What happened to the Russian Revolution?

What existed in the former USSR wasn’t socialism, but another kind of capitalism.

WE SOCIALISTS don't get people telling us to "go back to Russia" anymore. That kind of anticommunism died with the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the ex-USSR.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

But we still get the question: Doesn't Russia prove that socialism is doomed to fail?

The truth is that what passed for socialism in Russia from the 1930s until its collapse in 1991 was no more socialist than America has a government "by the people, of the people and for the people."

The belief that Russia was socialist came from the idea that socialism equals state ownership of property. But this isn't socialism. Frederick Engels once complained that "if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon...must be numbered among the founders of socialism."

Even if all individual companies and enterprises are taken over by the state, this still isn't socialism. What exists is merely the state acting as the "national capitalist." "The workers remain wage workers," Engels wrote. "The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head."

In fact, the former USSR was "state capitalist." Within the country, there was no competition. Everything was controlled by the state bureaucracy. But Russia was forced to compete militarily with the West. Because of Russia's economic backwardness relative to its Western rivals, its rulers drove workers and peasants to the hilt in order to industrialize the country and accumulate arms.

Socialism's starting point must be who is in control of society--who makes the fundamental decisions and on what basis? Socialism is about workers controlling and planning production and distribution according to social need.

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SO HOW did Russia become state capitalist instead of socialist? The answer lies in the fact that socialism can be built only in conditions of abundance.

In Russia, the October Revolution of 1917 did bring workers to power. The workers' councils, or soviets, ran society democratically. Contrary to the popular myth, Lenin's Bolsheviks weren't a minority party that seized power behind people's backs. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks were immensely popular, with hundreds of thousands of active members, the vast majority of them workers in factories, mines and mills.

But what would happen in a society where workers seize power--and yet the economic conditions aren't developed enough to build socialism? That's what happened in Russia.

The leaders of the Russian Revolution knew that a country with a majority peasant population and relatively small but concentrated working class in the cities couldn't build socialism unless the revolution spread to more developed countries in Europe. And though the revolution did spread--to Germany, Hungary and elsewhere--it was defeated in every country but Russia.

Russia's revolutionary regime was forced to fight a civil war against the old generals and landlords and their foreign backers in order to hold onto power. The results were catastrophic.

If socialism is workers' control of production, by 1919, Russia had neither workers nor production. By the end of 1920, factory production was reduced to 12.5 percent of its 1913 level. As early as 1918, the population of the main industrial city of Petrograd was reduced by half. As British socialist Duncan Hallas wrote, "The Bolshevik Party came to substitute itself for a decimated, exhausted working class that was itself a small fraction of the population."

Increasingly, the democratic control from below was replaced by control from above--by the Communist Party apparatus of functionaries. It was on this foundation that the dictator Joseph Stalin and the bureaucracy he led could emerge.

In the name of socialism, Stalin's bureaucracy murdered or exiled the vast majority of revolutionaries who had been active in the revolution. To Marx and Engels' slogan "Workers of the world, unite!" they counterposed "socialism in one country."

The real meaning of socialism was distorted beyond recognition--used not as a guide to human liberation, but as an ideology to justify a new ruling class in Russia.

Russia gave us a brief but brilliant glimpse of what workers' power will look like. Sadly, the Stalinist bureaucracy that rose on its ruin for decades gave real socialism bad name--one it doesn't deserve.

First published in the June 9, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.