The degeneration of the Russian Revolution
In the second issue of Forward (Spring 1974), the theoretical magazine of the Revolutionary Workers' Group (RWG*), there appears an international exchange between the International. Communist Current (lnternacionalismo: ‘Defence of the Proletarian Character of the October Revolution' and the RWG (‘Where lnternacionalismo goes wrong on the Russian Revolution). In their criticism of our article, the RWG raises important questions without being able to offer a framework for an overall understanding of the Russian experience.
Revolutionaries do not analyse history for its own sake, nor to discover ‘what they would have done had they been there', but to learn along with the rest of the working class, the lessons from the experience of the workers' movement so as to better define the path for future struggle.
The article from our Current, ‘In Defence of the Proletarian Character of the October Revolution', without any pretensions to being an exhaustive analysis on the complex question of the Russian Revolution, sought to clarify one essential point: that the Russian revolution was an experience of the proletariat and not a bourgeois revolution, that it was an integral part of the revolutionary wave that shook capitalism all over the world from 1917 to the early twenties. The Russian Revolution is not a ‘bourgeois action' that we can smugly ignore or fail to analyse; it would be disastrous for revolutionaries today in rejecting Stalinism, to reject the tragic history of their own class. The fixation of the Stalinists and Trotskyists, the carriers of counterrevolutionary ideology, on the so-called "material gains" of October and the ‘Workers' State' in order to justify the defence of Russian state capitalism or the demoralized rejection of all proletarian roots of the October revolution which is often espoused by the followers of the councilist tradition, are both unacceptable mystifications of the reality of revolutionary efforts.
With the recognition of the proletarian character of the October Revolution must come the realization that the Bolshevik party, which was in the forefront of the international left defending revolutionary class positions during the First World War and in 1917, was a proletarian party of the revolutionary wave. With the defeat of the international working class uprisings, the isolated Russian bastion suffered a counter-revolution from within and the Bolshevik party, the leaders of the international communist left in 1919, degenerated into a party of the bourgeois camp.
Despite the unfortunately, often unreadable, translation of the Internacionalismo article in Forward, these central ideas do stand out. But Forward really does not want to discuss the problem of the proletarian nature of October with which they agree, but rather the counterrevolutionary nature of later events. They have chosen the wrong article on which to hang their analyses because the Internacionalismo article deals only peripherally with that question. No one article in our publications is sufficient to deal with all the problems of history. But it is with genuine surprise that we read: "For the Internacionalismo comrades as for the Trotskyists and Bordigists there exists an insurmountable wall between the ‘days of Lenin' and the ‘days of Stalin'. For them, the proletariat could not have fallen until Lenin was safely in his tomb and Stalin was clearly head of the RCP." (Forward, no 2, p.42). Indeed, we recognize that this touching article of faith is to be found among the various Trotskyist groups from which the Forward comrades sprang out but it is no part of our Current:
"The Bolshevik party leaders' lack of understanding of the role of the soviets (workers' councils) and their erroneous conception of how class consciousness develops contributed to the process of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. This process eventually transformed the Bolshevik party, which had been the authentic avant-garde of the Russian proletariat in 1917, into the active instrument of the counter-revolution ... From the very beginning of the revolution the Bolshevik party was oriented towards transforming the soviets into organs of the party-state." (Declaracion de Principios, Internacionalismo)
"The October Revolution fulfilled the first task of a proletarian revolution: the political objective. Because of the defeat of the international revolution and the impossibility of socialism in one country, it could not go on to a higher stage, that is, provoking process of economic transformation.....If the Bolshevik party played an active role in the revolutionary process leading to October, it also played an active role in the degeneration of the revolution and in the international defeats.....By identifying itself organically and ideologically with the state and by seeing its task as primarily the defence of the state, the Bolshevik party was to become - especially after the end of the civil war - increasingly the agent of the counter-revolution and state capitalism." (Plateforme, Revolution Internationale)
It should be clear, then, from these excerpts, that the path towards counter-revolution was process whose seeds were sown early on with the stifling of the power of the soviets, and with the suppression of the self-activity of the proletariat; a process which led to the massacre by the state of a section of the working class at Kronstadt - all during Lenin's lifetime.
Why then did this degeneration of the Russian Revolution take place? The answer cannot be found in the framework of one nation, in Russia alone. Just as the Russian Revolution was the first bastion of the international revolution in 1917, the first in a series of international proletarian uprisings, its degeneration into counter-revolution was also the expression of an international phenomenon - the activity of an international class, the proletariat.
In the past, bourgeois revolutions developed the nation-state as the logical framework for the development of capital, and bourgeois revolutions could occur with a hundred year or more interval between different countries. The proletarian revolution, on the contrary, is by its very essence an international revolution, which must go forward to incorporate the entire world or quickly perish.
first imperialist world war, signaling the end of the period of
capitalist ascendency, marked the absolute point of no return for the
workers' movement of the nineteenth century and its immediate
objectives. Popular discontent against the war became
rapidly politicized into frontal
attacks against the state in key countries in Europe. But the
majority of the proletariat was unable to cast off the relics of the
past (adherence to the policies of the Second International, which
in the camp of its class enemy) and to fully understand the
implications of the new era. Neither the proletariat as whole
nor its political organizations fully
understood the needs of the proletarian struggle in the new age of
Despite the heroic struggles of the proletariat in this period, the
tide of the revolution was drowned in the massacre of the working
class in Europe. The fact that the Russian Revolution was the beacon
for all the working class in
that epoch did not alter the fact that its isolation was a serious
danger. Even a temporary gap between revolutionary
outbreaks can have its dangers, but by 1920 the gap was
Within the all-important context of the international retreat and the isolation of the Russian Revolution the very grave errors of the Bolsheviks played their role. These errors must be related to the experience and struggle of the class itself. The error or positive features of a class organization do not fall from the sky or just happen to develop arbitrarily. In the broadest sense they are the reflection of the class consciousness of the proletariat as a whole. The Bolshevik party was forced to evolve both theoretically and politically by the upsurge of the Russian proletariat in 1917 and the promise of international events in Germany and elsewhere. The party also reflected the isolation and decimation of the proletariat in the period of the growing victory of the counter-revolution. Whether we deal with the Bolsheviks or the Spartacists or any political organization as a whole, faced with the new tasks of the period of decadence following the First World War, their incomplete understanding provided the groundwork for grievous political errors.
But the party of the proletariat is not simply a passive reflection of consciousness; it is an active factor in the development and spreading of that consciousness, We can see for example that the clear expression of class goals by the Bolsheviks in the period of the First World War ("turn the imperialist war into a civil war") and during the revolutionary period (opposition to the bourgeois democratic government, "all power to the Soviets", the formation of the Communist International on the basis of a revolutionary programme) contributed to the definition of the road to victory. However, in the context of the decline of the revolution wave, the positions the Bolsheviks took up (alliance with centrist factions internationally, unionism, parliamentarism, united front tactics, Kronstadt) contributed to the acceleration of the counter-revolutionary process on an internation1 level as well as specifically in Russia. Once the crucible of proletarian praxis was excluded by the victory of the counter-revolution in Europe, the errors of the Russian Revolution were cut off from any further evolution. The Bolshevik party became the very instrument of the counter-revolution.
Because there is no possibility of socialism in one country, the question of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution is above all a question of the international defeat of the working class. The counter-revolution triumphed in Europe before it fully penetrated the Russian context ‘from within'. This does not, let us repeat, ‘excuse' the errors of the Russian Revolution or the Bolshevik party: for that matter it does not ‘excuse' the failure of the German or Italian proletariat to make the revolution either. Marxists are not concernedwith ‘excusing' or not ‘excusing' history but with explaining why events happened and drawing the lessons for future proletarian struggle. This general international framework is missing from the analyses of the RWG pamphlet which discusses the Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia almost exclusively in Russian terms. Although this may seem to be a helpful way to theoretically isolate a particular problem, it offers no framework for understanding why things happened in Russia and leads to turning round in a vacuum about the purely Russian phenomena which emerged. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, "In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not he solved in Russia."
Specific aspects of the degeneration of the revolution
In the confines of this article we will necessarily have to limit ourselves to a general over-view of the process of degeneration, leaving aside the details of various episodes.
The Russian Revolution was first and foremost seen as the avant-garde victory of the international struggle of the working class. In March 1919, the Bolsheviks called the First Congress of a new Communist International to mark the break with the traitorous Social Democracy and to join together the forces of revolution for the coming struggle. Unfortunately the workers' revolt in Germany had already been massacred in January 1919 and the tide of revolution was ebbing. Still, despite the almost total blockade of Russia and the distorted news reaching the Russian proletariat from the West, the revolution put its faith to the only hope for survival - the international unity of revolutionary forces under a clear programme of class goals:
"The soviet system assures the possibility of genuine proletarian democracy, democracy for the proletariat and within the proletariat, directed against the bourgeoisie. In this system the dominant place is given to the industrial proletariat and it is to this class that the role of ruling class belongs, because of its organization and its political consciousness and because its political hegemony will allow the semi-proletariat and poor peasants to gradually raise their consciousness."
"The indispensable pre-conditions for victorious struggle are: the break not only with the direct lackeys of capital and the executioners of the communist revolution - the right-wing social democrats - but also the break with the "Center" (Kautsky's Group) which at the critical moment abandoned the proletariat and joined the class enemy." (Platform of the Communist International, 1919)
This was the position in 1919 before the later alliances with centrists, which opened the party and the International to them and finally ended in the ‘united front'.
"Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia: the day of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe will dawn for you as the day of your deliverance." (Manifesto of the Communist International, 1919)
Not the other way round as the ‘leftists' would have it today, following the counter-revolutionary formulations on national liberation of the degenerating International.
"We ask all the workers of the world to unite under the banner of communism which is already the banner of the first proletarian victories, for all countries!" (Ibid)
Not socialism in one country.
"Under the banner or workers' councils, of the revolutionary struggle for power and the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the banner of the Third International, workers of the world, unite!" (Ibid)
These positions reflected the tremendous step forward the proletariat had made in the previous years. The positions put forward and defend by the Bolsheviks were often a clear departure from their previous programmes and were a clarion call to the whole class to recognize the new political needs of the revolutionary situation.
But by 1920 at the Second Congress of this same International, the Bolshevik leaders had made an about-face back to the ‘tactics' of the past. The hope of revolution was rapidly weakening and the Bolshevik party now defended the 21 Conditions for membership in the International, including: the recognition of national liberation struggles, of electoral participation. of infiltration of the unions; in short, a refurbishing of the Social Democratic programme, which was entirely inadequate for the new situation. The Russian party became the overriding force and focus of the International and the Amsterdam Bureau was closed down. Above all, the Bolshevik leadership succeeded in isolating the left communists: the Italian left faction under Bordiga, the English comrades around Pankhurst and Pannekoek, Gorter and the KAPD (which was excluded at the Third Congress). The Bolsheviks and the dominant forces of the International were in favour of joining with the ambivalent, traitorous centrists they had denounced only two years ago. With their manoeuvres and slanders of the left the Bolsheviks effectively scuttled any attempt at creating a principled basis for communist parties in England. France, Germany and elsewhere. By these actions the road was opened to the ‘united front' of the Fourth Congress in 1922, and finally the defence of the Russian homeland and ‘socialism in one country'.
Another point in the process of counter-revolution was the signing of the secret Treaty of Rapallo with German militarism, Whatever the analysis of the positive and negative points of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, it was made in full daylight after lengthy debates among the Bolsheviks and was immediately announced to the world proletariat as an unavoidable step imposed by critical circumstances. But only four years later, the Treaty of Rapallo, (a secret military treaty with the German state), betrayed all that Bolshevism had stood for. The seeds of counter-revolution were sown with the speed characteristic of a revolutionary period when great changes are compressed into a few years or even months. Finally, all life left the body of the Communist International when the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country' was declared the international (sic) programme of the once so courageously defended International.
The whole violent history of the Communist International cannot be reduced to a saga of machiavellian Bolsheviks who deliberately schemed to betray the working class either in Russia or internationally. History cannot be explained by these childish notions. The working class, although it gave life to many who fought clearly for the interests of their fellow worker, did and eventually could not rise up to purify its own organizations because of the very defeat that sparked the political debasement of revolutionary principles.
Marx and Engels realized that a party or an International cannot last as an instrument of the class when a period of reaction sets in. This instrument of the class cannot remain as an organizational unity when there is no praxis of the class - it becomes permeated with the retreat or defeat and eventually serves confusion or the counter-revolution. That is why Marx disbanded the Communist League after the revolutionary wave of 1848 subsided and scuttled the First International (by sending it off to New York) when the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 signaled the end of a period. The Second International, despite its genuine contribution to the workers' movement, suffered a long process of corruption within the period of capitalist ascendency as it became more and more tied to reformism and a national focus for each party. The definitive passage to the bourgeois camp came with the 1914 war and the International's collaboration with the imperialist war effort. During these times of working class crisis, the continuous task of elaborating theory and developing class consciousness fell to revolutionary fractions of the class, coming from the old organization and preparing the groundwork for a new one. The Third International was built on the promise of the revolutionary wave of the years after the First World War but the defeat of revolutionary efforts and the victory of the counter-revolution spelled its doom as a class instrument. The process of counter-revolution was completed (although it began earlier) with the declaration of ‘socialism in one country' - the definitive end of the objective possibility of revolutionary fractions being able to remain in the International and the death knell of an entire an entire period.
Bourgeois ideology can seep into the proletarian struggle because of the force of the ruling class' ideological domination in society. But once an organization has definitively passed into the bourgeois camp, the path is closed for any possible ‘regeneration'. Just as no living fractions expressing proletarian class consciousness can arise from a bourgeois organization - which today includes the Stalinists, Trotskyist and Maoist parties (although individuals may be able to make the break) - so the Communist International and all the communist parties which remained in it were irrevocably lost to the proletariat,
This process is easier to see with hindsight than it unfortunately was at the time, either for the class as a whole, or for many of its more political elements. We cannot write history by hoping to read back into the past what fifty years of distance has taught. The process of counter-revolution which claimed the Communist International has produced terrible confusion in the workers' movement for the last fifty years or more. Even those who carried on the work of theoretical elaboration in the dark years of the thirties and forties, the remnants of the left communist movement, were slow to see the full implications of the period of defeat. Let the arrogant ‘modernists'1 who ‘figured it all out' in 1974 or 1975 teach the shadows what history should have been like.
The Russian context
The international programme of the Bolsheviks, their role in the counter-revolutionary process internationally, is practically ignored in the RWG pamphlet Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia and is only fleetingly mentioned in the Forward text. For these comrades, the counter-revolution was essentially defined by the NEP (New Economic Policy). The NEP was, for them, the "watershed in the history of the Soviet Union. It is the year that capitalism was restored, the political dictatorship defeated and the Soviet Union ceased to be a workers' state." (Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia, p.7) First let it be said that whatever the events in the Russian context were, and whatever influence they may have had on proletarian consciousness elsewhere, an international revolution or an International does not die because of a wrong economic policy in one country. The reader of the RWG texts will look in vain for any coherent framework in which to analyse the NEP or the unfolding of events in Russia in general.
The degeneration of the revolution on Russian soil expressed itself in the gradual but deadly decline of the soviets and their reduction to a mere appendage of the Bolshevik state party. The self-activity of the proletariat, working class democracy within the soviet system, was the very basis of the victory of October. But as early as 1918 the signs were clear that the political power and expression of the workers' councils were being curtailed and eventually crushed by the state machine. This process of the decline of the soviets in Russia led to the massacre of a part of the working class at Kronstadt. Not so strangely, the RWG fixated on the NEP, does not even mention the Kronstadt slaughter in relation to the Russian state, There is no mention of Kronstadt in either of these two main texts on Russia just as there is not a word on Rapallo. It is perhaps understandable that the comrades of the RWG, fresh from Trotskyist dogma, did not, at the time that they wrote these articles, understand that Kronstadt was not the ‘counter-revolutionary mutiny' that Lenin and Trotsky said it was. It is less understandable, however, that they accuse our comrades in Internacionalismo of not being able to see "the degeneration of the revolution in Lenin's lifetime!"
The fundamental error of the Bolshevih party in Russia was the conception that power should be exercised by a minority of the class - the party. They believed that the party could bring socialism to the class and they did not see that the class as a whole, organized in worers' councils, is the subject of socialist transformation. This conception of the party taking state power was shared by the entire left, to one degree or another, including Rosa Luxemburg, up to the writings of the KAPD in 1921. The Russian experience of party-power, which the proletariat paid for in blood, marks the definitive class line on the question of a party or minority of the class taking power ‘in the name of the working class'. Henceforth it became the hallmark of revolutionary fractions of the class that the party and the state were not to be confused and, later on, that the role of political organizations of the class was to contribute to class consciousness and not to substitute themselves for the class as a whole.
The historical class interests of the working class as the destroyer of capitalism were not always absolutely clear from the outset, and could not have been, because proletarian political consciousness is constantly hindered by pressure from dominant bourgeois ideology, Thus Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto without seeing that the proletariat could not take over and use the bourgeois state machine. The living experience of the Paris Commune was needed to irrevocably prove that the proletariat must destroy the bourgeois state in order to exercise its dictatorship over society. In the same way, the question of the role of the party was debated in the workers' movement up to 1917 but the Russian experience marked the class line on this question. All those who today repeat or preach the repetition of Bolshevik errors are on the other side of the class line.
What the Russian state destroyed with the stifling of the soviets was no more or less than the very impetus of socialism itself. Without the organized, autonomous activity of the class as a whole, any hope of regeneration on the Russian scene was gradually eliminated. The economic policy of the Bolsheviks was debated, changed, modified but their political thrust in Russia, however, was unchanging, fundamental process of digging the revolution's grave. The seriousness of this process can be seen by the fact that the Russian tragedy was played out within the context of international defeat.
The dictatorship of the proletariat
One of The first and primary lessons to be drawn from the entire revolutionary experience of the post-World War I period is that the proletarian struggle is above all an international struggle and that the dictatorship of the proletariat (in one area or world-wide) is first and foremost a political question.
The proletariat, unlike the bourgeoisie is an exploited, not an exploiting class and thus has no economic privileges upon which to base its class destiny. The bourgeois revolutions were essentially the political recognition of an economic fait accompli - that the capitalist class had become the economically dominant class in society over a period of years prior to the actual moment of revolution. The proletarian revolution undertakes an economic transformation of society from a political point of departure - the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has no economic privileges to defend, either in the old society or in the new and has only its organized force and class consciousness, its political power through the workers' councils with which to guide the transformation of society. The destruction of bourgeois power and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie must be a world-wide victory before genuine social transformation can he carried out under the aegis of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The fundamental economic law of capitalist society, the law of value, is a product of the entire capitalist world market and cannot, in any way, shape or form, be eliminated in one country (ever one of the highly developed countries) or in any group of countries - only on a world-wide basis. There is absolutely no getting away from this fact - not even by paying lip-service to it and then ignoring it to talk about the possibility of abolishing money or wage labour (the direct outgrowth of the law of value and the capitalist system as a whole), straight away in one country. The transformation of society follows and does not precede the taking of power by the workers' councils internationally, the only weapons the proletariat has to carry out that transformation are:
- Its armed, organized strength to carry the revolution to victory all over the world.
- The consciousness of its communist programme which is a political orientation for the economic transformation of society.
The victory of the proletariat does not rest on whether it can ‘manage' a factory or even all the factories in one country. Managing production while the capitalist system continues to exist dooms such ‘management' to the management of surplus value production and exchange. The first duty of any victorious proletariat in one country or area is not to figure out how to create a mythical ‘island of socialism', which is impossible, but to give all their aid to their only hope - the victory of the world revolution.
It is extremely important to get priorities straight here. The economic measures the proletariat will take in one country, in one area, are a secondary question. Even in the best of cases these measures are only stop-gaps tending in positive direction: any errors can be corrected if the revolution advances. But if the proletariat loses its political coherence, or its armed strength, or if the workers' councils lose political control and their clear consciousness of where they are going, then there can be no hope of correcting any errors or of any socialist future.
There are many voices raised today to protest against this conception. Some of them claim that the political focus of proletarian struggle is jut old-hat reactionary nonsense. In fact, the conception of an objectively defined revolutionary class, the proletariat, is equally old-hat for them, and should give way to a new universal class of everyone who is ‘oppressed', psychologically tormented or philosophically inclined. ‘Communist relations', or according to one (now defunct) English group of the same name: ‘Communist practice' is immediately realizable as soon as ‘people' wish it. For them, the really important, thing is not of` course the proletariat taking power internationally and eliminating the capitalist class but the immediate institution of so-called ‘communist relations' through a spontaneous thrust of the ‘people'.
The purely abstract and mythical elements of this ‘theory' should not blind us to the fact that it can serve as the perfect cover for ‘self-management' ideology. As increasing working class discontent produces mass movements as a reaction to the depths of capitalist crisis, one reaction of the bourgeoisie may be to tell the workers that their real interests are not to bother with ‘mere political matters' like destroying the bourgeois state but to take over their factories and run them ‘for themselves' in good order. The bourgeoisie will try to have the workers exhaust themselves in a futile effort to implement an economic programme of the self-management of exploitation while the capitalist class and its state will wait it out to pick up the pieces. This is what happened in Italy in 1920, when Ordino Nuovo and Gramsci exalted the economic possibilities of factory occupations, while the left faction with Bordiga warned that although workers' councils have their roots in the factories, they must go forward to a frontal attack on the state and the entire system or die.
The comrades of the RWG do not reject political struggle. They limit themselves to saying that the political thrust and economic policy are equally important and crucial. In one sense they are simply repeating a marxist truism: that the proletariat does not fight for political power over the capitalist class just to assert some kind of power psychosis, but in order to lay the foundations for social transformation through class struggle and the organized self-activity of the only revolutionary class which can free itself and all humanity from exploitation forever. But the RWG comrades have no concrete idea of how the process of social transformation can take place. The revolution is a rapid assault on the capitalist state but the economic transformation of society is a world-wide process of great complexity. In order to successfully carry through this economic process, the political framework of the working class dictatorship must be clear. Furthermore, the taking of power by the proletariat is not tantamount to maintaining that socialism can be introduced by decree. Thus:
- The economic transformation can only follow a proletarian revolution and not precede it (there can be no ‘socialist construction' with the capitalist class in power), nor is it simultaneous with working class power over society.
- The political power of the proletariat opens the road to socialist transformation but the primary bulwark of the forward march of the revolution is the unity and coherence of the class. Economically the class may make errors which must be corrected, but if they turn power over to another class or party, any economic transformation is by definition impossible.
From our affirmation that the political dictatorship of the proletariat is the framework and the pre-condition for social transformation, the simple-minded conclude: "It appears that Internacionalismo denies the necessity of an economic war on capitalism by the proletariat." (Forward, p.44).
Contrary to Forward's claim, everything is not immediately of equal importance and of equal gravity for the revolutionary struggle. In a country which has just had a victorious revolution, the workers' councils may consider it necessary to work ten to twelve hours a day to produce arms and materials to send to their besieged brothers in another region. Is this socialism? Not to the extent that the basic tenets of socialism are production for human needs (not destruction) and the reduction of the work day. Is this therefore to be condemned as a counter-revolutionary proposition? Clearly not, as it is the working class' primary duty and hope of salvation to aid the spread of the international revolution. Do not we have to admit that the economic programme is subject to the conditions of the class struggle and that there is no way of creating a workers economic paradise in one country? Furthermore, we have to emphasize that a political weakening of the councils' power to decide policy and orient the struggle would be fatal.
Revolutionaries would be lying to their fellow workers if they held out rosy dreams of milk and honey and economic miracles instead of emphasizing the deadly struggle and tremendous waste and destruction of civil war. They would be demoralizing the class by declaring that inevitable economic set-backs (in one country or even in several countries or sectors), means the end of the revolution. By immediately putting these questions on the same plane as the political solidarity, working class democracy and decision-making power of the proletariat, they would be of detracting from the central focus of class struggle and the only hope inaugurating a world-wide period of transition to socialism.
The RWG answers that after all, "everything can't be the same after the revolution as before," and points to the tragic conditions of workers in Russia in 1921. But they really don't tell us what conditions they are talking about. Is it that the mass working class organizations were excluded from effective participation in the ‘Workers' State'? That workers were repressed for striking in Petrograd? If so, that is the kernel of the degeneration of the revolution. Or is it simply that there was famine? Here again, it is futile for us to pretend that the dangers of famine and hardship simply won't exist after the revolution. Or is it that workers still had to work in factories and that wages were not abolished (in one country), or that exchange still existed? Although these practices are clearly not socialism they may indeed be unavoidable unless we pretend that eliminating the law of value is simply a question of snapping your fingers. As the RWG says, "a line has to be drawn somewhere." But where? By confusing the crucial importance of political coherence and the power of the class with economic set-backs, the problems of future struggle become simply a matter of wish-fulfillment.
Socialism or communist social relations (these terms are used interchangeably here), is essentially the complete elimination of all "blind economic laws", especially the law of value which rules capitalist production, in order to fulfill the needs of humanity. Socialism is the end of all classes (the integration of non-capitalist sectors into socialized production and the beginning of freely associated labour deciding its own needs), and an end to all exploitation, all need for a state (the expression of a class-divided society), and accumulation of capital with its concomitants of wage labour and the market economy. It is the end of the domination of dead labour over living labour. Thus socialism is not a question of creating new economic laws but of eliminating the roots of the old ones under the aegis of the proletarian communist programme. Capitalism is not merely the cigar-smoking villain but the entire present organization of the world market, the present division of labour world-wide, production in private hands including the peasantry, under-development and misery, production for destruction, etc. All this is to be extirpated and eliminated from human history forever. This requires a process of economic and social transformation of gigantic proportions taking at least a generation in world terms, if not more. And what is even more telling, no Marxist can foresee the details of the new situation which will face the proletariat after the world revolution. Marx always avoided ‘blueprints' for the future and the Russian experience can only indicate the broad general lines of an orientation for economic transformation. Revolutionaries will be deserting their task if their only contribution is to berate the Russian Revolution for not creating socialism in one country or to make up pipe dreams about how the political changes and the economic transformations are simultaneous.
The real point about the economic programme of the revolution is that the broad outlines of where we are going must be clear, that the proletariat must know what measures tending towards the destruction of capitalist production relations (and thus the establishment of socialism) shou1d be implemented as soon as possible. It is one thing to say that in some conditions we may be forced to work long hours or not be able to abolish money right away in one area. It is another thing to state that socialism means working harder or even worse that nationalization and state capitalism are s step to socialism. Bolsheviks are not so much to he condemned for going from the chaos of War Communism to the NEP (from one inadequate plan to another) but for the fact that they preached that nationalization and state capitalism were a help to the revolution or that ‘economic competition with the West' would prove the splendours of socialist productivity. A clear programme for economic transformation is an absolute necessity and we today with fifty years of hindsight can see more deeply into this question than the Bolsheviks or any political expression or any political expression of the proletariat at the time.
The working class needs a clear orientation for its political programme, the key to economic transformation, but it does not need false promises of an instant end to difficulties or mystification about how the law of value can be eliminated by decree.
The RWG is not alone in placing the emphasis on the NEP. Many people just breaking from ‘leftism' and particularly its Trotskyist varieties, do the same. After all the meaningless garbage about a ‘Workers' State' today and collectivization in state hands ‘proving' that Russia is socialist today, they look "for the point between 1917 and today when a change must have taken place" in Russia. (Forward, p.44) It's the old "when did capitalism come back" query the Trotskyists are always arrogantly throwing out.
The NEP was not an invention out of the heads of the Bolshevik leaders. On the contrary, the NEP, in large part, merely takes up the programme of the Kronstadt revolt. The Kronstadt revolt put forward a key political demand to save the life's blood of the revolution: the regeneration of the power of the workers' councils, working class democracy and an end to the Bolshevik dictatorship through the state. But economically, the Kronstadt workers, forced by famine into pilfering tools to exchange individually with peasants for food, developed a ‘programme' of simply wanting to regularize exchange and putting it under workers' auspices - regularizing commerce so that starvation and economic stagnation would end. Trucks of food sent to the cities in Russia were stormed by the starving population and had to be accompanied by armed guards. The situation was a catastrophe and Kronstadt, as well as the Bolsheviks, had nothing more to offer than a return to some sort of economic normalcy. That normalcy could only be capitalism.
The RWG attack on the NEP lacks the historical context in which the NEP was adopted. Furthermore, it confuses some essential points about the war on capitalism it claims to defend.
1. "If events dictated the restoration of capitalist property in Russia as they partially did ............ while the restoration of capitalism meant the restoration of the proleariat as a class-in-itself (?)" (Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia, p.7 and p.17)
"One wonders what more would have to be conceded to capitalism in order to have the restoration of capitalism?" (Forward, no 2, p.46)
All this is striking proof that there is a fundamental confusion here. The NEP was not the "restoration of capitalism" because capitalism had never been eliminated in Russia. The RWG confuses the matter even further by adding elsewhere: "While the NEP was not the rebirth of capitalist economic relations, it was the rebirth of normal, ie legal, capitalist economic relations." (Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia, p.7) This is even more absurd. Whether capitalist relations are legal, ie recognized officially as existing, or not, is simply a juridical question. What ‘purity' can be gained by pretending reality doesn't exist? The NEP was not a watershed in the sense that it reintroduced (or recognized) the existence of capitalist economic forces - the fundamental laws of the capitalist economy dominated the system in Russia because they dominated the world market.2
This may lead some to say that they knew all along that Russia was capitalist and that there was thus no proletarian revolution. However, we will never be able to identify a proletarian revolution if we insist on wanting to see it not as an initially political thrust eliminating the capitalist class but as a complete economic transformation overnight. One again, we return to the theme of ‘socialism in one country' which hang over the Russian experience like an ominous cloud. The NEP was a step towards state capitalism with the nationalization of the ‘commanding heights', but it was not a fundamental reversal from ‘socialism' (or something other than capitalism) back to capitalism.
2. "It (the NEP) actually represented a principled retreat, a programmatic crossing of class lines." (Ibid, p. 7)
This is the kernel of the argument although it naturally follows from the previous point. No one would be so foolish as to claim that the working class can never retreat. Although in an overall sense the revolution must advance or die, this can never be taken unilaterally to mean that we can advance in a straight line with no problems. The question is then: what is an unavoidable retreat and what is a compromise of principles? The Bolshevik programme, insofar as it embodied an apology and mystification of state capitalism, was an anti-proletarian programme; but the inability to abolish the law of value or exchange in one country is by no means "a crossing of class lines". Either these are clearly separated, or else one ends up defending the position that the proletariat could have gone on to integral socialism in Russia. This being impossible, revolutionaries would simply have to cover up the inability to forge ahead according to the programme by lying about what was actually happening.
Retreat on the economic level will certainly be unavoidable in many instances (despite the need for a clear orientation) but retreat in political terms is death for the proletariat. This is the fundamental difference between the NEP and the Kronstadt massacre, between the NEP and the Treaty of Rapallo, or the ‘united front' tactic.
"What would the comrades of Internacionalismo have done in the same situation? Would they have restored the market economy? Would they have decentralized industry in the hands of the managers? Would they have rehabilitated the ruble? In short, would they have carried out a ‘retreat' that was in fact a defeat? .... Would they have subordinated the interests of world proletarian revolution to the interests of Russian national capital?"(Forward,p.45)
The ‘what would you have done' approach to history is fruitless by definition since history cannot be changed or invested with our consciousness (or lack of it) today. However, the RWG's naive questions show that they have not understood the difference between retreat and defeat.
The market economy? It was never destroyed internationally which is the only means of eliminating it, nor did anyone ‘restore' it in Russia - it always existed. The ruble? Again, this is an absurd question in terms of marxist writings on world capitalism and the role of money. Decentralization of industry? This political question profoundly compromised the power of the workers' councils and belongs to another domain entirely. Defending the interests of Russian capital? Clearly this was the death knell of the revolution itself.
The economic transformation "cannot be done by decree but the decree is the first step". If by decree the RWG means the programme of the working class then we have only to ‘decree' integral and immediate communism. And then what? How do we get there? Or do we say: a) let's throw in the towel completely or b) lie and pretend we can have socialism through little socialist republics?
The revolution in a country like Britain for example (by no means a backward, under-developed economy as Russia's in 1917) could last only a few weeks before being brought to death by slow starvation through blockade. What sense is there in talking about an ever-victorious economic war on capitalism in the midst of short-term starvation? The only policy to protect and defend a revolutionary bastion is an offensive struggle internationally and the only hope is the political solidarity of the class, its self-organization and the class struggle internationally.
Some measures for a transitional programme
The RWG with all their talk of the NEP does not offer any suggestions for a valid socialist orientation in the economy for tomorrow's struggle. In what direction should we head, as far as the circumstances of class struggle will allow?
- Immediate socialization of large capital concentrations and the main centres of proletarian activity.
- Planning of production and distribution by the workers' councils following the criterion of the maximum possible satisfaction of needs (of the workers and of the class struggle) and not for accumulation.
- Tendency towards the reduction of the working day.
- Substantial elevation of the workers' standard of living including the immediate organization of free transport, housing, medical services, all taken in charge by the workers' councils.
- Attempts as far as possible to eliminate wages and the money form even if this may take the form of rationing goods in short supply through workers' councils to society at large. This will be easier in areas in which the proletariat is highly concentrated and has many resources at its command.
- Organization of relations between socialized sectors and sectors where production remains individual (especially in the countryside) towards organized and collective exchange through co-operatives at first, (leading eventually to the elimination of all private production through the victory of the class struggle in the countryside), which would represent a step forward towards the decline of the market economy and individual exchanges.
These points should be taken merely as suggestions for an orientation for the future - a contribution to the debate within the class on these questions.
The Workers' Opposition
Because the RWG comrades do not understand the Russian situation, they are trapped within it. They try to offer an orientation for the future by choosing sides among the different factions that fought it out in Russia. Just as those who reject the past completely and pretend that revolutionary consciousness was born yesterday (with them of course), the RWG takes the seeming opposite side of the coin and answers history in its own terms. This is not an enrichment of the lessons of the past, it is a desire to relive it and ‘make it better' rather than address themselves to what we can draw out today.
Thus the RWG writes: "It is our programme, the Workers' Opposition programme of the self-activity of the working class against bureaucratism and capitalist restorationist tendencies." This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Workers' Opposition really meant in the context of the debates in Russia. The Workers' Opposition was one of the groups which fought against the evolution of events in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Far from rejecting their often courageous efforts, it is necessary to put their programme into perspective. The Workers' Opposition was not against ‘bureacratism' but against state bureaucracy and in favour of using the union bureaucracy. The unions were to manage capital in Russia and not the party-state machine. Although the Workers' Opposition may have wanted to defend proletarian class initiative, they could see it only in a trade union context. Genuine class life in the soviets in Russia was almost entirely eliminated by 1920-21 but this did not mean that unions and not workers' council were the instruments of working class dictatorship. This is the same kind of reasoning that led the Bolsheviks to conclude that since the programme of the First Congress of the Third International could not easily be taken up because of the defeats in Europe, it was therefore necessary to go back to aspects of the old Social Democratic programme (union infiltration, parliamentary participation, alliances with centrists, etc). Even if the soviets were crushed, independent class activity (not to mention revolutionary activity) in unions was over in the decadent period of capitalism. The entire trade union debate was based on a false premise on all sides: that unions could be substituted for class unity in workers' councils. In this sense the Kronstadt revolt in calling for the regeneration of soviets was much clearer on the question, even if equally doomed. The Workers' Opposition meanwhile agreed with and supported the military suppression of Kronstadt.
The fact that in Russia the debate revolved around how to ‘manage' the degeneration of a revolution has to be understood historically but it is the height of absurdity to adopt this programme as one's own today. Moreover, the RWG asserts:
"But we are sure of one thing: if the programme of the Workers' Opposition had been adapted, the programme of proletarian self-activity, the proletarian dictatorship in Russia would have gone down fighting capitalism rather than adapting to it (if it had gone down at all). And the chances are that it would have been saved by victory in the West. Had this programme of struggle been adopted there would have been no international retreat. The chances are, the International Left would have gained dominance in the Communist International." (Ibid, p.48-49)
This only proves that there is a residual conviction within the RWG that if Russia had done something better, all would have been different. Russia is the pivot of everything. It also assumes, as we have seen, that if the economic measures were different, the political betrayal would have been eliminated instead of vice-versa. But the historical absurdity of this hypothesis is most clearly expressed by this statement that "the chances are that the International Left would have gained dominance in the Communist International". The ‘International Left' we presume they are talking about, did not understand the economic programme very well at the time; but the KAPD, for example, was based on the rejection of unionism and its bureaucracy. The Workers' Opposition had little or nothing to say about Bolshevik strategy in the West and always rubber-stamped official Bolshevik policy on this question, including the 21 Conditions of the Second Congress of the Communist International (as did Ossinsky). The vision of the Workers' Opposition becoming the focal point of the International Left is a pure invention of the RWG because they do not know the history they talk about so glibly.
While the RWG condemns "crystial-ball gazing as not the task of revolutionaries". (Ibid, p.48) only a few lines previously they expound upon the infinite horizons the Workers' Opposition would have opened for the working class. One may say that in addition to avoiding crystal-ball gazing it would be better to know what one is talking about.
The lessons of October
Our purpose is not essentially a polemical one in this article although clearing away certain absurdities is undoubtedly helpful. Essentially the task of revolutionaries is to go forward from history to draw the points of orientation for tomorrow. The specific debate on when the Russian Revolution degenerated is much less important than: 1) seeing that this did occur; 2) identifying why it occurred; and 3) trying to contribute to class consciousness by synthesizing the negative and positive lessons of this epoch.
In this sense we would like to contribute an over-view of the essential heritage of class positions that the experience o the post-war revolutionary wave has left us for today and tomorrow.
- The proletarian revolution is an international revolution and the primary duty of the working class in any country is to further the -world revolution.
- The proletariat is the only revolutionary class, the only subject of revolution and of social transformation. It is clear today that any ‘worker-peasant alliance' must be rejected.
- The proletariat as a whole, organized in workers' councils, constitutes the dictatorship of the proletariat. The role of the political party of the class is not to take state power or to rule ‘in the name of' the class but to contribute to the heightening and generalization of class consciousness within the class. No minority of the class can exert political power in its place.
- The proletariat must direct its armed power principally against the bourgeoisie. The policy of integrating non-proletarian, non-exploiting elements into socialized production must be the dominant mode of unifying society although proletarian violence against these sectors may sometimes be necessary; but violence must be excluded as a way of settling debate within the proletariat and its class organizations. All efforts must be made, through proletarian democracy, to strengthen the solidarity and unity of the proletariat.
- State capitalism is the dominant, universal trend of capitalist organization in the period of capitalist decadence. State capitalist measures, including nationalizations, are in no way a proletarian programme for socialism, nor a policy that can ‘aid' the way towards socialism, nor a ‘progressive step'.
- The general lines of economic measures tending towards the elimination of the law of value, socialization of industry and agriculture, and production for the needs of humanity, as mentioned above, represent a contribution to the elaboration of a new economic orientation for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
These points, sketchily outlined here, do not pretend to exhaust the complexity of revolutionary experience but can serve as general guidelines for future elaboration.
There are many young groups, like RWG, developing today in our period of reawakening class struggle and it is important to be aware of the implications of their work and to encourage an exchange of ideas in the revolutionary milieu. But there is a danger that after so many years of counter-revolution these groups may be unable to deal with the heritage of the revolutionary past. As in the case of the RWG many groups think they are discovering history for the first time as though nothing else existed before them. This can lead to aberrations like fixating on the programme of the Workers' Opposition or other Russian left groups in a vacuum as though each day a new ‘piece of the puzzle' is discovered, without putting it in a broader context. Without being aware of (and critical of) the work of the left communist movement (KAPD, Dutch left, Pannekoek, Gorter, Workers' Dreadnought, the Italian left around Bordiga, the reviews, Bilan in the thirties and Internationalisme in the forties, International Council Correspondence and Living Marxism as well as the Russian left communists, not just as individual pieces of a puzzle but in the overall terms of the development of revolutionary consciousness in the class, our work today will be doomed to sterility and the arrogance of the dilettante. Those who are making the vital effort to break with ‘leftism' should be aware that the path is not unique to them and that they are not alone either in history or today.
* Revolutionary Workers' Group, PO Box 60161, 172 W. Devon, Chicago, Illinois 60660, USA.
1 See ‘Modernism: From Leftism to the Void' in World Revolution no. 3.
2 The policies of War Communism in the countryside during the Civil War, much vaunted in comparison by the RWG, were not more non-capitalist than NEP. Furthermore, the outright expropriation of peasant grain, although an absolute essential measure for the Russian proletarian offensive at the time, hardly constitute an economic programme (pillage?). it can easily be seen that these temporary measures of force against peasant production could not continue indefinitely. Before, during and after War Communism, the primary basis of production in the countryside was private property. Although the RWG is perfectly correct in stressing the importance of the class struggle of agricultural labourers in the countryside, this struggle does not automatically and immediately disintegrate the peasantry or its system of production.