The triumphs and the tragedies of the Great October Socialist Revolution
The 1917 Russian revolution was a momentous event that changed world history. For the first time, a conscious planned revolution overthrew the capitalist-imperialist system and replaced it with a government that set about building socialism.
Some forty years later, the leadership of the Soviet Union was captured by corrupt bureaucrats who overtly set about watering down and reversing the path toward socialism, and ultimately led to the restoration of capitalism, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the accession to power of corrupt, ruthless mega-rich oligarchs. Russia and most if not all the previous Soviet republics are now controlled and exploited by virtual Mafia, accompanied by vicious nationalism which is promoted to distract populations from their increasing impoverishment and depowerment
How did this happen? How could it happen?
Firstly, let's overview the history of the Soviet Union. Later we will analyse the key features of this history, and some lessons to be learnt.
Western capitalist ideologists, academics and opponents of Soviet socialism typically blame one man – “Stalin”, and “Stalinism” have become uncritically accepted shorthand for all the achievements and shortcomings of the Soviet construction of socialism One man is usually blamed, sometimes with a concession that his cronies also contributed. He was supposedly micro- mismanaging the whole Soviet Union and viciously repressing all the peoples from eastern Europe to the Pacific. Often, the critics also allege he was simultaneously misdirecting the day-to-day operations in the Spanish civil war, some 2,500 km away and using 1930's communication technologies.
To address this obsessive, often hysterical, orthodoxy of blame and demonisation, this brief overview will focus on the period from the 1920's to the 1950's.
An accurate understanding of what really happened in the Soviet Union requires intellectual honesty, a scientific approach and a reliance on evidence not hearsay or propaganda. As the saying goes, “For the truth to get in, the mind must be open”.
Fortunately, increasing evidence is steadily becoming available from Russian archives, enabling those who are concerned with the truth to review and update previous views.
We are gradually getting closer to a clearer understanding of what happened. This analysis relies on much of this recent documentary evidence, particularly as reported by Grover Furr in his several books, and also by (the steadfastly anti-Stalin) Getty and Naumov in their book of documents “The Road to Terror”. Those wishing to corroborate the facts and claims made here, and/or to seek further detail are referred to these works. We will not weigh down this short overview with extensive facts or references.
The analysis below relies heavily on these sources, which are publicly available and reviewable.
The most productive approach is surely to survey the overall developments and policies, recognising the achievements, and identifying and learning from the mistakes, rather than a pointless focus on the success or culpability of a single individual.
We will also follow a dialectical approach, recognising that a phenomenon or process is usually not just one thing or another, but typically has two sides, containing varying trends and complexities.
The 1917 October Revolution overthrew the tsarist regime. The Bolsheviks were suddenly in power in the major cities. They immediately honoured their promise to withdraw Russia from World War 1, and redistributed land to the peasants and started to nationalise key industries. The old regime resisted and a civil war ensued across the country, and the counter-revolutionaries were supported, armed, staffed and often led by the capitalist powers The Soviet forces ultimately won control over their own country, but at great cost. The ruin of WW1 and the civil war forced the Soviet Government to take steps back and, in the short term, to adopt some capitalist policies in order for the economy and the country to survive.
The Bolsheviks had expected successful revolutionary uprisings in Europe, particularly Germany, which would lead at least to the establishment of socialist governments and systems in at least some parts of Europe. When this failed to eventuate, some Bolsheviks leaders despaired that it was impossible to build socialism in one country. However, the vast majority of the Bolshevik leadership and membership resolved to grab the opportunity and to proceed to build socialism in the Soviet Union.
The whole of the Soviet Union was very backward in the organisation, technological state and productivity of industry, agriculture and transport It was necessary and indeed urgent to develop modern industry to meet the needs of the population, and to strengthen the country against the constant isolation and sabotage by the capitalist powers.
Agriculture needed to be modernised, on a socialist basis, in order to:
• increase productivity feed the population of both the cities and the countryside
• establish the reliability of production to prevent the recurrence of famines that regularly decimated the countryside
• generate the funds to support the introduction of modern industry
Consequently, agriculture was collectivised in the early 1930's. It met powerful opposition from vested interests i.e. those who owned large tracts of land and who employed and exploited poor and landless peasants/labourers, aided and abetted by the other opponents of socialism, inside and outside the Soviet Union. The process and outcomes of collectivisation have been highly contentious. Opponents have typified the Soviet Union as vicious, callous and murderous. However again recourse to the evidence and commentary by experts who base their conclusions on the facts, rather than propaganda and hysteria, indicates clearly that collectivisation of agriculture was not only necessary but direly urgent. It coincided with, and was given even greater urgency by, the severe famine of 1931-2. Only an immediate improvement in productivity and distribution could have fed the populace and averted even greater disaster (Furr deals with this event and its contentiousness in detail in “Blood Lies”).
During the 1930s, the Soviet Union steadily developed, increasing the standard of living and economic security of the people, providing free education, health services, housing, child care, and employment for the whole population. Major progress was made toward real equality for women and for all the nationalities across the vast, diverse Soviet Union. All this while the capitalist world suffered the massive unemployment and emiseration of the Great Depression.
During the 1920s and 30s, there were intense debates and struggles over the policies and practices to be followed. The evidence coming to light proves that there were many conspiracies and conspiratorial networks against the predominant policies and leaders. These resulted in instances of sabotage and assassination, in accusations, arrests and trials, and confessions by, convictions of, and imprisonment and sometimes execution of conspirators. There had always been intense debates over the policies and future directions of the Soviet Union. A range of leaders with a wide range of dissenting views were represented in the leadership for the whole period of Soviet history. The notion that any dissenters were repressed and even executed is belied by the evidence. Zinoviev and Kamenev had opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Afterward, they even advocated the handing back of power to some sort of coalition of counter-revolutionary parties in late 1917. They consistently opposed the majority policies of the leadership, regarding the building of socialism, all through the 1920's and 30's. However, despite this ongoing dissension, they were still members of the leadership until their involvement in secret conspiracies to usurp power illegally was exposed in the mid and late 1930's. Similarly, other contending voices, such as Radek, Bukharin and Rykov, were also retained in leading positions until their conspiracies were unmasked.
The fact of these conspiracies is established. However, the reasons that opposition descended into conspiracy needs to be further examined and understood. And even further, how and why these oppositionists went so far as to link themselves to foreign powers, and to plot to at least facilitate or support foreign invasion and defeat of the Soviet Union. Continuing and at times intense debate and struggle over the path to socialism are a reality – capitalism and its supporters do not give up their allegiance to their former power and wealth. Erstwhile revolutionaries can and do retain hallmarks of bourgeois ideology and morality – individualism, selfishness, lust for power or prominence certainty about one's correctness etc all remain in various forms. These characteristics emerge and can then dominate the attitude and conduct of individuals including veteran revolutionaries.
There were also tens of thousands of apparently innocent party members and officials who were “repressed” – accused, dismissed, jailed and even executed. The emerging evidence shows that many of these “repressions” (but by no means all) were conducted by senior officials who were trying to provoke popular opposition to the Soviet government. Some of these leaders, such as leaders of the NKVD, were also motivated to appear “more loyal than the loyal”, to cover their secret disloyalty. The evidence also proves that many of these conspirators were in direct contact with foreign powers, in particular Germany and Japan.
They apparently hoped to utilise a Soviet military defeat or setbacks to overthrow the Soviet leadership and seize power for themselves. Indeed, evidence emerged in 1980s that Hitler expected a military coup in the Soviet Union. These conspiracies even spread to the highest levels of the Politburo and the armed forces.
Even given the inevitability of ongoing struggles as socialist construction proceeds, the reasons that these struggles descended into conspiracies and treachery bears further analysis. In the Soviet Union, the number of these conspiracies is probably an indicator that these disagreements and struggles were not handled well. The fact that a large number of military leaders (allegedly 186) were involved in a conspiracy with Nazi Germany again indicates that something was seriously wrong.
Control of the state administration, armed forces, trade unions and the Communist Party was increasing captured by bureaucrats who appointed their favourites to build a loyal following.
The Politburo leadership was determined to introduce secret, multiple candidate elections for positions at all levels in the state, Party and trade unions in 1936. This was doggedly resisted by the bureaucrats, especially the first secretaries of the provinces and districts, who saw it as a potential threat to their positions and their monopoly of power.
Despite the claims of Stalin's dictatorial power, he and the other election advocates were overruled twice at the Central Committee meetings in 1937. Only one round of elections ever occurred, in the trade unions in 1937. The threat of German invasion and the hugely and deliberately exaggerated threat of internal conspiracies was used as the excuse that elections could not be held at this point.
Although Stalin fought staunchly against the forces of capitalism reappearing in various guises in the USSR, high salaries had begun to be paid to certain managerial elements and cadres. This was noted by the Central Committee of the CPSU, led by Stalin, at its 19th Party Congress held in October 1952. The corrupting influence of this practice was criticised. In the months after Stalin's death, the executive branch of the Soviet government (the Council of Ministers) deprived Party leaders of their extra salaries (“envelopes”) as part of the continuing, or resurrected, campaign to separate Party leadership and state administration, bringing the salaries of Party leaders to a level lower than government leaders. However, Khrushchev and his cronies managed to overturn this decision and have their higher pay restored, with back pay. This episode is representative of the ongoing dispute about the problem of the roles of Party leadership and state administration being intertwined, and the huge power exercised, often in their own interests, by the bureaucrats who straddled both roles and spheres.
The evidence shows that, probably driven by their fears about the real and perceived threats to their power, many of the First Secretaries exaggerated the conspiracies that threatened the Soviet Union, and asked for special powers to repress conspirators. Khrushchev himself asked for central permission to repress “41,805 kulaks and criminals” in Moscow. He asked for permission to repress 17-18,000 persons per month in the Ukraine, and then complained that the central authorities only permitted 2-3,000.
A commonly expressed claim in the anti-communist orthodoxy is that Lavrentii Beria was a ruthless, repressive henchman for Stalin. However, the evidence, including that in the Pospelov Report (drawn up in 1956 to support Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin) shows that after Beria was appointed to head the NKVD (the state security police), arrests dropped by over 90% in 1939 and 1940 compared to the numbers in 1937 and 1938. Executions in 1939 and 1940 dropped to less than 1% of the levels in 1937 and 1938.
And in fact, the repressive acts in Moscow under Khrushchev exceeded those in every other region. The numbers of those repressed in the Ukraine accelerated after his arrival to 106,119 in 1938. He was responsible for the execution of thousands and thousands – far more than any other First Secretary.
Thus, there was an intersection of bureaucratic self-defence and aggrandisement, conspiratorial opposition and treachery, and mass repressions in the late 1930s This was met determinedly by the leadership, although the certainty that war with Germany was inevitable undermined the success of the attempts to reign in the growth and power of the bureaucracies. Stalin in Moscow had believed the reported threats to the security of the Soviet Union and sanctioned repression of leading conspirators. But the leadership argued quite specifically for an individualised, differentiated approach – treating the leading conspirators very firmly but being lenient and understanding with honest people who has been misled or who merely expressed disagreement with official policies. As evidence began to come in about the mass and unjustified repressions, the leadership dug more deeply, and discovered false reports and accusations, and the plots that underlay them. They then took very firm action against leaders, including the heads of the secret police and other authorities responsible
(The fact that the Soviet Union was able, almost singlehandedly, to defeat the Nazi aggression so soon after such internal subversion and challenges was indeed remarkable – see below.)
The growth of German nationalism, militarism and hysterical anti-communism under the Nazi dictatorship, was primarily and overtly directed against the Soviet Union. The Soviet government constantly sought to build a mutual defence alliance with Britain and France, and also with Poland, all of whom prevaricated and ignored the approaches. They involved an offer by Stalin on August 15, 1939 to move a million troops across Poland to the German border according to documents declassified in 2009. The capitalist powers hoped for, and tried to manipulate, a German drive east against the communist USSR. Paradoxically, and to the horror of the western powers, the USSR in the end responded to the clear Nazi threat by signing a non-aggression pact with Germany, to buy time to prepare for the inevitable attack.
Ultimately, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied much of eastern and western Europe, attacked Britain, and then attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the Nazi aggression murder and vicious genocide, and ultimately played by far the major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Only a well-developed, efficiently organised and nationally-united and committed nation could have survived the Nazi onslaught and then managed the defeat of the German war machine.
Toward the end of, and then after, the war, the Soviet Government, traumatised by the experience of German aggression, started to adopt an increasing element of geopolitics in its international policies. The establishment of socialist systems through eastern Europe enabled the reconstruction, modernisation and socialisation of these countries, providing economic security, social services for whole populations in previously devastated, backward, terribly governed countries. These unpopular realities are recognised, for example by Chomsky who is certainly no fan of Marxism, but has the refreshing intellectual honesty to recognise and state the truth. (see "Understanding Power")
However, the liberation of Eastern Europe from the Nazi yoke also provided the Soviet Union with a buffer zone against any future aggression by Germany or other capitalist aggression. Western Communist Party leaders who had spent the war in the Soviet Union were despatched back to their countries to promote a policy of the united front against fascism in order to protect the Soviet Union from future attack. This policy disarmed revolutionary movements that had gathered strength through their courageous leadership of the resistance to Nazi aggression. In a number of countries that remained capitalist after the War, revolutionary movements failed to make the transition from an anti-fascist front in which there was collaboration with democratic bourgeois elements to the new situation which required the proletariat to impose itself upon all elements of the capitalist class.
There was a real prospect of revolutionary success in Greece, and possibly Italy, but these opportunities were not seriously pursued, possibly in return for a buffer zone of socialist states along the Soviet Union’s western borders. Churchill referred to a scrap of paper he had passed to Stalin in 1944 with the percentage of influence the West and Russia would each have in various countries, including Greece (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percentages_agreement ). Whether or not he “ticked” this piece of paper, Stalin was critical of the Greek communists for not adopting military tactics that would have been more successful for them. In January 1945, he told Yugoslav leaders that the Greek communists had been wrong to leave Papandreou’s government. It was a “wrong step taken without our advice…They made it easy for Churchill”.
The death of Stalin in 1953 precipitated the predominance in the Soviet leadership of bureaucrats who formally and quickly led the Soviet Union away from socialism and toward greater bureaucratic control, geopolitical involvement and manipulation, and ultimately capitalist accumulation, leading to the full, overt restoration of capitalism. An analysis of this last development is beyond the scope of this article, but has been extensively analysed in, for example, Martin Nicolaus’ book On the Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR (Liberator Press, Chicago, 1975); How Capitalism Has Been Restored In the Soviet Union (Revolutionary Union, Chicago, 1974 available online here; Joseph Ball’s The Need for Planning: The Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union available here; and Bill Bland’s The Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union available here.
A major criticism of Stalin, made by Khrushchev after Stalin's death was that Stalin had promoted a “cult of the individual”. Certainly, there was a ridiculous level of officially-promoted adoration of Stalin, who came to represent the Soviet Union and socialism in general across the world. This helped anti-Communists to demonise Stalin as the font of all evil.
The evidence shows that Stalin was very critical of this idolatry. He refused to allow Moscow to be renamed Stalinodor (= gift of Stalin), and strongly questioned the motives of those promoting the idolatry, accusing them of “toadying”. These included Radek and Khrushchev, who lauded Stalin to the skies in public but plotted against the leadership in private.
Firstly, and undoubtedly, the long-term dire state of Czarist Russia and its impoverished ignorant population, and its ruthless, greedy but failed participation in that great imperialist project, World War 1, required a socialist revolution.
The potential for a people, despite being isolated and dreadfully backward, to construct socialism, to modernise agriculture and industry through collectivisation, and to feed, house and secure the population through strong leadership and mass mobilisation, is proven.
However, this process is always accompanied by intense debate, disagreement and struggle. And also, inevitably, constant attempts by the defeated capitalist class and its adherents to undermine, obstruct and overthrow the socialist system.
Capitalist society is maintained by a dictatorship of the ruling capitalist class, using ideological hegemony, backed up by force and violent institutions when necessary.
Similarly, the working class and its allies maintain and defend socialism through a dictatorship over the vanquished capitalist class and its constant attempts to undermine and overthrow socialism.
This system is both a dictatorship over the class enemies, and at the same time, is also a democracy for the working class and its allied classes and supporters.
Such a system needs to distinguish between legitimate views and debate about the future directions of the socialist system, and ongoing undermining of, and opposition to, socialism. Mao addressed this problem in his 1957 essay “On the Correct handling of Contradictions Among the People”.
The system must be genuinely democratic for the people, with guaranteed avenues, procedures and rights, protected by socialist law, for people to express their views, supervise their representatives, and recall and replace them as they see fit - a dictatorship of the proletariat, not a dictatorship of the Party or the Party leadership.
The strategic aim of the leadership is to maximise the base for the construction of socialism and narrow the target of those working for capitalist restoration. It must maximise the proportion of the population actively involved in the construction of socialism and the political life of the country by the encouragement of the expression of ideas, including constructive dissension and suggestion, and the taking of initiative and the exercise of power through formal channels. This requires the development and perfection of democratic procedures among the people at all levels of society: political, legal and administrative. It must thereby narrow the proportion of people who are identified as incorrigible opponents who need to be strongly combatted.
The Communist Party's role is to provide ideological, political and moral leadership toward the steady construction of socialism. The state apparatus is separate, and democratically controlled.
Within the Communist Party, there is full democracy and encouragement for members to study, debate and express their views. Once decisions are made, members are obligated to support them publicly (like any effective organisation), though they can continue to contest decisions internally Continuous conscious striving to ascertain facts, study and develop theory to guide practice, and engage in criticism and self-criticism to develop members into selfless courageous committed leaders. This latter requirement is doubly important after revolutions have overthrown fascist or vicious dictatorships, since in such situations a broad spectrum of people flock to and often join the Party as the leading viable vehicle for overthrowing the old regime. Consequently, the Party contains a broad range of views, motivations and interests, so determined conscious ideological development and struggle are required to challenge old bourgeois attitudes and morality that the Party inevitably contains.
The Party requires collective leadership – any singling out of individuals for extra power or adulation sets in process uncritical, deferential attitudes that ultimately disarm the active independent thinking and initiative required of all members.
The maintenance of a positive strong internationalist view and policy requires ongoing ideological struggle to emphasise and continue to develop socialist ideology. The dangers of succumbing to the temptations to secure and advance national interests as the primary goal in specific situations and then on into general longer-term policy needs to be recognised and resisted This has proven difficult in both the USSR and China, as the capitalist powers have continuously harassed, surrounded, undermined and threatened socialist countries, creating a siege mentality, that saw leaders drift into geopolitical self-defensive priorities.
Another lesson is that there are many paths to socialist revolution, that strategies must fit local situations. There can be no revolutionary centre, dictating strategies to other countries. While the Third International was directing communist parties around the globe regarding policies and strategies, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party ignored these dictates and successfully developed their own creative rural-based revolutionary strategies.
In the Australian context, we believe in a strategy of revolution by stages. It recognises the preeminent position of US imperialism at the heart of capitalism in Australia and the need to mobilise all forces, under working class leadership, for the seizure of the assets of the imperialists and the severing of all political, diplomatic, military and other means by which US imperialism imposes its interests and agenda on the Australian ruling class. The principal target at this stage is imperialism. Any national bourgeois elements that ally themselves with the working class will be protected during this stage. Fundamentally socialist in content, this stage elevates the working class to a commanding position over the whole of society and makes possible the peaceful takeover of remnants of capitalism under conditions and on a timeline developed by the independent state during the second stage.