An Anarchist FAQ - What happened during the Russian Revolution?
- Can you give a short summary of what happened in 1917?
- How did the Bolsheviks gain mass support?
- Surely the Russian Revolution proves that vanguard parties work?
- Was Lenin's "State and Revolution" applied after October?
- Did the Bolsheviks really aim for Soviet power?
- What happened to the soviets after October?
- How did the factory committee movement develop?
- What was the Bolshevik position on "workers' control" in 1917?
- What happened to the factory committees after October?
- What were the Bolshevik economic policies in 1918?
- Did Bolshevik economic policies work?
- Was there an alternative to Lenin's "state capitalism" and "war communism"?
- Did the Bolsheviks allow independent trade unions?
- Was the Red Army really a revolutionary army?
- Was the Red Army "filled with socialist consciousness"?
- How did the civil war start and develop?
- Was the civil war between just Reds and Whites?
- How extensive was imperialist intervention?
- Did the end of the civil war change Bolshevik policies?
- Can the Red Terror and the Cheka be justified?
- Did Bolshevik peasant policies work?
- Was there an alternative to grain requisition?
- Was the repression of the socialist opposition justified?
- What did the anarchists do during the revolution?
- Did the Russian revolution refute anarchism?
This appendix of the FAQ is not a full history of the Russian Revolution. The scope of such a work would simply be too large. Instead, this section will concentrate on certain key issues which matter in evaluating whether the Bolshevik revolution and regime were genuinely socialist or not. This is not all. Some Leninists acknowledge that that Bolshevik policies had little to do with socialism as such were the best that were available at the time. As such, this section will look at possible alternatives to Bolshevik policies and see whether they were, in fact, inevitable.
So for those seeking a comprehensive history of the revolution will have to look elsewhere. Here, we concentrate on those issues which matter when evaluating the socialist content of the revolution and of Bolshevism. In other words, the development of working class self-activity and self-organisation, workers' resistance to their bosses (whether capitalist or "red"), the activity of opposition groups and parties and the fate of working class organisations like trade unions, factory committees and soviets. Moreover, the role of the ruling party and its ideals also need to be indicated and evaluated somewhat (see "How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?" for a fuller discussion of the role of Bolshevik ideology in the defeat of the revolution).
This means that this section is about two things, what Alexander Berkman termed "the Bolshevik Myth" and what Voline called "the Unknown Revolution" (these being the titles of their respective books on the revolution). After his experiences in Bolshevik Russia, Berkman came to the conclusion that it was "[h]igh time the truth about the Bolsheviki were told. The whited sepulchre must unmasked, the clay feet of the fetish beguiling the international proletariat to fatal will o' wisps exposed. The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed." By so doing, he aimed to help the global revolutionary movement learn from the experience of the Russian revolution. Given that "[t]o millions of the disinherited and enslaved it became a new religion, the beacon of social salvation" it was an "imperative to unmask the great delusion, which otherwise might lead the Western workers to the same abyss as their brothers in Russia." Bolshevism had "failed, utterly and absolutely" and so it was "incumbent upon those who have seen though the myth to expose its true nature . . . Bolshevism is of the past. The future belongs to man and his liberty." [The Bolshevik Myth, p. 318 and p. 342]
Subsequent events proved Berkman correct. Socialism became linked to Soviet Russia and as it fell into Stalinism, the effect was to discredit socialism, even radical change as such, in the eyes of millions. And quite rightly too, given the horrors of Stalinism. If more radicals had had the foresight of Berkman and the other anarchists, this association of socialism and revolution with tyranny would have been combated and an alternative, libertarian, form of socialism would have risen to take the challenge of combating capitalism in the name of a genuine socialism, rooted in the ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity.
However, in spite of the horrors of Stalinism many people seeking a radical change in society are drawn to Leninism. This is partly to do with the fact that in many countries Leninist parties have a organised presence and many radicalised people come across them first. It is also partly to do with the fact that many forms of Leninism denounce Stalinism for what it was and raise the possibility of the "genuine" Leninism of the Bolshevik party under Lenin and Trotsky. This current of Leninism is usually called "Trotskyism" and has many offshoots. For some of these parties, the differences between Trotskyism and Stalinism is pretty narrow. The closer to orthodox Trotskyism you get, the more Stalinist it appears. As Victor Serge noted of Trotsky's "Fourth International" in the 1930s, "in the hearts of the persecuted I encountered the same attitudes as in their persecutors [the Stalinists] . . . Trotskyism was displaying symptoms of an outlook in harmony with the very Stalinism against which it had taken its stand . . . any person in the circles of the 'Fourth International' who went so far as to object to [Trotsky's] propositions was promptly expelled and denounced in the same language that the bureaucracy had] employed against us in the Soviet Union." [Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 349] As we discuss in section 3 of the appendix on "Were any of the Bolshevik oppositions a real alternative?", perhaps this is unsurprising given how much politically Trotsky's "Left Opposition" had shared with Stalinism.
Other Trotskyist parties have avoided the worse excesses of orthodox Trotskyism. Parties associated with the International Socialists, for example portray themselves as defending what they like to term "socialism from below" and the democratic promise of Bolshevik as expressed during 1917 and in the early months of Bolshevik rule. While anarchists are somewhat sceptical that Leninism can be called "socialism from below" (see section H.3.3), we need to address the claim that the period between February 1917 to the start of the Russian civil war at the end of May 1918 shows the real nature of Bolshevism. In order to do that we need to discuss what the Russian anarchist Voline called "The Unknown Revolution."
So what is the "Unknown Revolution"? Voline, an active participant in 1917 Russian Revolution, used that expression as the title of his classic account of the Russian revolution. He used it to refer to the rarely acknowledged independent, creative actions of the revolutionary people themselves. As Voline argued, "it is not known how to study a revolution" and most historians "mistrust and ignore those developments which occur silently in the depths of the revolution . . . at best, they accord them a few words in passing . . . [Yet] it is precisely these hidden facts which are important, and which throw a true light on the events under consideration and on the period." This section of the FAQ will try and present this "unknown revolution," those movements "which fought the Bolshevik power in the name of true liberty and of the principles of the Social Revolution which that power had scoffed at and trampled underfoot." [The Unknown Revolution, p. 19 and p. 437] Voline gives the Kronstadt rebellion (see the appendix on "What was the Kronstadt Rebellion?") and the Makhnovist movement (see the appendix on "Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?") pride of place in his account. Here we discuss other movements and the Bolshevik response to them.
Leninist accounts of the Russian Revolution, to a surprising extent, fall into the official form of history -- a concern more with political leaders than with the actions of the masses. Indeed, the popular aspects of the revolution are often distorted to accord with a predetermined social framework of Leninism. Thus the role of the masses is stressed during the period before the Bolshevik seizure of power. Here the typical Leninist would agree, to a large extent, with summarised history of 1917 we present in section 1. They would undoubtedly disagree with the downplaying of the role of the Bolshevik party (although as we discuss in section 2, that party was far from the ideal model of the vanguard party of Leninist theory and modern Leninist practice). However, the role of the masses in the revolution would be praised, as would the Bolsheviks for supporting it.
The real difference arises once the Bolsheviks seize power in November 1917 (October, according to the Old Style calendar then used). After that, the masses simply disappear and into the void steps the leadership of the Bolshevik party. For Leninism, the "unknown revolution" simply stops. The sad fact is that very little is known about the dynamics of the revolution at the grassroots, particularly after October. Incredible as it may sound, very few Leninists are that interested in the realities of "workers' power" under the Bolsheviks or the actual performance and fate of such working class institutions as soviets, factory committees and co-operatives. What is written is often little more than vague generalities that aim to justify authoritarian Bolshevik policies which either explicitly aimed to undermine such bodies or, at best, resulted in their marginalisation when implemented.
This section of the FAQ aims to make known the "unknown revolution" that continued under the Bolsheviks and, equally important, the Bolshevik response to it. As part of this process we need to address some of the key events of that period, such as the role of foreign intervention and the impact of the civil war. However, we do not go into these issues in depth here and instead cover them in depth in the appendix on "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?". This is because most Leninists excuse Bolshevik authoritarianism on the impact of the civil war, regardless of the facts of the matter. As we discuss in the appendix on "How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?", the ideology of Bolshevism played its role as well -- something that modern day Leninists strenuously deny (again, regardless of the obvious). As we indicate in this section, the idea that Bolshevism came into conflict with the "unknown revolution" is simply not viable. Bolshevik ideology and practice made it inevitable that this conflict erupted, as it did before the start of the civil war (also see section 3 of the appendix on "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?").
Ultimately, the reason why Leninist ideas still have influence on the socialist movement is due to the apparent success of the Russian Revolution. Many Leninist groups, mainly Trotskyists and derivatives of Trotskyism, point to "Red October" and the creation of the first ever workers state as concrete examples of the validity of their ideas. They point to Lenin's State and Revolution as proving the "democratic" (even "libertarian") nature of Leninism while, at the same time, supporting the party dictatorship he created and, moreover, rationalising the utter lack of working class freedom and power under it. We will try to indicate the falseness of such claims. As will become clear from this section, the following summation of an anonymous revolutionary is totally correct:
"Every notion about revolution inherited from Bolshevism is false."
In this, they were simply repeating the conclusions of anarchists. As Kropotkin stressed in 1920:
"It seems to me that this attempt to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralised state, under the iron law of the dictatorship of one party, has ended in a terrible fiasco. Russia teaches us how not to impose communism." [Peter Kropotkin, quoted by Guerin, Anarchism, p. 106]
Ultimately, the experience of Bolshevism was a disaster. And as the Makhnovists in the Ukraine proved, Bolshevik ideology and practice was not the only option available (see the appendix on "Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?"). There were alternatives, but Bolshevik ideology simply excluded using them (we will discuss some possibilities in this various sub-sections below). In other words, Bolshevik ideology is simply not suitable for a real revolutionary movement and the problems it will face. In fact, its ideology and practice ensures that any such problems will be magnified and made worse, as the Russian revolution proves.
Sadly many socialists cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this. While recognising the evils of the Stalinist bureaucracy, these socialists deny that this degeneration of Bolshevism was inevitable and was caused by outside factors (namely the Russian Civil War or isolation). While not denying that these factors did have an effect in the outcome of the Russian Revolution, the seeds for bureaucracy existed from the first moment of the Bolshevik insurrection. These seeds where from three sources: Bolshevik politics, the nature of the state and the post-October economic arrangements favoured and implemented by the ruling party.
As we will indicate, these three factors caused the new "workers' state" to degenerate long before the out break of the Civil war in May of 1918. This means that the revolution was not defeated primarily because of isolation or the effects of the civil war. The Bolsheviks had already seriously undermined it from within long before the effects of isolation or civil war had a chance to take hold. The civil war which started in the summer of 1918 did take its toll in what revolutionary gains survived, not least because it allowed the Bolsheviks to portray themselves and their policies as the lessor of two evils. However, Lenin's regime was already defending (state) capitalism against genuine socialist tendencies before the outbreak of civil war. The suppression of Kronstadt in March 1921 was simply the logical end result of a process that had started in the spring of 1918, at the latest. As such, isolation and civil war are hardly good excuses -- particularly as anarchists had predicted they would affect every revolution decades previously and Leninists are meant to realise that civil war and revolution are inevitable. Also, it must be stressed that Bolshevik rule was opposed by the working class, who took collective action to resist it and the Bolsheviks justified their policies in ideological terms and not in terms of measures required by difficult circumstances (see the appendix on "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?").
One last thing. We are sure, in chronicling the "excesses" of the Bolshevik regime, that some Leninists will say "they sound exactly like the right-wing." Presumably, if we said that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West we would also "sound like the right-wing." That the right-wing also points to certain facts of the revolution does not in any way discredit these facts. How these facts are used is what counts. The right uses the facts to discredit socialism and the revolution. Anarchists use them to argue for libertarian socialism and support the revolution while opposing the Bolshevik ideology and practice which distorted it. Similarly, unlike the right we take into account the factors which Leninists urge us to use to excuse Bolshevik authoritarianism (such as civil war, economic collapse and so on). We are simply not convinced by Leninist arguments.
Needless to say, few Leninists apply their logic to Stalinism. To attack Stalinism by describing the facts of the regime would make one sound like the "right-wing." Does that mean socialists should defend one of the most horrific dictatorships that ever existed? If so, how does that sound to non-socialists? Surely they would conclude that socialism is about Stalinism, dictatorship, terror and so on? If not, why not? If "sounding like the right" makes criticism of Lenin's regime anti-revolutionary, then why does this not apply to Stalinism? Simply because Lenin and Trotsky were not at the head of the dictatorship as they were in the early 1920s? Does the individuals who are in charge override the social relations of a society? Does dictatorship and one-man management become less so when Lenin rules? The apologists for Lenin and Trotsky point to the necessity created by the civil war and isolation within international capitalism for their authoritarian policies (while ignoring the fact they started before the civil war, continued after it and were justified at the time in terms of Bolshevik ideology). Stalin could make the same claim.
Other objections may be raised. It may be claimed that we quote "bourgeois" (or even worse, Menshevik) sources and so our account is flawed. In reply, we have to state that you cannot judge a regime based purely on what it says about itself. As such, critical accounts are required to paint a full picture of events. Moreover, it is a sad fact that few, if any, Leninist accounts of the Russian Revolution actually discuss the class and social dynamics (and struggles) of the period under Lenin and Trotsky. This means we have to utilise the sources which do, namely those historians who do not identify with the Bolshevik regime. And, of course, any analysis (or defence) of the Bolshevik regime will have to account for critical accounts, either by refuting them or by showing their limitations. As will become obvious in our discussion, the reason why latter day Bolsheviks talk about the class dynamics post-October in the most superficial way is that it would be hard, even impossible, to maintain that Lenin's regime was remotely socialist or based on working class power. Simply put, from early 1918 (at the latest) conflict between the Bolsheviks and the Russian working masses was a constant feature of the regime. It is only when that conflict reached massive proportions that Leninists do not (i.e. cannot) ignore it. In such cases, as the Kronstadt rebellion proves, history is distorted in order to defend the Bolshevik state (see the appendix on "What was the Kronstadt Rebellion?" for details).
The fact that Leninists try to discredit anarchists by saying that we sound like the right is sad. In effect, it blocks any real discussion of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism (as intended, probably). This ensures that Leninism remains above critique and so no lessons can be learnt from the Russian experience. After all, if the Bolsheviks had no choice then what lessons are there to learn? None. And if we are to learn no lessons (bar, obviously, mimic the Bolsheviks) we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes -- mistakes that are partly explained by the objective circumstances at the time and partly by Bolshevik politics. But given that most of the circumstances the Bolsheviks faced, such as civil war and isolation, are likely to reappear in any future revolution, modern-day Leninists are simply ensuring that Karl Marx was right -- history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.
Such a position is, of course, wonderful for the pro-Leninist. It allows them to quote Lenin and Trotsky and use the Bolsheviks as the paradigm of revolution while washing their hands of the results of that revolution. By arguing that the Bolsheviks were "making a virtue of necessity," (to use the expression of Leninist Donny Gluckstein [The Tragedy of Bukharin, p. 41]), they are automatically absolved of proving their arguments about the "democratic" essence of Bolshevism in power. Which is useful as, logically, no such evidence could exist and, in fact, there is a whole host of evidence pointing the other way which can, by happy co-incidence, be ignored. Indeed, from this perspective there is no point even discussing the revolution at all, beyond praising the activities and ideology of the Bolsheviks while sadly noting that "fate" (to quote Leninist Tony Cliff) ensured that they could not fulfil their promises. Which, of course, almost Leninist accounts do boil down to. Thus, for the modern Leninist, the Bolsheviks cannot be judged on what they did nor what they said while doing it (or even after). They can only be praised for what they said and did before they seized power.
However, anarchists have a problem with this position. It smacks more of religion than theory. Karl Marx was right to argue that you cannot judge people by what they say, only by what they do. It is in this revolutionary spirit that this section of the FAQ analyses the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik role within it. We need to analyse what they did when they held power as well as the election manifesto. As we will indicate in this section, neither was particularly appealing.
Finally, we should note that Leninists today have various arguments to justify what the Bolsheviks did once in power. We discuss these in the appendix on "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?". We also discuss in the appendix on "How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?" the ideological roots of the counter-revolutionary role of the Bolsheviks during the revolution. That the politics of the Bolsheviks played its role in the failure of the revolution can be seen from the example of the anarchist influenced Makhnovist movement which applied basic libertarian principles in the same difficult circumstances of the Russian Civil War (see "Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?" on this important movement).