Workers Vanguard No. 1123
1 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the first part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago.
It is the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, the defining event of modern history and the greatest victory ever for working people. The proletariat, led by a Leninist vanguard party, smashed the bourgeois state and set up a workers state. I pondered what I could tell you in one hour—when after all, Leon Trotsky needed about 1,200 pages in his History of the Russian Revolution (1932). But if this talk encourages you to read or reread Trotsky’s History, then I will have accomplished something.
As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, put it:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality....
“The Russian revolution showed...how the workers’ revolution is to be made.... It showed in life what kind of a party the workers must have.”
—“Speech on the Russian Question” (1939), printed in Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943)
The need for a revolutionary party will be one of the themes of this talk. During the course of the Russian Revolution, the multinational proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, forged its own new organs of class power, the soviets, or workers councils. With the smashing of the old capitalist state, these soviets, under Bolshevik leadership, formed the basis of the new workers state. The vanguard of the workers understood that they were not just taking power in Russia; they were opening the first chapter of international proletarian revolution. The Russian Revolution inspired workers uprisings throughout Europe and rebellions in the colonial countries.
The Soviet government expropriated the capitalists and landlords and repudiated totally the tsar’s massive debt to foreign bankers. It proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education, as the first steps to building a socialist society. Sounds good, doesn’t it?! The new workers state gave land to the peasants and self-determination—the right to their own independent state—to the many oppressed nations that had been ruled over by the hated tsar. I will speak some about the struggles V.I. Lenin waged to ensure the right of these nations to self-determination. The early Soviet government gave women in Russia an unprecedented level of equality and freedom.
Like many people, when I first came around the Spartacist League, I assumed that in a revolutionary situation all the left would get together and fight for socialist revolution. Comrades encouraged me to read about the Russian Revolution, which proves exactly the opposite. Believe me, if a group like the International Socialist Organization or Workers World has a reformist approach to pressuring the capitalist state now, then when the time comes, like the Mensheviks, they will wind up defending capitalism tooth and nail.
The bourgeoisie has always wanted to bury the October Revolution under a mountain of lies. There has been a bunch of articles in the press on the 100th anniversary. A few were interesting. Most were like, “Yikes, it was just a historical accident, let’s hope it never happens again.” But it happened because the socially organized productive forces of the planet had developed to the point where bourgeois private property forms and the bourgeois nation-states had become shackles on social progress. World War I marked the descent of the capitalist system into mass slaughter and barbaric destruction. It signaled that to free the planet’s productive forces from capitalist imperialism, proletarian revolution was necessary.
Capitalist imperialism is still caught in its fatal contradictions; it still creates a proletariat with the social power to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and it still creates the barbarism that we see around us. Under both capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, U.S. imperialism has destroyed countries around the world. Much of the Near East is a bombed-out shell. Now Trump is threatening nuclear war against North Korea for their terrible crime of developing weapons to defend themselves. We call for the military defense of the North Korean and Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers states. It’s a good thing that North Korea is developing a credible nuclear deterrent. Without that, the U.S. would already have bombed them into oblivion.
Here at home, racist cop terror, union-busting, destruction of working people’s living standards, domestic surveillance and mass deportations continue apace under Trump as they did under Obama. Trump is not a fascist, but he has encouraged the fascist scum to come out of the woodwork. We all wish for there to be some hard class struggle in this country, and it will come—it is inevitable under capitalism. Our job is to make sure that there will be a party like Lenin’s in the right place at the right time. So this talk is not just about what happened in 1917 in Russia; it is also about the fight of the International Communist League to organize for new Octobers.
Russia’s Uneven and
At this point I am going to discuss some of the background to the Russian Revolution and speak to why the first and, so far, only proletarian socialist revolution occurred in Russia. Russia was an acute example of what Trotsky called uneven and combined development. The country was ruled by a reactionary tsarist aristocracy presiding over a prison house of many oppressed nations. Seventy million Great Russians constituted the main mass of the country, but there were 90 million “outlanders.” So a majority of the country was oppressed nationalities. Barely 50 years out of serfdom, peasants made up some 85 percent of the population and lived in the most backward conditions imaginable. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm. The ancient institutions of the traditional household and the communal village enforced a rigid patriarchal hierarchy and the degradation of women. Peasant women were beasts of burden; we have a picture in an article on “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” of peasant women harnessed up like oxen to pull a river barge (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006).
But underdeveloped countries do not just mechanically go through every stage that the more developed countries went through: they jump over certain aspects while retaining many very backward elements. By 1914, massive investment from Europe had created a new urban proletariat (one-third women!) in large-scale, state-of-the-art industrial concentrations. The percentage of Russian workers employed in factories of more than 1,000 employees was higher than in Britain, Germany or the U.S. The late-emerging Russian bourgeoisie, subordinated to foreign capitalists and tied to the Russian aristocracy, knew that any mass upsurge against tsarism was bound to sweep them away, too.
It was in response to this uneven and combined development that Trotsky formulated his theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky projected that despite the economic backwardness of the country, the Russian proletariat could come to power before an extended period of capitalist development. Indeed, the workers would have to come to power if Russia were to be liberated from its feudal past because the weak and cowardly capitalists sure weren’t going to do it.
An essential aspect of Trotsky’s permanent revolution was, as he wrote in the August 1939 article “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (also known as “Three Concepts”): “Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.” And that, of course, was and is the rub. With the delay of world revolution, particularly in the advanced industrial countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped political power in the Soviet Union in 1923-24, and capitalism was eventually restored in 1991-92. I will make the point that the ICL defended the Soviet Union against capitalist counterrevolution to the bitter end, unlike most left groups.
Key to the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was the coming together of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution with Lenin’s struggle to build a programmatically based vanguard party steeled against all manner of reconciliation with the capitalist order. The Bolshevik Party was cohered in the long years of struggle against the Mensheviks, who looked to the liberal bourgeoisie to overthrow tsarism.
World War I had a profound impact on Lenin’s thinking. In 1916, he wrote the book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which explained that imperialism is not a policy, but is the highest stage of capitalism. Imperialist wars to divide and redivide the world are inevitable under monopoly capitalism. World War I triggered the collapse of the Second “Socialist” International, which the Bolsheviks had considered themselves part of, when the vast majority of its affiliated parties lined up behind their own bourgeoisies’ war efforts. Lenin at first didn’t believe it when he heard that the German Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group had unanimously voted to support the war. I guess he thought it was what today might be called “fake news.” But it was true.
Lenin concluded that the war had demonstrated that capitalism was in its final stage of decay. He maintained that the path to proletarian revolution was the transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war and that socialists in the imperialist centers must stand for the defeat, above all, of their own bourgeois state in the war. Lenin also concluded that a new, revolutionary international, the Third International, must be built on the hard programmatic Bolshevik model.
National Liberation Struggles and Socialist Revolution
If you look at Lenin’s writings during the years leading up to 1917, a lot of them deal with the need for a hard position against the imperialist war and against not only the overtly pro-war fake socialists but also against the centrists like Karl Kautsky who covered for them. A number of the articles deal with the national question.
Now, the ICL has just had an intense internal struggle against a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations like Quebec and Catalonia within multinational states. As the fight unfolded internationally, it exposed a number of examples of chauvinist positions in opposition to just national struggles of oppressed nations. To get a sense of how these represented a capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism, read “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 65, Summer 2017).
The point is that our old position went against Lenin’s very extensive writings on the national question. In his 1914 article, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin outlined a very definite programmatic stance: “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.”
This stance applied not only to colonies but also to countries forcibly retained within multinational states. Lenin wrote:
“The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of the oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state.... Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words...”
“On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organizational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie.”
—“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1916)
During the war years, Lenin waged a struggle against the advocates of what he called imperialist economism. The original Economists of whom he speaks in What Is To Be Done? (1902) thought that the economic struggle was everything and that there was no need to bother with political problems and struggle. The imperialist Economists thought that since imperialism had triumphed, there was no need to bother with the problems of political democracy and self-determination. These included various Polish Social Democrats whom Lenin denounced for thinking that “self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism” (“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism” ).
Lenin adamantly disagreed with both these propositions. He wrote: “Socialist parties which did not show by all their activity, both now, during the revolution, and after its victory, that they would liberate the enslaved nations and build up relations with them on the basis of a free union…these parties would be betraying socialism” (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” emphasis added).
This position was key to making the Russian Revolution. Our old articles contained phrases like “getting the national question off the agenda,” which we often used as an excuse for not supporting struggles for national liberation. The Bolsheviks saw that national liberation struggles could be catalysts for socialist revolution and sought to unleash their revolutionary potential. National liberation can be a motor force for proletarian rule if the proletariat acquires communist consciousness and is led by a communist party.
Fighting national oppression is one of the things the Bolsheviks were known for, as well as their workers mobilizations against anti-Jewish pogroms by the fascistic Black Hundreds. We could certainly use some of these workers mobilizations against today’s fascists. As Lenin said in What Is To Be Done?, the party must be “the tribune of the people...able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression.”
The February Revolution
So by now you’re all saying, “Enough already, let’s get on with the revolution!” The February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist monarchy was carried out overwhelmingly by the working class, with the peasants, organized in the army, also playing a key role. The spark was a demonstration by women workers demanding bread on February 23 (which is March 8 in the new calendar, International Women’s Day). It shows it’s a good thing for women to get out of the villages and have some social power as workers! Then on February 25 there was a general strike in Petrograd, followed by a mutiny in some army regiments.
What broke the back of the tsarist monarchy was that the army no longer wanted to fight, and whole units were abandoning the front or refusing to carry out orders. A powerful indication was when the Cossack regiments, who were considered very loyal to the tsar, refused to suppress a workers demonstration in Petrograd. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky relates:
“The officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the [Sampsonievsky] Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,’...‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink’.”
If the Cossacks were winking at the workers, the tsar was in trouble.
You have to realize how bloody and unpopular the war was. The ABC of Communism (1920) by Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky estimated that by 1918 the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war was eight million. And they remarked acidly, “If we assume the average weight of a soldier to be 150 lb., this means that between 1 August 1914, and 1 January 1918, the capitalists had brought to market twelve hundred million pounds of putrid human flesh.” Trotsky encapsulated the situation as follows: “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop...of my blood’.”
Trotsky’s History shows the quick tempo of events. February 23 International Women’s Day demo; February 25 general strike; police and state officials were sent packing and on February 27 the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was formed. The soviets, which had previously arisen in the 1905 Revolution, were revived in the February Revolution, but they now included soldiers, who were mainly peasants and who would otherwise have been difficult to organize. By February 28 the tsar’s ministers were arrested, and by March 2 the tsar had abdicated.
The paradox of the February Revolution was that while the autocracy and the tsar had been overthrown by the workers, the official government that emerged was bourgeois. Even as street fighting was raging in Petrograd on the night of February 27, a self-appointed Provisional Committee composed of bourgeois-monarchist politicians met in the Tauride Palace, behind the back of the popular revolution. They declared a Provisional Government aimed at erecting a constitutional monarchy.
Meanwhile, in another wing of the Tauride Palace, a “Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” was being formed. The leadership of the Soviet was dominated by the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). While the SRs were largely based on the peasantry, the Mensheviks represented urban petty-bourgeois layers and the more conservative and privileged workers. The program of the Mensheviks and SRs was that the bourgeoisie should lead and rule, and they desperately appealed to the bourgeois Provisional Government to take control.
Trotsky often quotes the left Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who was a leader of the Soviet in its early days and himself wrote a history of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution quotes Sukhanov as saying: “The Executive Committee [of the Soviet] was in a perfect position either to give the power to the bourgeois government, or not give it.” Further: “The power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power.... Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”
That’s blunt! When I first read about this, I had trouble believing that any kind of so-called socialist, with the workers in ascendancy and soviets being set up, deliberately runs around the city looking for capitalist politicians to hand over power to. But let me tell you something: This has happened many times. From the abortive Chinese Revolution of the late 1920s to Spain in the 1930s to Greece in the late 1940s after World War II, promising revolutionary situations have been betrayed by latter-day Mensheviks and deliberately handed over to the bourgeois executioners time and time again. These reformists seriously do not believe that the working class can take and hold power.
The February Revolution thus resulted in a situation of dual power. That is, alongside the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie, there stood the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. There was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the soviets. Trotsky notes that one bourgeois politician complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it.” Dual power is unstable and can only be resolved either by revolution or counterrevolution.
Rearming the Bolshevik Party
Trotsky comments that the February Revolution was led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.” The Bolsheviks were in the soviets, of course, but as a minority. The Bolsheviks were slow off the mark, with a leadership underground and dispersed—Lenin was in exile—and, in general, lagging behind the masses. The soviets in February were dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, who maintained that the February Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy, and now the task was to defend “democratic” Russia against German imperialism. In other words, upholding the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Mensheviks and SRs took positions similar to the pro-war German Social Democrats. During Lenin’s exile and particularly after the return of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia began to bend in the direction of the Mensheviks’ defensism, dropping Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism and even mooting the possibility of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks merging! Lenin in exile was trying desperately to get back to Russia and wrote in a furious March letter: “I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social-patriotism.”
When he finally arrived in Petrograd, Lenin climbed atop an armored car to address the cheering workers who had brought down the tsar. Lenin hailed them and, to the shock of the official pro-war Soviet welcoming committee, gave an internationalist salute to the German revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, who was in prison for opposing German militarism. “The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters.... Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution).
Lenin went straight on to a Bolshevik meeting, where he gave a two-hour speech. The speech is not preserved, but the ever-present Sukhanov, who was allowed into this Bolshevik meeting by an overindulgent Kamenev, describes Lenin as saying: “‘We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!’” Sukhanov bleats: “I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful.”
This was the opening shot of Lenin’s fight to rearm the party. Lenin’s “April Theses,” which he fought for at the April party conference, included recognition that the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia would place on the order of the day not only the democratic tasks but also socialist tasks. So now Lenin is sounding more like Trotsky on permanent revolution. As Trotsky noted in Lessons of October (1924): “The fundamental controversial question, around which everything else centered, was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”
Lenin could win over the party because his program corresponded to the needs of the proletariat and peasantry. And because there was a proletarian base to the party that had been waiting—as Trotsky says in his History of the Russian Revolution, “gritting their teeth”—for Lenin or someone to put forward a revolutionary strategy for the seizure of power by the Soviets. Yet, at the same time, there was a conservative wing of the party. As Trotsky points out in Lessons of October, “A revolutionary party is subject to the pressure of other political forces.” The party’s power of resistance is weakened when it has to make political turns and it “becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.” The most abrupt turn is when the question of armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie is on the agenda. We’ll see a second part of this fight right before the insurrection. After Lenin’s successful struggle to rearm the party, the Bolshevik Party began to raise its revolutionary program, and its influence spread like wildfire.
Not surprisingly, the fall of the tsarist monarchy in February had stimulated national movements among the oppressed nations of Russia. Trotsky wrote: “In this matter, however, we observe the same thing as in all other departments of the February regime: the official democracy, held in leash by its political dependence upon an imperialist bourgeoisie, was totally incapable of breaking the old fetters.” They sure weren’t going to relinquish, as Trotsky put it, “Ukrainian grain, Donetz coal, and the ores of Krivorog.” So, after February as before, Lenin kept hammering away on the right of self-determination for oppressed nations.
[TO BE CONTINUED]