February shakes the world
The February 1917 revolution shocked the whole imperialist world. Right in the middle of the war, Petrograd, one of their major military centres, was suddenly crippled. The revolution put the whole course of the war into question. What's more, the most repressive dictatorship in Europe had been brought to its knees by crowds dressed in rags. How could it have happened?
The trigger to this insurrection gives the clue. It was the shortage of bread. WW1 had thrown tsarist Russia into a severe and worsening crisis by 1917. The decrepid feudal regime was unable to feed even its own troops at the front let alone the population at home. It was already crumbling. It only survived thanks to its networks of spies and provocateurs, its functionaries, its numerous police, its elite military corps and its overflowing prisons.
But on 23rd February 1917 tsarism was finally toppled. The date had been designated by socialist organisations for the celebration of International Women's Day. In Petrograd, the hungry crowds queuing for bread joined the women demonstrators. This quickly turned into an angry food riot. Workers from factories on strike for the day joined the growing mass in the streets. When the rioting escalated, the police began firing on the crowds. But instead of stopping them in their tracks this just made them more determined. Soon a full scale battle against the police was being waged.
Workers poured out of all the factories and, armed with whatever was at hand, they began to disarm the police. They then went to the barracks in search of more arms. There, the soldiers, who were waiting to go to the front, joined the insurgents. Among them were many workers with a revolutionary past who quickly took the initiative. They refused to follow the desperate orders of their officers to go to the aid of the tsarist police. Once the first regiment had mutinied, soldiers rushed from barrack to barrack calling out their comrades, much as striking workers went from factory to factory.
The strength and depth of the movement was such that it only took five days to put the whole tsarist force to flight. By the 27th February the insurgents found, to their own surprise, that they had made a revolution. They had not anticipated it themselves nor planned or prepared it. It had just grown and spread like fire. In Moscow and in other centres, workers and soldiers from the ranks followed the example of Petrograd. The regime collapsed.
In Petrograd, the capital, the insurgents immediately got themselves organised. The memories of the 1905 revolution sprung back to life. Like 12 years before, they set up a workers' and soldiers council - the Petrograd Soviet as they called it in Russian - to co-ordinate their fight and act as the revolution's own parliament.
The tsarist ministers who had not yet run away were arrested and all the main centres of communication occupied. Prisoners were freed from the prisons and forts - many of them leading political activists who immediately joined in. The Soviet proceeded to take over the state bank, the mint and the state printing office. They took over administration of all food distribution and transport. By March they had decreed that all ranks were abolished in the army, and that military committees accountable to the Soviet should be elected in all units. Their immediate aims were the demands of the uprising - peace, bread and land to those who toiled it.
Of course the bourgeoisie did not stand idly by as workers seized the initiative. They could not undo what the uprising had done. Nor could they order the Soviet to disband. So they tried to bring the revolution under their control. The Duma, the discredited rubber-stamp parliament of the tsarist regime, formed a self-proclaimed provisional government, as a coalition between bourgeois democrats and constitutional monarchists. And the new government proceeded to try to assert its authority.
Its calls on soldiers to return to their barracks, workers to their factories and women to their kitchens, were not very successful. It was more lucky with the political activists who had been elected to the leadership of the Soviet. Indeed a majority of these activists believed that the revolution was about overthrowing the tsar and setting up a democratic bourgeois republic and they rushed to offer their support to the new government. In this they also reflected illusions which were certainly widespread among the insurgents themselves. However, the soldiers and workers were soon to change their minds about these so-called democrats.
A young and dynamic working class
What, if anything, was so special about the Russian working class? On the eve of 1917, it was small. Nowhere near the relative size of the proletariat of the other imperialist powers. It was also new. Russia's industrialisation had only really started at the end of the 19th century and only took off in the period following 1905, boosted by a flow of foreign investment into Russia. The large engineering, chemical, oil and metallurgic industries were almost all foreign-owned. But being new, factories had the most developed technology, on a par with the advanced capitalist countries. They were also on the whole very large - so that huge concentrations of workers lived in the two main industrial centres of Petrograd and Moscow, numbering around 2 million in all. In the other industrial centres, like Kiev, Baku, Nijni Novgorod, similar concentrations existed, on a smaller scale.
There was of course a large gap between the industrial workers of Petrograd's large modern factories and the rural labourers and farmers who were still toiling the land using methods comparable to that of 17th century England. But the poorest peasants often found themselves pushed into the towns in search of a way to make a living, much as the enclosures had forced the English peasants to turn themselves into wage slaves at the mercy of the urban bourgeoisie. These poor peasants who found temporary jobs in the towns, formed a living link between the urban proletariat and the countryside.
Despite a lack of culture and relative backwardness inherited from its rural roots, this was a young and dynamic working class. Given its experience under the tsarist dictatorship, it was certainly not paralysed by the kind of legalistic illusions that we know today. Nor had it experienced any of the demoralising betrayals which had already weakened the working classes of the rich countries. In many ways it could have been compared with the English working class at the time of the first Chartist wave, fighting desperately against new forms of exploitation as well as for political rights. Except that this was a century later. The activists of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party had introduced marxist ideas within the ranks of the Russian working class. And already it had a tradition of political struggle.
Apart from the tsarist regime and the nobility, the main other force facing the working class was the bourgeoisie. As in all poor countries, this bourgeois class was economically and socially weak. Its main activity was to act as intermediaries for foreign investors. And since the Russian economy was much too poor to sustain a vast urban petty-bourgeoisie on which a bourgeois democratic system could have been based, it was highly unlikely that the Russian bourgeoisie would ever be able to offer a democratic way out of tsarism.
The 1905 revolution had already exposed most graphically the impotence of the Russian bourgeoisie. When the working class took to the streets in the capital and in Moscow, demanding reforms and better conditions, the bourgeoisie jumped on the bandwagon. Bosses even initially encouraged their workers to take strike action - closing the factories so they could join demonstrations. But then workers went much further than the capitalists expected. Not only did they take weapons and set up the first soviet, as an embryo of workers' power, but they also decided to implement their own demands concerning working conditions - in particular the eight-hour day. This was too much for the liberalism of the capitalists. They fell over themselves to accept the limited compromise offered by the tsar in exchange for his protection against the red hordes who were threatening their profits. Such cowardly attitudes were quite typical of the Russian bourgeoisie.
By contrast, the working class gained out of 1905 an incomparable wealth of experience and a whole new political tradition, even though the revolution itself was defeated. Workers learnt to organise themselves as a class, through the structures of the soviet. They learnt that organising independently in this way was their only protection against the betrayal of temporary allies such as the liberal bourgeoisie. They learnt that a struggle for economic demands often cannot go anywhere without setting itself political aims as well. And they discovered that they could indeed take on the tsarist state using their own class weapons - a lesson which was summarised by the printworkers' delegates to the Petersburg soviet in the following terms:
"Recognising the inadequacy of passive struggle and of the mere cessation of work, we resolve: to transform the army of the striking working class into a revolutionary army, that is to say, to organise detachments of armed workers forthwith. Let these detachments take care of arming the rest of the working masses, if necessary by raiding the gun shops and confiscating arms from the police and troops wherever possible."
Finally, the Russian working class also learnt another vital lesson from 1905. They learnt that they could not win in a direct confrontation with the state of the propertied classes without winning over to their side a large section of the army, and therefore of the peasantry, since most soldiers came from the countryside. This was a lesson for which workers paid very dearly, with their lives, when the Cossacks moved in to crush the revolution.
The political experience accumulated in 1905 by the working class became an integral part of the Bolshevik programme. This experience proved decisive both in February 1917 and during the nine crucial months until October.
The Bolshevik party - a decisive instrument
Another factor which was decisive for the working class in 1917, was the existence of the Bolshevik party. Who were they?
The Bolsheviks had emerged in 1903, as a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party. The split was over the social nature of the party that the Social Democrats wanted to build. Against their opponents, known as Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks argued for a party that would represent exclusively the class interests of the proletariat, even if in certain circumstances temporary alliances had to be made with other non-proletarian forces. Therefore, said the Bolsheviks, the party membership had to be selected - particularly when it came to the young bourgeois intellectuals who applied for party membership out of resentment against the constraints imposed on them by the tsarist regime. The talkers should be left outside. Only those who had a genuine commitment to the working class should be brought into the party.
These differences were apparently over purely organisational matters. But they were soon reflected in the politics of the two factions, for instance, their attitude towards the liberal bourgeoisie. Time and again Lenin insisted that the working class would have to take the leading role in the fight against tsarism, pulling behind itself the vast peasant masses, whereas the Mensheviks saw an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie as the first necessary step.
By the time World War I broke out, however, the two factions found themselves in opposite camps. While the majority of Mensheviks and other socialist groups like the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), sided with the tsarist regime in the war, the Bolsheviks opposed it. The proletariat, they said, had no interest whatsoever in backing its own exploiters in a war designed merely to increase one imperialist's booty at the expense of another's. The aim of the political party of the working class should be, on the contrary, to turn this imperialist war into a social war aimed at overthrowing the power of the imperialist ruling classes.
As a result of their open opposition to the war, the Bolshevik deputies to the tsarist parliament were arrested when the war broke out, in November 1914. But despite the increased repression, the Bolshevik organisations were still able to build underground opposition to the war in their industrial strongholds. By contrast, the majority of the Mensheviks and SRs rushed into the War Industries Committees to help organise production for the war effort. While this may have been a popular move at the beginning of the war, it was quite the opposite by 1916, when troops were mutinying on the front and workers striking at home. And while the Bolsheviks, due to their opposition to war, had found themselves initially relatively isolated, by 1917, this had turned round completely. Their steadfast refusal to give in to patriotism had won them the trust of many among the most class conscious workers.
Preparing for October - the crucial months
The Bolsheviks were certainly not expecting the February revolution when it happened. But they were prepared for it, morally and politically. The problems they faced, however, were entirely new.
Indeed, after February there were effectively two embryonic state powers. On the one hand the provisional government which sought to restore the authority of a reformed version of the old state machinery and impose the order of the propertied classes. On the other hand, there were the growing soviet organisations which represented an entirely new order - that of the insurgent poor masses.
The Petrograd soviet was no longer the only one. Others had sprung up in many smaller towns and suburbs, as well as in the countryside. They were made up of deputies elected by local assemblies - from factories and army barracks, from neighbourhoods and villages. These deputies were instantly recallable if they did not carry out the wishes of those they represented, in so far as people were meeting regularly. As a result the soviets were actually the expression of the living masses and their changing understanding of events.
Soon the soviets federated themselves, at town, district and regional levels. This was the obvious thing to do. In most cases, the initiative came from the Bolsheviks. They had no real difficulty in getting the deputies to overrule the manoeuvres of those who wanted the soviets to remain purely local, without any real power therefore. As a result, revolutionary Russia was covered with a decentralised web of revolutionary structures which all acted along the same class lines, coordinating the insurgent masses and dealing in their own way with the most pressing practical problems left by the collapse of the tsarist administration. It was in that sense that the soviets were already operating as the embryo of a proletarian state power.
The situation had reached a point where the forces of the propertied classes and those of the proletariat were more or less equal. This was reflected in the coexistence of these two state powers. But this situation could be only temporary. At one point or another, the balance of forces was going to change and one of the two powers was going to move against the other. For the Bolsheviks, the task of the moment was to make sure that the first move came from the soviets.
The problem, however, was one of political consciousness among the ranks of the proletariat. The politicians in the provisional government, including the SRs and Mensheviks who joined it at a later stage, knew exactly where they were going - their aim was to build a bourgeois state apparatus and restore order. The soviet deputies, on the other hand, knew what they wanted in the short term - peace, bread and land for toilers. But the vast majority among them had no confidence in the soviets' ability to impose these demands through their own devices, let alone to take over power and run the country. For these tasks they counted on the professional politicians of the provisional government. This was reflected in the fact that, in the days following February, the leaders elected by the soviets were mostly Mensheviks and SRs, who argued openly for submitting the soviets to the authority of the provisional government.
Shifting the political consciousness of the proletariat, which was what the Bolsheviks aimed at, was easier said than done. No amount of propaganda could achieve this on its own. The working class had to experience the failings and betrayals of the bourgeois and reformist forces, as well as test its own strength, before it could see the need to take things into its own hands and feel the confidence to do it.
Not only had the Bolsheviks to ensure that at each step the working class would have the clearest possible understanding of what was happening. They also had to seize every possible opportunity to get the working class to step up its independent intervention through the soviets - whether it be to defend and consolidate the positions gained so far by the proletariat, to push forward the revolution's demands or to strengthen the block of all exploited classes behind the working class.
This was a race for time. As weeks passed, the reactionary forces were regrouping, rebuilding their confidence and preparing for a confrontation with the proletariat.
In May, a new provisional government was formed, led by Kerensky, a lawyer close to the SRs. It included six ministers nominated by the soviets, which had the effect of disarming the working class in the soviets. Kerensky feared the armed proletariat and proceeded to try and dismantle the soviet militias, the Red Guards, while restoring the government's control of the Petrograd garrison which supported the revolution.
Under Kerensky, therefore, the bourgeois counter-offensive gathered pace. But only the most politicised workers and soldiers, who were at the receiving end of the government's attempt to disarm the revolution, saw through Kerensky's policy. So that within two months, Kerensky was able to stage a provocation aimed at the most radical elements of the revolution. In July the entire Bolshevik leadership - with the exception of Lenin who escaped to Finland - was jailed and the party press was banned.
The seizure of power
The turning point, however, came at the end of September, when the counter-revolution went on to the next phase of its offensive. With the secret collaboration of Kerensky, a tsarist general named Kornilov plotted to stage a military coup. When Kornilov's Cossacks started their march on Petrograd, the reformist leaders suddenly realised that, while the Bolsheviks would be Kornilov's first targets, they would be next.
Within hours, Trotsky was pulled out of his cell to coordinate the rearmament and mobilisation of the Red Guards. Western Russia was immediately paralysed by a general strike and the Petrograd workers and soldiers were mobilised to a man in order to confront Kornilov's attempted coup.
This was the end of Kornilov's attempt - but also, to all intents and purposes, of the illusions surrounding Kerensky. The Bolsheviks were now in a majority in the main towns' soviets. The provisional government still retained nominal power. But it had lost all authority among the masses and the army. The balance of forces had changed.
For the Bolsheviks, the time had come to formalise soviet power, by physically sweeping aside the provisional government and handing over power to the working class organised in the soviets. Action had to be taken fast as such a favourable situation might never present itself again. On 16 October the Bolshevik-led soviets formed a Military Revolutionary Committee and prepared for the insurrection.
This was certainly the most democratic "coup" ever staged in history. The arguments of those opposing it were discussed publicly. So were the objectives and the method of the insurrection. For it was vital that the working class should be able to follow every step made. Just as it was vital for the Bolsheviks to gauge workers' reactions to their moves, as they happened, almost by the hour. The only thing that remained secret, was the date and time chosen for the insurrection. The balance of forces was such, however, that Kerensky was unable to do anything to stop the insurrection - so he ran away.
On the 22 October, the Petrograd Soviet organised a huge mass meeting. Trotsky addressed it. It was a plebiscite for the insurrection. By the 25th, the Kronstadt fleet had sailed up the Neva to Petrograd to provide the necessary back-up. On this day the Red Guard besieged the Winter Palace, the headquarters of the provisional government. They met minimal resistance. By this time most of the important centres of communications, administration and the War Ministry were occupied by the revolutionaries.
When the All Russian Congress of Soviets met that same evening, the fall of the Winter Palace was announced. The workers' revolution was victorious. The insurrection in the capital had been near-bloodless.
The following morning, the great decrees on peace, land to the peasants and workers' control of production were voted. At the end, Lenin mounted the rostrum and concluded his address by saying: "We will proceed to construct the socialist order." By these words he was marking the fact that a new state, representing different interests, was now to be built. This was the beginning of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The world's first workers' state
The revolution had been secured only in a small part of Western Russia. It was immediately threatened by counter-revolution from within and without. The first task was to win over the rest of Russia and in particular, the countryside. It was urgent to respond to the demands of the revolutionary masses - for peace, bread and land.
The first measures of the Council of People's Commissars, the new government elected by the Soviet congress with Lenin as its chairman, were primarily political. The new emerging state had no means to implement them. The Bolsheviks designed these measures in such a way as to stress clearly which social interests the new power intended to defend. They were aimed at pulling the peasants over to the camp of the workers' state, by creating an irreversible situation whereby the rural masses would be prepared to defend the new state, in their own interests, should it come under attack. Moreover these measures were designed to galvanise the mobilisation of the poor classes around the new power - for the workers' state relied above all on the consciousness and activity born out of this mobilisation.
Thus the new revolutionary power, embodied in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets immediately passed the first decree on peace as follows: "The Workers' and Peasants' Government, established by the revolution of 24-25 October, and based on the Soviets, invites all the belligerent nations and their governments to open negotiations without delay for a just and democratic peace..."
The next decree was on land. It said: "The landowners' right of ownership over the soil is abolished forthwith, without compensation." The peasants themselves were to keep the land they toiled while the property of the large estates was transferred to the peasants' soviets.
Replying to those who criticised him for implementing the programme of the SRs rather than that of nationalising the land as his party programme proposed, Lenin explained his approach:
"As a democratic government, we cannot simply ignore the wishes of the popular masses, even if we are in disagreement with them. Life will show who is right. In the development of new forms of government, we must follow the demands of life, and leave complete freedom to the creative activity of the popular masses. The last government tried to solve the agrarian question by agreement with the ancient, immovable bureaucracy of the Tsar. Far from settling the question the bureaucracy simply attacked the peasants... so the peasants want to solve the agrarian question themselves. Let there be no amendments to their plan! Will the peasantry act in the spirit of our programme or that of the SRs? It is of little importance: the main thing is for them to have the firm assurance that there will be no more landlords and that they can set about organising their own lives."
In fact, Lenin had spelt out this reasoning a few weeks before the insurrection itself. In a pamphlet replying to those who were arguing that the workers' state would not survive long, he had written:
"...when every labourer, every employed worker, every cook, every ruined peasant sees, not from the newspapers, but with his own eyes, that the proletarian state is not cringing to wealth, but is helping the poor, that this state does not hesitate to adopt revolutionary measures, that it confiscates surplus stocks and provisions from the parasites and distributes them to the hungry, that it forcibly installs the homeless in the houses of the rich, that it compels the rich to pay for the milk but does not give them a drop until the children of all the poor families are sufficiently supplied, that the land is being transferred to the working people and the factories and banks are being placed under the control of the workers and that immediate and severe punishment is meted out to the millionaires who conceal their wealth - when the poor see this, no capitalist or kulak forces, no forces of world finance capital which manipulates thousands of millions will vanquish the peoples' revolution; on the contrary, the socialist revolution will triumph all over the world for it is maturing in all countries."
The need to extend the revolution
Indeed, the Bolsheviks were perfectly aware of the problems posed by the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia. No marxist could believe that it could survive for very long in a poor backward country such as Russia unless revolution broke out in one or more of the advanced capitalist countries soon afterwards. As Lenin had put it before October: "Our revolution will be invincible if it is not afraid of itself, if it transfers all power to the proletariat, for behind us stand immeasurably larger, more developed, more organised world forces of the proletariat which are temporarily held down by the war but not destroyed; on the contrary, the war has multiplied them."
The whole workers' movement had for decades known that the coming revolution would have to be a world revolution. Stalin's later caricature of Bolshevism under the slogan of "Socialism in one country" went against everything the revolutionaries of October had stood for.
Lenin had nothing to do with such deliberately misleading fairy tales. He explained that if the Russian revolution remained isolated the workers' state could only conduct a "holding operation" temporarily, until other revolutions in the advanced countries came to their rescue. The Bolsheviks would even have been ready to sacrifice revolutionary Russia if this could have allowed the revolution to win elsewhere, and in particular, to prevail in Germany. At the time of the peace talks between the Russian Soviets and the German general staff, between December 1917 and March 1918, Lenin declared for instance:
"If we thought that the German revolutionary movement was likely to break out as soon as the talks were broken off, we would have to sacrifice ourselves, as the German revolution must be of far greater importance than our own. But it has not yet begun. We must hold on until the general Socialist Revolution..."
Certainly, the "general Socialist Revolution" was no utopian dream. The shockwave sent by the Russian revolution first hit the surrounding countries in Scandinavia and Central Europe. The revolutionary wave struck first in Finland, in January 1918. Then, in November 1918, it expanded simultaneously to Vienna, Budapest and Berlin, the old European capitals. Workers' and soldiers' councils emerged. Thousands of militants, most of them from the ranks of the Social-Democratic movement, were hoping this time that the end of the war would mark the advent of socialism. They did not want to wait any longer. Red flags were flying and socialism was on everyone's lips and in every heart.
Elsewhere, though it did not take the form of an actual revolution, the shockwave resulted in huge strikes - like the Italian general strike or the massive strike wave which shook the USA. Sometimes the references of the masses in struggle to the Russian revolution were explicit: soviets were proclaimed in the most unexpected places, like Limerick in Ireland, and Seattle in the USA. The appeal of the revolution was so great that even erstwhile opponents of marxism, such as the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain, applied to join the new Third International, while communist parties were formed in many parts of the world.
The international counter-revolution
The first blow of the counter-revolution came in Finland, in May 1918, when the revolution was drowned in blood by a coalition of Finnish, Swedish and German elite troops. Germany soon followed in January 1919, when the revolution was decapitated by the murder of its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, during a bloody repression organised jointly by the army general staff and the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party. Vienna and Hungary experienced similar defeats.
The working class had not succeeded in taking power anywhere outside Russia. For the workers' movement, and for the whole of society, the price to be paid was considerable. In Central Europe this took the form of military dictatorships like those of Horthy in Hungary and Pilsudski in Poland, among others.
Even in the old democracies, the bourgeoisie took revenge for the mortal fear it had felt. In the USA, this took the form of an unprecedented wave of repression against working class activists, known as the Palmer Raids, which culminated in the death sentence and execution of the anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. Anticommunism prevailed - a setback for freedoms of all kinds, and even for any idea of progress.
The whole of society underwent a wave of reaction, proving, in a negative form, the common destiny of the proletariat and society in general. With the proletariat defeated, the whole of western society regressed. Just as the revolution was international, so was the counter-revolution. It had triumphed everywhere in Europe with varying degrees of savagery. It was also affecting Soviet Russia.
After four years of the most bloody war so far, the former warring imperialist powers joined forces to crush the Russian soviets. Having initially aided the remnants of the tsarist forces, they now intervened directly. By April 1918, Japanese troops had landed in Vladivostok, and the Turks had taken Batum in Georgia. The Germans occupied the area around the Don, Crimea and the Ukraine in May and moved into Georgia with the permission of the local Menshevik government. In July 1918, British and French troops landed in Murmansk, occupying Archangel in August. The same month US troops landed in Siberia, while British, German and Turkish troops converged towards the oil fields of Baku.
The Russian population was in a state of exhaustion and with the country utterly devastated by the war, they were near starvation. But the revolution still found the energy to mount an offensive again the imperialist armies. The Red Army set up around the embryonic and atomised forces of the soviets' Red Guards soon became a formidable force under Trotsky's command, which eventually repelled the imperialist offensive.
The wave of reaction in Russia
The cost of this civil war to the workers' state was enormously heavy. The economy was in ruins, the proletariat physically destroyed and the peasantry was hostile after three years of civil war, forced requisitions and famine due to the devastation.
This critical situation and the inevitable demoralisation of the population meant that hostility to the regime kept surfacing, putting in danger the very gains that they had so desperately, against all odds, held on to. The first problem for everyone was pure survival. This led to a paralysis of the soviets, which, outside the main towns, very often simply ceased to operate. In any case, the soviets were no longer the organs of power of a mobilised revolutionary proletariat. As a result, the workers' state remained, but precariously, hanging over society, as it were, with the Bolshevik party as its only living link with the revolution.
This was a state of siege. Drastic measures had to be taken to prevent the counter-revolution from building on the demoralisation of the population. These measures went against everything the Bolsheviks believed, but this too was part of an on-going struggle for survival, which did not leave many options. It was these conditions which led to the banning of factions within the party and the use of repression, against Kronstadt in particular.
The most urgent problem the Bolsheviks had to address was the state of the economy. There again, the primary aim was survival. The centralisation of the civil war years was relaxed in order to provide some breathing space for the peasantry and increase the production of food staples for the starving towns.
But there was another danger in the situation which the Bolsheviks kept warning against - that of the growing bureaucracy which was emerging within the workers' state itself. For the decimation of the revolutionary proletariat and the backwardness of the poor classes meant that the bulk of the state functionaries were recruited from the ranks of the former tsarist bureaucracy or the educated classes - people who, for the most, had had no participation and no stake in the revolution itself.
The drastic shortages, as Trotsky put it, meant that someone had to decide on the distribution of resources: "When there is a shortage of goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in a line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policemen to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait."
Stalin, a relatively obscure but ambitious and always well-placed member of the leading circles of the party, someone who had always made sure he agreed with the winning side, emerged as the spokesman of this growing bureaucracy. And he encouraged its growth, hoping to boost his own support within the party and the state machinery.
With Lenin's death in 1924, and the fight for his succession Stalin's ambitions rose to new heights. Now the theory of "socialism in one country" was propagated by his clique, against every principle of marxism and internationalism, and particularly against those who, like Trotsky, represented the revolutionary tradition. To put all the odds on his side Stalin opened the doors of the party to the queues of careerists who had been kept waiting outside by Lenin. This was the "Lenin levy", tens of thousands of recruits were invited to join allegedly to honour Lenin's life.
This bureaucracy was certainly no new class but neither was it the old bourgeoisie back in a new form. It wanted to preserve the status quo at all costs. And therefore it opposed any revolutionary advance of the proletariat inside and outside the Soviet Union, while reluctantly developing the planned economy which it needed for its own survival.
The degeneration process had started with the end of the civil war. By the late 20's, when the bureaucracy finally succeeded in breaking the last link with the October revolution - represented by those Bolsheviks who had organised and led it, waged the civil war and fought to hold on to the gains of the revolution - only a handful of activists around Trotsky were left to maintain the flag of October. In the end they were too weak to prevent the degenerative process from carrying on.
Was the degeneration of the workers' state inevitable?
The degeneration of the workers' state set up by the October revolution has raised many questions within the revolutionary movement itself.
Some, for instance, have come to question whether the Bolsheviks should have hung on to power after the end of the civil war. They argue that given the exhaustion of the working class, it was incapable of playing its role in the soviets anyway. And by this time, the Bolsheviks probably no longer had a majority within the working class itself. So shouldn't the Bolsheviks have stepped down in the name of "democracy"?
From the point of view of the Bolsheviks, that is of communist activists whose interests cannot be separated from those of the working class, this kind of speculation is pure nonsense. Indeed history does not always offer several options, nor the luxury of formal "democracy". In critical circumstances such abstractions are often irrelevant. In this particular context, the Bolsheviks had no choice whatsoever. Giving up power would have meant leaving the way open for the counter-revolution. It would have unleashed the revenge of the bourgeoisie and propertied classes against the Russian working class and poor peasants. Every revolutionary knew what this meant. Allowing, or even taking the risk of such a bloodbath, designed to destroy any trace of the revolution, would not have been more "democratic" towards the proletariat. It would have been an outright betrayal.
Besides, giving up power in Russia would have meant letting down the millions of workers across the world for whom the Russian revolution had become a beacon of hope. And this was not just a moral issue. The world working class desperately needed all the help that the young workers' state could offer.
Moreover, catastrophic as it was in Russia, the situation was not so desperate on the world scale. The future - that is the degeneration of the workers' state as we know it today - was not inevitable. The odds were that a new revolutionary upsurge would occur sooner rather than later. And a proletarian victory in any of the imperialist strongholds would mean a complete reversal of the temporary dead end in Russia. In the meantime, therefore, it was vital that every effort should be made to ensure that the ground won by the proletariat in the first battle of the world revolution should be preserved at any cost.
Was there another road for the Russian proletariat?
The Russian revolution is probably the only event in history to have generated such intense hatred among the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. From October 1917 onwards, they rose in droves to pour lies and slander on the revolution and its main protagonists.
Today's opponents of October may have swapped the redbaiting style of the Cold War for a relatively more "understanding" and liberal tone. But their purpose remains the same - to explain away October as a mere "accident", devoid of any historical significance, which can only be blamed on the "cultural backwardness" of the Russian poor.
One example of such so-called "historical work" is a high-profile 900-page brick of paper, published this year by a Cambridge academic by the name of Orlando Figes. Its title - "A people's tragedy" - is already deliberately ambiguous. But his purpose is not ambiguous, as he explains himself in the book's preface: "It was by no means inevitable that the revolution should have ended in the Bolshevik dictatorship(..) There were a number of decisive moments both before and during 1917 when Russia might have followed a more democratic course."
Let us take a closer look at the "decisive moments" mentioned by our historian. For instance, about the pre-revolutionary period, Figes writes: "There were enough signs of modern social evolution to suggest that Russia's power question might have been resolved in a peaceful way. Everything depended on the tsarist regime's willingness to introduce reforms. But there was the rub." And having made this illuminating discovery - that dictatorships tend to be unwilling to reform themselves - he concludes: "The tsarist regime's downfall was not inevitable; but its own stupidity made it so."
In what way would the survival of tsarism, even of a reformed version of it, have been better for the Russian population? Figes does not bother to tell us.
But in any case, to reduce the causes of the tsarist regime's downfall to its "stupidity" is outright... stupid. As if tsarism was not first and foremost the expression of the class interests of the nobility! Why should the aristocracy have agreed to reforms which went directly against its unchallenged control of all wealth? In fact, rather than blaming the "stupidity" of tsarism, Figes could have blamed the extreme weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and its resulting cowardice. But that would be admitting to the fact that there was indeed no space for bourgeois democracy in Russia!
In another example, Figes explains wisely that on the eve of October, the Mensheviks and SRs, who were in the leadership of the Soviets, could have opened the way to a more democratic system. But, says Figes, "the Soviet leaders because of their own dogmatic preconceptions about the need for a "bourgeois revolution" missed a unique chance to set up such a system by assuming power through the Soviets". Had they done so, adds Figes, they would have been able to steer the new regime towards "democracy" - as opposed to the "Bolsheviks' dictatorship", of course.
This time, it is not a question of "stupidity" but one of "dogmatic preconceptions". But in fact, Figes' own preconceptions prevent him from understanding that being elected to leading positions by the soviets was one thing, controlling them was another. These soviets were already acting as a new form of state power, that of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the Soviet leaders refused to take power on behalf of the Soviets, it was primarily because this would have been handing over power to the proletarian masses - which is exactly what the Bolsheviks did by organising the seizure of power in October. Surely not the kind of democratic system that Figes recommends for Russia, eighty years after the events!
The fact is that this weighty attempt at demonstrating that there was a "democratic road" based on "legal private property" in Russia, as Figes puts it, only highlights the petty-mindedness of bourgeois intellectuals who just cannot imagine any other political system than the bourgeois parliamentary democracy which pays their salaries. The idea that "unshaven and unwashed" Russian workers, as he often describes the Bolsheviks' supporters, could build an immensely more democratic and effective state simply goes beyond the imagination, understanding and social prejudices of such characters.
The achievements of October in the Soviet Union
Of course, the detractors of the Russian revolution never acknowledge the fact that the Russian bourgeoisie would have been incapable of generating the kind of development that Soviet society experienced thanks to October.
The degeneration of the workers' state meant that the Soviet Union never had anything to do with socialism or communism. Nevertheless October produced achievements which have never been equalled before or since - neither by liberal capitalism in countries which started from a level of development comparable to that of Russia, nor by any of the radical nationalist revolutions which took place subsequently in the Third World.
Despite the economic and administrative chaos generated by the Russian bureaucracy, the planned economy allowed the Soviet Union to achieve a higher rate of industrial development than any country in the capitalist world for several decades. This is graphically illustrated today, in a negative way, by the catastrophic crisis caused by the breakdown of the planned economy, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The effectiveness of the Soviet planned economy was primarily due to the fact that it was based on the expropriation of the bourgeoisie carried out by the proletariat itself. Initially, the new workers' state compromised with the bourgeoisie, allowing the capitalists to retain some of their economic role, but without ever relaxing its control over the economy. When the proletariat was eventually forced to expropriate the bourgeoisie completely, all the resources accumulated by the former privileged classes were committed to the country's development. Unlike in the other countries where similar measures were taken subsequently, there were no exemptions and no special allowances for one social layer or another. The bureaucracy itself had no choice other than to operate within the economic framework left by the revolution, even after it eventually managed to deprive the working class of its political power.
Thanks to this radical expropriation, the planned economy took the use of economic resources to a level of rationalisation never achieved before or after in any other country.
The superiority of the planned economy is not just reflected in higher growth figures, but also in a more balanced development. Some Third World countries have experienced a degree of industrialisation. But because the only motive was profit, inequalities between classes and regions increased. Slums mushroomed even faster than office buildings, while the development of a few isolated industrial centres was achieved at the expense of the rest of these countries.
By contrast, the industrialisation of the Soviet Union, although it was mostly carried out under Stalin's brutal dictatorship, did not obey the laws of profit. The Soviet Union inherited from the tsarist regime some relatively developed or resource-rich areas like those in its western part or in the Caucasus. But it also inherited vast stretches of Siberia and Central Asia which had barely emerged from the Middle Ages, if not in some cases from the Stone age. And because it was aimed at rationalisation rather than profit, the industrial development of the Soviet Union reduced these differences considerably.
If the USSR did not split up before the last decade, despite the Great-Russian oppression of national minorities by Stalin's regime, it was not due to the heavy hand of the bureaucracy alone. The national minorities, who had been engulfed in the revolutionary whirlwind, discovered a new life and a new dignity. The links created between the peoples of the former tsarist empire by the revolution proved stronger than their general hatred for Stalin's regime. And the benefits of the planned economy reinforced these links.
The fact that the heritage of October managed to keep together the Soviet Union for so long stands in stark contrast with the situation of capitalist Europe. For decades the tightly intertwined European economies have been hampered by national borders. As a result the European bourgeoisies have been dreaming of a united Europe. Yet the hectic history of the single currency shows that the capitalists' national selfishness and dependence on their respective national states to resist competition, is still stronger than their desire to unite the European economy, even in only a limited way.
But something highlights even more the enormous potential of the proletarian revolution as opposed to the decrepit impotence of the capitalist system. After more than a century of continuous domination over most of the planet, and despite the technological progress made over this period, capitalism remains incapable of controlling the ups and downs of its market, let alone of preventing the present economic crisis from generating an unprecedented social catastrophe across the world.
By contrast the Russian proletariat only had a comparatively short time to apply its revolutionary energy to transforming society - just a few years which were moreover plagued by war and starvation. Yet, the transformations introduced in just those few years in Soviet society were so deep that, despite the subsequent hijacking of political power by Stalin's bureaucracy, they were to hold the world's largest country together for three quarters of a century while providing the basis for an unprecedented economic development.
The proletarian revolution - a historical necessity
The future of mankind depends on the balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat internationally and on the future of the proletarian revolution.
Even before the present crisis began, capitalism had failed to resolve any of mankind's vital problems. It had only managed to increase the gap between the privileged minorities and the exploited majorities, between the rich countries and the poor countries - with the exploitation of the latter providing for the affluence of the former.
But since the return of the world crisis in the 70s, the relative stability and apparent social gains which had been taken for granted during the previous period, at least in the richest countries, are increasingly put into question. Whole areas of the industrialised world are now experiencing levels of exploitation and poverty which were previously only found in the Third World. While parts of the latter are going through a tragic process of disintegration resulting in whole regions being virtually destroyed by permanent wars and economic and environmental degradation.
The relevance of the October revolution today is due, first and foremost, to the fact that the proletarian revolution remains a historical necessity. For the development of society is clearly deadlocked. The blind laws governing the market and the search for profit, which are responsible for the crisis, including in the rich countries, are also responsible for the inequalities between countries, and between classes within them.
Mankind has taken its scientific knowledge and mastery of technology as far as undertaking the conquest of space. But there is a glaring contradiction between man's scientific rigour and his dependence on the uncontrollable forces governing the ups and downs of the financial markets. This contradiction, however, is neither a matter of culture nor a matter of knowledge - it is a matter of social organisation.
Today the proletarian revolution is just as much on the agenda, if not more in terms of its objective necessity for the progress of mankind, as it was in 1917. But being an objective necessity is not enough to bring about the proletarian revolution. It also requires the proletariat to be conscious of this necessity and to be determined to break the stranglehold of the old world.
Over the past decades there has been no revolutionary wave comparable to that of 1917, or that of the '30s, or even the period of colonial revolution following World War II. However the proletariat was never absent from the historical scene.
The working class was at the forefront of events in 1953 in East-Berlin, in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, and in the early 80s, although to a much more limited extent, in Poland. The proletariat was physically involved in most of the uprisings which took place in the regions dominated by imperialism, whether in Central America, South Africa or the Philippines. In Brazil, Nigeria or South-Korea, the proletariat waged many economic fights which were more or less bitter, and more or less likely to open up wider perspectives.
To argue, as Labour and Tory politicians do, that the class struggle no longer exists, requires the biggest blinkers in history, or the most determined hypocrisy. In fact, the confrontation between the two main classes in society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, has continued unabated, everywhere on the planet.
On the other hand, never over this past period has the conscious perspective of overthrowing the bourgeoisie on a world scale been expressed through any mass struggle.
The economic crisis, however, may eventually change the situation from this point of view. If only because by constantly increasing its pressure on the world proletariat, the bourgeoisie may force the working class to fight in many countries, including in the imperialist countries, simultaneously or successively, but everywhere for the same reasons.
The decisive question will be whether the proletariat will find a leadership capable of providing it with a revolutionary proletarian perspective - that is a policy designed to allow the world proletariat to defend consciously its common class interests. Such a policy would then also aim at preparing the ground for a new revolutionary wave to emerge out of the threatening social crisis, successfully this time.
Of course, there is no way of predicting the advances and the setbacks which make up history - we can only say that the world as a whole is likely to be heading for a new period of acute social unrest and class struggle. But the very least even the most isolated revolutionaries should do is to prepare for this possibility, by devoting their militant efforts to ensuring that the revolutionary tradition of October 1917 is revived within the ranks of the working class.
The dictatorship of the proletariat
The dictatorship of the proletariat, implemented through the soviets, is part of the revolutionary tradition of October. The soviet state was a workers' state not because of the economic changes which were introduced after the revolution, but because it had been built by the working class to exercise its political power.
Bourgeois democratic regimes are usually characterised by the fact that their parliaments, which more or less nominate their governments, are elected by way of universal suffrage. But the soviet state went much further than this very limited type of democracy. Indeed each soviet structure - down to the level of factory or village soviets - exercised some legislative and executive power.
This required primarily that the masses should take initiatives as often as required and that they should implement their own decisions themselves, as well as those made on a larger scale, whenever practicable. This was unquestionably much more "democratic" than leaving decisions to MPs who are elected every five years and their implementation to a caste of unelected senior civil servants! Yet, many of these initiatives would have horrified today's champions of formal "democracy" with their blind respect for constitutions and rule books.
For example, in the early days following October, the soviet of the Vassily-Ostrov district in Petrograd was confronted with what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by the bourgeois camp to drown the revolution in alcohol. There seemed to be no practical way to force those who held stocks of alcohol to register so as to implement some form of control. But the soviet found a solution of its own. It issued a decree giving the owners of alcoholic stocks three hours to register with the soviet. Past this deadline offenders were warned that unregistered stocks would be dynamited, regardless of the consequences for the buildings in which they were held. Soon the potential offenders were queuing anxiously outside the soviet's office.
The dictatorship of the proletariat, as implemented in the revolutionary period following October, was indeed the most democratic state ever. This state was dictatorial against those who might have wanted to fight for the return of the former privileged classes. Above all it was dictatorial in the sense that it imposed on society the collective interests of the proletariat. But it was a dictatorship exercised democratically and consciously by the masses, that is by the overwhelming majority - as opposed to the most democratic bourgeois regimes, which can only be the instrument of the dictatorship of the tiny minority which makes up the bourgeoisie, against the masses.
That being said, the soviet organisation was not a specific Russian feature. Throughout the revolutionary wave, soviets emerged, under various names, in many different countries. This showed that soviet democracy was not a circumstantial feature of October, but an integral part of the proletarian revolution itself. And in one form or another, it will be a feature of tomorrow's revolution. Indeed the proletarian revolution cannot take place without a high level of consciousness among the masses, and political consciousness cannot exist without democracy.
The revolutionary party
Another vital heritage of October, is the Bolshevik tradition of organisation. Some on the Left argue that the Bolsheviks' conception of the revolutionary party was adapted to the specific conditions in tsarist Russia, but not to those in today's western bourgeois democracies. This may be true for some secondary aspects, but certainly not for the fundamental features of Lenin's party.
Throughout the revolutionary period, the Bolshevik party was the vital factor which allowed the working class to go through a series of political experiences with its eyes open. When it came to the crunch, in the decisive days of October, it became an indispensable weapon in the proletariat's seizure of power. Why was the Bolshevik party able to play this role?
The monolithic image created during the Stalinist era with the help of anti-communist propaganda had nothing to do with the reality of the Bolshevik party of Lenin's days. Democratic centralism, which was the basis of the Bolsheviks' internal regime, may be considered a dirty word today in many quarters of the Left. Yet the Bolshevik party was just as democratic as the soviet organisation itself. Different, and often conflicting ideas and positions were discussed at every level of the party, without this undermining its revolutionary efficiency.
Despite being unquestionably the party's leader, Lenin was no more than one member of the party leadership among others. On many occasions, particularly in the crucial period between February and October 1917, Lenin found himself in a minority. Like anybody else, he had to fight for his ideas in order to convince the ranks of the party.
At various points, separate fractions were organised within the party, following discussions which had revealed significant differences. Sometimes these fractions even published their own newspapers. Even at the most critical turning points the revolution, the Bolsheviks never feared these open discussions, because the strength of the party depended entirely on the conscience and commitment of its activists - which are tightly intertwined.
The Bolshevik party was a workers' party. Not only did it claim to defend the interests of the working class - not just in words but in deeds - it also counted first and foremost on the proletariat as the only force capable of leading the way to the socialist revolution.
This does not mean that, before October, the Bolsheviks managed to convince a majority of the working class that its policy was the only one worth considering. But there is nothing exceptional in this. The working class is revolutionary only in terms of its historical role, but it is not permanently revolutionary - otherwise there would be no need for a revolution. Outside very rare and special periods, a revolutionary party can only be, as a rule, a minority party even in the working class itself. But even when it is a minority party, a revolutionary party can win the trust of the overwhelming majority of the working class.
The Bolshevik party had such a capital of trust which it had accumulated over many years of patient and hard work among the masses. And it was this capital which allowed it to take the leadership of the masses at the crucial hour. After February, the majority of the Russian masses turned to the other socialist parties, which seemed more moderate and "realistic" than the Bolsheviks. But after a few months, the proletarian masses came to the conclusion that these moderate policies could not resolve the crisis nor give them the political independence they wanted with regard to the bourgeoisie. It was at this point that, on the basis of the trust they had in the Bolsheviks, workers eventually turned to them for leadership.
The working class does not generally represent a majority of the population in most countries. In Russia, as in all poor countries, it only made up a small minority of the population. But because of the key role it plays in the economy of any country, the working class always has a considerable social power. And it can use this power to take the lead of the other exploited classes.
The Bolsheviks knew that whoever is in control of the factories is effectively in control of the country as a whole - and they did control the factories. This is why a party with a few tens of thousands of activists, leading a million and a half proletarians or so, managed to play a decisive role in the destiny of a 150-million strong country.
Indeed, the Bolshevik party never had hundreds of thousands of activists, in any case not in the period preceding the revolution. By February 1917, it only had 70,000 members. But these members were not just paper members. They were activists. For these women and men the fight for communism was not a hobby to which they devoted a few hours of their spare time, but the main preoccupation of their lives, to which they devoted the best part of their energies and abilities. The fact that the Bolshevik party was made of such men and women was the result of the political choice made in 1903. And the October revolution provided the most striking vindication of this choice.
It is the absence of such a party anywhere which has confined the proletariat to the backstage of world politics over the past decades. Such a party of the working class remains to be built, in Britain and worldwide. The tasks of revolutionaries is to find men and women, particularly among the youth, who will value the future of mankind highly enough to choose the side of the working class and devote their energy, abilities and enthusiasm to build this revolutionary party.
The perspective of the world revolution today
We are communists, that is revolutionaries and internationalists. This means that for us, the preparation for the future decisive battles of the international working class will have to draw heavily from the experience of the Bolsheviks, from October and the first few revolutionary years of the soviet state. This means, in particular, that when the crisis of the capitalist economy opens a new period of class struggle, the proletariat will need to fight behind the flag of its own class, in the name of the international proletarian revolution.
When this happens, and the development of the class struggle results in a new revolutionary crisis, there is at least one weapon that the international bourgeoisie is unlikely to be able to use - the containment strategy which had such dramatic consequences in the aftermath of 1917.
Before February 1917, the first to fraternise with each other were the soldiers from opposing trenches. The weight of the suffering experienced over the previous three years of fratricidal battles, turned into a common experience, just because they stopped taking notice of the differences between uniforms and languages and started rejecting the madness of the imperialist war. In such situations, the calls of a handful of individuals - Lenin and the tiny group of internationalists scattered across Europe - can have an enormous impact and can be met with an enthusiastic response. Workers can identify with a voice which is a common link between them, which reflects the reality and which calls them to win a new dignity and to take their fate into their own hands.
Then, no jail, no barbed wire, no border, can prevent the voice of proletarian internationalism from reaching workers wherever they are. For such a voice echoes a powerful and collective aspiration to get out of the dead-end created by the propertied classes.
The world as it is today will make it easier to regroup the proletarians around the flag of the international working-class revolution. As a result of technological progress in communication, any economic or social event gets to be known much faster and, therefore, can have much more impact. The stock market speculators have already experienced this to their detriment. While computers and satellites have helped them with their speculation, the same technology has proved to be just as effective in wiping out part of their wealth, during spells of delirium in the stock market.
Telephones, computers, and even fashionable devices like the Internet, could spread facts and ideas just as quickly, for the benefit of the proletarian revolution. Today, news can travel from one continent to another faster than between neighbouring villages at the turn of the century.
Imperialism has also brought men closer in other ways, particularly workers. In the factories of the imperialist countries, men from different countries and continents have been gathered together by capital.
Today, the employers may play on national hostilities and racist prejudices to divide and weaken the working class. But workers from Central Africa, Asia, the Caribbeans and Turkey are working side by side with those of the rich Western Europe countries. American workers, black and white, work side by side with workers who come from all over Latin America, the Caribbean and even the Middle East.
Today's intermixing of populations in the melting pot of the world capitalist market may help to spread a revolutionary workers' movement tomorrow. When those who used to consider themselves different and in competition start to discover, in the midst of events, that they are brothers and members of one and the same class, the days of the old capitalist order will be numbered.