“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Nov 19, 2007
For the past 60 years, capitalist society has resounded loudly with attacks on the ideas of communism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union sixteen years ago, it has become fashionable to call communism a failure and the idea of a more egalitarian society a utopia.
For sure, something has gone wrong since the Russian Revolution of 1917. But it is not the ideal of a more egalitarian, just, humane society, which the revolution fought for. The vision of millions of workers who fought, in Russia and elsewhere, for a decent future did not fail. In fact, the Russian Revolution has been an important historical lesson for the workers' movement.
The Russian Revolution was the first of a series of revolutions that took place in Europe in the last years of World War I. Millions of people were being slaughtered. These revolutions were the result of the outrage European workers felt against their governments, generals, politicians and bosses who had brought the terrible bloodbath of the war upon them.
In February 1917, revolutionary workers, soldiers and peasants overthrew the Russian tsar in a spontaneous uprising. Their slogan was "Peace, Land and Bread." But the new government, which included representatives of the capitalists and landowners, was not willing to answer these demands.
The Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin, was able to win the support of a majority of the workers in Petrograd and Moscow by consistently standing by these demands and by the slogan "All Power to the Soviets." (The soviets were factory councils formed originally by the workers to organize their struggles. Eventually, they became the organisms through which the working class democratically organized its power.)
In October 1917 (November 7 according to our calendar), based on the power of the workers organized in soviets, the Bolsheviks led an insurrection overthrowing the old government. The Soviets proclaimed a workers' government in Russia.
The first decree of the new revolutionary power concerned peace. The proposal to all the warring governments was for an immediate peace without annexation of territory. It was an appeal to all people to impose this peace.
The second decree concerned land: the expropriation without indemnity of the lands of large landowners and of lands owned by the Church. The decree called on the peasants to apply the measure and to decide what to do. The soviets of peasants were encouraged to organize the dividing up of the expropriated lands entrusted to them.
At the beginning, the Soviets did not nationalize industrial and commercial enterprises. But these were put under the control of the workers.
The strength of this new power was that it corresponded to the aspirations of tens of millions of people. It allowed them to transform their wishes into actions that changed their fate.
The Russian Revolution had an immediate impact both on the bosses and on the workers in other countries. While all the major capitalist countries (England, France, Germany, the U.S., Italy, Japan) immediately attacked revolutionary Russia, a wave of workers' revolutions swept Finland, Germany, Hungary and Italy between 1918 and 1923. Even in the United States, a massive strike wave swept the country.
But this massive upsurge of the European and American working class did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism in any of these countries. It's not that the workers in these countries did not fight as hard as the Russian workers did. Rather, there was no organization like the Bolshevik Party, ready to lead a fight for power. The workers' organizations in Europe were dominated by Social Democrats – similar to many union leaders in the U.S. today. Not only did they hold back the struggle of the working class. In Germany, where the revolution went the furthest and had the best chance to succeed, the Social Democrats helped lead the counter-revolution against the workers. They literally rescued and restored the capitalist order when it had completely collapsed after Germany's defeat in the war.
Nevertheless, these mass upsurges in other capitalist countries helped the Russian workers and peasants to successfully defend their revolution.
So the first workers' state in history was able to survive, but it ended up the only one, isolated in the middle of a hostile capitalist world. Moreover, Russia was a backward country, devastated by almost a decade of war. The Russian workers had gotten rid of the big bosses, native and foreign alike. But the economic backwardness and social contradictions inherited from Tsarist Russia had not vanished overnight. Now they came back like a plague in a Soviet Russia that also faced a blockade. Soviet Russia, in its early years, was not capable of producing even the basic necessities of life for its population.
Furthermore, the invasion and civil war wiped out almost an entire generation of conscious, revolutionary workers. In addition, the collapse of industry decimated what was left of the working class. So the system of workers' control based on factory councils stopped functioning. The workers no longer democratically controlled from below the bureaucrats, who ran things both at the economic and political level. The bureaucrats had a free hand to take privileges in a society of scarcity. They produced a whole layer of careerist functionaries, factory managers and professionals, who filled the ranks of the state and party bureaucracy. These people had not even taken part in the revolution. They had often opposed it. But in the following years, they started to accumulate political power.
The Russian working class did not accept the rise of the bureaucracy without a fight. Lenin in his last years took on the fight against the bureaucracy, but his illness and eventual death in January 1924 gave the bureaucracy more room to expand. The struggle between the working class and the bureaucracy became visible as a political struggle within the Russian Communist Party. Stalin emerged as the spokesperson for the bureaucracy. The revolutionaries who tried to stop and reverse the degeneration of their revolution formed the Left Opposition under the leadership of Trotsky. By the late 1920s, the bureaucracy had won, and Stalin had consolidated his dictatorship over the party and the country.
The two main leaders of the Russian revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, had always argued that socialism could not exist in a single country in a world dominated by international monopolies and imperialism. They saw the Russian Revolution as one battle in the war between capitalism, which existed internationally, and the international working class. It was very important that the working class had won its first victory. But unless other workers' revolutions followed, especially in the advanced industrialized countries, the Russian Revolution would be doomed.
The bureaucracy that now ruled the Soviet Union and claimed the heritage of the Revolution of 1917 was anything but revolutionary. It sought to protect the Soviet Union – and its own power – by compromises and alliances with capitalist governments. At home, it maintained its power through a brutal repressive dictatorship over the working class.
In 1917, Russia was a poor and backward country. By the time of its disintegration in the early 1990s, however, the Soviet Union was one of the most industrialized countries of the world. True, it was not in any way a socialist society; the Soviet state was not even controlled and run by workers. But the Soviet economy had been developed to the point that the Soviet Union became the second-ranking economic power in the world in less than 50 years. Its development was more rapid than that achieved by any other country's economy. It was based on an economy that was nationalized and planned, even if bureaucratically. The Soviet state subsidized the cost of basic foodstuffs, housing, health care, social security, education and transportation for all citizens.
These gains of the Russian Revolution of 1917 were preserved for decades despite the rule of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy, for fear of a massive revolt by the working class, did not dare attack these gains. But the bureaucracy kept chipping away. Each little group of bureaucrats reinforced itself at the expense of society, and against other bureaucrats.
In the late 1980s, power struggles and political maneuvering between groups of bureaucrats at the top of the state apparatus triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an effort to consolidate his own position as the head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev promised local bureaucrats more autonomy from the central government. Another bureaucrat produced by the old Soviet regime, Boris Yeltsin, took this promise further – all the way to the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union. They broke up the country into 15 separate governments. Gorbachev ended up without a state apparatus to preside over, while Yeltsin himself came to power in Russia, the largest of the former Soviet states.
Most, if not all, of the new rulers in the former Soviet republics were members of the old bureaucracy. But now, with the support of capitalist governments led by the U.S., they felt confident enough to finally abandon all references to socialism and communism. In the name of a "free market economy," Yeltsin's government started to lift subsidies from goods and services and to make attempts at privatizing the state-owned land and factories. The various Soviet republics now had become "independent states." The factories now were called "independent enterprises." In this way, the local bureaucrats started to free themselves from the highly centralized political and economic system of the former Soviet Union.
The result has been a complete disaster for the Russian working class. Many factories have stopped or drastically reduced production, causing widespread unemployment. Those workers who still have jobs often have to wait months to get paid. Prices continue to skyrocket. In many of the old Soviet Republics, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the state structure has collapsed, leading to civil war and chaos.
In short, the "capitalist prosperity" advertised by the bureaucrats and their capitalist sponsors abroad has never materialized. While a few rapacious speculators and gangsters have found opportunities to make billions, conditions for the working class and a large part of the middle class continue to deteriorate.
Ninety years ago, Russian workers started the first attempt in history to build a workers' state to run society in the interest of working people. The goal of the revolutionary workers was not limited to Russia; it was to wipe exploitation and oppression from the face of the earth. The Russian workers understood that their revolution would never survive if it remained confined to their country alone.
To this end, the Russian workers did everything in their power. But revolutions are class wars. And in war, the outcome is never guaranteed. The exploiters, that is, the capitalists, will always fight to keep their privileges. World capitalism succeeded in defeating workers' revolutions in other countries and isolating the Russian Revolution.
Under these circumstances, the Soviet state formed in 1917 by revolutionary workers degenerated into a bureaucratic dictatorship over the workers. The bureaucracy became another obstacle in the way of any progress toward socialism in Russia and abroad. Today, in its attempt to lead Russia back to capitalism, the bureaucracy has brought the country to a state of chaos, poverty and destruction, with dictatorships consolidating this regime.
That situation is, in fact, the normal working of capitalism. For decades, chronic unemployment and poverty have marked the lives of working people in underdeveloped countries – that is, the majority of humanity. But today, the working class in rich countries, too, is seeing jobs, living standards and social services vanishing rapidly.
It's not that workers accept these attacks sheepishly. But anger and outrage at deteriorating conditions don't automatically lead out of the quagmire. In the absence of organizations that represent the independent class interest of the working class, most struggles today are waged in the name of completely reactionary and divisive ideologies. The result varies. We have seen the rise of racism in the U.S. and Europe all the way to ethnic cleansing and outright genocide in many underdeveloped regions of the world such as in Iraq, the Balkans, the republics of the former Soviet Union, and Africa.
This desperate situation can be traced back to the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Since the defeat of the workers revolutions after World War I, the working class worldwide has been retreating. Under the unchallenged rule of capitalism, the world has seen nothing but one man-made catastrophe after another.
Human history is full of such setbacks. But it is also full of comebacks. A revolutionary comeback of the working class is the only way out for humanity. For the only future capitalism has to offer humanity is an endless cycle of poverty, war and destruction.