On 1917, the day after the triumph of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, its main leader, began his speech in the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets with the following words:
“Let’s now begin the edification of the Socialist order.”
By Martín Hernández.
Seventy years later, in 1987, there was nothing left of that “socialist order.” The bourgeoisie had recovered power, and with it, capitalism began its restoration.
This reality caused, and continues to cause –as it could not be different- huge doubts among the worldwide left because the facts seemed to prove the failure of socialism, or at least of the road taken by our leaders to get there.
I. Socialism’s right to victory
Marxist elaborate our opinions from analysis of the reality. It could not be different in this case. Restoration of capitalism in Russia and all former Workers’ States forces us to take some conclusions, but to do so it is necessary to carefully study what really happened in Russia, the nest of the most important socialist revolution in History.
The Russian Revolution initiated the path towards socialism. This is a fact. But that path did not end in socialism. This is also a fact. However, it is not enough to point out the facts, we need to explain them. Why didn’t that path take to socialism? Was it because it was incorrect or because it was the right path but it was interrupted?
These two questions are decisive, not only to understand the past but to act facing the future. If it was an incorrect path, the ones that aspire to achieve socialism are forced to look for new ways. Otherwise, if the path was the correct one and was interrupted, we need to remove the obstacles to resume it.
Socialism, and old ideal
It is often considered that the idea of a socialist or communist society (even though they are different, in the popular imaginary they are the same) comes from Marx and Engels. But this is not true.
The ideal is really old. Plato, in 380 b. C. already talked about it in his work The Republic. Furthermore, Plato was possibly the first one to talk about a “communist” society.
Also, the idea of communism grew among the first Christians and had, along hundreds of years, different formulations and expressions, like Thomas More’s, who wrote, in his book Utopia, in 1516: “it appears to me that wherever you have private property and all men measure all things by cash values, there it is scarcely possible for a commonwealth to have justice or prosperity”.
However, as clearly socialist opinion current (it is important to mention that Plato defended “communism” with slavery, for example), the most developed one was probably at the ends of the XVIII and beginning of XIX Centuries, by the so-called “utopian socialists”: Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Etienne Cabert, Pierre Leroux, and the main diffuser, Victor de Considerant.
These authors, most of them of high-classes, built a powerful current of opinion that, born in Europe, expanded to other continents. And so, in Latin America and specifically in Argentina, it won space among intellectuality. Its maximum figure was Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851), author of the book Socialist Dogma.
Utopian Socialists believed that their ideas on an equalitarian society, by being really beautiful (and they were) would end up being accepted by the society, not only the exploited one but also the exploiters. This is where the utopian nature relied on.
Therefore, Marx and Engels’ role was not to elaborate a theory on a socialist necessity but to explain scientifically the reason of such necessity and how to achieve it.
From a deep study of the capitalist society, Marx and Engels concluded that capitalism, in an irreversible process, had become a growing obstacle for the development of humanity, and that only the working class, seizing power, destroying the capitalist state, and building its own, could free humanity as a whole of the obstacles imposed by capitalism. Like this, the road towards socialism as the first step of a communist society was mapped.
Marx and Engels’ project proved victorious in the field of ideas, as shown when the best of the working class and many honest intellectuals built, based on their ideas, the Second International, that gathered hundreds of thousands of militants across the world.
But neither Marx nor Engels could see their ideas materialized. This task was left to the Bolshevik Party.
The question of the working class’ power
The Russian working class, led by the Bolshevik Party faced the challenge of testing Marx and Engels’ ideas in practice.
The Paris Commune had already shown when Marx and Engels were still alive, that workers could seize power. But they could not keep it: after two months, the Communers were massacred by the bourgeoisie.
Could the Bolsheviks, leading the working class, surpass the experience of the Paris Commune and stay in power? This was the first challenge, and it was not an easy one.
The bourgeoisie thought the Bolsheviks could not comply. Thus, the bourgeois press questioned, in October 1917, “How many days will the Bolsheviks stay in power?” And a great part of the Bolshevik leadership wondered the same thing. John Reed, in his famous book on the Russian Revolution, 10 Days that Shook the World, presents testimony on this:
“Excepting Trotsky and Lenin, and the Petrograd workers and soldiers, no one believed the Bolsheviks would stay in power for more than three days.”
However, days, weeks, and months passed by, and the Bolsheviks, leading the working class, were still in power.
From this, the Russian and worldwide bourgeoisie stopped questioning to pass to direct action, aiming to repeat the experience (massacre) of the Paris Commune. They couldn’t, though.
Fourteen armies invaded Russia with this goal. And later they allied to Russian capitalists to carry out a civil war.
To defend itself, the new State was forced to build an army, and it faced a major problem when doing so: there were no Generals, Colonels, or any type of military specialist in the Bolshevik Party. How to build an army capable of defeating the enemies, then? Who should face this task?
The Bolshevik Party named a political leader for this, Leon Trotsky, who had never used a gun in his life. To build an army seemed like an impossible task; to win the war, much more. However, even if miracles per se do not exist, a revolution led by the working class can do “miracles.” Trotsky organized the Red Army with over 5 million people, became one of the top military specialists in the world, and took the army to victory.
The second and great challenge
With the victory in civil war, the working class with its revolutionary leadership surpassed the experience of the Paris Commune, what showed that Marx and Engels were right: the working class could handle power. Nevertheless, as important as this challenge was, it was not the biggest one. The biggest challenge was to know if the working class could manage the State without the bourgeoisie because this had never happened before. And, most importantly, to know if the working class, heading the State, would be able to carry out what the bourgeoisie had proved incapable of: a superior development of economy and culture. The working class, from the seizure of power, did it.
A short time after the triumph of the revolution, some numbers surprised. Before the revolution, there were, in Russia, 32,000 schools and 10,000 libraries. A year and a half later, there were 60,000 schools and 100,000 libraries.
Russia, a highly backward country, with 80% of peasant population and 78% illiteracy, became, in a few decades, a power. Like this, the country of illiteracy would become one of the few countries in the world with no illiterates – and it is worth to mention that there were 147 different languages in the territory, many of which were oral.
The country that before the triumph of the revolution had 80% peasants occupied the second place regarding industrial production, just after the United States. Also, it became the first oil, steel, cement, and tractors producer in the world.
Russia, the country of the illiterate masses, achieved, in the field of culture, merits that no capitalist country had achieved (not even until now). In Moscow, there were near 300 lyrical theatres, many of which opened in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
In the Universities, students received a salary to study, while workers that wanted to study had a work-shift subjected to their study hours, and between a weekend and a month of paid study-leave to prepare for tests.
It is important to highlight that all these achievements took place in a country that suffered as no other, in 30 years, the consequences of three devastating wars: the WWI, the Civil War, and the WWII.
No other country in the world suffered the consequences of the wars so much. To compare, the United States, which participated in the WWI, the invasion of Russia, and the WWII, had 600,000 death in total. Russia, in those three wars, had at least 40 million deaths.
Each one of those wars caused a complete devastation. During the Civil War, 4 million people died, and as a consequence of it, 7 million more died from diseases, hunger, and cold. Such was the level of destruction caused by the capitalist attempt of burying the new State that, during those years, cannibalism became a relatively common practice. Hundreds of thousands of children and youth wandered the streets, and many of them organized to attack the people, kill them, and eat them. It was also normal for mothers to tie their babies so they would not bite each other due to hunger.
But the WWII largely overcome the horrors of WWI and the Civil War. Only in the first six months, since Hitler’s surprise attack, 2 and a half million Russian died, and only in the Stalingrad battle, 1 more million. During the WWII as a whole, at least 26 million Russian people died.
How can such a backward country, mostly peasant, with 80% illiteracy, achieve such an economic and cultural growth in less than 20 years?
It seemed like a miracle, but it was not. The “miracle” was explained by Trotsky in 1936, in his work The Revolution Betrayed:
“The bourgeois world at first tried to pretend not to notice the economic successes of the Soviet regime—the experimental proof, that is, of the practicability of socialist methods.”
And then he adds, in the same book:
“Gigantic achievement in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the numbers of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands—such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface—not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of leadership, were to collapse—which we firmly hope will not happen—there would remain an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than 10 years successes unexampled in history.”
The facts: the amazing growth of economy and culture seemed to indicate that Russia was walking towards Socialism as a previous step to Communism, in which, by Marx, each individual will produce according to its capacity and receive according to its necessity. So, a society in which all human needs can be satisfied.
Logically, Russia could not achieve Socialism and even less Communism if the revolution did not triumph in the rest of the world, specifically in the most advanced countries. To think of a Communist society in the frame of a world economy dominated by imperialism does not fit in any Marxist’s head.
So the Bolsheviks, aware of this, opened two ways following the same goal: the victory of Socialism. On one side, they seized the power in Russia, and on the other, they used such victory to develop the international revolution by organizing the construction of the III International, the Socialist Revolution World Party.
Bolsheviks, following the tradition of Marx and Engels, headed the foundation of the world organization in midst of the Civil War.
Between 1919 and 1922, the Third International carried out an annual World Congress, which lasted about a month, each. The most important matters of the world revolution, like the situation and policies for each country, were discussed.
Documentaries of the time show the delegates in standing ovation to Lenin and Trotsky, who paused their tasks in the State and Red Army respectively to participate actively in the Congresses. These films also show that the Congresses of the Third were the most important event in the country. Parades and massive events were organized to celebrate the opening of a new Congress. And it is important to mention that the speakers of those events were not the Russian leaders but the delegates of the different countries.
On one side, the seizure of power by the working class, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, the monopoly of foreign trade, the centralized planned economy, and the construction of the Third International on the other, were the road taken by the Bolsheviks to march towards Socialism.
Yet, the road initiated by the Russian Revolution was abruptly interrupted by Stalinism.
II. Stalinism interrupted the road to Socialism
The backwardness of the Russian masses, mostly peasants; the nearly entire disappearance of the working class during the Civil War; the tiredness of the masses as a product of such war; the defeat of the German Revolution, and the reflux of mobilization strengthen the conservative spirit of the masses, and so gave a base for the most bureaucratic and conservatives sectors of the Bolshevik Party and the State to strengthen as well. Lenin’s disease and death potentiated this process.
During Lenin’s life, because of the reasons already mentioned, there already was a bureaucracy in the State and bureaucratic deviation inside the Bolshevik Party. But Lenin, through his high prestige and, warned about and fought this since 1919. His premature death meant not only a qualitative reduction of this fight as it also opened the way for the bureaucracy to take the power.
The most mediocre leader of the Bolshevik Party emerged to the head of this process, Stalin, who had played a secondary role during the revolution but had a central role in deepening the setbacks and defeats, as well as in the bureaucratization process of the State and the Party.
In 1923 already (when Lenin was prostrate due to his serious illness,) Stalin elaborated a justifying theory, relying on the tiredness and demobilization of the masses. He called it “Socialism in one country,” and it was complemented with the policy of “pacific coexistence with imperialism.”
To the tired masses, he said: let’s stop fighting. The world revolution is not necessary to achieve socialism We can build socialism on our own, in our country. To do so, it is enough to have an agreement with imperialist powers. Let’s pacifically coexists with them.
This orientation took Stalin not only to leave aside the struggle for the triumph of the international revolution but also to sign agreements with the most important imperialist countries to avoid it.
The first one was with Hitler’s Germany. A non-aggression pact and division of areas of influence, through which Stalin compromised not to do anything before the future invasion of Hitler to Poland to occupy half of its territory. In compensation, Hitler would allow Stalin to occupy the other half.
Then, when Hitler broke the pact and invaded the USSR, Stalin was forced to enter the WWII allied to the United States and England. This alliance ended in a new pact of Stalin with his new allies, of the same counter-revolutionary nature of the one signed with Hitler: pacific coexistence and division of areas of influence.
As part of this agreement, by recommendation of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Stalin dissolves the III International, and betrays the revolution in France, Italy, and Greece, to protect pacific coexistence with imperialism.
The victory of terror
This Stalin policy, which began in 1923, was favored by the demobilization and tiredness of the Russian Masses, but it found a great resistance among the Bolshevik Party. Yet, Stalin won that war. Not in the field of ideas but through terror.
The opposition to Stalin, most of which had a main role in the October Revolution and the Civil War, were smeared, then separated from responsibility positions, and from there expelled from the Party, imprisoned, and finally shot. This is how Stalinism was imposed in Russia and the former USSR.
What happened in the USSR during the 30s was the triumph of a true counter-revolution.
From counter-revolution to restoration
When talking about Russia, it is often said: from socialist revolution to capitalist restoration. The correct thing would be to say, from Stalinist counter-revolution to capitalist restoration. Because it is the triumph of the counter-revolution that the interrupted the road towards socialism and began a new road, now of return to capitalism – although during those years it did not look like so in appearance.
During the 30s, despite all the counter-revolutionary deeds of Stalin, economy, and culture continued to grow, up to the point that Stalin declared that Russia and the USSR were already Socialists and were walking towards Communism. The reality, though, was quite different.
The policy of Stalin of collaborating with imperialist powers left the USSR more and more isolated in the frame of a world economy dominated by the latest.
In this regard, if the USSR continued to grow, it was not because of Stalin’s policy but in spite of it. It continued to grow because the boost to the economy by the main economic measures taken from the October Revolution was still on. This reality would not last further due to the bureaucratic Stalinist management of the State.
This is why Trotsky, while acknowledging the spectacular growth, stated, in 1938:
“The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”
Stalin’s agreements with imperialism would have a high cost to the USSR.
In 1941, the USSR was closed to be destroyed when Hitler, unilaterally, broke the pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR.
After WWII, there were plans by the US to do the same, but the relationship of forces impeded it. Still, this did not make thing easier for the USSR.
On one side, the technological backwardness (regarding the most advanced countries,) and on the other, the bureaucratic leadership, caused the economic growth to decrease by the end of the 50s. The economy continued to grow but at a quite slower pace.
Between 1963 and 1968, in the entire European East, deep reforms were implemented to try to overcome the situation. These reforms, which on one side aimed to update the management, and on the other to increase foreign trade to bring in new technologies, ended up in a major failure. Not only for the USSR but for the East European countries as a whole, which entered a lethal economic crisis.
On one side, the bureaucracy itself, by trying to implement the new management plans, also resisted them, because its own interests were affected. They were all in favor of those plans as long as they were not implemented in their own sector. On the other side, the increase of foreign trade (in a period known as the East-West Commerce Golden Age) ended in a brutal crisis, because it was an uneven trade – just like the one of imperialism with all its colonies.
The following stage of the bureaucratic leadership was to solve the crisis through imperialist loans. Like this, the East European economies were tied to the foreign debt with imperialism, what brought them to a terminal crisis.
The ruling bureaucracy, guilty of isolating the USSR with its policy of pacific coexistence with imperialism, charged the crisis upon the workers’ shoulders. Some numbers show this clearly: in the USSR, education used 10% of the national income in the 50s, and only 6% by the beginning of the 80s. Furthermore: life expectancy, which back then was increasing all over the world, in the USSR was decreasing brutally: in 1972 it was 70 years; by the beginning of the 80s, it had fallen to 60.
Like this, the Stalinist parody of “socialism in one country,” which was nothing but “long live imperialism,” got to an end.
The USSR and other workers’ states had only one alternative to end the terminal economic crisis that imperialism had imposed on them: to appeal to the world revolution. But they were not willing to go down that road. The chose to be junior partners of imperialism, and so they did. Hand on hand with their bosses, they restored capitalism in all those states.
Like this, the leading bureaucracy took Stalin’s policy all the way to the end, becoming the gravediggers of the few achievements left of the glorious October Revolution.
III. New roads toward Socialism?
In the name of an alleged “realism,” there are those who say that Socialism failed because it was Marx and Engels’ utopia. There are also those who affirm that it was no utopia, but we need to find “new roads to socialism” because what failed is the one taken by the Bolsheviks. Both ideas are wrong.
What utopia are we talking about when, through socialist methods, a backward country like Russia became a world power in economy and culture in less than 20 years?
Why think of new roads to socialism if the one taken by Bolsheviks (Marx and Engels’) allowed those first and triumphant steps towards socialism?
Socialism and Communism are not a utopia. Facts have proved that. What is utopic is to think that capitalism can free the human kind of hunger, exploitation, oppression, and destruction of nature.
It is not about finding new roads. Stalinism found a new road: to achieve socialism on the base of international agreements with imperialism, and in each country on the base of class conciliation governments, the popular fronts.
It is about resuming Marx and Engels’ road, the one materialized by Bolsheviks and interrupted by Stalinism. It is about removing the obstacles in the way that made possible to restore capitalism instead of moving forward towards socialism.
By defeating the Stalinist apparatus internationally (or at least give a death blow,) the East European masses remove a great part of such obstacle. Now we need to complete this task by removing from the workers’ vanguard’s consciousness the ideas impregnated by the putrid Stalinist apparatus, alive in the programs of all those who now talk about new roads in the name of “realism.”
It is about killing the idea that socialism can be achieved through conciliation with the bourgeoisie; without workers’ democracy; or without the world revolutionary party.
Marx and Engels’ road, the Bolsheviks’ road, the road of the first years of the III International, is the one that poses a possibility of victory. The Stalinist road, until nowadays adopted by old and new reformists, is the road to failure; of more and new tragedies. It is necessary to study the Russian Revolution. Furthermore: it is necessary to learn from the Russian Revolution.
Originally published in Marxism Alive – New Epoch n. 10, September 2017.
Translation: Sofía Ballack.
 Quote in English in http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/iemls/work/chapters/utop-chp.html.
 Our translation. Lenin recommended this book for thinking it showed “an exact and highly alive picture of events.”
 See Wendy Z. Goldman’s study: “Women, State, and the Revolution.”
 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/index.htm.
 Leon Trotsky, Transitional Program, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/transprogram.pdf