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Doesn’t Russia show socialism won’t work?

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Charlie Kimber on how the revolution was lost
Issue 1802

IN THE past people selling Socialist Worker would sometimes be told, ‘Get back to Russia.’ Today it would be more appropriate to turn this taunt on vendors of the Financial Times as Russia’s suffering shows the horrors of market capitalism. But it is still important for revolutionaries to understand what happened in Russia. How could the revolutionary hope of 1917 to be turned into dictatorship by 1930?

Russia under Stalin was the result not of the revolution but of the defeat of that revolution. The essence of the revolution was the idea of workers’ power, of ordinary people making all the crucial decisions in society democratically. The workers’ councils or soviets were the mechanism for that debate to take place and then to implement the decisions taken.

The revolution and the soviets depended on having a working class with a high degree of political consciousness and activity. In 1917 the Russian working class had these in abundance. But workers’ strength was shattered in the years after revolution.

This was not inevitable, the result of some ‘natural law’ that revolutions fail. It was because of the economic, social and political conditions of the time. As soon as workers smashed the old ruling class the other great powers unleashed war.

Britain, France and the other ‘democratic’ imperialist powers were horrified that people had done away with tyranny and rule by bosses and landlords. They were scared that hundreds of millions of other workers and peasants-including many among their own populations-would be inspired to copy the Russian experience. They sent troops to invade Russia and also backed the brutal anti-Semitic ‘White Russian’ forces which were fighting against the revolution. The civil war, which lasted from 1918 to 1921, claimed the lives of a huge proportion of the most politically advanced workers.

The war also utterly devastated the Russian economy. Most railways, locomotives and rolling stock were destroyed during the fighting. Sources of raw materials such as oil and cotton were cut off for long periods when the supply regions were seized or blockaded by the White Russians and their imperialist allies.

By 1920 industrial production had fallen to about 18 percent of what it had been in the year before the revolution. The number of workers employed fell from about three million to 1.25 million.

They had to resort to direct barter with peasants, exchanging their products or even parts of their machines for food. In the spring of 1919 three quarters of the workers of Petrograd, the city that had been the flower of the revolution, bought their bread on the black market. It was common for workers to stay away from the factories in order to forage in the countryside.

In the absence of an active working class the Bolsheviks, who had led the working class to victory, were forced to rely more and more on officials from the old regime to administer the country. This increased the pressure towards a bureaucracy ruling in what it decided were people’s interests rather than the people ruling themselves. The individual who personified this development was Joseph Stalin. The only thing that could have prevented the rise of the bureaucracy was international revolution.

If the revolution had spread from Russia to other European countries (as it nearly did in 1918-19) the civil war would have been won before the working class was torn apart. It would have brought material and political aid to poverty-stricken Russia and so strengthened the workers.

Instead after 1923 the bureaucracy turned its back on international revolution. It was concerned with shoring up and developing its own power, not spreading workers’ power.

This led to Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’, an idea which none of the revolutionary leaders of 1917 had considered possible. The revolutionary leader Lenin devoted the last months of his life, when he was incapacitated by illness, to a struggle against the bureaucracy and Stalin. Almost all the leading Bolsheviks made some attempt to block the path of counter-revolution. Trotsky remained its uncompromising opponent.

But the social conditions of the 1920s, the hardship and sense of isolation, favoured the bureaucracy. By the end of the 1920s all effective opposition had been eliminated and all workers’ rights were removed.

Stalin triumphed by eliminating all the ‘old Bolsheviks’ and murdering the entire revolutionary leadership that had headed the 1917 revolution. Once firmly in power Stalin set about strengthening the Russian state in competition with the West.

Stalinism does not prove that socialism cannot work. It is one of the strongest arguments for socialism from below.

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