The centenary of the Russian Revolution provides an opportunity to re-examine important questions. Sally Campbell argues that a deeply democratic impulse was at the heart of the revolution.
According to David Remnick, author of a book called Lenin’s Tomb and editor of the New Yorker magazine, Lenin, the foremost figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917, held a “view of man as modelling clay and sought to create a new model of human nature and behaviour through social engineering”. He quotes Richard Pipes, a right wing historian and critic of the Russian Revolution, who sees it as an attempt “to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan”. Both feed a common view of the revolution as a tightly-controlled conspiracy conceived in Lenin’s head — and inevitably leading to dictatorship.
The words of Lenin himself in 1918 provide a counter to this narrative:
“Nothing is more ludicrous than the assertion that the development of the revolution, and the revolt of the masses that followed, were caused by a party, by an individual or, as they vociferate, by the will of a ‘dictator’. The fire of revolution broke out solely because of the incredible sufferings of Russia, and because of the conditions created by the war, which sternly and inexorably faced the working people with the alternative of taking a bold, desperate and fearless step, or of perishing, of dying from starvation.”
Throughout the centenary we will hear repeated claims that Lenin and the Bolsheviks organised a coup, that they led a violent uprising and that they crushed a nascent parliamentary democracy that seemed to be emerging after the Tsar’s dictatorship was toppled in February 1917. Yet, from the spontaneous outbreak of mass strikes rolling over into a political revolution in February to the organised insurrection in October that secured workers’ power, the experience of revolution in 1917 unleashed forms of direct democracy on a level and of a kind never seen before.
This meant that Russia could leap beyond the limited representative parliamentary democracy. For Lenin, revolution meant “an immense extension of democracy, which, for the first time, becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people and not democracy for the money-bags”.
The grotesque spectacle of last year’s US presidential election highlights how relevant this still is today. Here democracy meant going into a voting booth, on one’s own, to choose between representatives of the ruling class. Despite Trump’s rhetoric he is the epitome of the “money-bags”. And if Hillary Clinton had won she would have represented the continuation of business as usual, as well as being a member of one of the two political dynasties that have held the office of president for 21 of the last 28 years.
This is not an aberration. Despite the hopes of many socialists and working class people a century ago when the vote was finally beginning to be extended, at least to a wider layer of men, parliamentary democracy has not fundamentally transformed capitalist society. Real power is still wielded by the capitalist class. Pressure from below forced them to offer wider suffrage, but not to concede power. As Ralph Miliband wrote:
“The politicians’ appropriation of ‘democracy’ did not signify their conversion to it: it was rather an attempt to exorcise its effects… A carefully limited and suitably controlled measure of democracy was acceptable, and even from some aspects desirable. But anything that went beyond that was not.”
So even when electorates choose representatives who want to challenge the status quo, they are disappointed. When the left wing, anti-austerity Syriza government was elected in Greece in January 2015 on a platform of rejecting the financial blackmail of the Troika, the expectation was that the EU would have to listen to the will of the people. But, as European Commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen made clear, “We don’t change our policy according to elections.” And indeed they didn’t — the deal was imposed and the Syriza government strangled into submission.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party an unnamed senior army general darkly commented that should Corbyn become prime minister and seek to “downgrade Britain’s capabilities” the military “would not stand for it”.
While socialists should defend parliamentary democracy, we should understand both that the freedoms it offers are limited and that the ruling class would dispense with it if their rule were seriously threatened. That was the experience in Chile in 1973, when General Pinochet’s coup broke the power of a mass movement from below that threatened Chilean capitalism. In the 1920s and 1930s the ruling classes in Italy and Germany were prepared to offer power to fascist movements to break insurgent workers’ movements.
Some of the clearest Marxist writings on democracy come from Lenin’s experiences in 1917. On the eve of the October Revolution he published one of his most important works, State and Revolution. In it he returns to the writings of Marx and Engels on the state: “According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’ which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”
Some socialists had distorted this analysis to argue that the state could reconcile — even overcome — the conflict between classes. But this ignores two basic facts of capitalist society. First, capitalist economic power is largely untouched by the question of who commands a majority in parliament. There are no elections to decide who will run the banks or the corporations that dominate British society. Second, the core of the state consists of unelected hierarchies — the police, the army, the judiciary and the civil service — whose leading members have proved again and again their commitment to defending capitalist interests.
A correct reading of Marx leads to the conclusion that the only way to liberate the oppressed classes is to entirely overthrow and destroy the “apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class” and to replace it with a more democratic way of running society.
After the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar, a provisional government was set up to rule Russia. For the first time there were free political parties and the prospect of elections. Those who had taken to the streets in February celebrated this advance in Russia’s political system. Yet the provisional government did not represent power lying with the masses. Class rule was still being imposed. Involvement in the First World War continued to bring misery, starvation and death. Lenin returned to Russia from exile in April to argue that the revolution had to go further. His “April Theses” were a bombshell. He effectively said: stop patting yourselves on the back and go forward to socialism; liberal democratic rights are not enough. “What kind of freedom of speech when all the printing facilities were in the hands of the bourgeoisie and protected by a bourgeois government!”
But another form of democratic organisation had arisen in the course of the February Revolution — soviets, or workers’ and soldiers’ councils. These were a far more direct form of democracy, responsive to the demands of workers from below, modelled on institutions created by workers during the earlier 1905 Revolution. They were based on workplaces, communities and towns and were the means through which decisions were made during the struggle. Even after the provisional government was founded, the soviets continued to be the real locus of power in revolutionary Russia. Often workers and soldiers would refuse to carry out an order from the provisional government unless the soviets signed off on the decision.
Amid the turmoil from February to October, the first free municipal elections took place in May and June. Some 40 percent didn’t vote. Historian Marc Ferro argues that this was an expression of people’s preference for the more direct democracy of the soviets over the representative democracy of the provisional government: “The question was not one of being better governed, or of choosing another form of being governed, but of being self-governing. Any delegation of power was excoriated, any authority unbearable.”
Witnesses to the revolution describe the change that took place in people that year. John Reed, an American journalist, wrote in his account, Ten Days that Shook the World, “Every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.” And the mass participation in political debate surpassed anything seen in parliament: “What a marvellous sight to see the Putilov factory pour out its 40,000 to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk!”
The revolutionary struggle had unleashed something in people who had been degraded, oppressed and exploited all their lives. And it had opened up the possibility of even greater change — if only the question of the state and class rule could be resolved.
Critics of the Bolsheviks point to the ominous phrase, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, as a warning against the undemocratic nature of revolution. But it’s the opposite — it is the rulership of the vast majority over the old capitalist dictators. Lenin sums it up as, “Democracy for the vast majority of people and suppression by force, ie exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people.”
This Lenin saw as a temporary but necessary phase in the birth of a society which can eventually abolish class altogether. As classes and exploitation were eradicated, the state would “wither away”. “So long as the state exists there is no freedom,” he wrote. “When there is freedom, there will be no state.” That this point was not reached was a product of the international isolation of the revolution, the invasion by outside powers and resulting civil war that destroyed the early democratic institutions created by 1917 and, ultimately, the counter-revolution led by Stalin in the late 1920s.
The change that Lenin talked about was the opposite of Stalinist dictatorship, for it was rooted in self-emancipation: “We have not yet seen the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes.”
That spirit also exists in the millions who marched to bring down President Park in South Korea last year, or who toppled Mubarak in Egypt six years ago. But in the Russian Revolution we can see even further — to the beginnings of a new society built on the democratic struggle of the majority.