Wednesday, November 07, 2018

On The Anniversary - Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution For New October Revolutions!

On The Anniversary - Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!

Workers Vanguard No. 1123

1 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
(Part One)
We print below the first part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago.
It is the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, the defining event of modern history and the greatest victory ever for working people. The proletariat, led by a Leninist vanguard party, smashed the bourgeois state and set up a workers state. I pondered what I could tell you in one hour—when after all, Leon Trotsky needed about 1,200 pages in his History of the Russian Revolution (1932). But if this talk encourages you to read or reread Trotsky’s History, then I will have accomplished something.
As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, put it:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality....
“The Russian revolution the workers’ revolution is to be made.... It showed in life what kind of a party the workers must have.”
— “Speech on the Russian Question” (1939), printed in Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943)
The need for a revolutionary party will be one of the themes of this talk. During the course of the Russian Revolution, the multinational proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, forged its own new organs of class power, the soviets, or workers councils. With the smashing of the old capitalist state, these soviets, under Bolshevik leadership, formed the basis of the new workers state. The vanguard of the workers understood that they were not just taking power in Russia; they were opening the first chapter of international proletarian revolution. The Russian Revolution inspired workers uprisings throughout Europe and rebellions in the colonial countries.
The Soviet government expropriated the capitalists and landlords and repudiated totally the tsar’s massive debt to foreign bankers. It proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education, as the first steps to building a socialist society. Sounds good, doesn’t it?! The new workers state gave land to the peasants and self-determination—the right to their own independent state—to the many oppressed nations that had been ruled over by the hated tsar. I will speak some about the struggles V.I. Lenin waged to ensure the right of these nations to self-determination. The early Soviet government gave women in Russia an unprecedented level of equality and freedom.
Like many people, when I first came around the Spartacist League, I assumed that in a revolutionary situation all the left would get together and fight for socialist revolution. Comrades encouraged me to read about the Russian Revolution, which proves exactly the opposite. Believe me, if a group like the International Socialist Organization or Workers World has a reformist approach to pressuring the capitalist state now, then when the time comes, like the Mensheviks, they will wind up defending capitalism tooth and nail.
The bourgeoisie has always wanted to bury the October Revolution under a mountain of lies. There has been a bunch of articles in the press on the 100th anniversary. A few were interesting. Most were like, “Yikes, it was just a historical accident, let’s hope it never happens again.” But it happened because the socially organized productive forces of the planet had developed to the point where bourgeois private property forms and the bourgeois nation-states had become shackles on social progress. World War I marked the descent of the capitalist system into mass slaughter and barbaric destruction. It signaled that to free the planet’s productive forces from capitalist imperialism, proletarian revolution was necessary.
Capitalist imperialism is still caught in its fatal contradictions; it still creates a proletariat with the social power to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and it still creates the barbarism that we see around us. Under both capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, U.S. imperialism has destroyed countries around the world. Much of the Near East is a bombed-out shell. Now Trump is threatening nuclear war against North Korea for their terrible crime of developing weapons to defend themselves. We call for the military defense of the North Korean and Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers states. It’s a good thing that North Korea is developing a credible nuclear deterrent. Without that, the U.S. would already have bombed them into oblivion.
Here at home, racist cop terror, union-busting, destruction of working people’s living standards, domestic surveillance and mass deportations continue apace under Trump as they did under Obama. Trump is not a fascist, but he has encouraged the fascist scum to come out of the woodwork. We all wish for there to be some hard class struggle in this country, and it will come—it is inevitable under capitalism. Our job is to make sure that there will be a party like Lenin’s in the right place at the right time. So this talk is not just about what happened in 1917 in Russia; it is also about the fight of the International Communist League to organize for new Octobers.
Russia’s Uneven and Combined Development
At this point I am going to discuss some of the background to the Russian Revolution and speak to why the first and, so far, only proletarian socialist revolution occurred in Russia. Russia was an acute example of what Trotsky called uneven and combined development. The country was ruled by a reactionary tsarist aristocracy presiding over a prison house of many oppressed nations. Seventy million Great Russians constituted the main mass of the country, but there were 90 million “outlanders.” So a majority of the country was oppressed nationalities. Barely 50 years out of serfdom, peasants made up some 85 percent of the population and lived in the most backward conditions imaginable. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm. The ancient institutions of the traditional household and the communal village enforced a rigid patriarchal hierarchy and the degradation of women. Peasant women were beasts of burden; we have a picture in an article on “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” of peasant women harnessed up like oxen to pull a river barge (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006).
But underdeveloped countries do not just mechanically go through every stage that the more developed countries went through: they jump over certain aspects while retaining many very backward elements. By 1914, massive investment from Europe had created a new urban proletariat (one-third women!) in large-scale, state-of-the-art industrial concentrations. The percentage of Russian workers employed in factories of more than 1,000 employees was higher than in Britain, Germany or the U.S. The late-emerging Russian bourgeoisie, subordinated to foreign capitalists and tied to the Russian aristocracy, knew that any mass upsurge against tsarism was bound to sweep them away, too.
It was in response to this uneven and combined development that Trotsky formulated his theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky projected that despite the economic backwardness of the country, the Russian proletariat could come to power before an extended period of capitalist development. Indeed, the workers would have to come to power if Russia were to be liberated from its feudal past because the weak and cowardly capitalists sure weren’t going to do it.
An essential aspect of Trotsky’s permanent revolution was, as he wrote in the August 1939 article “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (also known as “Three Concepts”): “Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.” And that, of course, was and is the rub. With the delay of world revolution, particularly in the advanced industrial countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped political power in the Soviet Union in 1923-24, and capitalism was eventually restored in 1991-92. I will make the point that the ICL defended the Soviet Union against capitalist counterrevolution to the bitter end, unlike most left groups.
Key to the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was the coming together of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution with Lenin’s struggle to build a programmatically based vanguard party steeled against all manner of reconciliation with the capitalist order. The Bolshevik Party was cohered in the long years of struggle against the Mensheviks, who looked to the liberal bourgeoisie to overthrow tsarism.
World War I had a profound impact on Lenin’s thinking. In 1916, he wrote the book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which explained that imperialism is not a policy, but is the highest stage of capitalism. Imperialist wars to divide and redivide the world are inevitable under monopoly capitalism. World War I triggered the collapse of the Second “Socialist” International, which the Bolsheviks had considered themselves part of, when the vast majority of its affiliated parties lined up behind their own bourgeoisies’ war efforts. Lenin at first didn’t believe it when he heard that the German Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group had unanimously voted to support the war. I guess he thought it was what today might be called “fake news.” But it was true.
Lenin concluded that the war had demonstrated that capitalism was in its final stage of decay. He maintained that the path to proletarian revolution was the transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war and that socialists in the imperialist centers must stand for the defeat, above all, of their own bourgeois state in the war. Lenin also concluded that a new, revolutionary international, the Third International, must be built on the hard programmatic Bolshevik model.
National Liberation Struggles and Socialist Revolution
If you look at Lenin’s writings during the years leading up to 1917, a lot of them deal with the need for a hard position against the imperialist war and against not only the overtly pro-war fake socialists but also against the centrists like Karl Kautsky who covered for them. A number of the articles deal with the national question.
Now, the ICL has just had an intense internal struggle against a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations like Quebec and Catalonia within multinational states. As the fight unfolded internationally, it exposed a number of examples of chauvinist positions in opposition to just national struggles of oppressed nations. To get a sense of how these represented a capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism, read “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 65, Summer 2017).
The point is that our old position went against Lenin’s very extensive writings on the national question. In his 1914 article, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin outlined a very definite programmatic stance: “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.”
This stance applied not only to colonies but also to countries forcibly retained within multinational states. Lenin wrote:
“The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of the oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state.... Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words...”
“On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organizational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie.”
— “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1916)
During the war years, Lenin waged a struggle against the advocates of what he called imperialist economism. The original Economists of whom he speaks in What Is To Be Done? (1902) thought that the economic struggle was everything and that there was no need to bother with political problems and struggle. The imperialist Economists thought that since imperialism had triumphed, there was no need to bother with the problems of political democracy and self-determination. These included various Polish Social Democrats whom Lenin denounced for thinking that “self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism” (“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism” [1916]).
Lenin adamantly disagreed with both these propositions. He wrote: “Socialist parties which did not show by all their activity, both now, during the revolution, and after its victory, that they would liberate the enslaved nations and build up relations with them on the basis of a free union…these parties would be betraying socialism” (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” emphasis added).
This position was key to making the Russian Revolution. Our old articles contained phrases like “getting the national question off the agenda,” which we often used as an excuse for not supporting struggles for national liberation. The Bolsheviks saw that national liberation struggles could be catalysts for socialist revolution and sought to unleash their revolutionary potential. National liberation can be a motor force for proletarian rule if the proletariat acquires communist consciousness and is led by a communist party.
Fighting national oppression is one of the things the Bolsheviks were known for, as well as their workers mobilizations against anti-Jewish pogroms by the fascistic Black Hundreds. We could certainly use some of these workers mobilizations against today’s fascists. As Lenin said in What Is To Be Done?, the party must be “the tribune of the to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”
The February Revolution
So by now you’re all saying, “Enough already, let’s get on with the revolution!” The February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist monarchy was carried out overwhelmingly by the working class, with the peasants, organized in the army, also playing a key role. The spark was a demonstration by women workers demanding bread on February 23 (which is March 8 in the new calendar, International Women’s Day). It shows it’s a good thing for women to get out of the villages and have some social power as workers! Then on February 25 there was a general strike in Petrograd, followed by a mutiny in some army regiments.
What broke the back of the tsarist monarchy was that the army no longer wanted to fight, and whole units were abandoning the front or refusing to carry out orders. A powerful indication was when the Cossack regiments, who were considered very loyal to the tsar, refused to suppress a workers demonstration in Petrograd. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky relates:
“The officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the [Sampsonievsky] Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,’...‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink’.”
If the Cossacks were winking at the workers, the tsar was in trouble.
You have to realize how bloody and unpopular the war was. The ABC of Communism (1920) by Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky estimated that by 1918 the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war was eight million. And they remarked acidly, “If we assume the average weight of a soldier to be 150 lb., this means that between 1 August 1914, and 1 January 1918, the capitalists had brought to market twelve hundred million pounds of putrid human flesh.” Trotsky encapsulated the situation as follows: “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop...of my blood’.”
Trotsky’s History shows the quick tempo of events. February 23 International Women’s Day demo; February 25 general strike; police and state officials were sent packing and on February 27 the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was formed. The soviets, which had previously arisen in the 1905 Revolution, were revived in the February Revolution, but they now included soldiers, who were mainly peasants and who would otherwise have been difficult to organize. By February 28 the tsar’s ministers were arrested, and by March 2 the tsar had abdicated.
The paradox of the February Revolution was that while the autocracy and the tsar had been overthrown by the workers, the official government that emerged was bourgeois. Even as street fighting was raging in Petrograd on the night of February 27, a self-appointed Provisional Committee composed of bourgeois-monarchist politicians met in the Tauride Palace, behind the back of the popular revolution. They declared a Provisional Government aimed at erecting a constitutional monarchy.
Meanwhile, in another wing of the Tauride Palace, a “Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” was being formed. The leadership of the Soviet was dominated by the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). While the SRs were largely based on the peasantry, the Mensheviks represented urban petty-bourgeois layers and the more conservative and privileged workers. The program of the Mensheviks and SRs was that the bourgeoisie should lead and rule, and they desperately appealed to the bourgeois Provisional Government to take control.
Trotsky often quotes the left Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who was a leader of the Soviet in its early days and himself wrote a history of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution quotes Sukhanov as saying: “The Executive Committee [of the Soviet] was in a perfect position either to give the power to the bourgeois government, or not give it.” Further: “The power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power.... Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”
That’s blunt! When I first read about this, I had trouble believing that any kind of so-called socialist, with the workers in ascendancy and soviets being set up, deliberately runs around the city looking for capitalist politicians to hand over power to. But let me tell you something: This has happened many times. From the abortive Chinese Revolution of the late 1920s to Spain in the 1930s to Greece in the late 1940s after World War II, promising revolutionary situations have been betrayed by latter-day Mensheviks and deliberately handed over to the bourgeois executioners time and time again. These reformists seriously do not believe that the working class can take and hold power.
The February Revolution thus resulted in a situation of dual power. That is, alongside the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie, there stood the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. There was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the soviets. Trotsky notes that one bourgeois politician complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it.” Dual power is unstable and can only be resolved either by revolution or counterrevolution.
Rearming the Bolshevik Party
Trotsky comments that the February Revolution was led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.” The Bolsheviks were in the soviets, of course, but as a minority. The Bolsheviks were slow off the mark, with a leadership underground and dispersed—Lenin was in exile—and, in general, lagging behind the masses. The soviets in February were dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, who maintained that the February Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy, and now the task was to defend “democratic” Russia against German imperialism. In other words, upholding the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Mensheviks and SRs took positions similar to the pro-war German Social Democrats. During Lenin’s exile and particularly after the return of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend in the direction of the Mensheviks’ defensism, dropping Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism and even mooting the possibility of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks merging! Lenin in exile was trying desperately to get back to Russia and wrote in a furious March letter: “I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social-patriotism.”
When he finally arrived in Petrograd, Lenin climbed atop an armored car to address the cheering workers who had brought down the tsar. Lenin hailed them and, to the shock of the official pro-war Soviet welcoming committee, gave an internationalist salute to the German revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, who was in prison for opposing German militarism. “The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters.... Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution).
Lenin went straight on to a Bolshevik meeting, where he gave a two-hour speech. The speech is not preserved, but the ever-present Sukhanov, who was allowed into this Bolshevik meeting by an overindulgent Kamenev, describes Lenin as saying: “‘We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!’” Sukhanov bleats: “I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful.”
This was the opening shot of Lenin’s fight to rearm the party. Lenin’s “April Theses,” which he fought for at the April party conference, included recognition that the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia would place on the order of the day not only the democratic tasks but also socialist tasks. So now Lenin is sounding more like Trotsky on permanent revolution. As Trotsky noted in Lessons of October (1924): “The fundamental controversial question, around which everything else centered, was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”
Lenin could win over the party because his program corresponded to the needs of the proletariat and peasantry. And because there was a proletarian base to the party that had been waiting—as Trotsky says in his History of the Russian Revolution, “gritting their teeth—for Lenin or someone to put forward a revolutionary strategy for the seizure of power by the Soviets. Yet, at the same time, there was a conservative wing of the party. As Trotsky points out in Lessons of October, “A revolutionary party is subject to the pressure of other political forces.” The party’s power of resistance is weakened when it has to make political turns and it “becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.” The most abrupt turn is when the question of armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie is on the agenda. We’ll see a second part of this fight right before the insurrection. After Lenin’s successful struggle to rearm the party, the Bolshevik Party began to raise its revolutionary program, and its influence spread like wildfire.
Not surprisingly, the fall of the tsarist monarchy in February had stimulated national movements among the oppressed nations of Russia. Trotsky wrote: “In this matter, however, we observe the same thing as in all other departments of the February regime: the official democracy, held in leash by its political dependence upon an imperialist bourgeoisie, was totally incapable of breaking the old fetters.” They sure weren’t going to relinquish, as Trotsky put it, “Ukrainian grain, Donetz coal, and the ores of Krivorog.” So, after February as before, Lenin kept hammering away on the right of self-determination for oppressed nations.
Workers Vanguard No. 1124
15 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
(Part Two)
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago. Part One appeared in WV No. 1123 (1 December).
The first Provisional Government, which was established after the February Revolution, was brought down by the uproar over its pledge to continue the hated imperialist war. A new cabinet was formed on May 5. This time Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party and Menshevik leaders in the soviets (councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies that arose in the wake of the February Revolution) took ministerial posts, alongside the bourgeois Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party, in the capitalist government. Trotsky later called this Russian coalition government “the greatest historical example of the Popular Front” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” July 1936).
The popular front was the name that the Stalinists would use, starting in the 1930s, to designate their coalition government betrayals. In South Africa it’s called the Tripartite Alliance. Such class collaboration is not a tactic but the greatest betrayal! When a workers party enters a popular front with capitalist parties, whether in government or in opposition, it is a pledge by the traitorous working-class leaders that they will not violate the bourgeois order; in fact, they’ll defend it.
The mood in Petrograd was changing in favor of the Bolsheviks, who had a near majority in the factories. In early June when a demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was banned by the Menshevik/SR-led Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down and called it off. The conciliationist Soviet leadership then called a demonstration on June 18, but to their horror the workers came out en masse under Bolshevik slogans, including: “Down with the offensive!” “All power to the soviets!” and “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!”
Trotsky was now back in Russia and, finally understanding the need for a hard Leninist party, was working closely with Lenin. In response to the coalition government, Lenin and Trotsky devised the slogan, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” It meant: break the coalition with the capitalists; the soviets should take all the power!
By early July, Petrograd was in semi-insurrection. Workers and soldiers infuriated by the coalition government, now led by Alexander Kerensky, were demanding “All power to the Soviet!” In his History of the Russian Revolution (1932), Trotsky vividly quotes an eyewitness who saw Victor Chernov, an SR minister, trying to speak to a crowd of workers and soldiers: “A husky worker shaking his fist in the face of the minister, shouted furiously: ‘Take the power, you son-of-a-bitch, when they give it to you’.”
But the conciliationists didn’t want the power! This is very different from the Bolsheviks. Speaking at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917, Lenin called for a Soviet government and asserted: “According to the previous speaker...there was no political party in Russia expressing its readiness to assume full power. I reply: ‘Yes, there is. No party can refuse this, and our Party certainly doesn’t’” (“Speech on the Attitude Towards the Provisional Government,” 4 June 1917).
The Bolsheviks were worried that a July insurrection in the cities was premature, that it would not be backed by the peasantry, and thus it would be impossible for the workers to hold power. But after initially opposing the July demonstrations, the Bolshevik leadership decided that it was better to go with the masses and try to provide leadership and prevent a premature insurrection. The Bolshevik estimation was correct, and after the demonstrations, a period of severe repression followed. Bolsheviks were killed, Trotsky was arrested and Lenin went into hiding. The repression, however, did make clear to the workers the true nature of this popular-front government—that it was nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
While in hiding, Lenin devoted what he thought might be his last days to writing The State and Revolution. He argued that while the bourgeoisie uses lies to hide its dictatorship, the truth is that the state is not a neutral arbiter above classes. He defended Friedrich Engels’ understanding that the core of the state is armed bodies of men—the military, prisons and police—who hold a monopoly of violence over society. These instruments exist for the social domination by the ruling class—under capitalism, the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s pamphlet codifies a central lesson of revolutionary struggle: that the proletariat cannot take over the bourgeois state to wield it in the interests of the working class. Rather, the proletariat must smash the old state machinery, create a new state and impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters. As you can see, this was not an abstract discussion but a part of an ongoing political debate. There was supposed to be a seventh chapter of The State and Revolution, but Lenin had to stop writing and go back to Petrograd to actually lead the revolution. As he noted in a postscript: “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”
By August, the bourgeoisie had realized that only a military coup could stop the revolution and called on the commander-in-chief of the army, General Kornilov, to crush the soviets. Kornilov was a monarchist general of the anti-Jewish “Black Hundred” type. Trotsky notes that Kornilov had the heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep. The conciliationist soviet tops were paralyzed in response to the counterrevolutionary offensive, but the masses rallied around the Bolshevik-organized united-front action that stopped Kornilov in his tracks.
Lenin was very clear:
Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.”
Lenin was also very clear on the war even though by this time the German army was approaching Petrograd: “We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat” (“To the Central Committee of the RSDLP,” 30 August 1917).
It is also worth noting that a victory for Kornilov would have meant not only a slaughter of the pro-Bolshevik masses, but would also have been fatal for many of the compromisers as well. The failed coup showed that bourgeois democracy, as represented by the Provisional Government, was not viable in the historical sense in Russia in 1917. The real choices were represented by the Bolsheviks on the one hand and Kornilov and the forces of military reaction on the other.
Toward the Seizure of Power
A crucial corner had been turned by the beginning of September. The masses were convinced that the old soviet misleaders were politically bankrupt and that only the Bolsheviks would take decisive action to end the war, stop capitalist sabotage of the economy and lead the soviets to power. The general staff of the army was no longer capable of mobilizing military units against revolutionary Petrograd. The countryside was aflame as returning peasant soldiers seized the landlords’ fields and torched their huge mansions. On September 4, Trotsky was released from prison, and by the 23rd he was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.
The Bolsheviks finally had solid majorities in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets. Trotsky declared, “Long live the direct and open struggle for a revolutionary power throughout the country!” The bourgeoisie and the conciliationists tried some parliamentary diversions—the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament—but it was too late for that. The crucial upcoming event was the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was very popular with the masses because it was sure to have a Bolshevik majority.
The first showdown in the Bolshevik leadership over the insurrection was the famous central committee meeting of October 10, where the insurrection was voted up ten votes to two—Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev voted against. As Trotsky wrote: “Whatever remains in the party that is irresolute, skeptical, conciliationist, capitulatory—in short Menshevik—all this rises to the surface in opposition to the insurrection” (Lessons of October, 1924). The resolution, as is typical of Lenin, starts with the international situation, that is, the ripening of world revolution; the insurrection in Russia is regarded as a link in the chain. The idea of having socialism in one country was not in anyone’s mind then, even Stalin’s.
Alexander Rabinowitch, in The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976), tells a funny story about this meeting which had to be held secretly because Lenin was still subject to arrest:
“By an ironic twist of fate the gathering was to be held in the apartment of the left Menshevik Sukhanov.... But on this occasion Sukhanov was not in attendance. His wife, Galina Flakserman, a Bolshevik activist since 1905...had offered...the use of the Sukhanov flat, should the need arise.”
Rabinowitch continues:
“For her part, Flakserman insured that her meddlesome husband would remain away on this historic night. ‘The weather is wretched, and you must promise not to try to make it all the way back home tonight,’ she had counseled solicitously as he departed for work early that morning.”
He must have been irritated to miss this meeting.
So, after this decisive resolution, the workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funneling weapons directly to the Red Guards. But there were still differences in the leadership. There was another meeting on October 16, where Lenin again argued for insurrection and Kamenev and Zinoviev again voted against it. Then Kamenev and Zinoviev got a public statement printed in a non-Bolshevik newspaper opposing the insurrection. Lenin called them strikebreakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. Luckily for them, the revolution intervened. Stalin voted with Lenin for insurrection but defended Kamenev and Zinoviev and minimized the differences. He was keeping his options open in case the revolution didn’t come off.
A decisive step toward the seizure of power came when the Petrograd Soviet, at the behest of the Bolsheviks, invalidated an order by Kerensky to transfer two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. Trotsky noted:
“The moment when the regiments, upon the instructions of the [Soviet] Military Revolutionary Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms. The insurrection of October 25 was only supplementary in character.”
Lessons of October
The Seizure of Power
On October 24, Kerensky foolishly tried to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. The Military Revolutionary Committee immediately sent a detachment to reopen it and also to start taking over the telephone exchange and other key centers. Even at this point Lenin was frustrated with the lack of progress of the insurrection and went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute to oversee preparations personally. One Bolshevik remembered that Lenin “paced around a small room at Smolny like a lion in a cage. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost: it remained the last gate on the road to workers’ power. V. I. scolded...he screamed...he was ready to shoot us” (Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power).
Kerensky, by the way, escaped in the safety of a diplomatic vehicle flying the American flag. He wound up here in the U.S., home to counterrevolutionary gusanos of all varieties, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. There he wrote and lectured about how to fight communism—something which he hadn’t done too well in life.
The cruiser Aurora was firing on the Winter Palace when the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened. Lenin got up and opened his speech with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The three-point agenda was: end the war, give land to the peasants and establish the socialist dictatorshipThe Bolsheviks’ proclamations were punctuated by the steady boom of Red naval artillery directed against the government holdouts in the Winter Palace, which was finally taken.
As we’ve seen, the soviets by themselves do not settle the question of power. They can serve different programs and leaderships. As Trotsky wrote in Lessons of October, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.” At the opening session of the Congress of Soviets, the Mensheviks and the right-wing Socialist-Revolutionaries were enraged that the Bolsheviks had taken power and walked out. Trotsky basically said “Good riddance!”
Consistent with their opposition to the seizure of power, the right wing of the Bolshevik Party leadership around Zinoviev and Kamenev argued for a coalition government. They had to back down when it became clear that there was nobody to form a coalition with. Far from wanting to help run a workers state, the Mensheviks and SRs immediately started organizing a counterrevolutionary uprising against the Bolsheviks, which was quickly suppressed.
Let me state as a general rule that it is a bad idea to seek a coalition with those who are actively trying to overthrow the workers state and kill you all. This right wing of the Bolsheviks would re-emerge after Lenin’s death and the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, when a bureaucratic caste began to coalesce around J.V. Stalin. But for now, another acute party crisis had been overcome. Some Left SRs finally did join the government, at least for a while.
I will briefly comment on the “constituent assembly” call and recommend to people our article in Spartacist ([English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13), “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand.” This was a longtime Bolshevik demand, but the problem is that a constituent assembly is a bourgeois parliament. When it finally came into being after the revolution, it was counterrevolutionary. As we state in our article:
“The issues of permanent revolution and the constituent assembly are closely linked because the central question is what form of state will be able to accomplish the democratic tasks of the revolution: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat?...
“Even after the essential concepts of the perspective of permanent revolution came to be accepted—by Trotsky in 1905, by Lenin in early 1917—the relationship between soviets and constituent assembly remained to be tested in real life. It was the experience of the October Revolution that led Lenin and Trotsky to support the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, despite their previous support for calls to convene it.”
The Revolutionary Regime
Besides proceeding on peace negotiations and land to the peasantry, a new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars was appointed, which over the next period moved forward with nationalizing the banks, restarting industry and laying the foundations of the new soviet state.
On November 15, the new Soviet government issued the “Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia,” putting forward the following principles: equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of self-determination up to secession and formation of a separate state, abolition of all national and religious privileges, and the free development of all national and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia. Trotsky comments in his History of the Russian Revolution:
“The bourgeoisie of the border nations entered the road of separatism in the autumn of 1917, not in a struggle against national oppression, but in a struggle against the advancing proletarian revolution. In the sum total, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations manifested no less hostility to the revolution than the Great Russian bourgeoisie.”
True enough, and certainly the local bourgeoisie of various border areas were willing lackeys of the imperialist powers, including of course the U.S., which tried to overturn the Russian Revolution. But this is why Lenin’s position on the national question spoke so powerfully to the working masses. What he wanted was a voluntary union of nations. Writing in December 1919 about the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Lenin said:
“Regarding it as beyond dispute for every Communist and for every politically-conscious worker that the closest alliance of all Soviet republics in their struggle against the menacing forces of world imperialism is essential, the R.C.P. [Russian Communist Party] maintains that the form of that alliance must be finally determined by the Ukrainian workers and labouring peasants themselves.”
— “Draft Resolution of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.) on Soviet Rule in the Ukraine”
The question of national divisions does not go away the day after the socialist revolution, but only in the more distant communist future. The idea that the national question was no longer an issue was defeated in the debate in 1919 over the Russian party program. Actually, it was another go-around with those who had proposed “imperialist economism” before the revolution (see Part One of this presentation).
The party program asserted not only that “the colonial and other nations which are oppressed, or whose rights are restricted, must be completely liberated and granted the right to secede.” It also emphasized that “the workers of those nations which under capitalism were oppressor nations must take exceptional care not to hurt the national sentiments of the oppressed nations...and must not only promote the actual equality, but also the development of the language and literature of the working people of the formerly oppressed nations so as to remove all traces of distrust and alienation inherited from the epoch of capitalism” (“Draft Programme of the R.C.P.[B.]”).
Indeed, Lenin’s last struggle was waged against the Great Russian chauvinist bullying of Georgian Communists by Stalin and others. This was part of the struggle against the developing Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky said: “Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union—and it is still far from a quiet haven—the national policy of Lenin will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind” (History of the Russian Revolution).
This talk cannot take up in any depth the question of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratization.
In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe. The idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later perversion introduced as part of the justification for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.
Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste in 1924 and the consequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a collectivized, planned economy—remained. We of the International Communist League stand on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution. We stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time, we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, restore workers democracy and pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution.
The gains of the revolution were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. Despite the grim poverty of Russia at the time of the October Revolution, the young workers state implemented far-reaching measures of equality for women. The Soviet government established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner; all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were abolished.
As explained in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923), by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, the Bolshevik position was based on the following principle: the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.” This is light-years ahead of the consciousness of liberals and fake leftists today, like Socialist Alternative, who go ballistic over our defense of Roman Polanski, who has been persecuted for consensual sexual activity, and NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association), which advocates the right of consensual relationships between youth and older men.
One of the few recent good articles in the New York Times about the Russian Revolution was an August 12 piece by Kristen R. Ghodsee titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” It was mostly about East European countries, which became bureaucratically deformed workers states after World War II. The article stated: “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.” Some examples:
“Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria.... Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships. ‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,’ she said. ‘After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased’.”
From a 30-something working woman of Germany today speaking of her mother’s desire for grandchildren: “She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now—it was so easy for women [in East Germany] before the Wall fell,” referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Another quote from researchers in Poland when it was still a workers state: “Even the best stimulation...will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.” Indeed! In fact, the most amazing thing about this article is that the New York Times actually published it.
“Left” Apostles of Counterrevolution
The destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism there in 1991-92 and in East Europe transformed the political landscape of the planet and threw proletarian consciousness backward. Capitalist counterrevolution triggered an unparalleled economic collapse throughout the former Soviet Union, with skyrocketing rates of poverty and disease. Internationally, with the destruction of the Soviet Union as a counterweight, the imperialists felt they had a free hand to project their military might.
We actively fought counterrevolution from East Germany to the Soviet Union itself. The Socialist Workers Party of Britain, then affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S., was just the bluntest of the “left” cheerleaders for counterrevolution when they triumphantly proclaimed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991).
Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and big shot in the Democratic Socialists of America, has this to say about the Russian Revolution:
“One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags [really?!], the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd. But there was good reason that the Bolsheviks once called themselves ‘social democrats’.”
So Sunkara believes Leninism leads to Stalinism and wants to return to every rotten social-democratic position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to fight against to make the Russian Revolution. Todd Chretien, ISO honcho, endorses the article with a few oh-so-polite caveats and says: “Today, like it or not, all of us socialists are on the same train, even if we might start out on different cars...and communication between compartments is flowing freely”—between what he calls the “healthy sections of the socialist left,” i.e., the reformists of various varieties.
Well, we Trotskyists of the ICL are not on their train. We don’t spend our days trying to refurbish the capitalist Democratic Party; we don’t support U.S. imperialism’s bloody wars around the world; and we don’t promote counterrevolution in those countries, like China or North Korea, where capitalist rule was overthrown. And our goal isn’t trying to reform the capitalist system.
During World War I, Rosa Luxemburg posited that the choices were socialism or barbarism. That’s true now, too. We know we have a long row to hoe and that we are a small international revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. We also know that the tide will again turn and that future workers revolutions will need the Bolshevik political arsenal. Their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution. So that’s our job and no one else’s. To quote James Cannon, “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood” (Struggle for a Proletarian Party [1943]).

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