The Russian Revolution and Workers Democracy

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

Suzi Weissman

Armed soldiers carry a banner reading ‘Communism’, Nikolskaya street, Moscow, October 1917 (via Wikimedia Commons)

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION of February and October 1917 opened up a new historical epoch, and was greeted with enthusiasm by workers around the world. Never before had workers come close to winning power, though many participated in political life in the Social Democratic parties of Western Europe.

Suddenly, in Russia, revolution was an actuality, not simply a hope or a threat. Victor Serge described the intoxicating power of that moment as one where “life is beginning anew, where conscious will, intelligence, and an inexorable love of mankind are in action.”

The unique element at the heart of the Russian revolutionary process was its revolutionary working class — and the democratic form of self-organization that it created in struggle that made the idea and reality of power possible. Urban workers led and dominated the opposition to the old order and ultimately brought into being — for the first time in world history — a workers state, albeit in embryonic form.

The movement toward revolution by the working class was facilitated, perhaps paradoxically, by the underdeveloped nature of Russian society compared to the West. There was little in Tsarist Russia of the highly evolved civil society that had developed over many centuries in Western Europe.

The autocracy did not allow freely contested elections to a parliament with the ability to legislate, nor legal political parties, nor minimal formal liberties of speech, assembly and press. Nor did Russia possess the legal mass reformist parties with their parliamentary delegations, trade union leaderships and radical newspapers, not to mention sports clubs, popular theaters and the like, that played such a central role in the West’s working-class politics.

The virtual non-existence in Russia of these networks was to an important degree because Russia lacked a mature capitalist class — the sort of bourgeoisie that had elsewhere, over time, thrown up the institutions of civil society made possible by capitalist productivity and economic surpluses.

Consequently the working class in Tsarist Russia could carry the revolution forward with stunning speed relative to the more developed capitalist world, but only to the degree it built its own power through creating and expanding the political sway of profoundly democratic forms of self-government. The working class could make the revolution because it could win a political majority. Beginning in the urban centers of Petrograd and Moscow and then rolling across the empire, it overthrew the old order and brought to power authentically revolutionary mass institutions.

But this ended up being the limit of its power. It then faced a series of obstacles — objective conditions — that it could only overcome through non-democratic means. To the extent the Russian working class sought to take the revolution beyond this point, it could do so only by leaving behind its vibrant institutions of workers democracy. And to the degree it left workers democracy behind, it undermined the effective foundations of its own rule.

As workers democracy was progressively weakened, the revolutionary regime was undermined, transformed, and ultimately supplanted by its opposite — a bureaucratic authoritarian, terroristic tyranny. The evisceration of the workers’ councils, it turned out, traced the path of the revolution’s ascent, decline and defeat from within.

Workers’ Self-Organization and Power

When the Russian working class came to power with the slogan “all power to the soviets,” workers around the world greeted the revolution with jubilation — because it represented their broadest aspirations, “a new democracy of free workers, such as had never before been seen.” (Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, 1937, 22)

In the frontline cities of Petrograd and Moscow, Tashkent and Kazan, and in the provinces from Tula to Tambov, Ryazan to Kaluga, in the networks of railroads across the country, hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers (“the toiling masses”) took their fate into their own hands. They organized collectively at the level of industry, agriculture and garrisons, forming committees and councils to fight their bosses and the Tsarist regime.

In the process, they created innovative forms of self-rule: workers’ councils, peasants’ councils, soldiers’ councils — soviets in Russian parlance. This new democratic form of self-organization arose spontaneously and quickly blossomed independently from the existing political parties, distinguishing the Russian revolutionary process from the beginning and inspiring working people around the world.

The soviets had made their first appearance in 1905, and were swiftly adopted as an organizing tool by workers around the globe as a higher form of political organization for the working class. Soviets were organized democratically, joined voluntarily, enjoyed freedom of speech and representation for various political currents and were hotbeds of revolutionary ferment.

The soviets became the workers’ state in embryo, functioning as an alternative government, an organ of self-government and working-class power. This was an historic upheaval — and a significant step forward for concretizing democracy — because it meant that the parties had to compete for workers’ allegiance in a common political arena. Russian workers developed their politics, their leaderships, and their power to fight the employers and the state at the same time.

The defeat of the revolution of 1905 initially threw the country into a period of deep reaction driven by counter-revolution. This period of political stasis and decline, however, was short-lived. Powered especially by the military buildup that reflected the intensification of inter-imperialist rivalry leading up to World War I, the spectacular growth of heavy industry led to a rapid and tumultuous expansion of the urban working class.

This new industrial working class, recruited from the countryside, was concentrated in coal, iron, steel and military equipment. As a result, the terrain of struggle for working-class democracy and power between the two revolutions of 1905 and 1917 shifted to industrial workers. Particularly during the 1912-1914 period came an enormous growth of workers’ struggles and strikes.

As the trade union struggle became the chief school for working-class democratization, radicalism and revolutionary politics, the Bolsheviks displayed their capacity to dynamize and lead the struggle. By the outbreak of the war, the Bolsheviks had secured a strong political majority in the trade union movement. This became the springboard for their politically winning over the urban working class in 1917.

Tsarist Russia’s entry into World War I, accompanied by “delirious patriotism,” temporarily ended labor’s dynamism, but by 1917 the horrors of war mowed down an entire generation of young men — military defeats, death and maiming on the battlefield, widespread hunger and diseases resulting from the disruption of the economy, and the general destabilization of everyday life served to provoke a new upsurge.

More than three million soldiers were killed. When the empire collapsed with the abdication of the Tsar in February, the Russian people, armed with guns from the war, were ready to fight for power.

April Theses: “All Power to the Soviets”

The Revolution of 1917 took up where the Revolution of 1905 left off; it was from start to finish a story of workers’ initiatives to amass and ultimately take power. The mobilized masses had become increasingly combative and turned toward revolution as the Russian empire crumbled, unleashing all the political and economic difficulties of military defeat.

By February 1917 there were strikes and a huge mass rising, with workers taking to the streets and calling for an end to the incompetent autocracy they could no longer tolerate. They demanded bread, land, and peace. This encapsulated their grievances: exhausted from the war, the shortage of bread and the incomplete emancipation of the peasants from serfdom.

They poured into central Petrograd and overthrew the Tsar and his regime. The urban working-class revolution expanded its democratic base by winning the support of the peasants because it overthrew the rule of the Tsar and the feudal aristocracy, and because the Bolsheviks advanced popular demands for land, bread and peace.

But the overthrow of the autocracy posed in acute fashion the problem of the nature of the revolution in progress and what was to be its outcome. Almost overnight a situation called “dual power” emerged.

At one pole, replacing the Tsarist regime, a new provisional government began to meet, bringing together all the forces favoring order and property — liberal nobles, professionals, bourgeoisie. At the opposite pole were the workers’ councils, and specifically the Petrograd Soviet, directly representing the radical revolutionizing working class. In March 1917, all forces in play in the soviets agreed, at least in formal terms, that what was on the agenda was the “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But what did that mean?

The Bolsheviks, who played a central role in the February revolution, stuck to the Marxist orthodoxy to which they had committed themselves a decade earlier — the revolution would be “bourgeois democratic” (i.e. not an immediate assault on capitalist production and property). But they appreciated the paradoxical character of this notion in the Russian case, given the limited extent and cramped manner in which capitalism had developed there.

Capitalist industry developed under the auspices of, and was politically dependent upon, the old regime: in particular, the military industry was directly driven by the state. At the same time, the capitalist class oversaw an industrial sector that had a distinctly modern form — no longer the small businesses of artisans and shopkeepers who, in earlier times, had ultimately seen it in their interest to defend private property.

This meant the bourgeoisie in Russia had to confront an unprecedentedly radical proletariat aiming to overthrow private property. The capitalists were in essence anti-revolutionary. They identified with the old order; opposed even their own “bourgeois democratic revolution” in any form; and, following the February overthrow of the Tsar, were dead set on restoring the old political regime in some form.

In fact, the liberals in the provisional government had the goal of ceding power to the old monarchy — demanding merely that it be constitutional. The working class was thus the only social force that could make the revolution, and push the democratic revolution to its limit in a manner totally opposed by the bourgeoisie itself — free elections, free speech, the right of free propaganda, the eight-hour day. This is in fact what it did.

But there was a problem implicit in the notion of a bourgeois revolution carried out against the bourgeoisie by the working class, a problem clearly articulated by Leon Trotsky. There was no place for a “bourgeois democratic” society to emerge “between” the old regime and workers power.

The bourgeoisie was not numerous, and in political terms had virtually ceased to function once the February Revolution and subsequent abdication of the Tsar had taken place. This left the working class to carry out the tasks of development supposedly reserved for a democratic revolution. The liberal nobles, capitalists and professionals were in opposition and in any case lacked the capital, skills and will to do so.

The working class had no choice, Trotsky argued, but to establish working-class power in order to consolidate the democratic revolution, overthrowing the bourgeoisie in the process. However since the bourgeoisie would oppose working-class power at every turn, the only way to insure workers’ democratic rule would be to abolish bourgeois property. This impelled the working class to establish revolutionary governance. If it tried to stop the process before it had destroyed the material foundations of the old ruling classes, it would be crushed by domestic reaction.(1)

When Lenin returned from Swiss exile, the essence of Trotsky’s conception was presented in concrete political terms before him. Arriving at the Finland station in Petrograd, Lenin understood that the revolution now required recognizing that the power of the soviets was everything [they held the power, the provisional government did not], hence the demand “All Power to the Soviets.” He dared the soviets to seize power, but the Bolsheviks’ Pravda disavowed him, as did most party leaders. Not so the workers in the streets, factories and barracks who eagerly agreed: Lenin had expressed, as no other politician had, what they wanted to hear.

Within three weeks Lenin had a majority in the party, and the program was for power, a democratic proletarian and peasant soviet republic, with the hegemony of the working class at its center.(2)

October 1917: Workers Come to Power

The standard view in the West, central to discrediting the October Revolution, is that it was just a violent coup by the minority Bolshevik leadership who had manipulated their way to power, overturning a nascent democracy, mobilizing the working class behind them like soldiers following their officers.

The overwhelming evidence from a century of in-depth historical scholarship shows otherwise. Political life within the Bolshevik party and its leadership, as in the soviets, was intensely collective and democratic with tendencies appearing and disappearing with rise, resolution and new appearance of disagreements. The Bolsheviks were able to succeed precisely because they were organized not in a top-down, militarist way but in a highly decentralized manner. They could respond immediately to workers’ initiatives and integrate large numbers rapidly into their ranks.

From this vantage point, the Bolsheviks prevailed not because they could direct the workers’ movement from above but because, as result of their capacity to represent the working class in every changing phase of struggle, they could quickly respond to workers’ shifting demands, objectives and moods.

Worker activists made the Bolshevik party their organization, even as these militants  collaborated on the ground with worker members of other parties. The Bolsheviks came to represent the working class at its most creative and radical, when the class could actually shape the party to its needs. They expressed the aspirations of the workers and potential for power. Their popularity grew from the confidence they earned, as their words and actions were debated democratically in the soviets and discussed on the streets.

The tactical and strategic skill of Lenin and Trotsky was crucial to the victorious revolution, but they were only first among comrades, their leadership and that of the Bolsheviks based on the effectiveness of their activity. As Victor Serge described it, the revolution triumphed because of the soviets, dual power and a party of capable leaders who understood the historical moment, could “see reality, grasp possibility, and conceive the action which [would be] the link between the real and the possible.” (Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 58.)

So crucial was the place of workers self-rule in the unfolding of the revolution that, on the eve of taking power, Lenin was moved to theorize it in State and Revolution, written in August and Sep­tember 1917. Looking back to the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 for the model of workers’ direct democracy, he captured the spirit and goal of revolution from below. He saw in the soviets the political form for realizing the direct, democratic rule of the producers. Once in power every worker can learn to directly administer the state. i.e., “every cook can govern.”

Trotsky, the twice-elected president of the Petrograd Soviet (1905 and 1917), understood the nature of its revolutionary form and saw its role in democratically coordinating the actions of the proletariat in its struggle for revolutionary power.

The argument that the revolution was the work of a small conspiracy who intended to establish a monopoly of power for themselves from the outset, is easily refuted. The Bolshevik party democratically won majorities for their program in the soviets in the months leading to October, and on that basis assumed the leadership of the workers and urban society.

At the same time, Bol­sheviks succeeded in winning the support of the rank and file of the army — organized in soldiers’ soviets — depriving the Kerensky provisional government of the means of coercion to sustain its rule and constituting the vehicle for the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class. The Russian Revolution was undeniably the most radical ever. In the early months, direct democracy prevailed. Far from dictating to the population, the Bolsheviks typically endorsed initiatives already taken by the masses.

One 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,” a call for workers to turn their occupations of workplaces into workers’ control and workers’ ownership. Land and factories were turned over to peasant and worker soviets, the debt was canceled, and banks, trusts and cartels were nationalized.

Whittling Down Democracy

The Bolshevik party had led the revolution in practice, legitimizing its leadership by winning formal majorities for its program in the soviets. But with its victory, it fell victim to the revolution’s structural lack of a political majority.

• In January 1918, the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revo­lutionaries took office as a minority and argued that the Constituent Assembly, which was to write the constitutional basis for the new regime, was improperly elected. Unless new elections were called, the assembly, dominated by Right SRs who opposed the soviets, should not be allowed to continue. When delegates returned for their second day in office, the doors were locked. Lenin admitted that the Constituent Assembly was, in theory, the highest expression of bourgeois democracy, but in the circumstances its composition would lead directly to counter-revolution and the restoration of some form of the old regime.

• The most pressing objective for the new revolutionary government was to make good on its program and secure peace. No reconstruction of society could be initiated without withdrawing from the imperialist world war. The debate over peace terms had to begin from recognition of the immediate threat from occupying German forces. While this debate caused substantial division in the party and society, it was also an example of the health and vitality of democracy in these early days. However, it led to divisions that had deep consequences.

The Left SRs and Left Communists argued against the “peace of shame,” as they called the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Bolshevik leaders Evgeny Preobrazhensky and Nikolai Bukharin, later to stand on opposite sides of the industrialization debates, joined with others to write the “Theses of Left Communists” — opposing the treaty and proposing to wage a revolutionary war against the Central Powers (most importantly, Germany).

Lenin maintained that the old army didn’t exist and the new one was just forming therefore that proposal was unrealistic. He said “I want to lose space in order to gain time.” That is, he was willing to give up territory to settle quickly and place his hope on revolutionary developments in the West. His critics warned against trying to preserve the revolution at any cost. Policies that led to the soviets losing their independence would result in transforming Russia from a commune state to one with ruled by a centralized bureaucracy.

Trotsky’s position, “neither peace nor war,” meant stalling for time. While it seemed to be the reverse of Lenin’s proposal, it was also based on the perspective of seeking aid from the Western proletariat.

Under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, revolutionary Russia lost Poland and the Baltic regions, as well as huge tracts of the Ukraine (27% of her sown area, 26% of her population, a third of her average crops, three-quarters of her iron and steel and 26% of her railway network). The country was forced to pay six billion gold marks in reparations.

One last horrendous consequence was that the terms of the peace sealed the sacrifice of the Finnish proletariat. The Finnish Commune went down in bloodshed in April 1918 — in part because Soviet troops had to leave the border under the treaty’s provisions. Forced to accept the harsh terms by the advance of the German army, Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

• The Civil War (1918-1921) and the military invasion by imperialist countries led to the destruction of a significant portion of the urban working class, the agent of the revolution. This long and bloody conflict, in which seven million died, is a dramatic contrast to the relatively bloodless revolution carried out against the defenders of the old order from March through October 1917.

During the Civil War (1918-21), the revolution was hemmed in from all sides: from the old order, the White armies of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, Iurii Denikin, General Yudenich and later Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel were joined by the armies of fourteen capitalist powers to blockade and strangle the revolution. But armed opposition also came from the bourgeois-liberal Kadets as well as factions of Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and even some anarchists.

By the end of the Civil War, famine and epidemic had taken hold; the economy was in ruins. The measure taken during this period, “war communism,” was described by Lenin as “thrust on us by war and ruin. It was not, nor could it be, a policy that corresponded to the economic tasks of the proletariat. It was a temporary measure.”

Direct exchange between town and country was imposed by the requisitioning of grain and direct state distribution of industrial goods under concentrated economic authority and power. Money was eliminated. Although this reaction to circumstances had nothing to do with Marxism, it became an unfortunate source of illusion about the possibility of a rapid and immediate transition to communism.

The abolition of the market was not based on material abundance and a highly developed productive base and advanced forms of democracy and citizen participation but on social disintegration, destroyed production, absolute scarcity and centralized, coercive authority. It wasn’t viable. Everyone had to use the black market, even party members. Stalin in the 1930s would borrow such methods in peacetime, and call it communism.

Ever Smaller Revolutionary Working Class

The Bolsheviks won the Civil War because they were able to mobilize the population, especially the urban proletariat, to defeat the invading armies and the White “contras” of the day. But in the brutal process of breaking their power, much of the revolutionary urban working class was destroyed.

With a return to peace, the urban working class could be reconstituted, drawn from the peasants of the nearby countryside. But how to regenerate revolutionary consciousness in a semi-literate peasantry without class traditions? Without any revolutionary practice, this new urban working class lacked revolutionary politics, and labored under conditions remote from socialist goals.

“War communism,” with forced seizures of grain and militarization of labor, had effectively put an end to democratic workers control at the enterprise level. The newly recruited working class had no say in factory management and no voice in political decision making. The revolutionary momentum was lost, as well as the frontline workers who made the revolution. Had there been elections at that point, the Bolsheviks would likely have lost.

The Bolsheviks were most afraid of being isolated in power. The Left Social Revolutionaries participated in the government with the Bolsheviks from November 1917 until July 1918. However on 6 July the Left SRs began an insurrectional revolt in Moscow, proclaiming their intention to govern alone and to “reopen the war against German imperialism.” They were defeated and from then the Bolsheviks ruled alone.

Marcel Liebman noted, “The Leninists … against their will, concentrated the whole state power in their own hands, with no share held by other socialist parties.” (Marcel Liebman, “Was Lenin a Stalinist?” in Tariq Ali [editor], The Stalinist Legacy, Penguin Books, England, 1984, 140)

What Victor Serge would call this “change of mentality” meant that the Bolsheviks moved to suppress their socialist and anarchist opponents, an act with irreversible consequences for the further development of socialist democracy. At the time, it was a defensive move given that the SRs had launched a series of terrorist attacks, killing first V. Voludarsky, then Moisei Uritsky, and had attempted to kill Lenin. Fanya Dora Kaplan, who shot Lenin, said she did it because he was responsible for dispersing the Constituent Assembly.

Soon, however, with the outbreak of Civil War and the threat to the revolution it represented, the Bolsheviks went further, banning political parties and abridging many of the basic liberties that an actually functioning democracy requires. By 1921 other parties were virtually banned, and officially so by 1924.

Revolution Isolated, Workers Power Eroded

The basis of Marx’s understanding of socialism, and in fact the common ideological patrimony of all the socialist forces in Russia — Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Left SRs — is the vision of a consciously regulated society of freely associated producers.

There was now a fundamental conundrum. The Bolsheviks, as Marxists, understood that there could be no socialism without democracy. Institutions of democratic self-rule were crucial to the rational, equitable reorganization of society with the working-class majority in control of its own destiny.

Leaders like Lenin and Trotsky understood the problem and saw it could only be overcome if the revolution spread to countries where capitalism was developed and workers were closer to being a majority. Lenin often said it was a terrible misfortune that the honor of beginning the world socialist revolution should befall backward Russia, ill-suited to move toward socialism.

The Bolsheviks understood that their revolution was the first, but it belonged to the world. It was part of a global process that couldn’t be limited to Russia. They needed Germany and the West, and knew they couldn’t survive if they were left to themselves, surrounded by reaction. If need be, Lenin later said, Russia would sacrifice its revolution for Germany because it had a better chance of advancing to socialism.

The soviets did not survive the Civil War, except in name. The working class barely existed, the country was exhausted, in crisis, and the leadership faced chaos, circumstances that did not augur well for the democratic self-governance of the working class. With society-wide democracy undermined, the soviets became de facto party committees, rubber stamp organs for the party and later the state, losing their independence and becoming lifeless, largely ceremonial institutions.

The irony (and tragedy) was that the organ of socialist democracy bequeathed to the international working class could not itself survive the aftermath of the Revolution it had been indispensable in bringing about.

The End of Inner Party Democracy

While constricting the play of formal democracy in the population, the Bolsheviks sought to continue it within the party. This too was corroding, as a more or less inevitable result of the curtailment of democracy in the society as a whole. The post-Civil War reality was that the state of siege in the society inevitably found its way into the party, as the Bolsheviks found themselves isolated in Russia itself, and in the world where a postwar revolutionary tide was ebbing.

The war, the internal measures against counter-revolution and famine, the privations of war communism and then the suppression of an early 1921 sailors’ revolt at Kronstadt(3) relegated the commune state to the status of myth. New entrants came into the party without the traditions of the “Old Bolsheviks.”

Any significant inner party faction, whether from a radical or conservative direction, that set itself against the Bolshevik majority was seen as representing dissident political forces within the broader polity. Since the Bolsheviks no longer allowed their existence outside the party, they could hardly be tolerated inside the party where they might threaten splits. Even as it adopted a New Economic Policy, making concessions to peasant interests, the party formally banned factions.

Extending the Revolution, Consequences of Failure

If socialist revolution was to be secured in the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, formally established in 1922) or begun to be realized over the longer run, it had to undertake the socio-economic prerequisites of socialism — at minimum, the industrialization of the economy so as to produce a working-class majority.

Militant workers across the West saw the Russian working class as a model and appropriated this novel, profoundly democratic form of organization, the soviet, as a new tool in the arsenal of class struggle.

Thanks especially to the centrality of the soviets in the Russian Revolution, but also to syndicalist and anarchist-led uprisings in places like Spain, direct democracy was the order to the day, entailing a critique of bourgeois electoralism and parliamentarism. Indeed, in the early years of the revolution the Bolsheviks hoped to forge alliances with revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists to serve as partners in overthrowing bourgeois rule.

In the wake of the October Revolution that brought the Russian working class to power, committees and councils appeared in sit-down strikes, general strikes, occupations and insurrections from Glasgow to Belfast, Winnipeg to Seattle, Bavaria to Barcelona. From 1918-1920 revolutionary crises rocked Europe’s capitals.

These insurrectionary general strikes, with council power, were inspired by the Russian Revolution and aimed to extend it to Europe, the Americas and beyond. But the German revolution, the Finnish and Hungarian Communes, all the insurrectionary general strikes went down to a series of defeats. In Germany, the main hope, the revolutionary possibility breathed its last in 1923.

The tragedy of the defeated revolutionary insurrections in Europe was that it threw the Russian revolutionary leadership back on its own resources, in domestic circumstances of political isolation that were decreasingly favorable for pushing the revolution forward.

The strangling of soviet democracy, even the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, was hardly on the agenda of the Bolsheviks as they went about securing “all power to the soviets.” But as the Bolsheviks adopted emergency authoritarian practices in reaction to the brutality of the Civil War, and afterward to defend the revolution in power, bit by bit they transformed themselves politically and the revolution itself.

In this way they preserved the revolution in the face of reaction and the fear of annihilation, but left it as a dying plant in the eyes of the world, including other revolutionaries. The paradox was that the Bolsheviks used anti-democratic, anti-socialist methods to preserve themselves in power, trusting only themselves among all the political tendencies to be committed to the international revolution, to see the world advance to socialism as their only hope for survival.

But in undermining the democratic and socialist foundations of their own rule, they ended up greatly reducing the attractiveness of their revolution to the world’s radical working classes — improving the conditions for the counter-revolution that would be perpetually pursued by the international ruling classes.

The contradictions facing the Bolsheviks in seeking to expand the Russian Revolution — to create the conditions that would ultimately allow them to consolidate working-class rule on a democratic basis — manifested themselves with force and clarity in the one instance where they attempted to provoke a soviet revolution through military intervention abroad.

After turning back a Polish incursion into Russia (conveniently forgotten in conventional historical accounts), Lenin’s attempt to march on Warsaw in Poland in 1920, hoping to build a socialist bridge to Germany — where revolutionary ferment was still brewing after the defeat of 1918 — turned out to be deeply counterproductive. Lenin’s enthusiasm (and impatience) for world revolution led to the Red Army march to Warsaw, where they imagined Polish workers and peasants would rise up and greet them as liberators.

Instead, a Polish popular army led by Marshall Jozef Pilsudski defeated them at the gates of Warsaw. This had the effect of turning the internationalist Bolsheviks into aggressors, undermining the attractiveness of socialism, and allowing the arch-nationalist Pilsudski to portray himself as the democratic defender of the Polish nation — enhancing the political attractiveness of nationalism.

Trotsky had warned against the march as likely to boost the strength of the Bolsheviks’ enemies. The march on Warsaw might possibly have succeeded had Joseph Stalin not disobeyed orders to provide support for Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky’s exhausted troops who were leading the expedition. But the victory would have been that of the Red Army, not the Polish workers. The lesson was that workers’ power could not be imposed from above or from outside.

When the bridge to Germany was lost as was the westward extension of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were caught in a bind. Had they handed over power, say, to a Constituent Assembly to determine the future course of the Russian Revolution, the revolution would have had a brief half-life.

Had they allowed legal forms such as elections, the Bolsheviks sooner rather than later would have been voted out of office. This might have served the cause of revolution by setting a democratic example, demonstrating its overriding commitment to its ideals. But the resulting defeat could have brought a much worse repression than the mass murder of the Paris Communards in 1871, a fate the Bolsheviks knew would have awaited them.

The Bolsheviks’ reluctance to share or cede power, in the interests of assisting world revolution — to save the revolution at home — is thus understandable. As we know, what actually happened under Stalin destroyed not only the majority of the Bolshevik leadership but millions more. With the consolidation of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin, the USSR became a more coercive regime.

The Left Opposition from the mid-1920s proposed promoting industrialization to increase the size of the working class, and to create a new generation of revolutionary workers with the habits and education of socialist industry under workers’ control, hopefully serving as an inspiration to workers elsewhere — the kind of holding operation that might spur revolutionary opportunities abroad.

Had they been able to hold on with at least a partial model of workers’ democracy, they might have secured their best option and prevented Stalin’s ascendance to power. Revolution in Germany in the early 1930s or Spain in the middle 1930s could have been possible, saving the Russian revolution and sparing the world from the nightmare to come.

But left on its own, it would have been impossible for the Soviet Union to raise the resources internally without squeezing the population. That couldn’t be done democratically. Dictatorship became inevitable, though not one as brutal as Stalin’s.

As Evgeny Preobrazhensky had demonstrated in the debates of the 1920s, industrialization could proceed with what he called “socialist primitive accumulation.” This would entail unequal exchange between the urban producers and peasants, with overpriced industrial goods going to the peasants and underpriced food and raw materials coming back to the urban working class, and the surplus accruing to the industrial sector, to be used for investment and expansion.

Under whatever terminology, this was a process of exploiting the peasantry, and without aid from more developed countries that had successful socialist revolutions, would ultimately require the use of authoritarian measures against the peasant — the construction of an ever more coercive regime. No one in those debates, however, could have predicted the wholesale, murderous forced collectivization of agriculture under Stalin in the 1930s, causing millions of peasant deaths by starvation.

The idea of collectivizing agriculture had been to make it advantageous to the peasants and increase agricultural production. The plan, in discussion since 1926, envisioned collectivizing only as much crop area as could be supplied with agricultural machinery. The whole purpose was to industrialize agricultural production providing an attractive alternative to the small, primitive farms of the peasantry. What happened under Stalin — to peasants and workers alike — is the story of a counterrevolution that set back the cause of international socialism for many decades.

Old and New Hope

The Russian Revolution was rightly seen as a threat to world capitalism. What could be more dangerous than workers demanding control over their work and their lives? The success of the revolution was greeted with joy or horror around the world — the reaction depending on which side of the class line one stood. For the world’s ruling classes, it meant isolating, discrediting and destroying the revolution, lest it spread to their doors.

Despite its tragic fate, the revolution was a transcendent historic event. It advanced the democratic ideals of the French Revolution for liberty, equality, and fraternity and sought to extend them by deepening democracy into the realm of the social economy, with the goal of ending exploitation, abolishing wage-labor, dismantling hierarchy, and endowing workers with the ability to democratically plan (and implement) what was to be produced.

So long as the revolution could succeed with some autonomy, it could inspire greater support both at home and abroad. The world’s leading capitalist regimes redoubled their efforts to destroy its inner life and dynamism, leaving it to decay of its own accord, even as they sustained permanent pressure on it from outside.

With the regime’s consolidation, Stalin’s nationalized economy and bureaucratic authoritarian rule served the interests of both world capitalism and the bureaucracy by linking socialism to dictatorship. Meanwhile, workers fighting for socialism in the West were co-opted, isolated or repressed. Henceforth democracy was equated with capitalist property relations and called “freedom,” while socialism became identified with stultifying bureaucracy, dictatorship, lack of liberty and terror.

The Cold War came to instantiate this symbiosis of capitalist democracy and Stalinist dictatorship — 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. From 1917 until 1991, the period of existence of the Soviet Union, the October Revolution was relentlessly attacked, denounced, and distorted beyond recognition in the West.

Within the Soviet Union and its bloc, the key was to prevent any form of democratic challenge to the statist economic status quo, in effect to promote the soviet version of neoliberal capitalism’s TINA (“There is No Alternative”), the bureaucratic authoritarian anti-democratic form they called Communism, tightly controlled from above. Both sides in the Cold War promoted the Stalinized version of “communism” as the goal of the October Revolution of 1917. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, world capital treated the Soviet experience as an irrelevance, a bracket in history soon to be forgotten.

Ironically, to counteract and preclude the “soviet threat,” Western capitalist regimes conceded to social democratic reforms fought for by organized labor — often socialists in the labor movement. Important elements of a more advanced political democracy such as universal franchise, representative democracy, free speech and other basic rights were won and allowed in order to contain radicalism at home.

So long as these concessions did not threaten capitalist profits they could be accommodated. It wasn’t until the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders that the word “socialism” would be attractive to a majority of millennials, born after the redbaiting of the Cold War lost its efficacy. That a social democrat calling himself a democratic socialist could win the hearts and votes of so many millions in the heart of capitalism shows that the equation of socialism with anti-democratic statist dictatorship is no longer functional.

Fortunately the disintegration and demise of the Soviet Union, followed by the ravages of neoliberal capitalism have combined to open the way to reclaim democracy as the heart of the socialist project. If it isn’t democratic, it isn’t socialism.

Thanks to Robert Brenner for incisive comments.


  1. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution held that Russian capitalism was so backward, its capitalist class so weak and immature that it was incapable of introducing bourgeois democratic reforms. That job would fall to the working class in power. The revolution could not stop halfway and would be impelled to move toward socialist goals.
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  2. The program called for workers’ rule with “right to elect and recall functionaries; nationalization of banks, trusts, cartels”; confiscation of the land to be turned over to the peasants organized in soviets; and a “workers peace directed against all the capitalists.&rdqu
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  3. In March 1921, an anarchist-led sailors’ revolt erupted at the crucial Kronstadt naval base under the slogan “soviets without Bolsheviks.” It was a particularly wrenching episode in view of the revolutionary legacy of Kronstadt during the events of 1905 and 1917. The underlying cause was the disastrous effects of war communism on the Russian peasantry from which the Kronstadt garrison largely came. The revolt hastened the abandonment of war communism, but the bloody suppression of the revolt and the brutal aftermath has echoed in debates ever since. The definitive sympathetic historical account is Kronstadt 1921 by Paul Avrich. See also Victor Serge, “Once More: Kronstadt,” April 1938,
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Sources include Victor Serge, Leon Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Evgeny Preobrazhensky. The following is a very brief, selected list of readings.

Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Armed; The Prophet Unarmed; The Prophet Outcast (three-volume political biography of Leon Trotsky).

Samuel Farber: Before Stalinism. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (1990).

Evgeny Preobrazhensky: The New Economics.

Alexander Rabinowitch:  Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July Uprising (1968).  The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976). The Bolsheviks in Power. The First Year of Bolshevik Power in Petrograd (2007).

John Reed: Ten Days That Shook the World.

Victor Serge: Year One of the Russian Revolution; From Lenin to Stalin.

Lenin: State and Revolution; April Theses.

Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution (three volumes);1905; The Revolution Betrayed (1937).

May-June 2017, ATC 188