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BOLSHEVISM OR SOCIALISM?
THE SPGB ON LENINISM AND THE LEGACY OF 1917

From 1917 on, Socialists and Marxists have been dogged by the propaganda after-effects of the Russian Revolution. The SPGB’s public speakers were regularly accused of being Bolsheviks and told to go back to Russia. After 1945 with the Cold War and, more recently, after the so-called ‘collapse of communism’, when many people from Eastern Europe migrated to the West, this ignorant abuse has worsened. It is now widely held that Socialism / Communism has been tried and shown to fail, catastrophically. The mass media use their bully-pulpit to megaphone the lying message that Marxism means monstrous dictatorship. We Socialists can spend a lifetime arguing the contrary yet still our message is heard by only too few.

Yet the fact is that, within months of the Russian Revolution, the SPGB argued that, whatever system Lenin and his clique could install in Russia, it would not be Socialism. From the start it was clear that this Bolshevik coup was the work of an elitist minority, and could not have the class-conscious backing of the vast majority of Russia’s mostly illiterate workers and peasants. They may have wanted rid of the Tsars and the war but that did not mean they wanted Socialism.

Lenin’s opportunistic Bolsheviks used borrowed slogans from the peasants’ party and others: one day it was “Peace! Land! Bread!”, another day it was “All Power to the Soviets!” But Socialism - i.e. the common ownership of the land and other means of production - was not proclaimed as the Bolsheviks’ aim. That would have brought them into conflict with the peasants, who were focussed on their land-grab of summer 1917.

For Lenin and his tiny band of ‘professional revolutionaries’, to hold power as a minority meant they would have to act as a dictatorship. Just a few weeks after the Revolution, long before Stalin came to power and expanded the use of a vast slave-labour gulags and ruthless purges, Lenin had set up the Cheka. This was the predecessor of the KGB and the NKVD, etc: successors to the feared Tsarist Okhrana.

In the short document signed by Lenin / Ulyanov, on 20 December 1917, this Cheka (short for Extraordinary Commission) was to cover information / spying, organising against ‘counter-terrorism’ / repression, and “the fighting section”:

The Commission shall keep an eye on the press, saboteurs, right Socialist Revolutionaries and strikers. Measures to be taken are confiscation, imprisonment, confiscation of cards, publication of the names of the enemies of the people, etc.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND THE SOVIET STATE 1917-1921 DOCUMENTS ed. Martin McCauley, 1975, pp181-182

The Bolsheviks were so proud of that innovation that this document remained secret for 10 years until it was published in PRAVDA (18 December 1927). The early date of that original founding document tells us that the Bolshevik system of repressive dictatorship was not a defensive reaction to organised opposition or to the civil war. It pre-dated any appearance of opposition or of Western armed intervention. Nor can it be blamed with hindsight on Stalin’s “excesses”: it was a part of Lenin’s Jacobin or Blanquist idea of revolution.

And that went utterly counter to Marx’s argument that:

...to conquer political power is the great duty of the working classes... What was new in the International was that it was established by the working men themselves and for themselves.
DOCUMENTS OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL 1871-2, Marx: THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL AND AFTER, Penguin, pp269-271

There was some evidence that Lenin had pinned his hopes on a Russian coup acting as a spark to ignite revolutions in other countries. He was mistaken in his expectations: workers’ Social Democratic parties had been lured into reformism, and had supported the war, so were unlikely to mobilise for a revolution.

The claim made that this was a “Socialist Revolution” was soon refuted by Lenin himself, in his pamphlet THE CHIEF TASKS OF OUR TIMES, quoted in our journal the SOCIALIST STANDARD (July 1920):

Here, Lenin stated that what he was trying to establish in backward Russia was not Socialism but State Capitalism:

Reality says that State Capitalism would be a step forward for us; if we were able to bring about State Capitalism in a short time it would be a victory for us... To bring about State Capitalism at the present time means to establish the control and order formerly achieved by the propertied classes. We have in Germany an example of State Capitalism, and we know she proved our superior.... If we possessed it in Russia the transition to complete Socialism would be easy, because State Socialism [sic] is centralisation, control, socialisation – in fact, everything we lack.
Quoted in A SOCIALIST VIEW OF BOLSHEVIST POLICY, July 1920,
see RUSSIA SINCE 1917, SPGB pamphlet 1948, p 20

In that passage Lenin slipped easily from writing about State Capitalism to writing of ‘State Socialism’! This showed him unable to grasp the basic difference between Socialism and capitalism, i.e. the existence of the wages system, an exploited wage-slave class and production for profit, with the class system defended by the state. In Socialism, a classless society, there would be no need for a state.

Lenin argued that for backward Russia state capitalism was essential:

Socialism can only be reached by the development of State Capitalism, the careful organisation of finance, control and discipline among the workers. Without this there is no Socialism.

To which the SPGB replied:

If we are to copy Bolshevik policy in other countries we should have to demand State Capitalism, which is not a step to Socialism in advanced countries... That Socialism can only be reached through State Capitalism is untrue. Socialism depends upon large-scale production, whether organised by Trusts or Governments. State Capitalism may be the method used in Russia, but only because the Bolshevik Government find their theories of doing without capitalist development unworkable – hence they are forced to retreat along the capitalist road (ibid.).

Now, a century later, the Bolshevik model, a one-party dictatorship with large-scale nationalisation, has become widely adopted as a model for capitalist development in many backward countries.

Lenin’s legacy is still seen today in the dictatorships of China and North Korea, in Cuba, and many African and Asian countries. Like the Soviet regime, phony elections are held endorsing the ruler’s continued power, and the media are muzzled.

Along with dictatorship came another evil – corruption, an old Russian tradition. Even as early as 1920-21, with the cities starving and the railways at breaking point, Lenin was shamelessly using his position of power and privilege to arrange favours for friends and family. His wife’s nephew – a job in the Red Army; his friend Cde Markov - a flat and the use of a car; his sister and others, going to the Crimea: “they have a special coach. Could you not give orders that... this coach should be attached to military trains in order to speed it up?...”. And so on (Martin McCauley, op cit., pp 196-7).

In a one-party state with complete state control of the media, and systematic terrorising of the population, the ruling party elite are bound to be corrupted. Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, there was systematic corruption at all levels of the CPSU, even among the Komsomol, its youth wing, where the only motive for involvement was in the hope of having a bit of “pull” (“blat”): help in getting a flat or a taxi license, or in furthering a career. Well before it was formally dissolved, the Party – the CPSU - had become simply a network of influence-peddling and self-interest, and had long since ceased to rely on any ideological loyalty. Now, long after the end of the ‘Soviet’ system, Putin and Medvedev and their circle are setting new records for corruption and ‘kleptocracy’. With the post-Stalin era, when the Party no longer relied on terror and purges, it degraded into something more like a western-style Mafia, with its protection rackets, than a ‘revolutionary’ organisation. Later, post-Yeltsin, it morphed into a quasi-criminal oligarchy.

Lenin’s ‘Genius’

Lenin’s revolution had demanded “All Power to the Soviets”. His Western apologists claimed that the ‘Soviet’ was Lenin’s major revolutionary invention, the unique key to establishing Socialism elsewhere. Yet ‘soviets’ had existed in Russia before 1917 – the word ‘soviet’ simply means a council.

What the Bolsheviks did was to set up anti-war groups among war-weary army and navy conscripts, hungry miners and industrial workers, and anywhere else where people were unhappy with war-time austerity. They ensured that everywhere it was their people who led these new ‘soviets’.

The Bolsheviks also made promises of ‘workers’ control’ but by January 1920 this policy was abandoned. Lenin’s idea of ‘workers’ control’ was a system of “a planned regulation of the economy” whose main job was to “inspect the financial and technical activities of an enterprise” (decree, 27 Nov. 1917, see McCauley op cit, p233). Like the later Soviet trade unions, workers were co-opted to increase productivity – not to give them any meaningful control over what they produced, the hours they worked, health and safety issues, etc.

The SPGB consistently exposed the Bolshevik charade for the fraud it was:

We have always contended that the Bolsheviks could only maintain power by resorting to capitalist devices. History has shown us to be correct. The January 1920 Congress of Executive Communists in Russia abolished the power of workers’ control in factories and installed officials instructed by Moscow and given controlling influence. Their resolutions... show how economic backwardness has produced industrial conscription with heavy penalties for unpunctuality, etc. ...

Russia has agreed to repay foreign property-owners their losses and allied Governments their “debts”. This means continued exploitation of Russian workers to pay foreign exploiters.

With all the enthusiasm of the Communists they find themselves faced with the actual conditions in Russia and the ignorance of the greater part of its population. There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic means. Russia has yet to learn this.
THE SUPER-OPPOTUNISTS, August 1920, from RUSSIA SINCE 1917, p26

For decades many SOCIALIST STANDARD articles showed how clearly the SPGB saw through the CP and Leftwing propaganda.

There was that “senseless hero-worship” of Lenin as a ‘Great Man’ who it was claimed had alone “changed the course of history”.

He was praised by his Western apologists for establishing the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat, yet what he had established was not this at all but the ‘Dictatorship of the Communist Party’: “by this he was able to keep power concentrated in his own hands” (THE PASSING OF LENIN, March 1924 – RUSSIA SINCE 1917, p34).

By 1921 there was opposition: sailors at Kronstadt mutinied, demanding power for the Soviets, and in rural areas peasants rioted. Such revolts were crushed ruthlessly, and Trotsky led the attack on Kronstadt. With the catastrophic failure of so-called War Communism, when people resorted to barter, and cities starved while famine-hit peasants defended themselves from predatory bands of commissars trying to seize every last bit of grain they had, Lenin was forced to do a U-turn in 1921 and introduce NEP, the New Economic Policy. This allowed for private trading, along capitalist lines.

In assessing Lenin’s record, the SPGB noted:

Despite his claims at the beginning, he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions. So far was he from “changing the course of history” as Brailsford ignorantly remarks, that it was the course of history which changed him, drove him from one point to another till to-day Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism. The Communists, in their ignorance, may howl at this, but Russia cannot escape her destiny (ibid.).

From Lenin to Stalin

With the 1st Five-Year Plan (1929-33), Stalin forced the peasants into state farms and collective farms (sovkhozy and kolkhozy), with a ‘purge’ of so-called kulaks. The Plan demanded a huge increase in industrial production – new factories and cities were built, and an army of former peasants was conscripted to become industrial wage-slaves. There was a high price to pay – widespread famine.

Marx wrote of the way agricultural and industrial capital had been developed:

These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g. the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.
CAPITAL VOL 1, chapter XXX1

The key to this social transformation was the brutal expropriation of the peasants, so as to create a class of exploited wage-slaves:

... these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production... and the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.
CAPITAL VOL.1, chapter XXV1

The Bolsheviks’ achievement was to create a Russian working class, a proletariat, from the expropriated peasants. As in other countries before and since, this meant the ruthless use of state force and violence.

And so the lie was launched – that this was ‘Socialism’! While Socialists pointed out this was a process of ‘Primitive Accumulation of Capital’, Moscow’s paid apologists in Britain – the CPGB – argued tortuously that, under their advanced ‘Marxist-Leninist’ theory, what was happening in Russia was nothing of the sort. Many decades later, with Gorbachov’s policy of ‘glasnost’ (openness), Moscow looked back at the 1920s period between NEP and the 1st Five-Year Plan, and admitted:

The extraordinary measures of 1928 grew into the policy of forced collectivisation and dekulakisation, that is the policy of balanced out industrial development was substituted with the policy of forced and unbalanced industrialisation...

The Russian village had undergone a total transformation. The way of life had changed radically for most of the rural population.

Yevgeny Ambartsumov, NEP: A MODERN VIEW,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1988, pp 201, 203

At the time and for decades later, Western Leftwing apologists for state dictatorship as a ‘transition’ stage between capitalism and Socialism vigorously defended Stalin’s purges and the Red Terror. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!” was for them a clinching argument, excusing the worst excesses of Stalin’s Terror.

The SPGB has always argued that Socialism is democratic or it is not Socialism. But the Left apologists insisted that the Soviet ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was actually far more democratic than any capitalist state. Words were twisted to mean their opposite, and ‘dialectics’ was said to justify this.

The CP’s insisted persistently that Russia was a ‘Socialist state’. Socialists argued that it was nonsense to claim there was or could be ‘Socialism in one country’, especially when official Soviet statistics existed, published in the West, detailing Russia’s foreign and international trade. As cited in a SOCIALIST STANDARD article, RUSSIA: LAND OF HIGH PROFITS (September 1930), Soviet imports and exports were sizeable and growing, the National Debt was also large and growing, and interest rates also were high. Soviet Russia may have claimed to be ‘Socialist’ but it traded on world markets like any other capitalist state.

The Left CP-ers and fellow travellers argued that Soviet Russia could not be a capitalist country since there were no capitalists. To them, if there were no individual capitalists, this meant there was no capitalist class. But this naive view completely ignored Marx’s argument in WAGE-LABOUR AND CAPITAL:

Capital therefore pre-supposes wage-labour; wage-labour pre-supposes capital. They condition each other; each brings the other into existence.

To Marxists, it is obvious that, wherever workers are exploited for wages, this is a form of capitalism, just as with nationalised industries in the West. The class system is an economic relationship. The form of ‘ownership’ is not the issue: the point is that workers are unable to get a living except by being hired for wages or salaries. It is this that is the basis of class exploitation.

For instance, it is possible and nowadays quite usual for capitalist enterprises to be collectively owned. The growth of companies into corporations and conglomerates is an example of this, also the existence of hybrid businesses - partly private enterprise, partly state-owned. But wherever workers must work for wages and salaries, hiring themselves out to enrich others, this fact indicates the class exploitation of the worldwide capitalist system.

In the 1950s, there were even some cases where lowly Russian bureaucrats had set up illegally in business as entrepreneurs, posing as state enterprises, but pocketing the profits. That was of course illegal and they were in some cases jailed. But it was the exploitation of workers via the wages system which made this possible.

Quite legally it was then common for bureaucrats and managers of state enterprises to receive ‘pakety’ - brown envelopes, stuffed with cash, in addition to their regular salary. It was also quite common for them to steal from the enterprise’s ‘social funds’( as later Robert Maxwell and Philip Green, etc, stole from their firms’ pension funds). That too would not have been possible in a genuinely Socialist system, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.

The SPGB was challenging the current accepted ideas when in wartime it published a 1943 article, IS RUSSIA SOCIALIST?

It is true that with the development of capitalism and in different countries the form of ownership and control of capital may differ. But the form of ownership of capital is not the vital question. It may be owned by the small private trader, the large owner, the trust, or by the state – “the executive committee of the capitalist class”. But in all cases its existence proves the existence of capitalist society.
see RUSSIA SINCE 1917, 1948, p 85

Russia’s Unemployed – Fact or Fiction?

Another naive claim made by the Left in the 1930-40s was that in ‘Socialist’ Russia there was no unemployment. At that time workers in Britain and the USA were suffering from mass unemployment in the Great Depression, and the CP’s claims that Soviet Russia had abolished unemployment sounded like a remarkable achievement.

But official Soviet statistics (1936) showed a huge rate of labour turnover:

The peasant-workers, bewildered by their new surroundings, often short of food and adequate lodging, rootless and unsettled, wandered about in search of better things.
Alec Nove, AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE SOVIET UNION, Penguin 1969, p197

The state may have denied the fact of unemployment but clearly there were workers who disappeared from work. In the West, they could claim some sort of dole money. Not so in Stalin’s Russia. That period in Russia was one of immense working-class hardship: “1933 was the culmination of the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history” (ibid., p207).

Even in the late 1970s, Soviet workers who objected to “poor working conditions, low pay, high rates of injury at work, speed-up and increased productivity norms” found themselves victimised, often homeless as well as blacklisted, joining “the great army of Soviet unemployed, thrown outside the factor gates” (Open Letter, 18 Sept. 1977, see WORKERS AGAINST THE GULAG, ed. Viktor Haynes and Olga Semyonova, Pluto Press 1979, p26). Workers trying to set up a Free Trade Union Association or appeal to the authorities in Moscow found their efforts led to KGB incarceration in psychiatric hospitals.

The FTUA’s Open Letters appealing to the ILO, the UN, the TUC etc, were disregarded on the spurious grounds that the Soviet Union had its own ‘official trade unions’. But there were no records showing support for workers’ strikes and struggles from these ‘official unions’. The real function of those ‘official trade unions’ was to be a tool of management, enforcing government and Party policy, especially about raising output. That practice did not end with Stalin’s death in 1953. In the 1960s, Shelepin, the then head of the trade unions, appointed by the government, was previously Chairman of the KGB (ibid., p13).

British trade unions throughout the Soviet period, mostly dominated by CP leaders, routinely whitewashed what went on. For instance, Sir Walter Citrine, later TUC President, wrote during his wartime, third, visit to Russia:

The outstanding man in Russia today is undoubtedly Stalin. His power is immense. His authority unchallengeable, and the esteem in which he is held by the Russian people is only rivalled by the reverence that they feel for Lenin.
Sir Walter Citrine, IN RUSSIA NOW, 1942, p88

Fascism and ‘Communism’

The Left during the Thirties had opposed Hitler’s Nazism, especially as Hitler saw ‘communism’ as his enemy, and sent trade unionists and communists to prison camps. But in August 1939, a sudden switch of policy decreed by Moscow meant the CPGB had to reverse its policy. It was now to oppose the war as an imperialist war. Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler meant the Comintern – which bankrolled all Communist parties in the west – had issued new instructions. But after Hitler attacked ‘Socialist’ Russia in 1941, suddenly this was again a war to defend democracy.

The SPGB found itself alone in its principled opposition to war, whatever the pretext, and we exposed the unprincipled twists and turns of the CP and other Soviet propagandists, as in this post-war pamphlet:

Again the unlucky Communists were thrown into consternation, but with blitheful spirits and brazen effrontery they hastened to proclaim that the war had changed its ideals overnight into a war against Fascism and they sternly admonished bewildered workers to step up the war effort and convert themselves into cannon fodder as quickly as possible.
THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, 1948, p42

This U-turn, which found the CP giving its full support to Churchill’s wartime government and condemning workers striking for better wages, led to a fall in its membership and a serious loss of credibility, as expressed in this critical Branch Resolution:

That this Congress requests that a commission be set up to investigate the reasons for the recent loss in membership and loss of enthusiasm among members and to report on the reasons for any mistakes in policy which have contributed to this situation. Communist Party 18th Congress, Nov. 1945, see BRITISH COMMUNISM - A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY, ed. John Callaghan and Ben Harker, Manchester University Press 2011, p161

After Stalin’s death (1953), Khrushchev cautiously – in a ‘secret speech’, to a closed session of the CPSU’s Congress – denounced Stalin’s ‘cult of the individual’ with so many Party members wrongly attacked and purged. Sadly, he made no reference to Stalin’s and Party’s crimes against the workers and peasants, and limited his examples to the 1936-38 period. The full text was not published in Russia till 1988 [www.rferl.org].

In the 1950s with the Thaw in Russia, with visits from the West permitted, the CPSU was no longer all-powerful. Russians started to copy and circulate their writings in samizdat, unofficially, and dissidents became more active. Western- style fashions and pop music became popular, even in Soviet Russia. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia there were risings against Soviet authoritarianism – risings brutally repressed.

The Kremlin made efforts to modernise agriculture and motivate collective farmers but in vain. Crops repeatedly failed and huge imports of US grain were needed to stave off famine. Khrushchev’s confident prediction that in just a few years Russia would move on from Socialism to Communism was simply disregarded; although adopted as official Party policy, later Party apparatchiks shrugged this off.

After some decades of stagnation under a series of elderly Party secretaries, from Brezhnev to Andropov and his successors, Gorbachev emerged and started policies of glasnost and perestroika. Media openness and economic and social reform were the order of the day. Yet it was still a one-party state, and Gorbachev still defended the CPSU’s monopoly of power.

With his successor, Yeltsin, there came more political and economic changes. Huge state enterprises were auctioned off – apparently for all to have a share in. In fact, these quickly became the property of a minority of unscrupulous wheeler-dealers, often using gangs of thugs to force the surrender of property. This was a system of private enterprise, based on systematic and blatant corruption. And Yeltsin and his family were up to their necks in this corruption.

When he resigned, he handed power to Putin, apparently on conditions that meant full immunity from prosecution both for Yeltsin and for Putin. And Putin has made full use of this. He and his cronies have been responsible for the murders of many critics and opponents (Litvinenko, Magnitsky, Nemtsov etc.). The suppression of many independent media outlets, and the murders of a good many fine journalists, mean that Russia today has only a veneer of openness. The reality is that this is a brutal dictatorship, only play-acting at ‘democracy’.

There is talk of restoring statues of Stalin. The Russian Orthodox Church is building churches all over the place, with Putin’s full backing. With Orthodoxy there is growing hostility to any gay, or liberated lifestyles. (The Orthodox Church is as reactionary and hidebound and the American Bible Belt evangelism.) Greater Russian nationalism is the state ideology, justifying the treatment as second-class citizens of any ethnic minorities.

The Legacy of the 1917 Revolution

On the negative side, the Russian Revolution and its aftermath has led to more than a horrific loss of lives in Russia. It has led to the tragic misunderstandings which mean that, for most people, the mere mention of Marxism leads to horrified ideas of Orwell’s totalitarian “1984”. Socialism is still equated with state capitalism and one-party dictatorship. The ‘collapse of Communism’ is explained as due to the inefficiency of the Soviet economic system. And, for these on the Left, there is still a mistaken belief that in order to achieve Communism you first have to establish ‘Socialism’ as a necessary ‘transition stage’ between capitalism and ‘Communism’.

It also led to generations of trade unionists and the Labour Party finding their organisations taken over and made use of by devious, unscrupulous, Leftwing ‘entryists’. This Bolshevik policy weakened the unions, and made many workers feel distrustful.

As this article has shown, early on Socialists argued that in backward Russia, the 1917 revolution could not bring Socialism. We have clearly argued that, wherever workers must work for wages, this is indicative of the capitalist system. Unlike the CPGB, we never fell for the World War 11 rhetoric of a “war to defend democracy” – something which led the CP to support conscription and oppose strikes! We also exposed the naive notion that a ‘Great Man’ with an elitist ‘vanguard’ party is needed to lead the ‘ignorant masses’. And we have many times refuted Lenin’s claim to have established a ‘dictatorship of the Proletariat’, and Stalin’s claim that in Russia there was ‘Socialism in one country’.

Above all, we strongly opposed the CPGB with its bogus claims that in Soviet Russia’s one-party state, with its secret police, its purges, its prison camps, and its censorship, we should see a purer form of ‘democracy’. Likewise we opposed its specious argument that, where there are no individual capitalists, there could be no class struggle.

Finally, as we wrote in 1920: “There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism, and their organisation to establish it by democratic means”. Readers, take note!

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