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How was the Russian Revolution defeated?

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Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1896

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was greeted across the world with enormous popular enthusiasm. In the midst of the bloody slaughter of the First World War the workers’ and soldiers’ councils had taken control of the country. The new soviet government took Russia out of the war, instituting far-reaching reforms. Factory committees took over enterprises. The peasants won the land. Legislation gave women the most advanced freedoms anywhere in the world.

The new government called on workers and oppressed peoples all across the world to join their revolution. No genuine socialist could fail to support this brilliant endeavour.

From the beginning, however, the infant socialist regime faced immense problems. The White armies launched a brutal civil war, backed by every major capitalist government. Russia had lost more soldiers in the First World War than any other power. Now, in the civil war, the death toll was even higher. Poverty stalked the land. Five million people died of typhus.

The very working class that had led the 1917 revolution was decimated, as Russia’s cities depopulated. Many of the best and most committed working class activists died defending their revolution, leaving others to run the new social organisations.

In the very process of winning the civil war, the regime was inwardly corrupted. Bossing replaced popular democracy in more and more spheres of life. Surveying the scene in 1920, Lenin, who was brutally honest, said, ‘Ours is a workers’ and peasants’ state suffering from serious bureaucratic degeneration.’

If the revolution did not spread, Lenin and his comrades repeated again and again, they would be defeated. Russia’s revolution remained isolated. Within Russia the ‘bureaucratic degeneration’ Lenin had described deepened. In the mid-1920s Stalin, who was by then the ruling party leader, abandoned the Bolsheviks’ previous internationalism. Now, he declared, ‘socialism in one country’ was possible and desirable.

Until the late 1920s Lenin’s description fitted Russia more and more precisely. But at the end of the 1920s Stalin set an entirely new course. It was necessary, he declared, for Russia to ‘catch up and overtake’ the major capitalist countries.

The new policy was enshrined in the Five Year Plans. This programme of crash industrialisation involved a ferocious assault on the people’s conditions. Where real wages had risen during the 1920s, now they were slashed. Where the peasants had won the land in 1917, now forced collectivisation of agriculture meant it was seized back from them. Egalitarianism was officially declared an anti-socialist policy.

In the name of ‘socialist construction’, Stalin led a counter-revolution from above. Every remnant of the popular democracy of 1917 was systematically expunged. Forced labour camps were set up, with millions of slave workers. In the purges of the 1930s Stalin’s political police arrested and murdered every significant communist who represented the real memory of 1917.

Tragically, many communists and even Labour Party members around the world believed Stalin’s lies, defending the disastrous conditions in Russia as socialism.

On the left, those who opposed Stalin struggled to make sense of what was happening. Stalin’s most prominent opponent, Leon Trotsky, still held on to Lenin’s 1920 formula, calling Russia a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. For Trotsky, the existence of state-owned property meant Russia retained something socialist, even if in a highly perverted form. Trotsky denied a new ruling class had emerged in Russia.

Others, like the American Max Shachtman, allowed that Stalin’s Russia was a society resting on class exploitation, but could not explain Stalin’s drive to industrialise, or the stress on heavy industry and armaments at the expense of popular consumption.

The problems were compounded in the wake of the Second World War. Now Stalin expanded his control across Eastern Europe, putting his own stooges in charge of brutal copies of his own regime. Were these workers’ states? If so, that would mean socialism no longer needed workers’ revolution.

In the late 1940s Tony Cliff finally offered the best Marxist theory of Russia and of its East European satellites. Stalin’s Russia, he insisted, was in no sense a workers’ state, not even a degenerated form.

The fact of state property in no way made it socialist-any more than nationalised industries did in Britain, like the Coal Board that fought the miners in 1984. Capitalism could involve state property, as Marx and Engels had argued in the 19th century.

In subordinating Russian society to the imperative of ‘catch up and overtake’, Stalin had followed a specifically capitalist path. Stalin’s Russia was clearly a class society, where intense exploitation of the working class provided the means for the rapid economic growth in the 1930s.

But capitalism involves not just class exploitation, but also competition. It was impossible to make sense of Russia ‘on its own’. It was part of a competitive world economy.

The main mechanism of competition in Russia came in the shape of military competition. That was why guns and not butter were the priority in economic growth.

As part of world capitalism, Russia and its satellites also experienced economic crises. These lay behind the huge revolts that occurred in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia from the 1950s. Finally the whole edifice of Stalinism was brought down in 1989-91, often with huge popular revolutions. From the whole tragic experience two things stand out. First, socialism must be international, or it will be destroyed from within and without. Second, socialism and the most widespread democracy are indissolubly linked.

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