In Defence of the Bolsheviks' Two-Stage Revolution Policy: Or What's Wrong With Comrade Slee's Attempt to Have Two Bob Each Way

The Activist - Volume 6, Number 12, 1996
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney)

Comrade Chris Slee's answer to the question of whose policy was confirmed by the October Revolution – Trotsky's permanent revolution theory or the Bolsheviks' policy of a "two-stage revolution" – seems to be that both were partially proved right and both were partially proved wrong.

In his article "Two-Stage Revolution?" (The Activist, Vol. 6, No. 10), Comrade Slee acknowledges that "Lenin's perspective of an alliance between the working class and the peasantry to carry through the democratic revolution, destroying the remnants of feudalism, was confirmed by the October revolution" and that "Trotsky's rejection of the possibility of an alliance with the peasantry as a whole was wrong" (his emphasis). But, argues Comrade Slee, Trotsky was "correct in predicting that the revolutionary government would be forced to rapidly begin attacking capitalist property."

According to Comrade Slee, "Trotsky predicted that the capitalists would close their factories in response to pro-worker measures taken by the revolutionary government." As evidence for this claim he cites the following statement from Trotsky's 1906 work, "Results and Prospects": "For a workers' government, there would be only one way out: expropriation of the closed factories and organisation of production in them on a socialised basis" (The Permanent Revolution, New York, 1969 edn, p. 78).

Comrade Slee claims that Trotsky's prediction was confirmed by developments after the Bolsheviks came to power on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the old Tsarist calendar). It's true, as Comrade Slee states, that after the October insurrection "many factories were indeed closed down by their owners, and the revolutionary government did indeed start expropriating such factories," and that "initially this occurred on an ad hoc basis, but in June 1918 a decree was issued nationalising every important branch of industry." But these facts actually refute, rather than confirm, Trotsky's prediction about the course of the Russian revolution.

This might seem to be contradicted by Comrade Slee's description of what Trotsky predicted. But there's the rub: Comrade Slee's description of what Trotsky predicted does not accord with what Trotsky actually predicted.

What Trotsky actually predicted

In his writings before 1917 Trotsky argued against the Bolshevik policy of fighting, first, for a revolutionary government based on an alliance between the working class and the peasantry as whole to carry through and complete the democratic revolution ("revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry") and then, when this task had been accomplished, fighting for an alliance between the workers and the poor, semi-proletarian, majority of the peasantry to carry through the socialist revolution. According to Trotsky, from the moment that power was "transferred into the hands of a revolutionary government with a socialist majority, the division of our programme into maximum and minimum [i.e., into the socialist revolution and the bourgeois-democratic revolution – DL] would lose all significant, both in principle and in immediate practice" (Trotsky, ibid., p. 78, emphasis added).

To support this assertion, Trotsky claimed that if the "proletarian government" sought to introduce measures such as an eight-hour work day or financial support for the unemployed (including strikers), the capitalists would resort to a general lockout:

In undertaking the maintenance of the unemployed, the government thereby undertakes the maintenance of strikers. If it does not do that, it immediately and irrevocably undermines the basis of its own existence.

There is nothing left for the capitalists to do then but to resort to the lockout, that is, to close the factories. It is quite clear that the employers can stand the closing down of production much longer than the workers, and therefore there is only one reply that a workers' government can give to a general lockout: the expropriation of the factories and the introduction in at least the largest of them of State or communal production.

Similar problems arise in agriculture by the mere fact of the expropriation of the land. In no way must it be supposed that a proletarian government, on expropriating the privately-owned estates carrying on production on a large-scale, would break these up and sell them for exploitation to small producers. The only path open to it in this sphere is the organisation of co-operation under communal control or organized directly by the State

For this reason there can be no talk of any sort of special form of proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution, of democratic proletarian dictatorship (or dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry). [ibid., pp. 79-80.]

That is, according to Trotsky, a socialist-led revolutionary government in Russia would immediately (not just "rapidly," as Comrade Slee puts it) be confronted with the need to carry out the socialist revolution (socialisation of all large-scale industry and of the large semi-feudal estates). There would thus be no basis for a transitional regime based on a revolutionary-democratic alliance of the workers and the peasantry as a whole. This was why Trotsky argued that "From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonism between the village poor and the village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie" (ibid., p. 76).

In an article published in 1909, "Our Differences," Trotsky made it clear that when he had written in 1906 of the socialist revolution being implemented "from the very first moment" that the proletariat came to power, this was not a rhetorical phrase:

I have demonstrated elsewhere that twenty-four hours after the establishment of a `democratic dictatorship' this idyll of quasi-Marxist asceticism is bound to collapse utterly In one form or another (public works, etc.) the proletariat in power will immediately have to undertake the maintenance of the unemployed at the state's expense. This in turn will immediately provoke a powerful intensification of the economic struggle and a whole series of strikes.

We saw all this on a small scale at the end of 1905. And the capitalists' reply will be the same as their reply to the demand for the eight-hour day: the shutting down of factories and plants What can the workers' government do when faced with closed factories and plants? It must reopen them and resume production at the government's expense. But is that not the way to socialism? [Trotsky, 1905, London, 1971 edn., pp. 330-331.]

What could the "workers' government" do? It could do exactly what the Bolshevik-led Soviet government actually did to combat the capitalists' attempts to sabotage production: introduce an extensive system of workers' accounting and control over the capitalists, backed up by punitive confiscations and other coercive measures (arrest by the workers' militia and punishment by the revolutionary courts) to break the exploiters' resistance.

Trotsky's prediction that a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry as a whole would collapse within "twenty-four hours" because the capitalists would launch a general lockout and this would force the revolutionary government to respond with the wholesale socialisation of large-scale industry, proved to be utterly wrong. As he himself acknowledged in 1928:

Beginning with April 1917, Lenin explained to his opponents, who accused him of having adopted the position of the "permanent revolution," that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry was realized partially in the epoch of dual power. He explained later that this dictatorship met with its further extension during the first period of soviet power from November 1917 until July 1918, when the entire peasantry, together with the workers, effected the agrarian revolution while the workers did not as yet proceed with the confiscation of the mills and factories, but experimented with workers' control. ["Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution," Leon Trotsky on China, New York, 1976, p. 310, emphasis added.]

Methodological roots of Trotsky's errors

The ultraleft theory of permanent revolution that Trotsky counterposed to the Bolsheviks' policy of two-stage revolution was based upon a mechanical, fatalistic conception of the class struggle.

Trotsky first articulated this conception in relation to the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat. "Marxism," he wrote in his 1904 polemic against Lenin, Our Political Tasks, "teaches that the interests of the proletariat are determined by its objective conditions of life. These interests are so powerful and so inescapable that they finally oblige the proletariat to bring them into the realm of its consciousness, that is, to make the attainment of its objective interests its subjective concern" (Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (1904), London, 197?, p. 74).

Commenting on this argument, Ernest Mandel correctly observed in his pamphlet The Leninist Theory of Organisation:

"Today it is easy to see what a naively fatalistic optimism was concealed in this inadequate analysis. Immediate interests are here put on the same level with historical interests, i.e., with the unraveling of the most complex questions of political tactics and strategy. The hope that the proletariat will `eventually' recognise its historical interests seems rather shallow when compared to the historical catastrophes that have arisen because, in the absence of an adequate revolutionary leadership, the proletariat was not even able to accomplish the revolutionary tasks of the here and now.

"The same naive optimism is even more strikingly manifested in the following passage from the same polemic:

"The revolutionary social democrat is convinced not only of the inevitable [!] growth of the political party of the proletariat, but also of the inevitable [!] victory of the ideas of revolutionary socialism within this party. The first proof lies in the fact that the development of bourgeois society spontaneously leads the proletariat to politically demarcate itself; the second in the fact that the objective tendencies and the tactical problems of this demarcation find their best, fullest and deepest expression in revolutionary socialism, i.e., Marxism.

"This quotation makes clear that what the young Trotsky was championing in his polemic with Lenin was the `old, tested tactic' and the naive `belief in the inevitability of progress' la Bebel and Kautsky which prevailed in international Social Democracy from the time of Marx's death until the First World War. Lenin's concept of class consciousness was incomparably richer, more contradictory and more dialectical precisely because it was based on a keen grasp of the relevance of the revolution for the present (not `finally some day,' but in the coming years)" (Mandel, The Leninist Theory of Organisation, p. 34).

Trotsky's mechanical, fatalistic conception of the development of the class struggle led him to draw erroneous conclusions from the experience of the 1905 revolution, that is, to mechanically project them onto the future course of the development of a new revolution in Russia. Thus, from the temporary convergence in the tactical views of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the end of 1905, Trotsky mechanistically drew the general conclusion that a future revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat would drive both factions toward common positions. As he observed in his 1924 article "Our Differences":

The deep differences that divided me from Bolshevism for a whole number of years, and in many cases placed me in sharp and hostile opposition to Bolshevism were expressed most graphically in relation to the Menshevik faction. I began with the radically wrong perspective that the course of the revolution and the pressure of the proletarian masses would ultimately force both factions to follow the same road. [Trotsky, Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), New York, 1975, p. 263.]

The same mechanical, fatalistic conception was evident in the predictions he made about the future role of the peasantry and the actions of the capitalists in a new revolution. We have already observed that his argument that the introduction by a revolutionary government of an eight-hour work day and unemployment benefits for strikers would inevitably lead the capitalists to resort to a "general lockout," was based on a mechanical projection of events in 1905 ("We saw all this on a small scale at the end of 1905."). The fact that in late 1905 the capitalists could still count on the support of the Tsarist police and army, and that they would not enjoy such support under a revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants, did not lead Trotsky to revise his assessment of what the capitalists might do. To the contrary, he projected that what they had done on a small scale at the end of 1905 (when they still had a state power defending their interests), they would do on a larger scale when state power passed into the hands of the proletariat.

Similarly, his assessment of the role of the peasantry in a future revolution was based upon a simple, mechanical projection of its role in the revolutionary upsurge of 1905-06. "Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role," Trotsky argued in Results and Prospects. "Does the fact of the rise and development first of the peasant union and then of the Group of Toil (Trudoviki) in the Duma run counter to these and subsequent arguments?" Trotsky asked. "Not in the least," was his answer.

The radicalism and formlessness of the Group of Toil was the expression of the contradictoriness in the revolutionary aspirations of the peasantry. During the period of constitutional illusions it helplessly followed the "Cadets" (Constitutional Democrats). At the moment of the dissolution of the duma it came naturally under the guidance of the Social Democratic Group. The lack of independence on the part of the peasant representatives will show itself with particular clearness at the moment when it becomes necessary to show form initiative, that is, at the time when power has passed into the hands of the revolutionaries. [Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, p. 72.]

For Trotsky, the lack of "firm initiative," the lack of "independence" and the "formlessness" of the peasant organisations which arose in the revolutionary upsurge of 1905-06 were proof that the peasantry would not play any independent or decisive role in a victorious revolution. From this assessment Trotsky drew the conclusion that:

The Russian bourgeoisie will... will have to surrender the revolutionary hegemony over the peasantry. In such a situation, created by the transference of power to the proletariat, nothing remains for the peasantry to do but rally to the regime of workers' democracy. It will not matter much even if the peasantry does this with a degree of consciousness not larger than that which it usually rallies to the bourgeois regime. [ibid., p. 73.]

Lenin strongly disagreed with Trotsky's approach to the peasantry. In a 1909 polemic with the Menshevik leader Julius Martov, Lenin wrote:

...the most fallacious of Trotsky's opinions that Comrade Martov quotes and considers "just" is...: "even if they [the peasantry] do this [`support the regime of working-class democracy'] with no more political understanding than they usually support a bourgeois regime." The proletariat cannot count on the ignorance and prejudices of the peasantry as the powers that be under a bourgeois regime count and depend on them, nor can it assume that in time of revolution the peasantry will remain in their usual state of political ignorance and passivity. The history of the Russian revolution shows that the very first wave of the upsurge at the end of 1905, at once stimulated the peasantry to form a political organisation (the All-Russian Peasant Union) which was undoubtedly the embryo of a distinct peasant party. Both in the First and Second Dumas – in spite of the fact that the counter-revolution had wiped out the first contingents of advanced peasants – the peasantry, now for the first time acting on a nation-wide scale in the Russian general elections, immediately laid the foundations of the Trudoviki group, which was undoubtedly the embryo of a distinct peasant party. In these embryos and rudiments there was much that was unstable, vague and vacillating: this is beyond doubt. But if political groups like this could spring up at the beginning of the revolution, there cannot be the slightest doubt that a revolution carried to such a "conclusion," or rather, to such a higher stage of development as a revolutionary dictatorship, will produce a more definitely constituted and stronger revolutionary peasant party. To think otherwise would be like supposing that some vital organs of an adult can retain the size, shape and development of infancy. [Lenin, "The Aim of the Proletarian Struggle in Our Revolution," Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 374.]

Lenin's assessment was fully confirmed by the October Revolution: the victory of the revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants was accompanied by the emergence of a distinct and strong revolutionary peasant party – the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party. Moreover, the Bolsheviks' success in forging an alliance with the Left SRs played a crucial role in the first stage of the revolution, when the peasantry remained united in carrying through the bourgeois agrarian revolution against the semi-feudal landlords.

While Comrade Slee acknowledges that Trotsky's position on the role of the peasantry was wrong, he fails to recognise that Trotsky's approach to the struggle between the proletariat and the capitalists in the industrial centres of Russia had the same methodological roots and was equally erroneous.

A `potentially misleading term'?

Comrade Slee objects to the formula "two-stage revolution" because it "tends to suggest a linear sequence: first the seizure of power by the workers and peasants, followed by a period of implementing bourgeois-democratic policies; then the break with the rich peasants and the seizure of power by the workers and poor peasants, followed by the implementation of socialist policies." According to Comrade Slee:

This is not what happened in Russia. "Socialist" policies (such as the expropriation of capitalist property) were implemented during the "bourgeois-democratic" period (October 1917 to June 1918). "Bourgeois policies" (such as the leasing of factories to capitalists) were carried out during the NEP, several years after the revolution was said to have entered its "socialist" stage.

The formula "two-stage revolution" certainly does "suggest" a "linear sequence," though not quite the one presented by Comrade Slee. It suggests that the proletariat of a country where the peasantry constitutes the majority of the population and is burdened by survivals of pre-capitalist agrarian relations, cannot begin to carry out a socialist revolution without first carrying through a bourgeois-democratic revolution in alliance with the peasantry as a whole. However, it does not suggest that the workers must seize political power twice: first, in alliance with the entire peasantry, and then, in alliance with the poor peasants. To the contrary, it suggests that these are two stages or phases of an uninterrupted revolutionary process, in which there is no "Chinese Wall" between the first and the second stage. As Lenin explained it:

First, with the "whole" of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and the second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place. [Lenin, "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky," Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 300-01.]

Elsewhere in the same work Lenin argued that the course taken by the October Revolution had confirmed the Bolsheviks' policy:

The victorious Bolshevik revolution meant the end of vacillation, meant the complete destruction of the monarchy and of the landlord system (which had not been destroyed before the October Revolution), We carried the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion. The peasants supported us as a whole... The Soviets united the peasants in general. The class divisions among the peasants had not yet matured, had not yet come into the open.

That process took place in the summer and autumn of 1918. The Czech counter-revolutionary mutiny roused the kulaks. A wave of kulak revolts swept over Russia. The poor peasants learned, not from books or newspapers, but from life itself, that their interests were irreconcilably antagonistic to those of the kulaks, the rich, the rural bourgeoisie...

A year after the proletarian revolution in the capitals, and under its influence and with its assistance, the proletarian revolution began in the remote rural districts, and it has finally consolidated the power of the Soviets and Bolshevism, and has finally proved there is no force in the country that can withstand it.

Having completed the bourgeois-democratic revolution in alliance with the peasants as a whole, the Russian proletariat finally passed on to the socialist revolution when it succeeded in splitting the rural population, in winning over the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, and in uniting them against the kulaks and the bourgeoisie, including the peasant bourgeoisie. [ibid., pp. 302-05.]

Comrade Slee disputes that this is what happened in Russia. His argument rests on a totally false premise: that "socialist" policies were implemented during the "bourgeois-democratic" stage of the October Revolution and "bourgeois" policies were implemented under the NEP, "several years after the revolution was said to have entered its `socialist' stage."

Firstly, even if some "socialist" policies had been implemented during the first months of the October Revolution, this would not disprove that during these months the revolution was still bourgeois-democratic in its basic content. As Lenin pointed out in 1905:

Wage-labour with its struggle against private property exists under the [Tsarist] autocracy as well; it arises even under serfdom. But this does not in the least prevent us from logically and historically distinguishing between the main stages of development. We all contrapose bourgeois revolution and socialist revolution; we all insist on the absolute necessity of strictly distinguishing between them; however, can it be denied that in the course of history individual, particular elements of the two revolutions become interwoven? [Lenin, "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution," Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 85.]

Secondly, the "expropriation of capitalist property" carried out in the first months of the October Revolution was not part of any plan for the socialisation of industry. As E. H. Carr noted:

The nationalization of industry was treated at the outset not as a desirable end in itself but as a response to special conditions, usually some misdemeanour of the employers; and it was applied exclusively to individual factories, not to industries as a whole, so that any element of planning was quite absent from these initial measures. Two epithets were used in Soviet literature to describe the nationalization policy of this early period. It was "punitive," meaning that its motive was to defeat or punish the resistance or sabotage of the capitalists; and it was "spontaneous," meaning that it was mainly the result of action by workers on the spot, not by the central authority. Ample evidence can be found to justify both descriptions. [Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-23, London, 1966 edn, Vol. 2, p. 87.]

Carr cites a 1929 study by Soviet economist V. P. Milyutin that showed that "70 per cent of all nationalizations in that period [i.e., up to the spring of 1918] were due to employers refusing to accept workers' control or abandoning their factories," and that out of 521 small, medium and large enterprises "nationalized before 1 June 1918, 50 per cent had been nationalized by regional Sovnarkhozy [Councils of National Economy], 25 per cent by lower Sovnarkhozy or Soviets, and only 20 per cent by" the central authorities.

Victor Serge points out that following the Soviet government's nationalisation of a number of large factories in December 1917 "the management of some of the big factories – notably the Franco-Russian Works in Petrograd – immediately insisted that their works be nationalised: they wanted to get out of the responsibilities of demobilising industry from war production. Belgian, Swedish and French companies made similar approaches, which were received with a categorical refusal" (Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, London, 1992 edn, p. 136).

These examples of capitalist managers demanding that the Soviet government nationalise their factories illustrate that nationalisation of factories is not, in and of itself, a socialist measure. Comrade Slee knows this: that's why he puts inverted commas around the word socialist when he refers to the nationalisations carried out during the first months of the Soviet government.

Comrade Slee's use of the term, "bourgeois" policies, in reference to the leasing of state-owned enterprises to capitalists after the introduction of the NEP in 1921, is equally misleading. The extent and nature of this policy was explained as follows by Trotsky in his report on the NEP to the fourth congress of the Communist International, held in November 1922:

Even now under the New Economic Policy all industrial enterprises without a single exception remain the property of the state. True enough, some of these enterprises are leased out. But what is the correlation between the industries which the state continues to operate itself and those which it has leased?

This correlation may be gauged from the following figures: There are more than 4,000 state-owned and state-operated enterprises, employing approximately one million workers; there are a little less than 4,000 leased enterprises employing all told about 80,000 workers.This means that in the state enterprises the average number of workers is 207 workers per enterprise, whereas in the leased enterprises the average is 17 workers. The explanation for this is to be found in the fact that under lease are secondary and, for the most part, tertiary enterprises in the light industry...

From a purely political standpoint the issue boils down to this, that the working class in power offers such and such important concessions to the bourgeoisie... In this respect we have learned a little from the bourgeoisie itself. Throughout the Nineteenth Century the bourgeoisie did nothing else except alternate between repressions and concessions. It made concessions in favor of the petty bourgeoisie, in favor of the peasantry and the upper layers of the working class, while at the same time mercilessly exploiting the toiling masses. These concessions were either political or economic or a combination of both. But at all times these were concessions made by a ruling class which kept firm hold on state power. [Trotsky, "Report on the New Soviet Economic Policy and the Perspectives of the World Revolution," The First 5 Years of the Communist International, New York, 1972 edn, pp. 240, 252.]

To describe concessions by the Soviet socialist state to the bourgeoisie (such as the temporary leasing of a limited number of state-owned enterprises) as "bourgeois policies" is as misleading as describing as "socialist policies" concessions granted by the ruling capitalist class to the proletariat (like the legal limitation of the work day to 10 hours in England in the 19th century). Again, Comrade Slee is aware of this: that's why he puts inverted commas around the term "bourgeois" when he refers to the Soviet concessions as bourgeois policies.

Thus, Comrade Slee's attempt to maintain that the Bolsheviks' policy of a "two-stage revolution" was not confirmed by the October Revolution starts to fall apart as soon as we discount the erroneous terms he uses to mislead unwary readers.

The proletarian revolution in the countryside

Perhaps the most astonishing of Comrade Slee's arguments against recognising that the Bolsheviks' policy was confirmed by the October Revolution is his claim that "the struggle between the rich and poor peasants [in the second half of 1918]... was a new phase within the bourgeois-democratic revolution, rather than the start of the socialist revolution in the countryside."

Comrade Slee says Lenin was mistaken when he wrote in 1918 that:

All who are familiar with the situation and have been in the rural districts declare that it is only now, in the summer and autumn of 1918, that the rural districts themselves are passing through the "October" (i.e., proletarian) Revolution. ["The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky," Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 305.]

This was not some passing impression on Lenin's part. He restated this analysis in 1919:

In a country where the proletariat could only assume power with the aid of the peasantry, where the proletariat had to serve as the agent of a petty-bourgeois revolution, our revolution was largely a bourgeois revolution until the Poor Peasants' Committees were set up, i.e., until the summer and even the autumn of 1918... But from the moment the Poor Peasants' Committees began to be organised, our revolution became a proletarian revolution... And only when the October Revolution began to spread to the rural districts and was consummated, in the summer of 1918, did we acquire a real proletarian base; only then did our revolution become a proletarian revolution in fact, and not merely in our proclamations, promises and declarations. [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 157.]

In October 1917 we seized power together with the peasants as a whole. This was a bourgeois revolution, inasmuch as the class struggle in the rural districts had not yet developed. As I have said, the real proletarian revolution in the rural districts began only in the summer of 1918. Had we not succeeded in stirring up this revolution our work would have been incomplete. The first stage was the seizure of power in the cities and the establishment of the Soviet form of government. The second stage was one which is fundamental for all socialists and without which socialists are not socialists, namely, to single out the proletarian and semi-proletarian elements in the rural districts and to ally them to the urban proletariat in order to wage the struggle against the bourgeoisie in the countryside. This stage is also in the main completed. [ibid., p. 203.]

The first quotation above is taken from the main report of the Central Committee to the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party. The second is from the Central Committee's report on "Work in the Countryside" to the same party congress. Thus Comrade Slee asks us to believe that not only Lenin but every other leading Bolshevik could not differentiate between the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the start of the proletarian-socialist revolution!

Comrade Slee bases his claim that the worker-poor peasant struggle against the kulaks, the peasant bourgeoisie, was not the beginning of the proletarian revolution in the countryside upon the fact that it did not lead to the immediate socialisation of farming, but created a relatively homogeneous middle peasantry. "We can not say that the socialist revolution has occurred in the countryside until socialised production is dominant," he writes.

While it's true that we cannot say that the socialist revolution has, in the main been completed in the countryside until socialised production is dominant, neither Lenin nor any other Bolshevik leader claimed that the socialist revolution had been completed in the countryside in the second half of 1918. What they claimed was that the proletarian revolution had been completed in the countryside, and that this had provided a firm social base in the country as a whole for beginning the socialist revolution.

Does Comrade Slee agree or disagree with that assessment? Again, he tries to have two bob each way: "By creating a relatively homogeneous peasantry, it created the theoretical possibility for a peaceful evolution from small-peasant farming to socialised farming with the help of the workers' state, without opposition from an entrenched rural capitalist class." Precisely! But elsewhere he argues that, because the struggle against the kulaks involved a "struggle to equalise property ownership among the peasants," it was really a "new phase within the bourgeois-democratic revolution, rather than the start of the socialist revolution in the countryside."

How does Comrade Slee reach this conclusion? Firstly, he ignores the Marxist thesis that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is the sum-total of measures required to eradicate feudal impediments to the development of capitalism. Secondly, he argues that because Lenin described the "idea of equal land tenure" as having "a progressive and revolutionary value in the bourgeois-democratic revolution" (Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 309, Comrade Slee's emphasis), the expropriation of the surplus land and other means of production of the peasant bourgeoisie by the proletarian and semi-proletarian layers of the peasantry must have been a bourgeois-democratic measure. Comrade Slee's mistake is to take a particular social reform and isolate it from its social context. "Equal land tenure" within the framework of an agrarian system dominated by semi-feudal relations is a progressive and revolutionary-democratic measure. Within the framework of a capitalist economy purged of semi-feudal survivals it is a petty-bourgeois utopia. But within the framework of the nationalisation of land and the socialisation of large-scale industry and of the banking system by a proletarian state power it can be a transitional step toward to the socialisation of farming.

Finally, there's another dimension to the proletarian character of the revolutionary struggle of the poor peasants against the kulaks, one that Comrade Slee ignores: the political dimension. As Trotsky observed in his 1920 polemic against Kautsky:

...the mere fact of the transference of power to the village poor had an immeasurable revolutionary significance. For the guidance of the village semi-proletarians, there were despatched from the towns parties from amongst the foremost workers, who accomplished invaluable work in the villages. The Committees [of Poor Peasants] became shock battalions against the vulture class. Enjoying the support of the state, they thereby obliged the middle section of the peasantry to choose, not only between the soviet power and the power of the landlords, but between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the semi-proletarian elements in the village on the one hand, and the yoke of the rich speculators on the other...

But even the very fact that the Russian proletariat has found support in the peasantry Kautsky turns against us. "This has introduced into the Soviet regime an economically reactionary element which was spared (!) the Paris Commune, as its dictatorship did not rely on peasant soviets"...

It is quite true that the Commune was "spared" peasant support. But in return the Commune was not spared annihilation by the peasant armies of Thiers! Whereas our army, four fifths of whom are peasants, is fighting with enthusiasm and with success for the Soviet Republic. And this one fact, controverting Kautsky and those inspiring him, gives the best possible verdict on the peasant policy of the Soviet government. [Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, London, 1975 edn, pp. 126-29.]

That is, unless the Bolshevik proletariat in the cities had been able to rally the semi-proletarian masses of the peasantry around it and free them from the political leadership of the kulaks, it would not have be able to create a majority within Russia in favor of politically supporting and defending the socialisation of capitalist industry. But to achieve this, the Bolsheviks first had to help all of the peasantry, including the kulaks, carry the bourgeois revolution in Russia to its conclusion. The course of the October Revolution in the year after the insurrection of November 7, 1917 fully confirmed the correctness of the Bolsheviks' policy of a two-stage revolution. As Lenin rightly observed in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky: "It was the Bolsheviks who strictly differentiated between the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the socialist revolution: by carrying the former through, they opened the door for the transition to the latter. This was the only policy that was revolutionary and Marxist."