Lessons of the Russian Revolution

Hillel Ticktin discusses the legacy of October 1917 and takes issue with the CPGB over the question of democracy

The Bolshevik Revolution was probably the most important event of the last few thousand years, the most important in the history of class society. It was the first successful attempt to overthrow that society.

It also removed part of the world market and changed the balance of the capitalist powers of the time, effectively locking out France. The Bolshevik revolution weakened the capitalist system both politically and in a military sense, making it much more difficult for the empires to maintain their hold, and for the ruling class to maintain itself. And of course the revolution also inspired the working class elsewhere to overthrow the system.

Because of all these things the Bolshevik revolution changed the whole nature of the epoch. It opened up a new epoch - an epoch of transition, and therefore, in another sense, an epoch of conscious decline. That is why we have to pay tribute to October.

Obviously, the Russian Revolution had a series of dimensions to it. It was above all a revolution of the proletariat of Russia, representing the proletariat of the world. The oppressed national groups were attracted to it or were at least neutral. And the peasantry were also driven towards it, both because of the continuing war and because the landlords would not give them the land. That did not mean that the majority of the petty bourgeoisie of the national groupings or of the peasantry actively supported the revolution. But they could not support the other side.

They did not, however, vote for the Bolshevik Party at the time of the elections for the Constituent Assembly, and Lenin had no compunction about dissolving it in 1918. We note of course that Lenin wanted to take power when the balance of class forces was on the party's side at the beginning of October and Trotsky persuaded him to take power under the aegis of the soviet. Lenin had no real time for formal democracy and that legacy has remained. The point is that the revolution did indeed express the mood of the working class of the time.

The question is not whether one is a Leninist or a Trotskyist, as it were. Anyone who does not take on board Trotsky's critique of the USSR is not, in my view, a Marxist. But that does not mean you have to agree with everything that Trotsky said, and, as you know, I do not agree, for example, that the USSR was a workers' state. Nationalisation was not enough by itself to justify defending the Soviet Union.

At the same time both Lenin and Trotsky were great men, great communists, each making their own contributions, but each of them making their own mistakes, stemming from their different theoretical views, which are fascinating to explore. Where they did not disagree was over the militarisation of labour. They disagreed on trade unions, but not on the militarisation of labour, which was the policy of the party at the time. It is not as if Trotsky wanted to turn workers into regiments of an army, but he was arguing for the trade unions to have a more disciplined approach. Given what was occurring at the time, it actually might have helped the country.

It is over points concerning these questions that I do not agree with Jack Conrad and the CPGB. First, the question of the peasantry. Since the majority of peasants were not in fact workers, unlike in some countries, and effectively had petty bourgeois aspirations, it was highly unlikely that the majority would support the Bolshevik Party. It was much more likely that they would either be neutral or be opposed, which is what actually happened.

Lenin, like Trotsky, was a classical Marxist and never saw any equality between the peasantry and the proletariat. It is not a question of underrating the peasantry, but simply of accepting the leading role of the proletariat, given the fact that the peasantry have interests which are petty bourgeois. This does raise a negative question about Lenin's original formulation, the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'. For me, I have to say that this is a mystical concept. How can you have an equation between the two? No such form of rule ever came into existence, and I cannot see how it could ever have done so. The proletariat took power; the peasantry did not. At first there was a coalition, but it very quickly broke up.

If you are conducting a war, you cannot permit policy to be determined by sectional interests. How does this affect the peasantry? Of course, one argues for an alliance with them. One attracts them simply by putting forward class demands. Some comrades seem to be saying, 'We'll tell them what they want to hear, even if we don't agree with it.' It would have been wrong to simply lie to the peasantry and pretend there would never be any form of collectivisation in the future. It is wrong to deceive the peasantry. If one is honest, one would say that leadership rests exclusively with the working class. It cannot be shared.

In reality, what you have to say to the peasantry is, 'We are going to lead, but we are going to concede to you demands for the overthrow of the landlords. To begin with we will give you your plots as they stand. Only when we have sufficient machinery, only when we know you'll be much better off by having bigger entities will we ask you to accept them.'

But we know that not all the peasants would have voted for that. Obviously, workers and small farmers would, but the others wanted to retain control over what they had. However, in the end the peasantry did support the Bolshevik Party because they had no alternative, because if the landlords had come back they would have expropriated the peasantry.

Lenin often formulated things in terms that would attract the groups he was moving towards. In this sense, he was much more political than Trotsky, which is what Lenin meant when he said that Trotsky was more attracted to administrative rather than political solutions - a correct assessment.

Next, the question of democracy. How far can you have democracy within a civil war, a semi-war, etc? Obviously in some senses all socialists are democrats, but in some senses socialists are not democrats either. Socialism goes beyond democracy, which is attacked from Marx onwards precisely because it requires a state. We must go beyond formal democracy towards genuine self-determination, as it were: the freedom of the individual within society. This means that we obviously cannot get what we want while we are struggling.

Secondly, capitalism ensures that we cannot have even formal democracy. We know that. We know the nature of elections. While we struggle with them and work with them - because we have to - what we are saying to people is that we want a lot more than this. More real control over society than simply the right to vote every few years.

This means that socialists, just as Lenin and Trotsky did, have an ambiguous attitude towards democracy, because they know the way it is controlled by the capitalist class. This was a necessary feature of what happened between 1917 and 1921. The defence of terror by Trotsky - with the endorsement of Lenin and the leadership of the Bolshevik Party - took place against a background where there was no alternative. You cannot have democracy in the middle of a battle. The kinds of democracy that were actually available were extremely limited. Of course, we have to say that we are in favour of maximum control from below and in principle we are in favour of the working class itself being in control. But if the conditions do not allow it, they do not allow it. Look at the reality of Russia after the revolution.

As regards the internal life of the party, Trotsky, I think, was wrong in 1923 not to take Lenin's advice and take power. The world would have been very, very different had he done so. Trotsky's argument was that the party had to be in favour. But by this time the Bolshevik Party had been completely reconstructed. What on earth was Trotsky doing relying on 'democracy' that had been reconstructed by Stalin?

It does seem to me that at the present time there is a considerable fetish for formal democracy. We are moving into a period where our struggle will be much bigger, much more important, and we shall have to fight with those people who see democracy in purely formal ways. We will have to fight with the anarchists, for instance.

Then there is the question of the national minorities. The Bolshevik government was really the first in this period to actually take strong measures against discrimination, particularly against anti-semitism. But it was some time before it understood the nature of the discrimination. At first the Bolsheviks did not really understand the national differences of the Ukraine - not altogether surprising, given the fact that at the time the Bolsheviks had very little support in the Ukraine. The working class was predominantly Russian and tended to support the Mensheviks. There was insufficient contact between the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian working class, though, after 1919, under the leadership of Christian Rakovsky, a policy of Ukrainianisation was introduced.

This issue raises a more general question about the right of nations to self-determination and the question of national liberation - what it meant then and what it came to mean later. As we know, both the Bolsheviks and Lenin claimed the right of nations to self-determination, and president Wilson of the United States had the same slogan. I do not think that is any coincidence. However, if we actually look back, the Bolshevik Party never implemented it - and could not. That is, if you look at it in a realistic way. If you want to use sophistry, you can say that they implemented it 100% - for instance, in the case of Finland, which is always cited as proof. In the wake of a revolution in Finland, the Bolsheviks recognised the right of the Finnish government to suppress their Finnish comrades and they just accepted that. They said: 'You are an independent country and have the right to overthrow us, so goodbye.'

Of course, this is nonsense. In reality, there was no way the Bolsheviks could have helped the Finnish proletariat at that time. They were surrounded. They just could not get there. What they did was simply to make the best of the situation. The duty of the Bolshevik Party was not simply to say 'Goodbye'. Their duty, as comrades, was to assist their Finnish comrades, but the problem was they just could not do it.

On the other hand, they walked into the Ukraine, where they did not have great support. They conquered the Ukraine - that is what it boils down to - though it was obviously in the interests of the proletariat of the Ukraine for them to do so. The Ukrainians were not given the right to self-determination and that is the reality. The Bolshevik Party took power there from outside. Of course, in so far as they removed the landlords and so forth, they had a degree of support, and in so far as they represented that which was progressive, they were acting in the interests of the Ukraine. But, as for the right of nations to self-determination, clearly they did not give it.

In other words, the right of nations to self-determination cannot simply be made into an absolute slogan. Lenin's strength as well as his weakness was the way he adapted the slogans of the Bolshevik Party to the time and clearly, given the suppression of the national minorities by tsarism, he required a slogan which would appeal to those groups. Hence he adopted the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination.

Ever since, people have pointed out the contradiction - to use that word in a non-Marxist sense - between the slogan and the reality. The first duty of a communist, socialist or Marxist is towards the working class - the working class should be given a chance to take power. The right of nations to self-determination is thus a secondary slogan. It was and remains a bourgeois slogan, which can only apply under special circumstances. Remember, it was Luxemburg who regarded the whole thing as nonsense - unfeasible under capitalism and unnecessary under socialism.

Of course, cultural forms of oppression have to be removed, but not necessarily by having a separate state. That discussion was held in the Social Democratic Party of Austria in particular, because of the different entities that existed in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was Otto Bauer who then argued for autonomy and it was Lenin who argued differently. In fact it was the work of Stalin on the national question which set the tone. I do not know if comrades have been unfortunate enough to read Stalin on the national question - I would not advise it. Its superficial simplicity has no dynamic to it. You cannot really apply it to any situation. All you can do is enforce it, which is basically what was done.

All nations clearly have the right to cultural self-determination and autonomy, but do they have the right to secede from a union rather than demand the abolition of discrimination and autonomy? The issue arose where a petty bourgeoisie effectively wanted to secede from a proletarian state. Clearly the Ukraine was given no choice. The Bolsheviks, by marching in, did give the Ukrainians cultural autonomy. Again, logically there would be a policy of subsidy for the Ukraine, not the reverse, though under Stalin it was the reverse: that is to say, there was a flow of surplus product towards the centre.

The slogan of self-determination led to the slogan of 'national liberation', which I certainly do not support and I do not think any socialist ought to support, since it places the concept of one nation fighting against a metropolitan power above the class struggle. In practice, since Stalin took over, there was a whole series of regimes coming into power which consisted of either national bourgeoisies or some kind of elite - the proletariat was always subordinated to them and invariably the left was suppressed or killed. 'National liberation' has often been justified in terms of the right of nations to self-determination.

Many people argue that, even though the Russian Revolution itself did not go the way it ought to have gone, nonetheless Stalin, Khrushchev or whoever did support national liberation struggles, which were progressive. I say, that is not true. What it meant was that in various countries of the world the left could not take power. It actually set the world back. So that is not, as it were, a 'success' of October. If we look at the destruction of Africa in the period in which we live, 'national liberation' has everything to do with it. Nationalism stands directly opposed to socialism. One can never be a nationalist and a socialist.

Of course there is a national question which one has to deal with, but how does one deal with it? What is the national question? It seems to consist of two aspects. One is the exploitation of certain countries by a metropolitan power - the transfer of surplus value and surplus product. Those who call on workers to subordinate themselves to the bourgeoisie in a national movement are simply not socialists. They have become simple nationalists. That is exactly what has happened in the last 60 or 70 years.

I accept that in principle we accept the maximum degree of devolution. At certain times it will be the case that the proletariat in a particular country will want to secede, because they will find it easier to establish control away from the centre. We will have to accept that. But, having said all that, we cannot simply go around talking about the self-determination of nations as an actual right. It clearly is not. It is a bourgeois democratic right. That does not mean to say that a bourgeois democratic right is necessarily wrong, but it does mean that the class struggle is primary. The proletariat has to take power.

In the end cultural repression will tend to remain in whatever form, even if there is a degree of secession, autonomy or whatever, simply because of the nature of capitalism. If a country has acquired full cultural autonomy, is able to use its own language, etc, the determining factor remains that it is dependent economically. So in the end only under socialism will we actually see the end of cultural and national oppression, the end to the exploitation of one country by another. So the right of nations to self-determination - in the fullest sense - is impossible under capitalism.

Turning to Russia itself and the question of democracy, in his History Trotsky looked at the ebbs and flows in the mood of the masses. He implies that in any period when the working class takes power, there is going to be such an ebb and flow and the question then is how the party relates to that. In Russia, the working class gradually shifted to the far left of the Bolshevik Party, but that did not happen all in one go.

How does one understand the question of the ebb and flow of the masses in relation to democracy? One has to say that one cannot look at it in a purely abstract sense. Clearly the argument has to be made that the party acts in the long-term interests of the proletariat, but at any one time the masses may be demoralised. The question then is how the party actually relates to a demoralised mass. How does it deal with this situation? Of course, the party itself must have a degree of internal democracy in order to ensure that it does have some kind of contact, it does relate back to the working class itself. Clearly, one is not talking about formal democracy, but about a new evolution over time under socialism, with genuine control from below.

Let us now look at what followed from October 1917. It was, of course, no accident that the revolution spread outward. Even where the revolution failed, as in Iran, China, Hungary, Bavaria, etc, its legacy continued. It rendered capitalism unstable and with it imperialism and its colonial conquests.

The bourgeois reply appears to have been five-pronged. In the first instance, they sought to overthrow the October Revolution in its heartland, causing enormous suffering - more than seven million deaths in the Civil War, effectively due to the bourgeoisie. Secondly, where threats appeared, the bourgeoisie took strong action, or at least accepted strong action, as in the case of fascism. Fascism in fact was against their immediate interests, but served them by destroying the left: for example, in Germany, which had the most powerful working class in the world.

Third, with the revolution encircled and cordoned off, it was doomed. Their success in keeping the revolution to one country led to the rise of Stalin and Stalinism, which arose precisely because the revolution could not spread. Stalinism in a sense was the only kind of counterrevolution possible at the time, but it was highly successful in destroying the revolution itself. Hence, the bourgeoisie at the time greeted the rise of Stalin and the defeat of Trotsky favourably, as the beginning of a period of stability.

The fourth strategy arose out of the depression, which controlled the working class, as depressions always have in the past. Finally, when direct force and depression could no longer be kept up, they made concessions in the developed countries by introducing full employment with a welfare state, and in the colonies by handing them over to the national bourgeoisies.

We can, therefore, say that the bourgeoisie used direct force to repel revolution and this succeeded in preventing its spread and causing its impoverishment. This in turn doomed the revolution as revolution. Nonetheless, the threat of the working class remained and the bourgeoisie used war, depression, fascism and Stalinism to contain the working class. They were successful in preventing a socialist revolution coming about, but at an enormous cost - and not just to the working class and to mankind, but to themselves too.

So-called globalisation must be seen in this context: as a means of reversing this partial destruction of the market economy, and an attempt to return to 1914, but it is utopian. Capital is not capital if it is not expanding. Like a shark which must continuously take in water, it must expand its value and if it hits a barrier it is in trouble. In reality, the attempt to phase in a new period of US-dominated capital expansion is doomed, because the national bourgeoisies formed in the last period are not going to be gobbled up, because workers are not going to accept ever higher rates of unemployment, but above all because free competition is itself impossible. Removal of protection only means that big capital situated in the United States can dictate its prices both of goods and labour-power, as is most clear in pharmaceuticals and in agricultural goods. The attempt to return to a pre-1914 status quo of a world ruled by an empire, then British and now American, simply cannot work, precisely because the workers have already seen an alternative.

Turning to the question of the epoch itself, it has become one of transition to socialism. Trotsky at one point says that the reason we have a transitional period is that the social democrats have betrayed us. In other words, had the social democrats in Germany in 1918 joined forces with the revolution, things would have been very different. You can argue, of course, that the German social democrats were determined by the nature of the period itself, but nonetheless it was their conscious decision not to join forces with the revolutionary left.

The other aspect of this transitional period is, of course, the rise of Stalinism, making it even more difficult to move towards socialism. So we're talking about a whole period that opened up precisely because the working class did take power in Russia, but which was unable to proceed further. The forms of capitalism we know - the welfare state, semi-full employment, state control - are all part of the evolution of a declining capitalism, but the transitional aspect has pushed these aspects much further than they would have gone without October. Nationalisation of bankrupt industries may have been inevitable, but it would have been less extensive and taken longer. Government controls over industry, so-called planning, etc are aspects which went much further than the simple expression of decline.

At the same time, the attempt to reverse this process, which is indeed both a saviour of capitalism and inimical to it, cannot succeed, both because a declining capitalism simply cannot accommodate it and because the working class cannot accept it. At the time of the revolution, Marxists accepted the proposition that finance capital was dominant and that it was its particular attributes which had led to imperialism and war. It was the most obvious aspect of the decadence of capitalism.

The overthrow of capitalism in Russia threw finance capital into a crisis from which it cannot recover. For the first time a country repudiated its debts in their entirety. France was knocked out as a finance capitalist country and Germany also lost out. Britain was too big an imperial power to lose in the same way and it had not invested to the same degree. The instability of France and Germany was, therefore, increased - or rather the power of the ruling class in both those countries was reduced. The basic nature of the ruling class in both those countries was changed. At one and the same time, the role of Great Britain and the United States was reinforced, while the ruling classes of those countries were compelled to find an alternative means of control over the working class.

Fundamentally, however, the precedent of repudiation of debt has placed finance capital in a position where it remains concerned about its investment outside the imperial powers unless there is an army present. Again we see the propaganda about globalisation is intended to ensure that investment can be placed and withdrawn at will. In the period after the revolution Trotsky argued that underdeveloped countries would not be able to develop to the same level as the metropolitan countries and indeed we have seen that insight vindicated today. It was the Cold War which led the United States to build up East Asia and South East Asia, but even then they are far from the US and Europe.

October ushered in a period of permanent wars and revolutions. Under Stalinism that took the form of Stalinist wars, Stalinist-type liberation struggles and the war with fascism. That period is now over: we can now anticipate that we will return to the situation as it was after the revolution - with the difference, of course, that there is no revolution.

The revolution is in the changed epoch in which we live, where the bourgeoisie constantly struggles to find viable forms of exploitation, where the proletariat is conscious that capitalism can be overthrown and where the very concessions that are the fruit of the revolution provide the wherewithal for workers and intellectuals to understand and develop revolutionary theory.

Let me return briefly to what happened in the USSR itself, as it is of great importance. Since the archives have been opened, very little new has been discovered. Even when one looks at the relationship between Stalin and the party, most of it was already known: Trotsky brought it out a long time ago. Many people did not believe Trotsky, and that today represents a big difference, because now the documents are there for people to see that he was right.

For instance, Stalin claimed that Trotsky played no role at all in 1917 and thereafter - a completely absurd statement, but one which was generally believed. One of the documents that has emerged shows that Stalin actually invented a meeting supposedly held on October 14 1917, at which Trotsky was not present and Stalin was cast in the role of the organiser of the revolution. This meeting never took place. It was invented by Stalin after the death of Lenin and he drew up a whole series of forged documents. His secretary at the time died in the early 1950s and she left a note saying that this was all a forgery. What you discover in the archives, then, is the way that Stalinists changed the history of the party.

For the Russian empire itself and most particularly for its peoples the Russian Revolution produced mixed results. In the first instance October saved them from further war, destruction and famine. It protected minorities who might otherwise have suffered more. But because the bourgeoisie launched counterrevolutionary intervention which was followed by a genuine counterrevolution - that of Stalin - the whole population suffered enormously. Seven million killed in the civil war, millions in the subsequent famine and then at least eight million in Stalin's famine of 1933 and perhaps 20 million in the purges and 27 million in World War II.

The question that then arises is, whom do we blame? Do we blame the revolution itself? No, the real blame lies with the world bourgeoisie, who launched their intervention in an attempt to destroy what had happened in October. Had they not done so, things would have been very different.

The second question is, were there any 'gains of October' that remained? Did the revolution live on in the lives of the working class of the USSR? Clearly the form lived on, but it became its opposite, in that the revolution and Lenin were worshipped, while its goals were suppressed. In my view, by 1927, there was nothing left of substance. There was nothing to defend. Simple nationalisation is not a reason to defend a country. Stalin killed all the revolutionaries that survived the civil war and introduced a society which was an historical abortion.

The aspects of a welfare state came after Stalin, really as a method of the elite to maintain power. It was Khrushchev who was mainly responsible for that aspect, but it had nothing to do with the revolution. When the USSR came to an end, there was nothing to defend and everything to overthrow. Unfortunately the elite knew when to end the system and re-establish themselves.

As regards the theoretical nature of the actual revolution itself, the question remains: was it breaking the chain at its weakest link? Is that a correct analogy? Clearly the chain did not break or, if it did, it reconstituted itself with a few links less. It think it would be better to say that the foundations of the system were greatly weakened, threatening the whole edifice, but the edifice has managed to recuperate by shoring up the foundations in a new way.

The majority of the party, including Lenin, did not know what was going to happen. Usually people argue that Lenin was more cautious because he preferred to take the peace of Brest-Litovsk and build the base in Russia rather than pursuing a revolutionary war, whereas the left of the party - Bukharin, Preobrazhensky, Pokrovsky, in fact a large majority of the central committee - opposed Lenin, believing that in making peace they were dooming themselves.

Looking back today, it seems that the idea of making peace, while allowing the German proletariat time to make revolution, was a wild gamble. In fact, however, it was a gamble either way. I think it is true that socialism is inevitable - a proposition that makes academic audiences jump up and down and declare that I am an idiot. But if you look at history and you understand the decline of capitalism, the decline of value, you can see that in, say, 300 years hence only the shell of capitalism will actually be left. It will have to be overthrown by the working class, but they will need only to push very gently to topple its structure. Hence, socialism is inevitable in the sense that the working class must take power.

Where October was concerned, however, to take power was a gamble, but not to take power was also a gamble. If the Bolsheviks had not done so, it is possible that the German revolution would have been made easier: partly because the bourgeoisie were not forewarned, partly because the left would not have been tied up with Russia, partly because the Russians dominated the left after they took power. Russia was undoubtedly a backward country and while socialism could not be built in one country and is a world system or nothing, nonetheless, the more backward the country, the easier to take power, but the more difficult to hold on or to build anything from that point. Of course, there is the additional point that socialists are necessarily isolated from the majority in a backward country and it is easier for the bourgeoisie to mount an international invasion against them. The question then is whether the taking of power in a backward country did not make the process more difficult.

But the real gamble was on whether October would assist the German revolution, and that issue cannot be resolved because Stalin prevented a successful German revolution taking place. The first time he did it through sheer stupidity by instructing Tukhachevsky to march directly on Warsaw, where there would be an uprising, according to him. Lenin, who by that time was desperate, endorsed the strategy. The aim was to get to the borders of Germany in order to assist the events over there. Trotsky was opposed to it. There was no uprising and Tukhachevsky's troops were exhausted on arriving near Warsaw and easily defeated. The second time occurred because Stalin refused to assist Brandler in March 1923.

So there was no world revolution. Given all the revolutions, general strikes and actions on the part of the working class in 1919 in particular, one can argue that this failure was only a result of historical accident. After all, the situation may be ripe, the working class ready - ie, all objective and subjective conditions in place, with a superiority of forces - and yet the bourgeoisie may win. As in any war, what happens depends on the strategy and tactics of the time, and the working class may make the wrong choices.

Were Lenin and Trotsky correct to take power then? Undoubtedly, in my view, but it was a much bigger gamble than they expected, in every way. Would anyone go for a revolution knowing that seven million would die as a result in civil war, and millions more later?

There is a view that the revolution itself was premature. We ought to wait until the forces of production are adequately developed for socialism before we can take power. Claudin, Pierre Rousset and others since have argued this case. This appears to me to be nonsense. Firstly, if we are to wait then we should wait another 300 years or so, when technology has so far advanced that there is de facto socialism, the underlying rate of profit is zero and prices are purely arbitrary. In other words, we would wait until capitalism is a mere shell. In the meantime, mankind must continue to suffer, although it has the means to introduce a human society.

Secondly, the means of production will always be developed much faster in a humane direction by socialism. That means that a revolution could have taken place even in 1848, provided it was a world revolution. All that is needed is that ability to develop the means of production, not its actual development.

To sum up: the October revolution lives in all its glory in the nature of the epoch: an epoch of stalemate, in which neither side has been able to win. The epoch itself opened up with the October revolution in a temporary form and was then made permanent by the betrayal of the social democrats and later by the Stalinist counterrevolution.