THE 1917 BOLSHEVIK COUP D’ETAT -
ITS CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES:
100 YEARS OF SOCIALIST OPPOSITION – part 1
We aim to show how after 1917 the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) used Marxist analysis to answer Lenin’s followers and the propaganda and myths about Bolshevism; to show why the Russian Revolution of 1917 could not have brought Socialism; and to attack Lenin’s damaging and dangerous legacy, faithfully copied in Britain by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – the idea of vanguardism, an elitist vanguard party, with divisive opportunist tactics, especially the damaging tactic of entryism practised by the CP in the Labour Party and the trade unions, and the CP's use of a variety of Left ‘Front’ organisations.
The SPGB also points out the huge damage done to the Socialist cause by misleading talk of ‘Socialism’ as a transition stage to ‘Communism’, and confusing nationalisation – state capitalism – with Socialism. Above all, there is the fact that the legacy of the Soviet Union means that to many, even now, Marxism - Socialism - is written off, equated with the worst sort of totalitarian dictatorship.
The SPGB from the outset was clear in setting out our object – Socialists work to establish a system of society based on the common ownership of the means of producing wealth, democratically controlled by and in the interests of the whole community. That object, common ownership, cannot be confused with state ownership and is clearly stated in all our publications.
In our DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES we explain the basis of the class struggle, the conflict of interests between "those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess”, and the role of the machinery of government in defending the interests of the property-owning classes. And we echoed Marx in stating that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.”
The 1917 Revolution
The SPGB argued that as Russia was so backward and lacked Socialist class consciousness, the 1917 revolution could not bring Socialism. We asked: was this huge mass of people, mostly illiterate peasants, really ready for a socialist revolution? The answer had to be no.
In August 1918 the SPGB published an article, THE REVOLUTION IN RUSSIA - WHERE IT FAILS:
Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is “No!”
[SOCIALIST STANDARD, reprinted in RUSSIA SINCE 1917, SPGB pamphlet, 1948]
We attacked the notion that an elitist ‘vanguard’ party is needed to lead the ‘ignorant masses’. And we refuted Lenin’s claim to have established a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and Stalin’s later claim that in Russia there was ‘Socialism in one country’. Above all, we strongly opposed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) with its false and misleading claims that we should see a purer form of ‘democracy’ in Soviet Russia’s one-party totalitarian dictatorship, with its secret police, its purges, its prison camps, and its censorship.
Likewise we opposed their argument that, where there are no individual capitalists, there could be no capitalism. As Marx argued, wage labour presupposes capital, and vice versa. Capital can be and often is owned collectively and, even with state ownership, the workers are still exploited wage-slaves.
Lenin’s theory of revolution
Marx and Engels had argued that the working class needed to emancipate themselves - their idea was of a bottom-up, not top-down, revolution, of class self-emancipation.
Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class... [The revolutionary class is] the class that holds the future in its hands ... The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.
[THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, 1848]
The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself
[Engels - PREFACE TO THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, 1888]
That the emancipation of the workers must be conquered by the working classes themselves.
[Marx, Preamble to the Rules of the Working-Men’s International]
In August 1920 the SPGB argued that:
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 SINCE 1917]
But Lenin declared that the Russian workers were too disorganised, illiterate and ignorant to be able to organise for a revolution:
If Socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least five hundred years.
[John Reed, TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, 1926]
Lenin was an elitist, and his elitism did not apply only to the Russian workers – he held that view generally. As he was supposed to be a Marxist this elitism takes some explaining.
It was his contempt for the abilities and revolutionary potential of the working class that led him also to insist that there had to be a period of transition between capitalism and communism. Lenin anticipated that a socialist revolution in backward Russia could only be chaotic, given the actual conditions of Russian workers at the time.
The majority of the Russian people were still peasants – illiterate, superstitious, religious, patriotic, and focused on their narrow self-interest. Russia’s industrial working class was still just a small minority concentrated in a few industries and major cities, and sectors like mining.
The industrial working class was still just a small minority concentrated in a few industries and major cities, and sectors like mining.
Because of the Tsarist autocracy, with its secret police, the Okhrana, with its spies and double agents, it was almost impossible to build up any sort of political organisation. The best that had been achieved by the end of the 19th Century was to establish small circles, isolated from each other – and isolated from the workers. The Narodniks had tried ‘going to the people’ but this had been suicidal and a waste of time. Peasants either would not listen to these activists or, if they did, they promptly reported them to the authorities, to be rounded up as dangerous subversives and sent to jail or Siberia. Some turned to desperate terrorism, and plotted assassinations.
Lenin’s idea of a conspiratorial vanguard party led by an elite leadership of professional revolutionaries was meant to get round these conditions. However if you dig into where he got this idea, you find that Lenin was not the first to think this way. Among his Russian predecessors, a very significant influence was Peter Tkachev [d. 1886].
When Lenin was in Switzerland he was helped by another exile, a book collector, Bonch-Bruyevich, who had a library with a collection of radical books and pamphlets; it was he who recommended Tkachev’s writings to Lenin, who then recommended the “magnificent Tkachev” to all his associates. One cannot read Lenin’s book “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?”  without recognising in it ideas, even whole passages, lifted from Tkachev.
And after the revolution, that influence was acknowledged. Mitskevich, a Russian historian, wrote in a Soviet journal, PROLETARSKAYA REVOLUTSYIA:
It is an irrefutable fact that the Russian Revolution proceeded to a significant degree according to the ideas of Tkachev, with the seizure of power made at a time determined in advance by a revolutionary party which was organized on the principle of strict centralization and discipline. And this party having seized power is working in many respects as Tkachev advised.
Albert L Weeks, THE FIRST BOLSHEVIK, 1968, n. p.viii
Why do we spend time on this? Does it matter that Lenin borrowed his most important theory from another? It would not matter if this was the only case where Lenin can be shown to be simply a magpie, and if his admiring followers in Russia and around the world had not fallen for the notion that he was a deep-thinking genius, a great man. He clearly was not. He was far from being an original thinker.
Take for instance the titles and themes of his main works: all copied from others!
1.The development of capitalism in Russia – this echoed Marx’s Capital;
1.What is to be done? - the title of a utopian novel by Chernyshevsky;
2.Iskra – this was the title of a defunct radical journal;
3.Pravda – the same title as Trotsky’s well-established Menshevik journal;
4.The State and Revolution – cf. Tkachev’s work REVOLUTION AND THE STATE.
Lenin's vanguard theory, the SPGB has always argued, was definitely not Marxist. Besides Russians like Tkachev, there were people within the German Social Democrat party who argued along elitist lines. But Marx and Engels had strongly opposed this, objecting on principle: they wrote, in September 1879, an Open Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke et al:
For almost 40 years we have stressed the class struggle as the most immediate driving power in history and, in particular, the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social upheaval; therefore it is impossible for us to ally ourselves with people who want to eliminate this class struggle from the movement. When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle-cry: the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.
We cannot ally ourselves, therefore, with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must first be liberated from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.
Marx and Engels saw this matter as an issue of principle so important that they saw no option but to break ties with those German elitists who saw the masses as “too ignorant to free themselves” – those people who argued that “the working class of itself is incapable of its own emancipation” (ibid.).
Contrast this with Lenin’s position. Lenin quoted Kautsky who wrote:
“Socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within it spontaneously.” (NEUE ZEIT, XX, I no 3 p79, 1901-1902, quoted by Lenin in WHAT IS TO BE DONE)
And in WHAT IS TO BE DONE? Lenin took Kautsky’s argument even further:
The workers can acquire political class consciousness only from without, that is, only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of the relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of the relationships between all classes and the state and the government – the sphere of the inter-relations between all classes.
This was of course absolute nonsense! Class consciousness cannot be derived from some abstract “sphere of the inter-relations between all classes”! And just what on earth did Lenin mean by “the sphere of the relationships between all classes and the state and the government”? The more you read it the worse it gets! It just doesn’t make any sort of sense.
But the gist of it was this: Lenin, like Kautsky, like the British Fabians, and many others, all believed that the horny-handed sons of toil, people who worked for a living, were simply incapable of thinking about their class situation, and then reaching class-conscious conclusions and organising themselves, collectively, in their own interests.
That belief is obviously untrue. For instance, the SPGB’s class-conscious and politically organised founder members in 1904 were all workers. And even in modern Britain, even with university education so widespread, it is not from our higher education that we derived our class-consciousness.
Class consciousness means simply a basic understanding of how the wages system works; how the production for profit system means exploitation; how it is a rip-off system – with workers getting paid just enough to get by on while the profits derived from their unpaid labour are shared out among the bosses and the parasite class. This awareness is forced on workers by their experiences in everyday dealings with employers and landlords, and it is this awareness, this understanding, this consciousness that leads them to organise in trade unions and political parties
In August 1918 the SPGB had asked the right question: could backward Russia possibly achieve Socalism?
Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is “No!”
In April 1917, on Lenin’s return to Russia on the German sealed train, he was simply not expecting to be getting into a revolution. True, there had been a rising – the February protest in Petrograd about food rations, which had led to the fall of Tsarism.
But in April 1917, Lenin declared that Russia was too backward for a proletarian revolution:-
The idea that the Russian proletariat is the chosen revolutionary proletariat is absolutely alien to us. We know only too well that the Russian proletariat is less organised, prepared and class conscious than the proletariat of other countries. ... Russia is a peasant country, and one of the most backward of European countries. Socialism cannot triumph there immediately... but our revolution may become the prologue to the world socialist revolution, bring it a step nearer.
It could be his understanding that the social and economic preconditions for Socialism simply were not there that led Lenin to develop his ‘transition’ theory - the idea of a halfway house between capitalism and communism, which he chose to call Socialism. This transition stage would be characterised by state ownership of the means of production.
Of course, Lenin knew as well as anyone that Marx and Engels had not distinguished between socialism and communism. They used both terms. But Lenin simply could not see a Socialist revolution as a realistic possibility. So he argued there simply had to be a transition stage so that the peasants and workers could become educated and disciplined, and only after that proceed in an organised, orderly way to the higher stage – Communism.
Among the Russian Social-Democrats, Lenin had a reputation as a Marxist theorist. So if his transition stage theory was to have a chance, he needed to be able to assert this was what Marx and Engels had written – that was what would give it legitimacy!
A transition stage
Lenin's book THE STATE AND REVOLUTION was mostly unfinished when he published it in the summer of 1917. It consists mainly of passages copied out from Marx and Engels, with Lenin’s marginal notes and comments added in. Here is the passage he had pounced on in THE CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME. This was a letter Engels had sent in 1875 to the German party, criticising their latest manifesto. Lenin took this very short passage as if it were gospel, and he worried over it and paraphrased it, and so got it to say what Lenin wanted
Here is that passage from Engels’s letter:
Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
And from this very short passage, Lenin discovered all sorts of interesting conclusions could be drawn. There were three stages to consider:
* The state is needed by the bourgeoisie – in capitalism.
* The state is not necessary and it withers away – in communist society.
* But in between, in a transition stage between capitalism and communism, the state is needed by the proletariat – which meant a dictatorship of the proletariat, a coercive state of a transitional type, but one which was “not a state in the proper sense of the word”.
A state which is not a state? A transitional type of state? One which was “not really a state” at all – “in the proper sense of the word”? Maybe all this lost something in translation but this suggests Lenin was simply talking through his hat!
The state is an instrument of class rule, serving the interests of a dominant class. That is what it is for – to protect the interests of the property-owning class, of the haves against the have-nots. So long as a society is class-divided, so long there will be a state, a class instrument of political power.
Outside Lenin’s imagination, there is no halfway house, no transitional state, no state which is at the same time both a state and “not a state in the proper sense of the word”. Logically and practically, Lenin’s argument simply does not make sense. In reality, wherever you find a class-divided society, there would always be a state apparatus whose main function is to protect the property and other class interests of the minority, property-owning, class.
Again and again the SPGB has argued that, since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 as a minority, they could only hold power by force, i.e. as a dictatorship. In THE STATE AND REVOLUTION (summer 1917), Lenin argued:
The proletariat needs state power, a centralised organisation of force, an organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population – the peasants, the petty-bourgeoisie and semi-proletarians – in the work of organising a socialist economy. By educating the workers’ party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organising the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people.
To Lenin it seemed that establishing socialism was a matter of organisation, of leading and guiding the masses, and educating them till communism could be seen as a practical option. But meanwhile the state would have to continue with compulsion, violence, force – crushing any opponents - in short, as a dictatorship.
So, just weeks after the October coup (on 20 December 1917), he set up the Cheka, and continued the work of the Tsarist state with their secret police, spying on workers, strict censorship, and eliminating (liquidating) all those thought to be politically unreliable.
As we all know, the 1917 revolution led to decades, over half a century, of this ‘transition’. It became widely accepted that state capitalism was the same as ‘socialism’ and that ‘communism’ meant a nightmare of a one-party police state, a totalitarian 1984 dictatorship.
To sum up: both of Lenin’s main deviations from Marxism – his vanguard party elitism and his idea of a transition period between capitalism and communism – these were both due to his awareness of the fact that Russia was too backward economically, the workers and peasants too lacking in class consciousness, for Socialism to be a practical possibility at the time. The objective and subjective preconditions for Socialism simply were not there.
Lenin’s notion of a Blanquist political coup, a putsch, as being the way to open the door to Socialism was also mistaken. As Engels had argued:
Experience had shown that the time of “surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness” was past.
Introduction, 1895, to Marx’s THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE
The SPGB argues that the necessary preconditions for Socialism are: first, the workers having a clear understanding of our class position, of the class conflict at the heart of the wages system, and of how we are an exploited class of wage-slaves, condemned to lives of insecurity, poverty and misery; then, organising ourselves politically as Socialists so as to be able to bring an end to the capitalist system of class exploitation; and all this presupposes another important precondition – capitalist economic development with advanced large-scale manufacture and capitalist agriculture.
In 1924, in an article just after Lenin’s death, the SPGB stated that
Today Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism. The Communists, in their ignorance, may howl at this, but Russia cannot escape her destiny.
Today, a century later, we can see how right this Socialist and Marxist Party, the SPGB, was, all those years ago. That is something we have earned the right to celebrate, not just to commemorate.
To be continued.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.