Myth And Reality

‘November Revolution Revisited’

Paresh Chattopadhyay

We read with considerable interest the important article by S R, 'The November Centenary is Coming' (Frontier, vol. 48, No. 26, 2016). The author deals with a number of important themes of which we may be permitted to take up just one: her/his 'take' on what s/he calls 'November revolution' in Russia. And also, what we consider as the author's most salient points in the argument.

The author affirms that it is the proletariat (the working class) which seized political power under the 'perspicacious leadership' of Lenin on the basis of 'all power to the Soviets'. This is however, a pure myth. We submit that there is no historical evidence that the working class of Russia either initiated or led this seizure of power. Rather the (state) power was seized—not from the provisional government of Russia—but from the working class itself, that is from the self governing organs of the workers themselves by a tiny group of radicalized intelligentsia, far removed from the locus of material production/exploitation, without any popular mandate, unelected, irrevocable by people at large and with no accountability to any outsider, over the head and behind the back of the workers' own self governing organs, the councils (Soviets). Party totally substituted for class, of course, all in the name of the (working) class. An eminent authority on the history of the Russian council movement, Oskar Anweiler has observed that 'only a fraction of the workers', soldiers', and peasants' deputies themselves wanted the seizure of power. The majority of the Soviets and the masses represented by them of course greeted the fall of the Provisional Government, but refused to have a Bolshevik hegemony' (The Council Movement in Russia 1905-1921). Trotsky himself, the second in command in this business, after Lenin, wrote in his great 'History' : 'The final act of the revolution seems too brief, too dry, too business like. There is no action of the great masses' (vol.3, p.232). In fact, as the eminent historian Alexander Rabinowitch has shown, the majority of the Bolshevik delegates to the Second Congress of Soviets, did not want the Bolshevik monopoly of power, as is seen in the answers to the Questionnaires by the delegates to the Second Congress. Instead, they wanted 'all power to the Soviets', that is, as Rabinowitch observes, a coalition of all socialist tendencies, reflecting the party composition of the Congress. (See his book The Bolsheviks come to power 2004, pp. 291-92)

With how much cynicism Lenin treated the great slogan 'all power to the Soviets' is clearly seen in his confidential correspondence to his leadership comrades on the eve of the seizure of power, published only after Lenin's demise (The Crisis has matured). While loudly proclaiming publicly 'all power to the Soviets' Lenin in his private communication with his leadership colleagues showed utter distrust if not disdain for the Soviets—this vehicle of 'formal' democracy—and persevered in his attempt to persuade leaders with democratic susceptibilities that the party must alone (v svoi ruki), ignoring the Soviets, capture power and that 'it would be naive to wait for a formal majority for the Bolsheviks'. To 'wait' for the Congress of Soviets is "idiocy, or sheer 'treachery', for the Congress will give nothing, and can give nothing".

Our author continues: 'a reading of Lenin's 'State and Revolution' makes it clear that he had assimilated the lessons of the Paris Commune and adopted it as the model of seizure of power. This assertion is a total UNTRUTH. Whereas the monopoly grabbing of state power was the singular aim of the Bolsheviks, the Commune was anti-state right from the beginning, as Marx showed in his work on the Commune. In the very first outline of his 'Civil War in France', Marx went so far as to assert that the 'Parisian Revolution was not against this or that form of state power; but was against the State itself'. (The State and Revolution's utter misreading of Marx—we leave here for another occasion). By an irony of history—let us stress—contrary to Marx's position of socialism as a stateless 'Association of free and equal individuals', in all the post-1917 'socialist' regimes the state as the bureaucratic-military machine continues to remain a central pillar, just as, contrary to Marx's image of socialism with the associated mode of production, AMP (as opposed to capitalist mode of production CMP), with no money-commodity and wage labour, the economy of the post-1917 Party-States continues to remain based on commodity-money and wage labour, the very essence of the capitalist mode of production itself.

It may not be out of place to compare the Bolshevik way of seizing power in the name of the proletariat—as given here—and the way the Communist Manifesto, from an emancipatory point of view, envisaged the workers' seizure of power. It says that whereas all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities, the proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of immense majority. And the first step in the revolution is to raise the proletariat to the rank of the ruling class and win the battle of democracy. It is the class as a whole and not any party calling itself communist which are the rulers. (En passant it is remarkable that there is no text by Marx on socialism, where the Avatar, Party, finds a place) By the very fact of majority rule it is democracy from the beginning. Power is not gained by a conspiratorial coup de main by a handful of intelligentsia, totally contrary to the way the workers in Paris constituted their power—a thoroughly open, democratic process.

The author continues : 'After the revolution the new born Soviet Union was faced with the civil war'. First of all, s/he equates 'seizure of power' with 'revolution'. We admit that this equation is accepted quasi-universally by the so-called Left. In the 1848 Manifesto, on the contrary, workers' seizure of power is considered only as the 'first step in the revolution', only the beginning of the revolution, which in fact constitutes a long 'revolutionary transformation process', as Marx calls it, where the whole society undergoes a wholesale transformation till it is completely revolutionized into an 'association of free and equal individuals'.

Now, come to the question of the civil war. As regards the civil war, an important section of the anti-Stalin Left, mainly the followers of Trotsky, finds the sole cause of the failure of the October revolution in the civil war and the absence of proletarian revolution (at least in Europe) not at all in the particular policies pursued by the governing Bolsheviks themselves. However, this argument is only partially true. Having accepted without any question, in fact axiomatically, the Bolshevik claim that the October revolution was a proletarian revolution, this section of the Left does not at all take into consideration the factor of coercion exercised by the regime against the left opposition and much more importantly against the bulk of the peasantry. In his book The October Revolution ([979) Roy Medvedev, whose father was liquidated under the regime of Lenin's (nominated) successor, cites Plekhanov's remarkable 'open letter' to the Petrograd workers (1918, October 28) :
'In the population of your state the proletariat is a minority. It would seem that the peasants, constituting the greater part of the population, is an unreliable ally for the workers in organising the socialist mode of production... Having seized political power prematurely, the Russian proletariat will not carry out a social(ist) revolution but will only provoke a civil war which will ultimately force it to retreat far back from the positions which were won in February and March this year'.

After referring to the food detachments and the poor peasants committees—which had 'nothing socialist about it'—to which the working peasant and the middle peasant were opposed, Medvedev adds, 'In Russia there were smoldering hotbeds of civil war which could potentially burst into flame almost any moment; all that was needed was a pretext, and it was soon found in the form of revolt of the Czech Legion in Russia'. The well-known German historian of the Soviet Union, Richard Lorenz speaking of the 'brutalities' of the commandos of requisition of food from the peasants under the regime wrote that 'from the official accounts it appears that approximately 165 big armed peasant groups were in action over the land. In the first months of 1921 there was no government where there was no peasant unrest'. (Social History of the Soviet Union, 1976, pp.119-20 in German).

S R says that civil war caused the concentration of power in the Bolshevik party. First of all, if that was the case, why did it not change after the civil war was over and when Lenin was still alive and kicking? Why was there no free election by secret ballot any time during the whole existence of the regime (same in the other 'socialisms'). I Deutscher somewhere in his biography of Trotsky remarks that if genuinely free elections were held in the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks would have been thrown out of power. Totally contrary was the experience of the Paris Commune (supposed model of Lenin) having universal suffrage with free election and right to recall any time. Our author's assertion is also refuted by Lenin himself by his open declaration for the Bolshevik monopoly of power even before the seizure of power : 'If 130,000 landowners could rule Russia, then so could 240,000 Bolsheviks' ('Can the Bolsheviks retain state power' Beginning of October, 1917). Earlier he had asserted to the party Central Committee that once we are in power, we 'will not leave it' (August,1917). This of course inevitably means that the Bolsheviks would constitute a minority in the population, and this ruling minority could not rule without exercising constant terror for its survival. This was already foreseen by a worker member of the Bolshevik party, Shlyapnikov as a warning : 'We consider that it is necessary to build a socialist government with all the socialist parties in the Soviets in order to consolidate the results of the heroic struggle of the working class and the revolutionary army in October and November. Outside of it there is only one road: maintaining a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror. We think that this will end up by eliminating the mass proletarian organisations from the direction of political life, establishment of an irresponsible regime and the ruin of the revolution' (our emphasis).

Indeed this has been the lot of all the self proclaimed 'socialist' regimes after 1917.

It must be underlined that by their pre-emptive strike against the Soviets the Bolsheviks successfully destroyed any possibility of the unfurling (bourgeois) democratic revolution, so magnificently started by the quasi-totality of the country's labouring people in February, from developing over time into a genuine proletarian revolution as a process of "revolution in permanence", to use the 1850 "battle cry" of Marx and Engels. This is tantamount to a counter revolutionary act.

Joseph Schumpeter, the great economist and a convinced socialist very acutely commented on the Leninist style of seizure of power which is worth considering. He wrote:
The inevitable conflict that split the party (that is, the social democratic party of Russia) into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (1903) meant something much more serious than a mere disagreement regarding tactics such as the names of the two groups suggest. At the time no observer, however experienced, could have realised fully the nature of the rift. By now the diagnosis should be obvious. The Marxist phraseology which both groups retained obscured the fact that one of them had irrevocably broken away from the classical Marxism. Lenin had no illusion concerning the Russian situation. He saw that the Tsarist regime could be successfully attacked only when temporarily weakened by military defeat and that in the ensuing disorganisation a resolute and well disciplined group could by ruthless terror overthrow whatever other regime might attempt to replace it... Such a group could only be recruited from the intellectual stratum, and the best material available was to be found within the party. His attempt to gain control of the latter therefore amounted to an attempt to destroy its very soul. The majority and their leader, Martov, must have felt that. He did not criticise Marx or advocate a new departure. He resisted Lenin in the name of Marx and stood for the Marxist doctrine of proletarian mass party. The novel note was struck by Lenin... Un-Marxian was not merely the idea of socialisation by pronunciamiento in an obviously immature situation; much more so was the idea that 'emancipation' was to be not the work of the proletariat itself but of a band of intellectuals officering the rabble. (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 1950, pp. 329-30)

In sharp contrast to the Leninist style, his contemporary Rosa Luxemburg wrote concerning her party the Spartacus League: The proletarian revolution has no need for terror. It does not fight against individuals, but against institutions. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to shape the world according to its own principles, but an act of the people, of the millions who are on a historical mission to turn what is historically necessary into reality... The Spartacus League is no party that wants to seize power on the back of the workers... The Spartacus League will only ever size power if it has a clear unambiguous mandate from the vast majority of Germany's proletarian masses; it will never seize power by other means than a conscious approval of its perspectives, goals and means of struggle, (in 'All Power to the Councils'-edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn, 2012, pp. 101,102,108).

Marx had conceived human emancipation to be centered on the emancipation of the human individual from both subjective and objective constraints. We read in the 'Communist Manifesto' that after the disappearance of the bourgeoisie 'we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all'. About two decades later in 'Capital', vol. 1, these words are repeated almost word for word : "the real basis of a higher form of society, (is) a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle'. In the 'socialist' regimes of the twentieth century, starting with the Bolshevik regime it is precisely the human individuals as persons who have been totally subjugated by the Party-State. It is an irony that while in April, 1917, Lenin noted that Russia of the time—that is, let us underline, under a 'bourgeois' government, on Lenin's own reckoning—was the 'freest country among the belligerent countries of the world', precisely under the Bolsheviks it turned out to be one of the most viciously repressive countries of the world. This was a situation even worse than Pizzarro's dungeon in Beethoven's unique opera 'Fidelio' with no Leonara to rescue the prisoners.

Vol. 48, No. 30, Jan 31 - Feb 6, 2016