C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

* * *

Section I


War is the mother of revolution. Everywhere revulsion was the logical response to three years of trench mud and carnage; only in Russia did world war give birth to completely volcanic social reorganization. Strict objectivity compels not a mere listing of reasons but a statement of premises.

The largest factory known in the world anywhere in the year 1917 was the Putilov works in Leningrad. The co-ordinate labours of that factory involved 40,000 people. Other factories surrounded. it in the same district. Capital had put them there. The backwardness of trans port in the large mass of land area that is Russia geographically-concentrated the forces of the:Russian workers socially. The Russian autocracy and its secret police, fearful of the slightest liberalizing influences from European civilization, set up the strictest barriers as a means of self-protection and self-perpetuation This in turn gave to the Russian working class a certain inner freedom from inhibiting traditionalism and organizational fixity, and mere imitation of the rest of Europe.

There was no exclusivism of trade unions, arbitration machinery, grievance umpires or any pettyfogging about “equity.”

Compared to Russian society as a whole, the number of industrial workers was small. The bulk of the workers were one or two generations away from the land, from social isolation on the vastest countryside in all the world. But the working class was fresh. It was as if the inner class life of the American working class had begun with the CIO, or that of their British working class brothers had begun with the movement of shop stewards.

Class power, combined with the creative appropriation by the Russian intelligentsia of the discoveries of Western civilization before and particularly after 1789, was the specific potential of the new industrial working class. Class paralysis in the face of the traditional brutishness of the Russian aristocracy capped by a Czar was the specific immediate reaction of the small Russian bourgeoisie. They were dominated, in their minds if not completely in fact, by foreign capital.

Both bourgeoisie and working class were small in peasant Russia.

The future could not even believe in itself in that war period of a royal family guided by the monk Rasputin at the center of power.

The intelligentsia which, unlike that of other countries, did not automatically ally itself with the class above, moved through the exacting discipline of the politics of an approaching revolution to define its relation to the new working class.

Viewed from the standpoint of the development of civilization mankind’s capacity to understand itself and its prospects – the work of the Russian intelligentsia constitute one of the wonders of the world. The brilliance of the intellectuals was due to their European strivings at a time when German philosophy, French literature and British politics were stagnant. The transition from the 19th to the 20th century in what is broadly called culture is in the great achievements of the phenomenal Russian intelligentsia. In drama, novel, ballet, poetry, literary criticism, musical expressiveness, they transformed the relation of the 19th to the 20th centuries. The constitutive elements of an entire epoch were created. No proof in the conventional meaning of that word will be offered here.

In the dialectic of the actual development, including the politics of the later stage, that of the degeneration of the 1917 revolution politics offers the historical proof.

One more point must be made. The entrance of bourgeois economy in to Russia did not so much weaken as accentuate the caste character of Russian social life. It is comparable to how in the United States the very triumph of the powerful captains of industry refastened more perniciously the manacles and even the lynch mob’s rope onto the Negro emancipated by the Civil War. Class reinforced itself administratively as caste. Russia was familiarly known to the world as the prison house of peoples. This was not only because its pre-1917 existence was the closest to a police state that period could recognize. It was so because of the variety of people and ethnic groups within the country itself forbidden the use of their own language or native institutions:

We can thus help resolve the mystery as to why October is Russian. Its resistant intelligentsia was European, its working class small but with a concentration unique in European history, its minorities lived in the recesses of the inner colonialism of Czarist power. This all together was the nurturing ground of what is called Bolshevism. When the war came in 1914, despite the fact that a full theoretical understanding had to await Lenin’s great achievements during the war, these Bolshevik enclaves did not succumb as did the Social Democracy everywhere to imperialism, the bourgeoisification of skilled workers, the corruptions of the parliamentary system, the great war of all the nation states.

There was a corresponding development in the relationship between the working class and its representative party, which found the source for its strength in the experiences of the factory and the workers districts. The revolutionary creations and the experiences of 1905 was the curtain raiser for the victory of 1917. The defeat of the military pretensions of the Czar in the 1904–1905 war against Japan stimulated the workers – as the defeat of rulers has stimulated the oppressed populations since time immemorial – to the measures which went far beyond anything West Europe had known: the general strike, the political general strike, and finally the creation of Councils – the Soviets.

When the Soviet appeared it consisted of one representative for every 500 workers in a factory. The peasants, organized in the army, started to form Soviets for themselves. The rapid formation of the soviets, lightning-like progress of strikes and the armed extension of struggle tell us things which no experts on the theory of the powerlessness of permanently alienated populations dare even to think. Soviets and general strike did not wait upon any party. Parties attached to the cause of the working class had to adapt themselves to Soviets while no wise giving up the aspirations to democratic rights And elections of representatives to government in the familiar bourgeois manner. 1917 provided the final curtain to the historical stage opening in 1905. The ruling class no longer had any claim of leading the Russian nation or even showing any capacity of disciplining its own hollow personnel. Soldiers fled the front and the trial of strength began.

Both the present American and Russian rulers believe that the Bolshevik Party made the revolution; the former hold this idea with regrets and the latter with grandiose self-adulation. The same glaring mental, i.e. political, defect displays itself in all sectors of opinion both from those for and those against the Russian Revolution.

Thus, those small vanguard groupings of political radicals who have never had the taste of power ascribe the wonders of its arrival to the power of correct slogans. But Peace, Bread and Land were not the blare of an advertised uprising. The critical element was a population poised upon split-second’s notice to act upon its impulses, not in the everyday sense, but to rescue society from the bottomless pit of trench warfare and state corruption. Slogans make aspirations more palpable, but it is a self-prepared people that make fundamental revolution.

February 1917 witnessed the abdication of the Czar and the formation of what Lenin himself described as the freest republic the world had ever known. The working class was seeking to abolish itself as a mere component cog in the machinery of production, the soldiers were struggling to end the corrupting role in the machinery of war, and the serfs were permeated with the desire to make themselves into an independent yeomanry such as Russia had never seen before. Freedom could no longer be a matter of right. It was the content of human-social activity above all politics. When you have such large-scale social experience, infinite in its immeasurability – millions in and out of the battlefront, or out on strike, parading their power through the major streets of cities, transport and communication broken down so that the most ordinary routines of life become a matter to be settled on the spot as necessity dictates – then the establishment of new social ties becomes the most natural and inevitable thing in the world. Sailors of battleships were nestling in the Neva near Petrograd; soldiers had not only deserted, they were moving around on the streets of a major metropolis testing out for what and for whom their, military experiences had truly prepared them. It produced the dominant simplicity of the revolutionary politics and even the finished style of its leading politician, the familiar homeliness of Lenin’s utterances.

Lenin’s style constitutes an enigma and even conspiratorial mystery to what parades itself before our eyes now as social science. Today this science goes round and round, with its talk of the paradoxes of the Russians and the inscrutabilities of the even more distant Chinese. The meaning of the social interventions and social transformations of ordinary men end women in the midst of social revolution social scientists evade, leading them to create these mysteries, which lie at the heart of the scientific disciplines created and recreated in confusions.

Kerensky, one of the men of February 1917, may have been a fool to believe he could orate the Russian people back into World War I. More notable for 1967 is the vacillation and self-contortion of the whole section of the intelligentsia. They had tied the fate of Russia to its working class. They proved feckless when it came for the moment to establish the workers, now armed, as the government of the problem-lad en, vast and exhausted Russian society, cut off from Europe and having to depend upon its own internal social resources . The reluctance of Lenin’s own co-workers on that famous Central Committee to adopt the position of seizing the power, of turning February into October, was not cowardice or timidity. The politically trained intelligent was not any kind of effete aristocracy.

Its problem – the modern problem – is elsewhere. It is that the bourgeoisie have prove n hopelessly ineffectual through depressions and war and calamitous crises of every kind. Only the workers remain to create a human society. But the intelligentsia, which considers itself the repository of everything civilised, must by the very nature of the accumulation of social relations through the centuries as well as immediately all around it , consider the working population to be incapable of facing and solving the problems of governing whole areas of economic, political and social life.

Lenin was the embodiment of the best virtues of the Russian intelligentsia. This great Russian intelligentsia was European in mental scope, exacting in correctness of formulation and procedure, contemptuous of autocracy and hateful of the pogrom mentality which in the eyes of the world was Mother Russia. But there was a negative as well. An intellectual element of the population so conditioned to exile, so tenuous in its hold on national realities, so ephemeral in regard to its own experience in the practicalities of government, when, once congealed into a party apparatus and thereby transformed from isolated individuals into the shadow of the state power it hopes to become, must inevitably turn into – particularly in caste-ridden Russia – an obstacle when the proletariat is ready to assert the full measure of its power.

Why then did Lenin succeed in spite of them? Not mere individual uniqueness but concrete universality provides the shape of the answer. Aside from being prepared by research and debate on the class character of Russian revolution, aside from the overwhelming homeliness and explicitness of his own political make-up, aside from the self-discipline that political struggle inheres in individuals as well as groups, Lenin knew. the political alternatives as few people have been pressed and shaped to know them. For in the midst of that eight-month span between February and October, the whole backwash of Russian society and Russian history was preparing to drown the population in the ageless mud of Russian barbarism.

What Lenin knew, and what he knew the soldiers, workers and peasants knew at the very first hand, was the fist of a Kolchak and a Kornilov, the naked barbarism of the counter-revolution. He knew what native barbarism could do and what mere oratory about freedom could not do. On this he deluded no one because he did not deceive himself as so many highly intelligent people have done not only before Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin but increasingly afterwards. The seizure of political power by the working class, the shattering of all centers of authority was to prevent the making of politics into that specialized type of gangsterism so prevalent today that its existence marks off the world before World War I from the way we now live.

Besides the specificity of staying the whip of the counter-revolution, the genius of that much abused Bolshevism of Lenin is that it added both to the vision and science of revolutionary politics more than all the political science courses in all the world’s schools will ever be able to stare at plainly, let alone master as knowledge. Capitalist economy and the great mystery of the commodity over which Marx wrestled for so many pages was to become a matter of specific measures of workers’ discipline and national public accounting. Large-scale funds were to be wrested from the parasitic owners by the self-motivated peasants. Only they could do that. Housing, in the absence of new construction, was to be provided by he occupation of unfilled, unused houses in overblown mansions by homeless tenants. Only they could do that. International diplomacy consisted of the signing away of territories according to the will of the population living there. We cannot go on with this list indefinitely except to say that it is all this which distinguished Bolshevism from its opponent Menshevism.

It is this which distinguishes Bolshevism from all those to this very day and the day after tomorrow who believe that trench warfare for millions is possible, atomic bombs are possible, anti-missile missiles are possible. Flights to the moon are possible, atomic disintegration of cities is possible, assassinations of political leaders are possible, all of these are not only possible but actually inevitable, whereas the proletarian seizure of political power is – impossible. It is this which provides the decisive dividing line between self-activity and mere chasing around, the “rat race” in short, on an international plane the gulf between human and sub-human modes of political release. Marxism in the 19th century demonstrated how the new society is nurtured even amidst the poisonous bosom of the old.

Leninism contributed its originality and force to the notion of social economic reconstruction as the true a priori, the sole a priori of all revolution for the twentieth century.

Last updated on 18 October 2020