Workers Vanguard No. 1124
15 December 2017
Celebrating the 1917 Russian Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at a November 4 forum in Chicago. Part One appeared in WV No. 1123 (1 December).
The first Provisional Government, which was established after the February Revolution, was brought down by the uproar over its pledge to continue the hated imperialist war. A new cabinet was formed on May 5. This time Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party and Menshevik leaders in the soviets (councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies that arose in the wake of the February Revolution) took ministerial posts, alongside the bourgeois Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party, in the capitalist government. Trotsky later called this Russian coalition government “the greatest historical example of the Popular Front” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” July 1936).
The popular front was the name that the Stalinists would use, starting in the 1930s, to designate their coalition government betrayals. In South Africa it’s called the Tripartite Alliance. Such class collaboration is not a tactic but the greatest betrayal! When a workers party enters a popular front with capitalist parties, whether in government or in opposition, it is a pledge by the traitorous working-class leaders that they will not violate the bourgeois order; in fact, they’ll defend it.
The mood in Petrograd was changing in favor of the Bolsheviks, who had a near majority in the factories. In early June when a demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was banned by the Menshevik/SR-led Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down and called it off. The conciliationist Soviet leadership then called a demonstration on June 18, but to their horror the workers came out en masse under Bolshevik slogans, including: “Down with the offensive!” “All power to the soviets!” and “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!”
Trotsky was now back in Russia and, finally understanding the need for a hard Leninist party, was working closely with Lenin. In response to the coalition government, Lenin and Trotsky devised the slogan, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” It meant: break the coalition with the capitalists; the soviets should take all the power!
By early July, Petrograd was in semi-insurrection. Workers and soldiers infuriated by the coalition government, now led by Alexander Kerensky, were demanding “All power to the Soviet!” In his History of the Russian Revolution (1932), Trotsky vividly quotes an eyewitness who saw Victor Chernov, an SR minister, trying to speak to a crowd of workers and soldiers: “A husky worker shaking his fist in the face of the minister, shouted furiously: ‘Take the power, you son-of-a-bitch, when they give it to you’.”
But the conciliationists didn’t want the power! This is very different from the Bolsheviks. Speaking at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917, Lenin called for a Soviet government and asserted: “According to the previous speaker...there was no political party in Russia expressing its readiness to assume full power. I reply: ‘Yes, there is. No party can refuse this, and our Party certainly doesn’t’” (“Speech on the Attitude Towards the Provisional Government,” 4 June 1917).
The Bolsheviks were worried that a July insurrection in the cities was premature, that it would not be backed by the peasantry, and thus it would be impossible for the workers to hold power. But after initially opposing the July demonstrations, the Bolshevik leadership decided that it was better to go with the masses and try to provide leadership and prevent a premature insurrection. The Bolshevik estimation was correct, and after the demonstrations, a period of severe repression followed. Bolsheviks were killed, Trotsky was arrested and Lenin went into hiding. The repression, however, did make clear to the workers the true nature of this popular-front government—that it was nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
While in hiding, Lenin devoted what he thought might be his last days to writing The State and Revolution. He argued that while the bourgeoisie uses lies to hide its dictatorship, the truth is that the state is not a neutral arbiter above classes. He defended Friedrich Engels’ understanding that the core of the state is armed bodies of men—the military, prisons and police—who hold a monopoly of violence over society. These instruments exist for the social domination by the ruling class—under capitalism, the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s pamphlet codifies a central lesson of revolutionary struggle: that the proletariat cannot take over the bourgeois state to wield it in the interests of the working class. Rather, the proletariat must smash the old state machinery, create a new state and impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters. As you can see, this was not an abstract discussion but a part of an ongoing political debate. There was supposed to be a seventh chapter of The State and Revolution, but Lenin had to stop writing and go back to Petrograd to actually lead the revolution. As he noted in a postscript: “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”
By August, the bourgeoisie had realized that only a military coup could stop the revolution and called on the commander-in-chief of the army, General Kornilov, to crush the soviets. Kornilov was a monarchist general of the anti-Jewish “Black Hundred” type. Trotsky notes that Kornilov had the heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep. The conciliationist soviet tops were paralyzed in response to the counterrevolutionary offensive, but the masses rallied around the Bolshevik-organized united-front action that stopped Kornilov in his tracks.
Lenin was very clear:
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.”
Lenin was also very clear on the war even though by this time the German army was approaching Petrograd: “We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat” (“To the Central Committee of the RSDLP,” 30 August 1917).
It is also worth noting that a victory for Kornilov would have meant not only a slaughter of the pro-Bolshevik masses, but would also have been fatal for many of the compromisers as well. The failed coup showed that bourgeois democracy, as represented by the Provisional Government, was not viable in the historical sense in Russia in 1917. The real choices were represented by the Bolsheviks on the one hand and Kornilov and the forces of military reaction on the other.
Toward the Seizure of Power
A crucial corner had been turned by the beginning of September. The masses were convinced that the old soviet misleaders were politically bankrupt and that only the Bolsheviks would take decisive action to end the war, stop capitalist sabotage of the economy and lead the soviets to power. The general staff of the army was no longer capable of mobilizing military units against revolutionary Petrograd. The countryside was aflame as returning peasant soldiers seized the landlords’ fields and torched their huge mansions. On September 4, Trotsky was released from prison, and by the 23rd he was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.
The Bolsheviks finally had solid majorities in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets. Trotsky declared, “Long live the direct and open struggle for a revolutionary power throughout the country!” The bourgeoisie and the conciliationists tried some parliamentary diversions—the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament—but it was too late for that. The crucial upcoming event was the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was very popular with the masses because it was sure to have a Bolshevik majority.
The first showdown in the Bolshevik leadership over the insurrection was the famous central committee meeting of October 10, where the insurrection was voted up ten votes to two—Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev voted against. As Trotsky wrote: “Whatever remains in the party that is irresolute, skeptical, conciliationist, capitulatory—in short Menshevik—all this rises to the surface in opposition to the insurrection” (Lessons of October, 1924). The resolution, as is typical of Lenin, starts with the international situation, that is, the ripening of world revolution; the insurrection in Russia is regarded as a link in the chain. The idea of having socialism in one country was not in anyone’s mind then, even Stalin’s.
Alexander Rabinowitch, in The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976), tells a funny story about this meeting which had to be held secretly because Lenin was still subject to arrest:
“By an ironic twist of fate the gathering was to be held in the apartment of the left Menshevik Sukhanov.... But on this occasion Sukhanov was not in attendance. His wife, Galina Flakserman, a Bolshevik activist since 1905...had offered...the use of the Sukhanov flat, should the need arise.”
“For her part, Flakserman insured that her meddlesome husband would remain away on this historic night. ‘The weather is wretched, and you must promise not to try to make it all the way back home tonight,’ she had counseled solicitously as he departed for work early that morning.”
He must have been irritated to miss this meeting.
So, after this decisive resolution, the workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funneling weapons directly to the Red Guards. But there were still differences in the leadership. There was another meeting on October 16, where Lenin again argued for insurrection and Kamenev and Zinoviev again voted against it. Then Kamenev and Zinoviev got a public statement printed in a non-Bolshevik newspaper opposing the insurrection. Lenin called them strikebreakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. Luckily for them, the revolution intervened. Stalin voted with Lenin for insurrection but defended Kamenev and Zinoviev and minimized the differences. He was keeping his options open in case the revolution didn’t come off.
A decisive step toward the seizure of power came when the Petrograd Soviet, at the behest of the Bolsheviks, invalidated an order by Kerensky to transfer two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. Trotsky noted:
“The moment when the regiments, upon the instructions of the [Soviet] Military Revolutionary Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms. The insurrection of October 25 was only supplementary in character.”
—Lessons of October
The Seizure of Power
On October 24, Kerensky foolishly tried to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. The Military Revolutionary Committee immediately sent a detachment to reopen it and also to start taking over the telephone exchange and other key centers. Even at this point Lenin was frustrated with the lack of progress of the insurrection and went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute to oversee preparations personally. One Bolshevik remembered that Lenin “paced around a small room at Smolny like a lion in a cage. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost: it remained the last gate on the road to workers’ power. V. I. scolded...he screamed...he was ready to shoot us” (Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power).
Kerensky, by the way, escaped in the safety of a diplomatic vehicle flying the American flag. He wound up here in the U.S., home to counterrevolutionary gusanos of all varieties, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. There he wrote and lectured about how to fight communism—something which he hadn’t done too well in life.
The cruiser Aurora was firing on the Winter Palace when the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened. Lenin got up and opened his speech with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The three-point agenda was: end the war, give land to the peasants and establish the socialist dictatorship. The Bolsheviks’ proclamations were punctuated by the steady boom of Red naval artillery directed against the government holdouts in the Winter Palace, which was finally taken.
As we’ve seen, the soviets by themselves do not settle the question of power. They can serve different programs and leaderships. As Trotsky wrote in Lessons of October, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.” At the opening session of the Congress of Soviets, the Mensheviks and the right-wing Socialist-Revolutionaries were enraged that the Bolsheviks had taken power and walked out. Trotsky basically said “Good riddance!”
Consistent with their opposition to the seizure of power, the right wing of the Bolshevik Party leadership around Zinoviev and Kamenev argued for a coalition government. They had to back down when it became clear that there was nobody to form a coalition with. Far from wanting to help run a workers state, the Mensheviks and SRs immediately started organizing a counterrevolutionary uprising against the Bolsheviks, which was quickly suppressed.
Let me state as a general rule that it is a bad idea to seek a coalition with those who are actively trying to overthrow the workers state and kill you all. This right wing of the Bolsheviks would re-emerge after Lenin’s death and the defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, when a bureaucratic caste began to coalesce around J.V. Stalin. But for now, another acute party crisis had been overcome. Some Left SRs finally did join the government, at least for a while.
I will briefly comment on the “constituent assembly” call and recommend to people our article in Spartacist ([English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13), “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand.” This was a longtime Bolshevik demand, but the problem is that a constituent assembly is a bourgeois parliament. When it finally came into being after the revolution, it was counterrevolutionary. As we state in our article:
“The issues of permanent revolution and the constituent assembly are closely linked because the central question is what form of state will be able to accomplish the democratic tasks of the revolution: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat?...
“Even after the essential concepts of the perspective of permanent revolution came to be accepted—by Trotsky in 1905, by Lenin in early 1917—the relationship between soviets and constituent assembly remained to be tested in real life. It was the experience of the October Revolution that led Lenin and Trotsky to support the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, despite their previous support for calls to convene it.”
The Revolutionary Regime
Besides proceeding on peace negotiations and land to the peasantry, a new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars was appointed, which over the next period moved forward with nationalizing the banks, restarting industry and laying the foundations of the new soviet state.
On November 15, the new Soviet government issued the “Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia,” putting forward the following principles: equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of self-determination up to secession and formation of a separate state, abolition of all national and religious privileges, and the free development of all national and ethnic groups inhabiting Russia. Trotsky comments in his History of the Russian Revolution:
“The bourgeoisie of the border nations entered the road of separatism in the autumn of 1917, not in a struggle against national oppression, but in a struggle against the advancing proletarian revolution. In the sum total, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations manifested no less hostility to the revolution than the Great Russian bourgeoisie.”
True enough, and certainly the local bourgeoisie of various border areas were willing lackeys of the imperialist powers, including of course the U.S., which tried to overturn the Russian Revolution. But this is why Lenin’s position on the national question spoke so powerfully to the working masses. What he wanted was a voluntary union of nations. Writing in December 1919 about the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Lenin said:
“Regarding it as beyond dispute for every Communist and for every politically-conscious worker that the closest alliance of all Soviet republics in their struggle against the menacing forces of world imperialism is essential, the R.C.P. [Russian Communist Party] maintains that the form of that alliance must be finally determined by the Ukrainian workers and labouring peasants themselves.”
—“Draft Resolution of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.) on Soviet Rule in the Ukraine”
The question of national divisions does not go away the day after the socialist revolution, but only in the more distant communist future. The idea that the national question was no longer an issue was defeated in the debate in 1919 over the Russian party program. Actually, it was another go-around with those who had proposed “imperialist economism” before the revolution (see Part One of this presentation).
The party program asserted not only that “the colonial and other nations which are oppressed, or whose rights are restricted, must be completely liberated and granted the right to secede.” It also emphasized that “the workers of those nations which under capitalism were oppressor nations must take exceptional care not to hurt the national sentiments of the oppressed nations...and must not only promote the actual equality, but also the development of the language and literature of the working people of the formerly oppressed nations so as to remove all traces of distrust and alienation inherited from the epoch of capitalism” (“Draft Programme of the R.C.P.[B.]”).
Indeed, Lenin’s last struggle was waged against the Great Russian chauvinist bullying of Georgian Communists by Stalin and others. This was part of the struggle against the developing Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky said: “Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union—and it is still far from a quiet haven—the national policy of Lenin will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind” (History of the Russian Revolution).
This talk cannot take up in any depth the question of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratization.
In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe. The idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later perversion introduced as part of the justification for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.
Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste in 1924 and the consequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a collectivized, planned economy—remained. We of the International Communist League stand on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution. We stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time, we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, restore workers democracy and pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution.
The gains of the revolution were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. Despite the grim poverty of Russia at the time of the October Revolution, the young workers state implemented far-reaching measures of equality for women. The Soviet government established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner; all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were abolished.
As explained in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923), by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, the Bolshevik position was based on the following principle: “the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.” This is light-years ahead of the consciousness of liberals and fake leftists today, like Socialist Alternative, who go ballistic over our defense of Roman Polanski, who has been persecuted for consensual sexual activity, and NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association), which advocates the right of consensual relationships between youth and older men.
One of the few recent good articles in the New York Times about the Russian Revolution was an August 12 piece by Kristen R. Ghodsee titled “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” It was mostly about East European countries, which became bureaucratically deformed workers states after World War II. The article stated: “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.” Some examples:
“Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria.... Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships. ‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,’ she said. ‘After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased’.”
From a 30-something working woman of Germany today speaking of her mother’s desire for grandchildren: “She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now—it was so easy for women [in East Germany] before the Wall fell,” referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Another quote from researchers in Poland when it was still a workers state: “Even the best stimulation...will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.” Indeed! In fact, the most amazing thing about this article is that the New York Times actually published it.
“Left” Apostles of Counterrevolution
The destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism there in 1991-92 and in East Europe transformed the political landscape of the planet and threw proletarian consciousness backward. Capitalist counterrevolution triggered an unparalleled economic collapse throughout the former Soviet Union, with skyrocketing rates of poverty and disease. Internationally, with the destruction of the Soviet Union as a counterweight, the imperialists felt they had a free hand to project their military might.
We actively fought counterrevolution from East Germany to the Soviet Union itself. The Socialist Workers Party of Britain, then affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S., was just the bluntest of the “left” cheerleaders for counterrevolution when they triumphantly proclaimed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991).
Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and big shot in the Democratic Socialists of America, has this to say about the Russian Revolution:
“One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags [really?!], the idea that we should return to this history for inspiration might sound absurd. But there was good reason that the Bolsheviks once called themselves ‘social democrats’.”
So Sunkara believes Leninism leads to Stalinism and wants to return to every rotten social-democratic position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to fight against to make the Russian Revolution. Todd Chretien, ISO honcho, endorses the article with a few oh-so-polite caveats and says: “Today, like it or not, all of us socialists are on the same train, even if we might start out on different cars...and communication between compartments is flowing freely”—between what he calls the “healthy sections of the socialist left,” i.e., the reformists of various varieties.
Well, we Trotskyists of the ICL are not on their train. We don’t spend our days trying to refurbish the capitalist Democratic Party; we don’t support U.S. imperialism’s bloody wars around the world; and we don’t promote counterrevolution in those countries, like China or North Korea, where capitalist rule was overthrown. And our goal isn’t trying to reform the capitalist system.
During World War I, Rosa Luxemburg posited that the choices were socialism or barbarism. That’s true now, too. We know we have a long row to hoe and that we are a small international revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. We also know that the tide will again turn and that future workers revolutions will need the Bolshevik political arsenal. Their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution. So that’s our job and no one else’s. To quote James Cannon, “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood” (Struggle for a Proletarian Party ).