The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

95 Years Ago, the Russian Working Class Started down the Road toward Communism

Oct 29, 2012

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December of 1991, capitalists around the world quickly proclaimed, “Communism is dead.” Political analysts told us it was an experiment that had failed. We have a much different opinion.

Socialism in One Country: An Impossibility

True, communism was not successfully achieved in the Soviet Union, but it is also true that the people who led the Russian Revolution – Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Party of tens of thousands of workers – never believed that communism could be built in a single isolated country, especially not in a very poor and war-devastated country like Russia. The people who made the Russian Revolution saw it as only the first step in a world-wide workers’ revolution. It was the international revolution that would give all of humanity access to resources and technology, and thus lay the groundwork for communism.

The Russian Revolution did set off a massive wave of workers’ revolutions in many other countries. In some countries, workers even took power. But nowhere else were the workers able to hold onto power. Nowhere else did the workers have a party like the Bolshevik Party that understood so clearly and had prepared so completely for the tasks of the workers’ revolution.

Nonetheless, this wave of revolution prevented the Russian monarchy and the Russian capitalists from coming back to power, despite a civil war in which the Russian reactionaries were aided by armies from the main imperialist countries. The U.S., England and France all sent money, weapons and even their own troops to attack the new workers’ state. But the workers’ revolutions that spread out over much of the world prevented the imperialist powers from forcing the new Soviet Union back into the capitalist camp.

The workers’ state survived. But it survived alone, surrounded by hostile regimes around the whole world. Moreover, the Soviet working class was so exhausted and decimated by civil war, it had almost ceased to exist as a class. It could no longer run its own state. A bureaucracy began to grow and assume the running of the workers’ state. This bureaucracy put forward a dictator, standing not only above the workers’ state, but also above the bureaucracy itself.

For almost 75 years, this bureaucracy and its dictatorship ran the state the workers had built, much like dictatorships run the states of the underdeveloped world. Capitalism was not re-established, but neither did the workers control their own state. And the bureaucracy held back the spread of the workers’ revolution to other countries.

Lenin and Trotsky had said many times that if the revolution didn’t spread outside Russia, the workers’ state would eventually die. Seventy-four years later, the bureaucracy, which first strangled the revolution, began to take it back to capitalism.

In the 20 years since, the bureaucrats, who already had their hands on state industries, moved to privatize them, turning them into profit-makers. The workers lost materially as their wages went down, social benefits were eliminated, and jobs destroyed. Social inequality exploded, and the working class was disorganized as whole working-class towns disappeared.

Just the Blink of History’s Eye

This first attempt at building communism may not have succeeded, but this does not mean that communism failed. If earlier generations of capitalists had viewed history in this same fashion, capitalism itself would never have been achieved. It took much longer than 75 years for the bourgeoisie to finally overthrow feudalism, the social system which preceded capitalism, and to begin to lay the groundwork for capitalism. The first bourgeois revolution took place in England in the mid-1600s. It wasn’t until 1789, more than 100 years later, that the bourgeois revolution spread to Europe. Even then, the French Revolution wasn’t completed until the revolutions of 1848, when the bourgeoisie finally consolidated its power in France and began to spread throughout the rest of Europe.

In the U.S., merchants led a revolution in 1776 against Britain allowing an American bourgeoisie to develop here. But U.S. capitalism wasn’t consolidated for another 100 years. It took the Civil War and Reconstruction to finish that job.

Not until the early 1900s was capitalism extended to the rest of the world. It took another half century for the underdeveloped countries to escape colonial status by means of national revolutions, much like the U.S. revolution of 1776.

In other words, we’re talking about a period of more than 300 years during which the bourgeoisie had to fight to establish capitalism.

Only a Glimpse of the Communist Future

The Soviet Union existed only 75 years in one isolated, underdeveloped country. And the Russian working class took only the first steps on the road toward building a communist society. They threw out the capitalist class, which allowed them to set up a planned economy. But that is like putting in the foundation for a 10-story building, a necessary first step but far from the completed building.

The planned economy of the Soviet Union was run very inefficiently and wastefully by the Soviet bureaucracy. Moreover, to meet the threat of the U.S., the Soviet bureaucracy devoted much of Soviet production to military purposes. They spent almost as much on their military as the U.S. did, though the Soviet economy was much smaller. Yet despite these severe distortions, the planned economy of the Soviet Union did what no other economy in the underdeveloped world has ever done: it began to catch up to the economies of the developed capitalist countries.

U.S. capitalists compared the standard of living and wealth of the Soviet Union to that of the United States. Because the U.S. is ahead, this supposedly proves the superiority of capitalism. But in 1921, the U.S. was already the top economic power in the world, while Russia, after the devastation of World War I and the civil war, was poor, at the level of a country like India.

In 40 to 50 years, the Soviet Union developed from a very poor country to become the second largest economy in the world, passing by all the developed capitalist countries except the U.S.

Furthermore, to compare only the Soviet economy to that of the U.S. is a false argument anyway. First of all, much of the wealth in the few developed countries like the U.S. has been accumulated from the rest of the world.

If we want to compare the planned economy of the Soviet Union to free market capitalism, we have to compare it to the whole capitalist world, most of which is organized in economies like those of India, Guatemala or Taiwan. Let’s compare the Soviet Union to the slums of Calcutta or the countryside of Somalia, where thousands of people starve to death every day. And let’s judge the economic system of the U.S. by looking not only at how people live in Grosse Pointe Farms or Beverly Hills, but by looking at the middle of Detroit or Appalachia.

In the mid-90s, the Yeltsins and the Gorbachevs and this vast bureaucracy worked to dismantle the planned economy. The result? The economy and the standard of living for the workers of the ex-Soviet Union went backward ... rapidly backward.

The Working Class Can Build a More Humane Society

What the Soviet workers tried to do in the very first years after the revolution gives us a picture of what the future can be.

The working class revolution of 1917 destroyed capitalist property relations. Despite the devastation and poverty in the USSR, this allowed the working class to start a new organization of society.

The Soviet workers showed what kind of future society they wanted by the first decrees they passed immediately after the revolution. Men were told that women would take an equal place in society. This wasn’t just nice words on paper. There were real deeds. In 1917 the new Soviet Union gave women the unrestricted right to an abortion, a right that U.S. women did not gain until 1973, a right that has been more and more restricted. It was never free. Today it is under attack constantly in the supposedly most civilized country in the world.

Marriage and divorce were made a simple matter of filing a piece of paper, so that the government didn’t interfere in people’s lives, so that women were freed from the legal restrictions of marriage. From the beginning, workers attempted to set up day care for children, communal laundries and kitchens, gains that freed women from the prison of the home. Until very recently, the Soviet Union had a system of child care facilities in all its workplaces, while this country is still only in the talking stage.

The workers’ revolution gave all the nationalities within the old Russian empire the absolute right to determine their own future. This right, like other democratic rights, was later destroyed by the bureaucracy. But in 1917, the workers’ revolution gave each nationality the free choice whether to stay within the Soviet Union or to go their own way. Finland chose to separate. The rest of them decided to become part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

What capitalist government has ever freely given this same right? The U.S. government not only refuses this right at home. It goes thousands of miles, to Korea, to Viet Nam, to Iraq, to Afghanistan to impose on other people a government and a social organization those people don’t want.

There were other accomplishments of the Russian Revolution. Engulfed in the bloody slaughter of World War I, people around the world were desperate for peace. The Soviet government pulled out of the war, while all the capitalist governments continued it.

In Russia before the revolution, millions of peasants worked the land, still almost as serfs, tied to the tiny handful of landowners. The Soviet government told the peasants to take the lands for themselves; it offered them material support.

The Russian Revolution shook the entire world. Despite the problems that held it back, this revolution still radically changed the lives and social relations in a land that occupied one-sixth of the land area of the entire world.

No wonder that those few parasites who live off our labor and run the world – those who profit from war, racism, sexism and class divisions – no wonder these leeches want to declare communism dead.

Communism Will Be Won in the Very Heart of Capitalism

But communism is not dead: it remains to be built. The goals that could not be achieved in a single impoverished country like Russia in 1917 could be realized if the working class of this country were to take the road toward socialist revolution. A revolution here would destroy the heart of imperialism. It could free the peoples of the rest of the world to follow the same path. It could allow the working people of the entire world to become truly free to decide their own future for the first time in human history.

What the Soviet workers started in 1917, we could finish.

We cannot even imagine what a truly communist society will look like, when all human creativity and ingenuity are unleashed. But we certainly know what wouldn’t exist: Class divisions, and therefore poverty, would disappear along with the system built on the exploitation of one class by another in the search for profit. War, racism and sexism would disappear along with the system that requires inequality.

In such a society, everyone would want to work to help build society – why not? – and everyone would be able to. There would be no such thing as surplus labor. But by using all the resources, both human labor and material, and all the technology created by human ingenuity, the amount of work needed from each person would certainly be much less than what any of us do today.

The whole concept of work would be totally different. Instead of working like a robot on a job over which we have no control, we would be free to set up work in the most interesting, efficient and time-saving way. Instead of keeping our time-saving ideas to ourselves because it could cause some jobs to be eliminated, we would instead be finding ways to make everyone’s job easier.

The Russian Revolution opened up libraries and schools to all working people. But a revolution today would mean much more than just opening the doors. Freed of spending most of our lives in dreary mind-numbing work, every person could have most of the day to pursue many other interests. A person could be an artist and a musician and an athlete and a researcher in biology or geology or whatever.

All of this would produce human beings very different from the often greedy, mean-spirited and limited people that capitalism produces.

The Russian workers made the revolution that opened the door to this future. We shall have the great good fortune to be the ones who can walk through it ... if we have half as much courage as they had.