1917: Freedom or Tyranny?

Last night I participated in a debate with the Alliance for Workers Liberty in central London on the subject of “1917: Freedom or Tyranny?”. The following is the text of my opening remarks.

I want to begin by congratulating Paul and the AWL on the publication of this book. While we will disagree on some important things – which we will come to this evening – we agree on the enormous historic importance of the 1917 Russian revolution, and I welcome any attempts to grapple with the issues raised.

Paul’s book offers new insights, such as the critical discussion about Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism”. And of course I welcome all the very positive references to Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democracy, which are often lacking in the writings of those who come from the Leninist tradition.

Let me very briefly comment on four of the questions that were posed for this evening’s debate:

Was the Bolshevik party of Trotsky and Lenin a conspiracy of elitist “professional revolutionaries”, or a mass movement organically rooted in the Russian working class?

Maybe it was both.

The Bolsheviks were elitist and conspiratorial and this was pointed out by such leading revolutionary Marxists of the time as Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky himself.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote a blistering critique of Lenin’s view of the Party way back in 1904. She ended her essay, which had the catchy title of “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” with this memorable sentence:

“Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

In that same year, Trotsky wrote this memorable critique of Lenin:

“these methods lead … to the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”

Yet thirteen years later, Trotsky joined Lenin’s Party, and tragically witnessed his own prophecy come true.

But it was not all about conspiratorial elites.

As the Provisional Government in 1917 failed to deal with the challenges facing the peoples of the Russian empire, in particular ending the war and dealing with the peasant hunger for land, the Bolsheviks picked up considerable support among workers in Petrograd and, most importantly, in the army garrison in the imperial capital.

In other parts of the empire, most notably in Georgia, the Bolsheviks had hardly any support at all.

In other words, there are aspects of the October revolution that resembled a popular uprising and others that look more a military coup.

There were elements of both.

Was the revolution’s eventual degeneration into totalitarianism an inevitable, perhaps even intended, consequence of 1917, or could history have turned out differently?

Of course the degeneration into totalitarianism was not an intended consequence of the revolution – obviously not.

The Bolsheviks’ goal was to take Russia, which was described by Lenin as “the freest country in the world” after the fall of the Romanovs, and to make it even more free. In 1917, they never argued for totalitarianism, for its concentration camps, secret police, famines, purges and terror.

To the contrary, Lenin’s booklet State and Revolution, which he wrote during the revolution in 1917, offered a vision of the withering away of the state, an anarchist utopia that was the exact opposite of what he and his comrades actually created once they were in power.

As for whether it was inevitable, we need to explore the discussions and debates that Russian Social Democrats had before 1917 about the revolution.

Particularly about the risks of seizing power.

Let’s discuss in particular very specific warnings given to Lenin about the dangers – specific to Russia – of a premature seizure of power, and of nationalisation of land.

In the debate among the Russian Social Democrats about the land question, more than a decade before the 1917 revolution, Lenin initially called for the nationalisation of land.

Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism and Lenin’s teacher, launched into a devastating critique of this, beginning with an analysis of what kind of society existed in Russia.

Plekhanov reminded Lenin that Russia was neither a capitalist nor a feudal society, that Marx had correctly described it as being “semi-Asiatic”.

This meant a system where the state was stronger than society.

Plekhanov argued that the economic foundation of tsarist absolutism was state ownership of the land.

To break that foundation apart, land would need to be given to the peasants, and taken away from the state.

And he warned that the premature seizure of power by socialists in a society as backward as Russia would, if it failed, lead to something far worse than a “restoration of capitalism”.

He warned of the possibility of what was called at the time “an Asiatic restoration”.

In other words, an infinitely stronger state, a totalitarian state, with no civil society to speak of, and with the land in the hands of the state.

This accurately described the Stalinist regime that emerged nearly two decades later.

What were the alternatives?

We don’t need to discuss hypothetical alternatives, or might-have-beens. The very last part of the Russian empire to come under Bolshevik rule in February 1921 was Georgia.

And the Georgia Democratic Republic, ruled by Social Democrats, was precisely the kind of alternative revolution that Kautsky, among others, had been calling for.

Sadly, there is no discussion in Paul’s book of the Georgian experiment.

Fortunately, someone has decided to do a book length treatment of the subject.

And that author concludes that the Menshevik experience in Georgia proved that another revolution was possible.

Is the model of the Russian Revolution something for contemporary socialists to aspire towards, or a historical relic?

I would argue – clearly not.

The model of the Russian Revolution – the opportunistic seizure of power by a small revolutionary group “because it could,” without any real concern for the risks (the European socialists will come save us) created the conditions – isolation, economic collapse, civil war – that give birth to the Stalin regime.

Surely this cannot be a model for anyone today.

Let us move on from these questions and focus on the larger picture.

I suggest that we start at the end – looking back today, more than a quarter century after the final collapse of the USSR.

Can we honestly say the Bolshevik revolution was a success?

That it created an even freer society?

That it contributed anything to human happiness or human freedom?

Let’s focus on choices the Bolsheviks made – because they did make choices.

There is a tendency to forgive every mistake they made, and every crime they committed, on the grounds that they were forced to.

Lenin didn’t want to create the Cheka, the brutal secret police force responsible for the deaths and misery of so many millions. He was forced to do so by the imperialists who tried to bring down the Bolsheviks from day one.

He and Trotsky and the others didn’t want to create the forced labour camps of the GULAG, or to close down all opposition newspapers and all opposition political parties – every single one of them, without exception – from the Kadets to the SRs to the Mensheviks.

That is the argument Leninists make.

As if the Bolsheviks had no choice, as if they were forced by circumstance to do all sorts of terrible things.

Even their seizure of power in October 1917 is sometimes portrayed as something they were forced to do, and not an opportunistic attempt to wrest power from a weakened, enfeebled Provisional Government.

So what were those choices? What did they do?

They chose to rule alone, without a single socialist party supporting them, though for a time the Left SR Party played a role in the early Soviet government.

They rejected the appeal of the powerful railway workers union for a government of all the socialist parties.

They chose to seize power even before the Second Congress of Soviets opened – presenting that congress with a fait accompli, rather than leaving it up to the Soviets themselves to decide.

It’s worth pointing out that Trotsky arrogantly and foolishly called out after the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who walked out of the hall that day that they were being consigned to the dustbin of history.

History took its revenge on Trotsky just a decade later, when he joined what remained of those opposition socialists in exile.

The Bolsheviks chose not only to exclude the other socialist parties from government, but to actively repress them from the very beginning, including the shutting down of Menshevik newspapers only weeks after the October coup.

They chose to establish the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Speculation – known as the Cheka – in December 1917, barely a month after seizing power.

The date is important to bear in mind – a secret police that would become infamous for its brutality, established long before there was any significant armed resistance to Bolshevik rule, and months before the outbreak of civil war.

This was a choice, a decision Lenin and the Bolsheviks made, not something forced on them.

They set up the Main Camp Administration, better known as the GULAG, from the very beginning, even before the outbreak of the civil war.

They pioneered especially ruthless methods of struggle, such as the taking and shooting of hostages, and the death penalty for a very wide range of crimes.

They chose to do these things, this was not forced on them.

In November 1917 something was forced on them – the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

Lenin felt the elections should not go ahead. After all, Russia now had the rule of the Bolsheviks, the Council of People’s Commissars with him at its head. There was no need for any further discussion. But he was over-ruled and the elections took place.

They were were only free elections ever held in Russia until the 1990s.

And the Bolsheviks were badly defeated.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks then took the decision to delay the convening of that Assembly, which should have met in late November.

Instead, it met in January, for one day. And was dispersed at bayonet point by soldiers loyal to the Bolshevik regime.

The elected members of the Assembly fled for their lives, and some regrouped in Siberia.

Do you want to know how the bloody Russian Civil War began? It began there and then with the dispersal of the elected Constituent Assembly by an impatient, arrogant Bolshevik leadership.

The list goes on and on –

The decision to ban factions even within the ruling Communist Party.

The bloody suppression of the revolt by Kronstadt sailors.

The insane policies of “war communism” which guaranteed a tragic conflict between city and countryside, between workers and peasants, with mass starvation the result.

These were choices made by Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades in the Bolshevik Party.

This all happened under their rule, long before Stalin took over the machinery they had established – single party rule, the Cheka, the GULAG.

No one forced them to ban factions, to outlaw other socialist parties, to suppress alternative newspapers and jail dissidents, to wage war on the peasantry, and to invade one after another those countries which they had promised to liberate, to offer self-determination to – including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Baltic states, and even Poland.

So, were other choices possible?

Yes, they were.

And this is a good moment to discuss Menshevik Georgia.

If all you know about Georgia comes from Trotsky’s book, Between Red and White, then you know nothing.

That was Trotsky’s most dishonest work, not least because he wrote it even though he knew nothing at all about the Russian plan to invade and conquer Georgia – even though he was the commander of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.

That was done behind his back by Stalin, but Trotsky felt obligated to defend it after the fact.

And Trotsky wrote his pamphlet in response to a short book by Karl Kautsky, who spent several months in Georgia in 1920, and who drew the conclusion that this little country did offer an alternative kind of revolution to what the Bolsheviks were doing in Russia.

The Georgians practiced political democracy, with a free press, a multi-party system, free elections, and so on.

They had strong trade unions, independent of the state, with the right to strike.

They carried out a land reform along the Marxist lines suggested by Plekhanov, turning the peasants into land-owners. As a result, there was no war between city and countryside in Georgia as there was in Russia. And the peasants remained strong supporters of the Social Democrats in power.

As in Russia, the state took control of the commanding heights of the economy, with a monopoly on foreign trade and so on.

Georgia also had a very strong cooperative movement which in just three short years grew to dominate the country’s economy, and began the slow process of transition to a more egalitarian society.

They did not established forced labour camps. They did not set up a Cheka. They did not seize and execute hostages. They did not ban opposition parties or factions within their own party.

Once the small Georgian Communist Party finally gave up its repeated attempts at an armed coup d’etat, it was given complete freedom to operate, as Kautsky and other visiting socialists witnessed in 1920.

The Georgian experiment was cut short in February 1921 when Stalin and his cronies organised a massive invasion on several fronts, pretending all along that they were supporting a non-existent workers’ uprising.

To his eternal discredit, Trotsky found himself justifying Stalin’s criminal act in his book answering Kautsky.

Let me end by discussing what Trotsky called the “lessons of October”.

What can we socialists today in 2017 learn from the Bolsheviks in 1917?

We need to accept that the things we do have consequences.

That revolution contains real risks, not least the risk of losing and triggering a counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks ignored the warnings of Plekhanov, and Luxemburg, and Trotsky himself by establishing a one-party dictatorship, resulting — as Trotsky predicted — in the rule of a dictator, Stalin.

And we also need to be guided by a very basic revolutionary morality.

Within a year of the Bolsheviks coming to power, they had launched the Red Terror. Thousands of innocents were killed. The Cheka grew to have hundreds of thousands of employees, arresting and torturing thousands of people with no pretence at due process or legality. The GULAG forced labour camps rapidly filled up with people who had committed no crime.

The Bolsheviks created a party machine and state that a monster named Stalin could rise to take over, and rule unchallenged for more than three decades.

As Trotsky pointed out in one of his better books, Their Morals and Ours, the morality of an action can be determined by its consequences.

It doesn’t matter whether the Bolsheviks had good intentions.

What matters is that the society they created – the Soviet Union – turned the lives of millions of people into a nightmare that lasted for seven long decades.

And as the experience of Georgia teaches us, it didn’t have to be that way.

There was an alternative.