The Russian Revolution Revisited

Susan Weissman

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION is dead. The last of its veterans and contemporaries are gone, and the working class of today has little or no connection to the revolutionary movements of the inter-war generation that were inspired by the Russian Revolution.  Revolutionary leftists may still debate the “Russian Question,” but the workers and students of the present have little idea what the quarrels are about.

Journalists, academics and pundits treat the entire Soviet experience parenthetically, even in the former Soviet Union.  A prominent academic there recently told me that the failure of the Gorbachevist reformers was their obsession with re-evaluating the revolution, discussing Stalin’s role and other such “questions of theory” which blinded them to the opportunities in front of their faces.  (He added, they were still wedded to “guarantees .  .  .  I’ll take opportunities over guarantees any day!”)

The Russian Revolution is a threat.  Paradoxically, while the current generation is ignorant about Marxism and the Russian Revolution, has been raised to revere money and-even when critical of actually existing capitalism-to resign itself to cynicism and individual solutions (even ineffective and unsatisfactory ones), the ruling class seems obsessed with the legacy of the revolution.

Eighty years after the October, 1917 Revolution and nearly seven years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book review sections of the newspapers of record abound with new documents or books testifying to the despotic, dictatorial and terroristic intentions of the Bolsheviks.  As in past decades, falsification (or trivialization) of history is the order of the day.

This begs the question, especially given the seemingly triumphalist attitude of the world capitalist class today: Why the need for such a campaign against a dead revolution?  The reasons, it seems, are not entirely different today than they were in the 1930s-though most of the falsifying of history in that decade came from the Stalinist dictatorship itself.  History itself is dangerous, because it threatens material and psychological interests.

What was true in the twenties and thirties is also threateningly true today: The immense crisis of the modern world forcefully puts the question of socialism on the agenda, yet coincides with an astonishing poverty of socialist thought, helped along by the consistent distortions of history.

Despite what it turned into, the Russian Revolution was a transcendent historic event: It advanced the demands of the French Revolution for liberty, equality, and fraternity-conscious demands to end human alienation, which were subverted by the exploitative form of wage-labor-into mandates for human emancipation with the goal of ending exploitation, abolishing wage-labor and dismantling hierarchy.

While the revolution was destroyed by Stalin, and the epoch thus transformed into one of Stalinism instead of socialism, the important point is that there was, for a time, a working class in power.  Although the opponents of the revolution have always tried to prove it was simply a coup d’etat, the evidence shows that the revolution was supported by the mass of Petrograd workers as well as the majority of workers in the (Tsarist) Russian Empire.  (See, for example, Alexander Rabinowich’s work The Bolsheviks Come to Power, as well as important recent studies by David Mandel on the Petrograd workers and the classic works of Isaac Deutscher.)

However short-lived the period when workers exercised power, the fact remains that they did: They overthrew the bourgeoisie, threatening capitalism in the world.  The reaction to the Russian Revolution, as well as its own evolution/destruction, constitutes the epoch we live in-and in this sense it can still be said that we live in the epoch of the actuality of the revolution.

The Russian Revolution is alive. It is kept alive by its critics-including the army of academics and so-called intellectuals, publicists and professional politicians who focus vehement and dishonest diatribes against the Russian Revolution, concluding that the Bolsheviks, a small conspiratorial party, pulled off a successful coup d’etat-that the Bolsheviks’ intent, from the outset, was to impose a Stalinist dictatorship on the working class.

The aim of the current crop of critics is not just to bury the Russian Revolution but to vilify, revile and abuse it. Inasmuch as the guardians of capitalist political correctness still denigrate the Russian Revolution and demonize Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, socialists still have to refute the lies of the new/old literature and clear the record.

Apparently the example of a mass movement based on the working class that successfully overthrew capitalism and sought to develop a new workers’ state of associated soviets or councils is still very threatening-even if it didn’t get very far.

The works of Dimitri Volkogonov and Richard Pipes,[1] despite access to secret archives, add very little new insight to their anti-revolutionary forebears.[2].  Then there is the work of Orlando Figes, who has portrayed the Bolsheviks and Lenin in particular as the Hells Angels of their day. In The Russian Revolution: A People’s Tragedy Figes explains:

Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles-it was all part of the macho culture, you know the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action, the cult of violence-that was the essence of Bolshevism.[3]

This book takes character assassination to new highs when describing Lenin, who is depicted as evil embodied, described with adjectives like “barking, militaristic, manic, violent, cruel and angry,” who saw the masses only as instruments, yet was personally a coward.

The noted ex-communist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “Figes’ book is going to be the standard work on the Russian Revolution.” Martin Malia called it “the key in the much needed revision of revisionism.”

Given the lopsided weight of the capitalist class at present, it seems like overkill to once again revile a revolutionary experience they are so pleased has been defeated! In all their triumphalism, are they frightened these `horrible’ ideas might still find receptive ears around the globe?  Or does the collapse of the USSR, painted as the natural outcome of `Leninism,’ allow the capitalist ideologues free reign to ridicule what they see as the vanquished?

Whatever the complex of reasons, all scholarship to the contrary is ignored, and a single interpretative view of the Russian Revolution has emerged the world over-that it was an evil, ill-intentioned enterprise from start to finish.  This is the way it is being taught, and new histories from within the former Soviet Union echo this line.

The revival of the myths surrounding the Russian Revolution waste no time with such vexing questions as how the revolutionary promise in the Soviet Union was destroyed-not by something innate in Marxism, but by the rise of a social group headed by Stalin, who created a concentration camp universe and unashamedly called it a workers’ paradise.  Writers who did bother with such questions, as Victor Serge did, don’t get much attention.

The difficult questions for students and partisans of the Russian Revolution: What did the Bolsheviks seek to do, what did they do and how did it turn out?

The Russian Revolution opened up a new historical epoch, and was greeted with enthusiasm by workers around the world.  Now the revolution was an actuality, not simply a hope or a threat, as a huge country broke from international capitalism.

Serge recalled that revolutionaries from all over the world flocked to the new Russia, “leaving the void, and entering the kingdom of will…where life is beginning anew, where conscious will, intelligence, and an inexorable love of mankind are in action.” (Memoirs, 67)

What set the Bolsheviks apart from the other socialist tendencies of the time was that they put their words into action-they represented the unity of word and deed-which made them far more threatening than resolution-passing social democrats.

This didn’t mean they made the revolution “in place of” the masses, as in the persistent myth of the violent coup carried out by the despotic, conspiratorial Bolsheviks who did not enjoy popular support, and whose action destroyed a nascent democracy.  The strength of that myth is that it is required for the October 1917 revolution to be discredited.

In historical fact, the revolution was a genuine expression of mass sentiment and action by the majority of workers and peasants.  The reality that the Bolshevik Party was the political organization which best expressed that sentiment, made the Bolsheviks revolutionaries at the time of revolution.  Yet in the first months of the revolution, the Bolsheviks usually simply endorsed initiatives already taken by the masses.

Hence, for example, the decree of November 14 invited the workers to “use their own committees to control the production, accounting and financing of the firms they work in.” One need only read the journalistic account of eyewitness John Reed to confirm Serge’s assertion that the so-called “Bolshevik conspiracy was literally carried into power by a colossal and rising wave of public sentiment.”[4]

Then there is the myth that Bolsheviks wanted to establish dictatorial one-party state with the use of terror.  The Bolsheviks took power in the context of the crumbling Russian empire-Tsarism collapsed with the February insurrection of unarmed workers, soldiers and peasants-and in October the Bolsheviks prevailed because they best expressed the aspirations of the mobilized masses, who demanded bread, land, peace.  “Land to the peasants, factories to the toilers, and end to the world war.”

Another myth was that the Bolsheviks wanted to establish a monopoly on state power-when in fact they were most concerned about the danger of being isolated in power, and invited like-minded revolutionary parties (the Left Social Revolutionaries) to share power with them.

In the early days soviet democracy prevailed, land and factories were turned over to peasant and worker soviets, the debt was canceled, the banks, trusts and cartels were nationalized, the new Soviet Union conducted a separate peace with Germany and withdrew from the war. They called the peace a “workers peace, directed against all the capitalists.”[5]

The revolutionary program was being implemented with the aim to create a `people’s autocracy,’ democratic to the core, in which the police and standing army were to be replaced by the armed people.  The destruction of the revolution’s early progress began with the Civil War, brought on by the world bourgeoisie-a long and bloody conflict in which seven million died, in contrast with the relatively bloodless revolution.

The Civil War brought the end to soviet democracy, opening a period in which the Bolsheviks instituted red terror, brought back the death penalty, instituted `war communism,’ banned opposition parties, began requisitioning of peasants’ grain.  In short, Civil War forced measures that destroyed much of the revolution.

The Bolsheviks won the Civil War, because they were able to mobilize the people against the fourteen invading armies and the White `contras’ of the day. The world bourgeoisie lost the battle but won the overall class war of the time, successfully preventing further revolutions and completely isolating the Russian Revolution.

Neither the revolution nor the victory in the Civil War would have been possible if it were the work of a small band of conspirators.  The objective conditions in Russia were favorable for the taking of power, but the same conditions meant that moving to socialism was impossible if the revolution was isolated.

The choking of soviet democracy, even the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion were not planned, but were improvised emergency measures in response to a crisis situation.  Trotsky often said that it was “easier to come to power in Russia than move toward socialism.”

The Bolsheviks adopted authoritarian practices in the Civil War that undermined their democratic goals.  They did so because of the need to preserve the revolution in the face of reaction and the fear of annihilation; because they trusted only themselves in power; and because of their international vision that the German revolution was more important than their own-since it had a better chance of advancing socialism in the world (Lenin, 1918).

They needed Germany and the West. Preobrazhensky, who put forward the theory of primitive socialist accumulation, admitted that without extension of the revolution in the West, they were doomed.  They weren’t wrong to believe their revolution was merely the first in a world revolutionary process: From 1918-1920 revolutionary crises rocked Europe’s capitals.

But the German revolution, the Finnish and Hungarian Communes, all the insurrectionary general strikes went down to defeat.  These defeats showed that the world bourgeoisie learned more from the Russian revolution than the world working class.  Afterwards Stalin actively aided the defeats of subsequent revolutionary crises.

The mentality of the Bolsheviks changed in power and they valued political pluralism less than survival.  They adopted a state of siege stance against their internal opponents and were not only isolated in the world, but in the Soviet Union itself.  The post-Civil War reality was that the advanced revolutionary workers had been killed in the Civil War; Bolshevism now governed a mass of war-weary, semi-literate peasants in a world in which the revolutionary advance had been halted.

In this atmosphere a new social group, the bureaucracy, was able to grow inside the state and the Party, supporting and being supported by Stalin.  Had the Party remained democratic this might have been delayed; had Lenin and Trotsky fought against the bureaucracy from the first, they might have prevented Stalin from coming to power.

Had the Bolsheviks created strong institutions of workers’ democracy they might have inspired more revolutions in the West, though they could not have lasted long isolated in power, representing a constituency that was not the majority in society.  But Lenin died, and Trotsky saw the main danger in Bukharin, not Stalin.

Stalin in 1924 adopted Bukharin’s “socialism in one country” thesis as a way to politically defeat the Left. After 1927, he turned on Bukharin.  Isolated in the world, the surviving revolution was slowly imploding.

The Bolsheviks came up with a way to defeat capitalism in Russia, but were unable to overthrow capital in the world.  The capitalist class had learned from the soviet experience and refined various ways to deter revolution.  The workers’ movement failed internationally, which precipitated the defeat of Bolshevism itself at the hands of the narrow, nationalistic and brutal policies of the Stalin counter-revolution.

Stalin by the 1930s was faced with the isolated and backward Soviet Union and decided to move forward through forced collectivization and industrialization, using terror.  In the process tens of millions were killed during peacetime.  Stalin could only enforce his program by wiping out all opposition; the system was highly unstable, resting on coercion alone.

The purges proceeded from an internal dynamic set in motion by Stalin’s methods of industrialization and his reaction to resistance.  The purges themselves created new social relations of power.  None of the basic problems of the society were resolved at the end of the terror for which millions paid with their lives.  All forms of collective resistance were broken, and any residual resistance atomized as the weary population concerned itself with survival, not politics.

From 1927 until 1937-that is, from the time the Left Opposition was expelled and repressed until the massive bloodletting of the great terror-the remaining revolutionary generation struggled against totalitarianism, while the counterrevolutionary regime fought its own people in the form of forced collectivization, crash industrialization, famine, deportation and execution.

The founders of the revolution, who favored early industrialization and gradual collectivization, democratic planning, militant internationalism, democratization of Party and society and a fight against bureaucratization, passed (in Serge’s words) from “power into prison, deportation and death.”

The Stalin counter-revolution was the bloodiest takeover in history, made more so by the tenacious resistance of a revolutionary generation which Stalin had to eliminate in order to consolidate his regime.

The new State, which Stalin created in the name of socialism, was reactionary in every way with respect to the ideals of the revolution.  Serge called it “a Marxism of dead slogans born in offices [which] took the place of a critical Marxism of thinking men.”

Rather than having a consistent plan or direction, Stalin responded to peasant resistance by forcibly collectivizing them at the expense of agriculture, which led to artificially induced famine.  Workers were super-exploited by the draconian conditions of breakneck industrialization; dedicated revolutionaries in the Party were scattered, to be replaced by bureaucratic careerists who parroted the “general line.”

The new system was neither socialist nor capitalist, neither plan nor market.  “Socialism in one country” meant that the resources for industrialization would have to be drawn from within, which meant that the population had to be squeezed.  To impose this system, rapid industrial development was ultimately linked to terror.

In the absence of market control, terror became an integral component of disciplining both the work force and the intelligentsia in a system of command.  Terror and later the threat and memory of terror became the method of social control.  The bureaucratic ruling group which emerged with Stalin at the center acted to maintain power and attempted to control the economic mechanism, lacking either the tools of capitalism (unemployment) or socialism (workers control).

Trotsky later understood that the USSR existed at a high level of contradiction and could not persist without changing; but he had the timetable wrong, thinking the system wouldn’t survive World War II. It survived another forty-five years, developing into a conservative, authoritarian, bureaucratic society, which decomposed and finally unraveled in 1991.

The Russian Bolsheviks, German Spartacists and their revolutionary comrades around the world fought for revolution and fought to prevent the global cataclysm that became fascism, WWII, and everything that followed.  They recognized the crisis of capitalism and understood the cataclysm was on the agenda.

As Serge said, “They were moved by a great will to liberation.  Anyone who rubbed shoulders with them will never forget it. Few men in history have ever been so devoted to the cause of men as a whole.” (Memoirs, 317-318)

While the aftermath of the Russian revolution-the Soviet experience-turned out to be the greatest disaster for Marxism in this century of barbarism, the situation today is immeasurably better for its demise.

Stalinism was the monstrous weed that grew from the first revolution.  Worse, the very tools for overthrowing the Stalinists were usurped by the new oppressors, using the language of liberation against those who resisted.

Moreover, the Stalinist dictatorship gave the international capitalist class a tool to use against the working class.  The Cold War was beneficial and functional for each of its contestants, both of whom had a vested interest in labeling the Soviet system as Marx’s vision of communism.  That most of the world still believes it to be so is part of the legacy of Stalinism.

Indeed, it’s because this essential prop for capitalism has disintegrated that the intellectual apparatus of capitalism has swung into high gear to continually remind the world working class, lest they forget and take up the lead provided by the French working class in their strikes of 1995.

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable.  Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes.  On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force.  With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return.  Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist?  Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism.  It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution.  It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

Serge said near the end of his life that we socialists “should not be too discouraged if we see clearly why and how we have been beaten.  After all, we are used to it, we know that we must be the defeated for a long time in order no longer to be so one day. And we have, in spite of everything, enough victories behind us to keep us going, provided we don’t renounce the compass Marx has left to us.” [6]

The current capitalist offensive demonstrates that capital needs an epochal defeat of the working class, and hasn’t been able to achieve it. The current crop of books and reappraisals of the Russian Revolution are simply accompaniments to that effort.  There are grounds for optimism.

The work of the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks deserves salutation, not excoriation.  The legacy of their struggle deserves emulation.  We should heed the words of an Oppositionist in Stalin’s prison in 1930 who wrote: “we shall serve as manure to fertilize the earth in which after us new human harvests of the revolution will spring up.”

While it is much easier to examine and re-evaluate the past and oppose it, it is much harder to envision the future.  That is the challenge and the imperative.


  1. Dimitry Volkogonov, Lenin, Life and Legacy (London, 1994); Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 (London, 1990) and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924 (London, 1994).
  2. As Sam Farber has shown in his review of Volkogonov’s Lenin in Against the Current 63, and my own note on Volkogonov’s Trotsky in the same issue.
  3. Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1998) 389.
  4. Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972) 95.
  5. This caused great dissension within the Party, as many viewed the treaty as the `peace of shame’ because it involved trading land for peace.  It also broke up the alliance with the Left SRs, who advocated `revolutionary war’ at a time when the fragile revolutionary state faced the real danger of disintegration.
  6. “What Is Fascism?” Partison Review, VII, #5, Sept.-Oct.  1941.

Susan Weissman in an editor of Against the Current and of the journal Critique, and author of Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, forthcoming from Verso.  She travels frequently to Russia for historical and political research.

ATC 75, July-August 1998

1 comment

  1. How the once pure worker ideals were twisted by a brutal dictator is well summarized in this post. The political decision over the decentralization of collective farms changed the course of history. The hardliners who won wanted centralized, state – controlled farms, which bred famine and distrust, while the “moderates ” wanted to decentraluze. The workers and peasants simply replaced one form of control (the czarist empire) for another (Stalinism).

Comments are closed.