Max Shachtman


The Russian Revolution 17 Years After

(November 1934)

Source: The New International: A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism, Vol.1 No.4, November 1934, pp.98-99.
Editorial Board: James Burnham, Max Shachtman, Maurice Spector.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

SEVENTEEN years of existence were far more than a carefully prepared public opinion imagined that the Russian revolution would have after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. That even the attempt should be made to replace capitalism by a new social order and in so backward a country as czarist Russia, was utopian and fantastic enough in the mind of the average person in 1917. That the Soviet government could last for any length of time, however, was definitely considered the sheerest absurdity. The daily reports of that time concerning the imminent collapse of the new regime were read by millions without the slightest surprise.

A similar skepticism prevailed in the minds of the Bolshevik leaders themselves, with one fundamental difference. They too were of the opinion that, however prodigious, the efforts of the Russian masses alone would not suffice to establish the new society. But this knowledge was tempered with the conviction that the Russians would not remain alone for very long, that the acute crisis into which the war had flung European capitalism, would generate the revolutionary force capable of smashing the old order and thereby rescuing Soviet Russia from its isolation. If the proletariat in western Europe did not succeed in seizing power, wrote Trotsky at one time, expressing the prevailing Bolshevik view, “it is hopeless to think (this is borne out by history and by theoretical thought) that for instance, revolutionary Russia would be able to hold out in face of conservative Europe”.

The revolutionary risings which followed the World War were not crowned with the triumph of the working class. After the first violent convulsions, European capitalism regained its balance. It has maintained it in varying degrees to the present day. Soviet rule remains confined to its old frontiers. Do the seventeen years of isolated existence of the Soviet republic therefore refute the prognostications of the communist leaders in its early period? Such a conclusion is superficial and unwarranted.

For the greater part of its existence, the Soviet state has not had to hold out against a conservative Europe as it existed at the time Trotsky, for example, set down his views. The spontaneous post-war revolutionary wave was not powerful enough to shatter the cliffs of capitalism itself. The social democracy proved to be too sturdy a breakwater of the old order. But the storm of discontentment and rebellion was fierce enough to deal the final blow to the strongest pillars of European reaction. The Hohenzollern dynasty and the dual monarchy of the Austrian Hapsburgs were alike swept out of power. In the two principal Allied powers, England, and France, arch-conservatism had to make way under popular pressure for the banner-bearers of the democratic and pacifist era, MacDonald and Herriot. In this interregnum between two periods of vicious imperialist reaction, the Soviet Union had a breathing space which prolonged its existence despite the absence of revolutionary victories in the West.

Another factor, which could not be foreseen in the first years of the revolution, has contributed to making it appear that an isolated workers’ state could be maintained indefinitely. Lenin’s dictum in 1919 that “the existence of the Soviet republic side by side with imperialist states for any length of time is inconceivable” must now be revised to read: “inconceivable without a corresponding internal disintegration of the proletarian power and the progress of reaction in its midst”. Such an amendment is required to eliminate the apparent contradiction between the revolutionary hopes and prognoses of the Bolshevik leaders and the continued isolated existence of the Soviet Union. All those theories and practises which are proper to Stalinism in contradistinction to revolutionary Marxism, represent the growth of reaction in the workers’ state. Reaction: because under the conditions of a dynamic development of international class relations, a passive adaptation to the status quo, which is tantamount to acceptance of it, cannot signify merely marking time, but moving backward. The idea that a classless society, which Lenin believed possible of attainment only by the grandchildren of his generation, will be established in Russia without proletarian revolution in other countries – and this idea implicit in the Stalinist theory of “socialism in a single country” and explicit in the Stalinist contention that a classless society will exist in Russia in another two years – definitely presupposes the acceptance of present relationships, postpones the world revolution to the Greek Kalends, and delusively rationalizes the hermetic capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union.

The deceptively idyllic notion of Russia’s economic and, consequently political self-sufficiency, nurtured for years by a unique combination of circumstances, is now receiving some rude blows. The “Conservative Europe” of the war period is now being restored in a more reactionary and, from a class standpoint, more, belligerent form than ever before. The continent is changing its political complexion under our very eyes. Almost every other month now the reaction registers a new triumph – the working class a new defeat. The Soviets are faced by a decreasing number of “democratic” bourgeois governments in Europe and an increased number of outspokenly antagonistic Fascist regimes. The fundamental hostility of all bourgeois governments to the workers’ government, which is neither greater nor less than the fundamental solidarity of the international proletariat, is most openly expressed by the new Fascist states. The difference lies only in the fact that whereas the Fascist countries have a far freer hand in preparing for open warfare against the fortress of Bolshevism, the proletariat in those lands is bleeding from a thousand wounds, is atomized and disoriented, and is unable to engage in an organized defense of the Soviet Union. The nationalist degeneration of the Third International, which so greatly facilitated the easy triumphs of Fascism and reaction, first in Poland, then in China, and finally in rapid succession in Germany, Austria and Spain, has revealed that it is not only incapable of leading the proletariat to victory in the capitalist world, but that it cannot assume the responsibility for the defense of the Soviet republic itself. As the hour approaches when the Fascist barbarians plan to plunge into an armed attack upon the Soviet Union, the impotence of both the old Internationals stands out with alarming crassness. And not since the earliest years of the Soviet republic has the danger of a military attack upon it been so acute as it is today.

Who will organize the world proletariat for the defense of the Soviet Union? The steady shift in emphasis from reliance upon the international working class to pathetic maneuvers and alliances with one imperialist power or another, reflects the significant changes that have taken place in Soviet policy under the direction of Stalinism. Nevertheless, in spite of the latest revelations about the division of the world into two classes – the peace-loving capitalist nations and the war-loving capitalist nations – it would be little less than fatal to look to the League of Nations, be Russia or Germany or Japan a member of it or not, as a bulwark against imperialist war in general or aggression against the Soviet Union in particular. Nor should it be expected that the Second International will organize and lead the struggle for the defense of the Soviets. The reformists who could not even save themselves, much less the working class as a whole, from defeat at the hands of Fascism, will not show themselves to be made of sterner stuff when the life of the Soviet republic is at stake. No greater valuation can be placed on the organizing and revolutionary capacities of the Third International. Its disgraceful capitulation without a struggle in Germany in 1933 does not inspire one with the slightest confidence that it will prove to be superior at an even more crucial moment. As for the fighting qualities of those gray ectoplasmic figures who hover impalpably over the stage of various seances “against war and fascism” or lend their highly respectable names to the letterheads of the “friends” of the Soviet Union – the less said about the painful subject the better.

Every important problem that rises to confront the working class immediately reveals its inseparable relationship with the central problem of rebuilding the wrecked revolutionary movement by organizing the new parties and the new International. The Russian proletariat alone cannot defend itself successfully from the assault of world reaction. More than ever it has come to power does it require a revolutionary vanguard, an organized, conscious leadership, a communist party. It is in this realm that Stalinism has wrought the greatest havoc. The warm, living organism that was once the Bolshevik party, has been petrified by the bureaucratic apparatus which has usurped its place. The elimination of the party removes an imperatively necessary pillar upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the workers’ state is not to crumble, if it is to be rendered fit to the maximum to deal with its enemies at home and abroad, the revolutionary party must be revived in the Soviet Union.

Under the conditions of bureaucratic sway in the Soviet republic at the present time, this is a task which the Russian proletariat is unable to perform by its own efforts, or even primarily by its own efforts. It is a task which falls upon the shoulders of the revolutionary Marxists throughout the capitalist world. This task coincides and is identical with setting to work immediately to build the new parties and the Fourth International in every country for the overthrow of the ruling bourgeoisie. The Marxian vanguard in the capitalist world cannot, of course, directly build the new party in the Soviet Union; this is primarily the work of the revolutionists of that land. But the Marxists outside the Soviet Union can and must create the conditions throughout the capitalist countries that will make possible and facilitate not only the triumphant struggle against the world bourgeoisie, but also the revival of the revolutionary party in Russia. In the resolving of this problem as of all others, Marxian internationalism coincides at every point with the interests of the revolutionary struggle against the capitalist class at home. The emergence of the Russian revolution from the isolation which undermines it is an indivisible part of the struggle for the world revolution. The success of the one is conditioned by the victory of the other.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the struggle may be, the historical judgment of the Russian revolution has already been pronounced. The fundamental social contributions made by the revolution are of a permanent nature. The Bolshevik revolution was the decisive factor in taking the disputes between the Left and Right wings in the labor movement out of the realm of academic discussion and bringing them down to the solid soil of practical reality. If it is true that the establishment of the first successful workers’ state revived and reinforced the undistorted doctrines of Marx and Engels, then only because it demonstrated in life that far from being obsolete and applicable only to the middle of the last century, they were the indispensable weapons of the modern proletarian struggle for emancipation from wage slavery. The revolution, taking place as it did in a backward agricultural country, underscored the fact that the only consistently progressively class in modern world society is the proletariat. By what the latter accomplished for formerly oppressed racial and national minorities, and for the peasant millions – freedom and development immeasurably greater than that ever effected for similar groups by the bourgeoisie even in its most revolutionary period – it confirmed all previous theoretical affirmation that no section of the population can free itself and be guaranteed a progressive evolution save under the leadership of the working class. The October victory brought forward sharply the tremendous importance of the revolutionary party as the leader of the working class without which it is a headless, inchoate mass, condemned to spontaneous but finally futile assaults upon its class enemy.

In the broader social sense, the contributions of the Bolshevik revolution are equally deathless. Under a thousand handicaps, it nevertheless refuted the bourgeois canard that the working class is unable to manage the affairs of society, that the scrubwoman must wash floors and the banker direct the government because of qualities inherent in each of them. The veritable torrent of initiative, resourcefulness, talent released from the midst of the “dark masses” when the revolution broke down even the first few barriers of traditional class repression, shows that a new Golden Age undreamed of by Pericles is held in store for humanity under communism. Shut off from the advantages of world intercourse enjoyed by capitalism, the Soviet state nevertheless established the fact that only in a socialist order is security and plenty possible for all; that even in the transitional period leading to socialism, crises and economic difficulties are due not to a plethora, to an overproduction of the means of life and comfort which the masses cannot share – a condition which is the distinguishing mark of capitalism – but to a shortage in production attendant upon the growing pains of a new order hemmed in by stifling capitalist walls. With all the vast technically superiority and advantages of experience on its side, capitalism still is unable to produce in any way but anarchically, whereas only the working class in power has been able to, undertake and carry through planning in economic life with a success which is grudgingly acknowledged even by its astonished foes.

Neither a social nor a natural catastrophe can ever erase from the mind of man these profound historical contributions. But man can extend these contributions to the rest of the world. It is given to the present generation to witness and participate in the mortal struggle between two social orders. The one represented by the rule of the bourgeoisie is dragging the masses of mankind back to the middle ages, to barbarism, to all that Fascist sovereignty implies. The one represented by the rule of the proletariat leads to socialism and the fulfillment of human development.

One or the other must triumph, for they cannot live side by side. The proletarian revolution won its first great battle in Russia. It can win the war only as a world victory.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005