Correspondance from Russia

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Following the collapse of the USSR, various individuals and small groups have emerged within Russia since 1990 to question the world bourgeoisie's lying equation that Stalinism equalled communism.

In International Review 92 (1st Quarter 1998) we reported on two Moscow conferences, called by some of these elements, on the question of the heritage of Leon Trotsky. During the proceedings of these conferences a certain number of the participants wanted to look at other, more radical, analyses of the degeneration of the October Revolution made by other members of the left opposition in the twenties and thirties. They also wanted to gain knowledge of the contribution of the Communist Left to this question and the attendance of the ICC at the conferences aided these enquiries.

Alongside this report we published a thorough critique of Trotsky's book 'The Revolution Betrayed' by one of the conference animators.

Since then, the ICC has been corresponding with elements in Russia and here we want to publish some extracts from one of these correspondents in order to help enrich the international debate about the nature of communist positions and organisation for the future world proletarian revolution.

As our readers will see the stance adopted by our correspondent - V, from the south of Russia - is sympathetic to the tradition of the communist left. He demmunist left. He defends the Bolshevik Party on the one hand and on the other recognises the capitalist and imperialist nature of the Stalinist regime. In particular he takes up an internationalist position on the 2nd Imperialist World War, unlike the Trotskyists who justified participation in it on the basis of the defence of the USSR and its supposed proletarian gains.

However the treatment by our correspondent of 2 main questions, firstly on the possibility of the world revolution in 1917-23 and secondly on the possibility of national liberation after 1914 and thus on the possibility of any progressive capitalist development during this century, shows a disagreement on the methodological framework within which to understand these revolutionary, internationalist principles.

We have taken the liberty of making extracts from some of the comrade's letters in order to save space and get to the heart of the matter. We have also corrected some of the English, not out of love for good grammar, but to facilitate its translation into the different languages of the International Review:

"... The Bolsheviks were mistaken theoretically about the possibiliti about the possibilities of a world socialist revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. Such possibilities have appeared only today, at the end of the 20th century. But they were absolutely correct in action, and if we, by some wonder, could be transferred to 1917, we would be with the Bolsheviks and against all their enemies, including the 'left'. We understand that it is an unusual and contradictory position, but it is a dialectical contradiction. The actors of history aren't pupils in a classroom, who give correct or mistaken answers to the questions of the teacher. The most banal example is Columbus, who thought that he had discovered the path to India, but had actually discovered America. Many learned scholars didn't make such a mistake, but they didn't discover America!

"Were the heroes of peasant wars and early bourgeois uprisings correct - Wat Tyler, John Ball, Thomas Munzer, Arnold of Brescia, Cola di Rienza etc in their struggle against feudalism when the conditions for the victory of capitalism were still immature? Of course they were correct: 1) the class struggle of the oppressed, even when defeated, speeds up the development of the existing order of exploitation and because of this it hastens the downfall of this order. After defeats the oppressed can become capablsed can become capable of victory. Rosa Luxemburg wrote excellently about this in her polemics with Bernstein in 'Social Reform or Revolution'.

"If the necessity of revolution exists, revolutionaries must act, even if their successors will understand that it was not socialist revolution. The conditions for socialist revolution were not yet mature. The illusions of the Bolsheviks about the possibility of world socialist revolution in 1917-23 were necessary illusions, inevitable illusions like the illusions of John Ball or Gracchus Babeuf....Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades with their illusions did an enormous progressive work and have left for us a precious experience of proletarian, though defeated, revolution. The Mensheviks with their theories failed to lead even a bourgeois revolution and ended as the left tails of the bourgeois landlord counter-revolution.........

"If we want to be Marxists, we must understand the objective causes of the defeats of the proletarian revolutions of the 20th century. What objective causes will make the world socialist revolution possible in the 21st century? Subjective explanations like Trotsky's 'treachery of social democrats and Stalinism’ or your ‘weakness or ‘weakness of class consciousness at an international level’ is not enough. Yes, the level of class-consciousness of the proletariat was and is low, but what are the objective causes of it? Yes, the social democrats and Stalinists were and are traitors, but why did these traitors always win against the revolutionaries? Why did Ebert and Noske win against Liebnecht and Luxemburg, Stalin against Trotsky, Togliatti against Bordiga? Why did the Communist International, created as a decisive split with the opportunism of the degenerated 2nd International, itself degenerate into opportunism three times quicker than the 2nd? We must understand all this.

On the decadence of capitalism:

"Your understanding of this period only as the decadent stage of capitalism, only as some monstrosity. (for example in an article from Internationalisme on the collapse of Stalinism), doesn't answer the question of why the period was progressive, capitalist of course, in the Stalinist USSR and other red flag countries.

On the national question

"Concerning your pamphlet 'Nation or Class’. We agror Class’. We agree with your conclusions, but don't agree with part of the motivation and historical analysis. We agree, that today, at the end of the 20th century, the slogan the right of nations to self-determination has lost any revolutionary character. It is a bourgeois-democratic slogan. When the epoch of bourgeois revolutions is closed this slogan too is closed for proletarian revolutionaries. But we think that the epoch of bourgeois revolutions closed at the end of the 20th century not at its beginning. In 1915 Lenin was generally correct against Luxemburg, in 1952 Bordiga was generally correct on this question against Damen, but today the situation is reversed. And we consider your position to be completely mistaken that different non-proletarian revolutionary movements of the third world, that had not an iota of socialism but were objectively revolutionary movements, were only tools of Moscow, as you wrote about Vietnam for example, rather than objectively progressive bourgeois movements.

"It seems you make the same mistake as Trotsky who understood the crisis of capitalism as an absolute impasse not as a long and torturous process of degeneration and degradation when the reactionary and negative elements of capitalism more and more outweighed its progressive elementts progressive elements. Was there progress in the Soviet Union? Yes, of course. Was it socialist progress? Of course not. It was a transition from a semi-feudal agrarian country to an industrial capitalist country, i.e. bourgeois progress, in blood and mud, like all bourgeois progress. And the revolutions in China, Cuba, Yugoslavia etc: were they progressive ? of course antagonistically-progressive transformations in many other countries. We can and we must speak about the halfway, antagonistic character of all these bourgeois revolutions, but they were bourgeois revolutions. The objective conditions for proletarian revolution in China today are more mature, than they were in the twenties due to the bourgeois revolution in the forties."

If there's a common thread running through these extracts it is the idea that the 'objective conditions' for the proletarian revolution have not existed on a world scale for the greater part of the twentieth century, contrary to what the ICC, following the 1st Congress of the Communist International, believes. Thus the October Revolution was premature and consequently, at least until the end of the century, some form of progressive capitalist development was possible in the peripheries of the world system, and thus national liberation.

A clear understanding of objective conditions in society, that is the economic development of society at a given historic period, is a fundamental need for Marxists, since they, unlike the anarchists, recognise that socialism, instead of merely desirable, is a new mode of production whose possibility and necessity is conditioned by the economic exhaustion of capitalist society. This is the cornerstone of historical materialism as we are sure the comrade agrees.

Likewise there can be little argument that Marx saw the objective conditions for socialism as essentially twofold: "A social formation never perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never take its place before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." (Preface..)

Considering that world capitalism was not yet ready economically to perish in 1917 the comrade draws the conclusion that the immense upheaval in Russia could only lead to a bourgeois revolution at the economic level. At the political level it was a proletarlevel it was a proletarian revolution that was destined to fail owing to the fact that its communist aims didn't correspond to the real material needs of society at the time. The Bolshevik Party and the Communist International could thus only be heroic failures that misread the objective conditions just as John Ball, Thomas Munzer and Gracchus Babeuf thought a new equal society was possible when the conditions for it were not there.

The comrade says that this position on the nature of October is contradictory in the dialectical sense. But it contradicts one of the basic concepts of historical and therefore dialectical materialism that "Humanity only sets itself such tasks as it can solve: indeed, on closer examination, it will always be found that the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation" (Preface).

The consciousness of social classes, their aims and problems tends to correspond to their material interests and their position in the relations of production and exchange. It is only on this basis that the class struggle evolves. For an exploited class like the proletariat, self-consciousness can only develop aftss can only develop after a protracted struggle to free itself of the hold of the consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The difficulties, incomprehensions, mistakes, confusions in this effort reflect the lagging of consciousness behind the development of material conditions - another aspect of historical materialism that sees social life as essentially practical - concerned with furnishing food, clothing shelter - and therefore preceding the attempts of man to explain the world. But the comrade has the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat ripening on a world scale for a task that didn't exist yet. He turns Marxism on its head and has millions of proletarians mobilising themselves for a life or death struggle for a bourgeois revolution by mistake. And to do so he has them led by general ahistorical figures - the revolutionaries - who are motivated not so much by the class they are fighting for but by a general desire for revolution.

Does revolutionary consciousness ripen in a class by mistake?

Is there a historical trend for revolutionary consciousness to mature before its time? If we look a little closer at the historical circumstances of, say, the Peasants Revolt in the England of 1381 (John Ball), or the Peasant War in Germany easant War in Germany in 1525 (Thomas Munzer) we can see that this isn't the case: the consciousness of these movements tends to reflect the interests of the protagonists and the material circumstances of the time.

The latter were at root a desperate response to the increasingly onerous conditions imposed on the peasantry by the decaying feudal class. In these revolts as in all movements of the exploited throughout history there developed a desire for a new society without exploitation and misery. But the peasantry has never been and can never be a revolutionary class in the real meaning of the term since, as essentially a strata of small property holders, they are not the bearers of new relations of production, i.e. a new society. The peasantry in revolt was not destined to be the vehicle for the new bourgeois mode of production emerging out of the towns of Europe during the decadence of feudalism. (As Engels points out the peasantry was destined to be ruined by the victorious capitalist revolutions). Moreover the variation in the size of their property works against the necessary common identity of a revolutionary class.

In the bourgeois revolutions themselves, (in Germany, Britain and France between the 16th and 18th the 16th and 18th centuries) the peasantry and artisans played an active but auxiliary role, not for their own interests. To the extent to which proletarian interests emerge in a distinct way at this time they violently clash with even the most radical wing of the bourgeoisie, witness the fight between the Levellers and Cromwell in the English Revolution of 1649 or Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals versus the Montagnards in 1793.

The peasantry didn't have the cohesion or conscious goals of a revolutionary class, it couldn't develop its own world view and evolve a real strategy for the overthrow of the ruling class. It had to borrow its revolutionary theory from the exploiters since its vision of the future was still shrouded in a religious, i.e. conservative form. If its goals and heroic battles inspire us today and appear out of their time its because the last millennium (and the previous four) has had on important common characteristic: the exploitation of one part of society by another: that's why the names of its leaders have lasted through the centuries in the memory of the exploited.

It was only at the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth that the socialist idea appears for the first time s for the first time with real force behind it. And this period coincides, not accidentally, with the development of the proletariat in embryo.

The maturation of Communist consciousness reflects the material interests of the working class

The proletarians are the ancestors of peasants and artisans robbed of their land and means of production by the bourgeoisie. They have nothing left to tie them to the old society and no new form of exploitation to bring about. Having only their labour power to sell and working in association they have no need for internal divisions. They are an exploited class, but, unlike the peasantry have a material interest in not only ending all forms of private property but in creating a world society where the means of production and exchange are held in common: communism.

The working class, growing up with the development of large scale capitalist industrial production has enormous potential economic power in its hands and, being concentrated in millions in and around the major cities of the world, linked by modern means of transport and communication, it has the means to mobilise itself for a successful assault on the bastions of cat on the bastions of capitalist political power.

The class consciousness of the proletariat, unlike the consciousness of the peasantry is not tied to the past but is forced to look to the future without any utopian or adventurist illusions. It must soberly draw all the consequences, however gigantic of overthrowing existing society and constructing a new one.

Marxism, the highest expression of this consciousness, can give the proletariat a true picture of its conditions and objectives at each stage of its struggle and of its final goals, because it is able to uncover the laws of historical change . This revolutionary theory emerged in the 1840s and over the next few decades eliminated the vestiges of utopianism in the socialist ideas held by the working class. By 1914 Marxism was already triumphant in a working class movement that had 70 years of fighting for its interests under its belt. A period that included the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the experience of the 1st and 2nd Internationals.

And at this point Marxism showed itself able to criticise its own mistakes and political analyses and positions that had become sitions that had become obsolete with the march of events. The Marxist left, that the comrade identifies with, in all the major parties of the Second International, recognised the new period opened by the 1st World War and the end of the period of peaceful capitalist expansion. The same Marxist left came to lead the revolutionary insurrections that broke out at the end of the war. But its just here that the comrade, who would have done what the Bolsheviks did in October 1917 as a stepping stone to the world revolution, repeats the pseudo-Marxist arguments about the immaturity of the objective conditions that all the opportunists and centrists of Social Democracy - Karl Kautsky in particular - used to justify the isolation and strangulation of the Russian Revolution.

If the revolutionary wave failed it wasn't an inevitable subjective reflection of the insufficiency of objective conditions, but a result of the fact that this maturation wasn't quick and profound enough to take hold of the world proletariat in the relatively short 'window of opportunity' that opened up after the 1914-18 war and the contingent difficulties that resulted, without mentioning the specific difficulties of the proletarian revolution in comparison with the revolutions of previous revolutionary classes. ses.

For historical materialism the epoch of social revolution that results from the maturation of the elements of the new society is heralded by the development of 'ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out'.

The Communist International was not a precocious aberration as the comrade seems to be saying - in fact it only just caught up with events. It was the expression of a search for a solution to capitalism in the face of a maturation of objective conditions. To make its failure inevitable is to make historical materialism a fatalistic and mechanical recipe rather than a theory in which 'men make history'.

1917-1923 World capitalism deserves to perish

In 1914 the elements of the new society had matured in the old. But had all the productive forces for which the old society had room been developed? Had socialism become a historic necessity? The comrade answers in the negative and his evidence is the progressive development of capitalism in Stalinist Russia, China, Vietnam and other countries. The Bolsheviks thought they were making the world ere making the world revolution but were leading a bourgeois revolution instead.

For the comrade, the proof is the industrialisation of Russia and its transition from feudalism to capitalism after 1917, and the existence of 'progressive elements' in a period of increasing decline.

But for historical materialism every mode of production has distinct epochs of ascendancy and decline. Capitalism, being a world system unlike the feudal, ancient and Asiatic modes of production before it, has to be judged ripe for revolution on the basis of its international condition, not on the basis of this or that country, that taken by itself might give the illusions of a progressive development.

If one isolates certain periods or certain countries in the period of the decadence of capitalism since 1914 it is possible to be dazzled by the apparent growth of the system particularly when it occurs in some of the under-developed countries as the result of the coming to power of a state capitalist clique.

Capitalism's decline, again unlike previous societies, is characterised by over-production. While the decline of Rome or the decay of feudal Europe meant a stagnation and even a regression and decline in production, decadent capitalism continues to expand production (even at a slower average rate: about 50% less than in its ascendant period) while stifling and destroying the productive forces of society. So we don't see, like Trotsky, an absolute halt to the growth of capitalist production in its descendent phase.

Capitalism can only expand the productive forces if it is able to realise the surplus value contained in the ever increasing mass of commodities that it throws on the world market.

"…The more capitalist production develops, the more it is forced to produce on a scale which has nothing to do with immediate demand, but depends on a constant extension of the world market...Ricardo does not see that the commodity must necessarily be transformed into money. The demand from workers cannot suffice for this, since profit comes precisely from the fact that workers demand is less than the value of what they produce, and is all the greater when this demand is relatively smaller. The demand of capitalists for each others' goods is not enough either...To say that in the end the cap in the end the capitalists only have to exchange and consume commodities amongst themselves is to forget the nature of capitalist production and that the point is to transform capital into value." (Marx, Capital Book IV, Vol. LL and Book lll, Vol l)

While capitalism expands the productive forces tremendously - labour power, means of production and consumption - the latter only exist to be bought and sold because they have a dual nature as use values and exchange values. Capitalism must monetise the fruits of production . Thus the benefit of the development of the productive forces in capitalism remains, for the mass of the population largely a potential, a shining promise that always seems out of reach, because of their restricted purchasing power. This contradiction, which explains capitalism's tendency to overproduction that only leads to periodic crises in the ascendant period of capitalism, results in a series of catastrophes once capitalism can no longer compensate for it by the continuous conquest of pre-capitalist markets.

The opening up of the imperialist epoch and in particular the generalised imperialist war of 1914-18, showed that capitalism reaches its limits before it has completely eliminated all vestigeliminated all vestiges of previous societies in each country, long before it has been able to turn every producer into a wage labourer and introduce large scale production to every branch of industry. In Russia agriculture was still run on pre-capitalist lines and the majority of the population were peasants, and the political form of the regime had yet to take a bourgeois democratic form in place of feudal absolutism. Nevertheless the world market already dominated the Russian economy and in St Petersburg and Moscow and other major cities were concentrated huge numbers of proletarians in some of the biggest industrial plants in Europe.

The backwardness of the regime, and of the agrarian economy didn't prevent Russia from being completely integrated into the web of imperialist powers with its own predatory interests and objectives. And the coming to political power of the bourgeoisie in the provisional government after February 1917, didn't lead to any deviation from the imperialist policy.

Thus the Bolshevik objective of spring boarding from the Russian revolution to the world revolution was entirely realistic. Capitalism had reached the limits of national development. The relative backwardness of Russia was not dness of Russia was not the cause of the failure of this transition but the failure of the German Revolution.

Nor was the failure of the early Soviet regime to take socialist economic measures a specific product of Russian backwardness. The transition to the socialist mode of production can only begin in earnest when the capitalist world market has been destroyed by world revolution.

If we agree that socialism in one country is impossible and that nationalism is not a step towards socialism, there is nevertheless the illusion that after the victory of Stalinism, industrialisation represented a progressive capitalist step.

Isn't the comrade forgetting that this industrialisation served fundamentally the war economy and the imperialist preparations for World War 2 and that the elimination of the peasantry led to the gulags with their multi-millioned population? In a word that the fantastic growth rates of Russian industry were only achieved by cheating the law of value, by depriving temporarily the sanction of the world market and evolving an artificial pricing policy?

The development state capitalism, exemplified in an aberrant form in Russia, has however been the characteristic means in capitalist decadence for each bourgeoisie to face up to its present and future imperialist rivals. In the decadent epoch the average share of state expenditure in the national economy is around 50% compared with a little over 10% during capitalism's ascent.

In capitalist decadence, there is no catching up with the advanced countries by the less developed countries and so the gaining of political independence from the major powers by the supposed bourgeois revolutions claimed by the comrade remains largely a fiction. While by the end of the 19th century the growth of Gross National Product of the less developed countries was one sixth of the advanced capitalisms, in decadence this disparity has grown to one sixteenth. Consequently the integration of the population into wage labour faster than population growth itself, which is a characteristic of the genuine bourgeois revolutions of the past, just doesn't happen in the less developed world in decadence. On the contrary the mass of the population is more and more expelled from the production process altogether.

The capitalist world as a whole under world as a whole undergoes periodic fluctuations in growth in the 20th century that put the crises of the 19th century into the shade. The world wars of this epoch, instead of being the means to renew growth like the relative skirmishes of the 19th century, are so destructive that they lead to the economic ruin of both the victors and vanquished.

Our rejection then of the possibility of capitalism's progressive development throughout the 20th century has nothing to do with any squeamishness about the 'blood and muck' of bourgeois revolutions, but is derived from the objective economic exhaustion of the capitalism mode of production.

In Lenin's aphorism the period of 'horrors without end' is replaced after 1914 by 'the end, full of horrors'.

The cycles of crisis, war, reconstruction and new crisis of capitalism this century confirms that all the productive forces that this mode of production has room in it for have developed and it deserves to perish. It’s certainly true that at the end of the 20th century capitalism's decadence is far more advanced than at the beginning: in fact it has entered into a phase of decomposition. But the comrade giv But the comrade gives us no evidence for saying that capitalist decadence has begun at the end of the century and no arguments for placing such an immense qualitative change at the end rather than at the beginning of over two cycles of capitalism's permanent crisis.


If one denies that the decline of capitalism applies to a whole period, beginning with the First World War and thus extends to the mode of production as a whole, then one is arguing for the revolutionary struggle of the working class on sentiment rather than on historical necessity.

Denying the objective necessity for world revolution between 1917-23 and making its defeat inevitable is indeed a bizarre position. But it has dangerous consequences, since it removes the imperious need to draw all the lessons of the defeat of the revolutionary wave at the political and theoretical level. While the comrade identifies with the Communist Left he doesn't draw on all its work of subjecting the revolutionary experience to a fundamental critique in particular concerning the national question. Even if the comrade denies today any possibility of national liberation it is only on a contingent not ay on a contingent not a historical basis. If one can still see progressive developments in counter-revolutionary imperialist movements like Maoist China, Stalinist Vietnam or Cuba then the danger of abandoning consistent internationalist positions remains.


1) So, history, contrary to what the comrade says, has never shown one class carrying out the historic destiny of another, precisely because revolutions in the mode of production only occur when all the possibilities of the old one and its ruling class have been exhausted and when the revolutionary class bearing the germ of the new society has undergone a long period of gestation in the old society. See the ICC pamphlet 'Russia 1917, start of the world revolution' in particular the refutation of the theory of the double revolution. Life is difficult enough without having to make someone else's revolution. And in a time when it is no longer relevant.

2) See the ICC pamphlet 'The Decadence of Capitalism' and International Review 54.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: