C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

* * *

Section I

1923: What Went Wrong?

In the Civil War in Russia, the Revolution had defeated the White armies that had been sponsored and supported by West European states, Japan and the United States. With the defeat of these armies Soviet power now confronted the immense task of reconstructing the national economy in such a way that the new social relations of the revolution would reproduce themselves as viable self-activated institutions Around these the work activity of the masses of men, women and youth could be grouped. In order to comprehend these struggles of the last years of the Revolution, we must pay very careful attention to the specific problems and events.

A great universal agrarian revolution was worked out with an audacity unprecedented in any other country, and at the same time, the imagination was lacking to work out a tenth-rate reform in office routine ... (Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 396.)

Although workers are masters of detail labour, certain tasks were shifted onto professional administrators, or non-professionals aspiring to administer. The habits and methods of the Czarist bureaucracy were continued and deepened by the thousands of carryovers from the old regime and the thousands of new arrivals who copied and furthered their ways.

In all countries the state sees itself as mediator between various sections of the people. That Russian administrators saw their own position that way is quite certain. The problem in the crisis of 1921–1923 was not that the party had to grip together the two halves of the “scissors”, the gap between socialized workers and individualized peasants. That anyone still believe this was the heart of the matter is the consequence of certain bureaucratic patterns of thought, the heritage of tendencies which Lenin had set him elf against.

Lenin had in his last years counterposed to state and party the development of the cultural level of the whole population, through policies designed to get the direct involvement of the working population, urban and rural, in the solution of problems. Lenin never believed that there would be any completion of the building of socialism under conditions which approached pre-literary culture on the one side and the fragmented productivity of labor on the other. His approach was that of education but of the kind never seen else where in the world at any time.

The working population had the power: landlords, capitalists,Czarists and foreign powers all knew that. But how to develop it? Lenin tied reconstruction of the economy to education. Trade unions were to educate the workers toward that voluntary self-discipline which guarantees a constantly higher productivity. Agricultural cooperatives were to transform a peasantry, conscious of their attainment of individual possession of the land, into free associations of producers on the countryside.

The main task, Lenin said, was:

first, of learning, second, of learning, and third, of learning, and then of testing what we have learnt so that it shall not remain a dead letter, or a fashionable phrase (and, it is no use concealing it, this often happens among us), so that what have learnt may become part of our very beings, so that it may actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life. (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 89)

Culture would be taken away from the exclusive position it occupied in old Russia.

But, Lenin continued:

I know that it will be hard to follow this rule and apply it to our conditions. I know that the opposite rule will force its way through a thousand loopholes, I know that enormous resistance will have to be offered, that devilish persistence will be hellishly hard. (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 389)

What went wrong in 1923 was that the opposite rule did force its way through a thousand loopholes leading to a flight from the task of developing a new revolutionary sophistication completing the transformation of a population set in motion by the revolution. And this was the base for the most extreme atrocities of Stalin which are now known to all the world.

The party of the Russian Revolution did not only fail at this new deep attempt to arouse the social resourcefulness of the population. It abdicated that realm entirely. It fled from it. Until this day such notions as Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, whereby every citizen, particularly the women, in Lenin’s memorable phrase, were to examine regularly and systematically and audit the concrete affairs of the Soviet administration; trade unionism as the schooling of workers towards a communist society in which all state coercion disappears; agricultural cooperatives voluntarily formed by the populace in all areas of Russia, are all roundly abused or purposefully ignored: even by the most radical of radicals.

After the Civil War, after the triumph of one party over all others, this flight from the- deepening of the revolutionary involvement of the populace accelerated. It was given its signal expression in the trade union debates of 1920–21. This debate announced the birth of modern state capital: the rise of governments so total, so pre-emptory in their attitudes, that they throttle the very notion of mass revolutionary initiative. The large parties which were presumably formed to act on the grievances of large sections of the people become transformed into the disciplinarians of workers, peasants, and all other revolutionary forces.

The particular conflict in 1921 involved Trotsky as chief commander of the victorious Red Army and a small union of Water Transport Workers. Out of this initial conflict came Trotsky’s thesis about the subordination of the trade unions to party and state. Trotsky called for “shaking up” the trade unions. Tomsky, the member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party most concerned with trade union affairs, fought this off as an attempt at the militarisation of the labouring force and of its sole protective organisation, the trade unions.

Lenin took the side of Tomsky and in the next few months it was the Bolshevik Party and not the trade unions which was shaken by rampant factionalism. In the isolation of the working class in a peasant country combined with the isolation of a workers’ Russia in a bourgeois world, it was apparent that everything accomplished up to then was in absolute peril. We are enabled to know Lenin’s age, the ground which produced how Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders would act.

The Russian found consolation for the bleak bureaucratic realities at home in unusually bold theoretical constructions, And that is why these unusually bold theoretical constructions assumed an unusually one-sided character among us. (Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 397)

The solution to the problem of the Russian Revolution was not, as Trotsky demonstrated, in brilliant formulations about more democracy at home in Russia and world revolution abroad. Nor was the solution the liberal theory of a multi-party state.

Lenin modestly noted, but with great powers of anticipation, what would inevitably happen when the mass intervention that was the Russian Revolution would begin to go downhill: “... our social life combines within itself an astonishing degree of fearless audacity and mental timidity ...” (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 394) This mental timidity was in the face of a population that had experienced for itself Soviets, insurrection and civil war. By swelling the membership of the trade unions, the exhausted working class of an economically exhausted Russia was showing its recognition of where the threat of administrationism had reached and that they were prepared to do battle with it. The main obstacle was the very brilliance of one-sided Russian intellectualism functioning as the political leadership. In reaction to that kind of one-sided bold theoretical construction we have the emergence of Stalin.

Stalin, the party policeman, showed that he had no patience, and that the straitened economic circumstances of post-Civil War Russia allowed for no patience, with the one-sidedness of Russian intellectualism. Instead he chose the most self-specialising aspect of the modern state – the secret police and the penetration into all environs of political activity.

The inherent antagonism which Stalinism offered to the activity of free human personalities can be seen most specifically when we examine the following lines of Lenin, among the last lines ever to flow from his pen.

... much that was fantastic, even romantic, and even banal, in the dreams of the old co-operators is now becoming the most unvarnished reality ... Our co-operatives are looked down up with contempt, but those who do so fail to understand the exceptional significance ... from the aspect of the transition to the new order by means that will be simplest easiest and most intelligible ... (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 403. Italics in original)

Lenin is speaking here specifically about the peasantry being educated, towards cooperation. In the same years he took the position that the trade unions must be schools of the workers which would not only be institutions for the self-protection by the workers against a bureaucratic state apparatus; they would also as the positive result of struggle turn into schools of Communist management. And for the youth Lenin was insistent on learning, testing the learning by practice and furthering the practice by increase of learning.

After the twenty million membership of the Soviets had coalesced with the party or had fallen away entirely from mass participation in government; the task of finding another way forward preoccupied Lenin

But this again is the most important thing. It is one thing to draw up fantastic plans for building socialism by means of all sorts of workers’ associations; but it is quite another thing to learn to build it practically, in such a way that every small peasant may take part in the work of construction. (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 403. Italics in the original.)

The conclusive word is “every”.

Trotsky was eager for propaganda of the most extreme sort, propaganda combined with purely administrative party orders, army orders. The Soviet technicians were preparing themselves for the day of plans and production quotas. In the meantime Stalin was preparing his blows against specific individuals in the party. The result of all of this, in the absence of a unified policy delineated by Lenin, was that the dictatorship swallowed the whole of society. That was Stalin whose arrival tells us of the road not chosen, just as the October Revolution tells us of the consequences of an opposite policy and power.

Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Kosygin all have talked of trying to undo what Stalin constructed. What Stalinism established will undo them, and all other heralds of some nebulous great internal reforms in Russia

Socialised workers of Petrograd and Moscow, socialised peasants of the Russian Army made the greatest social change the world has ever known. The failure to carry through the same penetration into mass impulse afterwards, and at an even higher pitch of social tension, blocked the reconstruction of Russia as a new civilisation.

We are often told that Lenin, the man who anticipated and warred against learning as a “dead letter, or a fashionable phrase” produced., or by means of his doctrine produced, a Joseph Stalin. This is revealed for the false notion it is both by the words of Lenin himself and by the figures of how many Leninists Stalin had to kill, the way he had to kill them, the pages that had to be torn out of history books, the sentences that had to be torn out of editions of Lenin’s own writings.

Even the work of a Trotsky and his magnificent polemical war could not restrain the spread of the idée fixe that Leninism produced Stalinism. Only comprehension of what took place in October, and of what took place in its failure, can break up that idea in the manner that it deserves on this historic occasion.

Such a comprehension is assisted by the international setting of the world in which we live today. Lenin anticipated it:

At the same time, precisely as a result of the last imperialist war, a number of countries – the East, India, China, etc. – have been completely dislodged from their groove. Their development has completely shifted ... The general European ferment has begun to affect them, and it is now clear to the whole world that they have been drawn into a process of development that cannot but lead to a crisis in the whole of world capitalism. (Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 398)

These lines of 1923 tell us, at least in general, more about the world in which we now live than do most of the pages of tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Not the gift of prophecy, but the social weight of the Russian peasantry plus the underdeveloped character of the Russian economy, enabled Lenin to see what was emerging. The Russian experience poses the problem of reconstructing all of contemporary society along the most modern, sensible lines: the intertwining of the movements of the peasantry with those of the proletariat and all other revolutionary forces. No underdeveloped country has as yet been able to escape what was once called the “Russian Question”. The critical components of 1922–23 are today the preoccupations of leaders and led, the organised and unorganised, small organisations and large parties, academic scholars and the most ordinary men and women of the street and work place.

Last updated on 18 October 2020