Ninety years ago on November 7, 1917 (October 25 according to the Russian calendar of the time), there took place the greatest event of the twentieth century. The Russian Revolution did not merely shake the world, it shaped all the politics and history that followed.
Its enduring significance lies in the fact that it was the first time in human history that the working masses, upon whose labour human civilisation has rested down through the ages, seized political power and consciously undertook the task of remaking society in Russia, and on an international scale.
Ninety years on we are, in many ways, removed from the society out of which the Russian Revolution erupted. But in a profound sense, we live in the epoch of the Russian Revolution.
Much has changed in the past nine decades. The productive forces, the fruit of man’s labour, of science and its application, have expanded on a vast scale. But the social relations of capitalist society remain. Production is still carried out according to the dictates of the market, whose driving force is the struggle for profit by privately-owned corporations. Notwithstanding the global character of all aspects of economic and social life, the world remains divided by the nation-state system, giving rise to rivalries and conflicts among the capitalist great powers and the threat of war.
Much has changed. But mankind is confronted with the same historical problems that propelled the Russian working class on to the road of revolution, and which saw tens of millions of workers, youth and socialist-minded intellectuals take that road in the years that followed.
From the first day after the Russian Revolution, the ruling classes all over the world recognised it as a threat, fearing the spread of what they called the “Bolshevik infection”. It was necessary, Winston Churchill proclaimed—speaking on behalf of all of them—to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle.” And they attempted to do just that, sending over the next months some 14 armies to try to overthrow the first workers’ state.
From the outset the ruling classes and their spokesmen waged a political and ideological war against the Russian Revolution. The revolution was a coup, a putsch, a conspiracy, launched by the fanatic Lenin to set up a totalitarian regime. Democracy was just about to flower in Russia when it was crushed by the Bolsheviks.
From 1917 until today, it has proved impossible for the ideologues of the ruling classes to acknowledge the simple truth: that the Russian Revolution was the outcome of the entry of the masses into the historical process, and that the great social force of the working class was the power that drove it forward.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this ideological offensive has become ever-more strident, with all concern for historical truth swept aside.
The reason the Soviet Union collapsed, it is claimed, had nothing to do with the isolation of the revolution, its failure to spread to the advanced capitalist countries of western Europe and the terrible degeneration which that isolation produced in the form of Stalinism. Rather, it was the inevitable outcome of the October Revolution itself, a criminal enterprise that had its origins in the totalitarian conceptions of Bolshevism. Above all, the end of the Soviet Union meant the definitive end of Marxism and the socialist project, if not of history itself.
Such assertions are based on a false identity of Marxism, and its perspective of world socialist revolution, with the history and fate of the Soviet Union. The Marxist movement anticipated the Russian Revolution, prepared it and led it. But what subsequently took place in the Soviet Union and Marxism are by no means identical. In fact, the turning point in the historical development of the Soviet Union was the suppression and then extirpation of Marxism by Stalinism.
More than seven decades ago, when the bourgeois liberals and academics were worshipping before the accomplished fact of the Soviet Union, the Marxist movement, the Fourth International led by Leon Trotsky, explained that if the Stalinist bureaucracy were not overthrown by the working class, it would lead to the liquidation of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism.
But none of the contemporary right-wing historians can undertake a serious examination of Trotsky’s analysis because it would shatter their assertions that the degeneration was inherent in the revolution itself—because it violated fundamental laws of man’s social existence.
According to the historian Richard Pipes, the attempt to end private ownership of the means of production was bound to fail—and all such attempts will fail in the future—because private ownership is “not a transient phenomenon but a permanent feature of social life and as such indestructible.” Therefore, socialism had to assume a dictatorial form. It was an attempt to violate the essential characteristics of mankind, and consequently had to be imposed by force. Lenin knew this, and this was why, from the very origins of the Bolshevik Party in 1903, he sought to impose a dictatorial regime.
The historian Martin Malia insisted that the suppression of private property was an “effort to suppress the real world, and this is something that cannot succeed in the long run.”
In other words, the revolution did not succeed because a non-capitalist society is intrinsically impossible. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama drew the inevitable conclusion from this outlook when he proclaimed the “end of history”, meaning that mankind’s historical evolution had come to an end with the capitalist market.
The laws of historical development
Such an outlook implies the “end of history” in another sense as well. If private property in the means of production is inherent in human civilisation itself, then how are we to explain the historical development of human society. How is one to account for the millennia of human existence where there was no such thing as “property”? And how can one explain the transformation of property forms throughout history—from slavery, feudalism, the various forms of Asiatic despotism and finally to the emergence of capitalism itself in the last 500 years?
Capitalist property forms are no more lodged in the essence of mankind than were those corresponding to slavery and feudalism. The reactionary historians who denounce socialist revolution as a crime against human nature and the essence of man, are the modern-day equivalent of the priests of an earlier period, who sanctified feudal society by claiming that it was in accordance with the will of God.
But notwithstanding the blessings of the Church, feudal society and its property forms were overthrown and replaced by capitalism, just as earlier forms of society had been replaced by feudalism.
How then are we to explain the historical process itself? Here we come to one of two great discoveries of Marx—the law of development of human history.
In 1859, the same year that Darwin published his Origin of Species, and cleared the way for man to study his own biological origins, Marx formulated the laws governing the historical development of human society.
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness…. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure” (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).
The Russian Revolution did not take place in defiance of the laws of history, as the reactionaries try to maintain, but in accordance with them. It was anticipated, prepared and led by Marxists, who were grounded on a scientific and historical understanding of class relations and who based themselves on the objective logic of events.
With the Russian Revolution, mankind reaches a new stage in its historical development. Here, for the first time, we have a struggle to make history on the basis of consciousness of its laws of development, in which the active participants, making a scientific analysis of social and political processes as they unfold, undertake practical initiatives on the basis of that analysis to change the course of events.
Let us examine the processes that led to this new stage.
I referred earlier to the fact that Marx made two great discoveries. He not only uncovered the general laws of historical development, but he also revealed the law of motion of capitalist society—how the system of private ownership of the means of production and free wage labour led to the greatest development of the productive forces seen in human history and, at the same time, prepared the way for the breakdown of this mode of production and its replacement by socialism.
All previous industrial modes of production have been characterised by conservatism. In capitalist society it is the reverse.
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones,” Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, 1848.
But it is this very dynamic development, driving the capitalist class all over world, which lays the basis for the overthrow of capitalism itself. The growth of the productive forces, driven on by the inexorable logic of the profit system, comes into conflict with the social relations based on private ownership of the means of production. The very growth of the productivity of labour leads to a breakdown in capitalist society itself, and the emergence of a revolutionary crisis.
In the years immediately following Marx’s death in 1883, this perspective seemed to receive confirmation in the “great depression” in prices and profits that characterised capitalism in the two decades following the financial crisis of 1873. However, in the mid-1890s there was a marked shift. A new phase of capitalist development—a springtide—was clearly underway.
This development was to find expression in the theories developed by Eduard Bernstein, a central leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the leading party of the international Marxist movement. According to Bernstein, developments within capitalism itself had cast their verdict on Marx’s “breakdown” theory.
There was no inherent tendency to crisis, and consequently socialism would not come about through the revolutionary conquest of political power. Rather, it would take place through the gradual accumulation of social reforms and the gains won by the trade union movement.
Bernstein’s perspective was an attack on the very foundations of the Marxist perspective and the revolutionary party itself. If there was no inherent tendency within capitalism to breakdown, then it followed that there was no historic necessity for socialism. As Rosa Luxemburg drew out, socialism then became anything you wanted to call it—a kind of utopia, a nice ideal—but no longer the outcome of the material development of capitalist society.
If that were the case, then on what was the struggle for socialism to be based? Luxemburg explained: “We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to that lamentable Rosinante on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened.”
The origins of Bolshevism lay not in the attempt of Lenin to fashion a dictatorship, as the various right-wing historians maintain, but in the far-reaching conclusions he drew from the struggle waged in the socialist movement against the conceptions of Bernstein and his followers in the Russian movement, the so-called Economists.
Responding to the growth of the Russian working class and its rising militancy—a product of the industrial boom of the 1890s—the Economists maintained that the task of the party was to organise the economic struggle and, where necessary, give it an immediate political character, in the form of demands for reforms. In other words, the Economists’ perspective was to steer the socialist movement in Russia into the channels of trade unionism.
This, however, involved a fundamentally opposed class orientation and perspective, because trade unionism—the struggle of workers against their employers for better wages and conditions, and even for legislation to protect their interests—never goes beyond the framework of capitalist society.
In his book What is to be Done? Lenin established that the necessity for the party, and the character of its political tasks, arose from the very structure of capitalist society.
While the working class spontaneously gravitated towards socialism, the ideology of the bourgeoisie nevertheless spontaneously re-imposed itself. This was because that ideology had existed for hundreds of years, because it was sustained by the basic social relations of capitalism, and because the ruling classes held the material foundations of culture in their hands.
Accordingly, Lenin insisted, an organised struggle had to be waged to bring socialism into the working class from without—that is, from outside the immediate conflict between the working class and the employers. In this lay the historic task of the party.
More than 100 years on, there is no conception that draws greater fire from the opponents of Marxism than this. Those who are on the “left”, begin by pointing out that Marx had insisted that the emancipation of the working class was the task of the working class itself. They then go on to assert that Lenin substituted the role of the working class with professional revolutionaries, who exercised a dictatorship over the working class.
In fact, there is no contradiction between Marx and Lenin. The socialist revolution can only be carried out by the working class. But the working class can only emancipate itself, and the whole of humanity, if it acts as a politically independent force. That political independence is established and re-established through the continuous struggle waged by the revolutionary party against all those political tendencies that try, in one way or another, to subordinate the working class to the capitalist order.
Lenin’s opponents within the socialist movement repeatedly attacked him for his “quarrelsome” attitude, “hair-splitting”, “sectarianism” and “dogmatism”—in short all the charges that opportunists have leveled against Marxists ever since.
Lenin’s intransigence was based on a definite political conception: that the differences within the socialist movement were not disputes over words, but expressed the pressure of different class forces and tendencies. His conception was to be powerfully vindicated in the course of the explosive events that were to lead to the Russian Revolution.
Bernstein’s attack on the Marxist perspective—his denial of any tendency within capitalism towards breakdown, and hence the necessity of socialist revolution—flowed from the upswing in the fortunes of capitalism from the mid-1890s.
But there was another, no less powerful, shift in the structure of world economy and politics that was also to exert a major influence. The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw two interconnected processes: the formation and consolidation of the nation-state system in Western Europe, and the growth of the working class, resulting from the expansion of industrialisation within the new political framework.
Marx had located the origins of the socialist revolution in the conflict between the growth of the productive forces of capitalism and the old social relations within which they had become trapped. While he had emphasised that capitalism developed as a world-historic force, his analysis was increasingly interpreted in a rather mechanical fashion. The starting point became, not the world economy, but the framework of the newly developed national states.
As Trotsky was later to explain, that was how the socialist parties of the Second International conceived of the socialist revolution. The hour of socialism would arrive when the productive forces within each national state had developed to their fullest extent. In this view, the major countries of Europe—Britain, Germany, Italy, France and Russia—were regarded as separate entities, moving towards the same destination, but at different points along the track. Germany was in the lead, the others were following behind, and Russia, still ruled by a feudal aristocracy and awaiting a bourgeois revolution, was a long way back.
Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution
The first Russian Revolution in 1905 shattered the foundations of this historical schema. Strikes and demonstrations, the like of which had never been seen, erupted against the tsarist autocracy, signifying the emergence of a new era. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, elaborated in the course of the tumultuous events themselves, provided both an understanding of what was taking place and a perspective for intervening. Like all developments in Marxist theory, his creative response was grounded on a profound historical analysis.
Every Marxist agreed that Russia faced a bourgeois revolution—in other words, that the central political task was to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and establish the democratic freedoms that had been won in the West. But how was this to be carried out? Russia was not the France of 1789, where the revolution was led by the bourgeoisie, at the head of the masses of Paris and the peasantry, and where the working class had not yet come into existence. Nor was it the Germany of 1848, where the emergence of the working class was enough to frighten the bourgeoisie into the camp of reaction, but where the working class was not sufficiently powerful to take power into its own hands.
Russia faced a bourgeois revolution … but where were the Russian equivalents of the French revolutionists, Danton and Robespierre? They did not exist. And there were no concentrations of artisans and craftsmen, petty producers in the cities, as there had been in Paris. Instead, there were masses of industrial workers.
Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, insisted that Russia’s development had to follow the path taken by Western Europe. Accordingly, the working class had to proceed with “tact”, so as not to frighten the bourgeoisie and prevent it from carrying out its designated historical task—the bourgeois revolution.
Lenin, while agreeing with Plekhanov on the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution, penetrated more deeply into its class dynamics. The bourgeoisie, he insisted, was incapable of carrying out the role assigned to it in Plekhanov’s schema. The working class would have to take forward the most radical form of the bourgeois democratic revolution.
At the heart of the Russian Revolution was the agrarian question—namely, the overthrow of all the remnants of the feudal state. This meant that the landholdings of the nobility, on which that state rested, had to be expropriated. Lenin argued that the bourgeois-democratic revolution would therefore take the form of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. The proletariat and the peasantry would share state power and would carry forward the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its fullest extent.
Trotsky’s perspective differed with those of Lenin and Plekanhov, and it involved a fundamental shift in perspective. Both Lenin and Plekhanov, notwithstanding the differences between them, shared a common starting point: they assessed the revolution according to the level of development, and the relation of class forces, inside Russia. Trotsky insisted that the revolution had to be assessed from the world situation within which it was unfolding.
Trotsky shared Lenin’s assessment of the Russian bourgeoisie and his criticism of Plekhanov on that question. But he went further and pointed to the weakness in Lenin’s position. The formulation of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” did not address the question of which class would play the leading role.
Lenin’s perspective was, he noted, a kind of self-denying ordinance: the proletariat having come to power would have to stop at purely democratic measures and not challenge the power of the bourgeoisie. But this schema would be contradicted by the dynamic of the revolution itself. The working class would be compelled, by the logic of its own struggle, to take political power and overthrow the bourgeoisie. That was one of the lessons of the revolution of 1905, when the bourgeoisie resisted purely democratic demands such as the eight-hour day with closures and lockouts. In order to secure such democratic demands the working class would have to wrest political power from the bourgeoisie and initiate socialist measures.
But the question then arose: How could the working class maintain power when it formed only a minority of Russia’s population, and was vastly outnumbered by the peasantry?
Considered from the standpoint of the situation within Russia, Trotsky’s perspective was unviable. But that was just the problem … the revolution could not be correctly conceived from the standpoint of Russia alone, but only within the world context. Then altogether different conclusions followed.
The proponents of the schema advanced by Plekhanov were wont to cite Marx’s comments that the development of capitalism in England showed the future of every country—the implication being that Russia had some considerable distance to travel before it would come to the socialist revolution.
Trotsky replied that this was to interpret Marx in a completely mechanical way. The development of English capitalism was not a kind of stereotype that other nations would have to follow. It was necessary to analyse the processes of capitalist development in the spirit of Marx himself. Then it was clear that the development of capitalism in Britain was not some kind of model for other nations, but rather the start of an economic process that had outgrown the framework within which it had initially developed—in Britain—and now embraced the whole world.
In June 1905 Trotsky elaborated his perspective: “Binding all countries together with its mode of production and commerce, capitalism has converted the whole world into a single economic and political organism. Just as modern credit binds thousands of undertakings by invisible ties and gives to capital an incredible mobility which prevents many small bankruptcies but which at the same time is the cause of the unprecedented sweep of general economic crises, so the whole economic and political effort of capitalism, its world trade, its system of monstrous state debts, and the political grouping of nations which draw all the forces of reaction into a kind of world-wide joint-stock company, had not only resisted all individual political crises, but also prepared the basis for a social crisis of unheard-of dimensions. …
“This immediately gives the events now unfolding an international character, and opens up a wide horizon. The political emancipation of Russia led by the working class will raise that class to a height as yet unknown in history, will transfer to it colossal power and resources, and will make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created all the objective conditions” (Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pp. 239-240).
World War I
All the issues of program and perspective that had arisen in the course of the 1905 revolution were to emerge in an even more explosive form in August 1914, when the long simmering tensions among the capitalist great powers erupted in World War I. The outbreak of war marked the end of the historically progressive phase of capitalist development and the opening of a new epoch in which, as Frederick Engels had warned, mankind was faced with the prospect of socialism or barbarism.
It is difficult to convey the scope of the violence, as young men, some little more than boys, were sent over the top, day in day out, to be mown down by machine gun fire. From the cell where she had been imprisoned by the German imperial government, Rosa Luxemburg described the unfolding catastrophe.
“The scene has thoroughly changed. The six weeks’ march to Paris has become a world drama. Mass murder has become a monotonous task, and yet the final solution is not one step nearer. Capitalist rule is caught in its own trap, and cannot ban the spirit that it has invoked.
“Gone is the first mad delirium. …The show is over. The curtain has fallen on trains filled with reservists, as they pull out amid the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens. We no longer see their laughing faces, smiling cheerily from the train windows upon a war-mad population. Quietly they trot through the streets, with their sacks upon their shoulders. And the public, with a fretful face, goes about its daily task.
“Into the disillusioned atmosphere of pale daylight there rings a different chorus; the hoarse croak of the hawks and hyenas of the battlefield. … the cannon fodder that was loaded upon the trains in August and September is rotting on the battlefields of Belgium and the Vosges, while profits are springing, like weeds, from the fields of the dead. …
“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics—[but] as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilent breath, devastating culture and humanity—so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”
With the outbreak of war, Trotsky deepened the analysis he had advanced in 1905. The war was a result of the eruption of the contradiction between world economy—the growth of capitalism as a world system, with every part tied to the whole—and the division of the world into rival and conflicting nation states. Each of the capitalist great powers sought to resolve this contradiction by establishing itself as a world power, leading to the struggle of each against all. The contradictions of the capitalist economy could only be solved on a progressive basis through the world socialist revolution, not as some distant perspective, but as the only realistic answer to the barbarism of imperialism.
The outbreak of war established the objective significance of the intransigent struggle waged by Lenin inside the Russian social democratic movement against opportunism.
The parties of the Second International—above all the German Social Democratic Party, the largest section of the Second International—betrayed the working class by voting for war credits. This historic betrayal demonstrated that the tendencies Lenin had fought were not some Russian phenomenon, but existed on an international scale.
These tendencies had their roots in the historical development of capitalism. The same processes that had led to the global struggle of the major capitalist powers had also led to the corruption of the leaderships of an upper stratum within the workers’ movement. The resources plundered from the colonies, the development of financial parasitism, formed the material foundations for the creation of a labour aristocracy.
Social chauvinism, the open abandonment of internationalism and the collaboration of the social democratic leaders with their “own” bourgeoisie could not be put down to the individual failings of individual leaders. The betrayal was not an individual, but a social phenomenon. It was necessary to uncover its material roots.
“The bourgeoisie of all the big powers are waging the war to divide and exploit the world, and oppress other nations. A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie’s huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petty-bourgeois fellow travellers. Social chauvinism and opportunism have the same class basis, namely, the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with ‘their’ national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting” (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 22, p. 112).
The leaders of the Second International had betrayed the working class in supporting the war, and the International could not be revived. It was dead so far as the socialist revolution was concerned. It was necessary to found a new international, the Third International, to re-organise and reorient the international workers’ movement.
Lenin first made this proposal, not in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, but in 1914-15 under conditions of extreme isolation. As Trotsky later explained, it appeared that internationalism had “disappeared at once in the fire and smoke of the international carnage”. And when it did reappear “like a dim flickering light” from separate groups in different countries, it was written off by the various representatives of the bourgeoisie as the dying remains of some kind of Utopian sect.
But the revolutionary internationalists, in contradistinction to all the opportunists of their day—and of ours—did not proceed according to what appeared to be immediately realisable at the time, or what seemed to command support. They based themselves on the objective logic of events. The masses had been deceived by the bourgeoisie, which had used every foul and reactionary national prejudice in support of its war aims. They had been betrayed by their own leaders. But the bourgeoisie could not meet the needs of the masses, whose disillusionment would soon unleash social and political upheavals on an international scale.
The revolution of February 1917 in Russia was initially sparked by a protest by women over the lack of bread. Their struggle rapidly drew in other sections of the working class. The tsar called in the troops, upon which his regime had relied to defend the capital during the tumultuous events of 1905. But when they refused to fire upon the demonstrations, and joined them instead, the fate of the tsarist autocracy was sealed.
The February Revolution saw the birth of a new order. But in this case, twins arrived. Not one, but two centres of power emerged: the Provisional Government, comprising the bourgeois and peasant parties, and the Soviets or workers’ councils, which had been created in the 1905 revolution and were rapidly re-established in the February days. The initial response of all the socialist parties, including the Bolsheviks, was to extend conditional support to the Provisional Government.
Upon his return to Russia at the beginning of April, however, Lenin delivered a political bombshell: he insisted that the Bolshevik Party turn to leading the working class to the conquest of political power. But there was significant resistance to Lenin’s perspective within the party leadership. While not explicitly stated by Lenin himself, it was recognised that he was, in fact, adopting Trotsky’s perspective.
What had brought about this change? The February Revolution had demonstrated that the peasantry could not play an independent role. The “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” had been realised in the form of the Provisional Government, where the bourgeois parties ruled with the support of the peasant parties.
The government initially enjoyed support among the masses, and from the Soviets, where, as yet, the Bolsheviks comprised only a small minority.
But the Provisional Government could not meet the masses’ demands. It could not end the war, because the Russian bourgeoisie was tied by a thousand strings to the imperialist powers of the West—and, moreover, harboured its own agenda for conquest. It could not sanction the peasant rebellions against the landlords, tied as the bourgeoisie was to this class, fearing that the overthrow of landed property would call into question all forms of property. And it could not end the national oppression that had characterised tsarist Russia.
In short, the Provisional Government had been placed in power by a movement that it did not prepare, that it did not want, and whose demands it could not meet. Herein lay the objective foundations for the second revolution, the October Revolution.
The months of February to October were marked by a movement to the left. This accelerated after an attempted coup by General Kornilov in August-September revealed the complicity of the Provisional Government with the counter-revolution. Support in the Soviets for the Bolsheviks steadily grew, as the parties backing the bourgeois Provisional Government became increasingly discredited in the eyes of the working class.
But the Russian situation was not the only motivating factor that led to the October 25 insurrection. In pressing his demands for the seizure of power, Lenin was above all guided by the international situation. The Russian Revolution was not a Russian question, but the opening shot of the world revolution. It was necessary to take power in Russia to show the international working class a way out of the barbarism of the war, and the impasse into which it had been driven by the betrayals of its own leaderships.
The insurrection placed power in the hands of the Soviets. From the outset it was opposed by the bourgeois parties and their chief props, the Mensheviks, by the so-called moderate socialists, and by the right-wing of the peasant based Social Revolutionary Party. According to them, the Bolsheviks were anarchists, putschists, and the seizure of power had no legitimacy.
Once the Provisional Government was overthrown, the attention of all these forces turned to the constituent assembly, which was convened in January 1918. The convening of this body had long been a demand of the socialist and democratic movement. But events had by-passed it. None of the parties insisting that the Constituent Assembly must form the government would recognise the legitimacy of the revolution, and that political power rested in the hands of the Soviets.
Thus the Constituent Assembly could only act as a focus for the organisation of counter-revolution. It was dispersed and disappeared from the scene. As one leading Social Revolutionary later observed, it passed away “as a consequence of the indifference with which the people responded to our dissolution.”
We cannot here review the history of the degeneration of the first workers’ state and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, except to make the most essential point.
The degeneration was not some inevitable product of Marxism or of Bolshevism, much less a result of the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. The degeneration was a product of the isolation of the revolution. The perspective of Lenin and Trotsky was that if the revolution did not extend to Western Europe, then there would be no possibility of holding on to power. In the event, the revolution was not extended, due to the betrayals of the social democratic leaderships of the working class. But neither was the revolution overturned.
The isolation, however, had a terrible impact. It was the chief factor in the degeneration of the workers’ state and the usurpation of political power by a cancerous bureaucracy under the leadership of Stalin. This apparatus carried out the murder of all the Bolsheviks who had led the revolution, culminating in the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940. The Stalinists were to play the central role in propping up the capitalist order until they handed over to the bourgeoisie in 1991 and restored capitalism.
The prospects for socialism
What of the prospects for socialism in the twenty-first century? Has the Russian Revolution simply passed into history, to be regarded as an interesting experience, but containing no essential lessons for today? To answer, we have to review the historical process itself.
World War I and the Russian Revolution were the outcome of what we can now see, looking back, was the first phase of capitalist globalisation. The vast economic developments that transformed the world in the period of 1871 to 1914 brought to a head all the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production.
The perspective guiding the Bolsheviks ninety years ago was world socialist revolution. But the first attempt to initiate that revolution did not succeed, and humanity paid a terrible price. The next three decades witnessed depression, mass unemployment, fascism, the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and tens of millions more killed in a war that culminated in the use of atomic weapons.
What followed was a period of relative stability, even an upswing in the fortunes of capitalism, as a new economic expansion seemed to relegate the problems of the first half of the twentieth century to the past. But by the end of the 1960s, the post-war boom was coming to an end, with the eruption of a series of potentially revolutionary struggles of the working class around the world—from the May-June 1968 general strike in France, to the hot autumn in Italy, the bringing down of the Heath Tory government in Britain in 1973-4, to the collapse of the Salazar regime in Portugal in 1975. But in none of these struggles was the working class able to challenge for political power due to the betrayals of its leaderships.
After utilising these betrayals to stabilise its position, the bourgeoisie embarked on an offensive against the working class. This began in the second half of the 1970s and has continued to this day. Over the past 30 years the working class has suffered a series of defeats and setbacks. The prospect of socialism seems to have receded well into the background, if not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility.
Thirty years is a considerable period of time in the life an individual. To members of the older generation, it appears that the hopes of their youth have been dashed, while for younger people it seems that there is nothing, at least in the immediate past, on which they can base their desire for change.
Three decades can seem a long time. But weighed on the scales of history, considering the vast changes in economic processes, and social and cultural relationships, it is but a short interlude.
And what changes there have been! The past period has seen a transformation in the very structure of world capitalism. We have been living through the second phase of capitalist globalisation, in which the whole world has become one indivisible economic unit, with each part inseparably connected with every other.
What are the implications for the prospects for socialism? Let us turn to some ABCs of Marxist politics.
Our perspective is grounded on the conception that the objective prerequisites for socialism are to be found in the contradictions of the capitalist system itself. At a certain point these contradictions lead to a breakdown in the capitalist order and an historical crisis of capitalist rule.
Where do we stand today? The answer is clear. The processes of economic globalisation have raised to a new peak of intensity the contradiction between world economy and the nation-state system. In other words, to refer back to the passage we cited from Marx, the material productive forces of society have come into conflict with the existing relations of production. Just as in the period leading to World War I, that conflict is expressed in the intensification of inter-imperialist rivalries. That is why, suddenly, we find the American president talking about World War III.
Furthermore, the sweeping economic changes of the past thirty years have completely undermined the relative economic strength of the United States, which was such a decisive factor in stabilising world capitalism in the period following World War II. Rather than a force for stability, the US is now the most destabilising factor in world economics and politics. Its increasing resort to militarism is disrupting all the relations among the capitalist powers, while its deepening financial crisis threatens to set off a global economic collapse of catastrophic proportions. In his book Imperialism Lenin referred to the growth of parasitism in the period prior to World War I. But the processes to which Lenin pointed pale into insignificance compared to the situation today.
What of the position of the working class—the only social force capable of overthrowing capitalism? The processes of globalisation have resulted in a vast increase in both the size and geographical spread of this social class.
Over the past two decades or so, even less in some cases, millions of peasants and petty producers, in China, in India, in Latin America, in Africa—all over the world—have become wage workers involved in a global process of production. Fifty years ago, many learned—and not so learned—academics claimed that Marx’s predictions about the proletarianisation of the majority of the world’s people had not been fulfilled, because of the preponderance of the peasantry. History has now caught up to Marx.
There is another, very decisive, effect of globalisation. A study of the complex problems that confronted the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, reveals the level and intensity of opposition from middle class layers in the state and civil service, and the difficulties this caused. Today, so-called white collar workers, employed either by the state or by large corporations, no longer occupy a privileged social position. They are as likely as any other section of the working class to be downsized, or to have their wages and conditions slashed.
What of the subjective factors, and the all-important question of leadership? A study of the history of the twentieth century shows there has been no lack of opportunities when the working class, armed with a revolutionary leadership, could certainly have repeated the experience of October 1917. It is precisely the absence of such leadership, and the counter-revolutionary role of social democracy and Stalinism, that has allowed the bourgeoisie to remain in the saddle.
But in this case too, history has been doing its work. All over the world the Stalinist and social democratic parties, which once commanded a mass following in the working class, are nothing but empty shells. Writing on the eve of World War II, Trotsky predicted that coming events would leave not one stone upon another of these outlived organisations. That has taken longer than he expected, but taken place it has.
The disgust and hostility felt by millions towards the Labor Party, which has been so apparent in this election campaign, is part of a global political shift against all the old parties and leaderships. Moreover, attempts by the various middle class radical organisations to pump life back into them through so-called regroupments have failed dismally.
What are the implications? They become more apparent if we pose the question: why have there been no socialist revolutions since the Bolsheviks took power ninety years ago? Two main factors have been at work: the treacherous role of the leaderships of the working class, and the ability of United States capitalism to provide a certain stability to the global capitalist order. Today, the old parties and organisations no longer command the mass following they once did, and the US is the most destabilising factor in world economics and politics.
These profound changes will have far-reaching political consequences. Throughout the world there is a mounting sense of dissatisfaction among ordinary working people and a growing desire for change. But there is still no understanding of how the problems of society can be overcome. In other words, there is a deep-going crisis of perspective.
This is not the result of some organic incapacity of the working class, but of complex historical events. And conditions are rapidly maturing for this crisis of perspective to be overcome.
Herein lies the decisive role of our party, the International Committee of the Fourth International, the world Trotskyist movement, which has consciously based itself on the traditions of Bolshevism, and on the defence of the principles that animated it, in the ninety years since the Russian Revolution.
The task at hand is the development of socialist consciousness in the working class. This does not mean convincing workers of the need to struggle against capitalism. Such struggles are inevitable. The key question is the transformation of this unconscious movement into a conscious political struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, by advancing, at every stage, a program and perspective based on the political independence of the working class.
It was by this method that the Bolsheviks came to the leadership of the Russian Revolution and led the first assault carried out by the international working class on the citadel of global capital. Now it falls to us to complete the task that they began. We urge you to take up this challenge by joining our party and building it as the new leadership of the international working class.