The argument that Lenin’s leadership of the Russian Revolution paved the way for Stalin’s terror is pervasive. Patrick Nielsen looks at the circumstances, objective and subjective, which resulted in the revolution being strangled and Stalin coming to dominate — the opposite of the aims of 1917.
The October Revolution of 1917 was barely mentioned in the mainstream media during its centenary year. When it was, it was used as a weapon to attack the left. When Jeremy Corbyn sacked three shadow cabinet ministers for defying the party’s agreed line on a Brexit vote, the Daily Express ran a hysterical article: “Corbyn’s hard left to purge Labour Party moderates in Bolshevik style revolution”. Marcus Fysh, Tory MP for Yeovil, when asked his opinion on the matter, said, “I have heard some influential MPs saying ‘the Mensheviks have the upper hand for now, but we the Bolsheviks will have them in the end’. That’s what we’re facing.”
On one level this is nonsense. To argue that the sacking of three shadow cabinet ministers represents a move towards turning the Labour Party into a Bolshevik organisation is laughable. But it does represent a common accusation that socialists face when they argue for a socialist society. The argument goes: “Look what happened in Russia. Doesn’t Stalin’s rise show how revolution, however well-intentioned people are, always ends in a despotic leader and tyrannical rule?” In other words, they argue that there is a straight line from the October Revolution to the Stalinist regime of more than a decade later.
There was nothing inevitable about the rise of Stalin and the state capitalist regime that emerged after 1930. It was not the result of any inherent tendency within the revolutionary overthrow of a class society. It was the mixture of objective and subjective factors across post-First World War Europe that hollowed out the Russian Revolution and allowed a vacuum that Stalin and the emerging ruling class, the bureaucracy, was able to fill.
Crucially, the October Revolution of 1917 gives us a brief glimpse, before Stalin’s tyranny emerged, of what a better society could look like. At a time when millions across the world are rejecting the logic of capitalism and neoliberalism, and are enthused by socialist ideas, the lessons of October are still relevant today. The dominant narrative about the revolution tells you that it was doomed from the beginning. The message is, don’t even try to radically change the world, because you’ll end up making things worse. But when we look at the potential the revolution unleashed, and the real circumstances which strangled it, we should take the lesson that we need more revolution in the world, not less.
The October Revolution was a high point in human history and a real festival of the oppressed. In any revolutionary movement the most oppressed elements of society —for example, women, LGBT+ communities, ethnic and religious minorities — shake off the ideas of the past, enter the movement and start to argue for a world free from the daily oppression they experience. And this process is led by the exploited throwing off their chains. We saw this in the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 where women workers in Mahalla started a wave of strikes that got rid of the vicious Mubarak regime.
In October 1917 a similar process took place. Women in Russia were subjected to the most disgusting daily cycle of sexism and violence — reinforced by the ideological hold of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their main role was to give birth and remain marginalised from society. After October their position in society was one of the first things the new soviet society addressed. Divorce and abortion on demand were introduced, prostitution was decriminalised and communal crèches, nurseries and kitchens were all established to free women from the private sphere of the home and allow them to become active players in the building of the new socialist society.
As well as its oppression of women Tsarist Russia was notorious for its brutal attitude to countries controlled by the Russian Empire. It was called the prison house of nations. From Ukraine in the west to the Muslim Caucasus of the east, nations were subjected to the most brutal, undemocratic rule by the Tsarist state. After the October Revolution one of the first decrees of the soviets, headed up by the Bolsheviks, was to give all these countries the right to self-determination.
In the early days after October workers ran the workplaces and factories through workplace committees, and the peasants took the land from wealthy landowners and the aristocracy. Before, during and after the October Revolution the Bolsheviks were the only political force to argue for all these demands — summarised in their famous slogan, “Bread, Land and Peace. All power to the Soviets.” These were the demands of ordinary Russians in the lead up to October, and it was the Bolsheviks’ dedication to this programme that won a Bolshevik majority in the soviets by 1917.
The early Soviet regime was a completely different Russia to the one under the dictatorship of Stalin from 1928. Stalin’s counter-revolution gradually began to roll back all the gains ordinary Russians had made in October 1917. Women were forced back into the private sphere of the home with again their main role being to give birth to a new big and healthy workforce which would enable the new state capitalist regime to compete both economically and militarily with more developed Western countries. LGBT+ Russians who were given rights after October were also attacked by Stalin. By 1930 the Soviet dictionary referred to homosexuality as an “unnatural phenomenon” and incompatible with Soviet society.
Not only were these important gains against oppression reversed but the explosion of workers’ self-activity and democracy that had been a cornerstone of the early Soviet society was replaced by “one man management” in the factories and workplaces. Whereas in the early days of Soviet society workers’ committees decided how a workplace or factory would operate, under Stalin, a manager — usually part of the Stalinist bureaucracy — would have full control of the everyday running of the workplace. They had the power to hire and fire at will, and trade union rights and organisations were reduced virtually to nil.
Clearly the early Soviet society was fundamentally different to the later Stalinist Russia. But the mainstream commentators fail to mention the difference. They ignore the massive strides taken by ordinary Russians and how Stalin forced through decrees that were the opposite of the original vision of Soviet society.
So how had the counter-revolution come about? The material conditions both internationally and domestically are key to understanding how Stalin was able to take power. A cornerstone of Bolshevik theory was internationalism. Lenin and Trotsky among others argued that the crisis that had gripped Russian society and led to the February and October revolutions was part of a global process. Revolution would soon follow in Europe — generated by the same conditions of war and social collapse that had inspired the events in Russia.
The Bolsheviks argued that for the Russian Revolution to be successful in the long term it needed proletarian revolutions to win in more developed European countries. The argument was twofold. First, revolutionary governments in Germany or other European countries could support the Soviet government in Russia with aid, materials and resources. This would provide the soviets with breathing space to wed the largely agrarian population to the working class ideals of October.
Second, they argued that because capitalism is a global system, the movement to overthrow it had to be global as well. Russia was just one small part of a global network of production and exchange. The Bolsheviks were under no illusions that world capital would do everything in its power to topple the fledgling Soviet government. Trotsky warned of this as early as 1905: “If the peoples of Europe do not arise and crush capitalism, we shall be crushed. That is beyond doubt.”
World capitalism in 1917 was in immense crisis. The First World War had devastated living standards and millions of working class men had been slaughtered on the Eastern and Western fronts. At the same time large elements of the European ruling class had made huge profits from the war. It was partly because of this contradiction that revolutions and mass struggles erupted across the continent, looking to Russia for inspiration.
The Kiel naval mutiny in 1918 led to the formation of sailors’, soldiers’ and workers’ councils — similar to the Russian soviets — across Germany, forcing Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was brought crashing down by revolutionary uprisings. Italy was rocked by the “Two Red Years” (1919 to 1920) of mass strikes, demonstrations and factory occupations. A revolution broke out in Constantinople in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Victor Serge, the anarchist turned Bolshevik, wrote, “The whole of Europe is in movement, clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere. Everything is possible.”
The Communist International (Comintern), the international organisation of communist parties which advocated international revolution, set up by the Bolsheviks immediately after October — could rally mass support to its banner. For a brief period it looked like the Russian workers would be joined by the European proletariat. However, one by one these struggles were beaten. What was lacking was not the Europe-wide crisis, nor the willingness of workers to fight, but revolutionary leadership armed with political clarity and organisational experience which could lead the mass of workers in the way that the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. It was a weakness the Bolsheviks recognised and laboured to overcome. Though they didn’t succeed, this doesn’t mean it was a struggle that was doomed from the start, as modern day critics from both right and left argue.
The fact that the Russian Revolution didn’t spread had profound consequences for the trajectory of the Soviet state. The old Tsarist state started to try to claw back all it had lost. This manifested itself into a brutal civil war, with soviets on one side, the Reds, and the former ruling class of Russia and its supporters on the other, the Whites. By 1920, 30 different governments claimed to rule Russia, 29 of which were against the Bolsheviks and represented the interests of sections of the old ruling class. And meanwhile Trotsky’s prognosis of 1905 was ringing true — international capital threw its weight behind the White armies in order to, in the words of Winston Churchill, “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle”. Fourteen different countries invaded Russia to aid the White armies.
Eventually the Reds won, largely because the Soviet programme was more appealing than a return to the Tsarist regime. But it was at an enormous cost. The economy — already weak — was decimated. By the end of the civil war in 1921 production of electrical machinery was at 5.4 percent of its pre-First World War output and iron production was at 2.4 percent. The human cost was as terrible. The population of Petrograd, the heart of the revolution, fell by 75 percent. Economic historian Lev Kritzman stated that “such a fall of the productive forces of a huge society of 100 million people is unheard of in the history of mankind.” The Russian working class had been largely destroyed, with one estimate claiming its numbers were down to 43 percent of its pre-First World War level.
These figures are astonishing, but it was in this context, during a bloody civil war, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks out of necessity brought in wartime measures, such as constraints on political oppositionists, that could only be justified when the new Soviet society hung by a thread. They also, following the end of the civil war, relaxed controls with the New Economic Policy, which enabled small capitalists and traders to operate within what was still, if now only in name, a workers’ socialist society. It was argued NEP would provide a breathing space, enabling the soviets to rebuild after their decimation in the civil war.
But the Krondstadt rebellion of 1921 showed just how politically damaging the civil war had been. From being a bastion of both the February and October revolutions four years before, the naval fortress near Petrograd had sacrificed most of its fighters to the civil war and instead become a crucible of anti-Bolshevik militancy. The Soviet state responded, sending Red Army squadrons to bloodily put it down. But it couldn’t avoid the warning that the rebellion represented. It set out to strengthen its control, but rather than the workers who had originally filled the ranks of the soviets, it was middle class bureaucrats who took up positions, providing the conditions for Stalin and his cohorts to manoeuvre themselves into critical positions in the state.
It was here that Lenin warned not only against the rise of the bureaucracy. He also called for the removal of Stalin from his position as general secretary of the Bolshevik Party — a role he had taken up in 1922. Some heeded these warnings, but could not stop Stalin’s manoeuvring. By 1928 Stalin had risen to overall power in the state. He abandoned the party’s international perspective of 1917 in favour of “socialism in one country” and launched the First Five Year Plan. Over the next 15 years huge numbers of peasants were driven into collective farms and massive industrial complexes — a process that brutally transformed them into a new working class. All the gains of October 1917 were removed.
Against any hint of opposition, and particularly from his former comrades in the Bolshevik Party, Stalin unleashed a wave of terror, cementing his own counter-revolution and state capitalist regime in order to enable Russia to compete economically and militarily with Western powers. He went on to create a cult of Lenin in which the high point of the October Revolution was used to justify the later Stalinist monolith. Stalin rewrote history, portraying himself as the natural heir and successor of Lenin and the October Revolution. This distorted then, as it still does today, the legacy of Lenin and October.