the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jan 23, 2023
This article is translated from the January 11th issue, #2811 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.
On December 30, 1922, the Congress of Soviets, which brought together delegates from four Soviet socialist republics, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Transcaucasia, which included the populations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, decided to create a federal union: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR.
Geographically, this new state corresponded in large part to what had been the Tsarist Empire. But the “prison of the peoples” had given way to a freely agreed arrangement between new states from which the old ruling classes, feudal and bourgeois, had been driven out. The very term USSR had no national or geographical reference. This union was destined to expand to other countries as new workers’ revolutions were victorious.
Since its creation, the Bolshevik Party, the party of the working class, had brought together communists from all over the Empire, regardless of their nationality. And for all of them, starting with Lenin, the proletarian revolution was inseparable from the end of the national oppression of non-Russian peoples. As soon as he took power in October 1917, a decree proclaimed the end of the Empire and the right of all peoples “to free self-determination up to and including separation.”
It was obvious that this declaration could be used by the ruling classes of Ukraine, Georgia and other regions to cut all ties with the new workers’ power. Just as it was certain that the imperialist powers would seek to get their hands on these newly proclaimed independent regimes. But with this decree, the new revolutionary power showed the non-Russian poor masses of the Empire, mainly peasants, that it was breaking with the methods and goals of tsarism. And with this policy, after years of civil war, it did win their confidence.
The civil war first reduced the revolutionary territory to a small scrap. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, imposed by Germany, the latter got its hands on Finland and Ukraine, the granary of the region, and a quarter of European Russia. The following year, the White armies arrived at the gates of Petrograd. Plans were made to evacuate the city, to prevent its working class from being exterminated. However, the Whites did not succeed in taking the city. And in the same year, 1919, the working class rose up in Bavaria and Hungary, creating short-lived council republics. Hope lay in the spread of the revolution.
Every time the White armies took over a territory, they executed the communists, and reinstated the old privileges with the old social and national oppression. The new Soviet power, on the other hand, where it succeeded in establishing itself, created autonomous national republics and gave the land to the peasants. The poor masses of the former Tsarist Empire thus chose their side. The imperialist powers were forced to back down, for they feared that by intervening too directly they would accelerate the revolutionary contagion. For example, the sailors of the French Black Sea fleet had mutinied, joining the camp of the Soviets, raising the red flag on their ships.
The Red Army was finally victorious. But the Soviet power came out of the ordeal isolated, because the revolution had not spread in Europe. And the population of the future USSR was bled dry by years of war. The economy, on a backward basis inherited from tsarism, was devastated. This situation allowed the development of a bureaucracy within the state and the party.
In 1922, Lenin was already very ill and had to retire for six months. In early October, when the doctors allowed him to return to work, he realized how much the bureaucratic apparatus had grown. During the summer, in his absence, Stalin had made the Central Committee vote not for a federal union of all Soviet republics, but for the integration of all republics into the Russian republic. Lenin returned and imposed the idea of the USSR, a federation where each republic would have equal rights, including the right to secede.
Then came the Georgian affair. In Georgia, the entire Central Committee had resigned after an envoy of Stalin beat up one of the local leaders who refused to submit to a discussion. Lenin took up the cause of the Georgians, together with Trotsky, against Stalin. It was then that he wrote a text, later known as his testament, which contained this warning: "Stalin is too brutal, and this defect, fully bearable in the relations between us communists, becomes intolerable in the function of general secretary. Therefore, I propose to the comrades to consider how to move Stalin from this position." But the relapse of the disease and then his death prevented Lenin from leading this fight to the end.
A denial of Lenin’s policy, Stalinism was based on Russian chauvinism. Two years after the creation of the USSR, Stalin invented the theory of socialism in one country. Later, in 1943, he dissolved the Communist International and replaced the International, the anthem of the USSR since 1922, with a Russian patriotic song.
The revolution of 1917 and the civil war had profoundly changed social relations. The bourgeoisie had been expropriated. On this basis, in spite of Stalinism and international isolation, the economy progressed rapidly throughout this immense country, while the capitalist world sank into crisis in 1929. The USSR was a unified economic entity, with fully organized production and trade. Many regions that Tsarism had left in backwardness experienced an urban, industrial and cultural development that was unequalled in any other poor country in the world. Alphabets were invented for languages that had none. Schools were set up, with the means at hand, giving education an unprecedented boom.
Despite the parasitism of the bureaucracy, the USSR partly escaped the plunder of the imperialist powers. And when it broke up in 1991, one of the worst consequences was that this economic entity was split up. The republics were left to be plundered by Western oligarchs and trusts. For the population of all these countries, both Russian and non-Russian, this was a catastrophe. The standard of living and even life expectancy collapsed.
The USSR will remain the example of a union between peoples based on their free consent and the awareness that the development of all was in the general interest, a union that was only possible after a revolution that expropriated the exploiters.