Days of Discussion II: Lessons of the Russian Revolution

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The Russian revolution of 1917 was a heroic moment in the history of the working class, when it took political power for the first time, and did its best to hold it. Its aftermath is one of the great tragedies in the history of the working class: isolated by counter-revolution in the west, and outmaneuvered at home, it was beaten finally into line by the goons of Stalinism. The events of the revolution are well-known, and I don't think that so many people asked to discuss the lessons it can teach us because they wanted to dwell on heroic images or agonize over tragedy. The fact is that the Russian revolution, precisely because it is as of now the highest tide-line of the proletariat's ebbing and flowing struggle, is the richest experience from which revolutionaries today can draw lessons for their politics. The Left Communists of the twenties and thirties saw this clearly, and saw as their task the preservation of the theoretical gains made by the workers' movement during the Russian revolution and its Russian and international aftermath. Today, as the world situation forces the proletariat to struggle in defense of its living conditions, it is important that, as we intervene, we keep the lessons the Russian revolution can teach us firmly in mind, so that we can be as clear and as effective as possible.

Internationalism is one of the core principles of the workers' movement, and we would be remiss in our duty to the working class if we failed to examine the Russian revolution in an international framework. It is a favorite tactic of bourgeois commentators and especially academics to isolate the Russian experience from the experience of the world proletariat. According to these distorters of history, the Russian revolution was noteworthy at all because it ended Tsarism. In this world, the most important consequence of the revolution was to make the Allies of World War I entirely "democratic", set against the "autocratic" German bloc and to make it acceptable for the pure-of-heart, democratic United States to enter the war. Another favorite distortion is to locate the rot at the heart of the Russian system in the countryside and to emphasize the role of the peasantry in bringing down Tsarism. Against this distortion, revolutionaries must recognize, from an examination of the facts, that the rot at the heart of the Russian system was the endemic crisis of world capitalism, the same crisis that had produced the World War. We must reaffirm that what made the revolution possible was not simply the internal weakness of the regime, but the change in historical epoch that marked the end of capitalism as a progressive system. We must recognize that the epoch of "wars and revolutions" identified by the Communist International is the epoch in which we live, and that changes in the balance of force between classes only push society towards either war or revolution.

Nor may we forget that the Russian revolution, though it marked the only point where the proletariat managed to seize power, did not happen in a vacuum. It was the first act in a worldwide revolutionary drama, and inspired and taught the other actors by its performance. The German and Hungarian working classes learned to demand a republic of workers' councils from the Russians. The Mensheviks', the Social Democrats' defense of their old slogan of the democratic republic reaffirmed their allegiance to the counter-revolution. Today, the demand for the democratic republic in Iran and countries like it is used to tie the workers in those countries to a faction of the bourgeoisie. The Russian revolution teaches us that this demand is an intrusion of bourgeois ideology into the workers' movement. Lastly, history shows us that the revolutionary wave was not merely international, but also internationalist. It was the uprising of Russian workers that led to that country withdrawing from the World War. It was the rising of German workers, and not, as bourgeois academics would have it, the Junker military, that forced Germany to ask for an armistice. It was not out of some special kindness, but rather due to the mass struggles of British, French, Japanese, and American dockers, railroad workers, munitions makers, and other workers that the British, French, Japanese, and American ruling classes were forced to withdraw from Russia.

What principles, besides the necessity of international working-class solidarity, and the fact that a good way for workers to defend themselves is to spread their struggle, does the Russian revolution teach us to reaffirm? The Russian experience shows us that, yes, the working class does possess the power within itself to organize to overthrow capitalism. Moreover, it reveals the forms in which this organization takes place, and that its development is directly linked to the development of the class struggle. First, when the struggle is defensive, isolated and a-political, there is the discussion circle, examined during the last Days of Discussion. Confined to a small group of workers-perhaps not even a whole workplace, depending on the level of struggle-this is just what it sounds like, a place for interested workers to talk about what's going on around them and how to defend themselves. If a struggle spreads, there appear the strike committee, the mass meeting, and the general assembly. The workers are beginning to take confidence in the ability of their struggle to succeed, and planning on how to achieve it. They are reaching out, finding and drawing in allies amongst other workers and in the non-exploiting general population. They begin to monopolize space, to convert it to their purpose. As the struggle becomes broader, and to become political, there appear workers' councils, elected and responsible bodies composed of recallable delegates. Only in a few places and times in history has the workers' council form appeared, and only when and where the struggle became political, where workers demanded power. Finally, this capacity to struggle as a class shows that it is the working class alone that can pose this question of political power.

Beyond reaffirming in the heat of reality what we already know, the Russian revolution disproved certain theories long-held by the workers' movement, and still paraded out today by the left of capital in order to prove its socialist credentials. One of the most important is that it is not the revolutionary organization that takes power, whether riding the wave of an insurrection or a democratic election. The idea that it was the organization that takes power was widely accepted in the workers' movement up until the Lefts in the Communist International began to examine the Russian experience critically, and to see that one of the major factors that led to the degeneration of the Bolshevik party and the International itself as revolutionary organizations was their integration into the Russian state. In fact, and this is another important lesson, it was that state apparatus itself, and not the dangerous but historically disarmed small bourgeoisie or foreign imperialism, that became the instigator and conductor of the counter-revolution. In order to understand how the state that emerged out of the revolution began and carried out the counter-revolution, we must understand its social foundation. The social foundation of the post-revolutionary Russian state was nationalized property. Most large industry, money, and transportation capacity was, during the revolution, deeded over to the state specifically, by means of nationalization. At the time, this was considered a revolutionary act: the history of the twentieth century teaches us to know better. Nationalization a recognized tool of bourgeois policy, and the property of the state is not the property of society. In Russia, this property, over time, came to be managed by agents of the state, people who had been union leaders, party leaders, or middle management in the old firms. Reacting to the defeat of the revolution outside Russia, this state found itself bound to follow the law of value and the other laws of motion of capitalism. Because the Bolsheviks had, by their own policy, integrated both themselves and the whole social capital into the state, they were unable, despite ferocious intra-party struggle, to resist the transformation of the state into the national capitalist, and their transformation into agents of the national capitalist. State capitalism developed the way it did in Russia because of the theoretical and practical errors the Bolsheviks made, and because the defeat of the international revolutionary wave allowed no room or time for such errors to be corrected.

This raises an important question which I hope will be considered in discussion: just how does property become the property of society. Not through nationalization. Nor can it be through the ownership of property by the workers' councils. To conceive of these bodies as organs of economic management weakens them, and diverts them away from the question of political power. The Russian experience proves this: prior to the revolution, the workers' councils were political bodies. Afterwards, and especially once the counter-revolution had begun, they were shut up in the factories, cut off from each other, and tied to the state by converting them into transmission belts from the economic planners to the workers. Today, the demand that workplaces be owned by the people who work in them amounts to imprisonment inside the workplace, the inability to reach out and spread the struggle.

The last lesson that we must learn from the Russian revolution comes not from the revolution itself, but from the way it was examined after the revolutionary wave had ended. There exists the conception among council communists and some anarchists that the protagonist of the Russian revolution was not the proletariat at all. For them, the revolution began as a bourgeois revolution that may or may not have dragged the proletariat along, ending in a coup by the Bolshevik party that put that party at the head of the already created bourgeois state. They arrive at this position by examining the product of the counter-revolution-state capitalism, and a Bolshevik party integrated into the state-and assume that endpoint was the only and inevitable consequence of the revolution. There are a number of problems with this conception. First, it ignores entirely the question of capitalist decadence, assuming there could be a bourgeois revolution in a world already dominated by capitalist relations of production. Second, and quite oddly, given this tendency's emphasis on the need for proletarian self-organization, it ignores or emasculates the independent political activity of the working class, and ignores the fact that the revolution was fundamentally a political act. The Bordigist conception that Russia saw a simultaneous bourgeois and proletarian revolution that led to the defeat of the latter by the former, and that the former was the bearer of state capitalism in Russia is similarly flawed. Revolutionaries today must defend the Russian revolution as a proletarian event, as a political event, and as an event that was not foredoomed to failure by its own shortcomings, but defeated in bloody counter-revolution. 

Ron 2/1/10

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