October 1917 – Socialism’s greatest setback?

by John Medhurst

For the first time since the 1970s, the British left is seriously contemplating strategies for a socialist programme based on a mass-based socialist party winning legislative power in the UK. Labour’s 2017 Manifesto constituted a historic and decisive break with a neo-liberal ideology that has dominated British politics, including its social-democratic left, for the past 40 years. It garnered support and enthusiasm not only from Labour members and activists but also from a range of radical socialists to the left of Labour, whose public ideology would appear to have little in common with Labour’s democratic socialist reformism.

In doing so most of what might be called the “revolutionary” left - those such as the SWP, Socialist Party and an amorphous range of Marxist groups, journals and websites – have in effect abandoned the Leninist programme they still uphold in theory. Although these parties and groups continue to proclaim the relevance and necessity of Leninism, they have no intention of practising what they preach. What they practice, with some exceptions, is a confused and anachronistic workerism that ends up defending reactionary nationalist projects like Brexit. What they preach has not developed much in one hundred years.

And yet, in the centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 there is one thing that should now be beyond dispute - the Bolshevik seizure of power, and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat subsequently set up by the Bolsheviks, very nearly destroyed any prospect of achieving meaningful and democratic socialism across the world.

To this day the “Russian Revolution” remains shrouded in misconception. There was not, for example, one revolution in 1917. The structures of Russian autocracy and feudalism were not overthrown in October but in February, during a popular revolution in which the Bolsheviks were mostly absent. It was the February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar; instituted freedom of the press, trade unions and other assemblies; abolished all hereditary, religious and national distinctions; replaced the police with a public militia; and provided for universal suffrage. It also called forth the Soviets (workers’ councils), the Volosts (rural peasants committees) and Factory Committees that sought to take command of their own destiny, and which demanded an end to the war. It was the failure of the Provisional Governments (first conservative-liberal, then liberal-socialist) to meet these demands which led to the increasing popularity of the Bolsheviks and then to the October insurrection.

The Bolsheviks’ public justification for the insurrection and the removal of the Provisional Government was that it would defend and promote not one-party rule but Soviet power, i.e a system of governance based on the Soviets and overseen by their national body, the Central Executive of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The general wish of the All-Russian Soviet Congress of October 1917, and the trade unions that supported it, was for a socialist coalition government, not for a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” presided over by one political party.

On this basis the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) established after October 25th was supposed to be answerable to the Soviet Executive, which had a Bolshevik majority but which also had other socialists such as the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), the Bundists and the Mensheviks. Yet no People’s Commissar was ever elected by the Soviet Executive, or removed by it. They were put in office by the Bolshevik Party Central Committee and answered only to it.

Within days of the Bolshevik insurrection Sovnarcom’s unilateral decree “Concerning the Procedure for the Ratification and Promulgation of Laws” gave it the right to act in a legislative capacity. The assumption of both executive and legislative powers sidelined the Soviet Executive and reversed the entire rationale of the insurrection. On 29th October Sovnarcom issued a decree abolishing freedom of the press, which led to the closure not just of conservative and liberal newspapers but of nearly all non-Bolshevik socialist newspapers. Between October 1917 and July 1918 Sovnarcom closed over 300 newspapers and periodicals. Although the official SR journal Dyelo Narodo was banned, militant soldiers sympathetic to the SRs guarded its premises and for a while it was produced illegally.

Yet if any party could be said to hold a valid national mandate in Russia in 1917 it was the SRs. It was they who clearly won the Constituent Assembly election of November 1917, the only reliable indication we have of national opinion in this period. The SRs secured 15,848,004 votes against the Bolsheviks’ 9,844,637 (about a ¼ of the vote, mainly from the biggest cities). No sooner was the result in than Lenin disparaged it. In January 1918, without reference to the Soviet Executive, Sovnarcom abolished the Assembly after one sitting. There were to be no further national elections.

After destroying the Assembly Sovnarcom took control of the Factory Committees. As early as mid-November 1917 it had made clear that factories were either run by owner-managers or by government agencies. By March 1918 most Factory Committees were subsumed in to the big trade unions, themselves shortly to be reduced to transmission belts for party-state directives.

The greatest irony, for a revolution and regime supposedly based on the grass-roots democracy of the Soviets, was the annihilation of the Soviets themselves. Soviet power, i.e the running of services and the economy by ordinary workers, was only acceptable to the Bolsheviks if workers carried out Sovnacom’s directives. In the months after October 1917 many Soviets were shut down or suppressed. On 9th November, two weeks after an insurrection whose ostensible goal was to transfer “all power to the Soviets”, Sovnarcom dissolved the Soviet of the Commissariat of Posts and Telegraphs. On 28th November it did the same to the Soviet in the Admiralty. In March 1918 it ended workers’ control of the railways, with instructions that “Technical Executives” were in charge, answerable only to the People’s Commissar.

In response to the closing of the Constituent Assembly and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which gave away a third of Imperial Russia’s lands to Imperial Germany, the only realistic way to “end the war”) many Soviets in the first months of 1918 began to return Menshevik and SR majorities. The Bolsheviks were strong in the north, but across the Central Industrial Region, the Black Earth Region, the Upper Volga and Urals Regions, in towns such as Kaluga, Kostroma, Tver, Ryazan, Kovrov, Tula, and Yaraslavl, the Soviets elected Menshevik majorities. As they did so, Red Guard units moved in to close them down.

In April 1918 – two months before civil war broke out in the south of Russia - Lenin laid out the philosophy of his regime in “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, in which he lamented that Sovnarom was “late in introducing compulsory labour service” and chided Russian workers for their lack of discipline and productivity. The solution was “unity of will”, which Lenin considered one of “the conditions of socialism”. The way to secure this unity was “by thousands subordinating their will to the will of one”. He was adamant that workers demonstrate “obedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet Directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers”. White counter-revolution, whilst it was a terrible threat that had to be defeated by the people’s democracy in arms, did not call forth these policies. They were imposed from the start.

By 1919 there were mass strikes against the Bolshevik regime, including in its former heartland, Petrograd’s massive Putilov Works. In March 1919 the Putilov workers declared that the Bolsheviks had “betrayed the high ideals of the October Revolution”, and demanded a transfer of authority to freely elected Soviets, greater control by the unions, and release of socialist political prisoners. The strike escalated to take in half of Petrograd’s workforce, whereupon all workers meetings were banned. The Putilov was attacked by Red Guards, who arrested and executed hundreds of strikers. Strikes in other cities were suppressed by force.

The situation worsened in 1920, as strikes paralysed Petrograd and Moscow. In February 1921 the Bolshevik government imposed martial law, the only way to contain the discontented working class. This ignited the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors, previously the “pride and glory” of the revolution, in March 1921, a revolt that sought the restoration of Soviet democracy and workers’ self-rule. Trotsky ordered the Red Army to attack Kronstadt, and after its subjugation thousands of rebellious sailors were summarily executed or sent to Solovetsky labour camp in the White Sea.

And it was all for nothing. As the Mensheviks and “moderate” Bolsheviks knew, there was not and never had been majority support, even amongst the relatively tiny working class, for one-party rule, for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat presided over by a self-selected Vanguard Party. On November 1st 1917, during talks brokered by the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union to form a socialist coalition government, the senior Bolshevik David Riazanov said, criticising Lenin’s refusal to entertain the idea, “Even in Petrograd, power is not in our hands but in the hands of the Soviet, and this has to be faced. If we abandon this course, we will be utterly and hopelessly alone. We will be faced with the fact that we tricked the masses, having promised them a Soviet Government”.

On 2nd November, at the Soviet Executive, the Left SR Boris Malkin summed up the fears of non-Leninist socialists, when he declaimed “The tactics adopted by the Bolshevik party now in power are leading to a schism among the toiling masses; that the dictatorship of a single ruling group, which it has in effect established, will with inevitable logic bring about severe repression, not only of members of the propertied classes, but also of the masses; that such a policy has already been put into practice, by the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, in regard to the press as well as various individuals, and that this policy is inexorably leading to the ruin of the revolution”.

More was ruined than just the Russian Revolution. The tragic result of Bolshevism, and its almost inevitable mutation into Stalinism, was a massive, world-wide deligitimation of the socialist ideal itself. From the 1920s socialists who did not support Lenin’s concept of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat had to explain that their political philosophy was “democratic socialism” to differentiate it from the undemocratic version. What before 1917 had been an inspiring vision of a “Socialist Commonwealth”, hymned by William Morris and Robert Tressell was now tainted by association with a one-party state, cultural uniformity and political repression. It was a propaganda gift of epic dimensions to capitalism and its ideological organs. It gave it decades (perhaps centuries) more life than it would otherwise have had.

Given this, the libertarian Marxist Maurice Brinton, whose work on workers’ control in 1917-21 Russia is essential, considered that support across the left for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was a classic case of “the irrational in politics”, specifically that “...those aspiring to a non-alienated and creative society based on equality and freedom should “break” with bourgeois conceptions only to espouse the hierarchical, dogmatic, manipulatory and puritanical ideas of Leninism”.

That particular streak of irrationality has had a long shelf life, aided by intellectual fellow travellers who, in Albert Camus’s immortal rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre, never turned anything other than their armchairs in the direction of history. The centenary year of the Russian Revolution has seen a resurgence of swivelling armchairs, in works which either skilfully distort the historical reality of Bolshevik authoritarianism from an early stage (Tariq Ali) or carefully avoid it by confining themselves to the pre-October, “heroic” period of the revolution (China Mieville).

Behind it all is a puzzling and unsustainable belief that, to quote the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, Lenin was “the greatest thinker to have been produced by the revolutionary working class movement since Marx”, a unique political genius who combined theoretical rigour with tactical acumen. Yet very little supports this. The programme for socialism contained in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, written just before October, was immediately jettisoned after October. In 1920 he admitted that the attempt to introduce absolute state control of industry in an undeveloped peasant society was a mistake, and that “experience has proved that we were wrong”. Other and better Marxists, such as Martov and Kautsky, did not need this experience to perceive the obvious. They predicted it from the start, and also that imposing such a model through one-party rule would lead inevitably to a bureaucratic police state and a form of “Bonapartism”. Yet to this day the majority of the Marxist left ignores or belittles them, while continuing to defend Lenin and his disastrous record.

Primarily this is Brinton’s irrationalism in action. There are, of course, those on the left who support Lenin’s version of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat with full, clear understanding of what it was. They are commissars and proud of it. But most who express admiration for Lenin and the Bolsheviks do not support Bolshevism, or what they conceive to be Bolshevism, because of ruthless pragmatism or a desire to establish a one-party state. They do so because for them “October” is a potent emotional totem, a shining city on a hill, a myth entirely unrelated to the reality of what actually happened during and after the Bolshevik insurrection. They believe because they want to.

This is unbecoming radical democrats who aspire to fundamentally transform neoliberal capitalism into a fairer, juster society run by and for the majority of people. That is an enormous and challenging task, loaded with difficulty. It will not be done with heads in the clouds and blinkers on. It cannot be done - and should not be done - by those who secretly yearn for Leninist discipline and repression. It is long past time for everyone on the left to reject that tradition, and that history.

John Medhurst is the author of No Less than Mystic: A History of the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left (August, 2017, Repeater Books)

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