The Russian Revolution was perhaps the most important event in the history of revolutionary socialism and the struggle against capitalism. For the first time in October of 1917 workers took power on a grand scale and eventually the change in regime inaugurated by the revolution lead to Stalinism and it’s export around the world to countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba, Germany, and North Korea, which captured the imaginations of radicals for most of the 20th century and today is used as an argumentative stick to beat anti-capitalists over the head with. An understanding of this all important event can not be overlooked by revolutionary socialists. Different Leninist sects from Stalinists to Trotskyists celebrate the Russian Revolution every year with dogmatic allegiance to what they proclaim “the greatest moment in human history”. Anarchists should analyze this historical event, from our anti-authoritarian perspective as opposed to Leninist worship of Trotsky and Lenin, and determine it’s implications for radical politics today.
In 1905 a bread riot organized primarily by women stirred a pot of social forces which would become fully unleashed in February 1917. Russia under the Czar was an autocracy which republicans had been struggling against for decades. Lenin’s brother was put to death for attempting a terrorist act in pursuit of this goal. It’s economic set up was primarily feudal with a small but developing capitalist economy in the urban areas largely dominated by foreign capital. All though there was a mass of workers there was an even larger mass of peasantry. This peasantry was subject to feudal exploitation by the landed gentry. To compound matters Russia had involved itself in World War One which was sapping resources from the country and killing it’s people. This combination of autocratic semi-feudal oppression and opposition to the war lead to the outbreak of the revolution.
In February 1917 the masses of people rose up against the Czarist regime and forced the Czar to flee the country leading to the smashing of the Czarist state. New organizations of class struggle sprung up called “soviets” (Russian for “council”). A liberal “provisional government” was created that eventually came under the leadership of a man called Alexander Kerensky. Meanwhile the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the Russian Marxist party) had split in two on the question of the revolution. The reformist and stageist faction were known as the “Mensheviks”. They argued that the Russian Revolution would need to establish a liberal republic before transitioning through reform to a socialist society. The revolutionary socialist faction known as the “Bolsheviks” argued instead that the Russian Revolution should carry out the “bourgeois revolution” against semi-feudal social set ups (the purpose of the liberal republic argued for by the Mensheviks) and then immediately carry out the socialist revolution. Menshevik Leon Trotsky would develop a theory called “permanent revolution” which argued that the socialist revolution could itself carry out the tasks of the “bourgeois revolution” which Lenin would end up signing on to leading to Trotsky joining the Bolsheviks.
One of the main impetuses behind the revolution was opposition to Russian involvement in the war. The provisional government never pulled back from the war and continued to wage it. This lead to the idea that the provisional government was not the hoped for change the Russian Revolution was to bring about. Meanwhile on the ground the Soviets had grown to include workers, peasants, and soldiers. The soviets were federal councils organized to wage the revolution through democratic means via the self-organization of the producers and soldiers. They were a revolutionary form of organization because they allowed workers to organize directly for control over society within militant class struggle. In addition to the soviets organizations at the point of production for workers’ were set up called “factory committees”. They were worker organized groups that fought for better conditions and in some cases took over production itself and kicked out the capitalist owners bringing it under direct worker control. The factory committees were revolutionary in that they were self-organized organs of class struggle for workers to fight against the bosses and take control of production themselves.
The Bolsheviks took up the popular slogan created by Anarchists of “all power to the soviets” given the strength of the soviets as revolutionary organizations. In reality the Bolsheviks (as with other groups such as the Mensheviks) treated the soviets as a means for mobilization under their influence looking to elect Bolshevik majorities within them. When the time came to dethrone the provisional government the Bolsheviks refused to wait for a democratic mandate from the congress of soviets and Lenin declared that the congress had nothing to offer the Russian people. “the Congress will give nothing and can give nothing. ….. First defeat Kerensky, then call the Congress”. The Bolsheviks as such began pushing for the overthrow of the provisional government. This was not a hard sell since the liberal republic of Kerensky could not, fundamentally, resist the need to continue the disastrous war as like the Czarist autocracy it was a nation-state vying for military and economic power in the global order. On October 25, 1917 (November 7 on the western calendar) the working class rose up against the provisional government, forced Kerensky to flee like the Czar before him, and took over Russian cities, leading to working class power on an unprecedented scale. The hope of all socialists was that this revolution would lead to a new society controlled and organized by the masses of workers’ and peasants. This dream quickly died.
Since we are analyzing the revolution from an Anarchist perspective we should document the far too often overlooked part Anarchists played in the Russian Revolution. As mentioned earlier Anarchists created the slogan “all power to the Soviets”. Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists organized the Kronstadt soviet. The Russian Anarchist movement was critical to the February and October Revolutions. Anarchist Communists set up revolutionary communes and Anarcho-syndicalists set up factory councils. Later when the white army and western forces would attack the young Soviet regime Anarchists fought in it’s defense. The Russian Anarchist movement so critical to the Russian Revolution would be torn to shreds by the Bolshevik counterrevolution that destroyed the dream of a revolutionary Russia under worker and peasant control.
Almost immediately after the October victory the soviets and factory committees were assaulted. The soviets were simply integrated into the state as bureaucratic state organizations for the carrying out of low level political affairs. From then on the Soviet Union was only “soviet” in name. The factory committees were promised a national congress by the Bolsheviks and attempted to organize into a national federation. The promised congress never happened and the factory committees were essentially abolished and what was left of them integrated into the state central planning organs. Mensheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries who campaigned for the soviets and factory committees as independent revolutionary and class organizations were assassinated. Political repression of opposing groups whether or not they were left wing/working class became a main fixture of Bolshevik rule early on. Even dissident Bolsheviks were assassinated. The Anarchist movement that was indispensable to the revolution, that viewed the Bolsheviks as comrades and fellow revolutionaries, was deconstructed with Czarist like methods of repression. Anarchists were vanished, arrested, thrown in jail, executed, and had their newspapers shut down. As a result of this political intolerance and reactionary attack on a revolutionary movement the remainder of the Russian Anarchists languished in Stalin’s gulags.
So why had the Bolsheviks turned on a dime from revolutionaries to policemen? There are two major reasons. The first is that the Bolsheviks never saw the emancipation of the working class as the task of the workers themselves. Their idea of proletarian power was that political representatives from the working class would form a revolutionary party (the Bolshevik party) that rules the state in the interests of the working class. Much earlier Lenin had written in “What Is To Be Done” that in all countries the working class by itself would never reach true social democratic (read Marxist) revolutionary consciousness without guidance from the social democratic party. He argued that the theory of socialism didn’t come out of the struggles of the working class, but out of the minds of the intellectuals of the “propertied classes”.1 These points of view put forward the notion that the party must guide the workers to power rather than the workers taking power for themselves. This gives a justification and motive for repression of real working class control and left-wing political opposition. There was however more than just an ideological element. Equally as important is the second major reason for the Bolshevik counterrevolution. Instead of the workers and peasants taking over production for themselves it was nationalized by the Bolshevik state. This recreated the capitalist relation of private property where the vast majority of people have no control over the production process and thus no inherent means to attain the consumption goods necessary for survival. Thus the mass of people sold their ability to work to the state for a wage that allowed them to purchase items of consumption so they could subsist. The state took the bulk of what was produced and realized it as profit for itself by selling it on the market. This meant the capitalist economy with it’s wage labor, money and markets, private property, class division, and state machine were all preserved. The working class and peasants remained the exploited laboring population that generated capital and profit for a capitalist class who owned and controlled the production of wealth. As such the Bolshevik party was the capitalist class that imposed it’s rule, exploitation, and oppression of workers through it’s capitalist state with the ideological justification that the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries represented the working class. In accordance with the class nature of the newly minted Soviet Union the Bolsheviks crushed strikes which occurred after the Russian Civil war killing anywhere from over 2 to 3,000 people.
The Bolshevik state morphed further and further into a capitalist nation state like any other, factions within the party were banned, the Kronstadt uprising of sailors demanding workers’ control and political democracy was mercilessly crushed, a secret police was set up that carried out terror in imposing the regime’s rule, the remnants of the Russian Revolution in the Ukrainian Anarchist insurrectionary movement were stomped out, and a treaty was signed that allotted Russian land and production to the German capitalist state. In the 1920s the Soviet one man management system of strict hierarchy over workers in production was established. Later in the decade Stalin would maneuver the established party bureaucracy and repressive state mechanisms with the help of his lackeys to come to dictatorial power. This involved the execution of the remaining Bolsheviks (save for Stalin and his allies) on trumped up charges. Stalin fully developed the USSR into a capitalist nation-state, ideologically enshrining “socialism in one country” (a complete oxymoron by the standards of the historical socialist movement) and building the USSR up into a neo-colonial super-power with nuclear capability. This model of Stalinism was exported throughout the world through Stalin’s command of the Comintern and military expansion into Eastern Europe. The Russian revolution was no more and on it’s ashes stood a number of police states where capital continued to exploit labor. The Soviet Union itself collapsed and China and Vietnam went through market reforms for the installation of typical private capitalism and the deconstruction of the state capitalist system of “socialism in one country”. The selling off of Russian industry to foreign investors and Russian oligarchs has accomplished the same there. The dissipation of the “socialist world” and the failure of these regimes to produce a free and equal society has haunted the left for generations. Communism is discredited as an authoritarian failure.
So what are the lessons that Anarchists should take from the Russian Revolution for the construction of a revolutionary movement today? The first and fore most lesson is that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves. A socialist society is one where production is governed freely through the cooperation of producers. This can only be achieved through working class self-organization within the class struggle. Vanguard parties and similar “leadership” formations are categorical obstacles to socialism. The second is anti-statism. The state is a top down organization used to coerce the majority of the population under the rule of a small exploitative elite. The state will always reproduce class divisions so long as it exists and prevent a socialist society which is necessarily governed by the collective freely associated producers. The third is the need for collectivized production over nationalized production. Nationalized production simply puts production under the control of the state bureaucracy reproducing the relationship of private property which gives real control over production to a small group of owners. Production needs to be seized from the capitalist class and immediately made the collective property of the workers and oppressed people, then operated through workers’ self-management to meet the needs of the population. Hopefully the next great revolution can break through the barriers the Russian Revolution faced and make the final leap from world capitalism to global free socialism, or as a I call it, libertarian communism.
1. “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.”
2. A key factor in the failure of the Russian Revolution was the defeat of revolutions in other parts of Europe and the isolation of the Bolshevik regime. I ignored this in the article because Anarchists can’t draw many “lessons” from it. The revolutions in Italy and Germany were defeated by capitalism and this left the Bolsheviks surrounded by hostile capitalist and reactionary forces. I mention it here both because it’s an important aspect of the history and because it does tells us about the need for an international revolutionary effort for the abolition of global capitalism.
3. Despite the powerful Russian Anarchist movement Russian Anarchists never successfully conceptualized the Bolsheviks as counterrevolutionaries in order to defend themselves from repression. Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists saw the Bolsheviks as their comrades and collaborators in revolution. They thought, particularly after the publication of Lenin’s book “State and Revolution” which gives lip service to self-management and the Paris Commune, that the Bolshevik idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be the same thing as direct working class power advocated by Anarchists. Even while the Anarchists were being killed and imprisoned they never really began to see the Bolsheviks as traitors, or enemies.
From The Russian Revolution of 1917 to Stalinist Totalitarianism, Agustin Guillamon
Beyond Kronstadt; the Bolsheviks in power
How Lenin Lead To Stalin, Workers’ Solidarity Movement
The Importance of Russia, Workers’ Solidarity Movement
Anarchists In The Russian Revolution, Paul Avrich
The Persecution Of The Anarchists, Emma Goldman
No Gods No Masters, Part 2
Anarcho-Syndicalism In The 20th Century, Vadim D.
Did The Bolshevik Seizure Of Power Inaugurate A Socialist Revolution? A Marxian Inquiry, Paresh Chattopadhyay
There Is No Communism In Russia, Emma Goldman