Stalinism: It's Origin and Future. Andy Blunden 1993
The subject of this book is Stalinism. With its origins in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, Stalinism raised its head in Russia within a few years of the victorious workers’ revolution of 1917. But until 1923, Stalinism was no more than a tendency within the Bolshevik Party. And yet! Within just a few short years, Stalinism had implanted itself within the workers’ movement in every country in the world!
To understand this astonishing transformation it is necessary to look at the condition and level of development of the workers’ movement at the time.
By the beginning of the century, capitalism had extended its dominion across the entire globe. It was however only in the ‘old’ capitalist countries that modern industry had been established, and the working class had grown to the point of having its own organisations, political parties and trade unions, and working class consciousness. The rest of the world was drawn into the capitalist world market mainly as sources of raw materials and markets for commodities from the industrialised countries, where the workers were in the main unorganised and still lacking workers’ organisation and consciousness.
By the turn of the century, the workers’ movement in most of Europe and Britain, Australia and the other settler-colonies, had become very powerful. Russia was still backward and semi-feudal, but the establishment of modern industry had given birth to a working class and a national bourgeoisie.
The main tendencies in the workers’ movement before World War One were ‘labourism’, ‘social democracy’, syndicalism and ‘Bolshevism’. In all the developed capitalist countries there were also small ‘doctrinaire socialist’ groups.
The classic country of ‘labourism’ is Britain .
Britain was the birth place of trade unions. The ‘craft’ unions emerged out of the old feudal guilds as the working class itself emerged out of feudalism. Many of the leaders of these trade unions had participated in the ‘Working Man’s International’ (or ‘First International’) built by Marx and Engels in the 1860s and 70s.
By the late 1880s, unskilled workers such as gas workers and dockers, formed broad industrial unions. The leaders of these unions and the members of the exclusive ‘craft unions’ formed the ‘aristocracy of labour’.
In former times, the old guilds had provided the only route for a young worker to become a journeyman and earn a wage, and later perhaps become himself a master. In this century, the trade unions have also provided a stepping stone to bourgeois respectability for workers in the Britain.
Thanks to the work of Marx and Engels and the other leaders of the First International, the trade unions embraced not only the immediate economic demands of workers, but also promoted a broad social program, and the vision of a future socialist society. Side by side with the trade unions in Britain, there was the Labour Party and the political parties and groups which advocated Socialism.
Although the workers’ movement in Britain had achieved a very high level of organisation, and through its trade unions, had raised the working class to a relatively high cultural level, from the political point of view, the British workers’ movement was very immature. The leaders of the trade unions, especially the craft unions, were thoroughly imbued with the spirit of capitalist ideology, and revolutionary socialism had not gained a significant hold in Britain.
Engels wrote in 1889:
‘The most repulsive thing here is the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. The division of society into innumerable strata, each with its own pride but also its inborn respect for its ‘betters’ ... even Tom Mann , whom I regard as the best of the lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor ...’
The Fabians and others advocated that the workers’ movement should lend its support to the Liberal Party. Marx and Engels on the other hand, insisted that the workers must build their own political party, to run for parliamentary seats independently of the bourgeois parties.
By 1892, the first workers’ representatives, Keir Hardie and John Burns, had been elected to parliament. Recognising that workers rights could not be advanced without parliamentary action, the Trade Union Congress set up the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, which later became the Labour Party. By 1914, the Labor Party had two million members, and achieved government for the first time in 1924 with Ramsay MacDonald Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister.
The Independent Labour Party (ILP), founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, was based on a mixture of Methodism and Marxism. The ILP participated in the founding of the Labour Party with the aim of winning the Labour Party to a socialist program. It at first opposed the Great War, but later, like the majority of European socialists, capitulated and supported the war.
From the earliest times, most workers were very well aware of this process by which their best representatives became transformed into respectable bourgeois citizens. One of the earliest gains of the trade unions, in fact, was their recognition as ‘legal associations’, so that when their organisers ran off with the strike funds, they could be prosecuted as thieves! But the question being asked was, how could this transformation, and the betrayal that inevitably followed, be avoided? Many workers drew the conclusion that the whole class of officials and politicians were no good, and that the working class would be better off without them!
While many workers rejected both the conservative politics and the ‘opportunism’ of their ‘respectable’ leaders, the socialist groups, the groups which promoted revolutionary socialism, were all small, isolated and sectarian groups, incapable of fulfilling their program.
For instance, the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF), founded by Henry Hyndman, was mainly responsible for popularising Marxist theory in Britain. There was also the Socialist Labour Party, following the American Daniel De Leon. Both were very isolated and sectarian.
Lenin wrote in 1907:
‘What Marx and Engels criticise most sharply in British and American socialism is its isolation from the working-class movement. ..that the SDF ... have reduced Marxism to a dogma, to rigid orthodoxy, that they consider it a credo and not a guide to action, that they are incapable of adapting themselves to the theoretically helpless, but living and powerful mass working-class movement that is marching alongside them’.
Lenin explained this tendency of the workers’ movement in Britain and America thus:
‘the absence of any big, nation-wide, democratic tasks facing the proletariat; the proletariat’s complete subordination to bourgeois politics; the sectarian isolation of groups, mere handfuls of socialists, from the proletariat; not the slightest success among the working masses at the elections, ...
‘Engels stressed the importance of an independent workers’ party, because he was speaking of countries where there had formerly been not even a hint of the workers’ political independence’
In Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin showed how imperialism splits the working class of the ‘home’ country, creating a privileged upper stratum, which makes up a majority of trade unions and other workers’ organisations, and a lower stratum, which is completely excluded. Imperialism also saw the reversal of emigration from the imperialist countries, which was replaced instead by a flow of immigrants into the imperialist countries from the more backward countries. These workers then moved into this lower stratum. This split strengthened the opportunist tendencies in the working class. In England, the vast colonial possessions and the monopoly position England enjoyed in the world market in the nineteenth century, meant that the workers were already dominated by this opportunism.
In 1882 Engels wrote to Kautsky:
‘You ask me what the English workers think about colonialism. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers daily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies’.
As Trotsky explains in 1925, in Where is Britain Going?, the stagnation in Britain’s industrial development and the decline in its monopoly position in the world market, threw the British working class into conflict with the bourgeoisie, but this process was only just beginning at the time of the outbreak of the First World War.
Almost all the workers’ organisations of the world were at this time a part of the Second International, founded in 1889 as the successor to the First International. While giving the outward appearance of a world party of the working class, the Second International was in fact a loose federation of national parties, which included both reformist parties such as the British Labour Party, and small revolutionary parties such as the American Socialist Labor Party (SLP).
Trotsky commented in 1922: ‘The war has drawn the balance sheet on an entire epoch of the socialist movement; it has weighed and appraised the leaders of this epoch’. Almost all the leaders of the Second International eventually supported ‘their own’ bourgeoisie at the outbreak of the First World War. The Second International fell apart. Those precious few leaders who did not capitulate to the enormous social pressures brought to bear upon them by the war, formed the foundation of revolutionary socialism in the post-war period.
In Europe, the political development of the workers’ movement contrasted with its development in Britain. Whereas in Britain, the Trade Union Congress had initiated the founding of the Labour Party, in Europe, the socialist parties were electoral forces in themselves and initiated the building of the industrial unions. Even to this day, the union movement in most European countries has several peak bodies, each affiliated to different political parties.
The most important of the European Socialist parties was the mighty Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The SPD was founded in 1875 by the fusion of the parties of Marx and Lassalle, and by 1914 had more than one million members. Activity covered everything from parliamentary representation to social clubs, education, credit, welfare services and trade unionism. Its members included Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin.
The problem of isolation from the workers’ movement and sectarianism which dogged the socialist movement in Britain and the US was not the problem in Germany. Rather it was the infection by opportunism and parliamentarism. Engels, and later Luxemburg and Liebknecht, fought a constant battle against the Right within the Social Democratic Party.
The SPD was founded by August Bebel, a collaborator of Marx and Engels in the First International, and Wilhelm Liebknecht (father of Karl). According to Trotsky ‘This combination of practical opportunism with revolution in principle reached its highest expression in Bebel, the brilliant skilled worker who became undisputed leader of the party for almost half a century’.
After Engels’ death in 1895, Engels’ literary executor, Eduard Bernstein, was the leading theoretician of the German SPD. Bernstein developed the theory of the gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism, set out in his book Evolutionary Socialism. It was Bernstein who coined the famous aphorism: The movement is everything, the final goal nothing. Bernstein was the first revisionist. That is, rather than saying I reject Marxism, I am a reformist, he claimed to up-date Marxism, .... to evolutionary socialism. He adopted a pacifist stand during the war.
The Austrian Marxist Karl Kautsky became a Marxist under the influence of Bernstein, and was Marx and Engels’ literary assistant, along with Marx’s daughter Eleanor. After Engels’ death, Kautsky was recognised as the foremost authority on Marx’s writings and the greatest populariser of Marx’s theory. It was Kautsky who defended ‘orthodox’ Marxism against Bernstein's revisionism. However, Kautsky accommodated himself to the conservative bureaucratic life-style of the SPD and found himself on the right-wing of the Party at the outbreak of the War. He denounced the Russian Revolution as a betrayal of Marxism.
The right-wing leaders of the SPD were Gustav Noske, who competed with the conservatives in patriotism, and became Minister for War in 1919; Philipp Scheidemann, and Friedrich Ebert, SPD leader after Bebel’s death in 1913. These parliamentarians, though more sophisticated than their British counterparts, exuded contempt for the workers’ movement, and served their militarist masters with a brutal and cynical effectiveness.
On the left-wing of the SPD, on the other hand, were Rosa Luxemburg, founding leader of the Polish Social Democrats, who fought against Bernstein and later Kautsky’s revisionism, and Karl Liebknecht, founding leader of the Socialist Youth International in 1907. Luxemburg and Liebknecht founded the Spartacus League in 1914 to oppose the War and spent most of the War in prison. The names of Liebknecht and Luxemburg inspired millions throughout the world for their courageous opposition to the War. And there was Clara Zetkin, a founder of the socialist women’s movement, and a member of the Bookbinders Union, and International Secretary of the Tailors and Seamstresses Union.
In the United States, revolutionary socialism had found its way into the working class through the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), which had 1,500 members, mostly German and few English-speakers, and was factionalised and isolated, when Daniel De Leon joined it in 1890. De Leon transformed the SLP into a much more dynamic party with roots in the organised working class, which was instrumental in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.
The SLP was however a far cry from the great socialist parties of Europe. De Leon developed its special brand of revolutionary socialism, combining electoralism and industrial unionism in a characteristic mix. The Party aimed to win governmental power and thereby act as a ‘shield’ while the ‘sword’, the workers organised in the unions, would capture economic power from the capitalists, unable to use the state power to protect their property. With the launching of the IWW, the perfect form for the workers’ organisation had been found - the workers would build the new society ‘within the shell of the old’, in the form of the OBU - One Big Union.
Whereas the old SLP had worked to build and win leadership within the existing union structure, albeit ineffectively, under De Leon’s leadership, the SLP moved towards the sectarian policy of building branches of the OBU in opposition to existing conservative structures.
At its Chicago Congress in 1908, the IWW split when anarcho-syndicalists led by Bill Haywood captured a majority over De Leon’s group. The ‘Chicago’ branch did not accept the ‘sword and shield’ theory of De Leon’s ‘Detroit’ branch, and rejected electoralism altogether.
The best elements of the American working class, such as Eugene Debs, ‘Mother’ Jones, (Big) Bill Haywood, and James Cannon, were a part of this ‘Chicago’ branch of the IWW.
While anarchism has a long history and had a strong following in Europe, America is the natural home of syndicalism.
Syndicalism is the doctrine that workers should rely exclusively upon trade union organisation for the fight against capitalism and their eventual liberation. A mass working class party has never been established in the United States. To this day American workers have to decide which of the two bourgeois ‘teams’ to vote for.
In Australia, features of both the British and American workers’ movements were to be found. The trade union movement had been firmly implanted on Australian soil in the 19th century. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) was founded in 1891, following the defeat of the maritime strike and the shearers strike, despite widespread solidarity from transport workers. Workers drew the inevitable conclusion that industrial action alone could not defend the interests of the working class and they needed their own political party. By 1899 the first workers’ party to be elected to government held power for one week in Queensland. By April 1904 the first federal Labor government held power for 4 months, and the Andrew Fisher government established a secure majority in Federal Parliament in 1910.
These first experiences of Labor government soon convinced many workers socialism could not be achieved through parliament, or at least not through the ALP.
The De Leonist SLP established itself in Australia when the Sydney-based Australian Socialist League adopted the De Leon program in 1907. The SLP described itself with the metaphor of a ‘beacon’, the light from which workers would see when the moment for revolution arrived.
Tom Mann visited Melbourne in 1902 and spent several years in Australia. As a result of his initiative the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) was established. The VSP resembled a socialist party on the European model, but never grew beyond its peak of about 1500 members in 1907. It conducted socialist propaganda, organised industrial unions and participated as a ‘faction’ in the ALP. The VSP was much more pragmatic and more deeply involved in the mass movement than the SLP. Like the European socialist parties, it organised a very broad range of social and cultural activities. Many of its leaders, such as John Curtin, Maurice Blackburn and Frank Anstey, were later to become leaders in the ALP. .
All the socialist parties rallied around the cause of the One Big Union after the OBU National Conference convened by the VSP in Melbourne in 1907. Following the Chicago-Detroit split, the IWW became identified with the syndicalist Chicago branch. The IWW published a weekly paper, Direct Action, which achieved a readership of 15,000 by 1916.
Apart from the syndicalists, all the socialists agreed on the need for a workers’ party. The debate took the form of ‘beating from without’ versus ‘boring from within’: the VSP hoped to bore from within and win the ALP for socialism; the SLP beat from without in the hope of winning the mass of workers to the ranks of their own party. All shared an enormous optimism that the impending catastrophe would usher in a workers’ republic. Only the Victorian Socialist Party ever had more than a few hundred members. And when for a short period of time in 1908 the VSP broke from the ALP, they rapidly lost membership. Never again did the VSP risk isolation from the Labor Party.
In Russia, however, extraordinary social conditions had prevailed since the introduction of modern industry in the 1880s. The clash between a working class, dragged off the land into vast urban concentrations in a single generation, and a feudal autocracy of unspeakable brutality, had given birth to a generation of revolutionaries - Anabaptists, Terrorists, Anarchists and Socialists; rebellious peasants, young intellectuals and workers.
Revolutionary politics went through a telescoped evolution from religious sects to Marxist parties in two or three decades. The first Marxist circles were formed in Marx’s lifetime. The first draft program of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was published by Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour Group in 1883. These Marxist circles formed and dissolved in a short space of time - usually due to police repression.
It was out of these exceptional conditions that Lenin built the Party that made the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party, the founders of modern revolutionary socialism.
This was the state of the workers movement in the developed capitalist countries at the time of the First World War. In the ‘old’ capitalist countries the workers’ movement was in its ‘adolescence’. The great workers’ organisations were controlled by respectable, bourgeoisified bureaucrats who confidently predicted the inevitable prosperity awaiting workers at the end of the parliamentary road.
The revolutionary groups, on the other hand, showed an equally naive confidence in the inevitable arrival of Socialism by means of the revolutionary road. The syndicalists and anarchists denounced all ‘politicians’ and advocated ‘direct action’.
In either case, Socialism was more of a moral ideal than a practical program. There had been no experience of genuinely revolutionary struggle since the earliest days of the struggle against the Combination Laws and the Chartist Movement. Socialist revolution was something which existed only in the books and pamphlets of the socialist apostles.
This was the workers’ movement in 1917, when the Russian Revolution burst on to the scene. Hardly had workers in Germany and Britain, let alone in far away America or Australia, made contact with the leaders of the Russian Revolution, and enrolled as students in the school of Bolshevism, than the party which had resolved all these problems, and made the first workers’ revolution, had succumbed to a horrible degeneration.
The source of the success of the Russian Revolution lay in the extraordinary historical position of Russia and its relation to Europe.
The success of the Czarist autocracy in maintaining its dominance over a vast Empire to the East had allowed it to hold out the European powers and keep Russia in almost feudal backwardness, on the edge of developed and industrialised Europe.
This feat involved ferocious repression and Europe’s capitals hosted thousands of Russian emigrés. All the political theories of Europe flowed back with them to the East, where they were tested out in the crucible of the revolutionary struggle against the autocracy.
In the late nineteenth century, capitalism and modern industry began to penetrate Russia, in much same way as it has penetrated the Newly Industrialised Countries of the Pacific Rim more recently. Domestic and village industry was destroyed, trade increased, and the social structure of Russia changed rapidly. Peasants came into the cities to work in vast factories and lived in huge proletarian suburbs under conditions of extreme poverty and backwardness.
The Czarist autocracy rested upon a working class which was still culturally very backward, but was being organised and disciplined by the conditions of modern industry. The working class of Russia confronted not simply the tasks of achieving their rights and living standards within bourgeois society, but was faced with the tasks that had been achieved by the bourgeoisie in Europe in the struggle against feudalism in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Classical Marxism had conceived of Socialism as the negation of modern capitalism, arising out of the conditions created by modern capitalism. Consequently, some Russian Marxists believed that Russia was obliged to pass through capitalist democracy in order to arrive at the door of workers’ power and Socialism. But the Russian bourgeoisie was young and weak. The Czarist state had always dominated all commercial and industrial relations with Europe. Consequently, the bourgeoisie was dominated by the state and was incapable of overthrowing Czarism. It was closely tied to the landed gentry and was incapable of leading the peasant masses against the landlords.
The task of overthrowing Czarism and establishing basic democratic rights fell to the only force in Russian society capable of carrying out this task - the proletariat. Leon Trotsky was the only Marxist of this period to provide a theoretical basis for the social revolution in a backward country in the imperialist epoch, the theory known as ‘permanent revolution’.
The political struggles out of which the Bolshevik Party was built hinged around these questions of historical perspective - of the relation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; the relation between the peasantry and the working class; the relation between the tasks of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century Russian Marxism took the form of numerous ‘revolutionary circles’ - groups of revolutionaries who debated questions of theory and perspective, and intervened in workers’ struggles, organising trade unions, political campaigns and demonstrations.
For anarchism or socialism? For a professional revolutionary cadre or the spontaneity of the masses? Would the peasantry or the working class lead the revolution? Could workers’ struggle transcend the economic struggle? Could Russia by-pass capitalist development altogether?
It was these questions of program and revolutionary strategy that were fought out in the revolutionary circles - and prisons - of Czarist Russia. And it was through these revolutionary circles that Marxism was introduced into the Russian working class. A generation of revolutionaries were trained, and gained their basic experience this way.
From 1901, the principal axis of this struggle was the struggle between the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). This struggle continued up until November 1917 when the Russian workers took state power under the leadership of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP.
Here is not the place to tell the story of the Russian Revolution. Why re-tell the story that has already been told so brilliantly by Trotsky himself, in his History of the Russian Revolution?
The question for here is this: there is nothing infectious or magnetic about Stalinism. Indeed, few political diseases could be more repulsive! The force which transformed the workers’ movement in the two or three years after 1917 was the Russian Revolution, not Stalinism. Stalinism was its antithesis. Stalinism corrupted the movement which crystallised around the Revolution. Stalinism was not the child of the Revolution, but its executioner. Its success in corrupting the Communist International depended on the success of the Stalinists in passing themselves off as the true and only inheritors and representatives of the Revolution.
And who in 1923 could challenge the credentials of the leaders of the Communist International? Who could question the wisdom of those who had taken on and defeated all that world capitalism could throw at them?
In 1895 Lenin founded the League for the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, uniting all the Marxist circles in Petrograd at the time This group was the first to combine struggle for socialist ideas with the day-to-day struggle of workers. The first real practical step towards the building of an all-Russian workers’ party!
As editor of Iskra (The Spark), Lenin wrote the first draft program of the RSDLP. Written from exile, this document was circulated illegally throughout Russia in the pages of Iskra and laid the basis for the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903.
At this Congress the RSDLP split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings. Lenin, with the majority of (Bolshevik) delegates, broke from Plekhanov and others over Lenin’s concept of ‘democratic centralism’ - unfettered ‘democracy’ in discussion but disciplined ‘centralism’ in action - as the basic principle of working class organisation.
As an illegal party, the Bolshevik Party was spared the corrupting influence of well-paid parliamentary positions. Its internal life was one of intense political struggle, under conditions when political errors were frequently punished by exile to Siberia, courtesy of the Czarist police. Because of these illegal conditions much of its internal discussion took place in Paris, London or Geneva, and was smuggled into Russia via the pages of its newspaper. Censorship meant that there was an eager readership for this material in the working class suburbs and factories.
It is common knowledge that Lenin built the Bolshevik Party in a fight against the ‘circle’ mentality, that he established his leading role among revolutionaries in Russia in his call for a democratic-centralist Party as against the disparate circles, that the principle role of Iskra was to bind these circles together into a single national organisation.
It is this idea - the ‘model’ of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and its organ - that underlies the programs of those various revolutionary groups today which see themselves as Leninist parties.
However, in this historical transplantation, there are two common misconceptions about what kind of party the Bolshevik Party was.
Firstly, the repressive conditions under which the Bolshevik Party worked obliged them to operate with great discipline and professionalism. The revolutionary circles of the nineteenth century had been so easily disorganised by the police because of the ‘primitivism’ and undisciplined nature of the circles. Only correct leadership could win the authority needed to build a disciplined party. But far from being a homogeneous party of ‘top-down’ diktat, the Bolshevik Party was a party in which temporary groupings and factions were formed and dissolved, people changed sides, criticised and denounced each other, and formed new combinations the next day!
Secondly, it is frequently ignored that the state of revolutionary organisation today has in some senses more in common with late 19th century than early 20th century Russia. Today’s supposed parties are more like the ‘circles’ which preceded the RSDLP than they are like the Bolshevik Party. (Although the analogy should not be taken too far). And it is all too frequently ignored that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were two wings of one party as late as 1912. The history of the struggle of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks, was also a constant struggle for unity. Even after the February Revolution, the majority of Social-Democratic organisations in the provinces were made up of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks together.
Whilst never a ‘small’ party, the Bolsheviks were a minority tendency right up until the day they launched the insurrection. So the struggle over perspective was both an internal debate and a struggle between different tendencies in the workers’ movement as a whole.
In The New Course, Trotsky gives a picture of the complex way in which the Bolshevik Party held itself together and grew while resolving the life-and-death problems of revolutionary strategy.
Conditions of repressive do not inherently favour the internal democracy of revolutionary organisations. On the contrary. The maintenance of broad and open political discussion can only be possible where the leadership is firmly committed to that and is capable of maintaining its political authority through correct leadership and program.
The Bolshevik Party was built out of a 30 year struggle over fundamental questions of perspective, within the working class and its revolutionary stratum. This was a rich period of revolutionary experience. It was the extraordinary nature of this period which provided the conditions for the building of a genuinely revolutionary party. But the Bolshevik Party and the Russian working class, only achieved genuinely revolutionary proletarian organisation in the very process of making and defending the Revolution itself.
Some sections of the Russian revolutionary movement believed that the peasantry must play the leading role in the Russian revolution. The fact that the peasants formed the great mass of the oppressed people was the principle reason for assigning to the peasantry this leading role. Some (the Narodniks) even believed that the village commune of Russian peasant life was a model for Communism which would allow Russia to pass directly from Feudalism to Socialism without passing through Capitalism.
The Russian Marxists all held the view that Russia was developing along capitalist lines, however. And both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks held that only the working class could overthrow capitalism.
The ‘legal Marxists’, such as Peter Struve, saw no role for the working class at all. The bourgeoisie would have to do the job of building a modern capitalist democracy before the working class could become a force ‘for itself’.
The ‘economists’ of the late 19th century accepted the need for an independent workers’ party, expressing the workers’ own interests, but believed that the workers should confine themselves to the ‘economic’, i.e. trade union struggle; the political struggle was in their view the province of the intellectuals, students and bourgeoisie.
The Mensheviks believed that Russia must follow the path of the old capitalist countries of Europe, and so assigned to the bourgeoisie the leading role in the revolution to overthrow Czarism. The role of the working class would be to support the bourgeois in making the democratic revolution.
Lenin and Trotsky, both believed that the task of overthrowing Czarism was that of the working class. That is, they advocated proletarian revolution.
Bourgeois revolution or proletarian revolution? This was the main issue in the Russian working class in the years before the Revolution.
What then was the relationship between the workers and the vast mass of oppressed peasantry? What would be the nature of the state which would replace the capitalist state? These questions were hotly debated among the Marxists for 20 years before the Revolution. Both Lenin and Trotsky worked towards an understanding of this question, until it was decisively resolved in the making of the Revolution itself in 1917 and in its defence during the period 1917 to 1923.
Leon Trotsky had joined neither the Bolsheviks nor Mensheviks in 1903, but was a widely respected revolutionary in his own right and had been President of the Petrograd Soviet in the Revolution of 1905.
Between 1905 and 1917 there were frequent conflicts between Trotsky and Lenin. Trotsky disagreed with the formulation of the program put forward by both sides. While closer to the Bolsheviks, he believed that Lenin exaggerated the error of the Mensheviks and that the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was unwarranted.
After returning from exile in May 1917, Trotsky quickly realised that Lenin was right and he wrong on the organisation question and that - whatever the disagreements of the past - the Bolsheviks alone were fighting for a revolutionary socialist perspective. Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party and was brought immediately into its leading group.
What was the nature of these ‘disagreements of the past’?
After the 1905 Revolution, Trotsky formulated the theory known as ‘Permanent Revolution’. Until the February 1917 Revolution, Lenin’s policy was known as the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. There was sharp conflict between Lenin and Trotsky during this period, over this question, and the question of organisation. Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party in June 1917 when Lenin came to exactly the view that Trotsky was advocating, and it was on the perspective of Permanent Revolution that the Russian Revolution was made.
Writing in 1930, Trotsky said that:
‘Lenin’s old formula did not settle in advance the problem of what reciprocal relations would be between the proletariat and the peasantry. ... The peasant follows either the worker or the bourgeois. This means that the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry is only conceivable as a dictatorship of the proletariat which leads the peasant masses behind it’.
Trotsky understood that Lenin’s formula did not signify a specific stage in the revolution in which there would be a ‘two-class’ state but rather simply indicated in general, or ‘algebraic’, terms the imperative for the workers to maintain an alliance with the peasantry. Trotsky had already outlined, in 1905, the form which this alliance must take, and Trotsky’s view was confirmed by history .
Trotsky was convinced of the identity of his own and Lenin’s view when, in 1917, he saw that Lenin’s perspective was for proletarian revolution. The Bolsheviks were advocating that the workers must take state power. The Mensheviks argued the opposite. They believed that the next stage had to be a bourgeois democracy and consequently they argued that only the bourgeoisie could make the revolution. The Mensheviks carried this perspective into political practice by supporting the Provisional Government of Kerensky and suppressing the independent mobilisation of the workers. The struggle of the Bolsheviks against this perspective demonstrated that the real content of Lenin’s formula was nothing other than ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat which leads the peasant masses behind it’.
The peasantry composed the great majority of the population. This and its importance in the economy of the country, meant that the peasantry had to be won to the side of the workers if the revolution was to succeed. Due to its social position and its geographical distribution however, the peasant mass is unable to solve for itself the problems of land-ownership, debt, markets, industrialisation, democratic and national rights, and so on. It must look to either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat for an instrument.
The working class however, can rule only by its own means, and in defending its own interests.
The Soviets expropriated the landlords and instituted land reform, ended the War, and established basic democratic and national rights. In exchange, the peasants enlisted in their millions in the Red Army and defended the Revolution. But political leadership resided always in the hands of the urban working class.
The working class held state power, but bourgeois economic relations cannot be eliminated overnight. The Russian Revolution, and all subsequent workers revolutions, have demonstrated the truth of the Theory of Permanent Revolution. The seizure of political power by the workers inevitably leads to a struggle within the economic base, against the capitalists, for ‘workers control’ of industry, and transformation of the economy. With equal necessity, the capitalists will strive to regain state power, and this struggle inevitably is fought out on the international arena.
Thus, the revolution must continue after the seizure of state power by the working class. Even state control of industry by no means guarantees the control of industry by the working class, since the working class must also control its own state. Thus, the trade unions must remain independent of the state and the Party.
What is more, within the borders of a single country the workers by no means may have control of ‘their own’ economy - the ‘economic’ struggle continues also on the international arena.
The position that the Bolsheviks took in relation to the War was essential to their success in winning the leadership of the working class, the support of the peasantry and making the revolution.
All the Social Democratic Parties around the world had warned of the impending conflagration and declared that they would call upon the solidarity of the workers across national borders to prevent the War. As the War approached however, the majority of these so-called leaders of the working class proved to be pliant tools of the bourgeoisie. Under the slogan of the ‘lesser evil’ they all rallied to their own bourgeoisie, and acted as recruiting sergeants for the imperialist armies.
In Australia, ALP Prime Minister Andrew Fisher supported the War ‘to the last man and the last shilling’. Resigning in the face of increasing opposition in Labor ranks, Fisher handed over to Billy Hughes, who set up a coalition government with the conservative parties to mobilise the country for War.
The International Socialist Conference, held in Zimmerwald in September 1915, brought together socialists, representing minority groupings of Socialist Parties from 11 European countries. There was a struggle at the conference between Lenin and Kautsky. While Kautsky had a majority, the Manifesto issued by the Conference attempted to combine the positions of the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ drafts.
The Right attacked the capitalists and expressed sympathy for the victims of the war, but failed to condemn the treachery of the socialist parties who had collaborated, and failed to explain why the socialist parties had capitulated, and failed to put forward a revolutionary perspective. Lenin’s perspective was ‘revolutionary defeatism’ - that the workers’ main enemy was at home, and that workers should work for the defeat of their ‘own’ bourgeoisie, and transform the war into a civil war for the ending of capitalist rule, and the cause of the war.
The Zimmerwald Manifesto was circulated in millions of copies and was a major influence on workers across the world as the butchery and devastation of the War deepened. It was widely circulated in Australia and was a focal point for opposition to the war and the successful campaign against conscription. Australian socialists would not have been aware however, of the struggle between Lenin’s revolutionary defeatist policy and Kautsky’s centrist policy which was masked by the Manifesto.
The struggle waged by the Bolsheviks, within the Second International, against ‘social chauvinism’, laid the basis for the Third International. Those sections of the workers’ movement who supported the ‘Zimmerwald left’ in the pre-war period, were to form the nucleus of the communist movement as the world emerged from the maelstrom of the war. Foremost among these forces was the Spartacus League of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany.
In Russia, the Bolsheviks uncompromisingly opposed the War and all who supported it - Czarist autocrats or social-democrats who argued for solidarity with the workers of Britain and America ‘who are fighting for freedom’. As a result, they not only broke the workers from their bourgeois leaders and won the peasant and soldier masses to their side, but were later able to summon the almost inexhaustible resources of the masses to defend the Revolution against the Imperialist intervention.
On International Women’s Day, March 8 1917 [February 23 on the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time], women textile workers in St Petersburg decided to call a general strike. All the political parties advised the women against calling the strike. The strike went ahead, and the textile workers marched and called on women standing in bread lines to join them. The demonstration grew until a great mass of women stormed across the Neva Bridge and thronged the streets. Over the next few days the movement continued to grow. The women invaded army barracks, seized guns and called upon men to join them. By March 12 [February 27], Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.
This February Revolution was ‘spontaneous’. It was carried out by a working class which had been tempered and educated by the Bolshevik Party. But it was not planned or organised by anyone. When the Czar abdicated, his son refused to accept the mantle. Russia was without a government. A group of members of the Duma [Parliament] and officials of the workers’ Soviets met and formed the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers Deputies.
The Soviets were Workers’ Councils which had been created by the 1905 Revolution. The Soviets had continued since 1905, but the Mensheviks held the majority of the positions. The Bolsheviks were in a small minority. When the Czarist autocracy fell, the Soviets in reality held effective political power in the country. The Executive Committee placed the State Bank and the government Printing Offices, etc., under the control of armed workers, and assumed the functions of government. The worker and peasant masses looked to this Soviet government, and focused all their hopes upon it.
Given leadership, the Soviets could have seized power. But the Menshevik majority in the Soviets was for a bourgeois democracy, not workers’ power. So instead of the Soviets taking power, this Executive Committee desperately sought a respectable bourgeois figure to take over from it. By July 1917, after a rapid series of make-shifts and adaptations, Alexander Kerensky, a member of the Social Revolutionary Party and Vice-Chairman of the St Petersburg Soviet, became Premier of the bourgeois Provisional Government.
The Kerensky government claimed not only to be ‘democratic’, but claimed to represent the working class. On this basis, Kerensky appealed to the workers to continue fighting with the Allied powers to ‘defend our Revolution’.
In March 1917, with Lenin still in exile, Josef Stalin, a Central Committee member of the Bolsheviks, removed the ‘left’ editors of Pravda and published editorials calling upon ‘every man to remain at his fighting post’ until negotiations for peace began, pledging support for the ‘defencist’ Government. With Bolshevik support, the Executive Committee of the Soviets hailed the victory of the February Revolution as a victory for the Entente [i.e. Britain-France-Russia].
Lenin returned to Petrograd in April 1917 and delivered the famous April Theses. Lenin said I prepared the theses in writing, I read them out .. read them out twice very slowly: first at a meeting of Bolsheviks and then at a meeting of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. What Lenin proposed was a sharp and dramatic break from the policy of adaptation followed by the Bolshevik Party since February. It was the program of the Russian Revolution.
In the very first place, Lenin denounced unequivocally the policy of revolutionary defencism. The only conditions under which the working class could give its consent to a war, Lenin said, would be if ‘power pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat, that all annexations be renounced in deed and not only in word, and that a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests’. Otherwise, ‘it is impossible’, Lenin said, ‘to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence’.
Insisting that the opportunity for the working class to seize power was rapidly approaching, Lenin called, not for the support, but the overthrow of the Provisional Government - ‘the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world’. Lenin denounced the Provisional Government as an imperialist government.
Lenin raised the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets’. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were still a minority in the Soviets, Lenin said that ‘The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government’.
And what sort of government would this be?
‘Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. i.e. the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the whole people.
‘The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.’
Lenin defined the tasks of the Revolution in this way:
‘It is not our immediate task to introduce socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies’.
And finally, and most importantly, Lenin called for ‘A new International, ... an International against the social chauvinists.’ Already, six months before the conquest of power, Lenin made the building of a new International an integral part of the program of the Revolution.
This was the program for socialist revolution. ‘It is not our immediate task to introduce socialism, but only to bring social production ... under the control of the Soviets’ ... and ‘a new International’.
When we compare this program with the program of the Soviet government a decade later, we can understand why Lenin read his theses twice, slowly. Most of his audience on that day would later forget Lenin’s words. But the immediate task was to win the Bolshevik Party and the Russian workers to the program, and make the Russian Revolution.
The Bolsheviks were still a minority. In April they held an armed demonstration calling: Down with the Provisional Government. This demonstration did bring a response but showed that the time was not yet ripe. In June, the Bolsheviks promoted their policy and patiently explained, but advised workers against demonstrative actions. In July, they were forced to place themselves at the head of a spontaneous rising in Petrograd, and in August were driven underground by repression. In September, they rallied the workers to defend the Provisional Government against a right-wing putsch, and, in October 1917, led the successful and almost bloodless insurrection which placed power into the hands of the Soviets.
‘All practical work in connection with the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky, the President of the Petrograd Soviet’. 
The Bolshevik government then introduced the most sweeping program of social reforms the world had ever seen.
It was a government of ‘Workers, Soldiers and Peasants’ Soviets’. The Soviets, created by the working class in the spontaneous revolution of 1905, were transformed into instruments of workers’ power in 1917 - ‘the only possible form of revolutionary government’. The Soviets were extended into the military by worker-agitators. The flood of deserters back to the villages had soon led to popular centres of power appearing in the countryside. With support from the Soviet government, instead of burning and looting, as earlier peasants revolts had done, the Peasants’ Soviet took hold of the land and redistributed it.
The Revolution declared International Women’s Day as a public holiday in the USSR, in recognition of the struggle of women in the Russian workers’ movement and in particular to mark the role of women in the overthrow of the Czarist autocracy, with the heroic actions begun on International Women’s Day in 1917.
The Bolsheviks’ attitude to the emancipation of women was expressed in this way by Lenin:
‘Education, culture, civilisation, freedom - all these high-sounding words are accompanied in all the capitalist, bourgeois republics of the world with incredibly foul, disgustingly vile, bestially crude laws that make women unequal in marriage and divorce, that make the child born out of wedlock and the legally born child unequal and that give privileges to the male and humiliate and degrade womankind.
‘The yoke of capital, the oppression of sacred private property, the despotism of Philistine obtuseness, the avarice of the property owner - these are the things that have prevented the most democratic bourgeois republics from abolishing these foul and filthy laws.
‘The Soviet Republic, the republic of workers and peasants, wiped out these laws at one stroke and did not leave standing a single stone of the edifice of bourgeois lies and bourgeois hypocrisy.
‘Down with this lie! Down with liars who speak about freedom and equality for all, while there is an oppressed sex, oppressing classes, private ownership ...
‘Freedom and equality for the oppressed sex!’ 
A decree issued in January 1918, by Alexandre Kollontai, Commissar for Social Welfare declared:
‘Capitalist morality allowed the existence of children’s homes with their incredible overcrowding and high mortality rate, forced women to suckle the children of others and to foster out their own, and trampled on the emotions of the working mother, turning the citizen-mother into the role of a dumb animal to be milked. Russia is fortunate that all these nightmares have, with the victory of the workers and peasants, disappeared into the gloom of the past. A morning as pure and bright as the children has dawned’ 
The Revolution immediately granted women full economic and political rights. Recognising that many of the burdens faced by women derive from their role as bearers and carers of children, the Revolution set out to make this task a social responsibility.
Community kitchens and laundries, as well as some model communes, were established very soon after the Revolution. Abortion was legalised and the process of divorce, formerly unavailable to women, was reduced to a legal formality.
‘The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, school and hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organisations, film theatres, etc.
‘The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring women, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters’ 
In January 1919, invitations to the First Congress of the new Communist International were sent out to 39 workers organisations across the world . The invitation was written by Leon Trotsky, Commissar for War. Trotsky had built the Red Army in less than a year and by the time the Armistice was signed to end the First World War, the Red Army was fighting fourteen invading Imperialist armies on five fronts. The call went out, to establish a new International, to defend the Soviet Republic and to build revolutionary workers’ parties in Europe, Britain, America and the oppressed colonies of the East.
News of the Russian Revolution spread across the world. The inspiration it gave to workers and oppressed people everywhere changed politics forever. Those who had opposed the treachery of the ‘social chauvinists’ during the war were the first to rally to its cause. The First Congress in February 1919 had delegates from 33 countries, the Second in July 1920, from 37 countries. At the Congress of Peoples of the East, held in Baku in September 1920, Zinoviev summoned 1,900 delegates from liberation movements across the world to a ‘holy war’ against imperialism. The Third Congress of the Communist International, in June 1921, brought together delegates from 48 countries. In all of these countries there was now a Communist Party.
The German working class rose in revolt one year after the Russian Revolution. The German Communist Party was founded in December 1918, amidst an escalating general strike which soon turned into a spontaneous insurrection.
In December 1920, the majority of the French Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Communist International, and the young Ho Chi Minh participated in this decision.
In Australia, the Hands Off Russia campaign, supported by all the left groups, brought unprecedented unity to the socialist movement. Writings of the Bolsheviks which had reached Australia, chiefly the New Communist Manifesto and Left-Wing Communism - An Infantile Disorder, were eagerly published and widely read. Russian emigrés in Australia helped explain the Bolsheviks’ policies. The Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) tried to send a delegate to the first Congress, but this was blocked by the government. Paul Freeman, a member of the Australian Socialist Party attended the Second Congress but only as an individual. It was not until the Third Congress that a properly constituted delegation from Australia managed to participate. This included J Howie and Jock Garden of the NSW Labor Council, William Paisley Earsman, a VSP member and a founder of the Victorian Labor College, A Rees and P Lamb, unionists from Broken Hill and ASP members.
Whilst the Wars of Intervention raged, the Communist Party of Australia was founded in October 1920. The Party brought together the Sydney-based Australian Socialist Party with the pro-Bolshevik group of the Victorian Socialist Party centred around the Labor College and Andrade’s Bookshop (Guido Baracchi and others), Jock Garden’s ‘Trades Hall Reds’, IWW members such as Tom Glynn, the Russian Workers Association, the leader of the Seaman’s Union and others such as Adela Pankhurst.
Elsewhere, in Indonesia, the Social-Democratic Association built by Henk Sneevliet among Dutch ex-patriot workers, had already made a turn to the anti-colonial mass movement, Sarekat Islam. When news of the victory of the workers in backward Russia reached Indonesia, the best elements of this new party drew revolutionary conclusions! The ISDV began setting up Soviets and within three months had 3,000 members.
The Bolsheviks well understood that they could not survive without a revolution in the West. Russia was an economically backward, peasant country. The working class had made the revolution but it was only a minority in a peasantry country, culturally backward and ill-prepared to run the country. The Russian workers urgently needed the workers of Europe to come to their aid - in the short term, to halt the imperialist armies now moving against the Revolution, but more importantly, in the long term, to establish the basis for the development of a world-wide, advanced, socialist economy.
The workers and peasants had had to overthrow the Provisional Government in order to end the slaughter at the Front.
Having put an end to the War, should the Russian workers have handed power back to the bourgeoisie? Could the workers have shared power with the bourgeoisie in a capitalist economy? The bloody answer to these questions was given by the bourgeoisie in the course of the Wars of Intervention.
Recently, some people on the Left have called for a return to Kautsky, by which they mean that the Bolsheviks should never have attempted to build a workers’ state in Russia, but should have turned their backs upon the Revolution and waited for Socialism to find its way through the workers of Europe and America. Frank Hardy, for instance, recently said in a radio interview:
‘All the conditions that led to the sort of ideas that made the Russian Revolution are still here today. But I think that it would have better if the Russian Revolution had never happened. Socialism would be in better shape today if it hadn’t happened. But it did’.
But the perspective of the Russian Revolution was never to build socialism in Russia. In 1917 the Soviets held effective political power. To have stood aside would have meant a fascist regime of Byzantine cruelty. To take and to hold power meant a proletarian dictatorship. No other choice existed. All hope rested on the fate of the European Revolution. The urgent task of the Bolsheviks was to assist the European working class to build a leadership capable of leading that revolution.