Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Bolshevik Putsch (1)

Many on the left will get all dewy-eyed and nostalgic for The October Revolution but this will be the state that abolished the death penalty (against Lenin's preferences), only to have Trotsky sentence them to be shot instead. The regime that abolished censorship but withdrew fuel from Soviets that had the temerity to vote for Martov over Lenin. The regime that re-instituted and intensified Tsarist conditions for political prisons. The regime that gunned down its own soldiers in the back to make them put down the Kronstadt rebels. The regime against which workers solidly struck, in strikes which under any other regime would have leftists having wet dreams over the revolutionary situation. Let's face it, it was the Bolshevik's decision to seize power as a conscious minority against the unconscious majority which necessitated building an apparatus of terror which Stalin was able to take command.

Where was the Bolshevik leadership during the February revolution? In prison or exile. Who made the revolution? Class-conscious workers, tempered by years of struggle, mass strikes, the 1905 revolution, etc. How was the February revolution sparked? By female textile workers, going against the directives of party leaderships. The peasantry was organized in the army, was tired of the war, tired of the landowners and kulaks. The revolution overwhelmed the police, and what happened when the army, the peasantry, was called in to suppress the revolution? They turned their guns on their masters and joined the workers, and they immediately formed soviets. This was a self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. And while they were mopping up the streets and creating soviets, enter the Bolsheviks.

Marxism and Bolshevism as two quite separate and, to an extent, opposed political ideas. For instance, the concept of vanguardism, so central to Leninism, is no part of the Marxian outlook. Even the very terminology is different - Lenin's depiction of "socialism" as "state capitalism" run in the interests of the "whole people" is a radical departure from Marxian usage which regarded socialism as more or less synonymous with "communism". Leninism might be regarded as the political ideology of state capitalism appropriate to a relatively backward and developing economy which still included significant pre-capitalist components. Its purpose was to hasten in hothouse fashion the spread of capitalist relationships, based on generalised wage labour, by overthrowing those historical impediments to the growth of capital (in Lenin's time tsarism) and by concentrating that growth in the hands of the state. Its redundancy and irrelevance today has been assured by the very development of capitalism itself into a global system.  Marxism, however, is the political outlook appropriate for a genuine post-capitalist world and, as such is the genuine expression of a modern revolutionary intent. In many respects, Marx's ideas were way ahead of his time. Lenin's, by contrast, have long passed their sell-by date. We don’t claim Leninism is completely divorced from Marxism but I do consider that they are sufficiently differentiated in terms of certain key conceptual components as to constitute, in effect, separate and indeed in certain respects opposing politics. Their prescriptions are very different as is their way of looking at the world.

There was no "intention of building socialism" - least not as the term was traditionally understood as a synonym for communism. Of course elements within the Bolsheviks and others outside of the Party would have known what socialism meant and would no doubt have supported the goal of a socialist society. But these were a distinct minority of the Russian working class and the Russian working class was a distinct minority of the total population. It is absolutely fundamental to Marxist thought that a socialist (or communist) revolution has to be a conscious majoritarian one You cannot have socialism otherwise and if what you have achieved is not socialism then it is preposterous to call the revolution that led up to what you achieved, a "socialist revolution". As the Communist Manifesto proclaims:
“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” 
Whereas Lenin’s speech at the First All-Russia Congress Of Workers In Education and Socialist Culture July 31, 1919, explains:
“When we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party and, as you have heard, a united socialist front is proposed, we say, "Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position because it is the party that has won.”

Once the vanguard had seized power it was this vanguard alone which should govern, not the wider working class in whose name it had seized power:

"But the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts (by imperialism in some countries) that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class. The whole is like an arrangement of cogwheels.” (

It was the vanguard, not the workers as a whole that would exercise power. A similar view was expressed by Trotsky:
“The masses are held down with “compulsory general education”, kept “on the verge of complete ignorance”, exist in “spiritual slavery” and are terrorised to such a degree that the minority must seize power on their behalf. Then, and only then, can the “most ignorant, most terrorised sections of the nation” be slowly educated in the “meaning of socialist production” (L Trotsky Terrorism and Communism).

Inevitably, that could only mean that those who took power supposedly on behalf of the workers would evolve into a new ruling class opposed to the workers and opposed to everything that the emancipation of the working class stood for - namely socialism.  That in fact is what the Soviet Union became - arguably the single most formidable obstacle by far in history in the way of spreading socialist ideas by misidentifying socialism with state capitalism in the minds of millions upon millions of workers

The point, though, is not so much what Lenin and co. said but what they did in practice. In practice the Russian working class was not socialist in outlook however much one tries to evade this point. Consequently, the Bolsheviks supposed intent to take power in order to establish socialism could only amount to a vanguardist strategy that was doomed to failure. Inevitably, it could only lead to capitalism by default and in the absence of mass socialist consciousness

The only way in which the Bolshevik revolution could be described as a socialist revolution is by radically redefining what is meant by socialism and that is precisely what Lenin did. In “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It” (1917) he now argued that "socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly".

None of what we have said is to deny that the Russian Revolution was carried out by millions of workers or that the Bolsheviks enjoyed considerable support from the workers - though this support was based on the reforms that the Bolshevik offered encapsulated by such slogans as "Peace, Land and Bread". It had nothing really to with supporting socialism as such. Though Lenin decried the reformism to which the Second International had succumbed it needs to be clearly understood that in practice he was just as much of a "reformist" as his erstwhile Social Democratic comrades elsewhere. In fact the Bolshevik programme was from start to finish a programme of far reaching capitalist reforms. The Bolsheviks were "revolutionary" only insofar as they finally completed the capitalist revolution, commenced under Kerensky, which they has always seen as a necessary prelude to a socialist revolution. Once they had succeeded in their capitalist revolution they became "reformist" Рautomatically. What needs to be clearly grasped here is that a revolution carried out by the workers does not in any way make this revolution necessarily a socialist revolution . If the workers lack socialist consciousness then by default the revolution they carry out can only be a capitalist one. You judge the character of a revolution by its outcome not the ideology in which it is dressed up. Just as the French capitalist Revolution had cloaked its class nature in the universalistic appeal of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and led to a society that was far removed from these ideals so the Bolsheviks sought to garner support for their state capitalist project though the idiom of socialist emancipation. Marx was very clear on this point:

"If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeosie, that will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1794, so long as in the course of history, in its movement, the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and thus the definitive overthrow of bourgeois political rule ("Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality", 1847)

Some workers may well have been saying "we don't need the tsar and we don't need the boss. We can do it ourselves" But look at what they ended up with. A hierarchical authoritarian system of one man management in the factories ruthlessly imposed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and a totally undemocratic one-party state capitalist dictatorship in the political sphere which crushed all opposition.

The lesson is clear and we ignore it at our peril. Unless and until the great majority of our class want and understand socialism any attempt to capture and wield power in advance of this will inevitably lead to class betrayal.