The October revolution and the bolsheviks
I: WHY DID OCTOBER NOT FAIL?
The October revolution was such a momentous event, with such vast consequences, that it is hard to imagine how the history of the twentieth century and beyond would have developed had the revolution failed. October stands as such a towering achievement that it is not easy to wind the historical imagination back to the months before October. Yet if we want to grasp the full scale of the initiative and daring of the revolutionary masses, and of the Party which led them, we need to make that effort.
Unless we understand just how high the stakes were in this life and death struggle for peace, land and bread, and how real was the possibility that the October revolution might NOT triumph, that the worker-peasant alliance might NOT hold firm, that the undivided leadership of the Bolsheviks might NOT prevail, that counter-revolution might NOT be overcome — then we are in danger of losing track of the real significance of October, of disconnecting October from our current struggle to rebuild Bolshevik traditions and carry forward Bolshevik preparations in the context of sharpening imperialist crisis.
At the end of 1924, as a Preface to his book ‘On the Road to October’, Stalin wrote the piece we are studying: ‘The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists’ [all quotations refer to this article, unless otherwise stated]. He begins his piece by spelling out exactly how it came about that, against such apparently high odds, October did NOT fail. After all, the Russian working class was relatively tiny, hugely outnumbered by the peasantry; Russia was a vast and backward country; and the non-arrival of successful socialist revolutions in the advanced West left the socialist revolution isolated. Under these circumstances, how did the Bolsheviks prepare for power, how was the power taken, and how was the power held? Why did October NOT fail?
Outside Russia, he says, there were three external circumstances which “determined the comparative ease with which the proletarian revolution in Russia succeeded in breaking the chains of imperialism and thus overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie.” These were as follows:
“Firstly, the circumstance that the October Revolution began in a period of desperate struggle between the two principal imperialist groups, the Anglo-French and the Austro-German; at a time when, engaged in mortal struggle between themselves, these two groups had neither the time nor the means to devote serious attention to the struggle against the October Revolution. This circumstance was of tremendous importance for the October Revolution; for it enabled it to take advantage of the fierce conflicts within the imperialist world to strengthen and organize its own forces.
“Secondly, the circumstance that the October Revolution began during the imperialist war, at a time when the labouring masses, exhausted by the war and thirsting for peace, were by the very logic of facts led up to the proletarian revolution as the only way out of the war. This circumstance was of extreme importance for the October Revolution; for it put into its hands the mighty weapon of peace, made it easier for it to link the Soviet revolution with the ending of the hated war, and thus created mass sympathy for it both in the West, among the workers, and in the East, among the oppressed peoples.
“Thirdly, the existence of a powerful working-class movement in Europe and the fact that a revolutionary crisis was maturing in the West and in the East, brought on by the protracted imperialist war. This circumstance was of inestimable importance for the revolution in Russia; for it ensured the revolution faithful allies outside Russia in its struggle against world imperialism”.
You can see how these three circumstances are connected dynamically. The SPLIT IN IMPERIALISM, which distracted the counter-revolutionary vigilance of the imperialists, and gave the Bolsheviks the opportunity to “strengthen and organise their own forces”, also shoved modern humanity into IMPERIALIST WORLD WAR. The imposition of that war drove the masses, “exhausted by the war and thirsting for peace”, in the direction of proletarian revolution, enabling the Bolsheviks to demonstrate the connection between “the Soviet revolution” and the “ending of the hated war. So in turn, the international war triggered a REVOLUTIONARY CRISIS of equally international dimensions, thus securing for the Soviet revolution “faithful allies outside Russia”.
Meanwhile, inside Russia itself, there were six “favourable internal conditions” which helped October to succeed, namely:
It was supported by the working class
It was supported by the poor peasants (who were hungry for land) and by the soldiers (who were hungry for peace). In the case of peasants in uniform, these two factors reinforced one another. It was led by the Bolsheviks, who were “tried and tested”, and who possessed “vast connections with the labouring masses”.
It was confronted by enemies who were “comparatively [!] easy to overcome”, namely a “weak Russian bourgeoisie” and a landlord class that had been “demoralized by peasant revolts”. It was able to survive the civil war thanks to the “vast expanses” within which the “young state” could “manoeuvre freely, retreat when circumstances so required, enjoy a respite, gather strength, etc.”
“Sufficient resources of food, fuel and raw materials within the country”.
Some of these internal conditions – the demoralization of the exploiting classes, the size and natural wealth of the territory – were objective factors which played to the advantage of Bolshevism. But the first three can only be understood in the context of the ideological struggle for the heart and soul of the labouring masses waged by the Bolsheviks. WHY did the workers, the poor peasants and the soldiers eventually rally en masse behind the Bolsheviks? HOW did the Bolsheviks come to be held in such passionate esteem by the labouring masses?
To answer these questions, we need to look at both the ideological positions of the Bolsheviks, and the tactics arising from those positions. We will look first at the ideology.
In the second part of his work, Stalin goes into two questions: proletarian dictatorship and the building of socialism in one country. Along the way, he sharpens his explanation of the Bolshevik position on these questions by contrasting it with Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” approach, – or “permanent gloominess” as he calls it.
a) Proletarian Dictatorship
Stalin begins with the question of proletarian dictatorship. He stresses again and again that proletarian dictatorship is founded on the class alliance between the proletariat and the labouring masses of the petty bourgeoisie (mostly the labouring masses of the countryside, but also small proprietors and intelligentsia in the towns).
“Whom will the labouring people of town and country support in the struggle for power, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat; whose reserve will they become, the reserve of the bourgeoisie or the reserve of the proletariat – on this depends the fate of the revolution and the stability of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
The revolutions of 1848 and 1871 both saw the peasants stranded on the side of the bourgeoisie, leaving the proletariat weak and isolated, thereby dealing a fatal blow to the revolution. By contrast, “The October Revolution was victorious because it was able to deprive the bourgeoisie of its peasant reserves, because it was able to win these reserves to the side of the proletariat, and because in this revolution the proletariat proved to be the only guiding force for the vast masses of the labouring people of town and country.”
So, getting this question of the worker-peasant alliance right was absolutely crucial to the strength or weakness of proletarian dictatorship. It spelt life or death for the revolution. Stalin is therefore ferocious in his dismissal of those who treat this question as simply an exercise in Machiavellian statecraft, where the only political differences owned up to are supposedly differences of “emphasis”, something that can be patched up by some kind of gentlemen’s agreement.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat is not simply a governmental top stratum ‘skilfully’ ‘selected’ by the careful hand of an ‘experienced strategist’, and ‘judiciously relying’ on the support of one section or another of the population. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the class alliance between the proletariat and the labouring masses of the peasantry for the purpose of overthrowing capital, for achieving the final victory of socialism, on the condition that the guiding force of this alliance is the proletariat.
“Thus, it is not a question of ‘slightly’ underestimating or ‘slightly’ overestimating the revolutionary potentialities of the peasant movement, as certain diplomatic advocates of ‘permanent revolution’ are now fond of expressing it. It is a question of the nature of the new proletarian state which arose as a result of the October Revolution. It is a question of the character of the proletarian power, of the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat itself.”
Stalin also spells out the international dimensions of this relationship between worker and peasant.
“Some comrades believe that this theory is a purely ‘Russian’ theory, applicable only to Russian conditions. That is wrong. It is absolutely wrong. In speaking of the labouring masses of the non-proletarian classes which are led by the proletariat, Lenin has in mind not only the Russian peasants, but also the labouring elements of the border regions of the Soviet Union, which until recently were colonies of Russia. Lenin constantly reiterated that without an alliance with these masses of other nationalities the proletariat of Russia could not achieve victory. In his articles on the national question and in his speeches at the congresses of the Comintern, Lenin repeatedly said that the victory of the world revolution was impossible without a revolutionary alliance, a revolutionary bloc, between the proletariat of the advanced countries and the oppressed peoples of the enslaved colonies. But what are colonies if not the oppressed labouring masses, and, primarily, the labouring masses of the peasantry? Who does not know that the question of the liberation of the colonies is essentially a question of the liberation of the labouring masses of the non-proletarian classes from the oppression and exploitation of finance capital?
“But from this it follows that Lenin’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a purely ‘Russian’ theory, but a theory which necessarily applies to all countries. Bolshevism is not only a Russian phenomenon. ‘Bolshevism’, says Lenin, is ‘a model of tactics for all’.”
So what to the jaundiced eye of the Trot looks like a rather dubious class alliance between worker and peasant, only to be tolerated under sufferance under the peculiar conditions of Russia, is in the Bolshevik view the very key to the further progress of the world revolution! It is no accident that Trotskyism is right now to be found turning itself inside out trying to invent “socialist” sounding reasons for withholding consistent support for the Iraqi resistance, thereby contributing to the general social democratic effort to keep the British proletariat walled off from its natural allies in the struggle against British imperialism.
Having spelt out the Leninist theory of proletarian dictatorship, Stalin unpacks Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”. Stalin offers a series of snapshots of Trotsky’s position on proletarian dictatorship as it evolved over time – or failed to!
In 1905, he simply “forgot all about the peasantry and advanced the slogan of ‘No tsar, but a workers’ government'”. That slogan, comments Stalin, is the slogan of “revolution without the peasantry”. Now even an apologist for Trotsky like Karl Radek has to admit that in 1905 this would have amounted to a “leap in the dark” away from reality.
In 1915, Trotsky stuck his finger in the air and declared that the wind had turned, the revolutionary role of the peasantry was declining and the slogan of confiscation of the land was losing importance. This gave no comfort to the landlords, whose experience of peasant revolts was teaching them otherwise!
Unbelievably, even after the October Revolution had been won, and held onto for five years against fourteen armies of imperialist intervention, Trotsky was STILL claiming that the Soviet state would inevitably “come into hostile collision not only with all the bourgeois groupings which supported the proletariat during the first stages of its revolutionary struggle, but also with the broad masses of the peasantry with whose assistance it came into power. The contradictions in the position of a workers’ government in a backward country with an overwhelmingly peasant population could be solved only on an international scale, in the arena of the world proletarian revolution.”(Trotsky, Preface to The Year 1905).
Stalin sums up like this:
“What is the dictatorship of the proletariat according to Lenin?
“The dictatorship of the proletariat is a power which rests on an alliance between the proletariat and the labouring masses of the peasantry for ‘the complete overthrow of capital’ and for ‘the final establishment and consolidation of socialism.’
“What is the dictatorship of the proletariat according to Trotsky?
“The dictatorship of the proletariat is a power which comes ‘into hostile collision’ with ‘the broad masses of the peasantry’ and seeks the solution of its ‘contradictions’ only ‘in the arena of the world proletarian revolution.’
“What difference is there between this ‘theory of permanent revolution’ and the well-known theory of Menshevism which repudiates the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat?
“Essentially, there is no difference.”
(b) Socialism in One Country
Having explained how proletarian dictatorship succeeded under Bolshevik leadership (and how it would have completely bombed under Trotsky’s), Stalin moves on to the question of building socialism in one country. The very phrase, “socialism in one country”, is enough to send Trots into a frenzy. The very idea that socialism could possibly be built in a backward country like Russia, without the immediate assistance of proletarian revolutions erupting across the advanced West, is seen as a kind of heresy. This must be a plot to undermine the revolution and betray the working class! This must be Stalin’s falsification of the real Bolshevik heritage! Thank goodness we have Trotsky to set the record straight and stick up for Lenin and the world revolution!
In the case of hysterics, a bucket of cold water is sometimes recommended. In this case, this can take the form of an unattributed quotation.
“Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country taken separately. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organized its own socialist production, would stand up against the rest of the world, the capitalist world, attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, raising revolts in those countries against the capitalists, and in the event of necessity coming out even with armed force against the exploiting classes and their states.”
What heresy, what a betrayal of Lenin… Except, of course, that the author of these words was Lenin himself, taken from his work ‘On the Slogan for a United States of Europe’! Or how about these words of Lenin, from a speech he gave to the Moscow Soviet in November 1922?
“Socialism is no longer a matter of the distant future, or an abstract picture, or an icon. We still retain our old bad opinion of icons. We have dragged socialism into everyday life, and here we must find our way. This is the task of our day, the task of our epoch. Permit me to conclude by expressing the conviction that, difficult as this task may be, new as it may be compared with our previous task, and no matter how many difficulties it may entail, we shall all – not in one day, but in the course of several years – all of us together fulfil it whatever happens so that NEP Russia will become socialist Russia.”
And this in 1922, in the absence of any international revolutionary proletarian cavalry thundering to the rescue! What wishful thinking!
Except, of course, that Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks were right, and Trotsky’s “permanent gloominess” was wrong. NEP Russia DID go on to become socialist Russia, despite every difficulty – not least of which difficulties was the disorganizing effect of Trotskyism itself. Not for nothing does Stalin reserve so much space in his analysis of October to this history of disruption of the communist movement, which continues unabated to this day.
Stalin picks out one more quotation from Lenin to rub in his point, this time from his article ‘On Co-operation’, written in January 1923.
“As a matter of fact, state power over all large-scale means of production, state power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured leadership of the peasantry by the proletariat, etc. – is not this all that is necessary for building a complete socialist society from the co-operatives, from the co-operatives alone, which we formerly looked down upon as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to look down upon as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary for building a complete socialist society? This is not yet the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for this building”.
This takes us straight back to the question of the relationship between the proletarian vanguard and the peasant masses, and the closely connected question of the relationship between the proletariat of the imperialist centre and the labouring masses of the colonized (or neo-colonized) world. The insistence on pressing on with building socialism, in isolation if need be, is evidence, not of an insular conservatism as the noisy “world revolutionists” contend, but rather the ONLY correct international revolutionary outlook.
Stalin points out that Bolshevik thinking on the question of socialism in one country is based on Lenin’s teaching on “the law of the uneven, spasmodic, economic and political development of the capitalist countries”, and the similarly uneven and spasmodic opportunities for revolutionary advance which arise from this development.
Stalin breaks the process down into a sequence of five stages:
“‘Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the vast majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries” (see Preface to the French edition of Lenin’s Imperialism.);
“‘This ‘booty’ is shared between two or three powerful world robbers armed to the teeth (America, Britain, Japan), who involve the whole world in their war over the sharing of their booty’ (ibid.);
“The growth of contradictions within the world system of financial oppression and the inevitability of armed clashes lead to the world front of imperialism becoming easily vulnerable to revolution, and to a breach in this front in individual countries becoming probable;
“This breach is most likely to occur at those points, and in those countries, where the chain of the imperialist front is weakest, that is to say, where imperialism is least consolidated, and where it is easiest for a revolution to expand;
“In view of this, the victory of socialism in one country, even if that country is less developed in the capitalist sense, while capitalism remains in other countries, even if those countries are more highly developed in the capitalist sense – is quite possible and probable.” This presentation of the question makes it clear that October was not just a “one-off” fluke, or a lucky break which was always bound to go wrong unless world revolution came to the rescue. The lessons learned by the revolutionary masses and their Bolshevik party were, and remain, universal in scope.
As before over the question of the proletarian dictatorship and the worker-peasant alliance, Stalin charts Trotsky’s position on “socialism in one country” over his long career.
In 1906, in his pamphlet ‘Our Revolution’, Trotsky warned the world that “Without direct state support from the European proletariat, the working class of Russia will not be able to maintain itself in power and to transform its temporary rule into a lasting socialist dictatorship. This we cannot doubt for an instant.”
When this and later gloomy assertions had been thoroughly proven wrong by the march of events, Trotsky still clung desperately to his pessimism, trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Here is what he wrote in 1922, in ‘Postscript’ for his new edition of his pamphlet ‘Peace Programme': “The assertion reiterated several times in the Peace Programme that a proletarian revolution cannot culminate victoriously within national bounds may perhaps seem to some readers to have been refuted by the nearly five years’ experience of our Soviet Republic. But such a conclusion would be unwarranted, The fact that the workers’ state has held out against the whole world in one country, and a backward country at that, testifies to the colossal might of the proletariat, which in other, more advanced, more civilized countries will be truly capable of performing miracles. But while we have held our ground as a state politically and militarily, we have not arrived, or even begun to arrive, at the creation of a socialist society. . . . As long as the bourgeoisie remains in power in the other European countries we shall be compelled, in our struggle against economic isolation, to strive for agreements with the capitalist world; at the same time it may be said with certainty that these agreements may at best help us to mitigate some of our economic ills, to take one or another step forward, but real progress of a socialist economy in Russia will become possible only after the victory of the proletariat in the major European countries.”
Stalin draws the only honest conclusion to be had from Trotsky’s arguments: ”
“Well, then, since there is still no victory in the West, the only ‘choice’ that remains for the revolution in Russia is: either to rot away or to degenerate into a bourgeois state.
“It is no accident that Trotsky has been talking for two years now about the “degeneration” of our Party.
“It is no accident that last year Trotsky prophesied the ‘doom’ of our country. ”
Scratch the revolutionary phrasemaking of the Trots and that is what you find: the most profound defeatism about the ability of the masses to make revolutionary history in the real world. Against the wretched defeatism of Trotsky, the victory of October stands all the taller.
Having got some sense of where the Bolsheviks stood on these key ideological issues, it is time to examine the strategy and tactics to which the Bolshevik analysis gave rise – the strategy and tactics whereby the labouring masses were led to revolutionary victory.
Stalin pours ridicule upon Trotsky for his “explanation” of Bolshevik tactics as they evolved between April and October 1917. Trotsky talks as if, right from the word go, the Bolsheviks had a ready-made political army – as if it were only a question of conducting a few reconnaissance missions before sending in the masses to bring home the revolutionary victory.
“If one were to listen to Trotsky, one would think that there were only two periods in the history of the preparation for October: the period of reconnaissance and the period of uprising, and that all else comes from the evil one. What was the April demonstration of 1917? ‘The April demonstration, which went more to the ‘Left’ than it should have, was a reconnoitring sortie for the purpose of probing the disposition of the masses and the relations between them and the majority in the Soviets.’ And what was the July demonstration of 1917? In Trotsky’s opinion, ‘this, too, was in fact another, more extensive, reconnaissance at a new and higher phase of the movement.’ Needless to say, the June demonstration of 1917, which was organized at the demand of our Party, should, according to Trotsky’s idea, all the more be termed a ‘reconnaissance.’
“This would seem to imply that as early as March 1917 the Bolsheviks had ready a political army of workers and peasants, and that if they did not bring this army into action for an uprising in April, or in June, or in July, but engaged merely in ‘reconnaissance’, it was because, and only because, ‘the information obtained from the reconnaissance’ at the time was unfavourable.
“Needless to say, this oversimplified notion of the political tactics of our Party is nothing but a confusion of ordinary military tactics with the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, all these demonstrations were primarily the result of the spontaneous pressure of the masses, the result of the fact that the indignation of the masses against the war had boiled over and sought an outlet in the streets.
“Actually, the task of the Party at that time was to shape and to guide the spontaneously arising demonstrations of the masses along the line of the revolutionary slogans of the Bolsheviks.
“Actually, the Bolsheviks had no political army ready in March 1917, nor could they have had one. The Bolsheviks built up such an army (and had finally built it up by October 1917) only in the course of the struggle and conflicts of the classes between April and October 1917, through the April demonstration, the June and July demonstrations, the elections to the district and city Dumas, the struggle against the Kornilov revolt, and the winning over of the Soviets. A political army is not like a military army. A military command begins a war with an army ready to hand, whereas the Party has to create its army in the course of the struggle itself, in the course of class conflicts, as the masses themselves become convinced through their own experience of the correctness of the Party’s slogans and policy. ”
Trotsky’s abject failure to grasp the significance of the Bolshevik tactics evolving through those six months is easier to understand when you remember that these six months (the tail end of which found Trotsky enrolled belatedly in the Bolshevik ranks) represented the culmination of fourteen years of ideological struggle for the heart and soul of the labouring masses (during which Trotsky opposed the Bolsheviks, preferring to be a gadfly around the Mensheviks).
Stalin spells out with minimum fuss just how it came about that the crucial preparations for October were made behind the “undivided leadership of one party, the Communist Party”.
“Obviously, it was not a question of ‘reconnaissance’, but of the following:
“1) all through the period of preparation for October the Party invariably relied in its struggle upon the spontaneous upsurge of the mass revolutionary movement;
“2) while relying on the spontaneous upsurge, it maintained its own undivided leadership of the movement;
“3) this leadership of the movement helped it to form the mass political army for the October uprising;
“4) this policy was bound to result in the entire preparation for October proceeding under the leadership of one party, the Bolshevik Party;
“5) this preparation for October, in its turn, brought it about that as a result of the October uprising power was concentrated in the hands of one party, the Bolshevik Party.”
This still leaves us with the question of how the Bolsheviks were able to expose and marginalize the fake-socialist parties which, all the way up to July 1917, still dominated the revolutionary movement.
How often in doing our work today are we told in exasperation, “Why get so hot under the collar about the left-Labourites, the SWP and the Morning Star revisionists? Why not stop squabbling like children and turn your fire on the real enemy – capitalism?”
Well, they were singing the same song back in 1917! Says Stalin, “Many people at that time did not understand this specific feature of the Bolshevik tactics and accused the Bolsheviks of displaying ‘excessive hatred’ towards the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and of ‘forgetting’ the principal goal.”
So he explains why it was necessary in 1917 to spend so much energy attacking the Socialist Revolutionaries (a petty-bourgeois party riding on the back of the peasants) and the opportunist Mensheviks. Before the February revolution overthrew Tsarism, the liberal bourgeois Cadet party occupied a position of compromise between Tsarism and the labouring masses, serving as a crucial support to Tsarism against the swelling revolutionary tide. As such, the Cadet party were targeted for exposure by the Bolsheviks. With the Tsar gone, this all changed.
“In the period of preparation for October the centre of gravity of the conflicting forces shifted to another plane. The tsar was gone. The Cadet Party had been transformed from a compromising force into a governing force, into the ruling force of imperialism. Now the fight was no longer between tsarism and the people, but between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In this period the petty-bourgeois democratic parties, the parties of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, were the most dangerous social support of imperialism. Why? Because these parties were then the compromising parties, the parties of compromise between imperialism and the labouring masses. Naturally, the Bolsheviks at that time directed their main blows at these parties; for unless these parties were isolated there could be no hope of a rupture between the labouring masses and imperialism, and unless this rupture was ensured there could be no hope of the victory of the Soviet revolution.”
By this key tactic of isolating the compromising parties, the Bolsheviks removed the obstacles standing in the path of the revolution, thereby mobilizing a political army that proved capable of carrying the October revolution to a successful conclusion.
“The characteristic feature of this period was the further revolutionization of the labouring masses of the peasantry, their disillusionment with the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, their defection from these parties, their turn towards rallying directly around the proletariat as the only consistently revolutionary force, capable of leading the country to peace. The history of this period is the history of the struggle between the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, on the one hand, and the Bolsheviks, on the other, for the labouring masses of the peasantry, for winning over these masses. The outcome of this struggle was decided by the coalition period, the Kerensky period, the refusal of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to confiscate the landlords’ land, the fight of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to continue the war, the June offensive at the front, the introduction of capital punishment for soldiers, the Kornilov revolt. And they decided the issue of this struggle entirely in favour of the Bolshevik strategy; for had not the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks been isolated it would have been impossible to overthrow the government of the imperialists, and had this government not been overthrown it would have been impossible to break away from the war. The policy of isolating the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks proved to be the only correct policy.”
How can we doubt that the CPGB-ML’s current struggle to isolate the left-Labourites, the SWP and the Morning Star revisionists is equally necessary? Or that our own protracted struggle will be had out, not in some abstract ‘battle of ideas’, but in the course of strenuous and consistent interventions in concrete political battles, under pressure of renewed imperialist crisis?
Concretely, the Bolsheviks were able to win the broad masses away from the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks by waging a consistent political struggle around the slogan: All power to the Soviets. The aim of this tactic was “to convert the Soviets from organs for mobilizing the masses into organs of the uprising, into organs of power, into the apparatus of a new proletarian state power.”
This struggle passed through two stages. Up till the July defeat of the Bolsheviks, there existed a kind of “dual power” in Russia. The bourgeoisie exercised power through Kerensky’s Provisional Government, but could not govern without the acquiescence of a second power in the land, that exercised by the Soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. At this stage, the Soviets were dominated politically by the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, with the Bolsheviks acting as an influential minority. This state of affairs reflected the degree to which the peasantry remained a reserve of the bourgeoisie, not yet fully won over to the side of the working class and the socialist revolution.
So at that period, before the brutal crushing of the July demonstration, the suppression of the Bolsheviks and the end of dual power, the slogan “All power to the Soviets” meant “breaking the bloc of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries with the Cadets, the formation of a Soviet Government consisting of Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (for at that time the Soviets were Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik), the right of free agitation for the opposition (i.e., for the Bolsheviks), and the free struggle of parties within the Soviets, in the expectation that by means of such a struggle the Bolsheviks would succeed in capturing the Soviets and changing the composition of the Soviet Government in the course of a peaceful development of the revolution. This plan, of course, did not signify the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it undoubtedly facilitated the preparation of the conditions required for ensuring the dictatorship; for, by putting the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries in power and compelling them to carry out in practice their anti-revolutionary platform, it hastened the exposure of the true nature of these parties, hastened their isolation, their divorce from the masses.”
The Bolsheviks intervened in the spontaneous demonstration of July, discouraging as premature an armed uprising, instead leading an armed demonstration. The bloody suppression of this demonstration, and subsequent counter-revolutionary crackdown ordered by the Provisional Government (by this time a coalition of Socialist Revolutionaries, Menshevik and Cadet forces), ended the period of dual power and drove the Bolsheviks underground. During this interval, the Bolsheviks withdrew the slogan “All power to the Soviets”, since the Socialist Revolutionaries and Menshevik forces still dominating the Soviets had now gone lock stock and barrel over to the side of the Provisional Government.
These events, and the refusal to end the war without permission from Russia’s ‘allies’, exposed the compromising parties in the eyes of the masses. This meant that, when open counter-revolution threatened in the form of General Kornilov’s revolt, it was to the Bolsheviks that the masses turned to lead the defence of the revolution.
Once the revolt had been trounced, under Bolshevik leadership, the Bolsheviks resumed the slogan “All power to the Soviets” – but now this had a very different content.
“Now this slogan meant a complete rupture with imperialism and the passing of power to the Bolsheviks, for the majority of the Soviets were already Bolshevik. Now this slogan meant the revolution’s direct approach towards the dictatorship of the proletariat by means of an uprising. More than that, this slogan now meant the organization of the dictatorship of the proletariat and giving it a state form.
“The inestimable significance of the tactics of transforming the Soviets into organs of state power lay in the fact that they caused millions of working people to break away from imperialism, exposed the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties as the tools of imperialism, and brought the masses by a direct route, as it were, to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
So that slogan was of crucial importance in the struggle to win the masses to the banner of socialist revolution, both in the period of dual power and in the second, crucial period, the life and death struggle against bourgeois counter-revolution.
But Stalin has one more vital point to make about Bolshevik tactics. “The point is that for the victory of the revolution, if it is really a people’s revolution embracing the masses in their millions, correct Party slogans alone are not enough. For the victory of the revolution one more necessary condition is required, namely, that the masses themselves become convinced through their own experience of the correctness of these slogans. Only then do the slogans of the Party become the slogans of the masses themselves.”
To show what he means, he examines the rise and fall of the bourgeois parliament, or Constituent Assembly, in 1917. He starts off by posing a conundrum. How could the Bolsheviks call for a Republic of Soviets, all the way back in April 1917, and then go on to call for the Provisional Government to set up a Constituent Assembly? Indeed, only a month before the uprising, they even considered possible “a temporary combination of a Republic of Soviets with the Constituent Assembly”. And not only did they take part in the elections for this bourgeois parliament, they actually convened it themselves AFTER they had taken power!
These seemingly contradictory, even perverse tactics were driven by one very important consideration. The Bolsheviks, says Stalin, did not “confuse leadership of the Party with leadership of the masses”.
He gives six reasons to explain the correctness of Bolshevik tactics over the Constituent Assembly.
“the idea of a Constituent Assembly was one of the most popular ideas among the broad masses of the population;
“the slogan of the immediate convocation of the Constituent Assembly helped to expose the counter-revolutionary nature of the Provisional Government;
“in order to discredit the idea of a Constituent Assembly in the eyes of the masses, it was necessary to lead the masses to the walls of the Constituent Assembly with their demands for land, for peace, for the power of the Soviets, thus bringing them face to face with the actual, live Constituent Assembly;
“only this could help the masses to become convinced through their own experience of the counter-revolutionary nature of the Constituent Assembly and of the necessity of dispersing it;
“all this naturally presupposed the possibility of a temporary combination of the Republic of Soviets with the Constituent Assembly, as one of the means for eliminating the Constituent Assembly;
“such a combination, if brought about under the condition that all power was transferred to the Soviets, could only signify the subordination of the Constituent Assembly to the Soviets, its conversion into an appendage of the Soviets, its painless extinction.”
U.S. journalist Louise Bryant was an eyewitness to the birth and death of the Constituent Assembly – all on the same January night. In her book, ‘Six Red Months in Russia’, she offers this illuminating account of the demise of bourgeois parliamentarism in Russia.
“How did it happen? Asked a surprised world… By bayonets? Yes and no. It happened because the people were with the Soviets and the bayonets were in the hands of the people; there was no force to oppose the Soviets. The Constituent Assembly delegates were elected on lists made up in September and the Constituent Assembly was not called until the following January. The elections were held in November … therefore, the Delegates to the Constituent Assembly did not represent the real feeling of the country at that time. Moreover, the elections were held two weeks after the Bolshevik insurrection, when the country had not yet completely moved to the left; Bolshevism had not yet accomplished itself. By January, when the Constituent met, the country had swung. In other words, elections were held for the supreme organ of the kind of government which was out of existence.”
Sverdlov, the Bolshevik chairman of the Central Committee of the Soviets, opened the Constituent Assembly by reading a declaration which demanded that “Russia is to be declared a republic of the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ Soviets. All power in the cities and in the country belongs to the Soviets”, and insisted that the Constituent Assembly should assume as its duty, “the destruction of all exploitation of the workers, the complete abolition of the class system of society, and the placing of society upon a socialistic basis, and the ultimate bringing about of victory for Socialism in every country” (p 93).
The declaration also called on the Constituent Assembly to “accept completely the policy of the Soviets, whose duty it is to publish all secret treaties, to organise the most extensive fraternisation between the workers and peasants of the warring armies, and by revolutionary methods to bring about a democratic peace among all the belligerent nations without annexations and indemnities, on the basis of the free self-determination of nations – at any price.”
Having, as Stalin put it, led the masses to the walls of the bourgeois parliament with their demands, the Bolsheviks’ work there was completed. Once the declaration had been repudiated by the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks read out a final statement, effectively serving an eviction order on bourgeois politics.
“In accordance with the demands of the bourgeoisie … the majority of the Constituent Assembly has refused to accede to this proposal, thereby throwing the gage of battle to the whole of toiling Russia … The present counter-revolutionary majority of the Constituent Assembly, elected on the basis of obsolete party lists, is trying to resist the movement of the workers and peasants … The Socialist Revolutionist party of the Right, as in the time of Kerensky, makes concessions to the people, promises them everything, but in reality has decided to fight against the Soviet government, against the socialist measures giving the land and all its appurtenances to the peasants without compensation, nationalising the banks, and cancelling the national debt. Without wishing for a moment to condone the crimes of the enemies of the people, we announce that we withdraw from the Constituent Assembly , in order to allow the Soviet power finally to decide the question of its relations with the counter-revolutionary section of the Constituent Assembly.”
The Bolsheviks then walked out. Bryant reports, “The remaining delegates continued to make speeches, but there was no heart in what they said; without the radical elements, the Constituent Assembly was dead.”
At four in the morning, she records, “the Cronstadt sailors who were on guard began to murmur among themselves. They were tired and they wanted to go home. Finally one cleared his throat and said: ‘All the good people have gone, why don’t you go? The guards want to get some sleep….’ So ended the Constituent Assembly. To quote an English colleague: ‘The Assembly died like the Tsardom, and the coalition before it. Not any one of the three showed in the manner of its dying that it retained any right to live.'” (p 103)
So thorough was this dissolution of bourgeois politics that, even after years of ideological decay at the hands of Khrushchevite revisionism, it took counter-revolutionary tank fire in September 1993 to finally close down the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and re-impose a bourgeois parliament in the form of a State Duma.
So it was that these seemingly contradictory tactics of the Bolsheviks – tactics which Trotsky slandered as an attempt to convert the Soviets into an appendage of the bourgeois parliament – succeeded brilliantly in exposing and marginalizing the compromising parties, and in winning the labouring masses firmly to the banner of socialism. Stalin notes, “It scarcely needs proof that had the Bolsheviks not adopted such a policy the dispersion of the Constituent Assembly would not have taken place so smoothly, and the subsequent actions of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks under the slogan ‘All power to the Constituent Assembly!’ would not have failed so signally.”
Instead of leaving the Constituent Assembly as a rallying point for the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks themselves insisted that the Constituent Assembly be convened, be forced to choose its side in the class struggle, and then be ignominiously hung out to dry when it chose wrong.
In this presentation, we have mostly examined the objective and subjective circumstances which led to the victory of the great October revolution. Much of this has been about the preparations that were made for the proletarian revolution to be able to take the power. Another session will shift the focus, from preparing for power and taking the power, to HOLDING the power – in other words, a session which will deal with the question of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
[The text of The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists, by J V Stalin, Dec 1924, is available on the website of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) www.cpgb-ml.org]