The socialist movement: our history
Written by: Corey Oakley
2. The First International
3. Reform versus revolution: The Second International
4. The birth of Bolshevism
5. The Russian revolution
6. The Comintern: towards the world revolution
7. The defeat of the Russian revolution
8. The Trotskyist movement
9. A note on sources / further reading
In 1847 Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: "A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism." They were getting a little ahead of themselves. It is true that Europe then stood on the verge of huge revolutionary upheavals. But the communist movement, such as it existed, did not extend far beyond Marx and a few of his collaborators. The working class was to play an important role in the 1848 revolutions, but it had not yet emerged as an independent mass force outside of England.
But what the Communist Manifesto lacked in immediacy, it possessed in foresight. Two decades later Marx himself was central to establishing the "First International", bringing together mass workers' organisations from across Europe in what was a first vital step in making a reality the call "workers of all countries unite!" In the 1871 Paris Commune, workers took power into their own hands for the first time, proving, in the precious months before the revolution was drowned in blood, that a radically different society was possible.
After Marx's death, the Second International rose to replace the First. Millions of workers looked to it as the vehicle through which socialism would be won. These hopes though, were dashed on the rocks of imperialist war, as the socialist parties of Europe abandoned their internationalism and backed their own rulers in World War One. All seemed lost. And yet only 3 years later, out of the bloodshed of war arose the Russian Revolution, the event which defined the 20th century, and which, for the first time, put the possibility of an alternative to capitalism on the immediate agenda. In the years which followed Europe was wracked by revolution from one end to the other. Everywhere the Third International, under the leadership of the Russian Bolsheviks, gained a mass following amongst workers disillusioned with the betrayal of the official socialist parties. World revolution seemed not just possible, but imminent.
And yet the great revolutionary wave was defeated. Out of the ruins of this calamity arose the monstrosity of Stalinism. Stalin's counter-revolution in Russia destroy every last vestige of the world's first democratic workers state. His treacherous foreign policy, and that of his successors, led the workers' movements in country after country to terrible defeats. And, perhaps most disastrously, Stalin's determination to cloak the brutality of his regime in the language of Marxism twisted the genuine socialist tradition beyond recognition. It discredited socialism as a movement for liberation in the eyes of millions around the world.
Reclaiming that tradition involves two things. First, reasserting the real history of the pre-Stalin socialist movement, and in particular of the Russian revolution. Second, coming to grips with the nature of Stalinism - what it was, and how it was able to succeed.
This is no academic exercise. We face a world system that is again spiralling into war after war; a system whose cycle of inequality and injustice only accelerates as it ages. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his book After Theory, the need for revolution is today "plain realism. No enlightened, moderately intelligent observer could survey the state of the planet and conclude it could be put to rights without a through-going transformation."
The history of the socialist movement is not only a history of struggle and sacrifice. It is a history that provides hope for a different world. Moreover, it is a tool that can help forge the weapons of a new, mass socialist movement - the need for which has never been greater.
2. The First International
The International Workingmen's Association - the First International - existed for a little under a decade: from 1864 to 1872. And yet it had a profound impact on world politics.
By the 1860s powerful workers' movements had started to emerge across Europe and in America. This development made it possible, for the first time, to fuse the ideas of revolutionary socialism with the concrete force of a genuinely mass, international working class movement.
The formation of the International
Uprisings in Poland and Italy and the American Civil War provided the impetus for establishing the International. In Britain, the workers' movement in support of the North in the American Civil War was strong enough to prevent Britain entering the war on the side of the slave-owners. This powerful display of international solidarity was all the more impressive because the Northern blockade of cotton exports to England cost many their jobs.
When Marx was invited to speak at the founding convention of the International in London, he explained his eagerness to be involved by emphasising that the initiators of the new organisation were "real workers' leaders in London, with one or two exceptions real workers themselves."
The new body was far from homogeneous. Alongside Marx and his supporters, it contained English trade union leaders hostile to talk of "revolution", and European Proudhonists (anarchists) who were not only against "political" action of any kind, but against strikes and unions per se. Marx had no illusions that an effective organisation could be forged by cobbling together these disparate groupings. But at the same time, the International had brought together forces that represented genuine workers' movements in a number of countries. Its ideological battle lines were not just arcane disputes between intellectuals or tiny socialist sects, but were representative of the actually existing political situation in the European working class.
Marx was determined not to let political disputes derail the opportunity to build a mass workers' organisation. His Inaugural Address reflected his attempt to steer a course that could keep the different forces in the International together, and at the same time point it in a direction that would later be pursued with much more force.
So while the Address stated that "to conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class", this formulation was vague enough to not repel those English trade unionists who could interpret it in terms of the fight for universal suffrage rather than a call for workers' revolution. Similarly with the inclusion in the rules of the assertion that "the economical emancipation of the working classes is ... the great end to which every political movement ought to be subjugated as a means". This formulation enabled the French Proudhonists, who opposed "political" action, to remain on board (especially since the French translation deleted the words "as a means"!).
Growth and conflict
An important means by which the International increased its standing was by coordinating international support for strikes and preventing bosses using foreign scab labour. An early example of this was during a strike by London tailors. The Times lamented that master tailors had been unable to recruit European labour because of "the Continental workmen having been informed by telegraph from the operatives' committee of the state of affairs in London". In the following years, the International was to play a key role in a range of strikes, and wide layers of workers came to see it as a powerful weapon.
But support for strikes and trade union organisation soon exposed the political differences in the International. Proudhon, the "father of anarchism" whose followers were initially a powerful voice, had condemned trade unions and strikes, and had even enthused about police shooting down striking workers! Although most early socialists did not hold such a despicable position, it was only Marx and Engels who had from the start seen strikes and union organisation as central to the struggle for socialism. This flowed from the key distinction between Marx's view and that of other critics of capitalism. Only Marx and Engels saw that the struggles of workers to improve their conditions under capitalism provided the key to understanding how society could be transformed, and capitalism abolished.
Unions organise workers as a class to improve their immediate position. Such immediate goals were not to be scoffed at: if workers renounced "resistance against the encroachments of capital ... they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation ... [and] certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement." The other side of this though, was that if trade union struggles did develop, they could lay the basis for a more general political movement as workers discovered their collective power - a movement that fought not for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work but could "inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: abolition of the wages system." Initially, the International came to a compromise position. But by 1868, the Proudhonists had been thoroughly defeated.
Why Marx beat the Proudhonists
Marx was able to defeat the Proudhonists for two reasons. The first was that the ideas of Proudhon, as with many early socialists, were based in the experience of the painful birth pangs of capitalism. At that time, the injustices of the system, and the need for a radical alternative, were obvious. The means of introducing that alternative were not. Instead of seeing the pursuit of socialism as a struggle between classes, they saw their job as being to convince people that their proposals were better than what then existed.
Added to this, the Proudhonist views were based, not on the working class, but on the class of small artisans and ex-peasants "caught in the act of turning into workers", as American Marxist Hal Draper put it. Not only was this class hostile to the emerging capitalists, but also to the working class, which they feared being dragged down into. As capitalism grew, the working class moved more and more to centre stage. Historical developments proved Marx right.
The other reason Marx won out though, was political. Not only was Marx the towering intellectual figure in the International, but - contrary to myth - he had been an activist centrally involved in the workers' movement. During the long lull in the class struggle following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx had managed to keep a core of supporters around him. This meant Marx was well placed to win the political leadership of the International, and, as he put it, "forge our party anew".
Marx's theoretical work was also a weapon in the struggle within the International. His book, Capital, was vital in winning the argument over support for strikes - explaining what was wrong with the "iron law of wages" theory which claimed any increase in wages won through strikes would be offset by the capitalists raising prices.
But for theory to have an impact, it needed to be backed up by organisation. Marx went to great lengths to ensure that Capital was as widely distributed and discussed as possible. He was also centrally involved in all of the organisational detail of the International's work - from signing up new members to overseeing its precarious finances. And he insisted on a similar level of commitment from other members of the General Council - convincing the Council to bar from its membership those who didn't pay their membership dues promptly.
The test of revolution
The Paris Commune of 1871 - where for a few short months the workers of Paris took over their city and ran it on a democratic, revolutionary basis - put the International on the map of world politics. What so enraged the establishment press was that when the Commune was finally drowned in blood, Marx defended to the hilt and with a raging clarity the achievements of the Commune. In The Civil War in France, he answered the press condemnations of Communard "excesses":
"While tearing to pieces the living body of the proletariat, its rulers must no longer expect to return triumphantly into the intact architecture of their abodes ... The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently on the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of bricks and mortar!"
If Marx had a criticism of the Commune, it was not that it went "too far", but that it did not take firm enough measures to prevent the counter-revolution, in which up to 30,000 Communards were massacred. But Marx did much more than defend the actions of the Communards. He saw the Commune as an example of how a socialist society could run. Democratic, recallable representatives were paid only workers' wages. The standing army was replaced by the armed people. All the signs of office and status disappeared. Marx saw in this proof that the working class could not simply "grasp hold of the existing state machinery" but had to smash it, to replace it with a new apparatus controlled from below.
In his defence of the Commune, Marx broke decisively with the measured tone he had adopted through the years of the International. Here again was the uncompromising revolutionary, issuing an impassioned call to workers everywhere to tear the capitalist system limb from limb, to "storm heaven" as their Parisian comrades had done.
This new tone, along with the press hysteria, cost the International support among some British trade union leaders. But the International gained far more. The Civil War in France was almost immediately translated into most European languages, and was soon into a third edition. No other writing by Marx was read so widely so quickly. Requests for affiliation to the International flooded in from the most far flung corners of the world. Karl Marx and the International were acknowledged by friend and foe alike as the foremost defenders of the working class movement.
The final fight
When Marx joined the International, the class character of the movement was everything. But after the Commune, the defence of which had raised the International to infamy or heroism (depending on your viewpoint), it was clear that the programmatic ambiguity of the party could no longer hold together. On the one side were the reformists - shying from defence of revolutionary measures in deference to their parliamentary pretensions. On the other, the anarchists (now led by Bakunin), whose general denunciation of "politics" meant, in the fire of revolution, denouncing the working class struggle for political power.
The International that had existed could no longer exist. What was still at stake though, was the legacy that it would leave to the mighty workers' parties its inspiration spawned in the following years.
At the centre of the struggle to determine this legacy was Marx's fight against Bakunin. Under the banner of "anti-authoritarianism", Bakunin set out to take over the International. Bakunin oriented to the mass of unorganised poor in the cities (the lumpen proletariat) and the peasantry rather than the working class. He thought they would rise up and destroy society, but unlike the working class, would not be able to build the new. Bakunin's secret organisation modeled on the authoritarian Jesuit priest order would then step in and take control.
The "authoritarianism" Bakunin attacked was any coordinated, organised attempt by workers to act on their own behalf. It is this that made Bakunin's anarchism (as with anarchism today) profoundly anti-democratic and, despite his rhetoric, authoritarian. Because he denounced any democratic decision-making, within the International or in the working class movement more generally, the question of what was to be done had to be resolved in practice by a chosen elite - namely Bakunin himself and his inner circle.
Such elitist politics had a long history in the radical movement. But Bakunin, as Hal Draper pointed out, led "the first leftist movement to apply its conspiratorial pattern of subversion not to assail society at large or to defend itself against the police, but to destroy other socialists' organisations." Bakunin set up a secret society within the International, which tried to take over the General Council. When that seemed doomed to failure, he determined to destroy the organisation. His campaign was riddled with vile anti-German racism and anti-Semitism (Marx being both German and Jewish).
Part of Marx's response to Bakunin was devoted to exposing his malicious intent. Understandably, many did not wish to believe the worst of "comrades" in the movement, and did not have the advantage of the volumes of documented evidence of Bakunin's scheming that is available today.
But of more lasting impact was the clarification of a series of positions that had been fudged throughout the International's existence. Most important of these was what the 1872 Conference in The Hague affirmed, in opposition to both the reformists and anarchists: the centrality of independent political action of the working class. "The working class cannot act as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, separate and distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes." And further, the "economical movement and political action [of the working class] are indissolubly united".
Although Marx and Engels didn't see it at the time, the Hague conference was the end of the International. Splits are generally seen in a negative light. But as Engels wrote: "If we had come out in a conciliatory way, if we had hushed up the breaking out of the split, what would have been the result? The Bakuninists would have got another year ... to perpetuate stupidities and infamies ... because principles would already have been sacrificed. The International would indeed have gone to pieces ... through unity!"
On this, history puts the clearest case. The International might have died, but Marx's vision of the road to human liberation lived on. In the decades after, Marxism became the banner of working class revolt, from the mass proletarian parties in the engine of world capitalism, like the German Social Democrats, to the revolutionary movement in Russia - where young rebels like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were searching for the ideological tools with which to strike down Tsarism. Even in Australia, where the great strikes of wharfies and shearers in the 1890s put working class struggle at the centre of political life, a look into the swags of the militants who led those struggles would reveal well-read copies of Capital, the Communist Manifesto, and The Civil War in France.
After Marx's death, Engels wrote that Marx's life without the International "would be a diamond ring with the diamond missing." The truth of this lies in the political movements - and the contents of swags - that outlived Marx, Engels, and the First International.
3. Reform versus revolution: The Second International
On May Day 1890, over 100 years ago, the world's rulers got an early, bitter taste of what Marx meant when he called for workers of the world to unite. Rallying around the demand for an 8-hour day, millions took to the streets across the globe. In France, work stopped in 138 towns. In Belgium, 340,000 workers took part in demonstrations. In London, Frederick Engels watched from the top of a goods truck as hundreds of thousands poured into Hyde Park. He wrote of "thick crowds, in countless number, approaching with music and flags ... The English working class has joined up in the great international army. Its long winter sleep ... is broken at last."
May Day 1890 was a key point in the history of the socialist movement. The 1880s saw the rise of mass socialist parties in country after country. But May Day represented something more. It signaled the arrival of the Second International - a new body that set itself the task of uniting the socialist movements of each country against the power of global capitalism. The International emerged out of a period of enormous optimism. Socialist slogans and organisations were reaching ever greater numbers of workers. As well as optimism though, there was fear. As the era of imperialist rivalry opened up, the threat of world war loomed over the European working class. The International, its founders hoped, could be a united workers' front against war.
The great tragedy of the Second International was that it failed in this task. Worse, when World War I started the International's national sections - with a few honourable exceptions - abandoned their internationalist principles and rallied behind their own ruling classes as they sent workers into the hell of the trenches. It was the most staggering betrayal the workers' movement had ever faced. The revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, an opponent of the right-wing of the German party, was so stunned that she briefly considered suicide. How had it come to pass that the bearers of the dream of a society without war and exploitation were now shoving their supporters into a nightmare more bloody than even the most trenchant critics of capitalism had imagined possible?
Composition of the International
The Second International brought together, for the first time, socialist parties with a mass working class membership. Of these, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest. It had grown despite brutal repression under Germany's "anti-socialist laws". By 1890 the SPD vote in parliamentary elections was 1.4 million, a fifth of the total. By the turn of the century it was 3 million.
The SPD had deep roots in every aspect of working class life. Not only did it have dozens of daily papers, weekly periodicals and theoretical journals, it also ran youth clubs, cultural groups and theatres. It organised building societies, sporting clubs, consumers' and producers' cooperatives, and was intimately tied to the growing trade union movement. The anti-socialist laws had pushed the SPD into more intransigent hostility to the existing society. It declared itself "revolutionary socialist" with "no illusions" that there was any parliamentary road to socialism.
The other socialist parties that joined the international were not as powerful as the SPD, and varied greatly, but many were big organisations, tightly connected with working class life and struggle. But size and influence was not enough. What was decisive in the failure of the International was not its inability to marshal sufficient forces, but the political outlook of its leaders.
Revisionism and reformism
The Erfurt Program, adopted by the SPD in 1891, declared that "the struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation is necessarily a political struggle. The working class cannot develop its economic organisation and wage its economic battles without political rights. It cannot accomplish the transfer of the means of production to the community as a whole without first having come into possession of political power."
This assertion that the working class needed to fight for political power was a forceful endorsement of the ideas Marx had argued for in the First International. The Second International, from very early on, rejected the anarchist opposition to political struggle. The International also rejected the syndicalist idea that only an economic struggle was necessary - i.e. strike action in itself would be enough to abolish capitalism. The experience of the Paris Commune, and the brutal repression dealt out by European ruling classes in the period since, had convinced them that socialists needed to confront the might of the state.
But while recognising the centrality of political struggle was an important step forward, it posed another question: what kind of political action was needed? This debate revolved around whether workers needed to wage a revolutionary struggle, or whether socialism could come about through the gradual evolution of the capitalist system via a series of reforms.
The debate first came up in France. The "Dreyfus Affair" - the campaign to release a Jewish army captain who had been falsely imprisoned for treason - divided the nation. It was used by monarchists, sections of the army and Catholic clerics to whip up anti-Semitism as a means to try and overturn the republic. Elections resulted in a slim majority for the liberal bourgeois parties, radicals and socialists. Alexandre Millerand, a socialist parliamentarian, was asked to join the Cabinet to help stave off the reactionaries. He agreed.
The implications of this decision soon became clear. Alongside Millerand in the cabinet was one General Gallifet, who had presided over the massacre of the Paris Commune two decades earlier, and was rightly loathed by French workers. But more fundamental than this symbolism of compromise was its political content. If you join a capitalist government, you have to take responsibility for the running of capitalism. And that invariably means attacking your own supporters. So in the following years, socialists were repeatedly faced with the spectacle of workers' demonstrations being attacked by troops - all on the orders of a government containing a socialist minister!
In Germany, where participation in government was not on the agenda, reformism emerged a different way. A leading SPD member, Eduard Bernstein, developed a general theoretical assault on the Marxist theory of revolution that became known as revisionism. It was in this fight that Rosa Luxemburg first became well-known. In her scathing critique of Bernstein, she wrote: "people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform, in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal."
Her point was to be tragically illustrated two decades later, during the revolution that swept Germany after World War I. Luxemburg was brutally murdered on the orders of the reformist social-democrats determined to crush the uprising. In 1899 though, Bernstein was thoroughly defeated, his views denounced by most SPD leaders. But although the leadership of the party saw the need to wage a political struggle against Bernstein, they didn't see any organisational conclusions following from this. They didn't try to have him expelled because, in their view, the debates about reform or revolution could be contained within the one organisation. They didn't see the need to build a party of revolutionaries which would intransigently oppose any attempt to water down the party's political outlook.
As well, the debate exposed a contradiction that had been at the heart of the "revolutionary" line of the SPD from the beginning. Alongside its "maximum" program - the complete abolition of capitalist society, private property and the wages system - the SPD had a "minimum" program of immediate reforms (things like the eight-hour day) which it thought attainable under capitalism. As the SPD grew, the "minimum program" became the real focus of the party's activity, whilst the "maximum" program was reserved for rousing speeches at party congresses and May Day marches.
Luxemburg's great insight was that the struggle for reforms and the fight for revolution - or the minimum and maximum program - have to be intimately linked. She wrote:"The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to social democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal - the conquest of political power ... Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie."
If the struggle for reforms becomes an end in itself, rather than the means to arm and train workers for the struggle for political power, not only is social revolution thrown out the door, but so is the struggle for reforms. If you make concessions to the right of capital to govern, you end up surrendering even the modest reforms that capitalism is capable of granting. As the black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, power concedes nothing without a demand.
The reformist political practice of the social democratic parties of the Second International emerged for two reasons. The first was a theoretical error. They had a fatalistic understanding of Marx's historical materialism. This misconception saw the development of working class organisation and struggle, and the transformation from capitalism to socialism, as flowing inevitably from the contradictions in the capitalist system. This led them to believe that the role of socialist parties was not to intervene to overthrow capitalism, but simply to strengthen workers' organisation and consciousness, so that when capitalism inevitably collapsed, the working class would be able to construct the new society on the ruins of the old.
In fact, as Marx himself stressed, "people make their own history", even if they don't do so in conditions of their choosing (i.e. they are constrained by the objective possibilities of the society they live in). Capitalism was not simply going to collapse. Only the conscious intervention of revolutionaries could turn the possibilities thrown up by historical developments into an actuality.
The second reason for the International's slide into reformism was more profound, and explains the first. As the socialist and trade union movement grew, it developed a bureaucracy - an army of officials (the SPD had 3,500 by the outbreak of World War I) who rose above the working class movement to form a middle layer between the workers and the bourgeoisie. Increasing prosperity and a certain stability in the capitalist system meant that the socialist parties had been able to win real reforms and improvements in living standards. Some of the great achievements of the International - the growth of the trade unions, the expansion of workers' class identity and political consciousness - came from this. But so did a certain conservatism and complacency, a belief that immediate victories could continue indefinitely without a decisive struggle.
Later, when faced with the prospect of crisis and revolution, the bureaucracy retreated, fearful that the long years of building up their organisation could be destroyed by "ultra-left" adventurism that might provoke a premature confrontation with the state. This is not to say that workers themselves were dismissive of the importance of defending the organisations they had struggled to build up - rightly they were not. But for the socialist and union officials, the party had been transformed from a means to bring about social liberation into an end in itself.
Together, these historical developments were the material basis for the ideology of reformism.
War and imperialism
To most socialists at the turn of the century, the belief that the International was a bulwark against imperialist war was almost an article of faith. In 1907, Luxemburg moved a motion that declared: "In the event of a threat of war it is the duty of the workers and their representatives to do everything possible to prevent the outbreak of war... In the event of war breaking out nevertheless, it is their duty to take measures to bring it to an end as quickly as possible, and to utilise the political and economic crisis bought about by the war to arouse the mass of the people and accelerate the overthrow of capitalist class war."
But while motions against imperialism might still win a vote, the leaders of the socialist parties were retreating at great speed from the content of anti-imperialism. Just as some today see the war on Iraq as the result of the "insane" policy of Bush and the neo-conservatives, rather than a product of the capitalist system, so in the lead-up to World War I, socialist leaders appealed to the "reasonable" bourgeoisie to oppose its "unreasonable" wing.
This orientation to the "progressive" bourgeoisie pointed to the fact that mainstream social democracy had long since made its peace with the system. Capitulation to war was simply an extension of the capitulation to parliamentary politics, and the renunciation in any practical sense of social revolution. Precisely because war is an integral part of capitalism in the age of imperialist competition, accepting the right of "your" bourgeoisie to rule, accepting that there is some "national interest" that both workers and bosses can gain from, accepts the need to defend and advance the interests of your nation state against another.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 destroyed in an instant the most powerful international socialist movement that had yet existed. As war magnifies to the most extreme degree all the contradictions and barbarities of capitalist society, so too it tests the politics of those who stand for a different society. The Second International failed that test. In Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Australia and many other places, social democratic parties voted for the war budgets that let loose the greatest slaughter the world had seen until then. But in this, one of the darkest hours of human history, as workers abandoned by their socialist leaders rallied to the banners of imperial war, some stood against the tide. Karl Liebknecht, a socialist MP in Germany, voted against war credits. In Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, declared against the war.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her Junius Pamphlet, pointed to the transformation that was to come, as workers' patriotism collapsed, first into apathy, then bitterness, then revolt and revolution which finally ended the war:
"The madness will cease and the bloody product of hell come to an end only when the workers of Germany and France, of Great Britain and Russia, awaken from their frenzy, extend to each other the hand of friendship, and drown the bestial chorus of imperialist hyenas with the thunderous battle cry of the modern working class movement: "workers of the world unite!"
She was proven right. Those socialists who took their stand for working class internationalism and solidarity in 1914 suffered great hardships. But they laid the basis for the transformation that was to come.
4. The birth of Bolshevism
Amid the nationalist fever that destroyed the Second International in 1914, the perspective of those who stood against the tide seemed to come from another planet. At the same time that Lenin argued to "turn the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against the oppressors, a war for the conquest of political power by the proletariat", socialist opponents of the war were being driven underground, locked up and even killed. Yet barely three years later, in October 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood at the head of the first successful workers' revolution in history, riding a wave of revolt that would sweep the whole of Europe and bring capitalism near to total collapse.
How did the Bolsheviks - initially a marginal group compared to their counterparts elsewhere - succeed where the mass parties of the Second International so palpably failed? To understand this, we need to take a step back to the early years of Russian Marxism
The split in Russian Marxism
There is a myth peddled by the Stalinist hagiographers of Lenin that he and the Bolsheviks were born fully-formed, intransigently hostile to reformism, and crystal clear on the road that needed to be travelled to October 1917. Little could be further from the truth. When delegates arrived to the first conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, no one expected a split. The conference had been organised by Lenin and other supporters of Iskra, the newspaper that they envisaged would be the "scaffolding" enabling the disparate social-democratic workers' circles across Russia to be moulded into a powerful centralised party.
Totally unexpectedly, the Iskra group split on the question of party organisation and membership. Lenin argued against the Mensheviks that members had to be actively involved in party-building work, and accountable to the structures of the party. Against this Martov (until then Lenin's closest collaborator) spoke for a looser definition of membership, one that incorporated sympathisers who were not actively involved in party building. These debates arose in part because under Tsarist autocracy, trade unions and political parties were banned and socialists could not organise openly. The main body of intellectual leaders was in exile, and party activists in Russia faced harsh repression.
Although they had politically broken with the tactics of terrorism and conspiracy that had long dominated the Russian revolutionary movement, their methods were by necessity clandestine. The party could not aspire to be a broad-based organisation as existed elsewhere. In this context, determining who was and wasn't a party member mattered.
Added to this was another factor peculiar to Russia. In the West, "Marxism" stood clearly for a working-class struggle against capitalism. In Russia, the practical tasks of Marxism could be portrayed simply in terms of pushing forward capitalist development, supposedly the precondition for a struggle for socialism (which could be relegated to the distant future). This tendency, "legal Marxism", attracted all kinds of liberal and bourgeois supporters who didn't like Tsarism, but were hostile to working class struggle. So from early on, Marxists like Lenin were forced to distinguish between what people said about their politics, and what they actually stood for.
This paved the way for the Russian Bolsheviks to make a general theoretical breakthrough about the need for revolutionaries to organise separately and in opposition to the reformist currents in the labour movement. In 1903 though, this conclusion was still a long way off. To most socialist workers (and party intellectuals as well) it seemed insane, to put it mildly, that a split would occur over such seemingly minor points as disputes about party membership. But within two years, momentous events began to make things clearer.
The 1905 revolution
On 9 January 1905, a huge demonstration of workers, many carrying pictures of the Tsar, marched to the Winter Palace with a petition to their "little father" begging him to address their grievances. They were brutally shot down. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in an orgy of state violence that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday". It sparked the first Russian revolution. With workers' illusions in the Tsar shattered, a series of huge strikes gripped the country. Peasants rose up against their landlords, burning manors and taking food stocks. Soldiers and sailors mutinied.
The most important development was the emergence of the soviet, or workers' council. Growing out of factory committees, the soviets became the means by which workers organised the struggle. The soviets were highly democratic and representative. They co-ordinated strikes and demonstrations, and debated the way forward for the revolution. The soviets worked out ways to provide food, transport and medical care during the strike. Ultimately, they had the potential to become a radically different form of government, based on mass workers' democracy.
At the beginning of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were tiny and isolated, disorganised by the split and unsure about relating to the new workers' movement. (This was lucky in one respect - the Bolsheviks marched at the back of the procession on Bloody Sunday, which probably saved a lot of them their lives!)
The party initially adopted a sectarian attitude to the soviets. It was only Lenin's fierce polemics from exile that turned the situation around. Lenin grasped the essence of the soviets - "the embryo of a revolutionary government" - and used this insight to emphasise their revolutionary potential. "It was not some theory ... not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led [the soviets] to realise the need for an uprising, and transform themselves into organs of an uprising."
Many Bolsheviks, entrenched in habits of isolation and secrecy, were at first reluctant to try to win over the masses of radicalising workers. Most of these workers were entirely new to political struggle. They had none of the political traditions or knowledge that workers who had spent years in socialist study circles had. But the revolution changed everything. Not only had the political climate made it possible to organise openly, but workers were being pulled to more radical conclusions on an almost daily basis. Lenin argued to "open the gates of the party". He wrote:
"You must organise, organise and organise hundreds of circles. Completely push into the background the customary, well meant committee (hierarchic) stupidities. Either you create new, young, fresh energetic battle organisations everywhere ... or you will go under wearing the aureole of ‘committee' bureaucrats!"
Armed with this orientation, the Bolsheviks grew rapidly, from scattered circles numbering only a few hundred to 3,000 in Petrograd alone by late 1905, with many thousands more outside the capital. And the audience for socialist ideas was far greater than the membership of socialist organisations - the Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn had a circulation between 50,000 and 80,000. Trotsky's socialist paper Nachelo sold half a million daily.
The revolution was finally crushed by Tsarist repression. Events had not matured to the point where the entire population - particularly rank and file soldiers and the peasantry - would follow the workers in open insurrection. But for the revolutionaries 1905 was rich with lessons, without which 1917 would never have been possible. One outcome was a clarification of the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Other than Trotsky, virtually all social democrats agreed that the Russian revolution would be "bourgeois" - that is, it would overthrow feudalism and introduce parliamentary democracy. But the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks differed wildly on how that revolution would come about.
Many Mensheviks oriented to the bourgeoisie itself - after all, it was meant to be their revolution - and counseled restraint on the part of the workers lest they frighten the "progressive" bourgeoisie and push them into the arms of the Tsar. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were scathing of the bourgeoisie. Lenin rightly argued that they were finished as a progressive force, terrified of the workers' movement, and tied hand and foot both to the feudal state and to the international bourgeoisie which had long since joined the camp of counter-revolution. The revolution had to be led by the working class, in alliance with the mass of the oppressed population - the peasantry.
Reaction and revival
The counter-revolution was brutal. By April 1906, 15,000 people had been murdered by the regime and another 75,000 imprisoned. Thousands fled Russia or went into hiding as the socialist parties, and most of all the Bolsheviks, were systematically smashed up by the Tsarist police. It was a terrible time. Among the exiles, suicide was not uncommon. Many were admitted to mental hospitals, unable to cope with the scale of defeat. The intellectuals fled the movement, demoralised. But as is their wont, the intellectuals didn't just leave; they had to develop a "theory" attacking Marxism and revolution to justify their abandonment of the movement.
There were fierce struggles, not just with the "liquidationist" Menshevik leaders, who responded to the reaction the same way the ALP responds to new attacks from the Liberals (by moving further right), but also inside the Bolshevik party. Tactics had to change. Things that had been fine when they were connected to the mass revolutionary movement - such as robbing banks for funds, or organising armed militias - were without a mass movement simply adventurism: leading away from the politics of mass working class action and towards the substitutionist, terrorist-type tactics that the Russian Marxists had always stood against.
There developed in the Bolsheviks an "ultra-left wing", who out of frustration wanted to go fully underground and abandon any attempt to carry out legal agitation, such as standing candidates in the Tsarist Duma. Boycotting the Duma had been the right tactic during the revolution, when the Bolsheviks could point to a realistic alternative - rule by the soviets. Now, such a stance would cut socialists off from the mass of workers, and confine them to sectarian irrelevance.
But not all was lost. The experience of the revolution was seared on the minds of a generation of workers. And the Bolsheviks kept a core of organisation within Russia. Importantly, as intellectuals fled the party they were replaced by workers steeled by the political lessons of 1905, and by the repression that followed. Moreover, the repression did not solve any of the contradictions that beset the Tsarist regime. By 1912, there was a new upsurge of struggle, which was larger and on a higher political level than previously. The 1905 upsurge had begun by appealing to the good will of the Tsar. In 1912, the slogan was "Down with the Tsarist government!"
Until then, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were still formally part of the same party. The new upturn provided the impetus for the final break. The Bolsheviks had enough prestige to be able to appeal to the most radical workers to rally behind their banner. And this time - unlike 1905 when both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had made gains - it was the Bolsheviks who experienced explosive growth.
Their intransigent support for working class struggle against Tsarism enabled them to strike out much more effectively than a numerically "united" but ideologically divided party could have. By the end of 1913, the Bolshevik leader Krupskya estimated that the party had 30,000-50,000 members. In 1914 Pravda, the party's daily paper, had a circulation of 40,000, with the party's influence extending well beyond its ranks. The Bolsheviks won control of the trade unions in Moscow and Petrograd, and secured four out of five working class votes in Petrograd in the Duma. A new revolutionary situation was rapidly developing. It was interrupted by the outbreak of world war.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the most political sections of the working class were pushed back everywhere. But in Russia, where the Bolsheviks stood firm against the war, there was working-class resistance. There were anti-war "disturbances" in 17 provinces and 31 districts; 106 draft officials were killed within two weeks of war breaking out! In Petrograd there were strikes and demonstrations. But the revolutionary upsurge that had been gathering strength before the war nonetheless suffered a mortal blow. The capitulation of the Second International led to a collapse in morale. And while the war fever did not engulf the working class, it did mobilise the urban middle class and the semi-criminal poor, or lumpenproletariat. Instead of watching workers' demonstrations with indifference or muted distaste, they now attacked them violently. One account describes it thus:
"Crying ‘betrayers, traitors' they rushed from the sidewalk onto the avenue and began beating up the demonstrating workers. The police then arrested the demonstrators ... Any broad development of a protest movement against the war was impossible. The individual heroic actions of the workers were drowned in the broad sea of militaristic patriotism."
The betrayal of the Second International had a profound impact on Lenin. Previously, he had understood the struggle against reformism mostly in terms of the Russian movement, not seeing the disastrous role that the dominant reformist current was to have in Europe. Now he came out firing. "The Second International is dead! Long live the Third International!" Lenin wrote. The dividing line between the revolutionary and reformist wings of the world labour movement was now being drawn in blood: between those who supported and those who opposed the slaughter that was engulfing the globe. This underpinned Lenin's intransigence on the war. He denounced not just supporters of the war, but all the wavering, pacifist currents in the socialist parties.
Lenin was isolated even within his own party by his call to "turn the imperialist war into a civil war". Such a slogan was not aimed at the mass of workers - when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, it was on the back of the broader slogan "Bread, Peace and Land". But it was right for the moment in 1914-15. With the movement in disarray, the key task was to win over a core of revolutionaries who would be resolutely hostile to any compromise with pro-war reformists.
The Bolsheviks did all they could to unite anti-war socialists into a coherent force and to lay the building blocks for a new international. They saw that, just as the reaction after 1905 had given way to a new revolutionary wave, so would the patriotic hysteria at the outbreak of war give way to bitterness and resistance. The lesson of the war was that when it did, there needed to be a new force that could lead the workers' movement of Europe if capitalism was to be defeated.
It was in Russia that this revolutionary force was strongest and clearest. And so it was that of the imperialist countries, it was in Russia where the tide first turned against the war. By 1915 there were strikes and anti-war demonstrations. By late 1916, the Tsarist regime was in crisis as support for the war dropped and workers' confidence and anger was reaching fever pitch. Finally, in February 1917, the chains of repression and state terror that had kept the European working class bound through the horror of the war years snapped. Starting in Petrograd, Russia broke out in revolution.
5. The Russian revolution
The Russian revolution was the single most important event in human history. It was an inspiration for working class revolt the world over, an unsurpassed demonstration of how the ancient dream of human liberation could move from a utopian ideal to take its place on the stage of immediate practical politics. The Bolsheviks did not, as is often claimed, "make" the revolution. It was made, between February and October 1917, by workers, soldiers and peasants. Throwing off the shackles of generations, the mass of the poor and oppressed rose up to place themselves in the seat of power previously occupied by a succession of autocrats and tyrants. In doing so, they dispelled the lie so vital to maintaining the rule of a privileged minority - the idea that the mass of people who create society's wealth are incapable of running society in their own interests.
Without the Bolshevik party though, the revolution would never have succeeded. The victory of the Russian revolution is the story of the unity of a revolutionary working class movement with a revolutionary socialist party which could play a key role in turning that energy into a force that could win.
The February revolution
Anger at the bloody futility of the war, privations at home, and the growing crisis in the Tsarist regime finally broke out in open revolt in Petrograd on 23 February, International Women's Day. Women textile workers were the first to come out on the streets. Hundreds of thousands followed them. The demand for bread that had sparked the movement rapidly gave way to "Down with the autocracy" and "Down with the war". By the third day, even more conservative layers of workers had emptied the factories and swarmed into the streets.
The key question was the response of the army. Would it put down the revolution as it had in 1905? The soldiers had not escaped the conditions that led workers to revolt. In the war years the army was swelled by millions of workers and peasants who, on top of their increasing hatred of the regime at the front, felt with a burning indignation the suffering of their families and friends in the rear.
But for soldiers to refuse orders and go over to the people takes more than discontent. When the punishment for disobedience is the hangman's noose, the soldiers can only be won over if they are convinced that the movement is more than an episodic clash - that the masses are serious about overturning the old order. This time, they were. Leon Trotsky, in his epic History of the Russian Revolution, describes how when the army was deployed "the masses will no longer retreat, they resist with optimistic brilliance, they stay on the streets even after murderous volleys, they cling not to their lives, but to the pavement, to stones, to pieces of ice. The crowd ... counts on victory and intends to have it at any cost."
By 27 February the soldiers had gone over to the revolution. The Tsarist regime collapsed. No one, in the end, was prepared to fight to save it.
A spontaneous revolution?
The February revolution went down in history as a "spontaneous", leaderless revolution. On the face of it, there seems ample evidence for this. Neither the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs, the party of the peasantry) nor the main party of the liberal bourgeoisie, the Kadets, played any role in the uprising. And the Bolsheviks, their organisation broken up during the war and their main leaders in exile or prison, were able to give little direction to events. Their leaflet calling for a general strike appeared well after the strike had become an accomplished fact.
But as in every struggle, there was a leadership - the workers who in innumerable factory meetings stood up and argued to risk police repression and strike. Those who talked late each night in the workers' districts about what was to be done tomorrow. The elderly man who answered the indignant shrieks of a liberal jurist as the District Court was burnt down: "We will be able to divide the houses and the land ourselves - without your archives." The soldier who had the courage and the instinct to know that now the time was right - that if they came out in open defiance of their officers their fellow soldiers would follow.
The core of this leadership was rank and file workers trained by the Bolshevik Party. These militants had risen to their feet in the revolutionary upsurge before the war (some earlier, in 1905), were grounded in the core principles of Marxism, and despite the breaking up of the party apparatus during the war, had lost neither their politics nor their heads.
Unless you recognise the role of these thousands of militants, you can't understand either the success of the February revolution, or the subsequent rise of the Bolsheviks from a tiny minority to a mass party that won the backing of millions of the oppressed across an empire that covered a sixth of the globe.
The February revolution produced a paradox. On the one hand, when the Tsar fell, workers and soldiers held all power in their hands. The soviets - workers', soldiers' and peasants' councils that had first emerged in 1905, and which emerged again as soon as the revolution was victorious - were the only bodies that commanded the support of the masses. As the revolutionary wave swept out across the whole country from Petrograd, soviets sprang up everywhere.
And yet the leaders of the soviets were virulently hostile to any idea that they might take state power. The Mensheviks and SRs had an overwhelming majority on the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet (in no small part because they had convened its first meeting while most of the militants were still securing victory on the streets). Their program was simple: this is a bourgeois revolution to defeat Tsarism and introduce democracy. Therefore, power must be given to the bourgeoisie - no matter that neither the bourgeoisie nor their "socialist" supporters had backed the revolution until it was clear the Tsar was finished, at which point they pinned red ribbons prominently to their breasts!
Barely had the revolution won, than the soviets allowed the setting up of a "provisional government" - dominated by representatives of the bourgeoisie. This government though, was powerless without the support of the soviets. There was, in essence, a "dual power" - on the one hand the soviets, democratic organs of the workers and peasants, on the other, the Provisional Government, representatives of the capitalist class. The Provisional Government could not rule without the soviets, because the revolutionary masses would answer only to the soviets. The soviets could not rule because they were not willing to take power. This situation could not last long - in a society divided into classes with diametrically opposed interests, only one class can rule.
Lenin rearms the Bolsheviks
Where were the Bolsheviks in all this? Since 1905, the Bolsheviks had distinguished themselves from the Mensheviks by their insistence that the bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a democratic revolution against Tsarism - only a revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants could do this. The February revolution decisively proved this to be the case. But the Bolsheviks still held to the idea that the revolution would limit itself to winning "democracy" (i.e. capitalist democracy) and that the struggle for socialism would come at some future point.
Faced with the actuality of a revolution led by the working class, which put the soviet - the embryo of workers' rule - at the head of the nation, the contradictions of this policy became glaringly obvious. The working class, having overthrown Tsarism, was not about to meekly submit to capitalist rule. There were only two choices - deepening the revolution until workers took power into their own hands, or the suppression of the workers' movement and the assertion of capitalist rule on the only basis it could exist in such circumstances, a ruthless military dictatorship.
But the Bolshevik leaders (other than Lenin, who was still in exile) held to their outdated formula. Arguing against any idea that the soviets should take power, they accepted the government's right to rule. There was resistance from the rank and file - militant factories passed motions demanding a transfer of power to the soviets. But with the return of party leaders from exile, particularly Stalin and Kamenev, the leading elements in the party were able to impose the right wing line, which was in essence indistinguishable from that of the Mensheviks.
Of all the figures in the Russian revolutionary movement, it was only Leon Trotsky who had anticipated the situation now facing the revolution. His theory of "permanent revolution", formulated after 1905, brilliantly predicted the consequences of a "democratic revolution" led by the working class. He argued that the democratic revolution would inevitably flow over into a socialist revolution, and that a fight for socialism was the only thing that could guarantee even the minimal victories of democracy.
In answer to the generally accepted Marxist arguments that socialism was only possible when the productive forces had developed sufficiently to provide for all, and that the Russian working class, a tiny proportion of the population, could not possibly win socialism, Trotsky pointed out that capitalism was now an integrated world system. This mattered for two reasons. First, capitalist development on a world scale meant that world productive forces were more than ripe for socialist transformation. Second, workers' revolution in one country - even a backward one like Russia - would inevitably have thunderous repercussions in the advanced industrialised countries, opening the possibility of revolutionary movements that could come to the aid of revolutionary Russia.
However it was not Trotsky, but Lenin, who won the Bolsheviks to a new policy. Lenin had the authority of being the key organiser and inspirer of the Bolshevik party. Trotsky, by contrast, held himself above the factional struggle in the Russian socialist movement, and even as a towering intellectual and mass leader did not have the confidence and trust of party militants that Lenin had built up over a decade of struggle.
When Lenin returned though, his esteem as the inspirer of Bolshevism did not win him any immediate friends. His Letters From Afar, which preceded him, were censored by the Bolshevik press. As soon as he arrived, Lenin launched a ferocious assault on all the comfortable certainties that had built up in the party since February. He argued that the war was still an imperialist war, and must be opposed. The Provisional Government was made up of the enemies of socialism and peace, and must be overthrown. The Mensheviks (with whom some, like Stalin, had been proposing to fuse) were nothing but petty-bourgeois opportunists, who had "yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread that influence among the proletariat." Only a soviet government could end the war and solve the problems that had driven workers and peasants to revolution. The immediate task of the party, Lenin said, was to explain these facts to the masses, and win workers to a struggle for soviet power.
The effect of this onslaught was something akin to a small nuclear bomb going off. The right wing reacted with glee: "A man who talks that kind of stupidity is not dangerous. It is a good thing Lenin has come. Now he is in plain sight ... Now he will refute himself." Within the Bolsheviks, almost none of the leading figures supported him. And yet Lenin was unmoved. He proclaimed that he was prepared to split on the issue; such was the importance of the dispute. Isolated among the leading circles of the party, Lenin looked to the class conscious workers who had led the revolution, and who had been, even before Lenin's arrival, hostile to the conciliatory line appearing in Pravda. It was these workers, "imbued with revolutionism and anti-chauvinism", as Lenin put it, who laid the basis for his victory over the party centre.
The other reason Lenin was able to win the party over was that his position fitted with the historic role of the party as the force intransigently hostile to the bourgeoisie. The formal line the conservative party leaders were defending was inherited from a past where that same line meant not conciliation with the bourgeoisie, but unrelenting struggle against it.
Nonetheless, without a leader like Lenin who could cut through the fog of confusion and articulate and then fight for a new line of march - taking a stand alone if necessary - it is difficult to see how the Bolsheviks could have made the shifts needed to take the revolution forward. But they did. Within a few weeks of fierce debate the party had a new orientation, and a new lease of life. They were on the road to October.
The masses move towards Bolshevism
Once it had become clear that the February uprising had succeeded, it seemed for a while as if the whole nation was united in its support of the revolution. Under the surface though, the façade of unity soon began to strain. In April, it cracked completely. The Provisional Government sent a note to the Allied powers, reassuring them that Russia was committed to the war effort. There were armed clashes in Petrograd as thousands of outraged workers and soldiers battled middle class government supporters.
In June, the plan for an "offensive" on the German front deepened the anger of the Petrograd masses. A legal demonstration was called in support of the Provisional Government. But when the rally came, expectant officials looked in horror at a sea of Bolshevik slogans: "Down with the offensive", "Down with the 10 capitalist ministers", "All power to the soviets". The tiny number of pro-government banners were ripped from their poles. 400,000 workers and soldiers had turned out, and the message was crystal clear. As one non-Bolshevik paper put it, "the Sunday demonstration revealed the complete triumph of Bolshevism among the Petersburg proletariat".
Armed with their new policy of a struggle for soviet power, the Bolsheviks had been able to rally the masses behind them as the expectations arisen from February started to clash with the post-February reality. By the end of June, the regime that emerged from the February revolution - in the Provisional Government, and in the leadership of the soviets - had almost exhausted itself.
On the one side workers, soldiers and peasants were demanding with increasing insistence that the tasks for which they had made the revolution be carried out. The monstrous war had to be stopped. The peasants had to be given land. Workers in the cities had to have bread. On the other side, the capitalists, the generals and all the elements of the old ruling class were demanding that even the minimal reforms be wound back.
The revolution was more and more assuming the character of open class warfare. Reflecting this was a decisive political shift on both sides. Bolshevik calls for all power to the soviets were being taken up by broad layers of workers and soldiers, and the size and influence of the party was growing rapidly. At the same time, the capitalists were increasingly convinced that only crushing the revolution and installing a military dictatorship could save them. The "moderate" socialists who headed the Provisional Government and still held a majority in the soviets were more impotent every day, battered from side to side by the struggle between the two forces battling for power.
The July days
Throughout June 1917, the factories and barracks of Petrograd were gripped by a seething impatience. Anger over inflation, the price of bread and wages came together with opposition to a new offensive. In the barracks, impromptu meetings were being held almost continuously, stormily demanding action against the government, and calling on the soviet to take power. In the factories the mood was similar. Sukhanov, a Menshevik, later recalled the mood in the capital:
"Everywhere, in all corners, in the Soviet, in the Mariinsky Palace, in people's apartments, on the public squares and boulevards, in the barracks, in the factories, they were talking about some sort of manifestation to be expected, if not today, tomorrow... Nobody knew exactly who was going to manifest what, or where, but the city felt itself to be on the verge of some kind of explosion."
The Bolsheviks were against any "manifestation", believing that an armed demonstration could easily lead to the premature overthrow of the government. An insurrection in Petrograd would almost certainly have succeeded, but in other cities, in the villages, and most vitally among soldiers at the front, disillusionment with the government was not so far advanced. Soviet rule in Petrograd alone could not last more than a few weeks. "Patience" was the Bolshevik catch cry. Whatever the mythology created since, the fact is the Bolsheviks were never interested in coups. The key task, Lenin argued, was to win the mass of workers over. The masses might now want soviet power, but they had not fully broken with their illusions in the Menshevik and SR conciliators who headed the soviet.
They had not yet learned that a revolutionary movement needs strategy - a "Red Petrograd" could never hold out alone, it had to win the mass of the Russian population to its side first. The working class, unlike all other revolutionary classes that preceded it, can only take power into its own hands consciously - that is, if it fully understands what it is doing. The task of the Bolsheviks was now to win the working class - and the mass of the oppressed - to an understanding not just that soviet power provided the only solution to the problems facing them, but that Bolshevism was the only force that could be relied upon to stand unbendingly in defence of that power. This meant above all, explaining, arguing and organising.
But calls for patience were not well received in Petrograd. A constant stream of party agitators went to the factories and barracks to try and hold back the tide. But in many cases it was party militants themselves who were fanning the flames of revolt. The momentum was unstoppable. On 3 July a huge demonstration assembled. The barracks and the factories were empty, the city was at a standstill, save for the determined procession of workers and soldiers, bayonets at the ready, choking the streets.
The Bolsheviks were faced with a choice. The demonstration they had argued against had become an imposing fact. Were they now to stand aside? They did not. While maintaining that the demonstration was a mistake, the Bolsheviks recognised that the grievances that drove the masses onto the streets were wholly legitimate. Now the masses had moved, the revolutionary party was duty bound to support them, and to try to make the demonstrations a success. So in the following days, it was the Bolsheviks themselves who called people into the streets.
Lenin later wrote: "Mistakes are inevitable when the masses are fighting, but the communists remain with the masses, see these mistakes, explain them, try to get them rectified". If the Bolsheviks had abandoned the movement to its fate, they would have dealt a blow, not just to the struggle, but to their own influence and trust among rank and file militants.
After three days of demonstrations, the energy of the masses exhausted itself. Only then were the Bolsheviks able to call a retreat. They could get a hearing because, unlike the Mensheviks, they had fought alongside the masses in the previous days. Also, the party's long history and deep roots among the most radical layers of the working class gave it the authority to argue that the militants were wrong, bear temporary unpopularity, and to carry an argument for retreat when it became possible.
The experience of the demonstrations taught the masses that the caution counseled by the Bolsheviks was not as misplaced as they had thought. They had gone onto the streets thinking that if only they made a sufficient show of force, the moderate Menshevik and SR leaders of the Soviet would be forced to agree to take power. Events proved otherwise. Confronted with a demonstration demanding that they assume power, the Mensheviks called on troops from the front to quell the "insurrection". The frustration this evoked in the masses was captured best by an account of one soldier yelling and shaking his fist at the SR minister and Soviet leader Chernov: "take power you son-of-a-bitch, when it is given to you!"
After July, one thing was clear. Not just any soviets could take power. Only soviets led by the Bolsheviks would be willing and able to carry out this task.
The reactionaries rear their heads
The actions of the Bolsheviks in the July days prevented an abortive overthrow of the government. But it was still a rout. The government now went about brutally "restoring order" in the capital. The Bolshevik press was closed down and hundreds of Bolshevik leaders imprisoned. A vicious slander campaign accused Lenin of being a German spy. Facing arrest and possible murder, he went into hiding.
Even in the workers' districts of Petrograd, the campaign against the Bolsheviks had an effect. Workers didn't desert the party in droves. But recruitment dried up, and many Bolsheviks who only weeks earlier confidently proclaimed their party membership now lowered their heads. The attack on the Bolsheviks was part of a wider offensive by the reaction. The death penalty was reintroduced at the front. Bosses launched a campaign of lock-outs to intimidate workers.
But the counter-revolution could only gain so much traction. By the end of July, the situation began to turn around. The motor force of the revolution, the struggle for bread, for land, against the war began to reassert itself. Millions of peasants, tired of false promises, began seizing the land and burning the estates of their landlords. Workers began to resist the bosses' attacks in the cities. The military offensive collapsed, accelerating the implosion of the army as rebellious soldiers turned on their officers.
Rosa Luxemburg no doubt had this revolutionary resurgence in mind when in 1919, as the German revolution was being crushed in Berlin, she defiantly proclaimed: "‘Order prevails in Berlin!' You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons, and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: ‘I was, I am, I shall be!'"
The Kornilov Coup
In the years after the October revolution, all of "respectable" opinion in Russia railed against the Bolsheviks, supposedly in defence of "democracy". But in August, among the industrialists, the bourgeois politicians, the middle class, the military officers, and the respectable press open support for a military coup was almost universal. It was now that General Kornilov appeared. This vicious would-be dictator was promoted in fashionable society as the hero of the nation, a man who could wipe out not just the Bolsheviks, but all vestiges of the revolution.
Kornilov began to move troops against Petrograd. Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government and as eager as anyone to crush the rebellious workers and soldiers, had been conspiring with Kornilov right up to the point when he declared against the government. But now even Kerensky could see that it was not just the Bolsheviks who were under attack - his own skin was in danger. He called on the masses to oppose Kornilov. This posed a dilemma for the Bolsheviks. After all, they had spent the past four months denouncing the Provisional Government - were they now to come to its aid?
Lenin argued: "At the moment we must campaign not so much directly against Kerensky, as indirectly against him, namely, by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov." By demanding that Kerensky agree to the key measures needed to beat Kornilov - arming and organising the workers, mobilising the soldiers, rejuvenating all the organs of the revolution - the Bolsheviks could not only defeat the coup, but demonstrate in practice the impotence and treachery of the moderates. Only this could prove the correctness of the revolutionary tactics of Bolshevism.
Factory committees hurriedly organised detachments of Red Guards, 40,000 strong. The munitions factories worked day and night. Everywhere, workers and soldiers organised to defend the capital.
But Kornilov never made it to Petrograd. He may have had friends in the bourgeois restaurants of Petrograd, but among the workers whose labour determined what did and didn't happen in Russia, he was despised. Workers on the railways played the key role. Detachments of troops headed for Petrograd found themselves on the wrong line. Telegrams issuing orders from Kornilov would mysteriously disappear or change. News of soviet successes would spread like wildfire, whereas tales of Kornilov's momentary triumphs seemed to find their way only to rubbish bins. Revolutionary soldiers went out to meet and argue with the rank and file of Kornilov's bewildered army. As they did, the soviets of every railway station issued orders that tied the counter-revolutionary army in such a knot that it could barely hold itself together, let alone march on the stronghold of the revolution.
Faced with such united resistance, the coup collapsed.
Trotsky once wrote that revolutions are a result not of the inherent radicalism of the masses, but of their conservatism. The ideas of the old society weigh down and repress the instincts of revolt that are drawn from new material circumstances. Only an explosion, as if by dynamite but actually born of social realities, can transform the situation. But even after the explosion - in Russia's case the February revolution - the ties to old ideas are not fully broken. Months of struggle had to pass, shattering one by one the masses' illusions in any solution other than workers' power, before they were capable of consciously taking power into their own hands.
This could not happen spontaneously. From April, when the Bolsheviks turned their faces to the task of revolution, they were there at every juncture, arguing, agitating, imploring - sometimes to advance, sometimes to retreat, but always fighting to win people to the necessity for the masses themselves to rule. Many came to that conclusion by themselves, it is true. But only a mass party that organised and gave a cohered voice to the militants in every factory and barrack could challenge, and in the end destroy, the organised power of capital and the state which stood against them.
The defeat of Kornilov was the decisive vindication of Bolshevism in the eyes of the masses. Everything they had said had been proven right. The slander against the party after the July days was exposed as nothing but the preparation for a coup to destroy the revolution.
Now Bolshevism rose like a flood tide across the entire country. First in Petrograd and Moscow, then in Kiev, Baku and most of the other industrial centres, they started to win control of the soviets. In the villages and on the front the trend was the same. A decisive majority now supported the Bolsheviks. Among the core sections of industrial workers and the regiments of soldiers in the big cities, their influence was almost hegemonic. In the Moscow Garrison, which in June had given 70 per cent of its votes to the SRs, the Bolsheviks now received 90 per cent.
Lenin, still in hiding, was arguing to the party Central Committee that the time had come. The Bolsheviks had to take power, and take it now. The Central Committee was not convinced. But Lenin eventually won out. The Bolsheviks, led by Trotsky, head of the soviet's newly formed "Military Revolutionary Committee", began to organise the insurrection.
One of the bases for the claim that the October revolution was a coup was the fact that it did not fit with the image of popular revolution - riots, flag-waving crowds, barricades and insurrectionary speeches were all absent. Other than the minor battle for control of the Winter Palace, the actual insurrection looked more like a changing of the guard than the overthrow of the existing order. The fact was the Bolsheviks had already won. The people who really mattered in Petrograd, the soldiers and workers, were with them. Whereas in February it took five days of street fighting before it was clear that no one would fight for the Tsar, in October the Provisional Government's impotence was plain almost as soon as the insurrection began.
The first All-Russian Congress of Soviets met the day after the insurrection. The Mensheviks and right-SRs tried to raise a storm against the seizure of power, positioning themselves as the forward units of what became almost a century of slander against the most democratic event in human history. But all the elemental forces of the revolution had risen against them. The American journalist John Reed described how when the congress assembled: "I stood there watching the new delegates come in - burly, bearded soldiers, workmen in black blouses, a few long haired peasants. The girl in charge [a Menshevik] smiled contemptuously. ‘These are very different people from the delegates to the first Sezd,' she remarked. ‘See how rough and ignorant they look! The Dark People...' It was true, the depths of Russia had been stirred, and it was the bottom which came uppermost now."
Lenin appeared in public for the first time since July. He declared the beginning of soviet rule with a simple statement: "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order."
The following days and weeks saw decree after decree. First was the decree on the war: "The workers' and peasants' government proposes to all the warring peoples and their governments to open negotiations for a just and democratic peace." The soviet government immediately published, and renounced, all the secret treaties previous governments had signed with the allies. Following, almost stumbling over each other, were further decrees. "Private ownership of land shall be abolished forever" read the decree on land, whose essence was to give all land to the peasants. The decree on the right to self-determination gave the oppressed minorities of the Russian empire complete freedom to secede, or to join the revolutionary country on just and equal terms. The decree on workers' control empowered workers to run the factories. The decree on marriage and divorce gave both partners equal rights and the right of separation on request.
Workers, soldiers and peasants were embarking on the task of creating a new and radically different world. However one enormous barrier stood before them. Capitalism is an integrated world system, and can only be overturned on a global scale. If the socialist revolution did not spread, especially to the advanced countries of Europe, workers' power could not survive in Russia. This is why the new government declared the Russian revolution to be only the first step in the world socialist revolution. On the outcome of this, the global revolution, the fate of workers in Russia and every other country still hung.
6. The Comintern: towards the world revolution
The Bolshevik vision of world revolution was no utopian dream. The revolution in Russia was only the opening phase of a wave of rebellion that swept Europe, fuelled by revulsion at a system that had driven millions to their deaths in the war, and promised only more misery at its end. The war was ended by revolution in Germany where workers and soldiers rose up and overthrew the Kaiser, beginning a battle for power that was not to be finally resolved until 1923. In Italy, the war was followed by the Biennio Rosso - the two red years - when workers occupied the factories and came to the brink of taking power. The defeated Austrian Empire collapsed, beset by workers' revolt. As the British Prime Minister Lloyd George put it: "The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects, is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other."
But if the Russian revolutionaries had learnt anything, it was that spontaneous revolt was in itself not enough to overthrow the capitalist system. The bourgeoisie would use every means at its disposal to survive - savage state violence, lies, trickery and even the so-called "socialist" parties who wanted to come to a compromise with the old order.
It was for this reason that the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern, was formed in 1919. The Manifesto of its first congress declared: "Our task is to generalise the revolutionary experience of the working class, to cleanse the movement of the disintegrating admixture of opportunism and social patriotism, to mobilise the forces of all genuine revolutionary parties of the world working class and thereby facilitate and hasten the victory of the communist revolution throughout the world."
Fighting reformism and centrism
Of the 35 delegates to the first congress in 1919, only the Bolsheviks represented a mass party that was genuinely revolutionary. But 217 delegates attended the second congress, representing 67 organisations from 40 countries. Included in these were many fledgling Communist Parties. But just as importantly, there were representatives from mass centrist parties in a number of countries, in particular Germany, Italy and France. The centrist parties were not revolutionary. Their leaders were in many cases opportunists who had backed the war, and were now spouting revolutionary rhetoric under pressure from their radicalised membership. They had been forced to give lip service to the Russian revolution, but had no intention of breaking decisively with their reformist roots.
Some communists opposed even letting them attend the congress. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev were as hostile as anyone to the reformists, and to the centrists who would not renounce them. But they insisted the centrist delegates be admitted. It was these parties, not the communists, who had thus far been the main beneficiaries of disillusionment with reformism. Although the centrist leaders could not be relied upon, the parties they led commanded the support of the militant workers who were the essential base for any mass revolutionary organisation. If the Comintern was to have any impact on the course of the struggle in Europe, it had to be able to reach these workers.
The solution to this dilemma was what became known as the "21 conditions" for membership of the Comintern. The aim was to break the revolutionary wing of the centrist parties from the right-wing leaders. Zinoviev wrote: "Just as it is not easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle so, I hope, it will not be easy for adherents of the centre to slip through the 21 conditions. They are put forward to make clear to the workers in the USPD and in the Italian and French Socialist Parties ... what the international general staff of the proletarian revolution demands of them."
The Third International was not going to be a loose coalition like the Second International, where reformist practice at home could be covered up by empty revolutionary flourish at international congresses. The Comintern demanded the expulsion of prominent centrists and an uncompromising break with reformism in every sphere of struggle.
The strategy worked. The German USPD (Independent Socialists) refused to agree to the 21 conditions at the congress, but was forced by pressure from its members to call a special party conference, at which the left won a vote to affiliate to the Comintern. The right promptly split. The left of the party, taking a big majority of the members with it, fused with the Communist Party, which at that stage had only 50,000 members. There was now a mass Communist Party - 350,000 strong - in the most important country in Europe.
In France and Czechoslovakia splits in centrist and reformist parties led to the formation of communist parties numbering over 150,000. By 1921 parties affiliated to the Comintern had the support of the majority of politically-conscious workers in six countries, and a substantial minority in several more.
There were also substantial syndicalist currents represented at the second congress, most notably French and Spanish union federations and the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Disgust at the betrayals of the reformist parties had convinced them that political parties were inevitably corrupt, and that the solution was simply militant trade unionism. The Comintern leaders took seriously the task of winning over the syndicalists. Zinoviev sympathised with their hostility to the parliamentarists: "It is understandable why there are good working men who say, ‘it is better to have no party at all than to have such a party.'"
Communist parties though, Zinoviev argued, would not bow before the "respectability" of parliament. Communists in the parliament or in the unions would be accountable to the membership and the party program. Communist parties would seek to organise, not all workers on the basis of lowest common denominator agreement, but the most militant sections around a clear program. The theses adopted by the congress said:
"The revolutionary syndicalists often speak of the great part that can be played by a determined revolutionary minority. A really determined minority of the working class, a minority that is communist, that wants to act, that has a program, that is out to organise the struggle of the masses - that is precisely what the communist party is."
Unlike the syndicalists, the ultra-lefts did not reject the need for a revolutionary party. Their opposition to reformism led them in a different erroneous direction. The initial phase of the revolution in Germany had been derailed by the SPD majority in the national congress of the workers' councils voting to hold elections for a "national assembly" which would form the basis of a new government. Until then, workers' councils had been the only power in the country. The national assembly claimed to be "democratic". In reality, it was the means by which the old state apparatus could regain control and destroy the leftward moving councils.
At the founding conference of the German Communist Party (KPD), there was a fierce debate over what attitude to take to these elections. Rosa Luxemburg and other leaders argued for participation, and for using the elections as a platform to make clear the need for a struggle outside parliament. But the majority voted for a boycott. "All reversion to parliamentary forms of struggle, which have become politically and historically obsolete" wrote the boycottists, "and any policy of manoeuvring and compromise must be emphatically rejected."
For the communists and many worker militants, parliament was politically obsolete as a means to transform society. But for the majority of German workers it clearly was not. The ultra-lefts conflated the attitude of the militant minority with that of the working class as a whole. In doing so, they cut themselves off from the mass of workers without whom the revolution could never succeed. The same attitude - manifest by ignoring, denying or simply being scornful of the continued hold of reformism over the majority of workers - led to a disastrous attempt to take power in Berlin a few months later, which was easily put down by the government. Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two great leaders of German Marxism, were murdered on the orders of the social democrats.
Lenin described ultra-leftism as an "infantile disorder". It reflected the immaturity of the communist parties and the impatience of newly convinced revolutionaries. The mass of workers could only be won to communism by experience and argument. And the communists could only win arguments by working alongside others in common struggle, not by denouncing anything short of a "pure" revolutionary struggle as hopeless.
The united front
In 1920, Zinoviev declared: "I am deeply convinced that the second world congress of the Communist International is the precursor of ... the world congress of Soviet Republics." This optimism was to prove unfounded. By the time mass European communist parties emerged, the highpoint of the revolutionary tide had passed. The self-confidence which had abandoned the ruling class after the war began to return as they saw off a series of working-class offensives.
In Italy, the indecisiveness of the socialist leaders led to the defeat of the factory occupations. In Germany, the Communist Party, in a bout of overconfident ultra-left idiocy, launched an insurrection that had little support outside its own ranks, and ended in crushing defeat. And in Russia itself, the NEP (New Economic Policy, which re-introduced some market measures into the economy) was, as Lenin put it, a "strategic retreat" in the face of the isolation of the revolution and the decimation of the economy and the working class in the civil war.
The first two congresses of the Comintern had assumed that the struggle for workers' power was on the immediate agenda. Now it was not. And yet the communists had become a mass force in the working class - they could not simply retreat to propagandising about the need for socialism until a new upheaval began. It was this situation that led to the development of the policy of the "united front". In January 1922 the Comintern publicly called for "the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat, regardless of the differences separating them, so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the immediate and urgent needs of the proletariat."
This was interpreted by the ultra-lefts as a capitulation to reformism. But far from being a means to reconcile the revolutionary and reformist wings of the workers' movement, the united front was a weapon to defeat the reformists and win their supporters to communism. The capitalist offensive posed starkly the need for a united working class fightback. The reformists claimed to stand for defence of workers' conditions. Appealing for united action with the reformist parties themselves, rather than just calling on their supporters to rally behind the banner of the communists, would put the reformist leaders to the test. If they refused to agree to common action, their supporters would see that only the communists were prepared to stand for the united action necessary to defend workers' interests. If they did agree, there was an opportunity for the workers' movement to win real gains, and for the communists to work alongside reformist workers and prove that the communists were the best and most energetic fighters for workers' demands.
The legacy of the revolutionary years
The achievements of the Comintern in the first four years of its existence were immense. It built mass revolutionary parties across Europe, and sizeable organisations throughout the world. The deathly grip of reformism over the international workers' movement was shaken, if not completely broken. As a manual of the strategy and tactics of revolutionary socialism, the debates and resolutions of the first four congresses remain unsurpassed. And yet the Comintern failed to achieve its central aim. In none of the industrial countries did revolutionary struggle result in workers taking power. Without this, the fragile workers' state in Russia - hamstrung by underdevelopment and besieged by hostile capitalist powers - was doomed.
1923 was the crucial year. Germany had entered a profound social and economic crisis. By the middle of the year, a decisive majority of workers were behind the communists. But the KPD, although by now a huge organisation, proved incapable of leading an insurrectionary struggle. At the last minute they hesitated, and the momentum of the struggle was lost. This was a turning point not just in Europe, but in Russia itself. In 1923 the Stalinist counter-revolution was still in its early stages. The failure of the German revolution immeasurably strengthened the hand of Stalin and the emerging bureaucracy he represented.
Why did the European revolutions fail? The communist parties that emerged after the war were able to grow dramatically. The influence of the Russian revolution combined with the crisis in world capitalism had drawn millions towards communism. But outside Russia there was no organisation with any experience as an independent revolutionary group. In Germany, revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg, fearful of being isolated from the mass of workers who looked to the SPD, did not try to build an independent revolutionary organisation until near the end of the war. The German Communist Party was formed just as the struggle was reaching its highest intensity.
The Bolsheviks had a party with a history, with leaders and militants who were clear and confident in their ideas and who had political authority among wide layers of workers. They were able - although haphazardly at times and with no few mistakes - to steer a path through the myriad confusions and complications that any revolutionary struggle throws up.
The newly-formed KPD had none of these advantages. Their inexperience and lack of roots in the workers' movement not only led them to make mistakes, but made it more difficult to recover from them. Party leaderships came and went. Many of the best leaders became, in the course of the struggle, painfully aware of their own limitations. They increasingly rested on the authority of the Russians - who had made a revolution - because they didn't trust their own judgment.
When the Russian revolution began to degenerate, this became a fatal flaw. The atmosphere of the early Comintern - characterised by vigorous democratic debate, where political authority was won on the strength of argument and by the test of political practice - began to be replaced by elements of the bureaucratic authoritarianism that later became the trademark of the Stalinised Comintern.
A fierce debate was raging inside the Russian party, as Trotsky led a defence of the real traditions of Bolshevism against the rising Stalinist tide. If there had been a mature, self-confident, independent communist party in Europe capable of both leading a revolution in their own country and standing up to the Stalin faction in Russia, the situation could have been turned around.
But there was not. The terrible result - Stalinism in Russia, fascism in Europe, and eventually another world war - were to fundamentally alter the course of the twentieth century. If ever there was an argument for the need to build revolutionary organisations well in advance of the decisive revolutionary struggle, this was it.
7. The defeat of the Russian revolution
The defeat of the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin was one of the darkest pages of the twentieth century. It is no exaggeration to say that humanity paid for this tragedy with the blood of millions of people the world over. In Russia itself, the first ever workers' democracy was replaced with a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. By the end of the 1930s, hundreds of thousands had been murdered by Stalin's regime. Mass murder, a network of slave labour camps and vicious state repression destroyed every last vestige of the revolution.
The consequences outside Russia were no less terrible. The communist parties, which in the wake of the Russian revolution had won to their ranks the decisive bulk of working class militants and socialists in a number of countries, were transformed into mere pawns of the Russian bureaucracy. In China and Spain, the disastrous policies dictated by the Comintern led to the crushing defeat of workers' revolutions. Under Stalin's leadership, the German working class movement - the most militant and powerful in the world - succumbed to Hitler without a fight.
These disasters kept capitalism alive through a period of crisis that had terrified even its most optimistic supporters. But they did not solve any of the problems that wracked the system. And so, inexorably, the stage was set for World War II. If the victory of the Russian revolution in 1917 had opened up the possibility of an end to the horror of war and exploitation, the isolation and defeat of the revolution unlocked the door to a new era of undreamt-of barbarity. What made the situation even worse is that so many equated Stalin's brutal dictatorship with socialism. This is why it is so important not only to understand how the Russian revolution was defeated, but also the story of those socialists who resisted Stalin to the death.
The degeneration of the revolution
In March 1918, only four months after the soviets had taken power, Lenin wrote: "The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish." He was right. Russia was industrially backward - over 90 per cent of the population was peasants. There was simply not the economic basis to build a society that provided for all. The working class was a tiny minority of the population. By supporting the peasants' demand for land the workers had been able to win the peasants to the revolution. Nonetheless, socialism could only be built in Russia if it had the support of at least one of the major industrialised countries.
The Civil War bought things to a head. Against all odds, the Red Army fought off the counter-revolutionary armies of the old Russian ruling class and foreign capitalist powers. But it was at a terrible cost. The working class that had made the revolution was virtually wiped out. Industrial output fell to just 18 per cent of pre-war levels. As economic crisis deepened, thousands fled the cities looking for food.
In the front lines of the Red Army stood the most self-sacrificing and revolutionary elements of the working class. Rank and file Bolsheviks took the lead in fighting, and dying, to defend the revolution. In all the old Bolshevik strongholds, revolutionary workers were replaced by peasants fresh from the countryside who had none of the traditions of socialism. The institutions through which workers took power - the soviets - still existed in name. But they were mere shells. The social power of the working class had been broken. How could a class that had been obliterated by war impose its collective, democratic will on society?
The Bolshevik party began to substitute itself for the decimated working class. Non-Bolshevik parties were suppressed, and the party began to take many aspects of the state apparatus into its own hands. It was a terrible choice, but the Bolsheviks had no other. The only alternative was to give up and hand power to the counter-revolution. But while revolutionary will could stave off disaster for a time, it could not overcome the material realities imposed by Russia's isolation.
The end of the Civil War only exacerbated the problems. With the counter-revolution defeated, the ties that bound the peasantry to the revolution came undone. Now that they had their land, the individualistically-minded peasantry had little interest in the struggle for socialism. A series of peasant revolts - the most famous being that in Kronstadt - signified the need for a change of course.
The New Economic Policy (NEP), which reintroduced elements of the market into the economy, made significant concessions to the peasants. This retreat demonstrated the crisis the revolution was in. In "socialist" Russia there now existed neither meaningful workers' control, nor a planned economy. All that was left was the subjective revolutionary intentions of the Bolshevik government. But by now the Bolshevik party itself had started to degenerate.
The party had expanded massively in the course of the Civil War. This process was closely tied to the expansion of the state apparatus. By necessity, the Bolsheviks had co-opted into the state administration many functionaries, officials and technocrats from the old Tsarist state. Initially they could be disciplined by the revolutionary movement, but as that ebbed, the bureaucracy began to act with a will of its own. At the 1922 party congress, Lenin asked: "Who is leading whom? The 4,700 responsible communists, the mass of bureaucrats, or the other way round? I do not believe you can honestly say the communists are leading this mass. To put it honestly, they are not the leaders but the led."
This bureaucracy now flooded into the party. By 1922, only 1 in 40 party members had been Bolsheviks in 1917. The subjective revolutionism of the Bolsheviks now only existed among a tiny layer within the party. The increasing hold of the bureaucracy was reinforced by almost every development within Russia itself. The hope for regeneration lay, more than ever, with revolution outside Russia's borders. But in 1923 the German revolution was finally crushed. Rather than events abroad reinvigorating the revolution, they solidified the position of the bureaucracy.
Stalin's rise to power
The Bolsheviks had always anticipated that counter-revolution, if it came, would come from without - from conquest by foreign armies or by the restoration of the defeated Russian bourgeoisie. No one dreamed it would come from within the Bolshevik party itself. But over a period of years, the bureaucracy rose above society, until finally it came to constitute a new, exploitative ruling class. Grotesquely, capitalism was restored in Russia in the names of Marx and Lenin.
The bureaucracy found its hero, and its political expression, in Stalin. Although a longstanding member of the Bolshevik party, Stalin was a mediocrity. He had made no theoretical contributions to Marxism, played no notable role in the October revolution, and had been wrong on all the major party debates during 1917. But history and the class struggle are about more than the ideas and aptitudes of individuals. As different classes struggle for power, they find the representatives that suit their needs and the historic circumstances. Stalin may have been inadequate as a leader of the insurgent workers' movement of 1917, but his persona fitted the needs of the new authoritarian ruling layer perfectly.
To those who argue that the policies of Leninism led inevitably to Stalin's dictatorship there is a simple answer. To take power, Stalin had to physically exterminate every vestige of the revolutionary movement of 1917.
It was Leon Trotsky, above all others and eventually alone, who stood against Stalin and for the genuine Bolshevik tradition. In 1923 Trotsky led what became known as the Left Opposition in demanding a restoration of democratic control in the party and the state. Stalin launched a campaign of vicious slander against him. The bureaucratic apparatus, through its control of the appointment of delegates to the party congress, was able to comprehensively defeat the Left Opposition.
At the end of 1924, the theory of "socialism in one country" first appeared. Trotsky was bitter in his condemnation. In response to Bukharin, who argued that the question was whether socialism could be built in Russia, leaving aside international affairs, Trotsky replied: "The whole point is that we cannot leave them aside. You can go for a walk naked in the streets of Moscow in January, if you leave aside the weather and the militia. But I am afraid neither the weather nor the militia will leave you aside!"
"Socialism in one country" was the definitive self-justification of the bureaucracy. As Trotsky wrote, "when they speak of the victory of socialism they mean their own victory." Renouncing the international revolution was not only a declaration of peace with world capitalism. It was also a statement that the current state of affairs was no temporary phenomenon. The thesis of Marx and Lenin - that development towards socialism would mean the withering away of the state - was replaced by a "socialism" in which the state apparatus would grow ever larger, exercising more power over the masses with every passing year.
In the early 1920s, Trotsky had displayed a somewhat conciliatory attitude to Stalin. While denouncing Stalin's policies, he at every point declared loyalty to the party, despite the outrages that were being committed on its behalf. But as the Stalinist regime gained strength, Trotsky's position became intransigent. Stalin, he declared, was the "gravedigger of the revolution". When Zinoviev was expelled from the Stalinist camp, Trotsky joined forces with him in the "United Opposition".
At the end of 1927, the opposition was expelled from the party. Zinoviev renounced his oppositional views and was readmitted. Trotsky refused to do so. In 1928 he was exiled to Alma Ata, and in 1929 was banished from the USSR. Shortly after the expulsion of the United Opposition, Stalin turned on the Bukharinist representatives of the rich peasants and the "Nepmen" - the new urban bourgeoisie - on his right. At this point the bureaucracy had shed any reliance on any other social layer. It had definitively constituted itself as a new ruling class.
The fate of the Russian Trotskyists
In 1928 an economic and political crisis, caused by the hoarding of grain by the rich "kulak" peasants empowered by the NEP, led to the development of what became the 5 year plan. This consisted of forced grain requisitions and collectivisation of agriculture on the one hand, and a program of mass industrialisation, involving the brutal exploitation of the working class, on the other. The economic crisis also led to an outbreak of strikes and workers' unrest, and a dramatic increase in support for the opposition.
Underground meetings were held, leaflets produced and distributed illegally. In one instance, at an official rally of 120,000 people, the lights suddenly went out and thousands of opposition leaflets went flying through the crowd. The full power of the state was mobilised to crush the opposition. Meetings and demonstrations were violently broken up; oppositionists were sacked, imprisoned and exiled.
By itself, this could not stop the opposition's growth. But in 1929 it suffered a political crisis. Because it still considered the regime a "workers' state" - albeit one that was dominated by a reactionary bureaucracy - the opposition was disoriented when it became clear that Stalin's program of industrialisation was no passing fad. Industrialisation had been part of the opposition's program, so although they attacked the way it was carried out, they were convinced that Stalin was pursuing a version of their own policy. If so, what justified staying in opposition?
One by one, the opposition's leaders capitulated to Stalin, until none but Trotsky remained. The opposition was destroyed by a combination of savage repression and political confusion. The Bolsheviks had made many mistakes in the course of their rise to power in 1917. But even the most vicious slanders had only served to strengthen the determination of their supporters. In 1917, the Bolsheviks were moving with the mounting tide of the workers' movement. Now though, it was the counter-revolution, riding on the back of Russia's isolation, which had objective circumstances on its side. The consequences of every mistake were magnified a thousand fold.
But this was not the end of Trotskyism in Russia. Thousands of Trotskyists, many of whom were too young to have played any role in 1917, continued to organise and resist in the slave camps. The identification of "Trotskyism" with any opposition to the government led many of its victims to identify with the exiled leader. In the mid-1930s, according to a report from an unsympathetic fellow prisoner, there were several thousand Trotskyist prisoners in the Patchora district of the camps, and more than 100,000 who had at some point adhered to the Trotskyists, but had recanted in the face of persecution.
In 1936 Trotskyist prisoners organised a mass hunger strike that lasted 132 days. Later, executions replaced exile as the preferred Stalinist method. But even then defiance did not die. One report tells how "a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the Internationale, joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp."
The heroism of the Trotskyists in Stalin's camps was a result not just of moral courage, but of political conviction. The Trotskyist critique of Stalinism started from the point of view of Marxism and defence of the revolution of 1917. Only such an analysis could sustain the revolutionary movement through the worst horrors of the Stalin era. Former Stalinist Leopold Trepper wrote of them many years later:
"They fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion at the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated ... Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress."
In the end, state terror destroyed the Left Opposition in Russia. Their struggle to reclaim genuine Marxism from the ruins of Stalin's counter-revolution would now have to take place outside Russia, from which Trotsky himself was exiled in 1929.
8. The Trotskyist movement
For more than 60 years the official Communist movement was dominated by Stalinism, the antithesis of genuine socialism. Critics of Stalinism were in no short supply. But almost all had opposed the 1917 Russian revolution. Only the Trotskyist movement started its critique from defence of the revolution and support for the struggle for working class liberation.
The lot dealt to Trotsky and his supporters was incredibly difficult. Stalin's propaganda machine smeared Trotsky's name, denouncing him as a counter-revolutionary and an agent of fascism. Outside Russia, Trotskyists could not be summarily shot or sent to forced labour camps. But the Stalinised Communist Parties went to great lengths to physically eliminate the fledgling Trotskyist groups. Meetings were broken up and Trotskyists attacked by Stalinist thugs. By a combination of violence and hysterical condemnation, they did everything in their power to cut Trotskyism off from any contact with the working class movement.
Slander and violence had not stopped earlier generations of revolutionaries from combating their reformist opponents. But now the Stalinists had a great advantage - they claimed to be the inheritors of the Russian revolution. To many militant workers, Trotskyists could be portrayed as sectarians carping from the sidelines, or worse, on the side the reformists and capitalists in their attacks on the communist movement. There is no doubt that the Trotskyists, and indeed Trotsky himself, made mistakes. And the crisis that wracked the movement after World War II led many to either abandon their hostility to Stalinism or capitulate to capitalism.
Nonetheless, the fact that there were some people who even in the darkest hours hung on to the idea that genuine socialism was possible, meant that the traditions of revolutionary Marxism survived. It is because of them that it is possible to talk about rebuilding a socialist movement today.
The rise of fascism in Germany
After his expulsion from the USSR in 1929, Trotsky saw his main task as cohering the forces of the International Left Opposition. The key battleground was the fight against fascism. Trotsky's writings from this time, warning of the imminent danger of a Nazi seizure of power in Germany, and calling for a united front of all working class parties to resist Hitler, are amongst the most brilliant analysis and argument in the Marxist tradition. Trotsky insisted that fascism was a distinct form of capitalist rule that threatened the existence of any form of workers' organisation. He wrote:
"Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. To this end ... it is necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved ... by the Social Democracy and the trade unions."
But if the threat was unprecedented, the German workers' movement - the strongest in the world - had much more than the necessary reserves to defeat Hitler if it presented a united resistance. However in the early 1930s, the years described by Stalin's Comintern as the "third period", Communist leaders argued that there was no real difference between the fascists and the pro-capitalist social-democrats ("social fascists" in the Comintern lexicon). So the German Communist Party insisted that because the "social-fascists" fooled the workers into thinking they stood for workers' rights, it was they, not the fascists, who were the main enemy.
As a result, Hitler came to power without a serious battle. Trotsky called it "the greatest defeat of the working class in history." In the coming years, the mighty German workers' movement was shattered beyond recognition. Trotsky's writings on Germany had virtually no impact on the course of events. His forces were too puny; the Communist Party's too overwhelming. Theory and argument are impotent if they are not connected to mass organisations that can make those ideas a living force.
Spain and France
The German communists' failure to offer any serious resistance to Hitler convinced Trotsky that the Communist parties could not be reformed. He now argued that a new revolutionary movement needed to be built. There was no shortage of revolutionary upheavals in which to attempt this task. In 1936 France was swept by mass strikes that opened up the possibility of revolution. In Spain, an insurgent workers' movement was fighting a revolutionary civil war against the fascist General Franco. But in both cases the marginalisation of the Trotskyists allowed the politics of the Communist Parties to dominate, leading to catastrophic defeats. Whereas in Germany in 1933 the communists had renounced unity with other workers' parties, they now flipped over to call for unity with openly capitalist ones in a "Popular Front" against fascism.
Trotsky argued that this was just as disastrous as the sectarian madness of the "third period". Fascism emerged from the determination of the crisis-ridden capitalist class to crush the workers' movement at any cost. Even the most liberal sections of the bourgeoisie feared workers' mobilisations more than they feared fascism. So the Popular Front, far from broadening the struggle, narrowed it, because the capitalist forces would never permit the one thing that could halt the fascists - mass working class resistance.
In Spain the communists argued that workers had to win the civil war before making a revolution. Their policy started from the point of view that "progressive" capitalists must be kept on board. In reality, war and revolution were inseparable. Only a revolutionary war for socialism and workers' control could both inspire and cohere the working class, and provide an alternative to the vacillations of the liberal bourgeoisie. In the end, the communists and anarchists, both of whom joined the bourgeois Republican government, repressed their own supporters to keep the Popular Front together. When Franco marched into Barcelona in 1938, he met no real resistance. The price paid for the lack of a sizeable revolutionary current in the workers' movement was, once again, immense.
Analysis of the USSR
In 1937 Stalin declared that the USSR had achieved socialism. Trotsky's book, The Revolution Betrayed, published several months later, demolished this claim. In every aspect of life - work, family relations, democracy, education, the position of women - workers were ground down, oppressed and enslaved. The state apparatus, far from withering away, had grown to monstrous proportions. But if it wasn't socialist, what was the USSR? Trotsky argued that it was a "degenerated workers' state" - a state in which the property relations were still socialistic, but the rise of a new bureaucratic layer had taken any real control over society away from workers.
In the mid-1920s, Trotsky had argued that the bureaucracy around Stalin was not an independent class, but a caste which balanced between the major classes - the proletariat and the re-emerging bourgeoisie. Therefore the opposition had to fight to reform the party - to defeat the right-wing bourgeois elements and overcome the bureaucracy. In 1933, he abandoned the idea that the Communist parties could be reformed, pointing to the counter revolutionary role played by the Stalinists in Germany, France and Spain.
But Trotsky held to the idea that a full-blooded counter-revolution had not been carried out in Russia. To maintain this position in the face of the evidence he so meticulously documented, Trotsky had to abandon a fundamental tenet of Marxism - that a "workers' state" is impossible if workers have no actual power. The test of what was meant by a "workers' state" was no longer workers' democratic control over society, but simply state ownership of industry. To give Trotsky his due, it was incredibly difficult to come to grips with the unprecedented phenomenon of Stalinism in this period. At the end of World War II, the weaknesses of his prognosis became much clearer. But Trotsky did not live to participate in the debates that ensued. In 1940 he was murdered by an agent of Stalin.
The post-war situation posed a number of fundamental questions. Trotsky had argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy was highly unstable and would collapse under the pressure of imperialist war. In fact, Stalin emerged from the war immeasurably stronger. The Russian takeover of Eastern Europe led to the transformation of the Eastern Bloc states into mirror images of Stalin's Russia. But if these societies were "workers' states" (even "deformed" ones) had not the Stalinist Red Army played a revolutionary role when it invaded? And if so, what was the need for workers' revolution, the "self-emancipation of the working class", as the precondition for socialism? Indeed, what justified the continued existence of the tiny Trotskyist movement if Stalin's Comintern was capable of acting in a revolutionary way?
Faced with these questions, the Trotskyist movement splintered. Some simply refused to recognise the problem - US Trotskyist James P. Cannon opined in June 1946 that "Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over..."(!) "Orthodox" Trotskyists, who held to the letter of Trotsky's writings while abandoning their revolutionary method and spirit, ended up capitulating to many aspects of Stalinism. Their argument that the USSR was a "workers' state" led them to hail the nationalist movements that led the urban middle class in the colonial world to power under the banner of "Marxism" (usually meaning a one-party state with a statised economy) as genuine socialism. Some Trotskyists even supported the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Others, most importantly the US Trotskyist Max Shachtman, developed the theory that the USSR was a new form of class society which he termed "bureaucratic collectivism". The USSR, he eventually argued, was qualitatively worse than the West. The logical conclusion of this was to side with US imperialism in the Cold War. So it was that some ex-Trotskyists came to support the Vietnam War and, much later, to provide some of the cadres of neo-conservativism in the US.
The post-war crisis in Trotskyism resulted partly from isolation from the mass workers' movement. But this is only a partial explanation. The other significant element is that they lacked an analysis that could properly explain the post-war world and arm revolutionaries with the tools necessary to maintain an organised opposition to both Stalinism and US imperialism. Such an analysis was developed by the British Trotskyist Tony Cliff, who contended that neither Russia nor the Eastern Bloc countries were in any way workers' states. Instead, they were a bureaucratic form of state capitalism. His opponents argued there could not be "capitalism" if there was no private ownership. But Marx had always maintained that the key means by which the ruling class ruled was not their formal ownership of the means of production, but their control over them. Under feudalism, for example, the vast tracts of land owned by the Catholic Church were not privately owned by the clergy who managed them, but this did not make the relationship between the clergy and the peasants different in any fundamental sense from the relationship between landlords and peasants.
Indeed, as Cliff pointed out, statised capitalism was a feature not just of Russia, but of all the major powers in the 1930s and 40s as they turned their factories to military production. None of this made them any less capitalist. But, Cliff's critics argued, what about competition between capitalists - the factor underpinning the drive to capitalist accumulation that necessitates the systematic exploitation of workers? Cliff answered that Russian capitalism could only be understood as part of an integrated world capitalist economy. While there was no large scale competition between capitalists within Russia, Russian capitalism as a whole competed with its imperialist rivals militarily. The five year plan of rapid industrialisation begun in 1928, which entailed a massive accumulation of capital, was driven by the need to compete with the West militarily if the USSR was not to be defeated in the coming world war.
Explaining the post-war boom
The other theoretical breakthrough by Cliff and his supporters was the conception of the "permanent arms economy". Trotsky had argued that the whole capitalist system was in an intractable crisis which would inevitably lead to desperate revolutionary struggles. This prediction was refuted by the post-war years - instead of crisis and revolution, capitalism entered its longest-ever period of boom. This led many to argue that Marx's analysis of capitalism as a system of crisis had been disproved - that "Keynesian" economic management could avert crises in the system, eliminating the possibility of revolutionary workers' struggles.
But in fact, stability was possible only because of the massive investment in arms during the Cold War. The arms race before and during World War II had pulled world capitalism out of the Depression. After the war, a renewed crisis was averted by unprecedented military spending by the US and Russia. But this could not hold off crisis indefinitely. Countries not central to the Cold War military competition, like Japan and Germany who were disarmed after the war, could focus all their energies on economic development. Eventually this undercut the economic competitiveness of the two superpowers, forcing them to reduce military spending so as to compete better economically. These contradictions in the "permanent arms economy" led to a new global crisis in the system in the 1970s.
Rebuilding revolutionary Marxism
Cliff was only able to win a small minority to his analysis of Russia and the explanation of the long boom in the 1950s and 60s. The British Socialist Review group that he led had, initially, only a few dozen members. The radicalisation of the late 1960s gave Cliff's group (now the International Socialists) an opportunity to break out of its isolation. They grew from a tiny organisation to a group of several thousand by the mid-1970s. And in countries like Australia, the US and many others, revolutionary organisations along the same lines were first formed. This was a significant achievement. But the failure of the Trotskyist movement as a whole to come to grips with the nature of Stalinist Russia and world capitalism had had terrible consequences. Fragmentation and disorientation meant that the Trotskyists could not take advantage of the crises that shook the Stalinist monolith - the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian workers' uprising, or Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin. In the 1960s the Trotskyists did make gains, but many radicalising youth who rejected Stalinist "conservatism", looked not to Trotskyism but to Maoism and guerrillaism, in essence only repackaged versions of Stalinism.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, most of the supposedly "anti-Stalinist" left treated it as a disaster - a historic defeat for socialism. In reality it demonstrated two truths that should have been obvious to Marxists. First, that Stalinism had nothing to do with socialism and human liberation. Second, that the ability of the mass of people to rise up and change their own destiny is still the driving force of human history.
It was never harder to be a revolutionary socialist than in the long years of Stalinist domination of our movement. Yet Marxism, however battered, survived. The fact that it did is a tribute to two things. One, the crisis-ridden nature of the capitalist system, the fact that despite all ideology, all the power of the mass media, life itself again and again forces people to challenge the system and the ideas that justify it. Two, the power of politics - when they are organised. Despite every setback, there remained a current of Marxism that stood in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and Lenin and made it relevant to modern politics: a tradition that looked to working class self-emancipation as the force that could transform society.
Because of this, there exists the embryo of a movement today that can draw strength not just from current struggles, but from the rich history of resistance to oppression and exploitation that is the true heritage of revolutionary Marxism.
9. A note on sources / further reading
The basis for the pamphlet was a series of articles written for Socialist Alternative magazine in 2005-2006. Articles in SA mag are not generally footnoted, and as a result the quotes/sources used in this pamphlet are not referenced. To go some way to making up for this, listed below are the key books where most of the historical material and quotes can be found. They are also useful as a guide to further reading on the different subjects touched upon here.
The First International
Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough
August H Nimtz, Jr., State Univ. NY Press, 2000
Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement
Henry Collins & Chimen Abbramsky, McMillian, NY, 1965
The First International and After
Karl Marx, New Left Review, London, 1974
Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Volume IV: Critique of other Socialisms
Hal Draper, Monthly Review Press, NY, 1990
The Second International
German Social Democracy 1905-1917
Carl E. Schorske, Harvard Univ. Press, 1955
Rosa Luxemburg Speaks
Rosa Luxemburg, Pathfinder Press, NY, 1970
The Second International 1889-1914
James Joll, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston 1974
The Revolutionary Internationals, 1864-1943
Milorad M. Drachkovitch (Ed), Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, 1966
Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution
History of the Russian Revolution
Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder, NY, 1980 (first published 1932)
The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects
Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder, NY, 1970
Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914
Tony Cliff, Bookmarks, London, 1984
Bolshevism: the road to revolution
Alan Woods, Wellred, London, 1999
Leninism Under Lenin
Marcel Liebman, Merlin Press, London, 1975
The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record
N.N. Sukhanov, Princeton Univ. Press, New Jersey, 1983
The Bolsheviks come to power
Alexander Rabinowitch, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2004
The Comintern: towards world revolution
Duncan Hallas, Bookmarks, London, 1985
Franz Borkenau, Univ. Michigan Press, Michigan, 1962
Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresss of the Third Int'l
Intro by Bertil Hessel, Ink Links, London, 1980
The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923
Chris Harman, Bookmarks, London, 1982
The Western Soviets: Workers' Councils versus Parliament 1915-1920
Donny Gluckstein, Bookmarks, London, 1985
The defeat of the Russian Revolution and Trotskyism
The Revolution Betrayed
Leon Trotsky, Labor publications Inc., Detroit, 1991 (first published 1937)
Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front
Leon Trotsky, Bookmarks, 1989 (first published 1930-33)
The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929
Isaac Deutscher, Oxford Univ. Press, London, 1959
Trotsky 1923-1936: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy
Tony Cliff, Bookmarks, London, 1991
Trotsky 1928-1940: The darker the night, the brighter the star
Tony Cliff, Bookmarks, London, 1991
State Capitalism in Russia
Tony Cliff, Bookmarks, London, 1996 (first published 1948)
Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism
Arnove, Binns, Cliff, Harman, Shawki, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2003