Leninism and the failure of the Russian revolution


The Russian revolutions of 1917 demonstrate that a revolution is possible but they also warn against authoritarian methods of introducing socialism.Anarchists attach much importance to studying the achievements and failures of the past. Ideas need to be constantly tested and re-evaluated both against current events and historical ones. The Russian revolutions of 1917 are a vital part of this history as not only do they demonstrate that a revolution is possible but they also warn against authoritarian methods of introducing socialism.

The attraction of the Leninist model of the Russian revolution to socialists is not hard to see. According to the conventional left history of events the Bolshevik party grew from a tiny organisation to a large one within a year and led by the brilliant Lenin organised the overthrow of the capitalist system. They then set about constructing socialism but after making a number of gains their efforts were destroyed by the Civil war on one hand and Stalinism on the other. This scenario offered a lot to socialists who found themselves in few numbers. The Russian revolution seemed to offer a quick way to success using the magic wands of slogans and clever maneuvering. If only a party leadership could be built which could wield these awesome weapons as skilfully as Lenin socialism would be around the corner.

It is not my intention in this talk to catalogue all the anti-working class acts of the Bolsheviks. Some of you will be quite familiar with them already, for those whom are not there are a selection of excellent books available that do a better job then I could do in a few short minutes. Instead I want to discuss why the Russian revolution and Bolshevik thought developed in the way that it did.

There are a number of key ideas that lay the basis of Bolshevik thought and practise. These arose out of a combination of the physical conditions the party operated in and the attitudes of its main thinkers. These in turn drew heavily on Marxism as a source of inspiration.

Common to both Marxism and Leninism is the idea that the working class is incapable of bringing about a social revolution or constructing a new society. What is needed is a revolutionary party to organise the working class before a revolution and then take and enforce decisions on behalf of the working class after the revolution. The revolutionary party can do this because it organises the most advanced section of the working class and this section along with intellectuals is capable of making decisions about with a greater insight than the class as a whole.

This essentially is the theoretical core of Leninism and it is this section of Marxism that the anarchists struggled against in the first international when they warned against a socialist's dictatorship of scientists. The particular conditions found in Russia only exasperated the worst points of this theoretical analysis. The secrecy needed as a protection against the Czarist police reduced the level of political debate both within the party and the opportunity to discuss these issues in public. The comparable weakness of the working class and the destruction of that class during the civil war greatly undermined any resistance to the growth of the new state.

The history of Russia from 1917 to 1921 has two parts. There was the external part that was the war waged against the whites and the western intervention. Then there was the internal part that was the war waged by the Bolshevik party first in its aim of restoring state power and holding it in its hands alone. At first this internal war was against the other left parties and independent working class organisation in the form of the soviets and factory committees. As early as 1918 it also became a war against part of the Bolshevik party. The key battle and one I intend to discuss in detail are that which took place around workers control.

Workers Control

In the period between the February revolution and that in October a new form of worker's organisation developed in the factories. In a small number of factories initially the workers elected a committee to supervise and watch the way the boss was running the factory. The delegates to these committees were elected on a mandate basis; they were still workers on the factory floor and were recallable. Each section of workers in the factory would elect one of their numbers as a delegate and that delegate would report back to that section.

Initially these bodies sought to prevent the boss sabotaging production or withdrawing the company assets. As time passed however they took on more and more functions so that by the time of the October revolution the committees were running production in a large number of Moscow and Petrograd factories. From May 30th to June 5th some 4 months before the October revolution the factory committees came together in a Petrograd conference, this demonstrates that already they were looking towards running the economy rather than parochially looking after their own interests alone.

After the revolution the factory committee movement grew. You cannot of course have socialism in one factory. Each factory was dependant on many others for a list of goods and services. Already in October of 1917 the factory committees had held a conference conveyed by the syndicalist magazine New Path. There were 137 delegates and according to Bolshevik sources this broke down to 86 Bolsheviks, 22 SR's, 11 Anarchist-Syndicalists, 6 Maximalists and 4 "non-party". Among other resolutions passed was one reading "the seizure of factories by the workers and their operation for personnel profit was incompatible with the aims of the proletariat". This was a highly significant step, it would have led to the situation where the Russian workers were directly in control of their economy at every level. Among other resolutions passed was one reading "the seizure of factories by the workers and their operation for personnel profit was incompatible with the aims of the proletariat".

As you know this is not what happened, the USSR instead ended up as a state run economy where workers had as little say about priorities as those in the west had. The key point for socialists in 20th century history lies in those first deciding weeks of 1917. What happened.

The explanation most of the left has given for years is that Stalin destroyed workers control of the economy sometime in the mid 20's to early 30's. When arguing with libertarian communists who know that workers control existed in no form from 1920 onwards a second argument is fallen back on, the harsh conditions of the civil war destroyed workers control. The Civil war however became serious in the Summer of 1918, but by that stage workers control was already under attack and one man management was being introduced.

Immediately after the revolution the Bolsheviks legalised the gains workers had won in the factories. Pravda published Lenin's draft decree on workers' control on Nov. 3rd 1917 which also undermined some of these gains, decisions could be annulled by the trade unions and delegates of "important enterprises" were answerable to the state for "the maintenance of strict order and discipline and for the protection of property". Already the beginnings of a situation where the state could limit the decisions reached by the workers rather than the reverse was being engineered.

The factory committees had tried to hold a second "All Russian Congress of Factory Committees" but the Bolsheviks had used their control in the trade unions to block this. Instead they set up the All Russian council of workers control which included only 5 out of 21 factory committee delegates This body itself met only once before its powers were assumed by the VESENKA on December the 5th. This body was almost entirely made up of representatives from the Commissariats (Ministries) and experts. This represented the removal of the last elements of national control the workers had over the economy.

Over the next two years any elements of local control of conditions was destroyed so by the 9th party congress of 1920 what was left of the Factory Committees were instructed to "devote themselves to the questions of labour discipline, of propaganda and of education of the workers". Lenin in "The trade unions, and their tasks" referred to collective management as "utopian, impractical and injurious".

The reason the Bolsheviks carried out such a policy was simple, as a party they did not believe the working class was capable or to be trusted with the running of the economy. The industrial policy of the Bolsheviks from 1918-22 is all about removing whatever control workers had and forcing them to submit to the dictates of managers and experts. Piecemeal work and Taylorism was introduced in this period to speed up production and make sure no worker was slacking.

This process reached its height in 1920 with the 'militarisation of labour', driven by Trotsky with the support of most of the party. His statements at the 9th party congress of March 1920 that "The working class cannot be left wandering all over Russia. They must be thrown here and there, appointed, commanded, just like soldiers" and "Deserters from labour ought to be formed into punitive battalions or put into concentration camps" give a clear idea in what contempt the Bolshevik leadership held the working class.

These ideas were due neither to the class background of the Bolshevik leadership or to them being unpleasant people. They came out of their theory from the theory they had developed themselves and from their background in Marxism. When Lenin said in "The immediate tasks of the Soviet Government" published April 28th 1918 that "Unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of the labour process based on large scale machine industry" he was echoing the Engels of 1872 when in a letter criticising the Anarchists of the First International he had said "How these people propose to run a factory or operate a railway , or steer a ship without a single will that decides in the last resort, without a single management, they of course do not tell us."

Marxism has always emphasised socialism as something brought to the working class from outside, from intellectuals. The idea that workers themselves are capable of spontaneously constructing the mechanisms by which socialism can be implemented is quite foreign to them. The idea that those who work in the factories are the best qualified to run them rather than experts or strong individuals is also foreign. This belief in the helplessness of the Working class did not just destroy the Russian revolution, it played a key part in undermining modern revolution including those in France in 1968 and Portugal in 1974.

I want to move on from how the Bolsheviks handled political and economic democracy to the related topic of how they dealt with opposition to their policies.

At the time of the October revolution the political parties split into two camps. On one side there were those who came to be called the whites which consisted of not only the Bourgeoisie parties like the Cadets but also social democratic groups including the bulk of the Mensheviks and the right wing of the Social revolutionary party. These groups opposed the October revolution and the later dissolution of the constituent assembly. The other group consisted of the Bolsheviks, the left SR's, the SR Maximalists, those Menshevik internationalists who had not fused with the Bolsheviks when Trotsky had and various anarchist groups. All of these groups supported the October revolution.

The modern day Bolshevik account also has two groups, the Bolsheviks who were pro-revolution and everybody else who was against it and either subjectively or objectively on the side of the Whites. The right use a similar account to demonstrate that the revolution was undemocratic as the Bolsheviks only had significant support in Moscow, Petrograd and among the army. In fact in the Constituent assembly elections what became the left SR's got the largest share of the rural vote, giving the revolutionary groups the majority even in the Bourgeoisie parliament.

Opposition to the Bolsheviks from the left started off as minor but built up rapidly to the point where each of the oppositions was destroyed. The same pattern was followed throughout, as the opposition became more vocal the Bolsheviks would start to squeeze its resources. A point would be reached where the Bolsheviks would use some pretext to physically remove the opposition.

In Moscow and Petrograd for instance a considerable network of anarchist clubs had formed by the Summer of 1918. These were providing focus for those who were discontented with the direction the revolution was taken. On 11 of April 1918 the Bolsheviks used the fact that two motorcars had been seized to attack 26 of these clubs using the Cheka. In the ensuing battle 40 anarchists were killed or wounded and 500 were imprisoned. The anarchist-syndicalist Golas Truda (Voice of Labour) was closed in May of 1918. This was replaced in August by Volny Golos Truda (Free Voice of Labour) which was itself closed four issues later in September shortly after the first All Russian Congress of Anarchist syndicalists.

This was typical of the methods used against the left opposition. Acts committees by individuals or small groups within each current were used as excuses to crack down on that current as a whole as in the car seizures above. the government would always claim to be cracking down only on the criminal elements. This is comparable to-day perhaps to an IPLO bomb being used to ban not only Sinn Féin and the IRSP but also Democratic Left and the Workers Party. Secondly papers were closed down regularly for minor infringements of censorship laws and where they were allowed to publish access to printing presses and paper was made difficult so as to keep circulation small.

By 1920 the Bolshevik government was on a war footing against the Anarchists, only notable foreign names like Emma Goldman or major figures like Kropotkin were allowed to operate openly. Thousands were being imprisoned and the first large scale executions of anarchists were starting to happen. Kropotkin's funeral of 1921 was the last open show of force by the Anarchists, some 5000 of them marching with their banners behind the coffin. 500 of these had been released from prison for the occasion and it is a remarkable statement of their discipline that all of these returned to prison after the event. Many of these were to be executed afterwards.

I would like to go to talk about more of the specifics but we would be here all day. Hopefully some of these can come out in the discussion. In any case I would recommend that anyone who has not already done so purchase a copy of the Bolsheviks and Workers Control. In conclusion there have been millions of members of socialist parties and dozens of socialists revolutions and uprisings this century. These have all failed, if we are to succeed in the future we must understand why.

Talk by Andrew Flood on the Russian Revolution at the July 10th 1993 WSM day school in Dublin