Ideas & Debates
Five Myths About the Russian Revolution Debunked
Although the idea of socialism is growing in popularity, myths about the Russian Revolution persist.
November 07, 2017
Image from Libertad Digital
"Step by Step" by Sidney Greene (1919)
The capitalist class has led a smear campaign against the Russian Revolution for the past 100 years. Although more and more people see themselves as socialists, the red-scare lies still linger in American consciousness. This article seeks to debunk five myths about the Russian Revolution.
Myth 1: The October Revolution was a coup carried out by a handful of elitist, Machiavellian intellectuals who rose to power by manipulating a passive and indifferent working class.
The idea that the Bolshevik Party was a tiny organization of professional conspirators who were alien, or even hostile, to the Russian workers is usually justified by bourgeois historians decontextualizing a passage from Lenin’s What is To Be Done?. In it, he says that on their own, workers can only attain a reformist consciousness and therefore, revolutionary or socialist consciousness comes from outside of the working class. This passage from 1902, refers to the difficulties encountered by the first Marxist organizations in what was, at the time, the most reactionary country in Europe, governed by the divine right of Kings. Russia lacked even a bourgeois constitution —political parties and unions were illegal, and its political police were the most feared in the world. In 1905, Lenin himself came to revise that position and even criticized Bolshevik comrades who contrasted the conscious leadership of a Marxist revolutionary party with the self-organization of the workers. Organized into a party, the workers would lead their own revolution.
Upon his arrival in Russia in April of 1917, Lenin did not immediately call for the overthrow of the provisional capitalist government that was still supported by a majority of the population. Instead, he called on the Bolsheviks to patiently explain to the workers that the soviets should seize state power. According to Lenin, the provisional government could not be overthrown until the Bolsheviks themselves had the support of the majority of the people. He held that the people were not passive, much less indifferent. In October, a group of marines joined the Bolsheviks and, armed with bayonets, they asked, “When, at last, will we use them?”
By this point, the Bolsheviks had won the support of the overwhelming majority in such a way that the provisional government was overthrown without a single shot being fired in Petrograd. It was also the Bolsheviks who avoided a spontaneous overthrow of the provisional government during the July Days, aware that a premature insurrection could isolate the city from the countryside where the provisional government still enjoyed support.
After fourteen years of organizing the Russian working class, the positions held by the Bolsheviks grew in strength by expressing the needs and aspirations of the masses. This allowed the party to grow from 17 thousand militants in February, 1917 to 240 thousand in October, organically merging itself with the working class.
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Myth 2: From the start, the real goal of the Bolsheviks was a dictatorship of a single party.
The October Revolution shifted power to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, installed on the day of the insurrection, October 25, 1917. The soviets were the councils of worker delegates whom the workers themselves elected in the factories. They were paid the same as an ordinary worker, and their mandates were revocable at any time. Having existed alongside the provisional government since the fall of the monarchy, these councils were an infinitely more democratic form of government than the capitalist “democracies” in which politicians enjoyed privileges, were elected by lying, became rich at the expense of the people, and stay in power for years despite betraying those who elected them and whom they claim to represent.
The soviets were multi-party organizations in which all proletarian political tendencies could compete democratically. The Bolsheviks were in the minority until September 1917; the two majority parties were the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) who, together with other capitalist parties, were part of the ruling coalition in the provisional government. Once Lenin returned from exile, the Bolsheviks demanded that these two parties break with the capitalists, expel the capitalist cabinet members, and form their own strictly Menshevik and SR government which would answer to the soviets in which these same parties were in the majority. Had they done so, the Bolshevik Party would not have been in government, but they would have agreed not to use force against the government and to fight against the return of the Czar. The Mensheviks and SRs refused to do so.
Immediately following the October insurrection, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the end of the provisional government with a three-quarters majority comprised of not only Bolsheviks but also the left wing of the SR Party.
The democratically-defeated minority of Mensheviks and right wing SRs walked out of the congress and — with the advice of British, German, French and American imperialist agents — supported all attempts at a coup against the newly-formed soviet state by czarist generals who had, until then, been enemies of the provisional government. The details of these conspiracies, and of others like them, can be found in Victor Serge’s work Year One of the Russian Revolution.
The Bolsheviks did not see being the only party in power as an advantage. Mensheviks and SRs had been taking up arms against the soviet state since 1917 but were not outlawed until June 1918. At this point, the Civil War had mobilized not only Russian monarchists against the USSR, but also fourteen foreign armies—among them the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan (the main imperialist powers of the time). The outlawing of other parties was an exceptional defensive measure imposed by historical circumstances and which, according to Trotsky who was leader of the Red Army during the Civil War, did not reflect Bolshevik theory. Indeed, the Bolshevik Party program called for a multiparty soviet system.
Stalinism, the counter-revolutionary antithesis of Bolshevism, was responsible for the bureaucratic institutionalization of the single party regime without regard to circumstances. The capitalist class has deliberately conflated a war measure by the Bolsheviks with a conception of the Stalinists.
Myth 3: Had the October Revolution not overthrown the provisional government, Russia would have become a democracy.
The Provisional government is often described by bourgeois historians as a progressive government led by “democratic socialists” who could have transformed Russia into a democracy like France or Britain if they had had more time before the Bolshevik “conspirators” took over. These so-called “conspirators” won the support of the overwhelming majority of Russian people by patiently explaining that only the workers, organized in soviets, could pull Russia out of the First World War, redistribute land from the nobility to the poor peasantry, and convene a constituent assembly. In short, the workers were the only ones who could answer the cry of the February Revolution for peace, land and an end to the monarchy. The demands of the revolution had been repeatedly put off by the provisional government and could not be met because of that body’s close ties to British and French imperialism.
Within a few hours, the Second Congress of Soviets decreed peace and land reform — two things the provisional government had failed to accomplish in eight months. The October Revolution proved Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution. This theory argues that democratic tasks undertaken by the capitalist class in the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, like land reform, could only be carried out in peripheral countries by a working class revolution. Once in power, the working class would be able to resolve democratic tasks, as well taking up socialist tasks, such as expropriating the capitalists.
After the July uprisings, a czarist general named Kornilov took advantage of the weary state of the masses of Petrograd and attempted a counter-revolutionary coup against the provisional government. The right wing coup took place despite the “progressive” and “democratic” Provisional government having criminalized the Bolshevik Party and jailed its leadership.
A similar event took place in Chile under Salvador Allende, a “democratic socialist” whose government was overthrown in a coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was a general who was named Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces by Allende himself two weeks prior to the coup.
Generally speaking, the history of peripheral capitalist countries is a sequence of coups and dictatorships. Having a stable “democratic” capitalist regime has been a privilege of imperialist countries over the past century. Bourgeois democracy does not have long term stability in peripheral countries like Chile and Brazil where the capitalist class is feeble and dependent upon imperialism, the workers are super-exploited, and unresolved democratic issues oppress the masses. If the October Revolution had been defeated, Russia would not have become a democracy; it is far more likely to have become a German semi-colony (“something between Czarist Russia and India”, according to Trotsky), governed by a dictatorship under Kornilov or some other czarist general.
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Myth 4: Stalinism was the natural and inevitable consequence of the October Revolution and Leninism Bolshevism.
The Bolsheviks did not conceptualize the October Revolution as merely a Russian Revolution, but rather as the detonator of an international revolution which would expand to all countries, particularly those in the First World War. The Bolsheviks saw their own triumph as tied up with the working class taking power in Western European countries, and in particular, in Germany. Following the October Revolution, workers attempted revolution in various countries in Europe, such as Italy and Germany; in the latter, there was an almost continuous and uninterrupted revolutionary process between 1917 and 1923.
However, these revolutions were defeated, mainly due to the betrayal of the social democratic parties whose counter-revolutionary roles were analogous to that of the Russian Mensheviks. Consequently, the only victorious working class revolution in history was isolated in an impoverished country, ravaged by four years of World War and three years of counter-revolutionary civil war.
Building socialism must be based and structured upon the development of productive forces that enables the reduction of the working day and efficient production. This would progressively abolish the division between manual and intellectual labor. This requires socializing and rotating administrative posts among all workers and increasing free time. This would allow all people to have time to spend time on science, art, culture, and the development of their greatest human potential. It is impossible to achieve this in a single country given that a country that is isolated from the world economy has limited productive forces. Therefore, socialism can only be built on a global scale with a planned economy that encompasses the productive forces of all humankind.
The contradictions of an isolated proletarian revolution grew into a thermidorian reaction — a counter-revolution occurred in which the leadership of the Revolution was usurped by a bureaucracy whose main representative was Stalin. The bureaucracy grew into a privileged caste and developed its own interests opposed to those of the working class by politically expropriating the Russian workers, destroying the soviets, assassinating the Bolshevik revolutionaries, and reaping privileges from the planned economy. In 1923, Trotsky organized the Left Opposition, which fought against the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.
However, this bureaucracy did not grow out of moral problems within the Bolsheviks or the young soviet state. Rather, it grew out of the material conditions of the Soviet Union. Socialism is a politics for the equitable distribution of the plenty created by mass production. Stalinism grew out of the fact that a bureaucracy became responsible to distribute the few resources available in isolated USSR. A bureaucracy is needed to manage scarcity. In a society of plenty, socialism can flourish.
In 1924, the Stalinist bureaucracy invented the theory of Socialism in only one country. Under the leadership of Stalin, the communist international, the Comintern put forward a politics meant to support the existence of the USSR, not move towards revolution. The Comintern called on Communist parties all of the world to support the left wing of each country’s respective bourgeoisie. This meant betraying revolutionary processes that were taking place in various countries such as China in the 1920’s and Spain in the 1930’s, among others.
“The present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line, but a whole river of blood,” as Trotsky put it. Either workers would have to carry out a new political revolution that would topple the bureaucracy and restore soviet democracy, or the bureaucracy would restore capitalism. Capitalism was, of course, restored at the end of the 1980s.
Myth 5:The October Revolution only distributed poverty.
Capitalists have worked to associate socialism with pictures of long queues and empty shelves — which are, of course, exceedingly common occurrences in capitalist countries where eight billionaires concentrate the same amount of wealth as one half of the world population. Yet, these images do portray something real— the Perestroika period of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. These images are evidence of collapse of the Soviet Union and do not support the case for the failure of socialism. These images should be read in context, understanding that the failure of the Soviet Union was possible due to a combination due to the nefarious politics of Stalinism, as well as imperialist pressure.
Despite all this, up until 1985, the Soviet economy grew approximately 3 percent per year, and averaged more than 5 percent growth annually during the 1970’s, a rate comparable to that of the United States prior to the 2008 crisis.
Prior to the Russian Revolution, over nine-tenths of the population were peasants whose agricultural techniques and productivity had not been improved since the 14th century. The October Revolution transformed the most underdeveloped country in Europe into an economic, military, scientific, and cultural superpower. The Soviet population was highly educated, fully employed, and had living standards for workers that were, generally speaking, higher than those of many capitalist countries.
In 1932, when Trotsky was invited to speak to the Danish Social Democratic Youth; he stated that, “The curve of the industrial development of Russia expressed in crude index numbers is as follows, taking 1913, the last year before the war as 100. The year 1920, the highest point of the civil war, is also the lowest point in industry – only 25, that is to say, a quarter of the pre-war production. In 1925 it rose to 75, that is, three-quarters of the pre-war production; in 1929 about 200, in 1932: 300, that is to say, three times as much as on the eve of the war.The picture becomes even more striking in the light of the international index. From 1925 to 1932 the industrial production of Germany has diminished one and a half times, in America twice, in the Soviet Union it has increased four fold. These figures speak for themselves.”
One of the first victories of the October Revolution was that of an unprecedented literacy campaign, unparalleled by any capitalist regime. Soviet iron production doubled between 1933 and 1936. During the same period, the Soviet Union, jumped from being the tenth largest producer of coal to the fourth and the sixth largest producer of steel to the third. In 1936, the production of iron, coal, and oil had tripled in comparison to pre-war levels. In 1935, Russia had 95 power stations and a productive capacity of 4.4 million kilowatts; there were ten stations and 253 thousand kilowatts when the Golero commission was created.
These advances provided the conditions for free, public healthcare and education. In very little time, the Soviet Union essentially ended illiteracy. People in the Soviet Union had the right to a home, as well as to day care.
No capitalist country has ever achieved such a rate of development. “Socialism”, Trotsky wrote, “has demonstrated its right to victory, not in the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising one sixth of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.” These statistics are even more impressive when we take into account that the Soviet Union was not a socialist country, but a transitional workers’ state, whose progress towards socialism was interrupted by the bureaucracy. Even amidst a usurped Revolution, workers enjoyed great victories. Imagine then, the possibilities in a workers’ state where the proletariat, organized in soviets, exert full control and decision-making power.