Max Shachtman


Nineteen Years of the Russian Revolution

(November 1936)

Source: Socialist Appeal: An Organ of Revolutionary Socialism, Vol.2 No. 10, November 1, 1936, pp.3-5.
Editorial Board: Ernest Erber, Albert Goldman, Rudolph C. Olson.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

NINETEEN years of the most, radical change any section of humanity has ever undergone, require that stock be taken and a balance sheet cast up. Summary, provisional, and even partial though it may be, it will establish that the Russian Revolution, whatever its course in the immediate future, has been a tremendous plus for the development of society.

The Russian Revolution precipitated an early end to the World War, the most frightful shambles known in history.

It brought the working class to power for the first time, and proved that the toilers, despised and ridiculed as men and women fit only for drudgery and the production of profit for a select few, are vastly more capable of conducting and managing the affairs of a social order than are the parasites they cast off their backs. The Revolution brought to the surface treasures of resourcefulness, initiative, energy, social instincts and devotion which had lain dormant in the masses of the people and had only waited for their revolutionary release from the stifling upper crust of capitalist rule.

Its “working existence” gave the crushing answer of life, of social practise, to the hitherto far less real disputes between the proponents of capitalism and the advocates of socialism, on the one side, and between the advocates of reformist theory and practise in the labor movement and the defenders of revolutionary Marxian theory and practise, on the other. It became the living criterion by which all other movements, inside and outside the working class, could be measured; and when they were, they were found wanting. One has only to bear in mind the comparison: Some two decades of a “revolution” led by the classic party of social reformism, the German, brought to power a regime which is cursed and hated the world over. The Soviet State, with all its defects and tragedies, is nevertheless regarded to this day, even by its sharpest critics, as a historical social achievement that must he defended from its capitalist enemies by workers everywhere.

Revolution Through Planned Economy

Despite its isolation from world economy, despite the indescribably mean heritage of czarism and years of paralyzing civil war, the Bolshevik Revolution brought Russia to heights of productive development which capitalism, given similar circumstances, could never have attained in the same period of time, In the course of doing this titanic job, the Revolution coined the magic phrase and the magic reality of Planned Economy – the greatest contribution that the proletarian revolution, that socialism makes to the advancement of the human race. Bringing the working class to power, the Revolution established the fact that the people can so coordinate their social-economic efforts for the production and exchange of the necessities, the comforts, and even the luxuries of life, as to make them available to all. The principle of planning can be realized only by cutting down at the root the private ownership of property, with its attendant production for the market, that is, anarchic production, with the concomitant evils of exploitation, poverty, unemployment, wars, and other social pestilences. When it is realized, it promptly demonstrates its tremendous economic and social superiority over planless capitalism.

One needs very little imagination to understand that if the Soviet Union has been able, with planned economy, in a single country, to make its prodigious advances despite a hostile capitalist circumference and a parasitic bureaucracy, then, together with the rest of the world, it would be able to catapult society to a hitherto unrealizable stage of culture and comfort if planning were worldwide. If only there obtained an international socialist division of labor, if only the natural resources, the technological equipment and the man-power of the world could be organized from one central point! The Russian Revolution, in this decisive sphere, has given us a breathtaking glimpse of tomorrow’s Golden Age of Humanity.

Birth of New International

The Bolshevik Revolution saved the honor of the international labor movement. It came into being when the International was split into warring national sections – warring against each other for Kaiser or Mammon – its shield stained, its banner trailed in trench-mud, its principles traded for a recruiting sergeant’s uniform. It not only revived the International, but brought it back to the granite foundations of revolutionary Marxism and gave it the physical materials and the spiritual content that made it an awe-and-fear-inspiring edifice. Together, the Revolution and the new International brought hope and confidence again to the masses in despair. It resumed, seriously, determinedly, the work begun by the great guides of the proletariat, Marx and Engels. It brought millions of prostrated workers to their feet. It did something that no other movement had ever done: it aroused the yellow, brown and black slaves of imperialism’s colonial domain to such a point of revolutionary fervor and clarity as shook the very keystone of world empires and threatened for a time to collapse them forever.

This side of the balance sheet could be extended almost indefinitely. But enough has been said to indicate the unprecedented contribution to human progress already made by the Russian Revolution. Even if some hideous catastrophe should overtake the Soviet Union tomorrow, even if a cruel turn of events should hurl its population back to the thralldom of capitalism, the Russian Revolution would already have implanted itself so firmly in recorded history that its historical greatness could never be eradicated and its social achievements would remain a subject for study and emulation.

Isolation is Weakness

The other side of the balance-sheet is, however, not so roseate. The Achilles heel of the Russian Revolution has always been its isolation. Exactly four months after the Bolshevik insurrection, Lenin asserted that “the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we will perish”; and for the thousandth time he repeated this absolute truth by saying in 1921 that “before the revolution and also after it, we thought that the revolution either immediately or at least very soon will come also in other countries, in the more highly developed countries, otherwise we will perish.” The authentic architects of the Russian Revolution never forgot for a moment that left to its own forces – no matter how heroic – it would degenerate and crumble.

The ugliest expression of this peril to the Revolution is the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the Third International. At once its theoretical rationalization and sign of its nationalistic decay, is the doctrine of “socialism in a single country.” Starting from the indubitable fact that the revolution in other countries was delayed in coming and that Russia remained for the time being the only fortress of the proletariat, a conservative Soviet bureaucracy consolidated itself around the conception that this temporary state of affairs must not only be accepted, that Russia must not only adapt herself to it, but that it must be perpetuated in the alleged interests of concentrating on the internal development of the Soviet Union.

Working from this conception, the new rulers of Russia have pursued a course in the last thirteen years which has wrought havoc not only upon the revolutionary and labor movement of the capitalist world, but upon the Soviet Union as well. The long period of the rise of Stalinism is coincident with the work of liquidating – in recent times at an accelerated speed – the achievements of the Russian Socialist Revolution.

Communist International a Brake

In order to preserve a national Utopia, where poverty still rubs shoulders with bureaucratic privilege under the all-hallowing label of “our socialist, classless society,” the foreign extension of the Soviet officialdom, still retaining the name of “Communist International,” has been converted into a series of tight brake bands around the world revolutionary movement. Launched for the purpose of wiping out the diplomatic Latin pseudonym for modern capitalism – “the “status quo” – the Comintern has been transformed into the most zealous attorney and man-at-arms of the “status quo,” that is, of the “state of things as they are,” that is, of the rule of bankrupt, putrescent capitalism. A blow at the Soviet Union is a blow at the international proletariat. Conversely, an abandonment of the world’s labor and revolutionary movements is equivalent to disarming and demobilizing the indispensable auxiliary forces of the Soviet Union. By turning the Third International into the shock troops of bourgeois “democracy,” Stalin strikes a double blow: at the working class under capitalism and at the working class under Sovietism.

That gradual, systematic, fascinating work, begun under Lenin, of putting a socialist foundation under agriculture, of slowly and intelligently removing the age-old private property desires and individualistic instincts of the peasants (in order, thereby, to eliminate the strongest social-economic base for the restoration of capitalist property in general), of carefully but surely instilling the peasant with a socialist consciousness, has now been reversed by Stalin. The peasants are being given the land “in perpetuity” – in categorical opposition to the spirit of the Russian Revolution and its first Constitution. Their every latent feeling of individualism, of property ownership, is being systematically stimulated, The shibboleth of the day on the land is: “Accumulate! Become well-to-do!”

Retreat on all Fronts

A no less significant change is occurring in the cities, in the factories. Behind a well-laid barrage of sneering at, “petty bourgeois equalitarianism” (with the inevitable inappropriate quotations from a defenseless Marx), an increasingly wide gap is being hewn between the general mass of the workers, on the one side, and a Stakhanovist aristocracy of labor plus a highly privileged stratum of bureaucrats, on the other. The contrast has developed to such an alarming point that a returned American socialist can write (alas! with so much justification) that “the difference in standard of living between the privileged stratum and the rest of the population of the Union is about the same as, in old Russia, between the life of the nobles and that of the ordinary people.” In the factories themselves, the unions have become caricatures of what they were; control by factory committees has been ruthlessly abolished and the “Red director” reigns supreme, with unchallengeable authority: the workers have been long deprived of the right to strike which was guaranteed them under Lenin – formally and solemnly guaranteed by a Communist party congress.

The Stalinist plague has even passed over the field of social legislation, in which Russia once stood proudly at the head of all nations, no matter how progressive, democratic or powerful. Capital punishment, for example, always an abomination to socialists, admissible only in such emergencies as a civil war would constitute, has not only been preserved, but extended to cover a multitude of offenses – extended, it is hard to believe! even to offending miners of the age of 12. The new law on abortion is another of Stalin’s heinous reversals of the policy and spirit of the great revolution, a reversal which even some of the professional “Friends” of the Soviet bureaucracy found it difficult to swallow.

Social Democracy a Memory

Party and Soviet democracy are the dimmest memories. Woe to him who, remembering the Lenin epoch, dares to rise to his feet in criticism of the bureaucracy, and its newly-dubbed Marshals! Party congresses are held or not, as the officials decree; and if held, they are like circus parades in which the performers go listlessly through their prepared acts. In Scriptures, mall at least proposes, even if God disposes, in the Soviet Union, Stalin alone proposes and disposes. The elite of the struggle against czarism, of the revolution, of the civil war, organized into the once admirable Communist party, has been dissolved into a doughy mass, out of which the bureaucratic yeast brings to the top only the careerist, the sycophant and toady, the place-hunter on the make. The Old Bolsheviks, who really symbolized and incarnated the authentic socialist revolution? Remorselessly, with that rudeness and disloyalty for which Lenin excoriated him, Stalin has cut them down, and with them the flower of the revolution. The Society of Old Bolsheviks – dissolved. The League of Red Partisans (militants of the civil war period) – dissolved, League of Former Political Prisoners – dissolved. Young Communist League – dissolved, and replaced by a “non-party” organization forbidden to engage in politics. Lenin’s collaborators, for twenty years or more, all of them without exception – dissolved by the unspeakable cruelties of Stalin’s prison regime or by moral disembowelment into groveling capitulators or by the classless bullets of a socialist firing squad.

This is the record of the other side of the balance sheet, the record made by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the liquidators of the socialist revolution. The economic foundations of that revolution still remain, not intact, it is true, and overgrown with weeds and poisonous fungi. But the bureaucratic structure set down upon that foundation threatens to crush it entirely. If it is to be saved, the bureaucracy must be overthrown, just as a reactionary officialdom must be removed from control of a trade union if that organization is to survive and flourish as a genuine labor body.

Triumph of Russian Revolution

This necessarily brief survey can lead to pessimistic conclusions only one who has never been deeply associated with the proletarian movement or who has never understood it. Big Bill Haywood called the Russian Revolution the biggest general strike in history. In a sense, he was right. Sometimes, strikes are temporarily defeated, and with them the trade unions. Sometimes, the latter are wiped out for a time, either because of the superiority of the capitalists’ forces, or because of a weakness of the union deriving from erroneous policy, incompetent or treacherous leadership. How stupid and dilettante it would be, then, to conclude, for example, that there is no point in attempting to organize the steel workers into unions because it was tried in 1919 without immediate success.

And the Russian Revolution cannot even be compared with, let us say, the great steel workers’ strike of 1919. The latter was defeated; it failed. The former has neither been defeated nor failed. It is still, we are profoundly convinced, filled with life, potentialities, resources that merely need touching off to re-assert themselves. The revolutionary socialist cannot be like those who thought the problem was all at once settled the day the Bolsheviks took power. The key to the solution of the problem lies, for us, in the extension of the revolution throughout the capitalist world. Its triumph means the real triumph of the Russian revolution, the basic answer to the problems besetting it. There is no other way.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.4.2005