Russia 1917 and the global revolution

What were the conditions that made Russia ripe for revolution? What were the factors that led to its failure? Boris Kagarlitsky , one of Russia's leading Marxists, argues for a dialectical approach in analysing the Soviet Union and resuming the tasks of October

There are whole libraries full of books about the Russian Revolution, its consequences and the historical lessons that can be learnt from it.

Most of those written in the Soviet Union are not only rubbish, but contradict each other - even in the lies they tell. Whole episodes and politically influential figures were simply wiped out. Not just those like Trotsky or Bukharin, but ironically Stalin also during the Khrushchev period. It is not only that Stalin was not discussed critically in the literature of the time, but rather that from the mid-1950s onwards he is not even mentioned at all. One of the ironies of history is that Stalin's post-mortem became a victim of the school of Stalinist falsification.

It is not, however, a question of personalities and I do not think that it is necessary to go into too much detail discussing individual politics and individual strategies which were confronting each other in 1917. After all, our job is not simply to discuss history or to analyse the new archives that have been released in the former Soviet Union. There are certainly some interesting materials which came to the fore in the early to mid-90s, but these were released by people interested in spreading anti-communist propaganda, which called into question their objective scholarship. However, the situation in Russia has since changed - and with it the atmosphere in the academic community, making it increasingly difficult to obtain access to these archives.

Rather than personalities I would like to discuss the general historical consequences of the Russian Revolution. We can dismiss the idea that the revolution was simply a conspiracy, an aberration of history, or 'just a mistake', as many liberal thinkers claim.

Why Russia?

Our starting point ought to be that by 1916 Russia faced a collapse of the old order. It was not just the tsarist government, not just the political system, that was falling apart, but the whole social and economic order. The transport system was, for example, collapsing - shells and ammunition could not be transported to the front, as well as food to cities like St Petersburg. This led to the food crisis which provoked the February revolution.

But it is not simply that the political and economic system was brought to its knees in World War I - liberals and communists alike agree that the war was a disaster for Russia: the crisis ran much deeper than this. The very nature of Russian capitalism, as it emerged in the late 19th century, was shaped in such a way that it led to an inevitable catastrophe. As with the Soviet Union under Stalin, there was much emphasis on speedy industrialisation in order to catch up and overtake the industrial west.

The reason it did not work was that Russian capitalism developed quite late and was not only backward, but was part of the capitalist periphery. If you examine the history of the Russian empire, what is really astounding is how the development of the Russian empire since the 17th century was based on decisions determined by the British empire. Russian capitalism was actually dependent upon developments within western capitalism. This is, of course, problematic. If Russia had merely been backward, then it could have simply tried to 'run faster' and catch up with the west. However, as it was dependent on the west, 'running faster' did not help - the relationship of Russia to western capitalism was much more like that of a horse to its rider than that of two runners in the same race.

An important aspect of this was that Russia not only retained the structures of landlordism, with serfdom only being abolished in 1861 (only for certain aspects of this social relationship to be reintroduced in the 1880s). But these elements of pre-capitalism were actually successfully integrated into the capitalist system and into the process of capital accumulation.

Rosa Luxemburg's Accumulation of capital gives a very good account of all this, although it has not been fully appreciated by the left. It is admittedly a long book and difficult to read. Nevertheless it is one of the most important contributions to Marxism in the early 20th century. One sees from this book that things did not turn out exactly how Marx envisaged in 1848, when he and Engels said in the Communist manifesto that the bourgeoisie was "transforming the world according to its own image". Mario Koestler, another German Marxist, later observed that the bourgeoisie did not transform the world according to its own image, but rather according to its own needs, and so it was with Russia - this semi-feudal, landlordist, agricultural economy was quite successfully integrated into the new market economy and into the process of capital accumulation.

For example, peasants were exploited in a feudal way, but the grain was sold on the world market and the money earned went into the financial markets, which in turn financed the banks. These banks were also involved in funding Russian industry. Then there was French capital, which was not only significant for the economic development, but also the political development of Russia: from the French point of view a semi-feudal system without democracy made for good investment, which could also influence political decisions in Russia, such as the decision to fight on the same side as France in World War I.

These elements of feudalism and capitalism were so integrated that Russian capitalism and landlordism were like Siamese twins - when one dies, then the other is doomed to die. So in that sense we can say that the collapse of the backward Russian state was because of the crisis in 1916. When the war started, this state was so technologically and organisationally weak that it could not successfully fight against a power like Germany. Yet the point is that it was not just the pre-capitalist structures in Russia that collapsed: their collapse necessarily killed Russian capitalism, which was so organically linked to those structures.

In that sense there is a similarity with Latin America today. Latifundismo is more like a post-feudalist or landlordist phenomenon than a capitalist one. It is so integrated in the process of capital accumulation that once reform is introduced - even reform that is not in itself anti-capitalist - it strikes a blow at the whole system. This explains why even moderate leftwing governments like Lula's are so scared of agrarian reform: they do not know where they could end up as a result - possibly a revolution! One that could go beyond social democracy.

So it was not the development of capitalism which was leading to this anti-capitalist revolution in Russia, but rather its underdevelopment. Suddenly there was a situation where not only the pre-capitalist state has collapsed, but capitalism is not able to replace pre-capitalist forms and structures along the lines of the classical French or English model. In Russia the bourgeoisie collapsed together with the pre-bourgeois classes!

What sort of revolution?

On the other hand, Russia is not ready for socialism. This was accepted by broad layers of the Marxist movement, from Lenin and Trotsky to Kautsky and Martov. Here was one area where Lenin definitely agreed with Kautsky. So who can bring order to society when capitalism has collapsed? Only a radical socialist party could provide psychological, political and moral leadership - no matter how small the party (or the working class). All other parties had not only failed, but were a total disaster. The working class, with its alternative concept of society and alternative understanding of how production and distribution could be organised, was the only social force capable of acting. In this way a revolutionary process could be started in a country which was not ready for socialism.

Here I disagree with Hillel Ticktin. I am afraid that we will still have revolutions that start in countries not yet ready for socialism - at the moment there are no revolutions taking place in countries that are ready. This is part of the dialectic of history - history does not follow the Kautskyan textbooks and pursue a well known track like a railroad.

The answer to this paradox is quite obvious and is dealt with by Trotsky, Lenin, Kamenev and even Bukharin. They all said that real socialism could not be achieved unless a revolution took place in the west. It is possible to take that first step and start the transition to socialism, but this transition cannot succeed unless the revolution spreads. While the revolution in a country like Russia can last a while, after a certain amount of time it is bound to fail. It will either retreat into some sort of Thermidorian solution or collapse altogether.

This was obvious already in 1918-19. Even when Bukharin started writing about "socialism in one country" back in the 20s, he kept saying that it would necessarily be a "backward", "early" form. Only when there was a revolution in Germany, for example, would Russian socialism finally develop its full potential. This was akin to arguing for the same long period of transition, but shifting its definition slightly.

Town against country

While what I have discussed so far has been the subject of much Marxist analysis, there is, however, another aspect of the Russian Revolution, and especially the Russian civil war, which is usually not addressed. The problem of the civil war was not only that it was a war between the reds and the whites, but that it was a war between the cities and the countryside. This aspect links back to what I noted earlier - when the capitalist economy collapsed, what was happening in the countryside? It was reverting to the so-called 'natural' subsistence economy. You cannot imagine cities existing without an 'economy' in the modern sense of the word. But you can easily imagine a rural area existing on the basis of subsistence economy, and this can continue for a number of years, providing the clothing bought before the crisis can still be worn and food can still be produced.

Russian capitalism, especially industrial capitalism, had been heavily subsidised in the period 1880-1914 and Russia was the world's most protectionist economy - its tariffs were much higher than even America's. This situation led to systematic redistribution from the countryside to the cities. Politically the countryside was very weak - the landlords lived in the cities and were part of the urban elite. This systematic redistribution from the peasant countryside to the bourgeois cities created a situation where there was a gap between industrial and agricultural prices.

But in 1916, when the capitalist economy actually collapsed, the situation was reversed - it is possible to live without luxuries and even new clothes, but it is not possible to live without food. By 1917 the financial crisis was so bad that Kerensky had to print money on rolls like toilet paper. When workers were paid, they received a roll of paper money and they had to cut off the bills themselves.

Prices were turned upside down. In the pre-revolutionary period a pair of boots would be roughly equivalent to, say, 20 loaves of bread , but in 1918 to obtain a loaf of bread you had to supply four pairs of boots! This made capitalist production impossible, because no profit was possible.

The capitalists were closing down and leaving the country even before October - they understood that politically something terrible might be on the horizon, but they were already leaving because of their economic plight. This explains why so little resistance to the Russian Revolution came from the bourgeoisie - most actually came from the old pre-capitalist elites - from the landlords, the old bureaucracy and the military.

This led to a situation where there was only one possible force that could keep urban and industrial society going - the state. And the only possible class which was able to use the state in this way was the industrial working class - it was located in the cities, had a direct interest in the survival of industry and had built up its own political representation.

It was this that led to the conflict between the towns and the countryside. Initially the Bolsheviks enjoyed support in the countryside, because they were against the war, against the landlords and for far-reaching land reform. Yet when they came to power they were faced with a totally different dilemma: how could they provide the workers with the means to survive physically without breaking the promises they had made to the peasants?

Paradoxically the Bolsheviks basically succeeded in resolving this dilemma - but it did not help them avoid the civil war. If peasants wanted land, they were given it. Landlords were wiped out and estates were taken over by the peasantry. There are many examples of the levels of class hatred which existed in the countryside by 1917. My father was a member of a Soviet Writers' Union that built a cooperative dacha in a place previously occupied by a landlord. The estate had been destroyed completely - absolutely nothing remained intact after the early 1920s.

What the Bolsheviks did was to give peasants their land, but then they started to confiscate their products. These products could not be bought or even exchanged for anything useful. Yet the cities had something of tremendous importance: guns and ammunition, giving urban society a tremendous advantage over rural society.

Confiscation had interestingly already been discussed by the old tsarist government. It was feared, however, that this would lead to a revolution and was not implemented. It was also discussed by the provisional government as the only possible way to feed the cities - again, though, they feared the revolution gaining pace and militancy. It was the Bolsheviks as the most radical force who were able to introduce this policy, but it nevertheless led to civil war.

Of course, the civil war had a different cause - the resistance of the old tsarist elite. But without the peasants rebelling against the Bolsheviks the revolt by the old order would not have been a problem - these people represented a tiny minority in the countryside. The fact that the peasants were gradually turning against the Bolsheviks was used by the counterrevolutionary forces. These forces, however, were to continue with the policy of confiscating food - where the whites took over cities, they faced the same problem and in most places carried out the same policy as the Bolsheviks. So many peasants were faced with a choice between two evils. But it seems that the Bolsheviks were the lesser evil, as they at least said the peasants were entitled to their own land. By late 1918-19 this had become more or less clear.


Once the civil war was over, the Bolsheviks wanted to reach some sort of settlement with the countryside, in spite of overpricing, and introduced the new economic policy, which was a compromise. This resulted in a return of the gap between agricultural and industrial prices, but produced dramatically improved results over simply confiscating everything from the countryside. By the early 20s the countryside seemed more or less satisfied with the new arrangement. However, as a result of the civil war Russia was not only backward compared to the west, but had become increasingly authoritarian.

We can speak of Russia's authoritarian traditions, but there were always democratic traditions as well. These trends are not cultural, but social phenomena, and we have to understand that it was exactly the traumatic experience of the civil war that forced the Bolsheviks to become increasingly organised in a military fashion. The party was fighting a war and this forced the Bolshevik government to break their relations with and become isolated from other, petty bourgeois, parties. These parties, which in a peasant country were, of course, based on the countryside, started to rebel against the Bolsheviks.

It was this that led the Bolsheviks to establish the one-party state. Needless to say, this was not part of Lenin's project. If you read his texts from 1917 you will not find a word about establishing a one-party system, but by 1919 it became obvious that this was the only way they could survive.

It is one thing to talk of the way in which Lenin envisaged working class rule in, say, State and revolution and another to base that rule on a very tiny proletarian minority of the population, which unavoidably leads to authoritarianism. And when the regime became more authoritarian it depended more and more upon bureaucracy. The original aim of the Bolsheviks was to be authoritarian on the outside but democratic on the inside - in other words, an authoritarian organisation that internally conducted open debate and discussion.

I would not argue that this is impossible, but would say that it is a question of proportion, depending on the level of pressure. How substantial is the 'outside' compared to the 'inside'? The inside was getting smaller and smaller, as people were killed, and workers were leaving their workplaces to become soldiers, bureaucrats and party leaders. The actual class was getting weaker, and the capacity of this class for self-management and self-control was becoming less and less. The need for bureaucracy was becoming greater and greater.

So the outcome of the civil war was bureaucratisation and the authoritarian degeneration of the Bolshevik regime. This became obvious to Lenin. If you read his writings, you see that he is more than aware of this process. But what could be done? How could this problem of the hostile outside world be overcome? Don't forget, this is an outside world which is dominated by British and American imperialism and numerous other governments which are not exactly keen on the Bolshevik revolution. So in that sense I think that the famous degeneration of the workers' state became almost inevitable due to the surrounding conditions and the constraints on the revolution.

However, was the Stalinist way of directing the revolution the only possible one? To most historians, whether left or right, that seemed to be the case. Yet now, especially given some of the information contained in the archives, we discover that this situation was actually not that simple. The kind of NEP system which was established in the 20s could have continued and developed for some time. This system was authoritarian, but definitely not totalitarian - there was a much lower level of control than what was to come. The Bolshevik regime of the 20s was no more authoritarian than most of the regimes which emerged following bourgeois revolutions - in that sense there was nothing special about the regime.

The economic results of the 20s were not so bad, even though there were contradictions which caused problems for the NEP itself. NEP, as many Marxists will appreciate, was a kind of 'market socialist' project, one based on all sorts of contradictions. So there was a very clear movement of these contradictions within this system and we must bear this in mind. Trotsky's criticisms were in that sense quite accurate - unlike Bukharin's position, which was based on idealising the NEP, arguing that it was free of any major contradictions. By the early 20s, however, the system was working and the economy was recovering.

Global crisis

Then in 1928-29, around the time when the great depression was starting, something happened that was not really noticed by historians for quite some time. In both Russian and western writing of history it was very difficult to consider that the fact that these two things were happening simultaneously was not simply an accident. They were not. I spent quite a lot of time studying the archives of the Soviet economy, which is now referred to as the Russian Government Archives of Economy (previously the People's Economic Archives).

I discovered that the great depression was a huge setback for the whole Soviet industrialisation project, which was based on exporting grain and importing technologies in order to develop. This plan was destroyed by the great depression.

Secondly, the global crisis rapidly brought to the surface the many contradictions that were built into NEP, including the price gap between industrial and agricultural products. In this new situation, peasants simply stopped producing products that were least profitable within this price gap. For example, they started shifting from corn to potatoes, because corn was being sold on the international market and, although its price collapsed, the Bolshevik government was trying to get as much corn at the cheapest price possible as a way of compensating for the loss of the global market. The peasants simply shifted to potatoes which were not being sold internationally and this led to the famous 'crisis of bread supply', which saw not only insufficient bread production for export, but also for domestic consumption.

Reading the archives, it is clear how afraid the Soviet leadership was of the whole system falling apart. There was a real possibility of a complete decomposition of the Soviet state in the period of the great depression. That was resolved through the second coming of confiscations - the first had started under war communism. This time confiscation was not about feeding the proletarian cities, but about exporting peasant products to the global capitalist market at knock-down prices.

How was it achieved? Again it was through violence and repression, but this time it was clear that a return to NEP would be impossible afterwards. So the only real outcome was the establishment of a system which we now refer to as Stalinism - or the Soviet Union, as it actually came to develop.

This system was therefore not established in 1917, but around 1930-31. Around this time, the mood starts to change. All the newspapers and correspondence available in the archives state that the worst is over and the Soviet Union is entering a better period. This was a qualitatively different society. It was collectivisation, but also with a much higher level of control and repression.

The bureaucracy had finally established itself as the dominant social force without any rivals, even potential ones. The role of the working class also declined massively - it was wiped out as a social group by the 'newcomers': there was a dramatic increase in people moving from the countryside to the cities. So there were huge numbers of peasants organised around industrial production, which allowed for a situation of atomisation and social control.


However, it is necessary to adopt a more dialectical approach than simply considering only the negative aspects of the experience of the Soviet Union, the repression and inefficiency. In my personal opinion there was still a kind of revolutionary impulse, which was somehow going on and reflected in many social institutions, such as the education system or healthcare and in the so-called welfare system, which was one of the first in the world. Many progressive changes were introduced. These changes were not socialist, but people did agree that there was progress in social, cultural and technological terms and supported many aspects of the system.

The problem is, though, that the revolution failed as a socialist revolution. In a way it succeeded where the tsarist regime failed, in that it successfully achieved modernisation. However, by the end Soviet society was not just collapsing: it was dismantled by the bureaucratic elite at the top, who realised correctly that they just had to take one final step to become a real bourgeoisie and enter the club of global elites. And the demodernisation and decline of the Soviet economy started immediately. Day by day we are losing much of what we gained in the 20th century in this visible primitivisation of society. This is partly because global capital is barbarising modern Russia, but not only because of that.

Russia will not overcome this problem without a new revolution. This sounds a little bit extreme, because today if you speak of a new revolution in Russia, quite a lot of people will say it is desirable but not many will say it is possible - although, of course, the same applies to many other countries as well. However, whether it is desirable or possible is not the point. The point is that it is objectively necessary. If we do not have a new revolutionary breakthrough, then Russia will continue on the path of demodernisation.

Stages of revolution

It seems that all great revolutions - the English Revolution of the 17th century, the French Revolution of the 18th or the Russian Revolution of the 20th - all have their own general logic of development or trajectory. Of course, we have to be very careful and not be too simplistic in comparing bourgeois revolutions with socialist or proletarian revolutions due to their different class natures. Nevertheless, there are comparisons that can be made. It is not accidental, for example, that Lenin spoke of the Bolsheviks being "Russian Jacobins" and Trotsky used the terms 'Thermidor' and 'Bonaparte' in reference to Stalin.

These revolutions shared a general trajectory starting with a reformist democratic beginning, moving along to radicalisation and then ending up with a kind of revolutionary dictatorship. This is possibly the highest point of the revolution, but also in many ways the start of its decline due to the internal contradictions. Next there is the Thermidorian or Bonapartist stage, and finally the stage of restoration, which also happened in the Soviet Union.

However, is restoration the last stage? It is not. After the restoration in England there came the Glorious Revolution and after restoration in France there were numerous revolutions, such as 1830 and 1848, right up to the Paris Commune. This whole series of revolutions attempted to complete the unfinished parts of the initial revolution.

Equally there is an objective demand to continue what I refer to as the Glorious Revolution of Russian Socialism. But it can only succeed in the context of the global revolution - otherwise we will fall into the same, impossible trap of socialism in one country.