KOREA COLUMN 22
Russia: What Went Wrong?
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the world’s first successful socialist revolution. It proved that the working class was capable taking power even when it was a still a minority in society. It also showed the world the form of political organisation, the workers’ council or soviet, through which the working class could actually run society.
But if we look at Russia twenty years later, in 1937, we see a society which, with the exception of being dominated by state rather than private property, is completely at odds both with the conception of socialism held by Marx and with the aims of the 1917 Revolution.
It is a society ruled by an absolute dictator, Stalin, with the aid of a vast apparatus of secret police. It is a society in which freedom, debate, and democracy are non- existent and where the slightest dissent is punishable by imprisonment or death. The working class live in grim poverty forced to work long hours for low wages, without even real trades unions to defend them. Many of the peasants have recently endured famine and starvation. Inequality, having been massively reduced by the Revolution, is now increasing rapidly as the new rulers, managers, bureaucrats etc. enrich themselves and the preaching of equality is an offence against the state.
So what went wrong? Obviously a great deal hangs on the answer to this question, not least the possibility of making a convincing case for socialist revolution now, in the twenty first century. Before setting out our own views on this issue let us begin by considering some of the other answers that have been put forward.
There are two major groups who, basically, deny that anything went wrong - the western ruling classes (and their ideologists) and the Stalinists themselves. The western bourgeois view is that since working people are inherently incapable of running society, all talk of workers’ power, freedom and equality is a pipedream, and dictatorship and tyranny is either the conscious aim, or at least the inevitable outcome, of any attempt to create a socialist society. The Stalinist view is (or mainly was) that the Soviet Union in the thirties was a true embodiment of socialism and of the ideas of Marx and Lenin and that all talk of tyranny and a police state is bourgeois propaganda.
The bourgeois view is based on a) prejudice against the working class, and b) ignorance of socialist and Marxist ideas. I shall not answer it further here, as every word of this series of columns, from first to last, is an answer. The Stalinist view is based on either ignorance or denial of the facts. It has been refuted by a mountain of evidence and eyewitness testimony, including from genuine revolutionaries (see for example the memoirs of Victor Serge) and, above all, by history. If Russia, or the other so-called socialist countries of Eastern Europe, had really been the promised land for working people, it is inconceivable that these regimes could have been overthrown as they were in 1989-91, without the working class lifting a finger in their defence.
From those who recognise that a problem exists the main focus has been on the character and ideology of Russia’s political leaders – Stalin, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. In 1956, Khrushchev, in his ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, denounced the crimes of the Stalin era. He blamed the ‘cult of personality’ that developed around Stalin and the latter’s sadistic character. Both the cult and the sadism were facts but the weakness of this as an explanation is obvious: why was the cult developed and why did the Communist Party install and sustain a sadistic monster as its leader?
The main explanation favoured by western academics has stressed the role of Leninism and Bolshevism. It was, the argument goes, the totalitarian character of Lenin as an individual and of Leninism as an ideology, both embodied in the totalitarian Bolshevik Party, that led, more or less inevitably, to the excesses of Stalinism. This view has to ignore or discount important historical facts such as the extremely democratic character of the Bolshevik Party, before, during and immediately after the Revolution, and Stalin’s need, in order to establish his regime, to physically eliminate virtually the entire Bolshevik old guard. *
However, all these explanations suffer from a deeper flaw. They are all versions of what might be called the bourgeois ‘great man’ theory of history, which sees the course of history as shaped, first and foremost, by the ideas and deeds of the tiny minority at the top (usually kings, generals etc. but in this case Marxist theorists and activists). In reality history is shaped primarily by the struggle between classes, which in turn is conditioned by the development of the forces and relations of production, and this historical materialist approach should be applied to the fate of the Russian Revolution just as much as to the rest of world history.
The real question, therefore, is how did the working class who took power in October 1917 then come to lose it again? Once this is established as the core question the main answers are not hard to find.
First the backwardness of Russian economic development, compared to Europe and North America, and consequently the relatively small size of its urban proletariat. This was not in itself decisive (or October 1917 would have been impossible) but it weakened the position of the working class from the start.
Second the utter devastation of the Russian economy in the Civil War of 1918-21 which followed the Revolution and which was imposed on Russia by Western imperialist intervention. The scale of this devastation is hard to grasp: large scale industrial production fell to 21% of its 1913 level, factories closed, transport ceased to function, epidemics of cholera and TB raged and there was widespread famine. Above all this destroyed the economic foundations of the working class. Added to this was the slaughter of a large proportion of the most advanced workers in the Civil War. By 1921 the class, which took power in 1917, had virtually ceased to exist and was no longer able to assert its collective will over society. In the absence of the working class another social force had to take control. Normally it would have been the aristocracy or bourgeoisie, but they had been expropriated and driven out, consequently it was the bureaucracy, of the state and the party which came to the fore, more and more freeing itself from popular control.
Finally, the isolation of Russian Revolution, its failure to spread internationally. This was a very close run thing, especially in Germany, but the effect was to deprive the Revolution of the aid needed to restore the economy and renew and refresh the working class, and to put Russia under immense economic and military pressure from western capitalism.
It was the interaction of these real material factors, not human nature or the alleged defects of Marxist or Leninist ideology, that sealed the fate of the Russian Revolution and produced the phenomenon of Stalinism. The precise nature of that phenomenon will be discussed in the next in this series.
* The claimed ‘textual basis’ of this argument in Lenin’s What is To Be Done? has recently been meticulously refuted by the US scholar Lars T. Lih in his book Lenin Rediscovered – sadly it is very large and very expensive.
11 May 2007