ICC Day of Discussion on the Russian Revolution

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11 NOVEMBER 2017

The following account consists of the presentations given by the CWO and the ICC, and the summaries of the discussion produced by two close sympathisers of the ICC. We hope it gives a clear enough picture of what was a very stimulating and positive meeting. Copies of the audio recording are available on request (write to [email protected])



ICC: Welcome to one of a series of ICC meetings being held on this topic. Meetings are to be held in Berlin, Zurich, Antwerp, Paris and other places. One difference in this meeting is that one presentation will be made by the Communist Workers’ Organisation. Both organisations defend the proletarian character of 1917. 20 years ago there was a similar meeting defending the proletarian nature of 1917. There will be plenty of time for open discussion, we expect agreement and disagreements, but in a comradely manner.


On the Working Class Character of the Russian Revolution

“On the evening of October 24th [6 November new style] the Provisional Government had at its disposal little more than 25,000 men. On the evening of October 25th, when preparations were underway for the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolsheviks assembled about 20,000 Red Guards, sailors and soldiers before that last refuge of the Provisional Government. But within the palace there were not more than 3000 defenders, and many of those left their posts during the night. Thanks to the Bolsheviks’ overwhelming superiority there were no serious battles in the capital from October 24th to October 26th, and the total number of those killed on both sides was no more than 15, with no more than 60 wounded.

During these critical hours, as all the main strategic points in the city passed under Bolshevik control (telephone and telegraph exchanges, bridges, railroad stations, the Winter Palace etc.), Petrograd continued on the whole to go about its normal business.  Most of the soldiers remained in the barracks, the plants and the factories continued to operate, and in the schools none of the classes were interrupted.  There were no strikes or mass demonstrations such had accompanied the February Revolution. The movie theatres (called cinematographias in those days) were filled, there were regular performances in all the theatres, and people strolled as usual on the Nevsky Prospect. The ordinary non-political person would not even have noticed the historic events taking place; even on the streetcar lines, the main form of public transportation in 1917, service remained normal. It was in one of those streetcars that Lenin, in disguise, and his bodyguard Eino Rahya travelled to Smolny late on the evening of the 24th.”

Such was the picture painted by the Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev and you can find similar accounts in Trotsky and John Reed.  The lack of drama and the apparently merely military takeover have fed a bourgeois lie which has now endured for a century that the October Revolution was simply a coup d’état by a band of ruthless adventurers who stole a democratic revolution from the working class.  Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist class, not to mention modern-day Mensheviks and some anarchists all over the world, still feel they have to perpetuate this myth.  And of course the final coda years later in Stalinism is also be put down as the logical outcome of the actions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in October 1917.

Of course they all have their different ideological reasons for writing off the Russian Revolution.  For the defenders of the capitalist order, dismissing the only time the working class anywhere was in the saddle in any capitalist state for any length of time as a coup, is essential in order to maintain the idea that the working class can never successfully overthrow the capitalist system.

Before we go any further we need to state two premises on which the CWO and others in the Communist Left base their views.  The first is that socialism is not something that can be achieved by a minority but only by an active movement involving the mass of the people who alone can transform society by their own activity instead of being merely passive voters expecting someone else to rule them.  The second premise is that the Russian revolution cannot be explained only in Russian terms but as the first step in an international challenge to a capitalist system which had brought humanity to its knees in an imperialist war.  The Russian and other revolutionaries at the time like Rosa Luxemburg all saw that the problem of socialism could only be posed in Russia – it required revolutions everywhere else to answer the question.

As it is the tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that the force created by the working class in 1917 in the Bolshevik Party not only helped to bring it victory but that same force also later became the agent of the counter-revolution.  However, we will be looking at the errors of the Revolution and the mistakes of the Bolsheviks in this afternoon’s session.  We have been tasked in this session with looking at the facts of 1917 and establishing the proletarian nature of the Russia Revolution.

In this we will be addressing two basic lies:

  1. That the October Revolution was just a coup; and
  2. That the Bolsheviks were only in favour of the power of workers’ bodies like soviets and factory committees for their own ends and stifled them as soon as they came to power.

The first lie that bourgeois histories try to perpetuate about 1917 is that the February Revolution was good and democratic and the October Revolution was bad and dictatorial.  In fact we would argue that these were but two moments in the same process – the process of the Russian proletariat groping its way towards an entirely new political structure which they had discovered for themselves in their earlier revolution in 1905.  February was not a “democratic revolution” but a proletarian one which the bourgeoisie and their allies in the working class tried to steal from the workers.

February to April

The February Revolution arose out of the elemental struggle of the Russian working class.  It was as predicted as it was unexpected. 

The prediction was easily made since three years of war had revealed the complete inability of a reactionary monarchy to muster what resources the state had to even properly clothe and arm the millions they sent into battle.  The monarchy had been tottering under a crescendo of strikes from 1912 on.  The declaration of war brought a temporary halt to these for about a year but from July 1915 they were on the rise again.  Every workers’ anniversary brought more strikes and more and more strikes included political demands like “Down with the war”.  However it was the inability of the regime to feed the population that led to the patience of the working class finally snapping.

Then unexpected was that no-one thought that a women’s demonstration at that time would be the spark.  Women at first started bread riots and then on International Women’s Day came out on strike bringing hundreds of thousands of other workers out too in demonstrations attacked by the police with clubs.  No-one died the first day but as the movement continued political groups joined in and brought out more factories.  The regime suddenly realised the danger and now began firing on largely unarmed crowds.  For 36 hours the issue hung in the balance but as more and more were killed the workers (again most often women) began to talk to the troops and win over their neutrality to the point where several regiments mutinied and came over to the revolution.

After a week or so the Tsar abdicated but not before the landed aristocracy, the industrialists and the propertied in general had realised that they needed to try to cut this revolution off by announcing the formation of a Provisional Government.

Whilst they were deciding the fate of the revolution in gilded salons the workers were still fighting the “pharaohs” (police) on the streets.  In one demonstration the call went up for the formation of a soviet.  The takeover attempt of the bourgeoisie was about to be challenged by the workers’ memory of 1905.  However if one set of thieves is not enough Russia produced two in March 1917. The second were the left parties – the Mensheviks and SRs.  Because they had cooperated with the war effort they had more political influence at first and so it was they who set up the soviet in the same building as the PG and quickly called for delegates.  The most revolutionary workers were not even aware of it and in fact the first soviet was very unrepresentative as many more soldiers got in than workers.  In fact Shlyapnikov reckoned that there were no more than 50 workers in it when it was formed.

This is important.  In every proletarian revolution there is not just one enemy – the opposing class – but there is always within the working class itself anti-revolutionary elements who will insist that this is not the right time for the working class to take over.  They may even have a lot of influence inside the working class since their promise of reforms seems a practicable way to make life just a little better.  Unless there is an opposing voice inside the working class then the dominant ideas will be those for the preservation of the system. 

Inside the Russian working class there was already the makings of a real revolutionary opposition.  At the beginning it included anarchists, Inter-district committee (Mezhraionsty) members and even some radical SRs but the largest, best organised and most linked to the working class was the Bolsheviks.  Although a minority of about 8000 in March 1917 it was overwhelmingly working class.  Above all it was the one party which had a clear position on the war.

After February the class war intensified in the factories and in the villages. In the factories the class war intensified after February.  Unions were formed and demands for the eight hour day increased.   Organisationally though the unions were not the most significant new bodies.  The most striking feature was the increase in the number and self-confidence of the factory committees.  Many of these were based on an older tradition of stewards’ (starosty) committees and were mostly elected by the whole workforce with responsibility for “control” (which, except for the state’s war industry factories, meant supervision and inspection – at this point they did not aim to manage the factory).  S.A. Smith compares them to the shop stewards committees on Red Clydeside and Sheffield, the obleute (revolutionary shop stewards in Germany and the “internal commissions” in Italy.  (S.A. Smith Red Petrograd p.57-9). 

Food prices were doubling approximately every other month during 1917 and the fact that the Provisional Government was even worse at solving the transport question than Tsarism meant that bread rations were cut from 1lb a day to three quarters of a pound by April.  Worse was to come since only 230 rail wagons containing food reached St Petersburg/ Petrograd each day in April 1917, compared with a daily total of 351 a year earlier.  Only one third of coal needs were reaching the capital by May and works like Putilov were closed down for weeks on end in August and September. In addition to these temporary closures 568 factories went bankrupt leading to increased unemployment.  Not surprisingly this led to a massive increase in strikes as we saw in the previous chapter.  These radicalised the workers still further.  As the leading academic analyst of these strikes concluded:

“The strikes which swept Russia in the summer of 1917 had more than an economic significance.  They were a sign of political disillusionment – a reflection of the fact that workers felt cheated of the gains they had made as a result of the February Revolution”.  (S.A. Smith Red Petrograd p.119 – all figures here stem from this source or from M. Ferro The Bolshevik Revolution – A Social History p. 160ff)           

In addition the Provisional Government could not or would not solve the two other desperate problems of Russia – peace and land.

And this is what makes the Bolsheviks the class party in 1917. But it was not a given in March 1917.  Contrary to the myths of both Stalin and the capitalist historians the Bolsheviks were never a disciplined bunch who just blindly followed orders from on high.  They were always full of different factions who debated fiercely amongst themselves.  This was still true after February. At first Pravda (Truth) the Bolshevik paper under the control of the Petersburg committee campaigned against the war and was distinctly hostile to the Provisional Government as well as the Menshevik policy of cooperating with it. However when Stalin, Kameniev and Muranov returned from Siberian exile they took over the paper and suddenly it was talking like the Mensheviks in supporting the Provisional Government and even talking about carrying on the war.  But these Central Committee members were totally out of touch with the Petersburg Bolshevik Party members who were outraged and demanded their expulsion from the Party.

This was the background to Lenin’s famous return from Switzerland in April where he not only gave voice to the views of the Bolshevik workers but also put it in an internationalist framework by announcing that the Russian Revolution was the first step in an international revolution and that the first task of the workers was to establish soviet power in Russia.

It took several weeks for Lenin’s April Theses to win over the majority of the Party but it now was clear as to its perspectives for 1917.

The July Days

The number of strikes continued to increase despite the Provisional Government and the Menshevik/Essaire (SR) majority in the Soviet attempting to calm them.  However the political scene exploded once again when the leader of the bourgeois party the Kadets in the Provisional Government issued his Note to the Allied powers assuring them that Russia would stick to the imperialist bargain the Tsar had made with them and that the war would be fought to victory.  The uproar from the workers caused Milyukov to resign and it also emboldened the Bolsheviks to plan a demonstration against the Provisional Government in June.  The rest of the Soviet Executive protested at what they saw as a Bolshevik provocation and the Bolsheviks called the demonstration off. However the Mensheviks and SRs then thought to drive home their victory by calling their own demonstration in support of the Provisional Government and themselves.  It backfired magnificently.  The Menshevik Sukhanov tells us that of the banners carried in that demonstration 90% carried Bolshevik slogans like “Down with the Provisional Government” “All Power to the Soviets”.  The demonstration also coincided with the news that the offensive of General Brusilov after initial successes had collapsed into humiliating retreat.

These events led some in the First Machine Gun Regiment, amongst the anarchists, Kronstadt sailors and even in the Bosheviks’ Military Organisation to conclude that “All Power to the Soviets” was more than just a slogan of orientation but one whose time had come.

They decided that the time was now ripe for an armed demonstration in Petersburg which has gone down in history as the July Days.  This episode is often cited by reactionary historians like Pipes to show that the Bolsheviks were putschist and got it wrong; but in fact, it demonstrates that the Bolsheviks were neither putschists nor Blanquists because they refused to support a premature uprising which did not yet have the support of the majority.  Lenin was actually on holiday when the July Days started and hurried back to Petersburg – addressing the demonstrators from the Bolshevik HQ he basically told them not to be provoked and have a pleasant demonstration, but told the leader of the Bolshevik Military Organisation that he ought to be “thrashed” for not preventing the movement.   The demonstrators ignored Lenin and marched on the city centre only to be ambushed by soldiers loyal to the PG.  Hundreds died and the PG now spread the rumour that the Bolsheviks were in the pay of the Germans. The Bolsheviks were declared an illegal organisation.  It cost them at first because they accepted that those who demonstrated did so out of a mistaken reading of their policy (the Bolshevik press was smashed, some Bolsheviks were killed, others imprisoned and some fled to exile) but by remaining with the masses they held on to their base in the working class. Lenin justified it thus:

“Mistakes are inevitable when the masses are fighting but the communists remain with the masses, see these mistakes, explain them to the masses, try to get them rectified and strive perseveringly for the victory of class consciousness over spontaneity”. (Collected Works Volume 29, p. 396 emphasis in the original)

Remaining with the masses was to stand them in good stead a month later because by August society was splitting further and further into two class camps.  In July Kerensky, an SR, became Prime Minister, but after the outlawing of the Bolsheviks the bourgeois right were now becoming more confident and they looked for a strong man to not only wipe out the Bolsheviks but get rid of the Soviets as well.  They found this in General Lavr Kornilov who Kerensky appointed to be C-in-C after Brusilov.

August: the Kornilov Affair

“In previous crises, in April, June and July, the spontaneous initiatives of Bolshevik and anarchist soldiers had caused street demonstrations. The leading elements in the Bolshevik Party had been forced, in the end, to assume responsibility for a movement launched by the young men of the military organisation. As the cinema films show, there were considerably fewer workers than soldiers or sailors.

In the Kornilov affair, when the action was defensive, the reverse happened. The proletarian districts were the first to mobilise, recruiting 40,000 men and arming 25,000 from the factories through their committees or from weapons left by the Kronstadt sailors during the July Days ... Under the leadership of the Bolshevik Skorokhodov, this committee co-ordinated its actions with the other committees of the capital, planning for cars to go round to maintain communication, guarding factories, arranging information briefings at set times and the like ...  The people were mentally prepared, and the means for defence were made available, such that when the organisations appealed, every citizen, tree, house and stone was set to oppose the advance of Kornilov, whose telegrams failed to arrive and whose locomotives got no water. The ground crumbled under his feet.”

(Marc Ferro, The Bolshevik Revolution A Social History (1980), p. 56)

What was clear was that the Kornilov Affair had led to an enormous leap forward in class consciousness:

“The soviets, now distinctly radical in outlook, emerged from the crisis with their popularity amongst the masses immensely enhanced. Revolutionary Russia was more widely saturated than ever before with competing grassroots political organisations and revolutionary committees. Workers had become more militant and better organized, and significant numbers of them had obtained weapons. At the same time, democratic committees in the army, by virtue of their leading role in organizing soldiers against the Kornilov movement, were rejuvenated. Within the Petrograd garrison, control of many regimental committees passed from more moderate elements into the hands of the Bolsheviks”. (A. Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks Come to Power p.166)

Far from taking advantage of this to assert the Bolsheviks right to power Lenin raised the possibility that there could still be a peaceful development of the revolution if the Mensheviks and SRs would lead the soviets in the process of taking power.  At the beginning of September he called for compromise.

“The Russian revolution is experiencing so abrupt and original a turn that we, as a party, may offer a voluntary compromise – true, not to our direct and main class enemy the bourgeoisie, but to our nearest adversaries, the ruling petty-bourgeois-democratic parties, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.

We may offer a compromise to these parties only by way of exception, and only by virtue of the particular situation, which obviously last only a very short time.  And I think we should do so.  The compromise on our part is our return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets and a government of SRs and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets.

Now, and only now, perhaps during only a few days or a week or two, such a government could be set up and consolidated in a perfectly peaceful way.  In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian revolution, and provide exceptionally good chances for great strides in the world movement towards peace and the victory of socialism”.  (On Compromises in Collected Works Vol. 25 p. 206 emphasis in the original)

This is hardly the picture of the power-mad vanguard partyist that bourgeois and anarchist histories paint.  Lenin does not demand Bolshevik party power but soviet power even if they are headed by the Mensheviks and SRs.  It was no isolated offer. He repeated the idea of a peaceful development of the revolution a fortnight later.

“Power to the Soviets – this is the only way to make further progress gradual, peaceful and smooth keeping perfect pace with the political awareness and resolve of the majority of the people and with their own experience.  Power to the Soviets means the complete transfer of the country’s administration and economic control into the hands of the workers and peasants, to whom nobody dare offer resistance, and who, through practice, through their own experience, would soon learn how to distribute the land, products and grain properly”. (One of the Fundamental Questions of the Revolution in Collected Works Vol 25 pp 373 emphases in the original)

But the Mensheviks and SRs not only rejected any compromise - they rejected the whole idea of soviet power and did all they could to undermine it after Kornilov.  They always regarded the soviets as temporary until the Constituent Assembly (which would then liquidate them). In fact they delayed the calling of the Second Soviet Congress (they were supposed to be called every 3 months) by nearly two months to avoid the Bolshevik majority replacing them as the EC.

By September the Bolsheviks are winning elections in most soviets and even in city dumas where other classes also can vote.  They were now some 350,000 spread across Russia.  Why were they so successful? They answered to the working class demand for soviet power and the promised that they would end the war.  They were the only organisation to coherently offer this. This wasn’t just fancy theory dreamed up by intellectuals but responded to the evolution of the class consciousness of the Russian working class. John Reed tells us that in a Obukhovsky factory a meeting was discussing the seizure of power and a soldier from the Rumanian front shouted out: “We will hold on with all our might until the peoples of the whole world rise to help us”. And Rosa Luxemburg from her prison cell could also write: “The fact that the Bolsheviks in their policy have steered their course entirely towards the world revolution of the proletariat is precisely the most brilliant testimony to their political far-sightedness, their principled firmness and the bold scope of their policy”. This internationalist perspective continued even after the October Revolution. Trotsky, Bukharin, and Lenin all said on numerous occasions that without a European or at least a German revolution the Soviet republic was doomed. The final accusation against the Bolsheviks is that they only pretended that they supported the working class but as soon as they got in power they began to build up party power at the expense of the workers.  This is a travesty of the facts.  Obviously in the end we all know that the Bolsheviks became the agents of the counter-revolution but this was neither premeditated nor inevitable and the process of degeneration really only began in the early summer of 1918. Let’s look at their record in that first “heroic period” (Kritsman) of the revolution before March 1918. The Second Soviet Congress overwhelmingly accepted the power presented to it by the Bolsheviks and the Executive Committee approved the setting up of a Council of Peoples’ Commissars (Sovnarkom), made up of Bolsheviks and Left SRs (although the latter did not take up their seats until December.  All other parties walked out of the Soviet and refused to accept anything other than a return to a coalition with the bourgeoisie. The new government announced Russia’s withdrawal from the war.  It legalised peasant land seizures and workers’ control in the factories.  Officials were paid only the average wage of a skilled industrial worker.  Laws brought in equal pay for women, divorce at the request of either partner, abortion and equal status for children of unmarried parents. Homosexuality was decriminalised.  Church and State were separated and freedom of religion was established (thus ending the legal oppression of Jews). Other social achievements were the introduction of free education (alongside a mass literacy campaign), free maternity homes and nurseries. And “Soviet Russia was the first nation in history to witness the birth across its land of thousands of communal organizations spontaneously engaging in collective life” (R, Stites Revolutionary Dreams) Nationalities of the old Russian empire were given the right to self-determination. Most of this took place in the first six months of the revolution.  During this time the soviet principle was extended.  400 or so more soviets were established across Russia, the principle of immediate recall of delegates was established and Congresses of Soviets were taking place every three months.  In this same period the Bolsheviks (soon to take the name Communists) understood that the party can lead but it cannot make a revolution.  This is the task of the working class itself.  Lenin told the Seventh Congress of the RCP(B) “… socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party.  It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves”. (Collected Works Volume 27 p. 135)

At the time Lenin was equally adamant:

“Creative activity at the grassroots is the basic factor of the new public life.  Let the workers’ control at their factories. Let them supply the villages with manufactures in exchange for grain… Socialism cannot be decreed from above.  Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach: living creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.” (Collected Works Vol. 26 p.288) To sum up, the Bolshevik Party of 1917 did not spring from the pages of What is to be Done?, a document forgotten by everyone including its author as belonging to a past period and no longer valid, but from the process of revolution itself starting with that in 1905. In the course of this revolutionary process the Bolsheviks were always the closest to the working class, both in Russia and internationally, and in the course of it, they alone of all the social democratic factions, abandoned dogma to become the authentic voice of the working class.  And this was not in just a Russian revolution but in the international working class revolution.  We know that this revolution will not be repeated in the same form again but October 1917 remains a great inspiration for anyone who can see that only world-wide workers’ revolution can save humanity from the even greater horrors which capitalism is preparing for us. Jock for the CWO


Was October a soviet revolution or a coup by the Bolsheviks?

This was posed by a comrade from the SPGB which defends the latter position.

In response, firstly the Russian Revolution is the entry of the masses onto the stage of history; revolutionaries had to run to catch up. The presentation showed clearly that the Russian revolution was not a coup d'etat. This simply doesn’t correspond to reality; there was a massive development of the movement from February to October, which is what enabled the seizure of power through the actions of a relative minority, but one organised by the soviets. 

All the bourgeois propaganda pushes the idea of a coup by Bolsheviks and we have to challenge this; there was a huge development of self-organisation, much more directed and focused than in February. The fact is the Bolsheviks were the most experienced militants – otherwise the leadership would have been taken by others like the Mensheviks, and the provisional government was already extremely unrepresentative.

It was emphasised that we’re not required to defend everything that happened in Russia, or everything the Bolsheviks did, but at least to begin with they were representative of the working class, the rank and file Bolsheviks being the most militant. The Bolsheviks took up slogans raised by the class as a whole. The ability of Lenin in particular to learn from the masses, and to learn from mistakes, was crucial.

We also have to challenge the idea that the Russian Revolution is in the past and has nothing to do with today. Today people don’t think a revolt is possible and we need to stress that the working class is capable of organising and envisaging a new world. Despite the treason of social democracy in 1914 which caused a temporary crisis in the workers’ movement, the fact is the war meant the working class had to react, just as it is forced to react by the crisis today.

There was some discussion about the extent of enthusiasm for war in1914; it was argued that many militant workers remained anti-war, like the French syndicalists, Rosa Luxemburg and the future Spartacists in Germany. Other comrades stressed the extent of the patriotic orgy, described vividly by Rosa Luxemburg in the Junius Pamphlet. But despite the defeat the working class quickly recovered, with strikes and opposition movements less than a year after war began.

So the events in Russia were the culmination of the growth of resistance to the war internationally, which the Bolsheviks were able to recognise as a first step towards a world revolution. The war itself was brought to an end by the working class.

In 1914 the effects of defeat were short-lived. Bourgeois propaganda was simplistic and workers still had a clear sense of their class identity, whereas World War 2 was only possible because the working class was already defeated and bourgeois ideology was more sophisticated.

Today the conditions are very difficult for the working class, with demoralisation and widespread ideas that the working class doesn’t exist anymore. There are widespread ideas that communism has already failed and only leads to the gulag and Stalinism. This is a very strong factor in today’s situation.

But for us Russia is still the only example in history when the working class seized political power on a national scale, only three years after workers were drowned in nationalism and war. For us today, and for the Third International at the time, the war and the revolutionary wave were proof that capitalism was obsolete and in decline. As Rosa Luxemburg warned, capitalism had become not only a fetter but a clear and present danger to the future of humanity. The Russian Revolution is proof the working class can respond to this.

How the bourgeoisie is covering the events

It is significant that the bourgeoisie is not making a big campaign today about the Russian Revolution. It shows despite the difficulties of today’s situation the bourgeoisie does not feel confident about the whole idea of revolution.

There is also clear attempt to portray the Russian Revolution as particular to Russia. We need to challenge this. Capitalism today is still a decadent system.

Most bourgeois histories abandon all objectivity when it comes to the events of October; it was a ‘coup’. Today many in the proletarian camp, who want a social change, also accept this bourgeois narrative of the ‘alien’ Bolsheviks. TV ‘reconstructions’ show key figures but with little or no mention of the masses. Everything is personalised, eg. the July Days is explained as Lenin ‘bottling it’. This is the level of understanding, whereas in fact Trotsky had a whole analysis of why the workers weren’t ready, which allowed the Bolsheviks to avoid bourgeois provocations – thus disproving the myth that they were simply ‘power hungry’, whereas in Germany the Spartacists fell into the trap and suffered a terrible defeat. The lesson for us is the necessity for a party that can speak truth to the workers.

The question of the war – defeat for the working class and the internationalism of the Bolsheviks

A Trotskyist sympathiser raised two questions: on the role of the peasantry, which the presentation had not dealt with, and on the role the Bolsheviks were able to play which supports the idea that there must be at least a nucleus of experienced militants before the revolution; the massive growth of the Bolsheviks during summer 1917 of inexperienced members and the later ‘Lenin levy’ helped to destroy the Party.

On the role of the peasantry; the peasants deserted the front and slowly took over the land, often collectively, and with Bolshevik support when the Socialist Revolutionaries still in government opposed it.

There was no disagreement with the need for a nucleus of the party in the class if the workers are to make the revolution. The Bolsheviks had a solid mass of workers in Petrograd able to survive arrests.

The Bolsheviks were able to play a leading role in 1917 partly because of position they took against the war; ‘turn imperialist war into civil war’…  Their loyalty to internationalism was key and ‘Socialism in one country’ was the death of this. The Bolshevik position was ‘Down with the war’; revolutionary defeatism was not active until 1917 when defencism was seen to be the key issue.

It was pointed out also that the bourgeois parties in Russia were pro-war because Russian capitalism was in hock to French and British capitalism. The factories in Russia were run under foreign contracts, while the factory committees were key to the political opposition to the factory owners, the Czar and the war.  

The February Revolution – bourgeois or proletarian?

Were the workers simply used as a battering ram to get rid of the Czar and put the bourgeoisie in power? This was the view of the comrade from the SPGB

In response, the reality was that the bourgeoisie had no power – it passed to the Petrograd soviet. The fiction of a bourgeois revolution was pushed by the Mensheviks and SRs. It was the workers who made the February revolution but it remained unfinished business. We have to see the Russian Revolution as a process rather than isolate events as the bourgeoisie does in its propaganda; the return of Lenin, April Theses, July Days, October.

The anarchist interpretation of events – the role of the Bolsheviks and the factory committees

A comrade from a class struggle anarchist background said he regretted the absence of more from this political current at the meeting to put up a robust argument against the Bolsheviks.

He personally agreed with the ICC manifesto and the CWO presentation and with the discussion. But while the Bolsheviks were the most popular organisation within the working class he also felt they were also inherently authoritarian and statist.

The factory committees were the most important and militant expressions of the revolution in Russia. Re: the book by Maurice Brinton (The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1975), isn’t he right when he says that the Bolsheviks tried to crush factory committees?

In response it was pointed out that the Bolsheviks were divided over the factory committees – in fact the factory committees themselves were divided about their role! Some wanted workers control or workers’ self-management while others said there is no point: we should wait for the world revolution. Lenin thought the factory committees should run the economy on the principle that that socialism cannot be controlled from above. But he later changed his mind.

With hindsight we know how the story ends but we can’t draw a straight line from What Is To Be Done to Stalin. The Bolsheviks and Lenin changed their views due to the events of 1905 and, most importantly, the First World War. The Bolsheviks were from October 1917 to June 1918 were about as good as the working class can get. They were made by the working class and not something imposed from above.  




On the degeneration of the revolution

This presentation will be based mainly on the section in the Manifesto which deals with the degeneration of the revolution and the errors of the Bolsheviks. This section begins as a polemic with other currents in the revolutionary movement: internationalist anarchists and councilists, whose ancestors may have supported the revolution in the beginning, but who later decided that October 1917 had been no more than a bourgeois revolution – in which they are joined by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. For us it is necessary to face a reality of proletarian life under capitalism: the constant tendency towards degeneration and betrayal under the weight of the dominant ideas. Those who portray the Russian revolution as bourgeois evade this question. It is perhaps more ‘consistent’ on the part of the anarchists, some of whom have always rejected Marxism and trace their origins to the likes of Bakunin, but with marxist currents like the council communists or the ‘Impossibilists’ of the SPGB, it skirts round the obvious fact that they, like the Bolsheviks, have the same origins in international social democracy.  Our method is that of Rosa Luxemburg, and later of the Italian Communist left, who were able to make profound criticisms of the Bolshevik party from a position of total solidarity with the Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks, and who understood that the errors of the latter could only be understood in the context of the isolation of the revolution. Situating the October revolution and its degeneration in the framework of isolation and the terrible siege mounted by the world bourgeoisie is not, as many anarchists claim, an ‘excuse’ for the errors of the Bolsheviks, but it does enable us to understand why a proletarian party could make such errors and why they were to prove so fatal.  The key thing for us is to draw the lessons of these mistakes so that they are not repeated, even if the conditions of any future revolution will be very far from a carbon copy of the Russian experience. These are lessons that could only be drawn in the light of the whole experience, and could not have been fully grasped beforehand. Thus, for example, in State and Revolution Lenin was able to overcome the ‘amnesia’ of the socialist movement regarding the lessons of the Commune – the necessity to dismantle the existing bourgeois state – but he could not yet clearly see why the new Commune state would itself present a danger to the progress of the revolution.  The Manifesto points to the following essential lessons:  

·         The absolute necessity for the extension of the revolution. This of course was understood already by the Bolsheviks who knew that without the world revolution they were doomed, but they couldn’t know entirely the manner in which this doom would take place. The Bolsheviks’ main fear was that they would be overthrown by invading (and homegrown) counter-revolutionary armies: they didn’t sufficiently grasp the danger of an internal counter-revolution. Furthermore, recognising the impossibility of ‘socialism in one country’ was necessary but not sufficient. Contrary to the later views of the Trotskyists, even when they were still a proletarian current, there could not be ‘workers’ states’, albeit degenerated, surviving in a capitalist world for decades. Isolation meant not only that you couldn’t construct socialism: it also meant that you could not sustain the political rule of the working class.

·          What was definitively clarified by the Russian experience was that the role of the party is not to take political power on behalf of the workers, and not to get entangled with the state apparatus. This idea of the party as a “government in waiting” was to a greater or lesser extent held by the Marxist movement in general, not just by the Bolsheviks: Luxemburg for example declared that the Spartacists would only take power on the basis of a clear majority will in the working class. But even this idea shows the weight of parliamentary ideas on the workers’ movement: the council system, with the possibility of instant recall of delegates, is incompatible with the idea of the party holding power for a given period since a majority one day could turn into a minority the next. The Bolsheviks were themselves ambiguous on this question: Trotsky, for example, saw why the October insurrection should be carried out in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee, a soviet organ, and not the party, as Lenin had at one point suggested. But with the isolation of the revolution and the disintegration of any idea of a “coalition” with other revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks began to make a virtue out of a necessity and argue for the inevitability of the proletarian dictatorship being exerted by the communist party alone. These conceptions reinforced the gulf between the party and the class, while at the same time the attempt to run the machinery of state prohibited the party from playing its true role as the most radical fraction of the class movement and culminated in the bureaucratic death of the party.

·          This idea of the party dictatorship is closely linked to the question of violence, terror, and, in the end, the problem of morality: the revolution cannot be advanced by using methods that contradict its goals. For the working class, the end cannot justify the means. Socialism cannot be carried out by a minority – as Lenin constantly emphasised in the early phase of the revolution – and still less can it be imposed on the majority by force. We are with Luxemburg who argued that the idea of the Red Terror, understood as generalised state violence against all sectors of the population, was incompatible with the revolutionary project, and with Miasnikov who understood that the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 opened the door to “the abyss”. In the wake of Kronstadt, the rejection of the use of violence to settle disputes within the working class must be seen as a principle. The idea that the revolution can use any means at hand to further its ends is most often associated with counter-revolutionary Stalinism – for whom the methods of terror are perfectly compatible with its real aim: the consolidation of a brutal capitalist regime.  But the notion that the party must exert its dictatorship on behalf of and if necessary against the class as a whole lives on in the proletarian camp: it is defended by the Bordigists above all. But present day Bordigism has only arrived at this position by burying the real contribution of the Italian communist left from which it claims descent, since the latter’s investigations led it to recognise first that the party cannot use violence against the class and must not become enmeshed in the transitional state; and second, particularly through the work of its successors in the French communist left, to explicitly reject the identification between the proletarian dictatorship and the dictatorship of the party;

·          The work of these fractions has led the ICC to a position which is controversial even within those parts of the communist left which reject the Bordigist idea of the party’s role: that the transitional state, though a necessary evil, does not have a proletarian character and is most vulnerable to the pressures of the counter-revolution. The experience of Russia showed that it may be necessary to create instruments (such as a standing army) which have a definitely statist function and which contain an inherent threat to the autonomous organs of the working class. In Russia, the Red Army not only quickly began to reproduce the hierarchical norms of bourgeois armies, but even more crucially, was accompanied by the dissolution of the workers’ militias, which meant that the factory committees and workers’ councils no longer embodied the armament of the working class. At the same time, the Soviet state was not only made up of proletarian organs, but also by the representative bodies of other classes, which, although allied to the working class, nevertheless had their own interests to defend. These problems will not appear in exactly the same form in the future, given the changes that have come about in the composition of the global working class, but in essence they will continue to be posed in any revolutionary situation.

·          Regarding the economic and social measures to be carried out by the proletarian power, the Russian revolution has demonstrated that state capitalism is not a step towards socialism, as some of the Bolsheviks believed, but is always a means for strengthening the capitalist relationship. At the same time, the programme of self-management, the creation of a federation of ‘independent’ production units linked by commodity exchange, as advocated by the anarcho-syndicalists of the time and further theorised by the likes of Cornelius Castoriadis, also fails to transcend the horizon of capitalist relations and, like state capitalism, is seen as being achievable within the context of a single nation state. Again, the economic measures the proletariat takes in the first phases of the revolution must be compatible with the ultimate goal of communism, but at the same time they cannot be confused with the true communist transformation which can only be achieved when the revolution has triumphed on a world scale. For this reason our polemic is also directed against another current which is critical of both the state capitalist and self-management models: the “communisers”, who tend to revive old anarchist conceptions by arguing that you can by-pass the problem of political power and proceed to an immediate communisation of social life. This again tends to evade the problem of the international extension of the revolution. But above all, it inverses the real process of the communist transformation by insisting that the proletariat must immediately negate itself and merge into humanity, whereas the new human community starts with the self-affirmation of the proletariat and is completed when the whole of humanity has been integrated into the proletarian condition. This is the only abolition of the proletariat that communists can advocate.

In many ways, the problem of the self-affirmation of the proletariat is the central problem of the revolution, above all after a series of traumas and changes in the life of capital have undermined the old sense of class identity but not replaced it with a new one. This problem was in many ways posed during the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011,  a movement which was predominantly proletarian in composition, and proletarian in many of its methods (assemblies,  affirmation of internationalism, etc), but in which most of its protagonists saw themselves not as part of the working class but as “citizens” demanding a “real democracy”.   The class struggle of the future will only become explicitly revolutionary and communist by resolving this paradox.

Alf, for the ICC


The essential content of the discussion on the disintegration of the Russian Revolution (RR) is in fact embedded in the presentation on this issue: the isolation of the RR due to the defeat of attempts to extend it through revolutionary action in other countries (notably Germany) and the exhaustion of the workers, soldiers and revolutionary layers of the peasantry through invasion and civil war, leading to a real decimation of revolutionary forces and a political degeneration accelerated by errors and erroneous conceptions held by the class as a whole and the Bolshevik Party in particular. Similarly the present-day conceptions of the ‘communisers’, also raised in the discussion, are dealt with in the presentation (and continued in the discussion thread on this site https://en.internationalism.org/forum/1056/mark/14433/working-class-identity

Other issues raised included:

Was the very conception of a communist bastion or beacon a hangover from the bourgeois revolution? Absolutely not. ‘History will not forgive us if we don’t act’ said Lenin, in 1917 understanding (and even under-estimating) the international extent and depth of revolt against war, privation and the ruling classes held responsible. The revolution was indeed an inspiration to the subsequent uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Italy; the massive strikes in Britain, the US and elsewhere. It was the defeat of these revolts – the failure of the revolution to extend internationally – and the subsequent attempt by the party to ‘hold on at all costs’, to make virtues out of perceived necessities (the dictatorship of the party; the Red Terror; War Communism/requisitioning; the militarisation of labour, the Cheka, etc) – which wrecked the soviet project from within.

There was a desperate need to defend the revolution from invasion by the imperialist powers (armies from the US, GB, Canada, Germany, Poland, Estonia, China, Japan, France, etc) and from the White armies backed by these powers in the civil war that followed the October revolution. This was a life or death issue. And what the soviets and the Red Army achieved in militarily repulsing these hostile forces while awaiting the eruption of the world revolution was quite remarkable. But the political price - in terms of the dissolution of the workers’ own autonomous armed militias incorporated into the Red Army – coupled with the physical decimation of the urban working class and the wrecking of production in the cities and countryside, proved to be too high in the absence of revolution elsewhere.

The Red Army, the Red Terror, the banning of fractions in the Party, War Communism and the subservience of the Party and Soviets to the state remained while the working class itself retreated in Russia and internationally. Most comrades at the meeting agreed would have been better if the revolution had ‘gone down fighting’ with a clear defeat from ‘outside’, just as it would have been better for the health of the revolution if the Bolsheviks had acquiesced to the 1921 programme of the Kronstadt ‘rebels’ whose demands were similar to those raised by fractions within the Bolshevik Party at its 10th Congress the same year.

As it was and remains, the nature of the defeat of the RR was the worst possible outcome for the proletariat: the fact that it was a communist party that was ‘in charge’ as the revolution degenerated; that it was in the name of the international proletariat that the notion of ‘socialism in one country’ was developed in contradiction to Marxist internationalism – all this allowed for the dreadful legacy that equates Stalinism with communism.

Given criticisms raised of the Bolsheviks, a sympathiser of Trotskyism asked ‘What should they have done, then?”

There were various aspects given in response:

a)    The question is based on the incorrect idea that the revolution was for the Bolsheviks to save if only they made the right decisions, rather than understanding that it’s what the working class in its entirety could accomplish under the circumstances and given the international and historical balance of class forces;

b)    The Bolshevik Party was not some homogeneous bloc but had many political currents within it which ebbed and flowed, some of whom opposed specific policies and actions (such as the militarisation of labour or the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt), others of which put forward correct critiques but incorrect ‘solutions’. Such oppositions – in general appearing earlier and seeing clearer than Trotsky’s Left Opposition - exemplified the fact that the Bolshevik Party was still a living organism of the working class.

c)    It’s not a question of understanding of what they should have done rather than one of analysing what they did and did not do and learning from it. The conceptions they held – i.e. of the party taking power – were widespread within the entire working class at the time, a hangover from bourgeois parliamentarianism. It’s as a result of what actually happened – something which could not have been known in advance – that subsequent critiques can and must be made. However the rejection of ‘the ends justify the means’, of taking actions incompatible with the goals of communism, is certainly a notion which predates the event, even if it had not been posed concretely.

The dreadful legacy of the defeat would/could have been avoided if the class as a whole and the Bolshevik Party in particular had been able understand that the party does not take power and (for the ICC) that the state after the revolution is not simply an expression of the working class – more of which below. The same individual from Trotskyism criticised the absence of reference to the enemy Stalin as the main focal point of and for the counter-revolution. For the rest of the meeting, the counter-revolution was a process and Stalin – including the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ – was the result, not the cause. However: perhaps this is a wake-up call for the present revolutionary milieu not to take the standing of Stalin in the minds of the present generation for granted...

Two further elements in the discussion:

The Third Communist International was formed late (1919) and was overly-influenced by the Bolshevik Party and the needs of the Russian state. Indeed it evolved into a tool for the imperialist interests of that state. The lessons of this are the need for an international organisation of revolutionaries in advance of the revolution itself;
 For the SPGB, the degeneration of the RR proved Marx correct: the workers could not establish communism in a backward country. Lenin’s last articles were full of disillusionment – he realised he’d made a big mistake. Other comrades replied that a) The aim was never to establish communism in a single country but to provide a spark for the world revolution; b) Russia was relatively well-developed at the time with giant factories housing a concentrated working class – some of the biggest in the world - and extensive rail networks; c) That even if the revolution had broken out in the most advanced country like Germany, with the most educated working class, it would still have been defeated if it was isolated. There’s no sense in blaming Lenin nor looking for any Russian ‘particularism’. Finally, the meeting was marked by a high degree of homogeneity: between the CWO and the ICC, their sympathisers (and even a lone internationalist anarchist) on the main issues under debate and on the ICC Manifesto and the CWO presentation. The two currents agree that one of the main lessons of the RR is that the party of the working class does not seek to take power, which must be exercised by the masses themselves, but that without the influence of revolutionaries within the very bowels of the working class – and certainly within its self-organised expressions such as the factory committees and workers’ councils (or soviets) - the revolution will be robbed of vital historical, political and above all visionary elements of the goal of communism and cannot therefore progress.

However ... there was no fundamental agreement between the CWO and the ICC on the question of violence within the working class which in turn masked different attitudes to the state in the period of transition between capitalism and communism, of which our only ‘real-time’ experience is the Russian Revolution.

For the CWO, the question of violence within the working class, while something to be avoided, obviously, is not something that can be proscribed or wished away. There will be disagreements within the working class itself and some of these will be settled forcibly. It depends on the material circumstances.

For the ICC, it’s not a question of this or that disagreement on a picket line or struggle committee that’s at stake here but a generalised attitude that the means can’t be separated from the end – a society of freely associated producers can’t be achieved through coercion but only resolved consciously. Behind this unexplored disagreement lies a difference of appreciation on the crucial question of what is the state in general and the nature of the state in the period of transition in particular.

For the CWO, Lenin’s State and Revolution is clear enough: the workers’ councils wield statist functions including military power and having some kind of organs removed from this nexus of power is building castles in the air. For the ICC, the state is an unavoidable excrescence – symptom of the fact that different classes still exist – and will indeed have to form organs of coercion and violence to defend the revolution... Which is precisely why the working class can’t simply identify with the ‘workers’ state’ or such organs dealing with the ‘here and now’ but above all must wield political and armed control over them, armed with a consciousness of where the revolution is heading, of what it must become....


In the ‘common sense’ view (the bourgeois view – history is written by the victors) the Russian Revolution succeeded and the result was ‘communist rule’ by Stalin and the Gulag. For the majority at the ICC meeting, this was not the case.

The Russian Revolution failed. True, the working class, through its soviets, through its party, smashed the bourgeois state and established, for a short time, a dictatorship of the proletariat (only the Socialist Party of GB regarded this as a bourgeois revolution and a Bolshevik coup). However in the view of other participants at the meeting, an indisputably proletarian revolution – the first at the level of an entire nation state - degenerated. Relatively rapidly.

Thus it is that the real issues of the Russian Revolution are largely unknown within the populace at large and the working class in particular, a working class which has tended at the present moment to lose its sense of identity, its sense of history, its sense of itself as a historic class with a past and a future. This meeting was in truth a very small one even if it did provide a focus for a number of elements interested in the positions of the communist left, and even if it saw a high level of agreement amongst the majority of individuals and groups attending.

There was also agreement that revolutionaries were still finding an echo for their positions and that such meetings were valuable. The ICC was holding similar events in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and further afield, while the CWO was holding a meeting in the North of England. This was the first coordinated meeting of the ICC and CWO for 20 years – and the previous meeting was also on the subject of the Russian Revolution  And the real differences of historical appreciation, of theory about attitudes towards regroupment past, present and future – about how to build the party in practice - remain to be further developed beyond past, bitter polemics.

Life of the ICC: 

History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 


Discussion Day