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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




Russian Revolution? What Revolution?

By Alan Johnstone

03 February, 2015

The orthodox Marxist view is socialism could not be established in backward, isolated Russian conditions where the majority neither understood nor desired socialism. The takeover of political power by the Bolsheviks obliged them to adapt their programme to those undeveloped conditions and make continual concessions to the capitalist conditions around them. In the absence of world socialist revolution there was only one road forward for semi-feudal Russia, the capitalist road, and it was the role of the Bolsheviks to develop industry through state ownership and the forced accumulation of capital. A number of classic Marxists have described the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks, finding Russia in a very backward condition, were obliged to do what had not been fully done previously, i.e. develop capitalism and they proceeded to perform the task of setting Russian capitalism on its feet.

We can understand Leninism more by accepting that they made choices that other Marxists were not prepared to make. It’s clear that there were forks in the road and choices to be made and different roads to travel down. Some will defend the turnings that Lenin took, but just where did the destination eventually end up? The essence of the debate is simple did the Bolsheviks desire the working class to control its own destiny or did it simply use the working class as stepping stones to political power and a totally different agenda from one of workers self-management?

Lenin found himself in the position of having to preside over -- and, in fact, to organise -- the accumulation of capital. But, as capital is accumulated out of surplus value and surplus value is obtained by exploiting wage-labour, this inevitably brought them into conflict with the workers who, equally inevitably, sought to limit their exploitation. Lenin justified opposing and suppressing these workers' struggles on the ground that the Bolsheviks represented the longer-term interests of the workers. The course of history has answered and it is a negative. The Marxist fact is that no force can cut short the natural development of society until it is ready for change. Lenin never really advanced much beyond the idea of self-appointed liberators leading the mass of ignorant people to freedom. He remained, in his theory as well as his practice, essentially a bourgeois revolutionary. In fact it was because Russia in the opening decades of this century was ripe for such a revolution that his ideas had any social or political significance. Stalin did twist Marxism into the conservative ideology of a state capitalist ruling class, but he was merely building upon Lenin's previous distortion of Marxism into the ideology of that same class while it was struggling for power.

Although the February strikes were completely spontaneous the soviets did not arise directly out of them as they had done twelve years earlier in the failed 1905 revolution. This time they resulted from the combined efforts of politicians and workers' leaders, the politicians of the Duma Committee and the members of the Workers' Group sitting on the Central Committee for the War Industries (an employers' and State organisation), attempted to organise elections in Petrograd for a Central Soviet. The impetus for this came from the latter group, which installed itself in the Tauride Palace on 27 February and set up a provisional executive committee of the council of workers' delegates, to which committee several socialist leaders and members of parliament attached themselves. It was this committee which called upon workers and soldiers to elect their representatives. This explains why, when the first Provisional Soviet met that very evening, it still contained no factory delegates!

The political parties saw them as a springboard to power, they manipulated and engaged in all sort of chicanery which explains why the intellectuals acquired decisive influence in the Petrograd Soviet and why this Soviet so rapidly lost contact with the masses. They became the scene of factional and party in-fighting. The soviets proved to be the dispensable means to an end for the Bolsheviks. Once Bolshevik power was established the soviets simply became an emasculated rubber stamp for party rule. As early as December 1917, Maxim Gorky was able to write in the newspaper Novaia Zizn (No.195, 7 December 1917) that the revolution was not attributable to the soviets, and that the new republic was not one of councils, but of peoples' commissars.

Lenin’s own view on soviets had changed little from his attitude towards them after 1905:
"...if Social-Democratic activities among the proletarian masses are properly, effectively and widely organised, such institutions may actually become superfluous...that a most determined struggle must be waged against all disruptive and demagogic attempts to weaken the R.S.D.L.p. from within or to utilise it for the purpose of substituting non-party political, proletarian organisations for the Social-Democratic Party...that Social-Democratic Party organisations may, in case of necessity, participate in inter-party Soviets of Workers’ Delegates, Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and in congresses of representatives of these organisations, and may organise such institutions, provided this is done on strict Party lines for the purpose of developing and strengthening the Social-Democratic Labour Party " (1)

The factory committees (fabzavkomii) also emerged in the wake of the February strikes. They mushroomed throughout Russia, taking on the role of workers' representation inside the factory. The role of the committees expanded throughout 1917 as the soviets increasingly lost contact with the mass of workers and stuck to political programmes proclaimed in advance. Lenin introduced workers' control into all enterprises employing more than five workers. While legalizing a defacto situation he provided for the annulment of decisions taken by the fabzavkomy, the 'congresses and the trade unions' and made the workers' delegates answerable to the State for the maintenance of order and discipline within the enterprise. This plan, which already marked a step backwards by comparison with the existing situation in certain factories, was still further watered down before being published in its final form on 14 November 1917. In its definitive version, the decree laid down that factory committees should be subordinate to a local committee on which would sit representatives of the trade unions; the local committees themselves would depend upon a hierarchy crowned by an All-Russian Workers' Control Council. Moreover, this did not imply workers' management but the supervision and control of production and prices. Lenin had never made much of a secret of the fact that he saw workers' control as a prelude to nationalisations or that an accountable administration should exist alongside the factory committees.

The insurrection that gave power to the Bolsheviks was strictly speaking the work of the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks used this more subtle approach of disguising its seizure of power as an assumption of power by the Congress of Soviets and it was through the organ of the Military Revolutionary Council, NOT the Soviets. The storming of the Winter Palace, was not done by a mass of politically aware workers, but by a few hundred pro-Bolshevik soldiers. Trotsky admitted that the insurrection was planned by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, of which he was the chair and which had a Bolshevik majority. Trotsky describes how this Committee took its orders directly from the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. So, although the soviets had played a part in overthrowing Tsarism and opposing the Kerensky government, the events of 7 November were a Bolshevik take-over. Were the mass of the Petrograd workers consciously involved in deciding on the revolution? No. On the morning of 7 November the workers of Petrograd woke up to find that in the night the Bolshevik Party had assumed power, the Bolsheviks had carried out a revolution while they were asleep. The explicit purpose was to present the 3rd Congress of Soviets opening the next morning with a fait accompli.

The MRC was set up by the Soviet on the basis of defending Petrograd because it was rumoured of another potential Kornilov plot or an imminent invading German army. It was not set up on the basis that it would overthrow the provisional government. But then, under the pretext of organising the military defence of Petrograd from this phantom invading German army, Trotsky at the head of the Petrograd Soviet's Military Revolutionary Committee, took over the garrison unit by unit, through a system of commissars, first securing vital points like the train stations and telegraph office, then finally taking the Winter Palace.

“ Even when the conciliationists dominated the Petrograd Soviet it frequently happened that the soviet revised or amended the decisions of the government. This was, so to speak, part of the constitution under the regime that has been inscribed in the annals of history as the “Kerensky period.” When we Bolsheviks assumed power in the Petrograd Soviet, we only continued and deepened the methods of dual power. We took it upon ourselves to revise the order transferring the troops to the front. By this very act we covered up the actual insurrection of the Petrograd garrison with the traditions and methods of legal dual power.”

Once it had happened, workers and soldiers were enthusiastic. And they were part of making it happen, insofar as they obeyed the orders of the MRC. But it would be misleading to say that it was carried out by the proletariat organised in soviets as such. Were non-Bolshevik proletarians in district soviets aware this was coming? No. Were the Left-SR participants in the MRC? No. Were even the moderate wing of leading Bolsheviks supportive? No.

This is not to say that Petrograd workers and soldiers didn't support the idea of a “soviet government”. They did. But that doesn't mean that they were consciously involved in the decision to go through with the October events in order to arrive at such a government. The total lack of opposition to the Bolsheviks and the absence of support for the Provisional Government reflected the sympathies of the workers. The Provisional Government was utterly discredited, and Bolshevism's reactionary aspect had not been revealed. Support for the action came rushing in after the event from the Soviet of Petrograd Trade Unions and the All-Russian Soviet of Factory Committees amongst others. The factory committees rallied to the Bolsheviks because the latter appeared to support the workers' aspirations. The majority of the members of the Petrograd Soviet were in favour of the overthrow of the Kerensky government, but did this mean they were in favour of the installation of a Bolshevik government. What they were in favour of was a coalition government formed by all the "workers" parties, i.e. the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs and others. This was in fact favoured by many within the Bolshevik Party itself, but they were over-ruled by Lenin's determination to seize power for the Bolshevik party alone. In other words, it wasn't the overthrow as such of the Kerensky government but its replacement by a Bolshevik government under Lenin. There was no mandate from the soviets for this, which was why Lenin went to great pains to disguise his party's coup as the formation of a soviet government, which it wasn't. Once they got governmental power the Bolsheviks sidelined the soviets almost straightaway. The soviets were always considered as a cover to secure Bolshevik power.

While they claimed that this was a spontaneous seizure of power by the workers, what can be seen is that it was timed to occur before the Soviet Congress could convene, and so guaranteeing Bolshevik supremacy in the soviets and little chance for a free democratic vote on the form any new government should take .It can be plausibly assumed that if the Soviet Congress had had a free vote, the Bolsheviks would have had to share power with their arch-rivals the Mensheviks. Martov called forward a resolution demanding that the Bolsheviks form a coalition government with other left-wing parties. The resolution was about to receive almost complete endorsement from the soviet representatives thus showing that the representatives in the soviet did NOT believe in all power to the Bolsheviks but then the majority of SR and Menshevik delegates unadvisedly left the congress in protest over the Bolshevik coup giving the Bolsheviks a majority of those who remained. (We can also speculate it was possible that Lenin himself could have been kept out of office due to the mistrust that many of the Mensheviks and other anti-Tsarist revolutionaries justly held him in.)

On October 25th, the presidium was elected on the basis of 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Social-Revolutionaries, 3 Mensheviks and a single Internationalist. The Bolsheviks then trooped out their worker-candidates Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and so on. When it came to forming a government, Kamenev read out a Bolshevik Central Committee proposal for a Soviet of People's Commissars, whereby "control over the activities of the government is vested in the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee". Seven Bolsheviks from the party's central committee were nominated, and thus Lenin and Trotsky came to sit at the top. The "workers' government" was now composed of professional revolutionaries and members of the intelligensia ranging from the aristocratic, like Chicherin, to the bureaucratic, like Lenin and Kollontai, via the landed bourgeois (Smilga), the commercial bourgeois (Yoffe) and the higher industrial bourgeois (Pyatakov). These were the sort of people who were used to being a ruling class. The management of production by the workers was one of the goals of the struggle, proclaimed by the Military Revolutionary Committee on 25 October 1917. That same day, the Second Congress of the Soviets solemnly approved the decision to establish workers control while specifying, however, that this meant controlling the capitalists and not confiscating their factories.

The Bolsheviks effectively re-defined "proletarian power" to mean the power of the party whose ideology was believed a priori to represent workers interests. "Who is to seize the power? That is now of no importance. Let the Military Revolutionary Committee take it, or 'some other institution', which will declare that it will surrender the power only to the genuine representatives of the interests of the people.'' Not "the people", not the "representatives of the people", but "the genuine representatives of the interests of the people" and that would be, of course, the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Substitution of the party for the class. A take-over not a revolution.

What should be emphasised is that the rapid time-table of the Bolsheviks reveal they had no intention of having workers' rule but only party rule and such apologies as presented by Leninists and Trotskyists simply cuts no ice.
"... just four days after seizing power, the Bolshevik Council of People's Commissars (CPC or Sovnarkom) "unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect. This was, effectively, a Bolshevik coup d'etat that made clear the government's (and party's) pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ. Increasingly, the Bolsheviks relied upon the appointment from above of commissars with plenipotentiary powers, and they split up and reconstituted fractious Soviets and intimidated political opponents." (3)

The Bolsheviks immediately created a power above the soviets in the form of the CPC. Lenin's argument in The State and Revolution that, like the Paris Commune, the workers' state would be based on a fusion of executive and administrative functions in the hands of the workers' delegates did not last one night. In reality, the Bolshevik party was the real power in "soviet" Russia.

The point of a revolutionary movement in a pre-revolutionary situation is to ensure the growth of proletarian power and the defence of the class. The Bolsheviks failed to do so, emasculating what workers organisations existed, sacrificing their independence and strength to the altar of their One Party Rule. From 1917 all vestiges of democratic self-reliance by the working class was removed piece by piece. "Soviet power" became a sham, and Bolshevik party functionaries took total control.

A Left S R said "The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth from nothing. The Bolsheviks are capable of no lesser miracles, out of nothing, they create legitimate credentials." Leninism has proved to be a political tendency that set the clock back for socialism. In claiming that socialism could be created by a political minority without the will of the majority of the population, and through their wilful confusion of socialism with nationalisation and state-run capitalism they shamelessly distorted the socialist idea. Even now the association of socialist and communist ideas with state capitalism, minority action and political dictatorship is one of the greatest barriers to socialist understanding.

(1) Lenin - Draft Resolutions for the Fifth Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.

(2) Trotsky - Lessons of October https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/ch7.htm

(3) Neil Harding, Leninism, p.253 quoted at the Anarchism FAQ http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/append41.html#app8

Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement - http://www.worldsocialism.org/ He contributes to the blogs
Socialism or Your Money Back http://socialismoryourmoneyback.blogspot.com/
Socialist Courier http://socialist-courier.blogspot.com/






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