I made this video to provide some respite from the avalanche of right-wing propaganda that will hit us on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. No doubt there will be documentaries, books and pull-out newspaper supplements seeking to “prove” that the Russian Revolution was any of a number of terrible things. It would be a tragedy if the real gains and lessons of this incredible period were to be hidden to millions under a cloud of red-gothic nonsense and false identification with Stalinism.
The video, which I intend to be the first of 3 or 4 that I will upload over the course of the year 2017, is accompanied by this article going a little deeper into some of the points raised and including at the end credits for clips, images and music, as well as references.
Scare Story #1: “The revolution led to an oppressive one-party state”
From school textbooks to standard histories, it’s treated as a matter of fact that the Bolsheviks planned to set up a one-party state in Russia when they led the October revolution. This is a key plank in the argument that counterposes “communism” to “democracy.” In fact, communism from Marx to Lenin to Trotsky was not a reversal of the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, but their extension.
You will seek in vain in the writings of the key thinkers and leaders of the Russian Revolution for any reference to plans for a one-party state. References to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, if you read them in context, clearly mean “rule by the proletariat”. At its most severe, this formulation can mean a brief period of wartime dictatorship (such as existed in all combatant countries in both world wars) in the event of civil war or invasion following a successful revolution.
The first Soviet government had a formal majority in elections to the Constituent Assembly – itself dissolved without a whimper of protest from the working class because it was understood that the Soviets represented a more democratic form of government. This first Soviet government was a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). Between them these two forces enjoyed overwhelming majority support, the former leading the workers and the latter leading the peasants.
A “one-party” regime emerged unplanned and de facto from the conditions of civil war. The Mensheviks and both wings of the SRs, along with the bourgeois parties, supported the Whites, including in the lynching of Bolsheviks such as in Baku and Samara. Parties that were in armed conflict with the government were naturally banned. But this wasn’t total; as late as 1921, Mensheviks and Anarchists were operating openly and freely in Russia.
The real one-party regime dates not from 1917 but from 1921. In this year there was a formal, actual decision by the Bolsheviks to ban opposition parties and internal factions. This was an emergency measure – 1921 saw the country totally reeling from the effects of war, with the working class reduced in size from 3.8 million (1917) to 1.5 million and the New Economic Policy being brought in. This was supposed to be a temporary measure, a breathing space to last just a few years while the economy stabilised and the working class grew once more. In the event this recovery happened. But by then the party had become bureaucratised and still refused to allow factions or opposition parties. The Opposition within the party, from the mid-1920s on, supported the restoration of Soviet democracy and an end to the one-party regime, among other policies.
The actual liberating effects of the October Revolution are almost never spoken of. They are briefly summarised below:
- The Soviets represented real, actual, active democracy for the mass of the people in a way that the world has not seen since. Democratic management of state-owned factories was another incredible experiment. The right to vote was given to every worker and peasant regardless of sex or nationality.
- Housing was shared out on the basis of need.
- Rather than the chaos of the market or the iron heel of the aristocracy, the revolution brought in a scientifically-planned economy, with massive benefits for the vast majority of people.
- Communal services replaced or partly replaced household duties like cooking and cleaning.
- These early years also saw outlawing of racism and the granting of independence, autonomy and cultural development for a whole series of oppressed nationalities.
- Divorce was made easily available, abortion was legalised and child support was required of absent fathers (sometimes on multiple male partners where parentage was unclear). Equal pay and equal rights were mandated by law. The formal stigma on illegitimacy was abolished.
- The Soviet Family Code of 1918 led to a legal recognition of transgender identity, LGBT rights and equal marriage. There are records of early forms of gender reassignment surgery.
- Forms of liberation not officially encouraged by the government also flourished: nudists jumped onto Moscow trams, young people engaged in free love and Esperanto enthusiasts flourished.
All this gives a sense of the real atmosphere of the time: not a dark night of descending oppression but a flourishing of real freedom. All this was short-lived and limited due to the effects of the Civil War and the later rise of Stalinism, but it gives a taste of what socialism promises.
Scare Story #2: “The revolutionaries were violent and undemocratic, compared to the free, peaceful west.”
A refutation of this scare story needs to begin with a caveat about the gruesome practise of historical body-counting, which we can all fall victim to. Is the killing of 6,000 people “worse” or “as bad as” the killing of 5,000 people? It’s a silly and obscene question. But from the review supplement of the Sunday Times to The Black Book of Communism and online pseudo-scholars, this practise is widespread. Thousands and millions of deaths are marshalled as arguments and thrown around like confetti. I want to steer clear of this kind of thing as much as possible, but it will be necessary at times.
In 1917 the capitalist countries were presiding over a war that was to claim 16 million lives. These states were pursuing their interests by means of the most over-the-top violence and repression; shelling mountains into valleys, spending tens of thousands of lives in single days, instituting dictatorships at home, and killing, imprisoning or driving to death many who opposed the war or refused to fight. For supporters of these states to pretend that Bolshevik violence somehow stood out as particularly bad in the period is absurd.
The points about democracy and violence should also be seen in the context of imperialism. At this time almost all of Africa and large swathes of Asia were under the control of European powers or of the USA. The wars these powers fought to gain or to keep their colonies are truly harrowing and brutal. Anyone who persists in labelling the USA, Britain, Belgium and France as “democracies” needs to read about the Belgian Congo, the war in the Philippines, the Boer Wars or any one of many other episodes in the bloody history of capitalism and empire. Each one of these far exceeds the Civil War waged by the Reds in terms of violence and denial of rights. Many exceed even the crimes of Stalinism. Anyone who condemns the Bolsheviks as “undemocratic” or “violent”, but then cheers on the so-called “democracies” is ignorant or else hypocritical.
Another key point in response to this scare story is that Red violence in the early years after the revolution was a response to the terrible violence being committed by a minority in the form of the Whites in the Civil War.
The White Armies were financed from abroad on a massive scale. This really can’t be overstated. As well as “boots on the ground” (to use the modern term) from over a dozen different armies (including 70,000 from Japan and at one stage 300,000 from all foreign armies put together), there was massive material aid. Without this aid, the Whites could not have fought on, showing how small a base of support they had in the country, and showing also how determined the capitalist countries were to trample Russia underfoot and impose capitalism once more, even at the cost of millions of lives.
Megan Trudell writes:
Reports from Siberia while it was still under the control of the [White] Directory detail the foreign supplies, including 100,000 train wagons from the US. Trade between the Whites and foreign powers continued despite the blockade. Between October 1918 and October 1919 Britain sent Omsk 97,000 tons of supplies, including 600,000 rifles, 6,871 machine guns and over 200,000 uniforms. According to Pipes, ‘every round of rifle ammunition fired by [Kolchak’s] troops was of British manufacture’.
Total Allied aid to Kolchak in the first months of 1919 amounted to 1 million rifles, 15,000 machine guns, 800 million rounds of ammunition, and clothing and equipment for half a million men, ‘roughly equivalent to the Soviet production of munitions for the whole of 1919’. By August 1919 Britain had already spent £47.9 million helping the Whites – rising to £100 million by the end of the year, a figure equivalent to approximately £2.5 billion today. The French contribution was only slightly less, while the US allowed ‘considerable sums’ it had granted Kerensky’s government to be diverted to the White cause by the ambassador of the Provisional Government.
A capitalist dictatorship or a restored monarchy, with truly totalitarian powers, would have been necessary for this well-armed minority to crush the working class and take the land back off the peasants. Given the anti-Semitic and proto-fascist views of many of the White leaders, it’s clear that a White victory would have meant fascism by another name, years before fascism ever came to power in Italy.
These were the stakes the workers of Russia were fighting over. Such was the strength of their enemies. It was in this context that they militarised society, restored one-man management in the factories, seized food from the villages for the armies and the cities, and began a “Red Terror” which claimed at least 10,000 lives and possibly as many as 50,000.
Not for the sake of ghoulish body-counting, but for the sake of comparison, we should look at the “White Terrors” in Russia as well as Finland and Hungary. In Russia, it took the form of lynchings and shootings of “Reds” and Jews. General Kolchak’s army had a policy of shooting all “Red” prisoners and one prominent White slogan was “Death to Jews and Commissars!”. In Finland, between 10,000 and 20,000 “reds” and workers were killed in a matter of months, and tens of thousands locked up. As the video points out, this is equal to, or possibly more than, the total number executed by the Cheka during the entire Russian Civil War – in a much smaller country and in a much shorter time-frame. In Hungary, an ill-conceived “Red Terror” by the short-lived Soviet government there had claimed 500 lives; the “White Terror” of 1919-20 claimed 5,000 lives and imprisoned 70,000, again descending into anti-Semitic pogroms, leaving Hungary under a military dictatorship for decades.
Then there is Germany, where a socialist revolution was crushed by naked brute force. I couldn’t find statistics for this but it is recorded that 700 workers and leftists were shot in Munich alone after the crushing of the Bavarian Soviet.
The horror in Syria today reminds us that it is not necessary to “pick a side” in every war. Sometimes both sides in a war are, if not equally brutal, at least both far beyond the pale. The Russian Civil War was not such a war. The Reds were clearly far more sympathetic, far more progressive, far more democratic and far less violent than the Whites. The Reds represented progress, equality, humanity and the rule of the majority over society; the Whites represented a snarling defence of privilege, rampant bigotry, a denial of the aspirations of tens of millions, and the circling vultures of imperialism looking to tear the county to pieces.
Perhaps the reader is a pacifist, or holds a candle for Nestor Makhno or for the “Green Armies”. These forces were based on peasant resistance to the extreme and terrible effects of the war, and did not represent a real potential future for the Russian or global working class or for humanity in general. They were side-phenomena that could not have developed into a real challenge to capitalism and imperialism. Meanwhile, to pretend that they were innocent of all repressive measures against their enemies, in a civil war context, is to indulge in fantasy.
Scare Story #3: “The revolution led to the rise of Stalin”
Decades before the revolution, Marxists in Russia had anticipated the fact that unless the revolution spread beyond the borders of Russia, there was no hope that socialism could flourish in Russia itself. They stated with certainty that without revolutions in Europe (with its higher level of production, technology and organisation), socialism could not be built in revolutionary Russia. “We will now proceed to the construction of the new socialist order” were the famous words of Lenin after the October insurrection. But never did Lenin or Trotsky claim that Socialism had been achieved in Russia.
The revolution of 1917 was the first explosion of an international revolutionary wave that covered most of Europe and even saw mass movements and revolutions in other continents. But none of these other revolutions succeeded in establishing socialism, primarily because the leaderships of the Social-Democratic parties were more interested in reinforcing capitalism, even against the wishes of their supporters. The prediction of Lenin was borne out: socialism failed to develop in Russia. What developed instead was a bureaucratically-deformed workers’ state. It was not capitalist, as large-scale private property did not exist; but nor was it socialist, as the large-scale property was in the hands of unaccountable officials and managers, not under democratic control.
Stalin’s rise to power in the mid-to-late 1920s was the political expression of this trend. His terrible crimes and colossal blunders, which are well-known, were the crimes and blunders of the bureaucratic clique that had seized power. In 1936 he declared that Socialism had been achieved; this, coming right before the monstrous purges, was a bare-faced lie.
Why did Stalinism develop?
Some argue that the socialist revolution inevitably led to Stalinism, or that they were one and the same. But the terrible crimes of Stalinism – the millions of deaths which the ghoulish body-counters lay at the door of socialism – did not take place until well over a decade after the October Revolution. Let’s look at the nature of these crimes as well.
The purges wiped out what was left of the leadership of the 1917 Revolution, with the exception of Stalin himself and some loyal followers like Molotov. Both Stalin and Molotov had been leaders of secondary or tertiary importance back in 1917. The main target of the purges was the Left Opposition, whose members called themselves the Bolshevik-Leninists, and who stood for workers’ democracy and internationalism. Other targets of the purges were minorities seeking national independence and a layer of pretty powerless right-wing groups that supported capitalist restoration. But the Left Opposition were the main target; labelled “Trotskyists” on their gulag papers, they were marked out for extra hard labour and beatings.
The forced seizing of all farms was a measure that the Bolsheviks, before and after the revolution, had explicitly ruled out. Lenin’s writings on the land question envisage a gradual and consensual transition to collective farming, and warn of the terrible consequences that could arise if collectivisation was forced. Stalin’s faction had previously been totally opposed to collectivisation, even of a gradual and consensual kind, a policy that led the cities to the verge of famine and spurred Stalin into a u-turn toward collectivisation.
In both of these examples we see that Stalin’s greatest crimes were directed against the supporters of the original principles of the revolution, and flatly contradicted its aims and methods.
Some seek for the roots of Stalinism in the organisational principles of the Bolshevik Party in 1903. Some seek for its roots in the repression carried out during the Civil War. These scholars find crumbs of fact to nourish their theories in a general context that totally contradicts them.
It is much easier to find evidence for the argument that Stalinism grew out of the barbarism of the civil war and out of the decimation of the working class that attended it. The Soviet regime based itself on the active participation of workers and on the spread of revolution to other countries; denied these two conditions, it sickened and degenerated into Stalinism. This was not an “inevitable” development, in the sense of being inherent in the revolution from the start. It flowed from these conditions, devastating war and prolonged isolation, which were imposed on the revolution from outside.
- “Socialist economic policies failed”
We are regularly told that millions died in the years following the revolution due to hunger and disease. We are left to infer, or sometimes we are explicitly told, that this calamity came about due to the economic policies of the Bolsheviks. In fact, all those people died primarily because a British-led blockade on food and medicines was imposed on Red-controlled areas. This was a deliberate strategy of starvation. Blame for these deaths lies with the architects and supporters of this blockade.
We are also regularly told that communism “impoverished” the people of the Soviet Union. Those who believe this have not taken a cursory look at the most elementary facts of Soviet history in the 20th century. They need to look at life expectancy, which shot up until the 1970s in spite of tens of millions of deaths inflicted by the Nazis in World War Two. They need to look at consumption, literacy, and all the other statistical indicators of progress. Life expectancy, for example, went from the 30s under Tsarism to 46-9 in the 1930s to 67 in the mid-1950s.
All these indicators levelled out or declined in the 1970s and 1980s, as bureaucratic management hit its limits and the system cried out for democratic public ownership of the economy; and plunged after the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s.
We have made the point that Stalinism was not socialism. But Stalinism did include one key component of socialism: the planned, publicly-owned economy. While the world was reeling from the Great Depression, the Soviet Union was industrialising. When the revolution took place in 1917, many Russians still ploughed their fields by hand. Less than forty years later, the Soviet Union launched humanity’s first satellite into space.
Those who argue that a publicly-owned, planned economy failed have no ground to stand on. They are ignoring the millions of deaths from hunger and disease in peacetime Tsarism. They are ignoring the jumps in all indicators of progress, especially after World War Two when peaceful conditions allowed the planned economy breathing space. They are ignoring the development from the hand-plough to Sputnik.
- Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, Opus, 2nd, 1982, 1994
- Megan Trudell, “The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis”. From International Socialism2:86, Spring 2000. Copyright © International Socialism. Copied to Marxists.org with thanks from the International Socialism Archive. Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
- LeBlanc, Paul, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Haymarket books, 1990
- Deutscher, Isaac, Stalin: A Political Biography, Penguin Books (1949, 1970)
- Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firelfy Books (1958, 2004)
- Rogovin, Vadim, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror, Mehring Books, Michigan (1998)
- Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Vintage (2011)
- Trotsky, Leon, Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, New Park Publications Ltd (1937, 1973)
- Ulam, Adam B, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Fontana/Collins (1965)
- Lenin, VI, Online archive, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/index.htm
- Valtin, Jan, Out of the Night (Fortress Books, 1941)
- Pastor, Peter, Hungary Between Wilson and Lenin (East European Quarterly, Boulder, Colorado, 1976)
- Payne, Stanley G, Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
- Read, Anthony, The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism (Pimlico 2009)
- Sondhaus, Lawrence, World War One: The Global Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
- Toynbee, Arnold J; McInnes, Neil; Seton-Watson, Hugh; The Impact of the Russian Revolution 1917-1967 (Oxford University Press, 1967)
- Ulam, Adam B, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Fontana (1966)
- http://www.socialismtoday.org/80/lenin.html – Per-Ake Westerlund, “Lenin: The Original Dictator?”
Credits for clips, images and music
- Catch-22, “Prologue”, from “Permanent Revolution” (The piano music at the start and end).
- Immortal Technique, “Golpe De Estado” (The hip-hop song that lays throughout. This song and its lyrics are not directly related to the Russian Revolution, but I thought the music struck the right tone).
- Red Army Choir, “The Sacred War” (The music that plays over the “Scare Stories”).
All clips from Youtube.com.
From Tsar to Lenin, 1937 documentary
“Young Indiana Jones and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”
“Russian Revolution in Colour – Mutiny in Petrograd” – Smithsonian
Google images: “Petrograd-soviet-clear”
Tsar to Lenin
“USSR industrialisation and the 5 year plan under Stalin”
Rosa Luxemburg, feature film
“Dr Zhivago – scene on road”
“Reds Internationale” clip from Reds
“Red alert 2 intro” from videogame Red Alert 2
Admiral– feature film
Tsar to Lenin
“Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Real footage”
Google images – “Russian Civil War map”
Gandhi – Amritsar massacre
Michael Collins clip
“The Battle of George Square – #Occupy fl.1919”
“The Revolution In Berlin!”
Hitler: the Rise of Evil, part one
“The Celebration Of The 1st Of May Moscow 1938 Aka May Day Rally Moscow 1938”
“Footage from infamous Moscow show trial”
“The Crimes of Stalinism”
“ZED-Stalin In Color (Documentary) (Trailer)”
Tsar to Lenin
“Inside The Gates Of Soviet Russia (1920-1921)” Pathé
Tsar to Lenin