Posts Tagged ‘Russian Revolution’

The Russian experience, 1917-1929 (2): 1917-1918

April 29, 2010

Yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. Yes, soviets dominated the scene after the October Revolution, the new Bolshevik regime based itself on  the soviets and their majoritity within them. In that sense, the new regime has a certain revolutionary legitimacy. However, that legitimacy eroded quickly, the soviets saw their strength diminished, Bolshevik support drained away. Bolshevik power, from the beginning uneasily combined with soviet power, evolved more and more in opposition to the remnants of that power. Already in 1918, there was a break between the regime above, and the power of workers and peasants to take and keep control of society.

Two factors were relevant. There were, firstly,  the horrendous circumstances under which the revolution succeeded, and under which the new regime tried to build a new society. There were, secondly, the concepts and ideas that the Bolsheviks held on to in building that society. The first made the building of socialist society built on workers’ and peasants’ democracy  virtually impssible, and Bolshevik ideology or ambition cannot be blamed for that. The second, however, meant that this failure took the form of the building of a new bureaucratic state under Bolshevik leadership which crushed the revolution. Here, the Bolshevik leadership can, and should, be blamed. From 1918 onwards, the regime lost its proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy and stood in opposition to the forces which tried to build the revolution from below.

How dit this come about? In the first moths after October 1917, we saw two things. On the one hand, the spread of soviets and similar forms of democracy, far and wide through society. In general, Bolshevik leaders encouraged this spread in this period. Numerous quotes of Lenin can make this clear. Bolshevik goals and workers ‘ initiatives went in the seme direction – although the workers tended to move faster, in a more radical fashion than the Bolshevik leadership. There was tension already.

At the same time, however, that Lenin encouraged workers’ and peasants’ initiatives, the Bolshevik regime did something else as well. They began building a state, above the soviet structues, though still moe or less under the influence of those soviets.. This was the period in which the regime started founding commissariats, basically a replica on lower level of  the governmental structure on top, the Council of People’s Commissars, i.e. the government. Where the masses answered every problom with the election of a committee, a mini-soviet, the party leaders answered every problem with the building of such a commissariat. Two kinds of structures, in uneasy coexistence.

This was more or less viable for a while, as long as the soviets remained strong and full of life. And this strength and viability depended on the strength of the classes which expressed its power through these soviets: the workers and the peasants. Ecomimic catastrophe, however, started to destroy the strength of these classes. Russia withdrew from the war. This meant that millions of soldier went home, to jobs that were not there, or to their villages on the countryside. At the same time, war production collapsed because of a sudden lack of demand. Mass unemployment followed. Years of war and a collapsing infrastructure meant severe interruption of food suplies. Hunger enterded the cities in full force in the first months of 1918.

This had disastrous effects on the soviets. Factories – the basis of workers’ councils – closed down, workers had to use all their energy to survive. Time and opportunity to decide and vote upon the running of society was no longer a given. The basis of soviet power started to erode quite quickly. You cannot have workers’ councils without a more or less cohesive workforce in the factories.

This is  the factor that Trotskyist analases punt very much in the forefront of their eplanations of what went wrong. And yes, it was a very important factor – but not the only one. For there was more to it than circumstances. Under pressure from the economic crisis, the new regime started to limit workers’ initiatives. Production, so Lenin’s reasoning went, had to take precedence above all else. A strong management in the factories was needed to guarantee labour discipline. Direct workers power in the factories – the factory committees, a kind of soviets on factory level –  was seen as an obstacle, and  pressure was brought to bear to bring them under the control of the trade unions which were much more centralised and open to government directives. Efforts of workers themselves to encourage production and coordination through factory committees themselves  were not encouraged, even pushed aside, The solution, als Lenin saw it, should come from the centre, from above, from planning agencies under indirect workers’ influcence – not through workers’ direct control and certainly not through workers’ self management. Here, we see more than circumstances at work. Here, we see a clash of visions. On the one hand, a centralised, top-down vision with clear Social Democratic roots. On the other hand, a bottom-up vision, with clear anarcho-syndicalist elements (and yes, anarchosyncicalism was not without influence in these days and events).

There was strong resistance from workers against  the centralised policies that the party leadership encouraged. Workers had fought for workers’ control since before October, and had pushed that control in the direction of direct self-management of the factories. They considered this the essence of their revolution, and did not want to give this up. Here, we saw the beginnings a a break between regime and a considerable part of its working class base.

This, in itself, would not yet have been a fatal break, however. In Lenin’s view, the centralised management structure that replaced direct workers democracy in the factories, was still embedded in general soviet democracy. Soviets – or commissariats still leaning upun soviet legitimacy – were supposed to appoint managers. But the soviets themseves were still elected, so workers’ power was still respected in an indirect way.

However, there were  two problems. The elections of soviets was based in the factories. While these factories were under workers’ management, these elections could find place in an environment the workers could consider their own. But when these elections had to find place in an environment in which they had an old-fashion appointed director, this was no longer the case. Workers had to exercise their freedom in a factory in which they were no longer so free.

Soon, a second, much larger problem, took precedence. The soviets themselves lost much of their democratic character. In the spring of 1918, there were a number of re-elections of  local soviets in central Russian cities. Bolsheviks lost their majorities, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) gained. This was worrying, not just for the Bolsheviks, but for the revolution itself. For these Mensheviks and SRs opposed the revolutionary goal of soviet power, and wanted to replace it with parliamentary rule, a much more limited form of democracy which the working masses had decisively rejected in the October revolution. Worse, SRs and Mensheviks were not above collaborating with right wing forces in armed efforts to overthrow the revolution. With these parties in control of soviets, the revolution would  indeed be in danger.

However, this danger had its reasons. Workers’ discontent had been growing for months. Bolshevik answers to that discontent had already contained a serious dose of repression. That workers started to support exactly those parties that they had rejected in 1917 showed a failure of the Bolsheviks to keep the trust that they had gained during 1917. Not all of that was due to failues on the Bolshevik side. But part of it was. And anyway, when you set yourself up as a government above the working classes, you should not be surprised that these classes hold that government responsible for whatever goes wrong. This is what workers, understandably and justifiably, did. They started to demonstrate and strike, they were met with Bolshevik armed force, ans sometimes with lethal bullets.  They started to make their opposition visible. They started to vote Menshevik and SR. Bolshevik power, however, did not accept the results. The new majorities were prevented from taking their soviets positions. In the place of soviets, revolutionary committees were formed, appointed by Bolsheviks, filled with Bolsheviks. Power from above, no longer from below.

The lesson was clear: Bolsheviks were for soviet power, but not unconditionally so. As soon as workers started to elect on-Bolshevik majorities, the Bolshevik party reserved the right to overthrow these majorities. All for the good of the revolution, of course. But should the final arbiter of what is good for the revolution not be the class that makes the revolution and tries to build its own new society?

In a very serious sense, the working class had lost the core of the power it had gained in 1917. Workers’ councils were no longer truly in control, and in as much as they still were, Bolshevik pressure saw to it that these soviets had solid Bolshevik majorities whether workers voted freely that way or not. From the early summer of 1918, the Bolshevik regime was no longer a faithful expression of the proletarian revolution but a force standing above and against that revolution.

The Trotskyist position of defending the proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy of that regime – already a shaky proposition for the contradictory times in the first months after October – becomes clearly wrong after that. You can side with the revolution of the working classes of Russia. Or you can side with the regime that came from this revolution but came to stand in opposition to these classes. But you cannot do both.

(this is the third part of a series. Earlier articles appeared on February 19 and April 18).


The Russian experience, 1917-1929: (1): the revolution itself

April 18, 2010

The Trotskyist interpretation of the aftermath of the Revolution, the developments in postrevolutionary society in the former Czarist empire, is defecient. In an earlier article, I sketched the main outlines of that interpretation. Here I will try to explain what is wrong  with the first parts of it.

The first element in the Trotskyist analysis, however,  is basically correct: yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. First, there were the demonstrations for bread in Women’s day in Petrograd. A general strike grew out of these protests; demonstrations grew, police and soldiers failed to break the tide of revolt. Within a week, mutinies brought whole regiments to the side of the rebellious population. After  some wrangling and much despair in high places, the Czar abdicated. The workers had overthrown the Czarist state within a week. this  became known as the February Revolution.

This workers’ revolution, however, did not directly lead tothe power of the working class over society. There developed a period in which a Provisional Government, first of liberals, later of reformist socialistsunder the leadership of  Kerensky, tried to keep any changes within capitalist limits. Especially, they wanted to continue the war against Germany as part of the Entente with France and britain. Thorough reforms were endlessly postoned. On the other side, there was the network of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants councils: the soviets. They expressed the power of the exploited classes, of whicht the urban working class held the central, stragegic  position.

At first, workers and soldiers mostly elected delegates of the reformist parties in the soviets. Under their tutelage the soviets were a kind a of loyal opposition. Within months, however, workers saw that these kind of socialists refused to bring about the changes workers wanted: an end to the war, measures against hunger, workers control of the factories against a management that defended their privileges and power. Workers began to shift their support to a party that, after an internal strruggle, mor ore less expressed their desires for radical change. Peasants  began attacking the landlords and taking over their lands. The revolution was not over; it had barely begun.

This was the period of dual power: a pro-capitalist gvernment, against soviets who more and more expressed the desire to continue the revolution. Bolshevik support grew, struggle intensified; in July, there was almost an insurrection that overthrew the goverment. The government and the right wing struck back: in August, there was the coup attempt by general Kornilov. This collapsed because of worker’ resistance in whcih the Bolsheviks played a prominent part. In September, the Bolshevik party gained majority support in the important soviets of Moscow and Petrograd.

Their leader Lenin now began to pushfor armed insurrection to overthrow the government, who was g quickly losing much of iets authority. After an struggle within the party, combined with the pressure of workers and peasants who were already beginning to take things in their own hands, the Bolsheviks opted for insurrection. A weak effort of the government to transfer revolutionary regiments out Petrograd, and to closeBolshevik papers, was exactly the provocation the Bolsheviks could use. A few thousands Red Guards and revolutionary soldiers overhrew the government. This became known as the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks leadership, together with some Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, did much of the organisational work through the Military Revolutionary Committee. However, the Bolshevik leadership – Lenin from a disctance, Troksky on the scene itself – led the operation. It was the Bolsheviks which were in charge – but they made there move in the knowledge that their slogan – ‘All Power to the Soviets”- had majority working class support. In the All-Russian congress of Soviets, in session while the insurretion unfolded, a majority accepted the Bolshevik proposal to form a government made of Bolsheviks. Thse whole thing had aspects of a coup d’etat. But it was much more: a tide of working class revolt that had first overthrew Czarism , had now led to the overthrow of the provisional government as well. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were in charge. Or were they?

There was a contradiction from Day One. By having their leaders elected in a government – even of it as called a Council of People’s Commissars – the Bolshevik party created an instutite that stood, in a rea sense, above the soviets. Yes, it was responsible towards the soviets, it reported back etcetera. But the relationship between soviets and government was not unlike the relationship between a government and a parliament in bourgeois democracy: in practice, the government has enormous leeway, the parliament is not in charge. Neither were, within months after the October revolution, the soviets.

Yes, 1917 saw a working class revolution. But the outcome was contradictory: a extention of soviet power, at first encouraged by the Bolshevik leadership; but at the same time, the construction of  a state power above the soviets,  instigated by that same Bolshevik leadership. That is: the Bolsheviks did not unequivocally bring the soviets to power. They brought themselves to power, on the basis of a soviet majority. That is not quite the same thing.

One could say that this new state was legitimate, because its leaders were elected in that government by the soviet congress. However, that is only valid as long as such a congress, or the Executive Comittee elected by such a congress,  was, and remained, in the position toe replace the government – and as long as workers and peasants could elect end replace their delegates when and if they chose to do so. That proved an illusion in the years that followed.

And even then, its validity is rather limited for those who take the slogan “All Power to the Soveits’ seriously. As soon as soviets tolerate a government with extensive powers above them, power has in essential respects shifted from the soviets to that government. In that situation, the councils may give the government legitimacy, they can influence the direction of government policy. But the councils in such a situation, were not in charge. There was partial soviet power in Russia after the October revolution. But “All Power to the Soviets?” Not exactly.

Referring to the points in whicht I summarised the Trotskyist analysis in my earlier article: point one – Russia experienced a workers’ revolution – stands. Point  two – the Bolsheviks led the working class to soviet power – in a very real sense does not.

The Russian experience, 1917-1929: preliminary notes

February 19, 2010

For many years, I have basically accepted the analysis that Trotskyists made of the Russian revolution and its aftermath.  The outline of that analysis combines a number of things.

  1. There was a true working class revolution in 1917; 
  2. Basing themselves on that revolution, the Bolshevik party led the workers’, soldiers’and peasant councils (soviets) to power, establishing a workers’ state and beginning the buiding of a socialist society; 
  3. The regime that ensued stood for the defence of that revolution and was, from a revolutionary point of view, basically legitimate;
  4. The regime evolved in an authoritarian fashion: soviet democracy collapsed, opposition parties were banned, trade union autonomy undermined and worse; but the basis reason of this degeneration of revolutionary democracy lies in the terrible circumstances: economc collapse, civil war combined with foreign intervention. Authoritarian measures imposed by the Bolshevik regime were generally understandable considering the circumstances, not without specific criticisms of specific measures; the outline of Bolshevik policies in the period 1917-1921, however, are defended in general in Trotskyist analyses;
  5. The Bolshevik attitude – we do whatever we consider necessary to hold on to power to defend the revolution while we count on the international socialist revolution to come to the rescue – was basically valid;
  6. During the 1920s a proces af degeneration, amounting to a partial or total – depending on whicht version of Trotskyism one adheres to – counterrevolution, led to the totalitarian dictatorship led by Joseph Stalin.

Now,  this analysis has its strengths; it is not to be discarded lightly. It gives weight to factors that are indeed important: circumstances did not exactly help  to create a flourishing workers’ and peasants’ democracy. It doesn’t capitulate for the right wing versions, in which the whole revolution was a Bad Idea; it does not simplify things by blaming the Bolshevik lust for power for all or most of what went wrong; it is a coherent effort to defend a revololutionary heritage and to use the lessons of that heritage to help change the wold now and in the future.

But, while it shuld not be discarded lightly, discard it we should. Essential parts of the analysis break with that central idea of  revolutionary theory and practice: self-emancipation, libertion from below. Bolshevik policies can partly be explained by difficult circumstances, but there was more to it than that. Bolshevik priorities and policies played their part.

And in the whole proces the question that should be asked again and again is not the questions  Trotskyist tend to ask, however critically: what should the Bolshevik regime have done? What was correct, what were erroneous decisions? Rather, the main question is: how to defend and extend revolutionary gains from below, against ALL threats, from whatever sides they come?

Asking this question helps in finding a way to another analysis of the Russion experience, one that is more consistent with revolutionary principles, and more helpful for revolutionaries today and tomorrow. In coming articles, I will try to explore the history and politics of the revolutionary experience of that country in those crucial and tragic years.

(These are preliminary notes; I am working on a larger text dealing with these matters; coming articles on the subject can be seen as efforts to explore what directions to  take towards the kind of  analysis that is, in my opinion,  needed)

(edited/changed 19 february, 2.40)