Essentially, the purpose of the KRAS' text, is to highlight the reasons for the defeat of the Russian revolution: “For most of the 'lefts', the Russian revolution of 1917-21 remains an 'unknown revolution', as it was described by the exiled anarchist Voline, 60 years ago. The main reason for this situation is not a lack of information, but the great number of myths that have been built around it. Most of these myths are a result of the confusion between the Russian revolution and the activities of the Bolshevik party. It is not possible to free oneself from these confusions without understanding the real role of the Bolsheviks in the events of this period (...) A widespread myth holds that the Bolshevik party was not just a party like any other, but the vanguard of the working class (...) All the illusions on the 'proletarian' nature of the Bolsheviks are disproved by their systematic opposition to the workers' strikes as early as 1918, and the crushing of the Kronstadt workers in 1921 by the guns of the Red Army. This was not a 'tragic misunderstanding', but the crushing by armed power of the 'ignorant' rank and file. The Bolshevik leaders pursued concrete interests and carried out a concrete policy (...) Their vision of the state as such, of the domination over the masses, is significant of individuals without any feeling for equality, for whom egoism dominates, for whom the masses are merely a raw material without any will of their own, without initiative and without consciousness, incapable of creating social self-management. This is the basic trait of Bolshevik psychology. It is typical of the dominating character. Arshinov spoke of this new stratum as a 'new caste', the 'fourth caste'. Willy-nilly, with such a viewpoint the Bolsheviks could not carry out anything other than a bourgeois revolution (...) Let us try first of all to see what revolution was on the agenda in Russia in 1917 (...) the Social-Democracy (including of the Bolshevik variety) always overestimated the degree of development of capitalism and the extent of Russia's 'Europeanisation' (...) In reality, Russia was more a 'third-world' country, to use a present-day term (...) The Bolsheviks became the protagonists of a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, of capitalist industrialisation without private capitalists (...) Once in power, the Bolsheviks played the part of a 'party of order' which did not try to develop the social character of the revolution. The programme of the Bolshevik government had no socialist content...”
The KRAS also puts forward other arguments, which we will deal with in the body of this article. The main elements of its thesis can be summed up as follows:
- The Bolshevik party was in continuity with the old Social-Democracy, and was a bourgeois, anti-working class party.
- The Russian revolution was a bourgeois revolution, because no other sort of revolution was possible in Russia in 1917.
- The economic measures adopted after 1917, and the policy of the Bolshevik party, were not really socialist, because they failed to achieve a true self-management in the hands of the working class.
A historical debate – with historical errors of method
One thing that a large number of apparently radical critiques of the Bolshevik party have in common, is the flagrant lack of an international framework for understanding the situation in Russia. This methodological error ignores the essential distinction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Capitalism as a mode of production dominates the entire planet, and can therefore only be overcome on a worldwide scale by an international class: the proletariat. The existence of the bourgeois class, on the contrary, is inseparable from the framework of the nation state. Thus, the Russian revolution was not simply the concern of the Russian proletariat, but the response of the whole proletariat to the contradictions of capitalism in this epoch, and in particular to the first sign of the system's bankruptcy, threatening the very existence of human civilisation: the First World War. The Russian revolution was the advance guard of the international revolutionary wave (1917-23), and the proletarian dictatorship in Russia was thus right to turn for help to the international proletariat, and first and foremost to the proletariat in Germany, which held the keys to the fate of the world revolution.
The relations of production can only be transformed after the proletariat has taken power on a world scale. Contrary to periods of transition in the past, the transition from capitalism to communism will not be the result of a necessary process independent of human will, but will demand the conscious action of a class that uses political power to extirpate from society, little by little, all the components of capitalism: private property, the market, wage labour, the law of value, etc. But it will only be possible to put this into operation once the proletariat has beaten the bourgeoisie militarily. Until this definitive victory has been won, the demands of a worldwide civil war will take priority over the transformation of relations of production where the proletariat has already seized power, no matter what the degree of development of these countries. We cannot therefore have any illusions about the possibility of immediate social transformation after the revolution, especially when it has not yet spread to enough countries to significantly alter the international balance of class forces. There are certainly measures that must be taken wherever possible immediately after the seizure of power: expropriation of private capitalists, equality of wages, help for the disabled and the poor, free distribution of certain goods and services, and a reduction in working hours, above all so that workers can involve themselves in the taking of decisions. But these are not in themselves measures of socialisation, and they can perfectly well be recuperated by capitalism.
The ideas by the KRAS are not unique to anarchists. They are very close to the positions of the councilist current, as they were formulated notably in 1934 by the GIK (Gruppe Internationaler Kommunisten) in their famous Theses on Bolshevism. The same kind of critique was developed by the Workers' Opposition group in Russia itself. The latter criticised the lack of self-management in the factories in Russia immediately after the revolution. Obsessed as they were with the possibility of putting in place socialist measures in production, which in their eyes would have been a real “proof of socialism”, it is no accident that members of the Workers' Opposition like Alexandra Kollontai were to be found, at the end of the 1920s, in the Stalinist camp. There is a common logic underlying the illusion of “socialism in one factory”, and the counter-revolutionary Stalinist slogan of “socialism in one country”. In both cases, this is nothing other than the perpetuation, under another name or even another form, of relations of exploitation which cannot be abolished until the rule of capital has been broken on a world scale.
The questions raised in the KRAS' text are thus not new; they belong to the history of the workers' movement. The inability of the GIK or the Workers' Opposition to deal with events in Russia in an international framework led them into a dead-end, which meant that they were unable to draw the real lessons from events, and led to the discouragement of their members. In the end, councilism fell into the method of fatalism: if the revolution was defeated, then this is because it was condemned to failure from the start. From there it was but a step to the idea that only a bourgeois, not a proletarian, revolution was possible at the time. In a sense, the GIK's Theses on Bolshevism are a rewriting of history and the conditions of the time, in order to “explain” a posteriori that the Russian revolution was defeated because it was an adventure doomed to failure.
The approach adopted by Rosa Luxemburg was the opposite to that of the councilists. In the final chapter of her pamphlet The Russian revolution, devoted to a critique of certain aspects of Bolshevik policy, she summed up the problems confronting the Bolsheviks in these words: “In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to 'Bolshevism'”.
Difficulty in posing the problem at a world historical level
Just as each revolution has its own specific geographical framework (national for the bourgeoisie, world wide for the proletariat), the revolution is not possible at any point in time, but is determined by historical factors. First among these is the dynamic of the dominant mode of production, and the level of contradictions affecting it. The historical function of revolutions has always been to break the chains of the old mode of production, which has become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, and as a result an active factor in the crisis of society. This was the case for the great bourgeois revolutions against feudalism, for example in England in the 17th century or in France at the end of the 18th century, but it was also the case for the Russian revolution against capitalism in 1917. To be more precise, every mode of production goes through an ascendant phase, during which it is able to encourage the development of the productive forces and allows society to advance. But the ascendant phase is followed by a decadent phase, when it becomes a hindrance to the development of the productive forces and a factor of social stagnation. Historically, capitalism in its ascendant phase was the first mode of production which has been able to conquer the entire planet, and to build a world market. This task accomplished, the beginning of the 20th century opens a new epoch characterised by the development of unprecedented rivalries between the great powers to share out the world market. The most important expression of this new period was the First World War, which marked the brutal beginning of capitalism's decadent phase. Such a change in society cannot be without consequences for the function of the ruling class of a system which is decadent, and whose continued existence constitutes a threat to human survival, everywhere in the world including Russia!
The KRAS does not position itself clearly as regards the historical and international context of the Russian revolution, whose outcome was precisely determined by this context. Its argument contains certain ambiguities. While on the one hand, its critique of the Bolsheviks remains stuck within the Russian framework, the same article contains other passages which deal with the problem in another, more correct, light: “Nor should we forget the international social situation. World capitalism was in a very specific historical situation, at the watershed of a period of primary industrialisation [frühindustrielle Stufe] and a new 'taylorist-fordist' stage of capitalist industrialisation (...) It was still possible to eliminate world capitalist industrialism before it began to destroy the bases of human life and to atomise society”.
This passage contains a correct idea: that World War I and the Russian revolution both took place in a historical period characterised by a profound change in the life of capitalism as a whole. Why not then draw the logical conclusion for the analysis of the revolution in Russia, and stop treating it as something specifically Russian? And why not, therefore, conclude that with this change in the life of capitalism, the worldwide overthrow of the capitalist order was henceforth on the agenda? Despite their loyalty to the proletarian cause, the councilists and the Workers' Opposition failed to understand this. With quite different motives, the Mensheviks used the same method to condemn the proletarian revolution, on the grounds of Russia's insufficient industrialisation and the enormous weight of the peasantry. They ended up declaring that Russia was not yet ripe for revolution, and handing the power over to the bourgeoisie. We do not intend to compare the KRAS to the Mensheviks, but we do want to highlight the dangers of the method that it shares with the councilists and the Workers' Opposition. Today, in 2004, the same method would lead to the conclusion that the proletarian revolution is impossible anywhere in the Third World. Such a conclusion would obviously be absurd: capitalism is a global system, which has never succeeded in completely industrialising the world during its ascendant phase, and is obviously not going to do so in its decadent phase.
The Russian revolution was not an exclusively Russian event: it was the first assault by the world working class on the barbaric social system responsible for World War I.
The KRAS should decide: bourgeois or proletarian revolution?
“Let us first try to see what revolution was on the agenda in Russia in 1917”. We entirely agree with this way of posing the question of the Russian revolution. The problem is, that the KRAS does not stick to the method it proposes.
The KRAS declares several times that, due to Russia's insufficient economic development, the Bolsheviks' task was limited to carrying out a bourgeois revolution. This is nonsense, from the standpoint of a historical vision of capitalism as a decadent system world wide. By contrast, certain passages in their text contradict this declaration, and show clearly that a proletarian revolution was on the march in Russia: “Nonetheless, one cannot understand the Russian revolution merely as a bourgeois revolution. The masses rejected capitalism, and fought it vehemently – including the Bolsheviks' state capitalism (...) From their efforts and desires sprang the form that the world social revolution had to take in Russia. The combination of a revolution of the workers in the cities, with the revolution of the peasant communes [Gemeindebauern] in the countryside (...) The events of October 1917, through which the Petrograd Soviet overthrew the bourgeois provisional government were the result of the development of the movement of the masses after February, and in no way a Bolshevik conspiracy. The Leninists simply used this revolutionary atmosphere among the workers and peasants”. Perfectly true: the events of October 1917, during which the Petrograd soviet overthrew the bourgeois provisional government, were the result of the masses’ development after February, and in no way a Bolshevik conspiracy.
But the KRAS proves itself unable to draw the logical conclusion from this approach, and to “understand which revolution was really on the agenda”. It stops half-way, to defend the idea of two parallel revolutions, of different kinds: the first (bourgeois), supposedly justified by Russia's underdevelopment and incarnated by the Bolsheviks, and the other (“from below”), apparently motivated by the rejection of capitalism, set in motion by the masses: “in parallel with this 'bourgeois' (political) revolution which revolves around state power, another revolution developed from below. The slogans of self-management of labour and the socialisation of the land developed and became more and more popular, the working masses began to carry it out from below in a revolutionary way. New social movements developed: workers and peasants councils...”.
A simultaneous bourgeois and proletarian revolution is a contradiction in terms, from the viewpoint of the maturation of the conditions underlying each respective revolutionary form: the former corresponds to capitalism's ascendancy, the latter to its decadence. And the World War, whose fires were still raging at the very moment of the October 1917, is the most striking illustration of the historical bankruptcy and decadence of the capitalist mode of production. The Russian proletariat's overthrow of the bourgeoisie is first and foremost the direct consequence of the latter's participation in the worldwide slaughter.
Once we have established the proletarian nature of the 1917 Russian revolution, the question is obviously posed of the class nature of the Bolshevik party, and the role it played in the death of the Revolution and the victory of the counter-revolution.
The class nature of the Bolshevik party
The degeneration of the revolution, and of the Bolshevik party whose transformation into the spearhead of the counter-revolution was encouraged by the mistakes of the Bolsheviks – which, however, were in many cases not specific to the Bolsheviks but characteristic of the immaturity of the workers' movement as a whole.
It is thus true that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had an incorrect vision, which owed something to the schematism of bourgeois ideology, that the seizure of political power by the proletariat consisted in the seizure of power by the party. But they shared this idea with the all the currents of the Social Democracy, including its left wing. It is precisely the experience of the revolution in Russia, and of its degeneration, which made it possible to understand that in this domain, the schema of the proletarian revolution is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeoisie. Despite her well-known differences with the Bolsheviks on the organisational question, Rosa Luxemburg, for example, continued until her death in January 1919 to hold to this incorrect viewpoint: “The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat's conscious affirmation of the views, aims, and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League” (“What does the Spartacus League want?”, published 14[th] December 1918, in Die Rote Fahne). Should we conclude that Rosa Luxemburg was also a “bourgeois Jacobin”, as the anarchists and councilists describe Lenin? And if this were the case, where was the “bourgeois revolution” taking place in the industrial Germany of 1919?
The victory of the counter-revolution in Russia was the result first and foremost of the defeat of the world revolutionary wave, and of the isolation of the proletarian bastion in Russia, and it would be an error of method to attribute the primary responsibility to false conceptions within the workers' movement. If the world revolution had spread, these conceptions would have been overcome in the course of the proletariat's forward march to revolution, on both the practical and the theoretical level, through the critique of what had already been accomplished.
The degeneration of the Bolshevik party was the result of a false conception of its role as regards the state, which led it to see its role as the vanguard of the proletariat as being identical with managing the state. This put it in a situation of increasing antagonism towards the proletariat, which led to the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt, led and justified by the Bolsheviks.
Understanding the Bolshevik party's mistakes, and the process of its degeneration, is not to excuse them but on the contrary to take part in the clarification which will be vital to the outcome of the workers' struggles in the future. But simply to declare from the outset that the Bolshevik party was bourgeois, as the KRAS does, is a very simplistic and at the same time convenient way to avoid posing certain questions, and calling into question certain prejudices. It is certainly not the means to apprehend the living process of the class struggle.
Published in Russian and German on the internationalist forum. The quotations from the KRAS are translated by us.
We cannot, in this text, make a developed critique of councilism. We refer our readers to the texts published in International Review n°37-40, and to the ICC's text on the web site of the internationalist forum.
The ICC has written several articles on this subject: see “Understanding Kronstadt” in International Review n°104