The legacy of 1917

Alan Maass concludes Socialist Worker's series on the 1917 Russian Revolution by explaining what the revolution achieved, how it was ultimately defeated--and the continuing importance of its legacy.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE INSURRECTION launched on the night of October 24 by the Petrograd Soviet's Military Revolutionary Committee swept away the last vestiges of the Provisional Government's power.

When the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, with representatives from across the country, convened the following morning, the Bolsheviks were the majority party, counting 390 of the 650 delegates present at the opening.

The next largest party was the Social Revolutionaries, with fewer than 200, and a majority of them were from the party's left faction, which supported the insurrection. The Mensheviks, who had participated in the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky, had about 80 delegates.

The more moderate parties challenged the Bolsheviks' position that the soviets should now become the undisputed power in Russia. One Menshevik resolution alleged that the "military conspiracy of the Bolsheviks...will plunge the country into civil dissension...and lead to the triumph of the counter-revolution."

When their proposals were defeated, the Mensheviks walked out, along with the right-wing faction of the Social Revolutionaries.

This claim that the Bolsheviks had carried out a coup has become standard issue in histories of the revolution, but most people in Russia at the time, even opponents of the Bolsheviks, recognized a different reality.

For example, the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who wrote a history of the revolution, insisted, "To talk about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the [Bolsheviks were] followed by the overwhelming majority of the people, when the party had already de facto conquered all real power and authority, was clearly an absurdity."

The ensuing actions of the Congress of Soviets, led by its Bolshevik majority, also underlined the popular character of the October Revolution.

When Lenin appeared before it the next day, he began simply with the statement: "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order." The days that followed were indeed filled with decrees that equaled and surpassed the political achievements of any country in the world at that time.

The Congress voted to coordinate workers' control through elected factory committees. A decree on land abolished the aristocrats' estates and sanctioned their redistribution to peasants. Russia's banks were nationalized. The colonial empire of the Tsar was renounced, and formerly subjugated nations were given the right to self-determination. The right to practice any, or no, religion was established.

As a start toward establishing the material basis of a society of equality, women were granted full rights of divorce, and abortion was legalized and made available on demand. Laws outlawing homosexuality were struck down. This, however, was just the beginning--the powers of the new state were soon placed, for example, behind efforts to create communal kitchens and laundries, with the aim of making women full participants in society, not only in law, but in reality.

The most pressing issue was Russia's participation in the First World War. The Congress of Soviets voted immediately to abolish secret diplomacy and called on workers in other countries to demand a just peace. Within a few weeks, negotiations were opened with the German government.

The price of ending the war would be high--Germany demanded huge concessions. This stirred a sharp debate about what course the new workers' government should take--which the Bolsheviks encouraged by publishing the positions of all sides and promoting discussions around the country.

Eventually, Lenin's position--that the Bolsheviks must accept a peace treaty, even on bad terms, or risk losing support for the revolution--prevailed. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918. Russia gave up a huge part of its territory that included one-third of the country's population, half of its industry and 90 percent of its coal mines.

Nevertheless, this was the culmination of the first struggle in history by the working masses of a country that stopped their rulers' war. And the goal of Lenin and every Bolshevik--that Russia should serve as an example of defiance to workers of other countries enduring the horrors of the war--was vindicated by the end of the year, when Germany's workers and soldiers rose up against the Kaiser.

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SUCH ACHIEVEMENTS, however, are not what most people learn about the Russian Revolution. Instead, the popular image of "socialist" Russia is of a Big Brother police state, presided over by party bosses and bureaucrats.

Russia did become this society--after the revolution was strangled by civil war, imperialist intervention and economic crisis.

But the defeat of the Russian Revolution took a form that no one--least of all the socialists who helped it to victory in 1917--expected. Instead of an imperialist occupation or a coup by a military dictator, class rule was re-imposed in Russia under a state bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, which continued to use the rhetoric of socialism.

The language and surface appearances of workers' power were perpetuated--and twisted to justify oppression and exploitation.

This isn't completely unlike how countries such as the U.S. masquerade as a "democracy" today. Nevertheless, the brutality of Stalin's Russia has been used ever since as an argument against socialism--that all attempts to change society fundamentally are doomed to produce something worse. Even many people on the left sympathetic to the 1917 revolution believe nevertheless that the seeds of Stalinism lay in the behavior of the Bolsheviks under Lenin.

So it's very important for anyone who looks to the Russian Revolution as an inspiration and example to be able to explain how this counter-revolution--carried out in the name of "socialism" and later "communism"--could take place.

The basic answer lies in the fact that socialism is only possible in conditions of abundance--when there is enough to meet everyone's needs, and the resources of society can be devoted to promoting freedom and democracy. The Russian workers' state established by the October Revolution, on the other hand, existed from the beginning under a state of siege it was never able to escape from.

Within days of the insurrection, the workers of Petrograd were organizing defenses against a counter-revolutionary army led by Gen. Pyotr Krasnov, with the avowed aim of putting Kerensky back in power. For the next five years, other "White armies," led by the dregs of the Tsarist regime, threatened the workers' state.

The Whites were backed by the governments of 14 imperialist nations, which sent arms, materials and troops--an estimated 200,000 soldiers in all--to support the counter-revolutionaries.

Russia had been the poorest country of Europe to begin with, and its economic system was shattered by the war. A majority of the population were still peasants, tied to the land and living lives not much different than their ancestors centuries before.

It had been possible for Russian workers to topple the Provisional Government, but the revolution could never survive for long on its own. It was the first principle of the Bolsheviks that Russia would need the aid of an international socialist revolution.

As Lenin wrote: "We are far from having completed even the transitional period from capitalism to socialism. We have never cherished the hope that we could finish it without the aid of the international proletariat."

This wasn't an idle dream. The Russian Revolution came on the crest of a wave of upheavals across Europe and beyond.

In Germany, the Kaiser fell at the end of 1918, opening up a period of five years in which insurrection and workers' power were an imminent possibility. Short-lived soviet republics were founded in Hungary and Bulgaria. Italy was rocked by factory occupations. Even in the U.S., the city of Seattle fell into the hands of workers during the general strike of 1919.

As Victor Serge wrote in his book Year One of the Russian Revolution:

The newspapers of the period are astonishing. Each day, in large type with headlines across the page, they carry last-minute dispatches, vague rumors picked up in Stockholm by anxious ears: riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the Soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact, the whole of Europe is in movement; clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything.

Ultimately, however, the revolutionary wave receded without another sustained victory like Russia. The consequences were devastating--not only for the workers of Germany and elsewhere, but for the fate of Russia.

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THE REVOLUTION was very nearly overthrown in the civil war. At one point, offensives by the counter-revolutionary White armies reduced the area controlled by the workers' state to the immediate surroundings of Moscow (where the capital had been moved).

Through a heroic effort that testified to the loyalty of Russia's workers to the revolution, the Reds won the civil war--but at an immense cost. The production of every kind of good in Russia--food, raw materials and resources, and, most of all, industrial goods--declined.

By one estimate, Russia suffered in the civil war years the most catastrophic contraction of the means of production of any country at any time in recent history.

Russia's working class--the class that made the revolution--was decimated. Its numbers were cut literally in half by the high casualties of the civil war and the exodus from the cities as famine and scarcity took hold.

Yet even this statistic fails to capture the effective disappearance of the most advanced, class-conscious workers--since they were most likely to volunteer for the front in the civil war, or be drafted into the state machine for the desperate effort to hold Russian society together.

This was an outcome no Bolshevik could have foreseen--that the revolution would be successfully defended, but at the cost of destroying the class that gave it life.

Under this pressure, the sinews of working-class democracy began to come apart. For 18 months, there were no elections to the soviets in Moscow. By 1919, the weight of the working class in relation to the state apparatus had shifted--with five times as many state workers as industrial workers.

Under such circumstances, the Bolsheviks' efforts to facilitate a debate over significant questions--such as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or the role of trade unions, as posed by the Workers' Opposition led by Alexandra Kollantai--were remarkable.

But the objective conditions of war and economic chaos pushed the leaders of the revolution in a different direction--out of the real fear of the barbaric vengeance the Whites would exact if they came to power. As William Henry Chamberlin, an American journalist who reported from Russia, wrote:

The alternative to Bolshevism, had it failed to survive the ordeal of civil war, would not have been Chernov opening a Constituent Assembly, elected according to the most modern rules of equal suffrage and proportional representation, but a military dictator, a Kolchak or a Denikin, riding into Moscow on a white horse to the accompaniment of the clanging bells of the old capital's hundreds of churches.

Or, as Trotsky put it, if the Whites had won, the word for fascism would have been introduced to the world in the Russian language, not Italian.

Therefore, the Bolsheviks had to put the highest priority on surviving each successive military threat--in the hope that a revolution in Germany or elsewhere would come to their aid before they fell.

There wasn't much room to experiment with a socialist economy--especially with Russian industry already in a state of ruin from the crisis that came before the revolution. Because of the civil war, centralization of industry became a matter of life and death--something that the factory committees evidently recognized, since their representatives supported proposals for a return to "one-man management" and other measures.

Likewise, within the Red Army, iron discipline had to be ruthlessly enforced. Outside the military, the Bolsheviks concluded that even ordinary-seeming expressions of political opposition could threaten the survival of the workers' state. As the historian E.H. Carr wrote, "If it was true that the Bolshevik regime was not prepared after the first few months to tolerate an organized opposition, it was equally true that no opposition was prepared to remain within legal limits."

This isn't how any of the Bolsheviks would have chosen to organize a socialist society. At each step, they were responding to an unending series of emergencies--and increasingly throwing themselves into the breach left by the literal breakdown of workers' democracy. These were the circumstances that led Lenin to describe Russia as "a workers' state, but with bureaucratic deformations."

This had an undeniable impact on the leaders of the revolution themselves--especially the core of state bureaucrats coalescing around Joseph Stalin, the veteran Bolshevik who had played a less prominent role in 1917 than other party leaders.

Trotsky later described the corrosive effect for those in power of taking action to hold the workers' state together--and with the future of the revolution seeming to hang on their authority not being challenged:

The three years of civil war laid an indelible impress on the Soviet government itself by virtue of the fact that very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders...There is no doubt that Stalin, like many others, was molded by the environment and circumstances of the civil war.

All of this flows from the objective conditions of war, famine and economic crisis--not from any conspiracy of power-hungry Bolsheviks to rule over society. Stalin and his allies acted increasingly on their own authority, with no accountability to soviet democracy, because the soviets were fatally weakened.

Their actions came with the justification that this was a temporary emergency. But what happens when a temporary emergency becomes permanent? Ultimately, the bureaucrats around Stalin came to identify the future of the revolution with their own collective future--and their continued hold on power.

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THERE WAS, however, a qualitative difference between the increasingly corrupt leadership of the Stalinists over a "workers' state, but with bureaucratic deformations," and the new system of class rule to come.

For the Stalinist bureaucracy to solidify its power and emerge as Russia's unquestioned rulers, all of the achievements of 1917 had to be confronted and overturned.

Stalin's rise to power didn't happen without a fight. In 1922, Lenin--after suffering the first of several strokes that would incapacitate him and lead to his death in 1924--dictated a statement recommending that Stalin be removed as general secretary of the Communist Party because of his increasingly high-handed and arbitrary behavior, particularly on the question of national oppression. Such was the state of the crisis that other Bolsheviks feared the consequence of carrying out this counsel when Lenin's Testament was disclosed.

Leon Trotsky organized the Left Opposition to agitate for an economic policy emphasizing industrial development, increased democracy and a renewed commitment to revolutionary internationalism. The Left Opposition had the support of many veterans of the revolution and the civil war. But for Trotsky to prevail over Stalin and the bureaucracy would have required active struggles of a majority of the Russian working class--at a time when that class was exhausted by war and economic collapse.

The final turning point came in the late 1920s, when the Stalinists defeated their last major opponents and launched a program of collectivization of agriculture and massive industrialization.

The transformation of Russian society at this point can be seen in every economic and political measure: production shifted away from consumer goods and toward industrial goods; wages, which had risen slowly in the 1920s despite the crisis, were cut by an estimated 50 percent in seven years; rules restricting the earnings of bureaucrats were overturned; the population of the labor camps increased by 22 times between 1928 and 1930; the decrees guaranteeing the legal equality of women and the rights of national minorities, passed triumphantly in 1917, were taken back.

From this point, it's impossible to say that Russia's workers had control over society in any way--or might come to have control in the future with political reforms.

State ownership of the means of production remained. But who now "owned" the state? Certainly not Russia's workers.

To seal the victory, almost every surviving leader of the revolution was slandered as an enemy of "socialism" and disposed of by imprisonment, execution or assassination. As Trotsky wrote of the 1930s "show trials" of former Bolshevik leaders:

The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line, but a whole river of blood. The annihilation of all the older generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation, which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth that took up most seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism.

What's striking about the system Stalin presided over is its similarities with Western-style capitalism--in substance if not in form.

The state bureaucracy now determined unilaterally how Russia's resources would be deployed. More and more, the emphasis was on building up heavy industry--above all, arms, tanks, planes and anything to do with the military.

Like capitalism, the driving force of production under Stalin's Russia was to meet the competition--only the competition wasn't between companies battling for market share, but between states fighting over military control of the globe. This dynamic reached its height after the Second World War, with the Cold War between the world's two superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR.

Stalin's insistence that the USSR must "catch up and outstrip" the West economically or be conquered reflected how Russia had become subject to the laws of capitalism through the necessity of military competition. The new form of class rule imposed after the defeat of the Russian Revolution was state capitalism.

And the ultimate downfall of the Stalinist system was, as in 1917, the determination of masses of people to oppose tyranny--when workers rose up against the satellites of the USSR in Eastern Europe in 1989, setting the stage for the collapse of the USSR itself a few years later.

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IN SPITE of everything Stalinism did to discredit socialism, the defenders of the status quo today haven't stopped slandering the Russian Revolution. Even as a memory of a struggle from a distant time under very different conditions, it remains a threat.

Above and beyond any decree or declaration, the most lasting legacy of the revolution was the example it set of a society brought to life by the struggle for a better world. As Trotsky put it:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state--be it monarchical or democratic--elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime...The history of a revolution is for us, first of all, a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

The memories of socialists who lived through the revolution are dominated by the sense of people's horizons opening up. Krupskaya, a veteran Bolshevik and Lenin's wife, remembered: "The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events...The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute...Petrograd's white nights are always associated in my mind now with those all-night political disputes."

Russia was the most backward country in Europe as 1917 began, yet revolutionary Russia saw a blossoming of art and culture.

Lunacharsky--by most accounts, the Bolsheviks' most stirring public speaker--is said to have held crowds of people spellbound with lectures on Shakespeare. New movements in art, literature and music had an international impact.

Russia's theaters were a beacon to the world--even in the 1930s, with Stalin firmly in charge, American artists on a trip to Moscow described the artistic ferment they encountered, with partisans of different theater groups and artists rooting for their favorites like sports fans in the U.S. cheered on their home baseball team.

Arthur Ransome, the British author of children's books, described going to the theater--previously the preserve of the Tsarist elite--one evening on a visit to Russia:

I looked carefully to see the sort of people who fill the stalls under the new regime, and decided that there has been a general transfer of brains from the gallery above, to the floor of the house...Looking from face to face that night, I thought there were very few people in the theatre who had had anything like a good dinner to digest. But, as for their keenness, I can imagine few audiences to which, from the actor's point of view, it would be better worthwhile to play.

In every corner of Russia and in every area of culture and society, there are stories of how the revolution changed everyone it touched.

Near the end of his brilliant History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky quotes a former Tsarist general, whose word sums up the ruling class' enduring hatred of the Russian Revolution:

Who would believe that the janitor or watchman of the court building would suddenly become Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals? Or the hospital orderly manager of the hospital; the barber a big functionary; yesterday's ensign the commander-in-chief; yesterday's lackey or common laborer the town master; yesterday's train oiler chief of division or station superintendent; yesterday's locksmith head of the factory?

Who indeed? This was the promise of the Russian Revolution and the tragedy of its defeat after only a few short years--that society could be remade without privileges and power for the few; remade without a small minority born to rule and the rest ruled; remade without the stultifying oppression, exploitation and alienation that afflicts almost everyone under capitalism.

That promise remains to be realized--and to do it, the history of the Russian Revolution needs to be uncovered and understood by a new generation of revolutionaries so its lessons can be put to use in the ongoing struggle for a socialist society.

This article first appeared in the November 16, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.