socialism which had lasted for years rendered it incapable of preventing the war by opposing it with revolution. For the Bolsheviks however (their party was the only one that did not surrender to the war hysteria), all is not lost. They think that the war itself could constitute a powerful factor for radicalization: at the front, with the multitude of trials that the soldiers would endure, and at home, with the privations that the war would bring for the civilians. This evaluation of the situation is not utterly unrealistic, since it would be partially confirmed. The war did drag millions of men from their homes and their workplaces and throw them into a war that, in August of 1914, was entered with the expectation that it would be “fresh and joyful” but which quickly came to show its real face: an appalling carnage, the mutual slaughter of the peoples, with all classes mixed together, in ruthless trench warfare that seemed to never end. This is why the Bolsheviks thought it was almost certain that this appalling conflagration would give rise to seditious movements on the fronts and revolt at home. In this connection 1917 was a turning point. February not only witnessed the collapse of the Russian front but also, on the French and Italian fronts, mutinies that affected dozens of regiments; in Germany, due to the economic blockade enforced by the Entente, strike movements emerged in the cities that were suffering more and more food shortages. Would the war prove to be the mother of the revolution? The Russian revolution seemed to answer this question in the affirmative. The “weak link in the chain of imperialist countries”, to borrow Lenin’s metaphor, was the first to break. The soldiers, poorly equipped, badly fed, enduring the cruel afflictions of cold and hunger, had had enough. When the first riots broke out in Petrograd, workers and soldiers did not hesitate to fraternize, and the with accelerating tempo of the dissolution of the army bands of deserters dispersed throughout Russia; the Czarist regime collapsed like a house of cards. The Bolsheviks thought that with the rejection of the war the first tremors of the European revolution appeared: the slogan calling for turning the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war began to find an echo.

Although it is true that the soldiers were less and less in favor of continuing the war, this does not automatically mean that they wanted to start another war, the “revolutionary civil” war, as they were called upon to do by the slogan of the Bolsheviks. What they wanted, above all, was peace: to be allowed to go home and resume their pre-war lives as civilians. But as for risking their lives in another conflict, this time with their rulers, this is not all that obvious. “If you want peace, prepare for revolution”, the Bolsheviks never tired of repeating, in their adaptation of the old Roman maxim. The revolution? Yes, but on the condition that it brings an immediate peace and does not lead to that most terrible of wars, civil war. In short, what the rejection of the war expressed was more a desire for peace than for revolution, and to want to combine these two aspirations is to rely too much on chance.

This desire for peace would prove to a boon for the Bolshevik party after February 1917: the provisional government, by deciding to continue the war, under pressure from France and England to maintain a second front in the East, would be discredited, especially in the eyes of the soldiers, peasants who dreamed of nothing but going home and seizing the land of the big landowners. The Bolsheviks then struck this pacifist chord. By advocating immediate peace, they won a great deal of prestige and influence among the soldiers’ soviets.

From a revolutionary point of view, however, what was this slogan really worth? It was this question that Zinoviev and Kamenev were to pose on the eve of October. They thought that this slogan was worthless and that, as a result, the insurrection had to be renounced: “The masses of soldiers support us (. . .) because of our slogan in favor of peace (. . .). If we have to carry on a revolutionary war (. . .) they will desert us in droves.”19 History proved them to be correct. When in August 1920 the Bolsheviks, after having expelled Pilsudsky from the Ukraine, attempted to follow up their victory by trying to link up with revolutionary Germany, which required a passage through Poland (“The world revolution will pass over the dead body of Poland”, said Tuyachevsky, one of the generals of the Red Army), they never got past the Vistula: they were defeated because, once Russian territory was liberated, the peasants who made up the Red Army wanted immediate peace rather than the revolutionary war carried to foreign lands at bayonet point.

Rather than a product of the war, the October revolution was a product of the peace. Independently of the subjective intentions of the Bolshevik leaders to stage an insurrection, October 1917 was the first attempt to break ranks with the warring powers that had rampaged in Europe for three years. This tendency soon found an echo in the west. When on August 8, 1918 the British-French forces launched a big offensive, thousands of Germans surrendered without offering any resistance, an unprecedented phenomenon. Likewise, in Kiel, on November 4, 1918, the entire German fleet refused orders to weigh anchor for one last naval battle to “save its honor”. As for the allies, what finally led them to refrain from taking advantage of their victories and invading Germany, and caused them to sign the armistice of November 11, was the moral exhaustion of their troops and their lack of enthusiasm for the war. And perhaps the fear that continuing the war would trigger revolution played a part. If this was true, however, by signing the armistice and thus employing the weapon of peace, the Allies pulled the rug out from under the revolution and ensured their mastery over the situation.

The war led to a logic of peace rather than revolution. If the socialist revolution had ever been a realistic possibility in Europe, the war could never have taken place. Once the war was in progress, the revolution of the Bolsheviks was condemned to remain isolated and finally to rot in place, as the further unfolding of events would prove.

On the Nature of the Russian Revolution

A country that was only slightly proletarian, which ruled out the establishment of a real “government of the working class”, to recall Marx’s formulation with respect to the Commune; a country that was economically backward, which ruled out a transition to communism; the background of a European war, whose logic condemned the October insurrection to remain an isolated phenomenon: these were the three unfavorable factors that condemned the Bolshevik project to failure and rendered it a utopian undertaking.

Utopian, because when a revolution took place, it could only present two possible scenarios: either it came too soon and then could only fail, being of a utopian nature as was the Russian proletarian revolution, or else it came at just the right time and is therefore authentically socialist, capable of fulfilling all its promises.

This understanding of the Russian revolution makes a clean break with both the social democratic conception, in which the Russian revolution could only be “bourgeois”, as well as with that of the ultra-left, according to which it was only “bourgeois”.

As for the former conception, it is well known that in Russia the Mensheviks advocated a “bourgeois revolution”: the Russian revolution had to focus on the liquidation of the old regime, allowing for the emergence of a bourgeois democratic republic, because the material conditions for a proletarian revolution did not exist. But this “orthodox Marxist” position (which we criticized above in our review of the French revolution) was erroneous: from the moment that a revolution was underway in Russia, it was going to be anything except “bourgeois”. A revolution is the least bourgeois thing imaginable; it is a radical act that tends to cut off the present from the past for the purpose of founding a new state of affairs on totally new foundations, abolishing all exploitation and domination of man by man. In February 1917, the revolution was not “bourgeois” except in the sense that it was hijacked by the liberal bourgeoisie and its “provisional” government, which perfectly deserved its name, since Lenin, in his April Theses, did not hesitate to redirect it to the straight and narrow utopian road which is its proper way: the revolution will proceed its destined end, even when it is condemned to clash with the hard contact of reality. The second conception, that of the ultra-left, is no more consistent: the Bolshevik revolution was of the bourgeois type because the tasks that the Bolsheviks carried out had nothing to do with socialism. This is true, but if the Bolsheviks carried out these tasks it was because once they were in power they found themselves in a situation where they did not possess the means to undertake a socialist transformation of society; in other words, what happened to them was what happens to every utopia when it comes into contact with reality, it is compelled by the pressure of the course of events, as Engels said, to defend a cause that is not its own and to try to satisfy its own cause with promises. In fact, the ultra-leftist position is, for its part, utopian: by making the revolutionary Bolsheviks into “bourgeoisie”, it seeks to maintain that in Russia a socialist revolution was possible and that it was consciously and purposely betrayed by the evil Bolsheviks, mere replacements for the bourgeoisie. This is actually the anarchist position, according to which the revolution is always possible at any time and place, regardless of the objective conditions, and can thus be reduced to an act of “will”. According to this conception Russia in 1917, as backward and as isolated as it was, could very well have carried out a socialist revolution....

But where did the utopia that led to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 come from? “On the surface, Lenin’s thought is monolithic. He is an orthodox Marxist; he only uses Marxist formulas and only knows how to speak in Marxist terms. He severely criticizes the populist theories of the past, which he views as chimerical and utopian. Nonetheless, it is the faith of the revolutionary generations of the past that lives in him, which cannot be uprooted. Which, from Chernishevsky, the Jacobin-Blanquists, Zaichnesky, and Tachev, to the terrorists of “Narodna Volya”, calls, not for the bourgeois and democratic revolution, but for the socialist revolution,” wrote Nicholas Valentinov.20 Nicholas Berdyaev, meanwhile, in his essay,21 makes the following observation regarding what he calls the “Russian Marxists” of the Lenin tendency: “In his faction, the revolutionary will triumphs over intellectual theories and the bookish application of Marxism. And an unexpected fusion would take place uniting them and the tradition of the old revolutionaries, who also advocated sparing Russia from having to experience the capitalist stage—the Chernashevskys, the Bakunins, the Nechayevs, the Tachevs (. . .). The Bolshevik Marxists proved to be much more anchored in the Russian tradition than the Menshevik Marxists. On the pure terrain of evolution and determinism, Marxism cannot be justified in an agrarian country, with a backward industrial base, and with an underdeveloped working class.”

Whatever opinion one may have of these two authors, their assessment of Leninism as the last avatar of the Russian revolutionary tradition of the 19th century is a thousand times more pertinent than the thousands of pages written with Marxist pretensions that laboriously attempt to square Leninism with Marx’s theory. As good judges of the ideological and political tendencies that preceded the revolution of 1917, they make a good point: Leninism, even if it is dressed up in Marxian garb, has its roots in the Russian soil, that is, in a world that is still fully pre-capitalist in which Marxism, a theory that emerged from the more advanced countries, does not enjoy the rights of citizenship. “Lenin actually carried on the tradition of the revolutionary ideas of the preceding generations, which he arranged under the banner of Marxism,” as Valentinov correctly noted. For the Russian revolutionary tradition, Russia did not have to imitate the West, that is, once Czarism was defeated, it did not have to assume the level of bourgeois civilization; the “destiny” of Russia was to bypass this stage and proceed directly to socialism, an agrarian socialism that would be based on the old Russian commune, which had to be rejuvenated. The latter was certainly in the process of being dissolved, so to speak, in the 1880s (in the 1890s Engels considered it to be dead). The young Lenin carried on a lively polemic against this kind of “populist” socialism. But one must accept the possibility that he was not totally free of the grip of this kind of socialism when he advocated the idea of, if not bypassing, at least greatly speeding up the passage through the capitalist stage: we have seen how, shortly after October 1917, Lenin announced that, after a very short but intense period of State capitalism—“within one year”—socialism will be such an irreversible process that the it would be “invincible”; three years later he admitted that this time-frame was erroneous, but this was unimportant, nothing is lost, as Lenin maintained in a text written in 1923 (“Better Fewer, But Better”), at a time when the hope for a proletarian revolution in the more advanced countries had evaporated: “the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe. And during the past few years it is this majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect ... the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured” In other words, it is from the economically backward countries that the solution will come.... This could also establish another continuity between the Russian revolutionary tradition and Leninism, with the idealist and voluntarist conception of the revolution they have in common. “Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we shall cause an uprising in Russia,” Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done?, which was largely inspired by Chernishevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (1862), glorifying “professional revolutionaries”, that is, a minority of tireless individuals (“the new men” in Chernishevsky) entirely devoted to the revolutionary cause, with whose forces alone “an uprising in Russia” will be possible.... Marx could not recognize his Marxism in this conception, but the Russian revolutionary tradition could recognize its voluntarism and its cult of the active minority in it. It could also evoke the role reserved for the intelligentsia as demiurge of consciousness and revolutionary thought: socialist theory in Russia, Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done?, “arises entirely independently of the spontaneous development of the workers movement,” as “the result of the natural and ineluctable course of development of thought in the socialist revolutionary intellectuals”.

As we have seen, we are still in the midst of what we have referred to as ancient socialism. Be that as it may, the Russian revolutionary tradition, with its last avatar, Leninism, would come to an end, in the context of the European war, by taking action. In 1917 it successfully linked up with a significant part of the working class and even the peasants—the former wanted bread, the latter land—and thus managed to seize power. Without the Bolsheviks’ will to take power (and perhaps without the will of only one of them, Lenin), no insurrection, only disorderly movements and sporadic uprisings, as was the case after February 1917 and, finally, the crushing of the Russian masses with a few constitutional and agrarian reforms thrown in for good measure. In any event, October having been transformed for a certain mythology into a “proletarian achievement”, must be appreciated for its real importance; if it was not a coup d’état (this was Rosa Luxemburg’s assessment) it was at least the action of a resolute minority. At this point we will be asked whether the will of a minority, or even of a single personality (in this case, Lenin), is what makes history. This topic has been the object of much speculation, and the conclusion was reached that there is no determinism, and that only free will can decide. As for us, we think that in particular circumstances that are quite exceptional, one can always try to stage a revolutionary adventure. Would it have a real chance to succeed? History has shown us that the answer is no.

  • 1. Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis in German Social Democracy, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, p. 334.
  • 2. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970: “objective necessity”, p. 41.
  • 3. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, p. 80.
  • 4. Letter from Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, dated February 22, 1881, in Domela Nieuwenhuis, Socialism in Danger, Ed. Payot, Paris, 1975, p. 247. English translation available at the website of the Marx-Engels Internet Archive:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/letters/81_02_22.htm

  • 5. Rosa Luxemburg, op. cit., p. 72.
  • 6. Quoted by Pierre Broué in The Bolshevik Party, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1972, p. 171.
  • 7. Quoted by Pierre Broué, ibid., p. 128.
  • 8. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, in Kostas Papaioannou, The Marxists, J’ai lu, Paris, 1965, p. 381. Available in English translation at the website of the Marx-Engels Internet Archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch07.htm
  • 9. V. I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, pp. 32-33.
  • 10. V. I. Lenin, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government (1918), at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/x03.htm
  • 11. Antonio Gramsci, l’Avanti, November 24, 1917, in Programme Communiste, No. 74, pp. 52-53.
  • 12. V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality, at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/may/09.htm
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. V. I. Lenin, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/x03.htm
  • 15. V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality, at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/may/09.htm
  • 16. “In Russia, in April 1918, Lenin did not say: ‘We will make socialism’, or even, ‘Now I will roll up my sleeves and I will do it’, Bordiga wrote in The Economic and Social Structure of Russia Today, Ed. De l’Oubli, 1975, p. 31. As we just saw, Lenin did speak of this, if not in April then in May of 1918, and even delineated the steps. It is relevant enough to point out how a certain kind of post-Leninism, emerging from the communist left, has been able to undertake, through its desire to contrast its positions to Stalinism and his theory of “socialism in one country”, a project of mystification of Lenin’s thought, and has been eager to make him say what he did not say.
  • 17. If the Stalinists, unlike Lenin, erased the concept of State capitalism from their lexicon, this was not by accident: it was because they needed to dress up the latter as “socialism”. The Trotskyists, with their concept of a “degenerated workers state”, also abandoned the idea of State capitalism and this was not by accident either: this enabled them to avoid having to pass judgment on Russia’s economic structure, which they claim is “socialist”, and is only affected by “bureaucratic deformations”; the proof that they are nothing but left wing Stalinists is provided by the fact that today, just like the unrepentant Stalinists, they speak of a “return to capitalism in Russia”!
  • 18. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, p. 28.
  • 19. Quoted by Pierre Broué in The Bolshevik Party, op. cit., p. 95.
  • 20. Nicholas Valentinov, Mes rencontres avec Lénine, tr. C. de Jouvencel, éditions Gérard Lebovici, Paris, 1987, p. 134.
  • 21. Nicholas Berdyaev, Les sources et le sens du communisme russe, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1964, p. 203. In English: The Origins of Russian Communism, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1960.