Response to the Marxist Labour Party

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Response to the Marxist Labour Party on the 'Anatomy of October'

First of all, we want to salute the seriousness of this text, the efforts of the Marxist Labour Party to translate it and circulate it internationally, and the invitation to other proletarian organisations to comment on it. The nature of the October revolution, and of the Stalinist regime which arose out of its defeat, has always been a crucial issue for revolutionaries; and it is a problem which can only be approached by using the Marxist method. As the title of the text suggests, this is an attempt to uncover the "Marxist anatomy" of the October revolution, and it does so by referring to and seeking to elaborate some of the classics of Marxism (Engels, Lenin, etc). As we shall see, there are a number of points in the text with which we agree, and others which, although we do not agree with them, raise important points of debate. Nevertheless, we feel that the text does not succeed in its fundamental aim - to define the essential nature of the October revolution; and it is for this reason that we will focus mainly on our most important disagreements with the text.

It appears that the text is the product of a debate currently going on within the MLP. We do not know very much about the different points of view expressed within the debate, except that in the accompanying English translation of the preface to the MLP journal Marxist, there is talk of a division between 'Leninist' and 'non-Leninist' views of the Russian revolution - the text we are commenting on being a product of the latter current.

In the past the ICC has carried out a good deal of polemics with the 'councilist' view of the Russian revolution - the notion that it was essentially a belated bourgeois revolution and that the Bolsheviks were at best an expression of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia, not the proletariat (see in particular our pamphlet 1917, start of the world revolution). The MLP text certainly bears a close resemblance to this point of view in a number of respects, in particular when it talks about the Russian revolution as a "dual revolution" - largely proletarian in the cities, but essentially dominated by the weight of the petty bourgeois peasantry, giving the formula that the October revolution "was not a socialist revolution. It was the apogee of the bourgeois-democratic pressure - the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, with a short term transition to the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat". The language here is taken from the Bolshevik programme prior to Lenin's April theses; but the overall analysis of a "dual revolution" is strikingly similar to the thesis of the KAPD in the early 20s, which talked about a double revolution, proletarian in the cities, peasant/capitalist in the countryside, with the later increasingly dominating the former. Later on, the remnants of the German-Dutch left were to increasingly favour the notion of a purely bourgeois revolution in Russia; the idea of a dual revolution lived on largely through the contributions of the 'Bordigist' current.

At the same time, the MLP's approach bears little resemblance to councilism when it comes to their view of the Bolshevik party. While councilism concludes from the Russian experience that the party is by definition a bourgeois form, the MLP, as its name suggests, advocates it quite explicitly. The first point of its "basic statutes" argues that "The MLP is a party of the working class?the party sees its task in enlightenment and organisation of the workers for them to seize political and economic power, with the purpose of construction of a classless self-governed society". Neither does the MLP set itself as the retrospective judge of the Bolsheviks, ejecting them from the workers' movement because they were the victims of a defeated revolution: "What has been said is not at all an indictment of the Bolsheviks. They did what they had to do, under conditions of a backward peasant country - conditions which were aggravated by the defeat of the social revolution in the west".

This said, it seems to us that there is a crucial flaw at the heart of this text, reflecting councilist and even Menshevik theoretical weaknesses, and based on a failure to see the October revolution in its global, historical framework. Certainly there are plenty of references to the international dimension of October, particularly to the failure of the revolution in Europe as the key reason why the Soviet republic could only go towards the development of Russian capitalism. But it seems to us that, as with councilism and Menshevism, the basic analytical starting point is Russia, not the entire capitalist globe; and this is why the text makes a radically false comparison between 20th century Russia and 19th century France: "As history has shown, the completion of the entire cycle of bourgeois-democratic transformation in Russia took approximately as long as in France. There it was 1789-1871, and with us 1905-1991". By the same token Menshevism argued that Russia was still in the phase of the bourgeois revolution in 1905-1917; Trotsky's notion of the permanent revolution was already a considerable theoretical advance on this view, since it definitely began from the international context of the coming Russian revolution, while the old Bolshevik slogan of the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" was essentially a half-way house between these two positions, and one that we think Lenin effectively abandoned in the April theses of 1917 (see the article on the 1905 mass strikes in International Review 90; the relevant section has been appended to this text). For us, the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions are both the product of an historical and international evolution. Thus it's true that the era of bourgeois revolutions carried on in France through a good part of the 19th century; but this was because globally speaking capitalism was still in its expansive, ascendant phase. The epoch of the world proletarian revolution began in the early part of the 20th century because capitalism as a global system had entered its epoch of decline. And, as the comrades of Bilan insisted against both Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1930s, the only possible point of departure for analysing the revolution in Russia is that of the international maturation of the social and economic contradictions of the capitalist system, and not the 'maturity' of each country taken separately. We quote at length from the first article in the important series on 'Problems of the period of transition', published in Bilan no 28, in 1936.

"At the beginning of this study we underlined the fact that although capitalism has powerfully developed the productive capacity of society, it has not succeeded in developing the conditions for an immediate passage to socialism. As Marx indicated, only the material conditions for resolving this problem exist "or are at least in the process of formation".

These restrictions apply even more strongly to each national unit in the world economy. All of them are historically ripe for socialism, but none of them are ripe in the sense of possessing all the material conditions needed for the building of an integral socialism. This is true whatever level of development they may have reached.

No nation on its own contains all the elements for a socialist society. The idea of national socialism is in diametrical opposition to the international nature of the imperialist economy, to the universal division of labour, and the global antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

It is a pure abstraction to see socialist society as a sum of complete socialist economies. The world-wide distribution of the productive forces (which is not an artificial product) makes it impossible both for the 'advanced' countries and for the 'backward' countries to complete the transition to socialism within their own borders. . The specific weight of each of the countries in the world economy is measured by the degree to which they are reciprocally dependent, not by how independent they might be. England, which is one of the most advanced sectors of capitalism, a country in which capitalism exists in an almost pure form, could not operate in isolation. Facts today show that, even when only partially cut off form the world market, the productive forces begin to break down. This is the case with the cotton and coal industries in England. In the U.S.A, the automobile industry can only go into decline if it is limited to the home market, no matter how vast the latter is. An isolated proletarian Germany would soon see its industrial apparatus breaking down, even if it initiated a huge expansion of consumption.

It is thus an abstraction to pose the question of countries being 'ripe' or 'unripe' for socialism, because on these terms you would have to say that neither the advanced countries nor the backward countries were mature enough.

The problem has to be posed in the light of the historical maturation of social antagonisms, which in turn results from the sharpening conflicts between the productive forces and the relations of production. To limit the question to the material factors at hand would be to take up the position of the theoreticians of the IInd International, of Kautsky and the German Socialists, who considered that because Russia was a backward economy dominated by a technically weak agrarian sector, it was not ripe for a proletarian revolution, but only for a bourgeois revolution. In this their conception was the same as that of the Russian Mensheviks. Otto Bauer declared that the proletarian state inevitably had to degenerate because of Russia's backwardness.

In the Russian Revolution Rosa Luxemburg remarked that, according to the conception of the social democrats, the Russian revolution ought to have stopped after the fall of the Tsarism.

'According to this view, if the revolution has gone beyond that point and has set its task the dictatorship of the proletariat, this is simply a mistake of the radical wing of the Russian labour movement, the Bolsheviks. And all difficulties which the revolution has met with in its further course, and all disorders it has suffered, are pictured as purely a result of this fateful error.'

The question as to whether Russia was or was not ripe for the proletarian revolution can't be answered by looking at the material conditions of its economy, but at the balance of class forces, which had been dramatically transformed by the international situation. The essential condition was the existence of a concentrated proletariat -despite the fact that it was a tiny minority in relation to the huge mass of peasant producers - whose consciousness expressed itself through a class party powerfully armed with revolutionary ideology and experience. We agree with Rosa Luxemburg that:

"The Russian proletariat has to be seen as the vanguard of the world proletariat, a vanguard whose movement is the expression of the development of social antagonisms on a world scale. What is happening in St Petersburg is the result of developments in Germany, England, and France. It is these development which will decide the outcome of the Russian revolution, which can only achieve its goal if it is the prologue to the revolution of the European proletariat."

...We repeat that the fundamental condition for the life of the proletarian revolution is its ability to link up on a world scale, and this consideration must determine the internal and external policies of the proletarian state. This is because, although the revolution has to begin on a national scale, it cannot remain indefinitely at that level, however large and wealthy that nation might be. Unless it links up with other national revolutions and becomes a world revolution it will be asphyxiated and will degenerate. This is why we consider it an error to base one's arguments on the national conditions of one country".

For Bilan - unlike for Trotsky for example, or indeed the councilist current - the epoch of bourgeois revolutions was over because capitalism, taken not country by country, but as an integral whole, had become 'ripe' for the proletarian revolution. The consequence of the MLP's approach, however is that the Stalinist era in the USSR ceases to be, along with such manifestations Nazism in Germany, a classical expression of the bourgeois counter-revolution and of capitalism's universal decay. Of course, the MLP is perfectly clear that the Stalinist regime in Russia (like all the others across the world) was in no sense a workers' state, but a form of state capitalism (1); nevertheless, if you see it as an expression of the bourgeois revolution it inevitably becomes a factor of historical progress, laying the ground for the industrialisation of Russia and thus for the eventual triumph of the proletariat. And even though in their "basic statutes" the MLP correctly point out that the bureaucratised Russian soviet state "destroyed the Bolsheviks as the political party which had arisen in 1903", the 'Anatomy' text gives the impression of a real continuity between Bolshevism and Stalinism. "Although even their most immediate goal - a socialist society free of commodity relations - was not accessible, the Bolsheviks achieved, in the end, a great deal. For 70 years Russia (USSR) experienced a significant leap in productive power". But, again applying the method used by the Italian left in the 30s, the criterion for judging whether Stalinism was playing a progressive role laid not in calculating the figures for economic growth under the five year plans, but in analysing its role as a profoundly counter-revolutionary factor on a world scale; on this level, it was evident that Stalinism was a reactionary phenomenon par excellence. At the same time, the Italian left - even while not fully grasping the capitalist nature of the Stalinist state - was perfectly well aware that the "formidable economic development of the USSR" was inseparable from the cultivation of a war economy in view of the approaching imperialist carve-up, and that this "development" - which was taking place in all the major capitalist countries at the time - was in turn the clearest expressions that capitalism as a whole was an obsolete mode of production on a world scale.

The problem of the Soviet state

In locating the capitalist development of USSR in conditions particular to Russia, the MLP, like the councilists, tend to deprive later generations of revolutionaries from drawing the vitally important lessons of the Russian experience. If what the Bolsheviks did in Russia was determined above all by the unavoidable necessity for Russia to develop along capitalist lines, to pass through a kind of belated bourgeois revolution, there is little point in criticising the errors made by the Bolsheviks with regard to the Soviet state, the mass organs of the working class, the economy and so on, since the weakening of the dictatorship of the proletariat was simply a result of objective circumstances beyond anyone's control. This is very different from the approach of the Italian left, which devoted a whole series of studies to learning what the Russian experience can teach us about the policies needed by any future proletarian power. The pity of it is that in an area considered absolutely crucial by the Italian left - the problem of the transitional state - the MLP have some important insights. They note, in particular, the importance of the fact that the specific organs of the proletariat were merged into the general apparatus of the Soviet state: "The case was like this: On the 13th January 1918, the 3rd Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasant Deputies merged with the 3rd Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, Towards March the merger extended to the localities. In this way the proletariat, whose political dominion should have guaranteed the socialist transformation, and under pressure of the Bolsheviks, shared power with the peasantry". They also point out that the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies already had a very strong peasant influence because of the social composition of the army. Furthermore, "an even more important circumstance was the fact that instead of strengthening the system of authentic workers' organisations - the factory committees - the Bolsheviks on the contrary contributed to its dissolution" by compelling them to merge into the state-controlled trade unions.

These were indeed important developments; but for us the lesson to be drawn from them is that, while in any revolutionary situation, there will be a necessity for the mass of non-exploiting strata to be organised in the transitional state, the working class can by no means submerge its own authentic organs - the workers' councils, factory committees, etc - into these general territorial bodies. In other words, the proletariat must maintain its autonomy towards the transitional state, controlling it but not identifying with it. And we must emphasise that this is not a problem specific to a country like Russia as it was in 1917, but concerns the entire world working class, which to this day does not constitute a majority of humanity. But instead of developing our understanding of how proletarian self-organisation was weakened by being subordinated to the transitional state, the MLP gets us lost in its rather ponderous theorisations about the passage from "the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat to the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in 1919, and finally the subordination of the latter to a purely capitalist regime after 1921" - an experience that is presumably to be unique in history and thus carrying no lessons for the future practise of the proletarian movement.

Let us be clear: we have never argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia could have been saved by organisational guarantees, still less that it could have gone on to create a socialist society in Russia. Given the isolation of the Russian revolution, its degeneration and defeat was indeed inevitable. But this does not obviate the need to learn as much from its successes and failures as we can, because we have no other comparable experience in the history of the working class.

This leads us on to another question: the absence of communist economic measures taken by the Bolsheviks. As we understand the MLP's thesis, the revolution did not establish a "socialist dictatorship" but a purely political "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat"; and the text, although a little ambiguous about the nature of the measures taken under the heading of war communism, points out that, in essence, there was no abolition of commodity relations after the October revolution. But the implication here is that had the proletariat established a really socialist dictatorship, with no trace of power-sharing, through soviets of factory committees, then it would have been possible to introduce really socialist economic measures. But here again the comrades seem to forget not only the international dimension of the revolution, but also the very nature of the proletariat. The proletarian revolution can only commence as a political revolution, irrespective of the level of capitalist development in the country where it begins; this is because, as an exploited, propertyless class, the working class only has the lever of political power (which in turn expresses its consciousness and self-organisation) to introduce the social measures needed to move towards a communist order. Within a particular country, the proletarian revolution will certainly be compelled to take urgent economic measures to ensure its own survival. But it would a fatal illusion to think that capitalist relations can really be done away with in the confines of a single national economy. As the long quote from Bilan has already demonstrated, capitalism, as global relationship, can only be dismantled by the international dictatorship of the proletariat. Until the latter has been achieved through a more or less long phase of civil war, the proletariat cannot really begin to develop a communist social form. In this sense, the fundamental tragedy of the Russian revolution does not lie in any "restoration" of capitalist relations, since the latter never disappeared in the first place; it lies in the process whereby the working class took political power and then lost it; above all, it lies in the fact that this loss of power was disguised by a process of internal degeneration in which many of the old names were retained, while the essential content was utterly changed.

We will conclude by saying that the wider tragedy of the 20th century - the horrors of fascism and Stalinism, the whole devastating succession of wars and massacres - resides in the defeat of the world proletarian revolutionary wave of 1917-23 - the defeat of the hope offered by the October revolution. Humanity has paid a terrible price for that defeat, and continues to pay it today in a 21st century where the slide into barbarism is perhaps more evident than it has ever been before. The world-wide communist transformation of society was a material possibility in 1917, which is why we think the Bolsheviks were absolutely justified in calling for the Russian proletariat to take its first step.


(1) We will leave aside here the MLP's rather confusing use of the term "state socialism" to describe the Stalinist system, since it appears to all intents and purposes that this is just another term for state capitalism.