The Russian Revolution (part3): Isolation spells the death of the revolution

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In International Reviews no 71 and no 72 we published the first two articles in this series, in which we demonstrated how the proletarian revolution of October 1917 was the result of the conscious and massive action of the workers, of their political combat against the parties of the bourgeoisie (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries...) who tried to sabotage their struggle and ensnare them in the First World War. We also laid out how in this formidable display of consciousness and combativity the Bolshevik Party had clearly played a vanguard role in the development of class consciousness and was the crucible of this immense revolutionary energy that led towards the destruction of the bourgeoisie state in the insurrection of 24-25 October. Stalinism was not the continuation of this torrent of emancipatory energy, but its brutal executioner, as we have said on numerous occasions[1].

Faced with the degeneration embodied by Stalinism, many workers believe, accepting the lies spread by the bourgeoisie, that the Russian Revolution "rotted from within", that the Bolsheviks just used the Russian workers in order to take power[2]. When the bourgeoisie portrays October, it does no more than apply to the Russian revolution the characteristics that have always made up its politics: swindling and deceiving the masses. However, the course of events leading up to the insurrection of October was driven by the "historic laws" of the proletarian revolution and not by the Machiavellian politics of the bourgeoisie.

"The Russian Revolution has but confirmed the basic lesson of any great revolution, the law of its being, which decrees: either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy and resolute tempo, breaking down all barriers with an iron hand and placing its goals ever farther ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backwards behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution" (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution).

If the formidable abundance of experience from February to October 1917 demonstrates to the workers that it is possible to overthrow the bourgeois state, the tragedy of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution teaches us another equally important lesson: the proletarian revolution can only survive by spreading over the whole planet.

The Russian revolution fought with all its might to spread to other countries

"The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events. That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political farsightedness and firmness of principle and the bold scope of their policies" (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution).

In fact, from 1914 when the First World War made it clear that the period of capitalism's decadence had begun, the Bolsheviks were in the vanguard of revolutionaries, when they demonstrated that the alternative to world war can only be the world revolution of the proletariat.

With this firmly internationalist orientation, Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw in the Russian Revolution "...only the first stage of the proletarian revolution which will inevitably arise as a consequence of the war."

But the Russian Revolution did not passively leave its destiny to the development of the proletarian revolution in other countries. Despite all the difficulties it confronted in Russia, it continually took the initiative to extend the revolution. In fact the state which arose from the revolution was seen as the first step towards the International Republic of Soviets, delineated not by the artificial frontiers of the capitalist nations, but by class frontiers. For example, systematic propaganda was carried out towards war prisoners, in order to incite them to join the international revolution, and those who wanted to could become Soviet citizens[3].

Out of this propaganda arose the "Social Democratic Organisation of Prisoners of War in Russia". This organisation called on the workers of Germany, Austria, Turkey etc to rise up in order to put an end to the war and to spread the revolution.

Germany was the pivotal point for the extension of the revolution and it was towards the German workers that all the energies of the Russian revolution were poured. As soon as an embassy was installed in Berlin (April 1918), it was transformed into a kind of general headquarters of the German revolution. The Russian Ambassador Joffe bought secret information from German functionaries and passed it on to German revolutionaries in order to expose the imperialist policies of the government; he also bought arms for the revolutionaries; tons of revolutionary propaganda were printed in the embassy and every night German revolutionaries surreptitiously went there in order to discuss the preparations for the insurrection.

The priorities of the world revolution led the Russian workers, even though they were suffering from hunger, to sacrifice three train loads of wheat, from their own rations, in order to help the German workers.

It is worth while knowing what it was like to live in Russia during the first moments of the revolution in Germany. When it first began, at an impressive demonstration of workers in front of the Kremlin,

"Tens of thousands of workers burst into a wild cheering. Never have I seen any thing like it again. Until late in the evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. The mass of people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over" (Radek, quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 3, p104).

Another contribution to this world revolution, although unfortunately delayed, was the first Congress of the Communist International, which took place in Moscow in March 1919. The International understood that:

"Our task is to generalize the revolutionary experience of the working class, cleanse the movement of the corroding influence of opportunism and social patriotism, and rally the forces of all truly revolutionary parties of the world proletariat. Thus, we will facilitate and hasten the victory of the communist revolution in the entire world" (‘Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the Whole World').

However, the proletariat was massacred in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and Munich, and the Communist International began to make concessions to parliamentarism, trade unionism and national liberation (encapsulated in the so-called "21 conditions"). Similarly the extension of the revolution was now entrusted to the "revolutionary war", which the Bolsheviks, as we will see further on, had rejected when they signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918[4]. In December 1920, the Executive Committee of a CI already on the road to degeneration launched the nefarious slogan of the "United Front", based on a conviction that the European revolution was fading.

The fatalistic logic so common to bourgeois philosophy considers that "one thing leads ... to another". Thus, the Communist International, as well as all the other gigantic efforts of the working class and revolutionaries, is presented to us, from its beginnings, as a preconceived plan by the "Machiavellian" Bolsheviks, as a tool for the defence of the Russian capitalist state. But as we have said this is the logic of the bourgeoisie. For the proletariat by contrast, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International were the result of the defeat of the working class after a furious struggle against the bestial reaction of world capitalism. If it was "only a matter of time" before the revolution stewed in its own juice, as the bourgeoisie tell us today, why then did all the capitalists of the world join together in order to strangle the Russian revolution?

Capitalism lays siege to the Russian revolution

Between 1917 and 1923, i.e. until the failure of the revolutionary efforts of the world proletariat, all of the capitalists united in an international crusade under the slogan "down with Bolshevism". From German imperialism to the Czarist generals and the Western democracies of the Entente, who only a few months previously were entangled in the first world imperialist slaughter, they all signed up for this crusade. This is another essential lesson of October: when the workers' insurrection threatens the existence of capitalism, the exploiters put their differences aside in order to crush the revolution.

German imperialism

The first barrier the extension of the Russian Revolution faced was the siege by the Kaiser's armies. Therefore, it is certain that the Russian revolution, along with the revolutionary wave that arose as a response to the First World War, took place, as Rosa Luxemburg said, in "the most difficult and abnormal conditions" for the development and extension of the revolution, i.e. world war.

Peace was an imperious necessity and as such took first place in the priorities of the revolution. Peace talks began at Brest-Litovsk, on the 19th of November 1917. They were transmitted by radio nightly. Not only for the workers in Russia, but also the prisoners of war and the workers of the entire world. However, this does not mean that the Bolsheviks went to Brest-Litovsk with any confidence in the "peaceful" intentions of German imperialism:

"We conceal from nobody that we do not consider the present capitalist governments capable of a democratic peace. Only the revolutionary struggle of the working masses against their governments can bring Europe near to such a peace. Its full realisation will be assured only by a victorious proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries" (Trotsky, cited in E. H. Carr, op. cit. Vol. 3, page 41).

At the beginning of 1918 news began to arrive of strikes and mutinies in Germany, Austria, and Hungry[5], which encouraged the Bolsheviks to prolong the negotiations; but in the end these uprising were crushed. This led Lenin, again in a minority in the Bolshevik Party, to defend the necessity to sign the peace treaty as soon as possible. The extension of the revolution, for which they struggled dauntlessly, should not be confused with the "revolutionary war" that the Left Communists put forward[6]. It depended on the maturation of the revolution in Germany:

"It is fully admissible that with such premises not only would it be "convenient", but absolutely obligatory to accept the possibility of defeat and the loss of Soviet power. Nevertheless, it is clear that these premises do not exist. The German Revolution is maturing, but clearly it still has not broken out. It is obvious that we would not help but would block this process of maturation in Germany if "we accepted the possibility of the loss of Soviet power". This would help reaction in Germany, it would unleash difficulties for the socialist movement in Germany, we would divide the socialist movement of the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of Germany who have still not incorporated socialism and who would be frightened by the defeat of Soviet Russia, in the same way that the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871 scared the English workers" (Lenin, Selected Works).

This is the dilemma that exists in a bastion where the proletariat has taken power, but is momentarily isolated, since the revolution has not been spread by victorious insurrections in other countries. To cede the bastion or to negotiate, and therefore give way in front of superior military force, in order to try to obtain a respite and maintain the revolutionary bastion as a support for the world revolution?. Rosa Luxemburg, who certainly did not agree with the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, summed up with tremendous clarity how the struggle of the German proletariat was the only possible way of unblocking this contradiction, in a way which was favourable to the revolution:

"The whole assumption of the battle being carried out for peace by the Russians rests on the tactical hypothesis that the revolution in Russia will be the signal for the revolutionary uprising of the proletariat in the West ... In this case only and undoubtedly will the Russian Revolution have been the prelude to a generalized peace. Until now nothing like this has happened. The Russian Revolution, apart from a few valiant efforts by the Italian proletariat (the general strike of the 22nd August in Turin) has been abandoned by the proletarians of all countries ... however, the class politics of the international proletariat, by their nature and essence, can only be realised internationally ..."

(‘Historical Responsibility', Spartacus Letters no 18. Published in French in Rosa Luxemburg: Contre La Guerre Par La Revolution pages 128-129).

In the end, on the 19th of February, the German High Command suddenly renewed military operations ("The leap of this wild beast is very quick" Lenin said). Within a few weeks the German forces were at the gates of Petrograd and the Russian government finally had to accept peace on even worse conditions: the German armies occupied the former Baltic provinces in the Spring of 1918, the greater part of Byelorussia, all the Ukraine and the North of the Caucasus and later, in contradiction with its own agreement at Brest-Litovsk, the Crimea and the Trans-Caucasus (except Baku and Turkestan).

Along with the Italian Communist Left[7], we don't think that the peace of Brest-Litovsk represented a backward step for the revolution, but that it was imposed by the contradiction between the maintenance of the proletarian bastion and the extension of the revolution. The solution to this problem was not to be found at the negotiating table, nor at the military front, but in the response of the world proletariat. It was precisely when the capitalists managed to defeat the revolutionary wave that the Russian government accepted the conventional "foreign policy" of the capitalist states and signed the Rapallo agreement of April 1922, which neither in its form (a secret treaty), nor of course in its content (military aid from the Russian army for the German government) had anything to do with Brest-Litovsk or with the revolutionary politics of the proletariat. When the CI, in the full process of degeneration, called on the German workers to make a desperate action in October 1923, the arms used by the German state to massacre the workers had been sold to them by the Russian government.

Continual harassment by the "Western democracies"

The allies of the Entente, the "advanced democracies of the West" spared no effort in their aim of drowning the Russian revolution. In the Ukraine, in Finland, in the Baltic countries, in Bessarabia, Britain and France set up regimes which supported the counter-revolutionary White armies.

Not content with this, they also decided to directly intervene in Russia. Japanese troops disembarked at Vladivostok on the 3rd of April. French, British and American detachments arrived later:

"From the beginning of the November (1917) revolution the Entente powers took the side of the Russian counter-revolutionary parties and governments. With the help of the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, they have annexed Siberia, the Urals, the coasts of European Russia, the Caucasus, and part of Turkestan. They are stealing timber, petroleum, manganese, and other raw materials from these annexed territories. With the help of mercenary Czechoslovak bands they stole the gold reserves of the Russian empire. Directed by the British diplomat Lockhart, British and French spies organized the bombing of bridges and destruction of railways and tried to cut off food supplies. The Entente supplied money, weapons, and military aid to the reactionary generals Denikin, Kolchak, and Krasnov, who had hanged and shot thousands of workers and peasants in Rostov, Yuzovka (Donetsk), Novorossiak, Omsk and elsewhere" (‘The International Situation and the Policy of the Entente', First Congress of the Communist International, in Founding the Communist International page 218).

At the beginning of 1919, which is to say just as the German revolution broke out, Russia was completely isolated from the outside and confronted with one of the most intense periods of activity by the troops of the Western "democracies", as well as the White armies. To the troops sent by the capitalists to crush the revolution, the Bolsheviks again proclaimed the necessity for proletarian internationalism:

"You will be fighting not against enemies (ran a leaflet addressed to British and American troops in Archangel) but against working class people like yourselves. We ask you - are you going to crush us? ... Be loyal to your class and refuse to do the dirty work of your masters" (E.H.Carr, op. cit, page 99).

And again the calls of the Bolsheviks (this time in newspapers such as The Call in English or La Lanterne in French) had an effect on the troops sent to fight the revolution: "On the 1st March 1919 a mutiny occurred among French troops ordered to go up the line; several days earlier a British infantry company "refused to go to the Front" and shortly afterwards an American company "refused for a time to return to duty at the Front'" (E.H.Carr, op cit, page 134). In April 1919 French troops and the French fleet had to be withdrawn because of the indignation caused by the execution of Jeanne Labourbe, a Communist militant who had carried out propaganda in favour of fraternization between French and Russian troops. Likewise, British and Italian troops had to be withdrawn because in Britain and Italy workers were demonstrating against the sending of troops or arms to the counter-revolutionary armies. Therefore, the Western democracies were forced to change tactics and instead to use troops of the nations created by them out of the ruins of the old Russian empire as a cordon sanitaire against the spread of the revolution. In April 1919 Polish troops occupied part of Bylorussia and Lithuania. In April 1920 they occupied Kiev in the Ukraine and finally in May/June 1920, the Polish government supported by White general Denikin controlled almost all of the Ukraine. Enver Pasha, leader of the Young Turks "anti-feudal" revolution, ended up heading an anti- Soviet revolt in Turkestan in October 1921.

Internal reaction

After the October insurrection and the workers' seizure of power throughout Russia, the remains of the bourgeoisie, of the army, the reactionary officer castes (Cossacks, Tekins ...) immediately began to regroup their forces behind the flag of the Provisional Government (curiously enough the same flag that Yeltsin flies in the Kremlin), forming the first White armies under the command of Kaledin, chief of the Don Cossacks.

However, the immense chaos and penury that ravaged isolated Russia, the "self-demobilization" of the remains of the Czarist army, the meagre armed forces of the revolutionaries, but above all the actions of German imperialism and the Western democracies in support of the White armies, progressively tipped the balance of class forces towards Civil War. In the middle of 1918, the territory under the Soviets was reduced to that of the feudal principality of Moscow, and the revolution was also confronted with the revolt by the "Czech Legion" and the anti-Bolshevik government in Samara[8], which cut off vital communications with Siberia. To this we have to add the Cossacks of Krasnov (the general defeated at Pulkvo in the first days of the insurrection and later freed by the Bolsheviks), Denikin's army in the South, Kaledin's in the Don, Kolchak in the East, Yudenitch in the North. All in all a bloody orgy of terror, of massacres, murder and atrocities, loudly applauded by the "democrats" and blessed by the "Socialists" who in Germany, Austria, Hungry and elsewhere were crushing the workers' insurrections.

Bourgeois historians present the bestiality of the Civil War "as something that happens in all wars", as the fruit of human "savagery". However, the cruel Civil War that raged for three years and caused, along with the disease and hunger resulting from the economic blockade up to seven million deaths, was imposed on the population of Russia by world capitalism.

Along with the Western armies and the White armies, there were the sabotage and counter-revolutionary conspiracies of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. In July 1918 Savinkov[9] organized, with funds supplied by the French ambassador, Noulens, a mutiny in Yaroslav, where for two weeks an authentic terror and revenge was waged against all that smacked of the proletariat and revolutionary Bolshevism. Also in July, only a few days after the disembarkation of the Franco-British force in Murmansk, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries organized an attempted coup, after the assassination of the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, with the aim of immediately relaunching hostilities with Germany. Lenin called this "another monstrous blow by the petty bourgeoisie". All the revolution needed at that time was an open war with Germany!

The revolution struggled between life and death. Survival, which depended on the revolution in Europe, demanded endless sacrifices, not only on the economic terrain as we have seen, but also on the political terrain. In this article we don't want to enter into an debate about such questions as the repressive apparatus or the regular army[10], about which the Russian revolution supplies endless lessons. Nonetheless it is important to point out that the movement from revolutionary violence to outright terror, as well as the subordination of the workers' militias to a hierarchical army or the increasing autonomy of the state from the workers' councils, were in great part the consequences of the isolation of the revolution, of the increasingly adverse relation of force between the bourgeoisie and proletariat internationally, which is what definitively decided the fate of a revolution that had triumphed in a single country.

There is no logical evolution from the Cheka, which, when it was formed in November 1917, accounted for hardly 120 men and did not have cars to make arrests with, and the monstrous political apparatus of the GPU - used by Stalin against the Bolsheviks. This evolution expressed a profound degeneration resulting from the defeat of the revolution. Likewise, there was no preconceived continuity between the Red Guards, which were the military units mandated and controlled by the Soviets, and the regular army where conscription was re-introduced in April 1919, along with barrack-room discipline and the military salute: in August 1920 the Red Army already had 315 thousand military "spetsys" (specialists from the Czarist army). The connection between the two was the crushing weight of the struggle between a proletarian bastion that needed the air of the international revolution and a furious world counter-revolution, which became ever more potent with each defeat inflicted on the international body of the proletariat.

Economic asphyxiation

In these conditions of isolation, of permanent blockade by the capitalists, of internal sabotage, and independently of any illusions the Bolsheviks had about the possibility of introducing a distinct logic to the economy, the reality was that between 1918 and 1921 the economy in Russia, as Lenin pointed out, was a "besieged fortress", a proletarian bastion, that tried in the worst possible conditions to hold out in the hope of the extension of the revolution.

In other issues of the International Review we have demonstrated that socialism never existed in Russia, since this necessitates, even in its first steps, the triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie on an international scale. The economic policy that could be carried out in an isolated "revolutionary bastion" was necessarily dictated by capitalism's international domination. The idea of "socialism in one country" has always been denounced by revolutionaries as the ideological mask of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

What we want to point out in this article is that the terrible economic scarcity which ravaged the revolution in Russia was not brought about by socialism, but the impossibility of breaking out of this misery as long as the proletarian revolution remained isolated. The difference is without a doubt substantial: with the first thesis the capitalists hope that the workers will draw the lesson that "it is better not to make the revolution and destroy capitalism, because at least it allows you to survive", while the second draws out a fundamental lesson of the workers' struggle, valid for every movement from the strike in the smallest factory to a revolution which occupies a whole country: "if the struggles don't spread, if the revolution remains isolated, we cannot beat capitalism".

The workers' revolution in Russia arose from the First World War, and therefore inherited from this economic chaos, rationing, the subordination of production to the needs of war. Its isolation added further to this suffering due to the rigours of the Civil War and military intervention by the Western democracies. The same people who put on a humanitarian face at Versailles, under the slogan of "live and let live", did not hesitate to impose a draconian economic blockade which lasted from March 1918 to the beginning of 1919 (a few months before the definitive defeat of Wrangel's White army), and which even included the blocking of solidarity donations to the workers in Russia sent by their class brothers and sisters in other countries.

Thus, the population suffered all kinds of privations. Take the example of fuel. The cold sowed Russia with cadavers. Coal from the Ukraine was inaccessible until 1920 and the oil of Baku and the Caucasus was in the hands of the English from the Summer of 1918 until the end of 1919 as a result of the siege established by the capitalists. The total amount of fuel which reached the Russian cities in this period was no more than 10% of the normal supplies before the First World War.

There was bitter hunger in the cities. Bread and sugar had been rationed since the imperialist war. With the Civil War, this rationing reached inhuman levels due to the economic blockade and the sabotage of the peasants who hid part of their crops in order to sell them on the black market. When, in August 1918, the supplies to the shops in the cities had completely run out, it was decided to differentiate the rations:

  • Workers in heavy industry received the first category of rations, which supplied approximately 1200 to 1900 calories a day, which is to say a quarter of their real needs. This level of rations was extended, during the Civil War, to the families of those who enlisted in the Red Army;
  •   the lowest rations represented a quarter of the above and were those supplied to the bourgeoisie. The rest of the workers received the "medium" ration, three times more than the lowest.

In October 1919, with the White general Yudenitch at the gates of Petrograd, Trotsky described the population that had to take upon itself the breaking of the attacks by the White Guards, as a jumble of ghosts:

"The workers of Petrograd looked badly then; their faces were grey from under nourishment; their clothes were in tatters; their shoes, sometimes not even mates, were gaping with holes" (Trotsky, My Life, page 445).

In January 1921, although this was after the Civil War had finished, the black bread ration was 800 grams for workers in factories of continuous production and 600 grams for shock workers, and this was reduced to 200 grams for the carriers of "card B" (the unemployed). The same can be said of herrings, which had saved the day at other times, and which were now unavailable. Potatoes almost always arrived in the cities frozen, since the railways and locomotives were in a lamentable state (20% of their pre-war potential). At the beginning of Summer in 1921, a cruel famine developed in the Eastern provinces, such as the Volga region. During this period, according to the Congress of Soviets, between 22 and 27 million people were in need, threatened by starvation, cold and epidemics of typhus[11], diphtheria, flu ...

To these scarce supplies can be added speculation. In order to obtain something to supplement the official rations it was necessary to have recourse to the black market: the "sujarevka" (a name taken from Sujarevski Square in Moscow, where these types of transactions were carried out semi-clandestinely). Half of the grain that arrived in the cities came from the Commissariat of Supplies, the other half from the black market (at 10 times that of the official rate). There was another form of the black market: the illegal transport of manufactured goods to the countryside, in order to exchange them with the peasants for food. Soon the typography of the revolution produced a new person the "bag man", who on the ramshackle freight trains, took salt, matches, sometimes a pair of boots or a little oil in a bottle to the villages in order to exchange them for a few kilos of potatoes and some flour. In September 1918 the government tacitly recognised the black market, limiting it to only 1.5 punds (about 25 kilos) of wheat. From then on the bag man became known as the "pund and a half man", but still continued to profiteer. When factories began to buy goods with the products they produced, this practice spread likewise to workers, transforming them into "bag men", selling straps, tools etc to the villages.

As for working conditions, they were brutally aggravated by the tremendous misery, the isolation of the revolution and the Civil War. This laid ruin to the worker's demands, including the measures the government had adopted in order to satisfy them:

"Four days after the revolution a decree was issued establishing the principle of the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week, placing limitations on the work of women and juveniles and forbidding the employment of children under 14. One year later the Narkomtrud (the People's Commissariat of Labour) had to re-emphasis the obligatory nature of this decree. These prohibitions however had little effect in this period of extreme scarcity of labour due to the Civil War (E.H. Carr, op cit, Vol 2). The same Lenin who had denounced "Taylorism", that is to say the assembly line, identifying it as "the enslavement of man to the machine", finally gave into the demands to increase production, instituting "Communist Saturdays", for which the workers hardly received any food and were generally not paid, because they were seen as supporting the revolution. In the confidence that the revolution was still imminent in Europe, the most combative and conscious sectors of the Russian working class wanted to defend the proletarian bastion with this perspective. But deprived of their Soviets, their workers' assemblies and their class struggle against capitalist exploitation, they were progressively enchained to the most brutal forms of capitalist exploitation

Nevertheless, even despite this over-exploitation, the Russian factories still produced less, both because of the loss of productivity from a undernourished proletariat, and because of the chaos of the Russian economy. Even in 1923, three years after the end of the Civil War, the whole of Russian industry was functioning at 30% of its 1912 capacity. Only in small industry was workers' productivity 57% of that in 1913. This small industry developed above all from 1919, in great part it was rural (in fact its production was essentially of tools, rope, furniture ... for the local peasant market) and the workers in them worked in conditions similar to those in agriculture (particularly at the level of working hours).

Given the terrible living conditions in the cities, which we have seen, a large part of the workers emigrated to the countryside and were there integrated into small scale industry. And those still in the cities left the large factories to work in small workshops, where they could obtain bits to sell to the peasantry. In 1920, the total number of workers in industry was 2.2 million, of which only 1.4 million were employed in establishments of over 30 workers.

With the adoption of the NEP (the New Economic Policy) in 1921[12], state firms were confronted by competition from "private" Russian capitalists and the recently arrived foreign investors; therefore, as in any capitalist economy, the state-boss had to produce more and more cheaply. With demobilization after the Civil War and the application of NEP, a wave of unemployment ensued; for example, on the railways, up to half the work force was laid off. Unemployment grow rapidly from 1921. In 1923, there were 1 million officially registered unemployed in Russia.

The peasant question

The peasantry represented 80% of the population. During the insurrection the Congress of Soviets adopted the "Land Decree", which tried to deal with the need of tens of millions of peasants to get hold of a piece of land on which they could feed themselves, while at the same time eliminating the great landowners, which were not only the scourge of the peasants, but also a point of support for the counter-revolution. However, the measures taken did not contribute to the formation of large working units, in which the agricultural workers could exercise a minimum of workers' control. On the contrary, despite such initiatives as the "committees of agricultural workers", or the Kolkhozi ("collective farms"), or the Sovjozi ("Soviet granaries", also called "socialist grain factories", since their mission was to supply cereals to the proletariat of the cities), what spread was the small peasant unit, of ridiculous dimensions, and which could hardly supply the peasant family. In 1917 agricultural units of less than 5 hectares represented 58% of the total; by 1920 this reached 86% of cultivable land. Of course these units, given their meagre size, could in no way alleviate the hunger in the cities. The measures of "forced requisition" with which the Bolsheviks first tried to obtain the food necessary to cover the needs of the proletariat and Red Army not only led to a lamentable fiasco as regards the quantity collected, but more than that they pushed a great number of the peasants into the White armies, or into the armed gangs which very often fought the White armies and the Bolsheviks at the same time, such as was the case with the anarchist Makhno in the Ukraine.

From the summer of 1918 the state tried to help the middle peasants in order to achieve better results: in the first year of the revolution the Supply Commissariat had hardly collected 780 thousand tons of grain; between August 1918 and August 1919 it obtained two million tons. However, the peasant proprietor of a "medium" size holding was not disposed to collaborate:

"The middle peasant produces more food than he needs, and thus, having surpluses of grain, becomes an exploiter of the hungry worker. This is our fundamental task and the fundamental contradiction. The peasant as toiler, as a man who lives by his own toil, who has the oppression of capitalism, such a peasant is on the side of the worker. But the peasant as a proprietor, who has his surpluses of grain, is accustomed to look on them as his property which he can freely sell" (Lenin, cited in E.H. Carr, vol 2, page 164).

Here again the Bolsheviks could not carry out any other policy than the one imposed by the unfavourable balance of forces between the workers' revolution and the domination of capitalism. The solution to this pile of contradictions was not in the hands of the Russian state, nor did it reside in the relations between the proletariat and peasantry in Russia. The only solution could come from the international proletariat:

"At the IXth party congress of March 1919 which proclaimed the policy of conciliating the middle peasant Lenin touched on one of the sore points of collective agriculture. The middle peasant would be won over to the communist society "only... when we ease and improve the economic conditions of his life". But here was the rub:

"if we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with benzene, supply them with mechanics (you know well that for the present this is a fantasy), the middle peasant would say: "I am for the commune (i.e. for communism)". But in order to do this, it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie, to compel it to give us these tractors".

Lenin did not pursue the syllogism. To build socialism in Russia was impossible without socialized agriculture; to socialize agriculture was impossible without tractors; to obtain tractors was impossible without an international proletarian revolution" (E.H.Carr, op. cit,. Vol 2, page 165). As one can see, neither during the period of "war communism" nor of the NEP was the Russian economy marked by socialism, but by the asphyxiating conditions imposed by the isolation of the revolution:

"We had even more reason to think that if the European working class had conquered power before, we could have remodelled our backward country - economically and culturally; we could have done this with technical and organizational support and that would have permitted us to correct and modify in part or totally our methods of war communism, leading us towards a truly socialist economy" (Lenin, "NEP and the revolution" in Economic Theory and Economic Policy in the construction of Socialism, page 40)

The defeat of the world proletariat revolutionary wave also led to the death of the Russian proletarian bastion. With the death of the revolution a new bourgeoisie could be reconstructed in Russia:

"The bourgeoisie was reconstituted as the revolution degenerated from within, not from the Czarist ruling class, which the proletariat had eliminated in 1917, but on the basis of the parasitic bureaucracy of the state apparatus which under Stalin's leadership was increasingly identified with the Bolshevik party. At the end of the 1920s, this party/state bureaucracy wiped out all those sectors capable of forming a private bourgeoisie, and with which it had been allied (speculators and NEP landowners). In doing so it took control of the economy" (from our supplement "Stalinism and democracy: two faces of capitalist terror').

The exhaustion of the workers' councils

The consequences of the isolation of the revolution were not only hunger and wars, but also the progressive loss of the principal capital of the revolution: the mass action and consciousness of the working class, which had expanded and deepened so much between February and October 1917 (see the article in International Review no 71).

At the end of 1918, the number of workers in Petrograd was 50% of those at the end of 1916, and in the Autumn of 1920, at the end of the Civil War, the birthplace of the revolution had lost 58% of its population. The new capital Moscow was depopulated by 45% and all of the provincial capitals by 33%. The majority of these workers emigrated to the countryside where life was less painful, but also a large number of these workers had gone into the Red Army and the service of the state:

"When it was hard at the front, we turned to the central committee of the Communist Party on the one hand and to the praesidium of the trade union central council on the other; and from these two sources outstanding proletarians were sent to the front and there created the Red Army in their own image and pattern" (Trotsky, cited in E.H.Carr, op cit, Vol 2 page 206).

Each time the Red Army, composed mainly of peasants, was routed or desertion was rife, brigades of the most determined and conscious workers were recruited, in order to be the vanguard of military operations or as a "containing wall" against peasant desertions. But also, every time they needed to suppress sabotage, organize the chaos in supplies, the Bolsheviks resorted to Lenin's famous slogan "proletarian energy is needed here!". Thus this energy of the revolutionary class was removed from the centres where it was born and where it had been refined, the workers' councils, the Soviets, and was increasingly integrated into the service of the state, which is to say, in the long run into the parasitic bureaucracy, into the organ that would become the organ of the counter-revolution[13]. A progressive devitalisation of the Soviets was the consequence of this:

"When the principal task of the government was the resistance to the enemy and we were obliged to push back all the attacks, control was exercised almost exclusively through orders and the dictatorship of the proletariat naturally took the form of a proletarian military dictatorship. Then, the open organs of Soviet power, the plenary assemblies of the Soviets almost disappeared and control passed directly to the Executive Committees, which is to say limited organs, committees of three or five persons, etc. Often, above all in the regions near to the front line, the "regular" organs of Soviet power, that is to say organs elected by the workers, were replaced local "revolutionary committees" which instead of submitting problems to the examination of the mass assemblies, resolved them on their own initiative" (Trotsky: The Theory Of Permanent Revolution page 126).

And this loss of collective reflection and discussion, took place not only in the assemblies, in the local soviets, but throughout the fabric of the workers' councils. From 1918, the sovereign Congress of Soviets, which was supposed to meet every three months, took place once a year. The Central Committee of Soviets is included in this; it was not able to carry out collective discussions and decisions. When at the VIIth Congress of Soviets (December 1919) the representative of the "Bund" (Jewish Communist Party) asked what the Central Executive Committee was doing, Trotsky replied "The CEC is at the battle front!".

In the end, all decisions and political life was concentrated in the hands of the Bolshevik Party. Kamenev at the IXth Congress of the Bolshevik Party made this clear:

"We administer Russia and we could not administer it any other way than through the communists" (our underlining). We agree with Rosa Luxemburg, who in The Russian Revolution makes the following critique:

""Thanks to the open and direct struggle for governmental power" (Trotsky writes) "the labouring masses accumulate in the shortest time a considerable amount of political experience and advance quickly from one stage to another of their development"

Here Trotsky refutes himself and his own friends. Just because this is so, they have blocked up the fountain of political experience and the sources of this rising development by their suppression of public life (...).

In reality, the opposite is true! It is the very giant tasks which the Bolsheviks have undertaken with courage and determination that demand the most intensive political training of the masses and the accumulation of experience".

The Italian Communist Left made the same point when it drew up a balance sheet of the causes of the defeat of the Russian Revolution:

"Although Marx, Engels, and above all Lenin pointed out many times the necessity to counter the state with its proletarian antidote, capable of impeding its degeneration, the Russian revolution, far from assuring the maintenance and the vitality of the proletariat's class organisations, incorporated them into the state apparatus, thus devouring its own substance" (Bilan no 28).

It was of little importance that the Soviet constitution tried to preserve the political weight of the working class so that the latter had first place in representation in the state (1 delegate for each 25,000 workers, while 125,000 peasants also elected 1 delegate), when already the problem was the absorption of these workers into the conservative machinery of the state.

And once the proletarian revolution was completely defeated in Europe, nothing, not even the iron control the Bolshevik party maintained over society, could prevent world and thus Russian capitalism from taking control of the state and leading it in a direction absolutely opposed to what the communists were trying to do:

"The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was not going in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand. God knows who, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction" (Lenin: "Political Report of the Central Committee of the RCP.', 27.3.22, Selected Works, Vol 3 page 620).


"The Bolsheviks feared the counter-revolution coming from the White Armies and other direct expressions of the bourgeoisie and defended the revolution against these dangers. They feared the return of private property through the persistence of small-scale production, particularly that of the peasantry ... But the danger of the counter-revolution did not come from the "kulaks" or from the horribly massacred workers of Kronstadt and the "White plots" the Bolsheviks thought they saw behind this uprising. The counter-revolution won over the corpses of the German proletariat defeated in 1919 and it took its hold in Russia through what was supposed to be the "semi-state" of the proletariat" (Introduction to the ICC's pamphlet The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, page 8).

The solution to the situation created by the insurrection of October 1917 did not lie in Russia. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, "In Russia the problem can only be posed. But it cannot be resolved there". Meanwhile, the answer to this, the revolutionary wave which arose form the First World War, was defeated, as we will see in the next article in this series. This led to a course of events in Russia marked by the accumulation of contradictions, by a desperate search for solutions, none of which could cut the Gordian Knot because the revolution did not spread:

"In any case, the fatal situation in which the Bolsheviks today find themselves confronted with is, like the majority of their errors, a characteristic consequence, for the moment insoluble, of the problem the international proletariat, above all the German proletariat, confronts. To realise the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist revolution in only one country, besieged by a bestial reactionary imperialist domination and surrounded by the most bloody of the generalized wars that the history of humanity has known, is to square the circle. Any revolutionary party would be condemned to failure and to perish in this task, no matter how much it based its policies on a will to win and faith in international socialism or confidence in itself" (Rosa Luxemburg, "The Russian Tragedy" Spartacus Letters, no 11, September 1918).

The Russian revolution is the most important experience in the history of the workers' movement. The future revolutionary proletarian struggles cannot afford to spare any effort in re-appropriating its many lessons. But without doubt, the first of all these is the confirmation of the old marxist war-cry, "workers of the world unite!". This slogan is not just a "nice idea" but the vital precondition for the victory of the communist revolution. International isolation is the death of the revolution.

Etsoem, 27 July 1993

[1] See in particular our supplement "Communism is not dead, but its worst enemy, Stalinism".

[2] Unfortunately, as a consequence of the terrible disappointment that the failure of the Russian revolution assumed caused even amongst revolutionaries, theories such as the councilism have arisen, which present the Russian revolution as no more than a bourgeois revolution and the Bolshevik Party as a bourgeois party. Or there is the case of the Bordigists who define the Russian revolution as a double revolution (bourgeois and proletarian). We have dealt with these errors in articles in International Review no 12 and 13: "October 1917: the Beginning of the Proletarian Revolution".

[3] The first Soviet Constitution of 1918 gave citizenship "to all foreigners who reside within the territory of the Federation of Soviets providing they belong to the working class or peasantry who do not exploit another's labour"

[4] The sessions of the 2nd Congress of the CI were carried out in front of a map where the advances of the Red Army in its counter-attack against Poland in the summer of 1920 were shown. As is well known, this military incursion served to push the Polish proletariat to close ranks with its bourgeoisie, and ended with the Red Army being defeated at the gates of Warsaw.

[5] In January 1918, a strike of half a million workers exploded in Berlin, which spread to Hamburg, Kiel, the Ruhr, and Leipzig, and in which the first workers' councils were formed. At the same time workers' uprisings took place in Vienna and Budapest, and even the majority of bourgeois journalists (cf. E. H. Carr, op. cit.) recognised that they were a reaction to the Russian revolution and, more concretely, the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

[6] See International Reviews no 8 and 9 "The Communist Left in Russia".

[7] See International Review no 8, "The Communist Left in Russia', and International Reviews 12 and 13, "October 1917: The Beginning of the Proletarian Revolution". Also see our pamphlet The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism where through the Russian experience, we examine the problem of negotiations between a proletarian bastion and capitalist governments.

[8] This government ended up controlling all of the middle and lower Volga. In October 1918 400,000 "Volga Germans" rose up and formed a "workers' Commune". The so-called "Czech Legion" were Czechoslovakian prisoners of war authorized by the Russian government to leave Russia via Vladivostok. On the way 60,000 of the 200,000 who made up the expedition mutinied (it also has to be said that 1200 soldiers from this "legion" joined the Red Army) creating an armed gang dedicated to pillage and terror.

[9] This former Social Revolutionary in September 1917 served as the clandestine go-between for Kerensky and Kornilov. In January 1918 he organized an assassination attempt on Lenin and then was the named representative of the "Whites" in Paris, where of course he rubbed shoulders not only with the Allies' secret services, but also with ministers, generals, etc, who as a reward for his "democratic" labours put him in command of the teams of saboteurs, the so-called "Greens", amongst whom figured the famous character Sidney Reilly, Ace of Spies.

[10] See International Review no 3 "The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution'; nos 8 and 9 "The Communist Left In Russia", and 12 and 13, "October 1917: The Beginning of the Proletarian Revolution".

[11] The epidemics of typhus were so extensive and continuous that Lenin maintained that "either the revolution will destroy the lice or the lice will destroy the revolution."

[12] Despite what many members of the Communist Left in Russia thought, the NEP did not represent a return of capitalism, since Russia never had a socialist economy. We have taken a position on this question in International Review No 2, "Answer to Workers Voice" and nos 8 and 9 "The Communist Left in Russia".

[13] Our position on the role of the state in the period of transition, and the relationship between the workers' councils and this state, based on the lessons of the Russian experience, is developed in our pamphlet The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism and in International Reviews nos 8, 11, 15, and 18. Likewise, for our critique of the idea that the party takes power in the name of the working class see International Reviews nos 23, 34 and 35.