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Lenin and the Russian Revolution (Part 1)

The SPGB view expressed repeatedly 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 world 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 . The SPGB would classify the Russian Revolution as a bourgeoise 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. The Bolsheviks performed the task of setting Russian capitalism on its feet .

"No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room within it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society" - Marx

The Bolsheviks, however, thought it possible for an active minority, representing the aspirations of the workers, to gain political power before the capitalist revolution itself had been completed. But what would happen if such a minority gained a political victory over the capitalist classes? In those circumstances, the minority become merely the tools of the capitalist class, which has not been virile enough to gain or hold power. Such a minority finds itself in the position of having to develop and run capitalism for a class unable, at the time, to do it successfully itself. In running capitalism, the minority will be compelled to use its power to keep the working class in its wage-slave position. The SPGB argument is that the material conditions in Russia meant the development of capitialism, which the Bolsheviks were unable to avoid. In fact, they became its agents .

There have been two views of the Bolshevik revolution and regime held by various SPGB members. One is that Lenin and his party were genuine socialists who were inevitably bound to fail to introduce socialism because the conditions weren't there for this and that their method of minority dictatorship was wrong. The other is that they were elitists ( Jacobinists or Blanquists) from the start who were always going to establish the rule of a new elite even though they labelled themselves socialists. Rather than Bolshevik elitism was an inevitable product of the decision to build state capitalism in Russia in the aftermath of the October revolution, it was the other way round, the decision to build state capitalism was an inevitable product of the Bolsheviks' elitism.

The SPGB also argued that Lenin despite his claims that he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions, he was far from changing the course of history, it was, in fact, the course of history which changed him. Lenin made a great miscalculation. He believed that the working masses of the western world were so war weary that upon the call from one of the combatants they would rise and force their various governments to negotiate peace. Unfortunately these masses had neither the knowledge nor the organisation necessary for such a movement, and no response was given to the call.

Besides the SPGB, there were a group of Marxist thinkers who came to regard Bolshevism , from the start, as a “bourgeois” ideology. These include Anton Pannekoek, in his Lenin As Philosopher and Helmut Wagner in The Bourgeois Role of Bolshevism and (under the name of Rudolf Sprenger) Bolshevism. Their argument, based on Marx’s materialist conception of history, is along these lines. Capitalism in Russia, which began to develop in the last quarter of the 19th century, had its own special features. The capitalists there were weak and dependent on both the Tsarist government and on foreign investors. As a result they were politically isolated and incapable of leading the revolution against Tsarism which was necessary for the full development of capitalism in Russia. The task of overthrowing the Tsar — Russia's bourgeois or capitalist revolution — thus fell into other hands, those of the intelligentsia, a social group peculiar to the Russia of that time made up of university-trained people employed in various professional capacities by the government. The anti-Tsarist struggle, and its theory, was started by sections of this intelligentsia. In view of the weakness and cowardice of Russia's capitalists (and, in the early stages, of the virtual absence of capitalism) it was not really surprising that these revolutionaries should be attracted by anti-capitalist ideas. The great bulk of them, even though they never claimed to be Marxists, always regarded themselves as socialists. Later some, including Lenin, did pick up a few of Marx's ideas but this still did not mean that their theories served the interest of the working class. Lenin's theory of the vanguard party, which says that the revolution can only be achieved by a party of professional revolutionaries leading the discontented masses was taken from the Russian revolutionary tradition. It can be traced back through Tkachev and Ogarev to Western European thinkers like Babeuf and Buonarroti whose idea of revolution was coloured by the French Bourgeois Revolution. 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 or capitalist 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 on Lenin's previous distortion of Marxism into the ideology of that same class while it was struggling for power.

The soviets first appeared in Russia in 1905. These were councils that had arisen spontaneously out of the January-February 1905 strike. The 1905 soviets were independent of any external initiatives. The popularity of these soviets among the masses derived largely from the absence of political agitators and party representatives in their midst. They expressed the workers' political and economic demands in a situation where trade unions were non-existent and where the parties had little real influence over the masses. It was quite different in 1917. Although the February strikes were completely spontaneous the councils did not arise directly out of them as they had done twelve years earlier. The first Provisional Soviet contained no factory delegates! The 1917 soviets were neither an entirely spontaneous nor a completely original institution. What had changed from 1905 was the way the parties now assessed soviets , and seeing 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. Trotsky said “Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets..." The soviets proved to be the dispensable means to an end for the Bolsheviks.

The SPGB recognised the unique role of the soviets in the absence of legitimate bourgeois parliamentary government but as a product of backward political conditions they were easily used by the Bolsheviks. The most consistent supporters of "All Power to the Soviets" were the Bolsheviks - but just as long as the Bolsheviks held the majority and were in control. Once Bolshevik power was established the soviets simply became an emasculated rubber stamp for party rule .

"The heart of the matter was that the Mensheviks and SRs were winning in the elections to the soviets in addition to regaining control of local trade unions and dumas. The process of the Menshevik-SR electoral victories threatened Bolshevik power. That is why in the course of Spring and Summer of 1918, the soviet assemblies were disbanded in most cities and villages.To stay in power , the Bolsheviks had to destroy the soviets.Local power was handed over to ExComs, the Cheka, the military ,and special emissaries with "unlimited dictatorial power". These steps generated a far-reaching transformation in the soviet system, which remained "soviet" in name only " - Brovkin

The Bolsheviks said "All power to the Soviets". Just four days after seizing power the Central Executive Committee which was meant to be the highest organ of soviet power was sidelined when the Bolshevik Council of People's Commissars ( or Sovnarkom) unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect that made clear the government's pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ.Within a month of taking power they had dissolved one of those soviets, and dissolved another 17 days later. The Bolsheviks had no problem at all with their "worker's state" suppressing workers' expressions of power.When it was beneficial to the Bolsheviks, they said "All power to the Factory Committees" but 9 days after taking power, they subordinated the factory committees to the trades unions and congresses which were more under the control of the Bolsheviks, and to the state itself under the direct control of the Bolsheviks. When the Mensheviks and SRs won majorities in soviets the offending soviets were disbanded, that their papers were closed down, their members harrassed, exiled and shot. The Constituent Assembly to which all parties of the Russian revolutionary left worked toward even the Bolsheviks, and elected on the basis of the first free vote in that country, was abolished after only one day in session because the Bolsheviks were in the minority. Lenin helped not only impose such conditions but deliberately smeared left critics as counter-revolutionaries to tie them in with those who were in arms against the Bolshevik government. The Cheka, which was set up within a few weeks of October and the Commissar of Justice was Steinberg, a member of the Left SRs. but he could never get control of the Cheka because the Cheka only answered to the Bolshevik party central committee, in violation of the soviet principle.

Trotsky said in History of the Russian Revolution that "The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry ." In other words , the soviets existed to allow the party to influence the workers. But what if the workers reject the decisions of the party? What happens when the workers refuse to be set in motion by the party but instead set themselves in motion and reject the Bolsheviks? What then for the soviets? The soviets were marginalised and undermined by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and neutered of any power simply because they often did reflect the wishes of the working class and not those of the Bolshevik Party.The soviets would have to be tamed by whatever means possible in favour of party power. 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."

For the SPGB the opportunism the Bolsheviks was demonstrated by the instructions to its followers in the more advanced capitalist countries to adopt the policy of "revolutionary parliamentarianism" aiming not to smash the state and transfer power to soviets , but to capture state power without recourse to the supposed more democratic universal form of the soviet .

Russia could not escape its destiny. The whole Russian anti-Tsarist revolutionary tradition, not just the Bolsheviks, was elitist, and in a direct line of succession from the Jacobin elitism of the French bourgeois revolutionaries via the detour of Kautskyism "trade union consciousness". In view of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie, the bourgeois task of clearing away the obstacle that Tsarism was to the further development of capitalism in Russia fell to another social group, the Intelligentsia Because most of the revolutionary intelligentsia despised bourgeois culture their anti-Tsarism revolution, when it came, took on a "socialist" cloak. The Capitalist revolution without the Capitalist.

Socialism can only be achieved by a politically conscious working class. It is the experience of workers under capitalism which drives them to understand the need for socialism and this process is enhanced by the degree of democracy which they have won for themselves. Dictatorial power wielded by a vanguard minority, no matter how sincere its intentions, can never act as a substitute. That way the workers remain a subject class and the dictators, having acquired a taste for power, consolidate their own rule. Socialist society will reflect how things are struggled for, which methods were used . A democratic society of common ownership cannot be built other than through democratic movement, through education, knowledge and commitment to peaceful methods because doing otherwise only replicates bourgeois methods, replicates all that is wrong in the old society. That those forces aligned against the Bolsheviks maintained a brutality against workers and peasants does not excuse the same brutality against workers and peasants meted out by the Bolsheviks. Lenin condemned what he termed "bourgeois moralism" and concepts such as "democracy". His was a new moralism that meant anything could be done to preserve Bolshevik power and it found its final expression in the gulags of Stalin.


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