70 years ago, the Russian Revolution: The most important experience of the world proletariat
The "Ten days that shook the world" were seventy years ago. The world media is celebrating the anniversary. Once more they are going to talk about the Russian Revolution. In their fashion that is, of the ruling class, with its lies, its deformations and with its stale old refrains: "the communist revolution can only lead to the Gulag or to suicide".
In defence of the true nature of what still remains the greatest revolutionary experience of the world proletariat, the ICC has just brought out a pamphlet dedicated to the Russian Revolution.
Here is the introduction.
"The most indubitable feature of 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. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. 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." (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, Preface.)
The very term REVOLUTION often inspires fear. "The ruling ideology" said Marx "is always the ideology of the ruling class". And what the ruling classes, the exploiting classes, fear the most, in the very depth of their being, is that the masses they exploit will get it into their heads to put into question the existing order of things by making a "forcible entrance ... into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."
The Russian Revolution was first and foremost that: a grandiose action by the exploited masses to try to destroy the order which reduces them to the state of beasts of burden in an economic machine and cannon fodder for the wars between the capitalist powers. An action where millions of proletarians, bringing behind them all the other exploited layers of society, manage to tear down their atomisation by consciously unifying, by giving themselves the means to act collectively as a single force. An action to make them masters of their own destinies, to begin the construction of another society, a society without exploitation, without wars, without classes, without nations, without poverty: a communist society.
The Russian Revolution died, swamped, isolated, because of the defeat of the revolutionary attempts in the rest of Europe, in particular in Germany. The Stalinist bureaucracy was its hypocritical and pitiless executioners. But that doesn't in any way change the grandeur of this intrepid "assault on the heavens" which the Russian Revolution was. October 1917 wasn't just one revolutionary attempt amongst others. The Russian Revolution constitutes and remains - from the past to the present day - the most important revolutionary experience of the world working class.
By its length, by the number of workers who participated in it, by the degree of consciousness reached by these workers, by the fact that they represented the most advanced point of an international movement of workers' struggles, by the extent and the depth of the changes that they tried to put in place, the Russian Revolution constitutes the most transcendent revolutionary experience of the world working class. And as such it is the richest source of lessons for the coming revolutionary struggles of the class.
But in order to be able to draw the lessons of a historic experience, you have to recognise from the start what kind of experience you are talking about. Was the Russian Revolution a workers' revolution? Or was it a coup d'Etat, fermented by a bourgeois party particularly adept at manipulating the masses? Was Stalinism the normal, ‘natural' product of this revolution or was it its executioner? Obviously the lessons you draw will be radically opposed according to the answers given to these questions.
Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is not content to militarily crush or stamp out the proletarian revolutions of the past. It has also systematically deformed their memory by giving them deformed and distorted versions: just as it completely adulterated the history of the Paris Commune of 1871 -that first great proletarian attempt to destroy the bourgeois state - by presenting it in its history books as a nationalist, patriotic, anti-Prussian movement; so it has totally disfigured the memory of the Russian Revolution.
The Stalinist ideologies ‘recognise' a proletarian character (although they prefer in general to call it ‘popular') to the October Revolution. But the totally disfigured version that they give the revolution has no other aim than to make people forget the dreadful repression which Stalinism unleashed against the workers and Bolsheviks who had been the revolution's protagonists; in order to try to justify what has become one of the biggest lies in history: the assimilation of state capitalism, this decadent and militarised form of capitalist exploitation, as a synonym for ‘communism'.
The Trotskyists also speak of a ‘Workers' October', but for them the Stalinist regimes still have something proletarian in them which must be defended in the name of the march towards ‘communism'.
The other forms of bourgeois ideology distort the Russian Revolution in a no less repugnant manner. Some are happy to describe it as having been a nationalist movement whose aim was to modernise Russian capitalism which hadn't, at the beginning of this century, shaken off its feudal trappings: in sum, it was a bourgeois revolution like in France in 1789, but more than a century late and ending up in a fascist-type dictatorship Others speak of October ‘17 as a workers' revolution and agree with the Stalinists in describing Russia as a ‘communist' country, but do so simply to better describe the horrors of Stalinism and then to deduce that revolutionary movements in our epoch can only lead to this. Thus they intone the beliefs of all ruling classes: the revolts of the exploited can only lead either to suicide or to regimes worse than those they are claiming to fight against.
In brief, bourgeois ideologies have completed the work of the murderers of the Russian Revolution by setting out to destroy the very memory of what was the greatest revolutionary proletarian attempt up till now.
Unhappily, in the revolutionary camp, amongst the proletarian political currents whose task should be to draw the lessons of past experiences in order to transform them into weapons for future battles, you also find aberrant theories on the nature of the Russian Revolution.- even if clearly their political aims are different. Thus the ‘councilists', coming from the German Left currents, came to consider October and the Bolsheviks as bourgeois. Also, from within the Italian Left, the Bordigists developed the theory of the ‘dual nature' (bourgeois and proletarian) of the Russian Revolution.
These theories were the products of the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the twenties, of the confusion created in peoples' minds by the fact that the Russian Revolution didn't die like the Paris Commune, quickly and openly crushed by bourgeois reaction, but degenerated through a long, painful and complex process, ending up in the power of the bureaucracy which claimed to be the continuator of October 1917.
But even if the origin of these aberrations can be understood, they remain nonetheless a major obstacle to the reappropriation by the revolutionary class of the lessons of its key historic experience. And as such they must be combatted. This is the objective of this pamphlet which consists of two articles that appeared in the International Review of the ICC (nos 12 & 13, the former brought out at the end of 1977, the latter at the beginning of 1978). One article is a critique of ‘councilist' theories, and the other is a critique of ‘Bordigist' theories.
For a long time is has been necessary for the world proletariat to shake off the ideological muck with which the bourgeoisie has covered up the greatest revolutionary experience. Probably it will only get to the point of reappropriating all the richness of %he lessons of this experience in the midst of the revolutionary struggle itself, when it will be confronted with the same practical questions.
It will be when the proletariat is confronted by the immediate necessity to organise itself as a united force, capable of fighting against the bourgeois state and putting forward a new form of social organisation, that it will relearn the true meaning of the Russian word ‘soviet'. It will be when workers are confronted with the task of collectively organising an armed insurrection that they will massively feel the need to possess the lessons of October 1917. And it will only be when they are confronted by such questions as knowing who exercises power, or what must be the relationship between the proletariat in arms and the state institutions which will emerge the day after the first victorious insurrections, or still more, how to react in the face of divergences between important sectors of the proletariat, that they will understand the real mistakes committed by the Bolsheviks (particularly in the tragedy of Kronstadt).
The failure of the Russian Revolution was in reality that of the international revolutionary wave - it was merely its most advanced point - and it confirmed that the proletarian revolution has no country except the proletarians themselves. But despite its failure, the Russian Revolution posed in practice the crucial problems which future revolutionary movements will inevitably be confronted with. In this sense, whether today they are conscious of it or not, the proletarians of tomorrow's battles will have to reappropriate its lessons.
But in order to do that they have to start by recognising this experience as THEIR experience. In order to affirm the continuity of the proletarian revolutionary movement, they will also have to carry out ‘the negation of the negation' - to reject all those theories which deny the proletarian nature of their greatest past experience.
As for the revolutionary political organisations of the class, the recognition of October is already crucial: their capacity to enrich the immediate struggles of the proletariat depends in effect on first of all understanding the historic dynamic which has for more than two centuries led to the present struggles. And this understanding will be impossible without a clear recognition of the true nature of the October Revolution.
We want to contribute to this search for an indispensable clarity by publishing this pamphlet.
ICC, October 1987.