This year we are celebrating the 100 years of the October 1917 Revolution. The first victorious socialist revolution, the first Workers’ State established in history, the triumph of the Red Army against the counter-revolutionary Tsarist and imperialist armies: all of this generated immense enthusiasm of the working class and the peoples around the world. Revolutions and great workers struggles spread throughout Europe and the world with the Russian Revolution as an example.
By Bernardo Cerdeira.
A century later, nonetheless, the idea of the October Revolution is different. It is unknown to most and many identify it with the Stalinist Soviet Union, where a dictatorship prevailed that restored capitalism, and it was overthrown when the people upraised against the totalitarian regime.
The Stalinist regime that prevailed in the USSR since the 1920s was responsible for this perspective. The Stalinist bureaucracy took over the Soviet state apparatus, the Soviet Communist Party, and the III International. From this position, they attempted to usurp Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ heritage and distort the teachings of Marxism.
Not by chance, since then imperialism has carried out an enormous campaign to try to identify Stalinism with Bolshevism. Its objective is to discredit Bolshevism, putting an equal sign with totalitarianism, terror and bureaucratic privileges.
Trotsky’s political and ideological struggle against Stalinism was a struggle to recover Marxism and Bolshevism’s heritage, getting rid of the pollution and shameful stains that Stalinism left on it.
In celebrating the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we cannot limit ourselves to highlighting the glorious October Days and the victorious battles of the Red Army against the White Army. We are the first to celebrate what was the greatest victory of the world proletariat until now. But it is also necessary to explain how October, this colossal triumph of the world revolution, became its opposite: the counter-revolutionary degeneration of Stalinism.
In the XXI century, new generations emerge who fight against imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and all forms of oppression. However, these new fighters have innumerous doubts on the October Revolution: was Bolshevism a totalitarian regime like Stalinism, its matrix? Were the Red Terror and the prohibition of reformist parties actually necessary or did it already express this supposed authoritarianism?
Others do not see in Bolshevism the origin of Stalinism, but they ask if the mistakes of the Bolsheviks did not contribute, unwillingly but to a certain extent, to the emergence of Stalinism.
These are extremely valid doubts because, after capitalist restoration in the ex-workers’ bureaucratic states and the fall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989/1990, the debate on nature and origin of Stalinist bureaucracy gained significant importance.
Undoubtedly, it is very important to participate in the discussion, which implies arguing how a future workers’ government facing a civil war and international isolation should act in the course of a socialist revolution. In other words, before a situation similar to the period between 1917-1923, which should be the policy of a revolutionary party in office? The matter includes at least three great aspects:
The first is whether, in fact, we may characterize the first period of the Bolshevik administration (1917-1923) as a prevailing authoritarian period.
The second is whether the defense of the revolution and the Workers’ State, mainly in mid-civil war, authorize or demand the use of authoritarian measures – which were actually used by the Bolsheviks – against the dominating classes and their agents.
And, last, one must discuss if the measures adopted by the Bolsheviks generated or facilitated the path towards Stalinism. In other words, if even unwillingly Bolshevism contributed for the emergence of Stalinism.
Bolshevism in Office: a workers’ democracy regime
Regarding the first aspect, contrary to the supposed “growing restriction of democratic freedoms,” the first years of Soviet power meant a degree of freedom for the working class previously unknown, both in the previous regime as in the bourgeois “democracies”.
Even in times of civil war, with all the evident limits that this ruthless struggle meant, the Bolshevik regime from 1917 to 1923 was extremely democratic for the working class and its allied popular sectors. Despite being attacked by all sides, by the White Army and the troops of 14 nations led by the greatest imperialist countries; despite being internally sabotaged by opportunist parties, like the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks; despite all this, it was the most democratic regime ever known in history for the working class and the people.
In the first place, because it was based on a body that was, at the same time, a body of mobilization and the basis of the Workers’ State: councils of workers and peasants representatives (Soviets). Second, because the Soviet regime guaranteed broad freedoms for the working class and the people, ensuring the right of workers’ organizations, unions, factory committees, etc. There was freedom of association for Soviet parties, not just for those in office (Bolsheviks and left Socialist Revolutionaries, at first) but even for the Mensheviks and right Socialist Revolutionaries – until they joined counter-revolution. And, mainly, because the regime instituted the greatest political, cultural, artistic, and academic freedom, freedom of association, and freedom of press that ever existed.
Regarding freedom of expression in arts, for example, during the period 1917-1923, the main Bolshevik leaders stood against the idea of the State supporting a specific artistic current, in open controversy with Proletkult and the Futurists’ intentions. Lenin and Trotsky expressed this several times in different articles and speeches. Trotsky developed this stance in his book Literature and Revolution, particularly in the chapters “Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art” and “Communist Policy toward Art”.
There was enormous freedom within the Bolshevik Party. Fundamental controversies like the Brest-Litovsk peace, the Red Army organization, the use of Tsarist officers, and the discussion on labor unions and the militarization of work were carried out publicly, in the party journal pages, often reaching a level of “democratist” exaggeration, criticized by Lenin.
The Defense of the Revolution
However, this regime faced an enormous contradiction: during the period from 1918 to 1921, the Bolshevik leaders were forced to place the defense of the Young Soviet republic above all. The survival of the Worker State was at risk before the Civil War, which combined the attack of the White Guards with the invasion of Russia by 14 foreign armies. The situation demanded harsh repression; in other words, authoritarian measures, against the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, and their agents. Trotsky defined very well the great task of the working class and the revolutionary party at that time when he said “The working class, which seized power in battle, had as its object and its duty to establish that power unshakeably, to guarantee its own supremacy beyond question, to destroy its enemies’ hankering for a new revolution, and thereby to make sure of carrying out Socialist reforms. Otherwise there would be no point in seizing power.”[i]
Trotsky explained the use of violence by the revolutionary proletariat due to the need to defend them the newly achieved power with all their forces and through all means. “The revolution “logically” does not demand terrorism. Just as “logically” it does not demand an armed insurrection. What a profound commonplace! But the revolution does require of the revolutionary class that it should attain its end by all methods at its disposal – if necessary, by an armed rising: if required, by terrorism. A revolutionary class which has conquered power with arms in its hands is bound to, and will, suppress, rifle in hand, all attempts to tear the power out of its hands. […]
In this sense, the Red Terror is not distinguishable from the armed insurrection, the direct continuation of which it represents. The State terror of a revolutionary class can be condemned “morally” only by a man who, as a principle, rejects (in words) every form of violence whatsoever – consequently, every war and every rising.”[ii]
Almost half a century before, Engels, speaking on authority, violence, and the Workers’ State, answered anarchists apparently foreseeing the situation that would surround the birth of the first Worker State in history: “But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough? Therefore, either one of two things: either the anti-authoritarians don’t know what they’re talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction.”[iii]
In a situation of Civil War and brutal economic crisis, the Bolsheviks were forced to prohibit the functioning of Soviet parties, like the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks. Leaders of both parties took part in counter-revolutionary governments. The most famous example is the participation of the SRs leaders in the government of the White General Kolchak, instated in Samara. The left Socialist-Revolutionaries, which had participated of the first Soviet government, carried out, in 1918, a coup attempt and a wave of attacks against the Bolsheviks – even a failed attempt to assassin Lenin, which wounded him.
Despite these openly counterrevolutionary attitudes, the measures taken by the Bolsheviks – end of freedom of press and of association – were limited. With comings and goings, these parties remained in activity even during the Civil War. The leaders of the Communist Party always defended the limit to freedom of association as provisional, justified barely by the need of defense of the Soviet Republic. Even more justified was the application of the same criteria when the internal fractions within the Bolshevik Party were prohibited.
Bolshevism and Stalinism: opposite poles
A question always emerges as framework of the supposed mistakes and authoritarian betrayals of the Bolsheviks: are Bolshevism and Stalinism two faces of one coin? Was the Stalinist bureaucratization process a natural consequence, or evolution, of Bolshevism?
The basic reasoning mistake behind these questions is to give a subjective factor, the Bolshevik Party, a superior, decisive role, capable of reverting objective processes in history. The bureaucratization process was an objective phenomenon, which directly depended on the development of class struggle. In this specific case, of the defeat of the world revolution and the resulting isolation of the Soviet Union, increased by the tremendous backwardness of the country and the wearing out of the masses with the Civil War. In other words, an opposite phenomenon to those that led the Bolsheviks to lead the proletariat to take power. Despite fighting against this, the Bolsheviks were unable to revert the objective course of class struggle; it could not have been different.
In controversy with those who saw Stalinism as the continuation of Bolshevism, Trotsky explained the contradiction of this conclusion: if Stalinism is the heir of Bolshevism, why did it have the need to physically annihilate all the old Bolshevik guard to consolidate its power? “The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood. The annihilation of all the older generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth that took up most seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism.”[iv]
Trotsky explained the “rivers of blood” that separated Bolshevism from Stalinism precisely due to the objective elements that motivated the appearance and development of both. Bolshevism reached office in the midst of a revolutionary wave in the end of World War I. This great force alone explains how the Red Army, formed from one day to the other, could win such an uneven war against the white armies, armed and supported by troops of imperialist countries.
Stalinism, on the contrary, was the result of a setback and defeat of the international revolution between 1919 and 1923, with particular emphasis on the defeat of the German revolution. This reflux was strengthened by Russia’s backwardness and the annihilation of great part of the working class, particularly the most valuable elements of the vanguard during the Civil War. Thus, Stalinism was the result and expression of the setback of the revolution and, at the same time, by consolidating as a bureaucracy, it was an agent of the counter-revolutionary wave that lasted from 1923 until the defeat of Nazism in World War II.
The irreconcilable character of Bolshevism and Stalinism was proven not just by the killer hatred that the Stalinist bureaucracy launched against all the “old Bolshevik guard” but also due to the resistance of the true Bolsheviks against the bureaucratization process. The first to fight against bureaucratization was Lenin. It was his last fight, interrupted by his death in 1924. The flag of the fight against the bureaucracy was taken by the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, which synthesized in the political transitional program, the fight for the political revolution, one of the founding bases of the Fourth International.
However, there are more specific doubts: for example, the prohibition of parties and internal fractions of the Bolshevik Party. Did this mistake facilitate the path to Stalinism?
Actually, there is a preceding question: what would have happened with the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Republic if the Bolsheviks did not take this measure and allow the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries to sabotage the defense of the revolution? One easily reaches the conclusion that the result of the Civil war would have been the crushing of the Workers’ State. But, even assuming the absurd hypothesis that the fifth column action of the traitor parties would have had no effect, the ascent of Stalinism would still not have been avoided.
Should the Bolsheviks not have taken these measures to avoid “facilitating” the ascent of a bureaucracy? This is a completely abstract discussion from the point of view of the outcome of a revolutionary process. If the Workers’ State were destroyed by the White Armies and the imperialist troops, or if it allowed agents of the counter-revolution to manipulate social dissatisfaction generated by hunger, economic crisis, and war, the revolution would have been crushed. The resulting new political regime would not have been a bureaucratic dictatorship but certainly, a bourgeois dictatorship, either fascist or semi-fascist.
The measures taken by the Bolsheviks were indispensable for the defense of the revolution, in the specific situation of isolation of the Soviet State and the backwardness of the country. More than once, its leaders explained that, under different circumstances, those measures would not have existed or would have had a short life. In the 1930s, Trotsky defended again the need to end freedom of association for Soviet parties at some point, but he also pointed out objective reasons that led to it and other resolutions, and their inherent dangers: “As far as the prohibition of other Soviet parties is concerned, it did not flow from any “theory” of Bolshevism but was a measure of defence of the dictatorship on a backward and devastated country, surrounded by enemies on all sides. For the Bolsheviks it was clear from the beginning that this measure, later completed by the prohibition of factions inside the governing party itself, signalised a tremendous danger. However, the root of the danger lay not in the doctrine or the tactics but in the material weakness of the dictatorship, ion the difficulties of its internal and international situation. If the revolution had triumphed, even if only in Germany, the need of prohibiting the other Soviet parties would have immediately fallen away. It is absolutely indisputable that the domination of a single party served as the juridical point of departure for the Stalinist totalitarian regime. The reason for this development lies neither in Bolshevism nor in the prohibition of other parties as a temporary war measure, but in the number of defeats of the proletariat in Europe and Asia.”[v]
On the same subject, Trotsky stated the hypothesis, contemplated by him and Lenin, of political alternatives for anarchists, showing what would be the stand of the Bolsheviks in different situations to those imposed by war and economic destruction: “In the heroic epoch of the revolution the Bolsheviks went hand in hand with genuinely revolutionary anarchists. Many of them were drawn into the ranks of the party. The author of these lines discussed with Lenin more then once the possibility of allotting the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. But civil war, blockade and hunger left no room for such plans.”[vi]
Through the Perspective of World Socialist Revolution
However, it is necessary to highlight, mainly, that the Bolsheviks adopted all the measures to defend the Russian Revolution with their eyes set on the development of international class struggle, especially the German revolution. In other words, expecting that the international revolution would take Russia from isolation and allow the return of the Soviet regime to “normal” and not of exception. They never thought it would be desirable, or even possible, any type of “socialist” development in a single country.
Furthermore, their prognostic was that without a victory, more or less immediate, of the proletariat in advanced capitalist countries, the Russian Revolution would not survive. Lenin defined the role of the working class in power as “Having conquered the power, the proletariat of Russia has every chance of holding it and bringing Russia through to the victorious revolution in the west.”[vii] In the second Soviet Congress, regarding seizing power, Trotsky spoke in the same sense: “If the revolting peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed – that is indubitable. Either the Russian
revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution.”[viii]
In other words, the Bolsheviks defended a Soviet power waiting for the international revolution to allow correcting the problems, even bureaucratization, brought on by isolation, backwardness, and civil war. They never thought it possible to overcome this backwardness within national frontiers.
So, the Bolsheviks’ errors, both the real ones and the supposed ones, did not facilitate nor contributed for the bureaucratization process. It depended on the objective development of national and mainly international class struggle. The subjective role of the party, decisive in a revolutionary crisis to lead the working class to seize power, became just one more element in the immediate objective reality, incapable of determining the course of events when the wave of class struggles turns into defeats of the proletariat and reflux of the mass revolutionary movement.
The previous conclusions lead to another one: both in the period of revolutionary ascent and of resistance to Stalinism, Bolshevism proved to be the Marxism in this time of crisis, wars, and revolutions. Trotsky’s words continue to be valid today: “Marxism found its highest historic expression in Bolshevism. Under the Bolshevik flag, the first proletarian victory took place and the first Worker State was established.”
A hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution. A century marked by enormous victories and defeats. Today, the vanguard of the proletariat faces the challenge of lifting up the Bolshevik flag and fighting to advance once again and beyond the doors opened by the October 1917 Revolution. The world socialist revolution, the reason of Bolshevism and the Third International built by them, continues to be the greatest task. Thus, Bolshevism continues to be the Marxism of our times.
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.
[i] Trotsky, L. Terrorism and Communism. In:https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch04.htm
[ii] Trotsky, L. Terrorism and Communism. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch04.htm
[iii] Engels, F. On Authority. Article written during January and February of 1873, published in Almanacco Repubblicano. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm
[iv] Trotsky, L. Stalinism and Bolshevism. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm
[v] Trotsky, L. Stalinism and Bolshevism. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm
[vi] Trotsky, L. Stalinism and Bolshevism. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm
[vii] Trotsky, L. History of the Russian Revolution. Volume 3. In: https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/trotsky/history-of-the-russian-revolution/ebook-history-of-the-russian-revolution-v3.pdf
[viii] Trotsky, L. History of the Russian Revolution. Volume 3. In: https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/trotsky/history-of-the-russian-revolution/ebook-history-of-the-russian-revolution-v3.pdf