What went wrong in Russia?

The Russian revolution of October 1917 was the most important event of the twentieth century. It changed the face of history. The Russian workers, organised and led by the Bolshevik Party, smashed the state power of the capitalists and the rich. They broke up the bosses’ police force and bureaucracy. All armed power and authority passed into the hands of the working people. They set themselves the task of building a world socialist society, based on mutual co-operation and production for need instead of profit.

But the revolution never finished its job. The task of building socialism still lies ahead of us.

Under Stalin in the 1920’s and 30s, Russia became a monstrous caricature of socialism. Instead of being a society controlled by the workers it became a totalitarian dictatorship. Workers were not allowed any freedom to express their ideas and had no control over their workplaces, their communities or their country.

The so-called socialist state was not used to protect and fight for people’s rights but to spy on people and make sure there was no opposition to Stalin and his government. Millions of people, including socialists, were sent to die in labour camps if they disagreed with what was happening.

So are the pessimists right when they say socialism is an impossible dream? Is capitalism just something we have to learn to live with? Will all revolutions start with hope but end in tyranny?

Workers’ power

In 1917 the backbone of the Russian Revolution was the Soviets. These started out as councils made up from delegates of workers, peasants and soldiers. They came together to organise the fight for freedom – against the Tsar (the Russian King), against the factory owners, against police persecution and against war.

They were real democracy in action. If your delegates broke their promises or did not argue what you wanted, you could get them out immediately and replace them with someone who did! But they weren’t just talking shops. Decisions would be implemented by them as they were made, whether it was a call for a demonstration, a strike, an occupation or the setting up of armed workers’ defence to challenge the Tsar’s police.

It was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who first realised that Soviets could be the basis for a whole new society once the capitalist class had been overthrown. They could be the foundation of a totally new type of state, where workers could directly plan and implement decisions on what was produced and how it was distributed. They could do this better than a ‘normal’ parliament which is elected only every five years and can then break all of its promises without being held to account.

The new workers’ state pulled Russia out of the bloody First World War which the rich were fighting for profits. They gave the land to the peasants and the factories to the workers. They introduced free abortion, divorce on demand, and tried to set up decent public dining, laundry and nursery facilities, to allow women to have control of their lives instead of being treated like men’s property. Homosexuality was legalised and racist anti-Jewish groups were suppressed .They sacked army officers and let the soldiers elect new ones. Their aim was to rotate all government duties so that, as Lenin put it, “all may, for a time become ‘bureaucrats’ and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat”.

Civil war

But the Bolsheviks faced serious problems. Russia was a very backward country: 70% of production was based on farming using extremely old-fashioned methods. Only 20% of the population could read or write, limiting office tasks to a minority of the population. The industry of the country had been totally drained by the War.

Even worse, in the middle of 1918 armies from 14 different capitalist countries invaded Russia. They wanted to crush the new workers’ state before it could get off its feet. All production had to be geared towards defence rather than development. Compromises that normally would never have been contemplated had to be brought in to defend the state. Plans to elect officers were temporarily scrapped, because they needed military expertise immediately! This meant re-appointing former Tsarist officers to the army, under armed guard. Those workers most committed to socialism were the first to join the Red Army and go to war to defend the revolution. Thou sands of committed revolutionaries were wiped out. To meet the needs of the desperate war effort, the running of the factories was centralised in the hands of appointed officials rather than elected delegates. Again this often meant ex-Tsarist officials. But these measures were seen as temporary, necessary evils to be reversed as soon as possible.

World revolution

The Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, defeated the counter-revolutionaries and drove them out. But Russia was devastated. Worse still, the revolution was isolated.

The Bolsheviks had always realised that Russia could not achieve socialism on its own. The most urgent task was to spread the revolution world wide. There would need to be successful revolutions in more advanced countries, like Germany and Britain, so that Russia could get technical help. If the workers in the advanced countries could take power then they would be able to send aid to Russia. They would be able to make steel for new railroads, they could help Russia set up new factories, engineers could come and help them build up industry.

Without the revolution spreading, the Russian revolution would go down to defeat. That is why they formed the Communist International. It was made up of Communist Parties all over the world who were trying to spread the revolution.

But no help came. In Germany the revolution after the war was betrayed by the Social Democratic Party. Like the Labour Party in Britain today they were reformists. They opposed revolution and just tried to get a few reforms by working within the system. The workers missed their chance to take power.

In Italy the workers seized control of the factories and the peasants took over the land. They wanted revolution. But their leaders in the reformist Socialist Party said no. The workers paid a terrible price for this missed opportunity. Once the capitalists could see that the Socialist Party were not going to make a revolution, they put Mussolini’s Fascists in power.

Only in Hungary did the workers take power for a short time, but they were crushed by invading armies. The Russian workers were alone.

It was the isolation of the revolution that led to its defeat. Some people say this was inevitable that all power corrupts and so the revolution was bound to go wrong. But what these pessimists ignore is that the revolution started to go wrong because of real practical problems.

‘Socialism in one country’

The failure of revolution to spread to the West meant that Russia had to trade and do deals with the capitalists and make all sorts of compromises just to keep things going. A whole new layer of middlemen emerged, and for them compromise was not a necessary evil but a whole way of life. These people became the new bureaucrats. They looked to Stalin to protect their privileges. And they fought a long and bloody campaign to take over the Bolshevik party and the workers state.

Stalin banned all opposition and persecuted all the real socialists in the party. The leaders who had made the revolution were framed up, banished and killed one by one until only Stalin was left. The bureaucrats reversed the socialist measures that had been taken after the revolution. Abortion and homosexuality were banned again. Women were told ‘your place is in the family’. The Soviets were turned into bodies to rubber-stamp Stalin’s orders. Previously the Bolshevik Party was full of internal debate and discussion. But now the Chief demanded obedience and nothing more.

The idea that only world-wide revolution could build socialism was abandoned. The Stalinists argued that socialism could be built in one country alone – Russia. This was rubbish, but the last thing the bureaucrats wanted was revolution or upheaval in another country upsetting their relations with foreign capitalists.

In time Stalin ordered the Communist International not to fight for socialist revolution in their own countries but make deals with capitalist parties who he thought would be friendly to Russia. To keep capitalist governments friendly Stalin got Communist Parties to sabotage workers’ revolutions in countries like France in 1934 and during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. In this way he blocked the one thing that could have saved the Russian Revolution – more revolutions abroad.

Trotskyism – the revolutionary opposition

But there were people in the Communist Parties that fought against Stalin. Trotsky and his supporters fought to keep the idea of world revolution alive. They fought for an end to the Stalin dictatorship and for the workers to seize back power from the bureaucrats.

The Stalinists responded with vicious repression of the Trotskyists. First they were expelled from the Bolshevik Party, then driven into exile. They were framed up in show trials and accused of everything under the sun. They were imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered in their thousands. Stalin’s agents finally caught up with Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. He was killed by a blow to the head from an ice pick.

Why did the Stalinists bother? Because the Trotskyists never gave up fighting. Every time the Communist International betrayed workers they fought against the betrayal. Every piece of repression, every lie the Stalinists told, the Trotskyists countered with real revolutionary politics. Once they recognised that the Communist International would never be revolutionary again, they tried to build a new International, the Fourth International.

Stalinism was a disaster from start to finish. But it was not the inevitable result of revolution. It was the opposite of revolution. By the 1980s Stalin’s successors ended up trying to bring capitalism back to Russia – the very system the Russian Revolution had overthrown. That is why today Russia is filled with unemployment, poverty and crime.

To end as we started: the tasks of revolution still lie ahead. They fall to working class youth. Who do not bare the scars of lost battles. Who do not fear the bosses and their police. Who do not look to parties like Labour who will only betray them. And who capitalism has nothing to offer.

Stalinism may have succeeded in destroying the Russian revolution. But there is a new generation rising. We will make new revolutions. We will learn from the past and do everything in our power to build an international movement from the start.