Socialist Worker

Do revolutions always have to end in tyranny?

Issue No. 1671

'SOCIETY MAY be in a mess, but a revolution would produce a new tyranny.' That is one of the most common objections to the idea of revolution. Defenders of capitalism said the monstrous societies of Eastern Europe and Russia which collapsed in 1989 were the inevitable result of workers' revolution.

But those whose privileges would be threatened by mass uprisings have always claimed that revolutions lead to tyranny. For example, they claim the English Revolution of the 17th century led only to the establishment of a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. But, by any measure, society in England was freer in the decades after the revolution than it was before. A host of feudal restrictions were swept away. There were the beginnings of parliamentary democracy.

The same is true of the French Revolution of 1789. Before it the aristocracy, monarchy and church dominated society. Nineteenth century France, however, saw greater freedom, the growth of political organisation among workers and the poor, and the spread of forward looking ideas. But the revolutions were led by people who wanted to replace one exploiting class, the landed aristocracy, with another, the capitalists.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was different. Capitalism had already permeated Russia even though most people still lived on the land. The working class led the revolution, drawing the peasantry in behind them. Mass strikes, mutinies and demonstrations broke out in February 1917. This first revolution overthrew the Tsar, whose royal family had ruled for centuries. It ushered in a provisional government that hoped to continue Russia's participation in the First World War, prevent peasants from seizing the land and shore up the capitalists' power.

But the February Revolution also threw up mass organisations of workers. These workers' councils (soviets in Russian) were made up of delegates from workplaces. They pointed to a new way of running society - through collective and democratically organised workers' power. The party which stood for workers taking power, the Bolsheviks, progressively won a majority in the soviets.

The Bolsheviks were able to lead a second revolution in October 1917 which shattered the old state machine and put the soviets in power. It was the most democratic act in history. Delegates to the workers' councils were instantly recallable. If they did not represent the views of those who elected them, they could be removed. There was an enormous explosion of popular organisation in all areas of life. There were new freedoms for women and Jews, who had faced the most appalling oppression under Tsarism.

The revolution offered the greatest hope to humanity. It not only offered workers' control of their lives but an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation. But Russia was an isolated and backward country. As the revolution's two great leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, argued, it was impossible to create an island of socialism in a hostile capitalist world.

The Russian Revolution did spark a wave of revolutionary upsurges across Europe. In Germany the equivalent of the Tsar was overthrown in November 1918. But there nowhere existed a working class party like the Bolsheviks which was influential enough and understood the need for workers themselves to run society. The capitalist rulers held on, crushed workers' opposition and encircled the fledgling workers' state in Russia.

It was under those conditions that Stalin was able to seize power. His rise was not a continuation of the Russian Revolution. It was a counter-revolution that butchered the old Bolshevik leaders of 1917. The failure of the Russian Revolution to spread across Europe, particularly to Germany, sowed the seeds for counter-revolution. Many of the movements which fought for revolution were crushed using the most tyrannical methods. It is not workers' revolution that brings tyranny, but the defeat of revolution and the continuation of capitalist power.

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Sat 6 Nov 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1671
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