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The revolution was defeated – but it didn’t have to be

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Issue 2578
Invading imperial armies parading through Vladiwostok in 1918
Invading imperial armies parading through Vladiwostok in 1918

Within a decade of the revolution a regime was taking shape in Russia that pushed back everything revolutionaries had fought for.

The dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, built on oppression and exploitation, was socialist in name only.

Some use this to discredit the whole revolution—and all revolutions. In the wake of Stalin’s counter-revolution it can seem that all those who overthrow tyranny become tyrants themselves.

But the defeat of the revolution wasn’t inevitable. It was caused by real problems in society that the revolution had to fight to overcome, not by human nature.

The Soviet regime inherited a collapsing economy.

Bosses closed down factories rather than let workers run them. Foreign powers imposed a total economic blockade.

The First World War had already killed millions when the revolution ended it.

Then the remnants of the old regime regrouped to wage brutal civil war.


Western powers funded and armed them. Some including Britain even invaded.

The new regime owed its survival to the immense support from workers and peasants. But its victory presented new challenges.

The war left the working class much weaker than it had been in 1917.

Industries collapsed, scattering their workers. Machines were torn up for war supplies—or used simply to barter with peasants for food.

When rebuilding began it was largely with new workers from the peasantry.

Many experienced worker-activists who had led in the revolution were killed in the war.

Peasants who had won land from the revolution now wanted to make money from it or they faced starvation. The Bolsheviks had to let them to avoid a famine, restoring an element of capitalism.

The basis for Soviet rule no longer existed. A growing bureaucracy, which first grew out of the need to hold the new society together, began to replace workers’ control and take hold of the state.

Stalin represented that bureaucracy. Some revolutionaries, led by Leon Trotsky, waged fierce arguments inside the Bolsheviks against the direction that Stalin was taking the party.

Stalin wiped out those he couldn’t convert. “Old Bolsheviks” were jailed, exiled and slaughtered. Trotsky rightly wrote that Bolshevism and Stalinism were separated by “a whole river of blood”.


The working class had been a small minority in largely underdeveloped Russia, and the Bolsheviks knew it wasn’t strong enough to build socialism alone.

But capitalism is a global system, with global crises and world wars.

Revolt was springing up all over Europe in 1917. If the revolution had spread to countries with big working classes its outcome could have been very different.

Lenin recognised “the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.”

It almost happened.

Revolt in 1918 took Germany out of the war.

Soviet rule was briefly declared in Bavaria and Hungary. A tsunami of factory occupations swept Italy.

Revolts were starting to stir further west.

None of this brought workers’ rule. Without other revolutionary parties like the Bolsheviks, reformist leaders regained the upper hand.

Isolated in a global capitalist system, by 1928 Russia had fallen back into a different type of capitalism—state capitalism.

Today the working class is a majority not just in the most advanced countries but in most of the world.

Crises and revolts can spread even faster.

Look how rapidly the Tunisian revolution sparked uprisings across the Middle East.

Then the occupation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square spawned imitators in the US, the Spanish state and Greece.

The Russian Revolution’s eventual failure doesn’t prove that winning is impossible. Its initial success lit the way for us to go further.

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