Neil Faulkner looks at the time when the Bolshevik regime turned in on itself and morphed into a mockery of its socialist ideals.
By late 1923, almost everywhere in the world, the great revolutionary wave stirred into motion by the First World War was ebbing away.
The German Revolution had been defeated, and the Weimar Republic – a liberal parliamentary regime – had achieved a measure of stability.
The October Insurrection of 1917 had not ignited the world socialist revolution that the Bolsheviks had worked for. Lenin himself became a poignant symbol of the decay of revolutionary hope: increasingly incapacitated by a series of strokes, he died in 1924.
The Russian Revolution was left isolated, surrounded by enemies, devastated by war, and impoverished by economic collapse. Struggling to survive in desperate conditions, the Bolshevik regime turned in on itself and, in time, morphed into a hideous mockery of its former socialist ideals.
The great lie of 20th century political history is that this outcome was inevitable – that Stalinism was the direct result of the Bolshevik Revolution.
We live still in the shadow of that lie. It remains the single most effective argument against attempts to transform the world by revolutionary action.
From 1929 to 1989 in particular, it was in the interests of the world’s ruling classes – East and West – to perpetuate the lie. On one side of the ‘Iron Curtain’, the Soviet ruling classes claimed legitimacy as inheritors of the Bolshevik tradition. On the other, the Western ruling classes parroted an alternative version of the same argument, only in this case, the dictatorship and oppression of Eastern Europe were equated with Bolshevism.
Many on the Left fuelled the confusion. They felt obliged to defend ‘socialist’ Russia against right-wing attacks. Some even convinced themselves that Russia under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev was indeed somehow ‘socialist’.
The reality is very different. In 1928, the party-state bureaucracy that had emerged in Russia under Stalin’s leadership carried out a counter-revolution. It had been accumulating power for a decade, and when it moved decisively at the end of the 1920s, it was able to destroy all remaining vestiges of working-class democracy.
Meetings were packed, speakers shouted down, oppositionists purged and deported by a party-state machine now dominated by officials who had joined it since the revolution. The Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, was broken up.
During the 1930s, the bureaucracy consolidated its grip by liquidating virtually the whole of the old Bolshevik Party. Veterans of the October Insurrection were arrested, tortured, paraded in show trials, denounced as ‘saboteurs’ and ‘wreckers’, and then executed by Stalin’s secret police.
Of the nine members of Lenin’s last Politburo (in 1923), only two were still alive at the end of 1940 (Stalin and Molotov). Of the others, one died of natural causes (Lenin), one committed suicide in fear of arrest (Tomsky), and the remaining five were murdered (Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Rykov, and Trotsky).
How was this possible? Again and again, the Bolshevik leaders had insisted that backward Russia could not achieve socialism in isolation. ‘The final victory of socialism in a single country is, of course, impossible,’ explained Lenin on 11 January 1918. ‘Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army.’
What the Bolshevik leaders had not been able to predict was the form of the counter-revolution which eventually destroyed them. Even Trotsky, to his dying day, failed to grasp the enormity of the disaster, clinging to the delusion that Russia, despite all the horrors of the 1930s, remained in some sense a workers’ state, however ‘degenerated’, however ‘bureaucratically deformed’.
Three crushing material factors weighed upon the Russian Revolution: the social weight of the peasantry; the economic collapse caused by war; and the disintegration of the working class.
The alliance between workers and peasants had made the revolution possible. The peasants outnumbered the workers ten to one. If the workers had not won over the peasants, they would have been shot down by peasant-soldiers loyal to the Tsar. Instead, the Bolsheviks had promised ‘bread, peace, and land’, and the peasants had supported the October Insurrection.
But the interests of workers and peasants then diverged. The working class is a collective class because its labour is collective. You cannot divide up a coal-mine, an engineering plant, or a railway network into separate businesses. When workers take power, they have to run the economy as an integrated whole.
The peasantry, on the other hand, is a class of individualists, because every peasant’s aspiration is to be a prosperous independent farmer. The peasants will support urban revolutionaries who allow them to seize the land. But further co-operation then depends on the ability of the towns to produce goods they can trade with the villages. If they fail to do this, the peasants will not trade and the towns will starve.
The Bolsheviks understood this. Their problem was that production had collapsed. The combination of world war, revolution, and civil war caused such massive disruption that industrial output collapsed to a fifth of what it had been in 1914.
Shortages of food, fuel, and other basic necessities meant that between late 1918 and late 1920 around 9 million Russians died of hunger, disease, and cold – more than twice as many as were lost in the world war.
This drove the third factor. The working class physically disintegrated as millions fled the towns, returning to the villages where they had family. The urban population of Russia fell by more than half.
Even the workers who remained were not the same. The revolutionary government had to administer a vast territory, regenerate a broken economy, and fight a civil war against White armies backed by no less than 14 foreign expeditionary forces. The revolutionary proletariat of 1917 was therefore transformed into the Red Army of 1920.
Moreover, as sections of the economy cranked up again, new workers were sucked in from the countryside. So the Russian working class of 1920 was not only much smaller than that of 1917; its composition was also very different.
By the end of the Civil War, the revolutionary working class had disintegrated, the peasantry was in control of the land, and the landlord and capitalist classes had been vanquished. The only organised social force operating at a national level was the party-state administration.
Had full democracy been restored, the country would have been torn apart by the contradiction between the interests of the international working class and the interests of the Russian peasantry.
The Bolsheviks had no choice but to attempt to hold onto power in the hope that they would be rescued by world revolution. For a while, the revolutionary tradition itself could act as an historical force, even if embodied in a revolutionary apparatus rather than a revolutionary class.
But the Bolsheviks could not defy gravity. Eventually, they would succumb to the hostile social forces all around them. Lenin could see it. ‘Ours is not actually a workers’ state,’ he said as early as 1920, ‘but a workers’ and peasants’ state … But that is not all. Our party programme shows that ours is a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.
Later, alarmed at the influence of former Tsarist officials and newly recruited careerists in the government apparatus, he posed the question: ‘This mass of bureaucrats – who is leading whom?’
The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921-1928 was an attempt to resolve the economic contradictions and win a breathing-space before the next global revolutionary upsurge. It allowed private production and a free market to develop alongside state enterprise.
The effect was to foster the development of a class of entrepreneurs (the ‘NEPmen’) and a class of rich peasants (the kulaks). At the same time, the ‘red industrialists’ who ran state enterprises behaved increasingly like conventional capitalists in relation to their own workers. The imperatives of running a backward economy in an embattled state were transforming the political character of the ruling regime.
In 1928, Lenin’s question – ‘who is leading whom?’ – received its definitive answer. Crushing both the Right (representing the NEPmen and the kulaks), and the Left (representing the Bolshevik tradition), Stalin’s Centre emerged from the backrooms of the Communist Party as the political expression of a new bureaucratic ruling class.
The nature of the society that that class proceeded to construct on the wreckage of the Russian Revolution will be the subject of a future chapter.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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