2017 will no doubt see a flood of publications to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. There will be those who insist that the October Revolution provides a model for today and still others who will argue the opposite. Neither opinion is likely to go much beyond the defence of entrenched ideological positions. The fact that the great hopes raised by the October Revolution not only failed to materialise, but ended in a monstrous Stalinist regime which turned private exploitation into state exploitation, has been one of the greatest propaganda weapons for today’s capitalist system whose own crisis grows deeper with every year that passes.
Later in the year we will make our contribution to understanding the October Revolution with a new study now in preparation. This will take into account the widespread research on the “revolution from below” carried out since the last days of the USSR. Our task will be to neither praise nor mourn but understand what was specific to that time and what, if anything, it tells us today about how a real fight against exploitation and the capitalist state can be carried out. For now, and perhaps to some eyes perversely, we are contributing a piece on how the Russian Revolution began its path towards failure. We have translated1 the very first piece in the first issue of the paper Kommunist. Kommunist was officially the organ of the Moscow Regional Bureau of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). As the Moscow region was dominated by the Left Communist fraction it really reflected their views. After 5 months of revolution they had come together to express concern about the direction in which the revolution was heading. Edited (and largely written) by leading Bolsheviks, Bukharin, Smirnov, Osinsky (Obolensky), and Radek, Kommunist had begun as the mouthpiece of those Bolsheviks who had wanted to reject the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They had already lost that battle with the Treaty’s ratification on 3rd March but still considered its signing, as it says in the piece below, “a great failure in the international struggle”. They saw the treaty and some developments in the economic sphere as signs of opportunism and the abandonment of all that the Bolsheviks had stood for. The Left Communists also criticised the employment of specialists (hinted at below in “making use of the bourgeoisie”), the formation of industrial trusts and one man management as leading, not to socialism, but towards “state capitalism”. Indeed close to the action as they were, they were the first to raise the dangers of the Russian revolution creating a new form of capitalist exploitation.
As the first three paragraphs of the document which follows show, the Left Communist fraction of the Bolshevik Party fully accepted the proletarian character of the October Revolution. After five months of what the Left Communist economist Lev Kritsman called “the heroic period of the revolution” there were increasing problems. The Left Communists were worried that by making a peace with Germany the breathing space this would give to German imperialism would undermine the prospect of a working class socialist revolution in Germany. In short they were concerned that it would undermine the very internationalist rationale for the October Revolution. Every revolutionary leader from Trotsky and Lenin to Bukharin understood that “the question of socialism could only be posed in Russia it could not be solved there” as Luxemburg put it. All repeated Lenin’s words that “without a German Revolution we are doomed”. The controversy over Brest-Litovsk was whether buying a temporary breathing space for the revolution in Russia came at the price of undermining the very world revolution on which the future of socialism depended. Even today it is difficult to say if the signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk did “squander the international capital” of the revolution, as Radek says below.
The Left Communists’ argument that the Soviet power could abandon the cities where it had its greatest support to fight a guerrilla war seemed utterly quixotic in the face of their opponents’ insistence that saving Petrograd now would maintain a beacon of light around which the world revolution could rally when the working class in the rest of Europe rose up against the deprivations of the First World War. As German imperialism was already teetering, the argument ran that it would not be long, and in fact in November 1918 the revolution arrived. Had it not been sabotaged by the same Social Democrats who had voted war credits for the Kaiser in 1914 who knows what could have happened next. However history is not about “what-ifs”. The Left Communists lost the argument not only on Brest-Litovsk but also on their opposition to the decline in working class self-activity which they saw as the result of the introduction of one-man management and the employment of spetsy (ex-bourgeois specialists).
In re-founding Kommunist2 the Left Communists were carrying on a long Bolshevik tradition of debate and factionalism which had characterised the development of the Party. Contrary to the myths of iron discipline (more talked about than observed) of Bolshevism (a useful myth though for those Stalinists who later stifled debate) the Party had been built on controversy. Lenin came to dominate it not simply because of any formal disciplinary power he held but by the force of argument. After becoming the chief spokesman of socialist internationalism in the war his fight to make the Bolsheviks part of the class movement in April 1917 and above all his insistence on the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917 had all made that prestige so much higher. In a party which is in opposition dissent and debate are part of a process of its formation but the problem in 1918 was that the Bolsheviks were now the leading party in a government and soon to be the only party in the Soviet executive when the Left Socialist Revolutionaries walked out over Brest-Litovsk. This was a totally different situation for an organisation which had previously only had to work out its own theory about how the proletariat could make a revolution. The Left Communists were no longer just part of an ongoing theoretical debate but part of a process based on life or death decisions about the direction of the entire revolution. Initially they resigned from their positions on the Central Committee and attempted to simply carry out their tasks as part of the Soviet government, but in practice they found that they were often forced to defend positions which they had previously opposed.
Their opposition was also limited by two further factors. The first was the dire economic condition of Russia in 1917-18 with “the economic distress inherited from the four years of war”. The second was the onset of the war against the Whites backed by 14 Allied powers in their attempt initially to force Russia back into the war and then to crush the young Soviet Republic. Edward Acton, in his thoughtful study Rethinking the Russian Revolution, equated the state of the Russian economy inherited by the Bolsheviks as one akin to the Black Death. Even if there had been no civil war for the next three years the task of feeding and sustaining a population would have been a terrible challenge. The Civil War in its brutality brought famine and disease which cost the lives of an estimated 8 million people. Such compelling factors created a situation in which room for dissent was very limited. First the war which the Bolsheviks had not wanted to fight would have to be won and at the same time the revolutionary forces in the working class would have to support the Council of Peoples’ Commissars (Sovnarkom) until the enemy was defeated. The working class and the early critics of the direction of the revolution had to hold back on opposition until that war was over. By June 1918 the Left Communists had all resumed their positions in the Party. Carried along by a floodtide of history they were powerless to halt, some like Smirnov and Osinsky3 retained for a while the basic idea that the revolution could only succeed if it was based on working class, and not just party, initiative but others quickly abandoned their previous “Left wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality”, as Lenin polemically called it in his attack on them. After 1921 Bukharin went on to become the main defender of the New Economic Policy in opposition to Stalin’s “third period” in 1928. He was to pay for this with his life after the Show Trials in Moscow. The same fate was to befall all the contributors to Kommunist. Radek, who at Brest-Litovsk had outraged the German General Staff by distributing leaflets calling on Germans soldiers to join the international revolution, later became notorious for his “Schlageter” speech which announced the adoption of National-Bolshevism by the German KPD in 1923.
Radek’s internationalism was not in doubt in 1918. His document poses the question as to what will become of the revolution if it remained isolated and without the support of an international revolution. Like other Left Communists writing in the 1920s (e.g. Gorter in Holland, Kowalski-Grzech in Poland4 ) he sees clearly that a compromise with the peasantry will be forced on soviet power and in that case the revolution would lose its proletarian character.
This was not the only prescient comment that Radek made and his opening salvo concludes with perhaps the most prophetic words spoken by any participant in the October Revolution.
"If the Russian revolution is crushed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, it will be reborn from its ashes like the Phoenix; but if it loses its socialist character, and by this disappoints the working masses, this blow will have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and international revolution."
At least ten times we would now say, and that is why we suggest that this is a poignant epitaph for a workers’ tragedy which even those with the best of intentions were powerless to prevent.
Five Months On
The five months’ existence of the workers’ and peasants’ government has definitely resolved the question of the nature of the October Revolution. If in mid-December, without fear of appearing ridiculous, Martynov5 , the father of the Menshevik philosophy of the Russian revolution, could still, in the reprint of his pamphlet On the Two Dictatorships, reproach the revolution for arriving by night whilst the workers slept, of tearing power from the hands of the bourgeoisie before the Soviet Congress without waiting for the formal decision of the latter, today everyone knows that the vast majority of workers and peasants stand behind Soviet power. Everyone understands that the revolution of the masses was accomplished in October. The question which bothered Menshevik ideologues and Talmudists for several years: Whether to take power or not, has been definitely resolved by these events. The ignominious fall of the Kerensky government6 – which no significant section of the population or any political group has arisen to defend – proved that, during the revolutionary storm, the government of the bourgeoisie and their petty-bourgeois servants had lost all influence in the masses. The October Revolution has cast into oblivion something that was already rotten, which was only the detritus of history.
Bourgeois power no longer existed, so neither did petty-bourgeois power. If the proletariat and the masses of poor peasants behind it had not seized power, Russia would have fallen into a state of primitive chaos. And it was only after a long period of struggle of all against all that the power of the victorious classes emerging from this chaos became clear. It had to be the workers and peasants, first of all, because the popular masses who overthrew the Kerensky Government had had enough of the bourgeoisie’s regime, and this because, with arms in hand, they were the only real force in the country. During the last four months the losers in the revolution, the Mensheviks and right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries alongside the bourgeoisie, have never ceased to claim that the power born in October was a dictatorship at the point of a bayonet. The situation after the demobilisation of the army, when the number of these bayonets decreased, proves that bayonets had nothing to do with it. The real source of power lay precisely in the support of the vast majority of the people.
For four months, this power fought a relentless civil war in the streets of Petrograd, Moscow, all over Russia, with arms in hand; it triumphed over the bourgeois offspring who defended their class and all those who, by relying on the privileged layers of wealthy Cossacks, tried to create an organised military force as a counterweight; it triumphed over the Ukrainian petty bourgeoisie who tried to save the Kerenschina7 in the south of Russia. In four months it broke down the old Tsarist apparatus which Kerensky had kept intact. For four months it tore up the social roots of tsarism, the rentier economy and the economic base of Tsarism. If the impotent quibbler, Martynov, speaks in his pamphlet quoted above, of the first two months of the revolution as productive months,8 the facts contradict him. The period of the end of the bourgeois revolution began only after October. This was only due to the dictatorship of the working class and the poor peasants and thanks to the October Revolution which the Mensheviks, the partisans of the bourgeois democratic character of the revolution, call “a senseless adventure.” If this was the only action of the revolution it would justify it in the face of history. It is proof that only the dictatorship of the anti-capitalist classes could create the conditions for the domination of a bourgeois democracy – the liquidation of Tsarism and the remnants of feudalism.
But the October Revolution had to go further. In countries with developed capitalism, where the capitalist bourgeoisie is the principal force of the counter-revolution, the revolutionary class which took power, had to wrest the main instrument of the struggle from enemy hands. The instrument of the counter-revolution was the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the banks which directed production. The proletariat and the poor peasants did not halt in front of these “sacred” cows of capitalism. When the Goths who conquered the Roman Empire put their horses in the temples of Jupiter and Venus, when the generals of Napoleon transformed the Hamburg stock exchange into stables,9 it was merely chance. Modern “barbarians” (as the bourgeoisie calls the proletariat) had to seize the central mechanism of capitalism, not only in order not to suffer the attacks of the latter, but also to deal with the struggle against the economic distress inherited from the four years of war and the regime of the “conciliators”.10 The Mensheviks, the Right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries and the apostles of liberalism draw attention to the general economic disorder and fulminate: “And you, wretches, how can you build socialism on such ruins?” They do not understand that, because the Russian economy is now ruined, only a methodical accommodation of this economy to the needs of society, only the reconstruction of this economy in accordance with the interests of the masses, in short, only socialism can reconstruct economic life so that the working masses and the poor peasants are no longer totally enslaved to the capitalists. Yes, there are great obstacles on the road to socialism: the illiteracy of the masses and their serious lack of experience. But not trying to overcome these weaknesses to build socialism would mean “contemplating” the enslavement of the masses by the capitalists without doing anything. When we began our struggle for socialism, we knew very well that it was impossible to carry it out on the basis of a pre-ordained model, taking the shortest route. “Only a layman can think that the whole way can be mapped out according to a prescribed plan, without detours, and that it can be followed in all its details to the end. It is certain that the leader never loses sight of his goal and is not disturbed by frequent disruptions, but he cannot, in advance, clearly define the path that will lead to the goal.” These words of General Moltke11 describing the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, published by the German General Staff, clearly express thinking which was no stranger to any actor in the October insurrection. History has definitively solved the question to which many Russian Marxists had given a negative answer before the revolution: that is, can we achieve socialism in a Russia which is economically backward? The answer of history is that we absolutely have to achieve it. But how, and by what means? Only further historical experience, the class struggle of the future and not only in Russia but elsewhere, can answer this question.
The first period of the triumphal march of the October Revolution ended with a great failure in the international struggle. German imperialism did not just seize vast territories containing great economic and political resources. It threatened to form oases of capitalism within the Soviet Republic itself where Russian capital, protected by foreign imperialism, could take refuge in order to prevent the construction of socialism and re-establish the capitalist order throughout Russia.12 By making concessions to obtain a respite, to gain time which undoubtedly works in favour of the world revolution and, consequently, in favour of the Russian revolution, by making concessions to the claims of foreign capital, the government of the Russian revolution will be forced not only to stop its creative socialist work but also to undermine it, something which has already begun. We cannot avoid this danger by claiming that this work of destruction can be accomplished in the name of a theory of revolution which might be smart in business, taking account of the new situation, in a period of organisation of the revolution, or that it is necessary to make use of the defeated bourgeoisie’s experience in order to build socialism. It is only in the abstract scheme of Kautsky that there is a chapter (“On the Day After the Social Revolution”) in which the realisation of socialism in all countries is simultaneous (this scheme is permissible and necessary from the point of view of the purely abstract study of the question of the social revolution). In practice, socialism cannot be achieved at once in all countries. The Russian socialist revolution is developing under the threat of both imperialist camps. Not only that, our setback in the struggle against German imperialism allows them to demand the restoration of capitalist rights for their citizens. The same concessions will be demanded by English, French, American capitalism and, under their protection, the Russian capitalist counter-revolution will raise its head.
It is clear that we cannot sweep away the demands of foreign capitalism with a simple declaration and that these slow down the construction of socialism. Behind these demands there is a real force which we have to reckon with until the proletarian revolution in Europe comes to our aid. The question is posed only in these terms: either we will take this force into account and oppose its pretensions with our will to create our own military and economic force, or we will negotiate with it simply in order to gain time. In the first case, our task is to complete the socialisation of the main branches of industry. As we eliminate private property in the principal spheres of economic life in Russia, in the least unfavourable case, we shall be obliged to take out loans with less dangerous adversaries in order to pay bills of exchange. And we will have to secure these loans with raw materials or through the sale of frontier territories (for example, Kamchatka). In the worst case, we will have to allow foreign capital to enter the economic mechanism of Russia. By attracting capitalists to organise our industry better, to make it capable of competing with foreign capital, we will also give an economic weapon to the Russian bourgeoisie. The victory over the bourgeois counter-revolution is not an isolated act, but a process in which the vanquished can regain their strength.
Two similar lines also emerge in foreign policy for the Russian revolution. Either it pursues an active policy of defence and always appeals to its only ally – the European proletariat – if the enemy attacks its main positions. In this case it will always be ready to enter the field with all the forces at its disposal. Or it yields its positions to safeguard formal power, it seeks allies in the struggle of one imperialism against the other, and it will squander its international capital.
These are two ways, and not just two theoretically possible lines in politics. These two paths are already taking shape in a whole series of practical actions facing the workers’ and peasants’ government. It has not yet chosen; it is going on blindly, but there is already a Right deviation, towards compromise with Russian and foreign capital. This deviation is not only due to the difficult situation, to divergences between homogeneous social elements that have different approaches on the same issue. The path chosen by the Soviet Government will provide the answer to the central question of the very nature of this government. Previously we debated what revolutionary power would be: the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would rely on the peasantry and lead to the common struggle against capital or the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, that is to say, of two different classes. In the first case, the peasantry would only follow the proletariat up to point. Who would prevail in this case? This would depend on the international situation: the victory of the proletarian revolution in Europe would alone be able to give the Russian minority proletariat the possibility of putting the peasantry on the road to socialism. The absence of such a revolution would thus exclude the proletariat from power. If the Soviet power holds to the perspective of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, if it counts on the numerical and social superiority of the peasantry, it will accept a compromise with capital which is acceptable to the peasantry but harmful to the socialist character of the revolution, and which is therefore unacceptable to the proletariat. Within the workers’ and peasants’ government, the two directions are fighting each other, consciously or not. The result of this struggle is conditioned by the international situation and by the influence of the proletariat on Soviet power. Demonstrating to the proletariat the danger that threatens the socialist character of the revolution, in order to organise the conscious pressure of the proletariat on this power; fighting for the domination of the proletariat in the revolution, this is the task of the proletarian communists,13 the task for which we are fighting.
During the revolution, the Bolshevik party became the party of all the people, of all the poor. This is its strength, but it is also the source of great dangers which can only be surmounted if the proletarian elements do not hide themselves away, do not give in to a baseless optimism and understand that in a petty-bourgeois country like Russia, the petty-bourgeois degeneration of power is indeed a possibility despite the will of the proletarian leaders. The Russian revolution demands that the proletarian elements criticise themselves in words and deeds.
Now that we are living through the first experience of the socialist revolution, self-criticism is more necessary than ever. If the Russian revolution is crushed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, it will be reborn from its ashes like the Phoenix; but if it loses its socialist character, and by this disappoints the working masses, this blow will have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and international revolution.
- 1From the French version of “La Revue Kommunist” published by Smolny Press 2011 with a preface by Marcel Roelandts and Michel Roger. We believe it is the first time it has been translated into English, though R V Daniels quotes the final paragraph in his The Conscience of the Revolution (New York 1960).
- 2There had been a Bolshevik publication called Kommunist published in 1916. According to R V Daniels (see note above) Lenin “scuttled it” (p.33) when the editors (including Piatakov and Bukharin) who were in deep polemics with Lenin over the latter’s support for national self-determination decided to publish an article saying that “self-determination was an anachronism”. The author, not at that point a member of the Bolshevik Party, was … Karl Radek! In view of the bitterness of that dispute it might not have been so a tactful choice of title, especially as the Bolsheviks had only adopted the Communist title (which Lenin had argued for in the April Theses) a few weeks earlier. According to Stephen Cohen, the 1918 Kommunist went through 11 editions in Petrograd and a further 4 in Moscow before ceasing to publish in June 1918. See his Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Oxford 1980) p. 404
- 3Osinsky’s work “On the Construction of Socialism” from Kommunist has been published by libcom.org. The same source has also re-published Theses of the Left Communists (originally published in English as a 20 page pamphlet by Critique (Glasgow 1977). That document follows the piece we have translated here in Kommunist No. 1 and can also be found in The Russian Communist Left of the International Communist Current (2005). Ronald Kowalski’s The Bolshevik Party in Conflict: The Left Communist Opposition of 1918 has been scanned and can be also be downloaded from libcom.org.
- 4For more on the Polish Communist Left see leftcom.org
- 5A. Martynov (1865-1935) Russian right wing Social Democrat. At first a supporter of “economism” against Lenin, then a Menshevik until 1917. He rejoined the Bolshevik Party in 1923 where he served Stalin. He would later become one of the chief dignitaries of the Stalinised Communist International.
- 6Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) Russian lawyer and politician close to the Trudovik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. With the February Revolution, he became Vice-President of the Petrograd Soviet and Minister of Justice of the Provisional Government of Prince Lvov, then Minister of War in the Second Lvov government formed in May. At the end of July he led the Majority socialist government. His repression of the Bolsheviks after the July Days was hesitant. The continuation of the war on the side of the Entente, his irresolution in the face of Kornilov’s attempted coup in August and the situation of Dual Power with an increasingly radical Soviet, precipitated the fall of his government in the October Revolution After a feeble attempt to regain power with the remnants of the army, he went into exile in the USA in 1918.
- 7The period of Kerensky’s rule (June-October 1917).
- 8By “revolution” here Radek means the February Revolution of 1917.
- 9French troops occupied Hamburg for the first time in 1810 and the Hanseatic city was annexed to the French Empire in 1811. During the German campaign, Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, still undefeated, installed himself on May 1813 and transformed the city into a fortress to resist a long siege, under very harsh orders, which earned him the hostility of the population. It is in this context that the famous Börsenhalle and the churches of the city are transformed into military stores and stables. After Christmas 1813, many Hamburgers perished from hunger, cold and disease, in their occupied City. Besieged by the Russian, Prussian and Swedish armies, forming a total of 80,000 men, Davout resists until April 1814 before going to the French General Gérard on the orders of Louis XVIII.
- 10That is the Mensheviks and other right wing socialists who dominated the Provisional Government in the second half of 1917.
- 11Helmuth Karl Bernhard Von Moltke (1800-91): Prussian general usually referred to Moltke the Elder, he became Chief of the General Staff from 1857 and reorganised the army. Strategist of the Wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870-1), his theory leaves room for initiative and the assessment of the situation on the part of commanders. Cf. von Moltke, Geschichte des Deutsch-Französischen Krieges von 1870-1, Berlin, Mittler, 1891.
- 12The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ultimately forced the Soviet power to give up the Baltic Provinces, Finland, Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine as well as some parts of Transcaucasia. It has been calculated (by the Left Communist Lomov) that this amounted to a third of Russia’s grain producing land, forty percent of its industry and workforce, ninety percent of its most easily exploitable coal reserves and three quarters of its iron production. See Ronald Kowalski Kommunist : A Weekly Journal of Economic , Social and Political Opinion (New York 1990) p. 234
- 13“Proletarian communists” was the preferred name of the Russian Left Communists initially. Lenin sarcastically focussed on this in his Left wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality where he wrote Our “Left” Communists, however, who are also fond of calling themselves “proletarian” Communists, because there is very little that is proletarian about them and very much that is petty-bourgeois, are incapable of giving thought to the balance of forces, to calculating it. See marxists.org