Paul Mattick 1938

Was the Bolshevik Revolution a Failure?
(A Symposium)

Source: The Modern Quarterly, Fall 1938, pp. 16-20.
Transcribed: by Thomas Schmidt
Proofed: by Jonas Holmgren

The Questions

  1. Did the Bolshevik Revolution achieve its proletarian objectives?
  2. Is the dictatorship of the proletariat consonant with Party Dictatorship?
  3. Can a proletarian State arise on the basis of the wage system, managed by a Party-State? What constitutes the abolition of capitalism?
  4. Does Lenin’s thesis that in the imperialist epoch the proletariat alone can lead a revolution to complete the “Bourgeois task” claim validity in view of the course pursued by Cardenas in Mexico, Kemal Pacha in Turkey, etc.?
  5. Viewed in retrospect, did the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks retard the World Proletarian Revolution?


I deny the assumption of the first question that the Bolshevik Revolution had proletarian aims. The proletarian character of the Russian Revolution is only apparent. It is true that the revolutionary workers were striving for a vaguely conceived sort of socialism, but in every bourgeois revolution in which workers participated, proletarian objectives were evident.

The ideas and slogans connected with proletarian objectives, and even actual struggles and forms of organization peculiar to the independent proletarian class movement, are not enough to give the Russian Revolution a proletarian character. Certainly many workers believed that the Bolshevik Revolution would end in socialism, however, the illusions of the workers cannot replace the necessary action to attain proletarian objectives. Socialism as a slogan, as an ideal, still fits perfectly in an otherwise bourgeois revolution and society. Proletarian objectives, first of all, must incorporate the abolition of the proletarian class through the abolition of all class relations.

The Bolshevik Revolution, however, aspired to the development of modern industry and of a modern proletariat, a fact which comes clearly to light in the bolshevistic concept of “socialism,” which still contains wage labor and capital production, and secures those relations through the division of society into rulers and ruled. That the Russian Revolution first of all was a peasant revolution cannot be denied; that these peasants, striving for land and property, had no proletarian objectives is obvious. In so far as the Bolshevik Revolution found support by the peasants and in turn supported them, no proletarian objectives were involved. For this reason the Bolsheviks regarded their early peasant policy as an unavoidable concession to the backwardness of Russian conditions. The later collectivization drive in agriculture illustrates how earnestly the Bolsheviks agreed with Western Socialism that the distribution of land to the peasants is no socialistic goal. However, the collectivization of agriculture, and the transformation of independent peasants into wage workers, is still no proletarian objective, but a bourgeois desire of long standing and has little chance of being realized without radical and risky changes in the socio-economic set up.

So far the making of wage workers was always considered the task of capitalism; by making this task their own, the Bolsheviks fulfilled capitalistic objectives. It is true that within the whole revolutionary situation in Russia there were also forces which fought for outspoken proletarian objectives. They were achieved, here and there, through the expropriation of factories and other forms of property by the Soviets. They were lost again as soon as the Bolshevik State arose which supplanted the power of the Soviets with that of the Bolshevik Party.

It is often asked how it is possible that power won by the workers by way of revolution may be lost again without a counter-revolution. The latter here is conceived as a return of the old authorities, but counter-revolutionary actions are not confined to old authorities; new officials can engage in them just as well, or even better. The counter-revolution against the state-capitalistic intent of the Russian Revolution was defeated by the Russian masses following the directives of the Bolsheviks. The counter-revolution against the proletarian objectives expressed within this revolution was triumphant with the success of Bolshevism, which transformed private property into state property, and continued the exploitation of the workers on state-capitalistic terms.

Not without opposition and struggle were the Soviets reduced to a mere instrument of the Bolsheviks’ rule over the whole of society. Groups of workers in Western Europe as well as in Russia recognized quite early the real character of the Bolshevik Revolution. Others, arising in opposition to the Stalin machines believe even today that the latter is a perversion of Bolshevism, and that the original Leninism intended something else than what exists in Russia. This, however, is not true. The Russia of today represents the essential aspirations of the early Bolsheviks before and after the October Revolution. That the Bolsheviks carried through a bourgeois revolution of which the bourgeoisie was no longer capable, was stated many times by Lenin himself. The fact that this revolution, essentially bourgeois in its tasks, made use of a Marxian terminology, gave rise to the illusion that its socialistic trends were strong enough to alter fundamentally its original character. However, all that happened was that the Bolsheviks were not only forced or willing to fulfill the functions of the bourgeoisie, but by this process they became the new ruling and exploiting class.


The dictatorship of the party cannot be consonant with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Either the proletariat rules or is ruled. The party is only a small group in society; it is not the entire proletariat; it rules as a minority and is an expression of the conditions of exploitation. By the very conditions that make it necessary, it is impelled to rule in its own interests—that is, reproduce continually the conditions of the dictatorship over the proletariat—until the proletariat finally ends the rule of all minorities by destroying the bases of exploitation, which are wage labor and the state.


The state always and invariably represents domination over the proletariat. It is the unmistakable badge of the exploiting society. A “socialism” that is realized by the state always includes the continuation of class relations, inequalities of income, money and market laws, and other forms of modern exploitation. Like any other contradiction in terms, a “proletarian state” is quite inconceivable. It is possible to conceive, however, the temporary and direct execution of state functions by the armed proletariat—the actual revolution to the end of securing the development of socialism, or the association of free and equal producers and consumers.


The Bolshevik Revolution was not led by the proletariat but by the middle class. The bourgeoisie of that country was extremely weak, and the intelligentsia and all the “progressive” forces struggling against reaction could obtain support neither from them nor from the already reactionary bourgeoisie of western Europe. Only in the workers’ movement could it find a usable revolutionary ideology, and only with the workers’ help, together with the agricultural revolutionary necessities, could the intelligentsia hope to change Russia into a modern state.

In Turkey and Mexico, as well, it is not the proletariat who leads, but the middle-class, who make use of the proletariat for their own ends. Important layers of the middle class, no longer able to secure or elevate their economic positions within the old-style capitalism, try to secure their further existence as non-workers by political means, by elevating themselves into ruling positions, to continue to participate in the exploitation of labor—naturally in the “interest of labor.”

The state has always played an important part in the development of capitalism. Its role increased in importance with the relative stagnation in capital expansion. A whole revolution was necessary for Russia to secure by political means what it could reach no longer by economic warfare: the complete centralization of all possible power in the hands of the dictatorial state, as the necessary prerequisite for a swift development of modern industry in Russia, to save the country from becoming a colony of one or more of the imperialistic nations, and to end the misery resulting from the backwardness of the country. The Bolshevist policy, aspiring to a state capitalist system, was best suited to save Russia from semi-colonial conditions, and to elevate it as a power among the other world powers. Imperialism as a hindrance to the development of the backward countries brought forth the modern nationalistic movements to end imperialistic oppression.

To build today successfully a modern state capable of maintaining its independence, the slow process in which private property expands is useless; instead, the highest concentration of all capital resources is needed which necessitates a radical onslaught on those interests defending the backward state of affairs. In order to bring results, the struggle for national liberation had to take on revolutionary forms. This necessity determines the developmental trends in other countries like Turkey and Mexico, also in countries trying a come-back as an imperialistic force, like Germany.

Other countries did not go as far as Russia in this concentration process with political means, for reasons of different internal and external conditions. It was, for instance, relatively easier for Russia, to challenge the imperialistic nations than it is for Turkey or Mexico. However, state capitalism expresses an economic weakness within the countries employing it, as well as an existing weakness of world capitalism, which loses control over the backward countries, as this control can no longer be secured economically. Economic warfare no longer suffices; political warfare, the open brutal slaughter, becomes the only possibility for coping with the economic stagnation which strangles the capitalistic world. Under such conditions the power of the state increases continuously. The real rulers of society are no longer recognizable by their private money bags, but by their position within the state apparatus.

Russian state capitalism has become the example for other nations as indicated in the rise of fascism and the growth of governmental control in all countries. However, this trend is no sign of “progress,” as many people believe. It does not correspond to a “higher stage” of capitalism, but indicates the decline of world capitalism. The trend toward bolshevization and fascization is only the political expression of the stagnation and decline of the capitalist system; it is barbarism.


The world-revolutionary propaganda of the Bolsheviks in the first year of the revolution is often taken as an assurance of the proletarian character of Bolshevism. However, this “internationalism” at no time aspired to more than to secure the Bolshevik Revolution, to help the Bolshevik Party to remain in power.

As soon as the Bolsheviks recognized that the proletariat was too weak to establish state capitalistic systems favorable to Russia in other countries, and also that the bourgeoisie was no longer willing to risk anything in a struggle against state capitalist Russia, that is, about 1920, the Bolsheviks ceased to support revolutionary movements in other countries and instead prepared for a peaceful side by side existence with the other capitalistic systems. No more than Stalin today, were Lenin and Trotsky interested in helping the world revolution to reach proletarian objectives. The decline of the revolutionary movement in the world, and the consolidation of the power of capital now also served the needs of Bolshevik Russia.

Still, it cannot be said that the Bolshevik Revolution retarded the world revolution. If attempts toward the latter failed, this failure was quite independent of the Bolshevik policies, or the policies of any other minority group for that matter, and was due only to the still enormous power and vitality of world capitalism. The Bolsheviks can be blamed only, if at all, for hindering the proletariat from drawing the necessary lessons on its first great defeat after the last war, and for destroying the first attempts to create a real revolutionary labor movement in conformity with the necessities of today.