The party and the revolution

Paul D'Amato cuts through the myths and distortions about Lenin's Bolshevik Party.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

RUSSIA WAS the first and only country to achieve a socialist revolution--that is, a society in which ordinary people had their hands on the levers of power.

For that reason alone, the capitalist rulers of the world cannot allow it to stand on its own merits. The later degeneration of the revolution into bureaucratic, one-party totalitarian rule must be read back into the past to "prove" that the revolution was doomed to fail.

This is the purpose of the hundreds of studies published by Russia "experts" that portray Lenin and the Bolshevik Party as ruthless, nasty and authoritarian. The revolution, in most accounts, did not involve the masses in determining their own destiny, but was the work of individuals bent on exploiting mass discontent for their own purposes.

This framework serves two purposes: to elevate the role of individuals in the making of history, and simultaneously to denigrate the role of ordinary workers, who are seen as naïve dupes.

Lenin is portrayed as a superhuman madman, bent on one-man dictatorship--and possessing an irresistible will to power. Historian Robert Payne, for example, writes absurdly of Lenin, "His fanatical will was like a lever which attempted to throw the whole globe into an orbit more to his liking; and because he pressed so hard on the lever, the earth still shudders."

The reality is that the Bolshevik Party became a mass party in the course of the revolution, winning the allegiance of the most militant workers. Far from being Lenin's cat's paw, the Bolsheviks were a party alive with debate and disagreement, with different factions fighting over the revolution's course.

Lenin was certainly the most respected leader in the party, but it was a respect earned by his role as a theoretician and practical leader, not by hypnosis or fiat. Indeed, Lenin often found himself in the minority and had to fight hard for his positions. Moreover, in a number of cases, Lenin's views, particularly on tactical questions, were wrong, and were rejected or adjusted by the party.

When Lenin returned to Russia in April, his views--transfer all power to the Soviets--were considered by other Bolsheviks to be completely out of touch and even anarchist. It took him some weeks of hard argument to win over the party. Lenin also had to fight tooth and nail to convince the party of the necessity of preparing for an insurrection once the Bolsheviks had won over a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd soviets.

On the other hand, Lenin proved to be wrong after the July Days when he argued that the soviets were now bankrupt institutions. The party, though it officially voted to abandon the slogan "All power to the soviets," never really abandoned it at the local level and soon restored it.

Lenin was also wrong in his views that the insurrection might begin in Moscow--Petrograd was clearly the leading revolutionary citadel in Russia--and in his insistence that the insurrection should be organized through the Bolshevik Party, independently of the soviets. Other leaders, such as Leon Trotsky, were able to set a better course on these questions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE ARGUMENT that the Bolsheviks "hijacked" the revolution fails to take into account that the Bolsheviks were only one political party among many competing for the support of the Russian people.

The fact that the Bolsheviks were able to win mass support away from the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks flowed not from their superior persuasive powers or ability to command blind obedience, but because of their program.

They were the only party that demanded land to the peasants, factories to the workers, all power to the soviets and an end to the war. "All other major political groups," writes historian Alexander Rabinowitch, "lost credibility because of their association with the government and their insistence on patient sacrifice in the interests of the war effort."

In short, whereas the other parties acted as a brake on the revolution, the Bolsheviks wanted to see it through to the end.

At the same time, the party was not for some kind of minority putsch against the Provisional Government led by Kerensky. Lenin and other party leaders worked to restrain the movement when they felt that a premature revolt threatened the movement as a whole with defeat.

It must be remembered that Lenin's position was that the party must "patiently explain" their demands and win over the majority of the working class before it could move toward decisive action against the Provisional Government.

Lenin's bold and determined leadership, as well as the Bolsheviks' relative unity and discipline compared to other political parties, were key factors in the revolution's success.

But this unity and discipline was not bureaucratic--it was organic and political. The party debated and voted on all key questions, and local organizations of the party possessed a great deal of leeway to carry on their own independent initiatives.

Rabinowitch attributes much of the Bolsheviks' success in transforming themselves from a party of 25,000 on the eve of the February Revolution into a mass party capable of leading a successful struggle for power with a membership of a quarter million to "the party's internally relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralized structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character."

The conspiratorial, clandestine forms of organization of the Bolsheviks that preceded the revolutionary period were imposed by necessity on all illegal parties as a result of the repressive conditions of Tsarism. The Bolsheviks were always prepared, when conditions changed, to move toward open, democratic methods of organization. This little fact is practically ignored by most historians.

The dreaded "democratic centralism" of the Bolshevik Party was exactly what the term implies: the fullest and freest debate, combined with strict adherence to decisions once made. This is what gave the party its ability to "read" what was happening in the disparate sectors of struggle, generalize from that experience and offer guidance to it.

Democracy without centralism is a talk shop. Centralism without democracy creates bureaucratism and isolates the leaders from the ranks. As Trotsky later wrote:

How could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groups and temporary faction formations?...

The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this, it derived the audacity to make decision and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless capital of centralism.

Rabinowitch, in his book The Bolsheviks Come to Power, is able to demonstrate in rich detail that "within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917, there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues," and that the party had shifting left, center and moderate tendencies within it, right through the revolutionary period. "Leaders who differed with the majority were at liberty to fight for their views, and not infrequently, Lenin was the loser in those struggles."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SURPRISING THOUGH these insights are to most bourgeois or anarchist commentators, the Bolsheviks' open and democratic character flowed from its commitment to workers' self-emancipation.

Lenin's insistence on the need to build a disciplined party of revolutionaries is usually presented as a product of his "distrust" of the working class's revolutionary potential--when, in fact, Lenin's entire political career was based on the proposition, established in the early years of the Russian Marxist movement, that, "[t]he revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary movement of the workers."

Nikolai Sukhanov, by no means a Bolshevik supporter in 1917, but who witnessed the party at close quarters in the days leading up to the October Revolution, observed the interconnectedness between the party and the working class:

The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without letup. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day.

For the masses, they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks. They had become the sole hope...The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks.

What Sukhanov seemed not to understand is that the Bolsheviks themselves were workers--leaders on the ground in the day-to-day struggle. They did not parachute in from somewhere else; they were already there.

As early as June, for example, Bolshevik delegates dominated the conferences of the factory committees. The Bolshevik vanguard was not an isolated elite, but organized working-class militants tempered by shared experience and shared politics, developed through interaction with their fellow workers.

One lesson of the Russian Revolution is that workers can take over the running of society; revolutions can win. Of course, the lesson of many failed workers' revolutions (1905 in Russia or 1919-23 in Germany, for example) is that such victories are by no means guaranteed.

Another, equally important lesson is that such a revolution can only win, as it did in Russia, if the working class organizes its own revolutionary party to guide its path to power.

This article first appeared in the September 28, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.