Ideas & Debates
Memories of the Future
The Russian revolution is not old and dead history; socialists can learn central lessons from the working class revolution 100 years ago. What are these lessons?
March 28, 2018
Our special print edition of Left Voice on the Russian Revolution is out. Buy it now here. The following preview article is being made available online.
Buy this Issue
One hundred years ago the Bolsheviks did something that few believed possible. The insurrection, meticulously planned by Trotsky in Petrograd, was approved by a majority vote of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The Congress’s composition had drastically changed from a few months earlier, when it had been dominated by the conciliationists — Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. In the weeks prior to the insurrection, in every factory, barrack, village, and across the entire front, millions discussed and deliberated. They came to the conclusion that power should be transferred from an increasingly decrepit provisional government to the soviets (councils) of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies. Lenin, who had to overcome dogged resistance from even within his own party, was vindicated. He had precisely advanced this orientation in his speech “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution,” (also known as the “April Theses”), upon his return from exile. It states:
“No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government… The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.”
This is a very different orientation than what was expressed in Pravda throughout the month of March when it was under the leadership of Stalin and Kamenev — summarized by the slogan “to support the good and criticize the bad” of the provisional government.
From April until October, the Bolsheviks demonstrated tactical superiority and quickly went from being a “small minority” in the Soviets, as Lenin recognized in his thesis, to the majority. They employed different versions of the united front tactic, at one point even calling on the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries to break with the bourgeoisie and hand all power over to the Soviets. In this case, the Bolsheviks pledged to be a peaceful opposition. To take power, the Bolsheviks made an alliance with the left wing of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, a party which had split in the course of the tumultuous events of the October Revolution.
Lenin and his followers articulated the deepest aspirations of the masses. The soldiers didn’t want to keep dying in the trenches and the workers didn’t want to keep starving for a war that made no sense to them. The peasants wanted land, which was their motivation for ending czarism. The liberal bourgeoisie, on the other hand, wanted to continue the imperialist war — following the dictates of the British and French foreign ministries. The Mensheviks and the majority of the Socialist-Revolutionaries supported the Provisional Government and its war. “Peace, Land and Bread!" and "All Power to the Soviets!" were the demands of Bolshevik agitators, finding growing support among the broad masses. By mid-June, they were the majority of the Petrograd proletariat, but they still had to win over the majority of workers and peasants in the country, which they soon accomplished.
Objective and Subjective Causes of the Revolution
For years, liberal historians presented the Russian Revolution as a Bolshevik coup; Italian writer Curzio Malaparte describes this in Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution. More recently, liberal historians have argued that a series of coincidences explain the victory of the October Revolution and the subsequent consolidation of the workers’ state. Contrary to these superficial views, Trotsky had already analyzed the combination of objective and subjective factors that explain how, in backwards czarist Russia, the workers and peasants were able to seize power and finish what the Paris Commune had begun in 1871.
Trotsky explained that the victorious insurrection of October 25, 1917 (November 7 according to the Gregorian calendar which was not yet in use in Russia) did not simply fall from the sky. In 1905, as the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, he provided a list of eight historical circumstances that made it possible. Trotsky saw the first five as the objective or structural groundwork on which the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia was built.
1. The rotting away of the czarist bureaucracy and old ruling classes — the nobility, and the monarchy.
2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.
3. The revolutionary character of the agrarian question.
4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nationalities.
5. The significant social burdens weighing on the proletariat.
An understanding of these elements formed the basis of Trotsky’s bold approach to the revolution in Russia and was embodied in his concept of permanent revolution — a further elaboration of Marx’s theorization about the 1848 revolutions. While the basic ideas of the permanent revolution had been outlined by Trotsky prior to the failed 1905 uprising, they were more clearly articulated in Results and Perspectives, which Trotsky wrote in prison in 1906 after the defeat of the “revolutionary dress rehearsal”.
Capitalist development in Russia had created a particular situation in which the proletariat was relatively strong in comparison to the bourgeoisie, whose strength was restricted by the czarist regime. The proletariat, although a minority in relation to the peasantry, had developed together with industry as a product of foreign investment and was highly concentrated in the cities — the heart of the country’s political and economic life. The 1905 revolution corroborated Trotsky’s theory that the Russian proletariat could play the leading role in the struggle against czarism.
As Trotsky predicted, this dynamic was repeated in the 1917 revolution. The armed working class led the revolution and acted as the leadership of the peasants in the struggle for peace, land and bread. They did not, however, stop at the threshold of private property; in order to win their demands, they would have to advance despotically against it. Democratic demands, which in another era could have been resolved by a bourgeois revolution, were instead taken up by the proletariat in a socialist revolution. When the workers and peasants seized power, it gave impetus to revolutionary developments throughout Europe, especially in Germany. The theories Trotsky formulated in 1905 were made a reality little more than a decade later.
The founder of the Red Army added a few exceptionally important conjunctural elements to the five organic or structural premises outlined earlier.
6. The Revolution of 1905 was the great school or in Lenin’s phrase, “the dress rehearsal” of the Revolution of 1917. The Soviets as the irreplaceable organisational form of the proletarian united front in the Revolution was established for the first time in the year 1905.
7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility, and thus precipitated the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.
But while these conditions explain the outbreak of the revolution, they do not account for the victory of the proletariat. For this, another factor was necessary:
8. The Bolshevik Party. (1)
Why did the Bolsheviks play such a decisive role?
“Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903–17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement — legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the czarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate “last word” of American and European political experience.”(2)
The Bolsheviks maintained an internationalist position during the World War, unlike the significantly larger German Social Democratic Party. The Bolsheviks resisted all forms of reactionary patriotism.
Under Lenin’s influence they preserved class independence. After the February Revolution that toppled the Czar and created a provisional government, the Bolsheviks remained independent from the government of the liberal bourgeoisie and later from the coalition government of the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
The Bolsheviks recognized the soviets as the form of a new power. It’s important to pause for this point, because the soviets went from being instruments of the united front in the struggle for power to the base of a new type of state, the most advanced form of proletarian democracy that history has yet discovered. Lenin built on the lessons of the Paris Commune to explain the characteristics of the proletarian state in the magnificent unfinished work State and Revolution. Here Lenin proposed a state different from all states that have ever existed — a system in which no despotic minority imposes its domination over the majority as has been the case throughout history. Rather, the exploited majority would exercise its transitory power over the exploiting minority and support the spread of revolutions internationally. Drawing from the lessons of the barricades of revolutionary Paris in June 1848, Marx had called this type of state the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This term tells us which class will socially rule society, the class that will dominate society, not the precise political forms this rule will take. The "democratic republic," in contrast, is nothing but a cover for the dictatorship of capital. This is why Marx and Engels saw the Paris Commune as a blueprint for this new kind of state; a dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in which armed workers would not ask for permission before expropriating factories, land, and banks. At the same time, it would greatly expand democracy for the working class and all oppressed and exploited people. A type of state in which the professional police and the army would be replaced by the people in arms; where political functionaries would not earn more than a skilled worker and would be recallable by their voters; where the executive and legislative powers would merge into a working body that would decide on the political and economic destinies of society.
The Bolsheviks had the audacity to begin to implement this model in a culturally and economically backward country that was devastated first by the World War and then by the civil war. In spite of everything, they produced wonders. They set up the Third International. They defeated the invasions of fourteen armies. They revolutionized the arts, education, and science. They achieved greater equality for women — including full political rights, divorce, and the legalization of abortion — than in any other country at the time. They attempted diverse forms of socialization of domestic work. Russia became an industrial power at a pace that no other nation had achieved.
But the Soviet Union was left in isolation when the socialist revolution failed in other countries, particularly in Germany. As explained in another article in this magazine, “The Moscow Thermidor,” this led to the bureaucratization of the soviets and the party, pushed forward by an internal counterrevolution. The Left Opposition was the main victim.
Yesterday and Today
We called these lines “Memories of the Future.” Let us imagine. Given the scientific and technical advances of our day (which capitalism develops in connection with the military industry), we have infinitely more favorable conditions than the Bolsheviks had; in the Russian Revolution, workers won the eight-hour work day. Today, reducing the work day to six hours and distributing the necessary work among the employed and the unemployed would be just a first step. Our free time could be used for general access to culture, science, and art, leaving behind alienating, compulsory work and replacing it with free, creative, and cooperative activity.
For us, commemorating 100 years of the October Revolution is the opposite of a religious ritual or the routine observance of an anniversary. Returning to the October Revolution is essential, above all because it allows us to prepare the future.
A long time has passed since that revolutionary victory, which was later “betrayed” by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Hand in hand with neoliberalism, capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union and in most places in which capital had been expropriated in the 20th century, such as in Eastern Europe and China, even if rulers still refer to themselves as communist. However, the capitalist triumphalism that characterized the last decade of the 20th century is a thing of the past. Since the explosion of the crisis that started the Great Recession in 2008, instability and social and political polarization have characterized global politics and economics. The parties of the "extreme center" are in crisis. Geopolitical tensions are on the rise. Political aberrations appear more and more frequently, from Brexit to Trump.
In the imperialist centers and in the periphery, retrograde and aberrant political phenomenon are appearing. But we also see stuttering attempts by broad sectors of the masses, especially the youth, to create an egalitarian society. It is true there has not been a social revolution in this century. Possibilities existed at the turn of the century in Latin America and to a greater extent in the beginning of the Arab Spring. However, in the first case, the eruption of the masses was contained and channeled by “Pink Tide” governments that did not challenge the limits of capitalism (even that of the most radical variety — the Chavism of Venezuela — promised but never delivered its “socialism of the 21st century”). In the second case, the counterrevolution prevailed, with coups and civil wars without progressive camps.
However, in a world in which the eight richest people have as much money as the 3.6 billion poorest people (in other words, half of humanity), sooner or later new revolutionary uprisings will shake the planet, as they did in the previous century. Capitalist irrationality facilitates the profit of a handful of large monopolies, leaving hundreds of millions in the most abject misery, and it is not “sustainable.” Especially regarding the habitability of the planet itself, given capitalism’s fevered use of the natural resources of “our shared home.” Revolution will be back on the agenda in the 21st century. It will be permanent – or it simply will not be.
The past century demonstrates that workers can seize power, despite all the mechanisms of domination in the hands of the capitalists. It also shows that the capitalists will not give up their privileges without resistance. If capital is not defeated in its imperialist epicenters, it can rebuild itself and return to the counter-offensive.
Inspired by permanent revolution, we hope to avoid barbarism and to overcome “the prehistory of humanity", as Marx used to describe capitalist society. None of this will happen automatically, if we do not manage to build a revolutionary political organization of the working class both nationally and internationally. Obviously, history never happens the same way twice. But without inspiration from “those who dared” 100 years ago, and without an understanding of the history and lessons of the most revolutionary party in the history of the working class, we cannot accomplish this task, the most thrilling for anyone who wants to end this system of exploitation and oppression.
Translated by Tatiana Cozzarelli
1 Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October,” Nov. 1932, Copenhagen, Denmark, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/11/oct.htm.
2 V. I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in Collected Works, vol. 31, trans. Julius Katzer (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 17–118, previously published as pamphlet (June, 1920), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/.