Was Stalinism inevitable?

October 12, 2017

The Bolsheviks who led the October Revolution 100 years ago believed Russia's fate depended on working-class revolution taking place in Europe and around the world. Eric Blanc, author of the forthcoming Anti-Colonial Marxism: Oppression and Revolution in the Tsarist Borderlands, explains the importance of this principle to our understanding today of why the revolution lost.

FOR CLOSE to a century, the rise of Stalinism in Russia has obscured the emancipatory project of the 1917 revolution.

Liberal and conservative critics insist that this turn of events in Russia--the rise of a political and social tyranny in the aftermath of revolution and civil war--shows that any attempt to overturn capitalism will only lead to brutal dictatorship. According to historian Bruno Naarden, for example, the "disastrous developments after 1917 were to show what would happen if state and society had to manage without the bourgeois elite."

In light of the prevalence of these views, providing a serious explanation of why the Russian Revolution was lost remains an essential task for revolutionary Marxists.

THE LIBERTARIAN potential of workers' power can be glimpsed from the first few months of the Soviet government established in October 1917, as well as the Red Government set up soon after in Finland.

Millions of workers, farm laborers and peasants seized power over their workplaces, communities and the state. With the overthrow of the old authorities, mass participation in all facets of social life spread to an unprecedented extent. Faced with the sabotage or desertion of governmental functionaries and capitalist managers, working people and organized Marxists stepped in to fill the ensuing vacuum. Bottom-up self-management became the norm.

Red Army soldiers march into battle during the Russian Civil War
Red Army soldiers march into battle during the Russian Civil War

In the wake of October, Bolsheviks and other radical socialists pushed to extend the revolution across the rest of Russia and abroad. In their view, the October Revolution was the advanced outpost of the world socialist revolution--without the international spread of workers' rule, they argued, the Russian Revolution would be doomed.

Though the Bolsheviks and their allies largely succeeded in establishing Soviet rule across central Russia, their successes in the Russian empire's periphery and beyond were far more uneven. By the summer of 1918, Soviet governments in Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Baku--as well as the Finnish Red Government--had been toppled by the combined efforts of the German government, the native bourgeoisies and moderate socialists.

This inability to break past imperialism's cordon sanitaire in Russia's periphery facilitated a prolonged and devastating civil war that took place primarily in the borderlands of the former Tsarist empire.

The revolution's drive toward the democratization of social and political life was soon reversed in the face of civil war, intervention by numerous foreign powers--including the United States--and economic collapse. It should be kept in mind, too, that the Bolsheviks inherited a country that was already on the verge of disintegration.

Noting the imperialist encirclement of Russia, the deepening economic disaster and the active sabotage by the capitalists and intelligentsia, Baku's Bolsheviks in November 1917 concluded that "no other government anywhere has had to work in such complex and difficult conditions."

Over the course of 1918, industry further imploded. The ties between the city and countryside were shattered; famine, disease and demoralization spread like a plague. Conditions in the former Tsarist empire became almost indescribably catastrophic, making even the crises of the preceding period pale by comparison. Workers' democracy could hardly survive, let alone flourish, in such a context.

FOR AN honest contemporary description of this historic moment, consider the following letter written in July 1918 by Yakov Sheikman, a 27-year old Bolshevik leader in Kazan, a heavily Muslim industrial town on the Volga River. Fearing that he would soon be killed in battle, Sheikman wrote the following note to his infant son, in which he explained the trajectory of the struggle for which he was risking his life:

So, dear Emi, we are surrounded. Perhaps I will have to die. Every moment danger awaits us. That's why I decided to write to you...You can imagine how difficult it all was [after October], since we had simultaneously to build up, to tear down, and to defend ourselves against enemies who had no shortage of furious hatred toward us. The whole country was engulfed in the flame of the Civil War...

The bourgeoisie and its underlings set about laying ambushes. Sabotage acquired incredible forms and reached colossal proportions. The intelligentsia, which had without complaint supported the bourgeoisie, did not want to serve the working class. As if that were not enough, it joined an alliance with the bourgeoisie directed against the working class...

Counterrevolution struck Soviet Russia painfully. Yet Soviet power courageously repulsed the blows falling on it from all sides and soon went on the offensive. Where our enemies were prevailing, there was no mercy for us. But we also showed no mercy.

In such a context, the process of social and political democratization was quickly subordinated--both from above and below--to the military efforts to defeat the counterrevolution and the desperate struggle to feed the cities and the fledging Red Army.

Everything became oriented towards political survival--to hold out as long as possible until the eruption of workers' power in the West would open up new political horizons. Across the former Tsarist empire, self-management was submerged by authoritarianism and bureaucratization. Noting this dynamic, Sheikman lamented that "there is a lot of wretchedness in Soviet officials (not all, of course, are like that, but many)."

A COMPARATIVE empire-wide analysis illuminates the weight of the dire social circumstances on political policy.

Advocates of the idea that the dictatorial turn of the Russian Revolution was due to the supposedly inherently authoritarian politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks have yet to explain why their political rivals--including Russian and non-Russian liberals, nationalists, moderate socialists and anarchists--resorted to similarly anti-democratic methods when faced with civil war conditions and comparable political threats to their rule.

Russian historian Vladimir Sapon's recent scholarly study of libertarian socialism in Russia concludes that the downfall of Soviet democracy was above all determined by the catastrophic objective context prevailing by late 1918:

This idea is confirmed by the fact that in areas where the anarchists and left neopopulists consolidated their political hegemony in the period of the first Soviet government, they were no less inclined towards party dictatorship than the Bolsheviks were on a Russian-wide scale.

The experience of the short-lived Finnish Red Government was similar. Finland's socialist leaders in 1918 remained unquestionably ideologically committed to orthodox Marxism's traditional support for parliamentarism, universal suffrage and political freedom.

As was the case during the first weeks of Soviet rule in central Russia, the early Finnish Red Government initially shied away from dictatorial methods and took a magnanimous approach to its political rivals. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more democratic constitution than the one adopted by the Finnish Marxists after assuming power in January 1918.

Yet while the Finnish socialists continued to defend their democratic theory and goals, the dynamics of a brutal civil war--and a merciless counterrevolution--obliged them to increasingly resort to authoritarian practices.

The first early step in this direction was to shut down and ban the non-socialist press in early February. Soon after, those remaining moderate labor newspapers that had not supported the January insurrection and new Red government were similarly prohibited.

Unlike in Soviet Russia, Finland's Red Government remained a one-party state from start to finish, since all the other Finnish parties refused to recognize its legitimacy. Though its number of victims paled beside the Whites, a violent Red Terror was unleashed against the bourgeoisie and counterrevolutionaries, taking over 1,500 lives.

Within the span of a few short months, the new government increasingly came to resemble a military dictatorship. On April 10, in a last-ditch move to reverse the recent military defeats, the Red Government reorganized itself under a hyper-centralized military command, in which socialist leader Kullervo Manner was effectively given personal dictatorial authority. Finland's socialist press argued that "war is war, which has its own laws and requirements that are not in line with the requirements of humanity."

Despite the increasingly authoritarian evolutions of the radical-led regimes across the former Tsarist empire, it makes little sense to put an equals sign between the competing sides in the civil war. Dictatorial methods could be, and were, directed at preserving or overthrowing antagonistic social orders.

But to note the critical influence of the objective context in pushing an authoritarian militarism upon all sides in the bloody conflicts of this period does not require denying that the Bolsheviks and Finnish socialists made questionable decisions after 1917.

Not least of these was the Bolsheviks' tendency to theoretically rationalize many of the ad-hoc dictatorial measures obliged by the civil war context. Though this method of ideological codification may have been useful for winning the battles of the moment, it definitely made it more politically difficult for party leaders and cadre to effectively challenge the bureaucracy after the end of the civil war in 1921.

It would wrong to overstate the missed opportunities for democratization in 1921 since the bureaucratization of the party-state had already by this time become deeply entrenched. Moreover, the growing alienation of the Soviet regime and the Bolsheviks from very large segments of the population--eventually including much of the working class--during the civil war meant that by this time there likely remained very little space for a true Soviet democracy within an isolated Russia.

WAS ANOTHER way possible? As was the case in the preceding years, the fate of the Russian Revolution remained fundamentally dependent on the international revolution.

As the Bolsheviks had predicted since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a wave of revolution did sweep Europe and the world in response to the Russian Revolution.

The head of the German army lamented that the "influence of Bolshevik propaganda on the masses is enormous." On the other side of the globe, Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón exclaimed in March 1918 that the anti-capitalist rupture in Russia "has to spark, whether those ingratiated with current system of exploitation and crime like it or not, the great world revolution that is now knocking on the gates of all the peoples."

In numerous countries, capitalism teetered on the brink of the precipice up through 1923. Though it is often assumed today that the Bolsheviks' orientation towards world revolution was utopian, the postwar upsurge did, in fact, threaten to topple the international bourgeois order.

For example, Brian Porter's recent monograph on Poland, in contrast with most academic works, accurately accounts for the depth of the anti-capitalist challenge:

The old political, social, and economic norms were discredited and destroyed. Today we call the events of 1917 "the Russian Revolution," but at the time there seemed to be a genuine possibility that it would turn out to be the revolution, the moment of creative destruction that would topple all the old centers of power and introduce a totally new world order.

Political radicalization, strikes and mutinies swept country after country in Europe and the colonial world. Workers' and soldiers' revolutions overthrew the old regimes in Germany and Austria in November 1918. Soon after, radical Marxists briefly assumed power in Persia, Bavaria and Hungary. Revolutionary workers and socialists came perilously close to overturning capitalist rule in Poland (1918-19), Austria (1919), Italy (1919-20), Germany (1918-23) and beyond.

THAT CAPITALISM ultimately survived this revolutionary offensive was not inevitable. There was no lack of working-class desire to radically transform society.

Yet these aspirations were blocked above all by the moderate socialist leaderships: As workers surged into action, social democratic and trade union bureaucracies sought at all costs to restore order. It was not without foundation that Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev exclaimed in 1920: "Look at the rest of the world. Who is saving the bourgeoisie? The so-called social democrats!"

Though the early Communists certainly made important errors that undercut their ability to overcome the forces of official reformism, blame for defeat of the 1918-23 revolutionary wave should first and foremost be directed at those labor leaders who actively propped up their capitalist states in the wake of the war.

To quote the Polish Socialist Party-Left, "calling themselves socialists, in reality all of their activity is directed against socialism." By the end of 1923, class-collaborationist socialist leaders across Europe had effectively defused the revolutionary conflagration in Germany and across Europe.

These indispensable moderate efforts to beat back the working-class drive for anti-capitalist rupture isolated the embattled workers' and peasants' government in Russia.

This outcome, however, was far from preordained. In country after country, radicals were within striking distance of overcoming the moderates and leading workers to power. Given the very tenuous hold of the bourgeoisie on power, many different possible-but-unrealized political decisions, actions or developments could have proven sufficient to have turned world history down a very different road after 1917.

By learning the lessons of this inspiring and tragic history, revolutionary socialists can better prepare themselves for the momentous struggles that lie ahead.

Further Reading

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