The Russian Dictatorship

The Russian Dictatorship

During the past fourteen years the socialist movement throughout the world has been challenged to re-examine its theories and actions in the light of the Russian so-called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. It is worthwhile considering what the Bolsheviks have achieved and what their experience can teach us.

Russia before the war was a country of big but inefficiently farmed landed estates, side by side with millions of peasants impoverished by the high rents they had to pay to the landlords, and a growing population of industrial workers. Capitalist industry had made great strides (largely by the investment of foreign capital) and railways had been built bringing Russian grain to the outside world. Further development was hindered by the lack of a home market where the industrial products could be sold. Apart from a minority of capitalist farmers and landlords, the rural population (peasants and labourers) were too poor to buy industrial products in large quantities. Discontent was rife among the peasants, and the prolonged industrial depression and consequent unemployment in the towns during the early years of the Twentieth Century, provided the material for working-class trade union and political organisation. On top of this, the majority of the capitalists were also strongly opposed to the Czarist regime, because its repressive methods and undemocratic structure were out of keeping with the needs of capitalist industry and commerce.

The Russian Social Democratic Party was divided into two sections which ultimately became separate parties – the “Mensheviks” (a word meaning “Minority”) and the “Bolsheviks” (meaning “Majority”). The Mensheviks believed that Russia must pass through the normal stage of capitalist development and democratic government. The Bolsheviks urged the need for illegal organisation and activities, and as early as 1905 believed that the conquest of power in Russia might precede and inspire revolution in the advanced countries of Western Europe. (See “AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION”, translated from official Russian sources and published by Martin Lawrence, Ltd., London, 1928. Vol. 1. P, 31). Both sections of the Party put forward a programme of reforms.

The basis of the Bolshevik illegal organisation in the years before the War was the three “fundamental” slogans: a democratic republic; expropriation of the landowners; and the eight-hour day. Both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks believed in seeking seats in Parliament and were, in fact, represented in the “Dumas” which the Czar called as a promised step towards representative government.

When Russia entered the War in 1914, the Bolsheviks opposed it and voted against war credits. They strongly condemned all the so-called socialists who supported the War on the one side or the other, and, indeed, they solicited the assistance of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to gain publicity in England for their manifesto protesting against this treacherous conduct, (See “SOCIALIST STANDARD”, March 1915.)

After years of defeat at the front, Russia came to the stage where a continuance of the War became impossible. The backward industrial development of the country put it beyond her powers to conduct warfare in conflict with a highly industrialised power like Germany on the enormous scale of the 20th Century. Another factor was pro-German influences at the Russian Court. The hardships imposed both on the civilian population and on the troops through inadequate transport, defective equipment, scarcity of food, and high prices, together with the inefficiency and corruption of the ruling class, brought about conditions of revolt. There were constant strikes in the large towns, not only for higher wages, but also for peace. There were mutinies of troops at the front. Soldiers brought out against the workers at home openly sided with them. Crowds attacked the houses of Czarist Ministers.

In this situation the Czar, on March 11th, 1917, ordered the dissolution of the Duma, but the duma decided to carry on. (“Illustrated History,” Vol. II, p.566.). After the revolt of a number of regiments and a few days of confused fighting in the streets, the Czar abdicated on Match 15th, 1917 (dates according to the English calendar). A Provisional Government was formed by the Liberals and other capitalists and landowners’ representatives in the Duma, together with Kerensky, who, as Minister of Justice, was supposed to represent the workers and peasants. (“ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, “Vol. I, pp. 86 and 98.) At the same time Councils of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers (“Soviets”) were being formed.

The Provisional Government was Monarchist, although convinced that the Czar must go, and was in favour of continuing the War.

At first the Soviets were largely controlled by delegates hostile to the Bolsheviks, and they gave general support to the openly capitalist Provisional Government.

Kerensky, Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government, was Vice-President of the Soviet and was the connecting link between the Soviet and the committee of the Duma, the two bodies by which the Provisional Government was organised (see “LEAVES FROM A RUSSIAN DIARY.” By Pitirim Sorokin. Kerensky’s Secretary, published by Hurst & Blackett, London p.21.) The Soviet of Workmen and Soldiers had, from the first, established the right to hold its sittings in the Hall of the Duma, where the Duma Committee also met, (Sorokin, pp. 17 and 53.0

In May, 1917, the Government became a coalition, in which the avowedly capitalist parties had a majority. (“ILLUSTRATED HISTORY,” vol I, p.152). Then in July Kerensky became head of a Government containing a majority of so-called socialists and supported by the soviets.

The fact that the Kerensky Government had the backing of the Soviets was of decisive importance. Because of that the Bolsheviks were for the time being unable to make headway against the Government. The position was entirely changed later on when the Bolsheviks obtained control of the soviets, but until then the Soviets were used to suppress Bolshevik activities.

For example, in June, 1917, the Bolsheviks minority called for an armed demonstration of soldiers and workmen with the slogan, “Down with the Capitalistic Government! Down with the War! All Power to the Soviets!”. The counter proclamation appealing to soldiers and workmen to abstain, was issued jointly by the Peasants’ Soviet and the workmans’ and Soldiers’ Soviet (Sorokin, p.54). The latter appeal was successful and the Bolsheviks called off their demonstration.

It was on the motion of Mensheviks that a Joint Conference of the two Soviets (July 3rd-5th, 1917) passed a resolution recognising the supreme authority of the Soviet, and denying membership to those who would repudiate to try to overthrow it (Sorokin, p.630. troops called from the front to supress a Bolshevik armed rising acted with the support of the Soviets. They were claimed to be protecting “the Government and the Soviet” against the Bolshevik minority. (Sorokin, p. 70)

Later, when the Government had to deal with the revolt of Korniloff and his military supporters it was to the Soviets that Kerensky turned for help. (Sorokin, p. 87.)

During this period, with the War dragging on and with the former hardships aggravated by army officers attempting to seize power, the Bolshevik Party, in spite of the persecution by the Kerensky Government, was carrying on active propaganda in favour of peace, the giving of land to the peasants, etc. At first the Bolsheviks had demanded the calling of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly to decide on the future constitution of Russia. Then in April 1017, they were popularising the slogan, “All power to the Soviets”, although this would have meant at that time power falling into the hands of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who had a majority on the Soviets (“ILLUSTRATED HISTORY”, vol. II, p 203). In July the Bolsheviks, believing that there was no longer a chance of splitting these groups from the openly capitalist parties, abandoned their slogan “All power to the Soviets”, only to revive it again two months later (“ILLUSTRATED HISTORY,” pp. 303 and 304). In September, 1917, they were even prepared to support a Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Government responsible to the Soviets, on the condition (in the words of Lenin) of “absolute liberty of agitation and the calling of the Constituent Assembly at the date fixed, or even within a shorter period”. This offer came to nothing.

In the meantime, owing to the general discontent, Bolshevik propaganda made continual headway. The whole political situation was transformed when they managed to get the support of a majority of the soviet delegates, thus coming into possession of the most representative political machinery of Russia at the time.

On September 9th a Bolshevik was elected President of the Kronstadt Soviet. On October 1st the Moscow Soviet elected a Bolshevik majority. On October 8th Trotsky was elected President of the Petrograd Soviet, which on October 15th, demanded the transfer of all power to the Soviets, and the conclusion of an immediate peace. During October there were seizures of land by the peasants all over Russia. On October 22nd the Petrograd Soviet formed a military Revolutionary Committee to control the “Red guards” of soldiers and armed workers. Faced with this new situation the central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, on October 23rd, accepted a resolution moved by Lenin in favour of armed insurrection.

The all-Russian Soviet Congress was arranged to meet on November 7th, 1917. On that day the Petrograd Soviet (with a Bolshevik majority) declared in favour of the overthrow of the Government. At the all-Russian Soviet Congress there was 670 delegates, of whom 390 (a clear majority) were Bolsheviks and 179 were Left Social revolutionaries who, in the main, supported the Bolsheviks. The Congress passed resolutions moved by Lenin in favour of peace, the abolition of landowners’ right to possession of the land, and the setting up of a “temporary” workers’ and peasants’ government pending the summoning of a Constituent Assembly (p. 442). Congress approved the “victorious insurrection of the workers and the garrison of Petrograd” and declared that “the Congress takes all power into its hands.” (p. 431)

On November 9th a victorious rising took place in Moscow, inspired by the events in Petrograd.

The Bolsheviks, within a comparatively short space of time, consolidated their position, based upon the support of majorities in the Soviets.

The significance of these episodes of Russian history in 1917 is the one Marx so constantly stressed, viz., the need to gain control of the political machinery. The Bolsheviks were enabled to do this through controlling the soviets. (The duma, elected on a limited franchise, which excluded most of the workers and peasants, was less representative and less popular than the Soviets, and had accordingly fallen into the background soon after the overthrow of the Czar.)

Trotsky has brought out the point well in his “THE LESSONS OF OCTOBER, 1917” (Labour Publishing Co., Ltd., London 1925). Writing of the struggle during 1917 between the Bolshevik minority and the Kerensky Government, he says:-

The struggle between us and the compromisers centred around the constitutional position of the soviets. In the minds of the people the soviets were the source of all the power. Kerensky, Tseretelli, and Skobelev came from the Soviets. But we, to, were closely connected with the Soviets, for or cry was “All Power to the Soviets”. The Bourgeoisie considered that they inherited their rights from the State Duma. The compromisers inherited theirs from the soviets, and so did we; but they wanted to get rid of the Soviets, and we wanted to transfer all power to the Soviets. The compromisers could not yet break the Soviets, so they tried to make a bridge, as quickly as they could, from them to a Parliamentary system. And this was why they convened the democratic Conference and created a Preliminary Parliament…”

“But it was our interest, too, to take advantage of the constitutional position of the Soviets. At the end of the democratic Conference we forced the compromisers to agree to convene the Second Congress of Soviets. Convening the congress embarrassed them very much; they could not oppose it, because then they would have given up the constitutional position of the Soviets; yet they could help seeing this Congress –on account of the way it was composed –promised them very little good.

“…It was one thing to make an armed insurrection under the mere naked cry of seizing power for the party, and quite another thing to prepare an insurrection – and carry it out – under the cry of protecting the rights of the Congress of Soviets
”. (pp. 63 and g4. Italics ours.)

With regard to the peculiar position of Russia, a backward country overwhelmed by the strain of war, Trotsky says:-

The first necessity was an army that did not want to fight. The whole course of the revolution would have been changed, if at the moment of the revolution there had been a broken and discontented peasant army of many millions, and this applies specially to the period from February to October…It is only because of this that the experiment with the Petrograd garrison was successful; and that experiment determined the October victory.” (pp 67 and 68.)

The “experiment” referred to by Trotsky was a decision of the Petrograd Soviet in September, 1917, opposing the removal from Petrograd of troops garrisoned there. This was, says Trotsky:-

really an armed resurrection…armed though bloodless…an insurrection of the Petrograd regiments against the provisional government…under the cry of defending and protecting the Second Congress of Soviets.” (p. 61.)

Trotsky described this as an “almost constitutional armed insurrection”:-

We call this insurrection “Constitutional” because it grew from the “normal” relations of the existing division of power. It happened more than once, even when the compromisers were in power, in the Petrograd Soviet, that the Soviet examined or amended decisions of the Government. This was, as it were, part of the constitution under the regime named after Kerensky. When the Bolsheviks got an upper hand in the Petrograd Soviet we only went along with the system of double power and widened its application. We took it on ourselves to revise the order sending the troops to the front, and so we disguised the actual fact of the insurrection of the Petrograd garrison under the tradition and precedents and techniques of the constitutional duplication of authority.” (p. 62.)

It only remains to add that when the Constituent Assembly met on 5th January, 1918, a body which the Bolsheviks had themselves demanded, they promptly dissolved it on finding that a majority of its delegates were opposed to them. (ILLUSTRATED HISTORY.” Vol. II, p. 494)

Having been voted into power on their programme of “Peace, Bread and Land,” by peasants and workers who wanted these things but who in the overwhelming majority knew nothing of Socialism and cared less, the Bolshevik Government was then faced with the problem of using dictatorship to establish Socialism. We will now see how they fared in this, their main purpose.

The Work of the Bolshevik Government

The Bolsheviks kept their pledge to confirm the peasant seizure of the land and to stop the war. They dealt energetically with one after another of the attempts, fostered by foreign governments, to overthrow them. They unified Russia. They tackled the 1921 famine. Then when their political opposition was so firmly established that attacks upon them ceased they set about their attempt to apply their theories to industry and agriculture. Their great and unsolved problem has been one which arises from the condition of Russia and of its people, that the peasants – the great majority of the population – did not and do not stand or want Socialism. They wanted the land, indeed they were fast taking it before the Bolsheviks obtained control. A large majority of the town workers also were and still are lacking in an understanding of Socialism

Every step by the Bolshevik Party that has ignored these conditions has been brought sharply up against the solid opposition of the non-socialist majority. It is in order to emphasise a very important lesson, and in no spirit of belittling the Bolsheviks for what they have done or what they aimed at doing, that we have insisted from the first that it was impossible for them to institute Socialism in Russia. Every new development – from the New Economic Policy of 1921 to the Five Year Plan of 1928 – has served to demonstrate the inescapable truth of our case, Russian industry and agriculture have developed and are developing rapidly under the Bolshevik Government but the growth is not the growth of Socialism to which the Communists have looked forward but the growth – on the lines suitable to Russia and to the 20th Century – of a great capitalist power, a formidable competitor to other capitalist powers in the markets of the world.

In the years 1917-1921 the Communists talked of a quick transition to Socialism. Now – fifteen years later – they are still promising Socialism, but not immediately. Now it is only to be after the second Five-Year Plan! But none of the chief characteristics of Capitalism have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing. Good are not produced for use but for sale to those who have the money to buy, as in other capitalist countries. The workers are not members of a social system in which the means of wealth production are socially owned and controlled, but are wage-earners in the employ of the State Capitalist concerns, semi-State concerns, and private companies. Russia differs from other countries in the fact that the State and semi-State concerns greatly outnumber the purely private concerns. But the difference is not fundamental; it is only one of form. The Russian State concerns are no more “socially owned” than is the British Post Office or the Central Electricity Board, or any private company. In both countries these enterprises are forms of investment for large and small capitalists, although in Russia where Capitalism is fully undeveloped the investors are so far in the main small investors. The Russian Government estimated that it would borrow in all £600 million in order to finance the first Five year Plan. These figures which were published in an official Russian publication “THE BANK FOR RUSSIAN TRADE REVIEW” (London, June 1929), have in fact even exceeded. In 1931 and 1932 alone the estimate provided for the borrowing of £158 million and £275 million (“Review”, January, 1932). This money has been raised almost entirely inside Russia, the investors receiving interest at relatively high rates – 8 per cent., 9 per cent., 10 per cent., or more. In the Budget for 1932, the “Expenses on State loans” figure at £100 million (“Review”, January, 1932). In addition, the Russian Government has secured commercial credits abroad to the amount of £200 million or more, while inside the country there are the foreign Concession Companies which make big profits but are small in total capital as compared with the State concerns. The feature of profit-making extends like-wise to the Russian Co-operative concerns and to the Government farms. The rich and poor peasants who enter the collective farms receive interest on the amount of capital they provide in the shape of land and equipment, cattle, etc. By recent decrees individual peasants inside and outside the Collective Farms are allowed to sell their grain, meat and livestock at ordinary market prices after they have sold fixed quantities, at fixed prices to the State. (Bulletin of the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee, May 26th, 1932.)

In the factories, objectionable methods of stimulating output (piece rates, premium bonuses, etc.) have been copied from Europe and America. How else could Russia hope to compete on the world markets? Great inequality of income exists between the different grades of factory workers, civil servants, technicians and administrative officials. This tendency is for this inequality to increase.

As part of the First Five Year Plan, Russian imports and exports were both to be increased enormously. The planned imports in 1932-33 (in pre-war prices0 were to be 25 per cent. Greater than in 1913, and the exports about 32 per cent. Greater. (See “Soviet Union Year Book.2 1929, p.291.)

The “REVIEW OF THE BANK FOR RUSSIAN TRADE” (London, August, 1931) says:-

It is not the aim of the Soviet authorities to make the U.S.S.R. self-sufficient. On the contrary, it is their full intention to utilise all the advantages of the international division of labour and international technical co-operation”.

This means that Russia will become more and more closely bound up with the conditions of world trade. Indeed the depression of 1931, by depressing the prices at which Russian exports could be sold, seriously deranged the production plans and upset the anticipated exports and imports.

The Bolsheviks are carrying on the task of adjusting Russian agriculture and industry to the needs of the capitalist market at home and abroad, which was begun under the Czar’s Government before the War. Owing to the expansion of Russian Capitalism and to the protective measures of the Bolshevik Government, the standard of living of the Russian workers has been raised above the pre-war level, and working conditions have been improved, but it is not for that that the Bolsheviks and their supporters abroad claim justification for the Dictatorship. The Dictatorship – a Dictatorship of a ruling clique, not of the working class – was to be judged by its usefulness in bringing about Socialism. Judged by that standard it fails.

The Russian workers have been urged to accept poor conditions because of the promise of a bright future when the Five-Year Plan, or its successor, produces Socialism. The truth is that Russia will not have Socialism until Capitalism has first developed and until the workers in Russia and in the advanced capitalist nations have reached the pint of understanding it and being prepared to take political action consciously for that purpose. Trotsky has recently admitted that “European Capitalism is far nearer to a Socialist revolution than the Soviet Union is to a National Socialist Society.” (“THE MILITANT,” New York, March 12th, 1932.)

The tragic side of the Russian experiment is the effect upon the workers and upon the Bolsheviks themselves. Faced with the many and difficult economic and political problems inseparable both from Dictatorship and from the administration of a backward capitalist country, they have had to use violent means in order to retain power. In order to justify their actions they have described “State Capitalism” as “Socialism”. Instead of teaching the principles of Socialism and showing the workers what must yet be done before they can introduce social ownership of the means of production and distribution, the Bolshevik Government and Party have emulated the Labour leaders in Western Europe, who describe Nationalisation and Public Utility Corporations as Socialism. They have had to introduce the customary capitalist methods of stimulating output by the use of bonuses, etc,. but in addition, they have descended to the shameful practice of disguising the objectionable nature of these by calling them “Socialist competition”. Unable – like all the “Labour” Governments elected on a reform programme – to eradicate the class conflict inherent in the capitalist system, they have been faced with constant propaganda or forcible opposition, and have dealt with it like other Governments of capitalist States by resorting to imprisonment, suppression, exile and death. A socialist movement will grow in Russia, but it will come from the workers, not from the Russian dictators. The revolutionary fervour, as in past revolutions, has a tendency to work itself out as time goes on. The revolutionisers of the beginning are followed by waves of more and more reactionary successors.

Neither in their views, nor in their belief – now rapidly losing the hold it at first gained abroad – about the possibility of imposing Socialism by dictatorship, have the Bolsheviks added anything to the knowledge possessed by Marx. Marx’s words, from the 1867 preface to the First Edition of Volume I of “CAPITAL”, still remain unchallengeable:-

One nation can and should learn from others. And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement… It can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.” (Swan Sonnenschein Edition, p. xix.)

The Bolshevik attempt to usher in Socialism by “legal enactments” and by “bold leaps” before the economic conditions were ripe, and before the mass of the population desired socialism, has been a total failure. In course of time that failure will become obvious to the workers inside and outside Russia

(From QUESTIONS OF THE DAY, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, July, 1932 pp 48-58)

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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


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.