Max Shachtman


Revolution and Counter-Revolution
in Russia

The 20th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Uprising
and the Degeneration of the Soviet Power

(January 1938)

From New International, Vol. 4 No. 1, January 1938, pp. 8–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TWENTIETH anniversary of the Russian revolution has been greeted in monotonous dithyrambs by the liberals of almost every school. It is not so much the social revolution against capitalist society and private property to which they pay their belated aspects. They hail what they consider the successfully established Great Power, the abandonment of all those childish notions of world revolution which they always regarded as Utopian and more than a little ill-mannered, and the maturing of the once rude youngster who has now come of age and is eminently fitted to join the society of the respectable and democratic nations of the earth.

This aspect of the twentieth anniversary is of no small symptomatic significance. In November 1917 and afterwards, the liberals regarded the Bolshevik revolution as an unwarranted intrusion upon the legitimate development of Russia towards their concept of democracy, under the aegis of Kerensky and his coalition government with the realistic and statesmanlike social-democrats. The withdrawal of the Soviets from the imperialist war which left the Allies all alone in the fight to make the world safe for democracy, and the subsequent overturn of all the economic power of the capitalistic class and their political retainers only added to the already mounting horror of the liberal intelligentsia. Their horror was not abated but intensified when the proletariat began to shatter the resistance of the counterrevolution with distinctly impolite weapons of ruthless warfare.

The dust stirred up by the intense class struggle in Russia blinded the liberals to the world-historical significance of the revolution which was laying the foundation stones for a hitherto only dreamed-of social order. Even years later they could not forgive the Bolsheviks their audacity. Grudgingly at first, and in the end enthusiastically, with a pitying if not angry glance at the Trotskyists who strike a discordant note at the ceremony, they joined in the now stylish endorsement of the Soviet regime. But their tardy recognition of the revolution of 1917 coincides not with its social triumph but with the period of its degeneration. Just as they once failed to see that the victory of the Bolsheviks marked the victory of the social revolution against capitalism, so they fail to see that the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy marks the victory of a political counter-revolution. Yet that is precisely what is new in the development of the Russian revolution.

Not a single Bolshevik leader considered it possible for the Soviet power to endure for a long period of time, much less for Russia to achieve the classless socialist order, unless the workers of one or more advanced capitalist countries come to its aid.

When we began the international revolution [said Lenin at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921] ... we thought, either the international revolution comes to our aid and then our victory is quite assured, or else we do our modest revolutionary work and do it in the knowledge that in the event that we suffer defeat, we are thereby of use to the cause of the revolution, because we make it possible for other revolutions, made shrewder by our experiences, to do it better. It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution, the victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible. Even before the revolution and also afterwards, we reflected: either the revolution in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, comes immediately or at least in very swift succession, or we must succumb.

Neither the hope nor the prognosis was realized, as is known. Yet the Soviet state has not perished. At first blush, this seems to confirm Stalin’s nationalistic thesis that a socialist society can be established within a single Country regardless of whether the revolution triumphs in other lands. But only at first blush. For while the Soviet state has not succumbed despite its enforced isolation, it has not only been unable to achieve its socialist goal but it has been corrupted from within by the deadly cancer of degeneration. The canal through which the poisons have flowed to the heart and head of the régime, is the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Even before it expropriated the economic power of the bourgeoisie, the Russian revolution deprived it of its political power. Its place was taken by the rule of the working class, a proletarian democracy, Lenin wrote, “a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy, and the Soviet regime ... a million times more democratic than the most democratic régime in a bourgeois republic.” The Soviet democracy was based on the abolition of a professional governmental bureaucracy divorced from the people, on the indivisibility of the legislative and executive bodies, on the direct rule of the toilers through their deputies to the Soviets, subject at all times to recall, on the armed people as against a professional body of armed men divorced from the masses, and on the privileged position of the proletariat as the vanguard of the toiling masses. While the Bolshevik party, as the tested and trusted revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, was the ruling party, it maintained a live and sensitive contact with the toilers through the Soviets, the trade unions, the factory committees, the committees of poor peasants, the cooperatives, and similar institutions. The existence of a wide freedom of discussion and decision in all these bodies, of genuine workers’ democracy, made of this interlocking system of institutions the living reality of the political rule of the proletariat – never ideal or flawless, to be sure, but decisive.

The counter-revolution of the Stalinist bureaucracy consists in nothing less than this; It has effectively destroyed all these institutions in the last fourteen years and thereby it has just as effectively expropriated the proletariat politically.

THE OLD GUARD OF THE PARTY. – Lenin attached, even if not uncritically, a tremendous significance to what was called the Old Guard of the Bolshevik party. He regarded those veterans who had passed through three revolutions, the World War and the civil war, as one of the main assurances that the revolution would continue along its indicated path. “It must be recognized,” he wrote to the Central Committee in March 1922, “that at the present time the proletarian party policy is determined not so much by its membership as by the unlimited and powerful authority of that thin layer which we may name the old party Guard.” The Stalinist bureaucracy, in the course of its reaction to the revolution, its traditions and its ideology, has destroyed the Old Guard which embodied them.

Take but one example which comes to hand, the Central Committee elected at the 9th Congress in 1920: Artem, Dzerzhinsky, Lenin, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krestinsky, Preobrazhensky, Rudzutak, Radek, Rakovsky, Rykov, Serebriakov, I.N. Smirnov, Tomsky, Trotsky, Andreyev, Kalinin and Stalin. The first three died of natural causes. Of the rest, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Serebriakov and I.N. Smirnov were murdered by the Stalinists; Tomsky was killed or driven to suicide; Trotsky is in Mexican exile; Bukharin, Krestinsky, Preobrazhensky, Rudzutak, Radek, Rakovsky and Rykov are imprisoned or disgraced – all thirteen of them as fascists or wreckers or assassins. Only Stalin, Kalinin and Andreyev remain, which is like saying that only Stalin remains.

Important to note in this devastating and uninterrupted purge is the fact that it is not only the generation of defenders of the October that has been crushed. The Trotskyists or Zinovievists – men like Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, Mdvani, Piatakov, Smirnov, Smilga, Preobrazhensky, Bieloborodov, Muralov – were removed long ago by the Thermidorian generation that brought Stalin to power. Now even the men of the Thermidorian reaction have gone or are going: Bukharin, Rykov, Rudzutak, Tukhachevsky, Bubnov, Postyshev, and hundreds less well known. Their places are taken by entirely colorless unknowns like Beria, Eikhe, Zhdanov, Khrustchev who are not so much party leaders as Stalinist governor-generals who rule the provinces like old Turkish Walis; they are made or unmade in a day by simple decree, and their coming and going are like the shadows of a guttering candle flame.

THE BOLSHEVIK PARTY. – Whatever else it may be, a political organization that does not have a free and rich inner life is not a revolutionary proletarian party. In Lenin’s time, even after the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists had placed themselves outside the Soviet pale by their counter-revolutionary course and left the Bolshevik party with a monopoly of political rule, the party led an intense and active inner life, discussing freely at all times, debating all questions openly, electing, criticizing and removing its leadership and deciding the party line at will. Under the gun-fire of the Kronstadt mutiny and the echoes of the peasant risings in Tambov and elsewhere, the 10th Congress adopted the entirely exceptional and temporary emergency measure prohibiting separate factions with separate platforms. This unprecedented limitation on party democracy, however, was adopted with numerous significant reservations. The adopted resolution stated:

It is necessary that every party organization takes rigorous care that the absolutely necessary criticism of the shortcomings of the party, all analyses of the general party direction, all appraisals of its practical experience, every examination of the carrying out of the party decisions and of the means of correcting the mistakes, etc. – shall not be discussed in separate groups standing upon any “platform”, but rather in the meetings of all the party members. Towards this end, the Congress decides to publish a periodical Discussion Sheet and special periodicals. Everyone who comes forward with a criticism must take into consideration the position of the party in the midst of its encircling enemies, and he must also strive, in his direct activity in Soviet and party circles, to correct the mistakes of the party in practise.

While the Congress orders the Central Committee to exterminate all factionalism, the conference declares at the same time that those questions which attract the special attention of the party membership – e.g., on the purging of the party of unproletarian, unreliable elements, on the struggle against bureaucratism, on the development of democracy and the broader participation of the workers, etc. – and in general all objective proposals, must be examined with the utmost possible scrupulousness and tested practically. All party members must know that the party cannot take all the required measures in these questions, since it encounters a whole series of the most varied obstacles, and that while the party decisively rejects an un-objective and factional criticism, it will continue tirelessly to test new methods, and to fight with all means against bureaucratism and for the extension of the democracy of the self-active .masses, for the uncovering, exposure and expulsion of all unreliable elements from the party. (Russische Korrespondenz, Nr.5, May 1921, p.323)

Not aimed at suppressing democracy, even the restrictions of the 10th Congress were designed to extend discussion and criticism, to organize it, to ferret out bureaucratism, and to do all this in a manner that would be less dangerous and factional under the concrete conditions. When, at the same congress, Riazanov moved an amendment prohibiting elections of delegates to coming congresses on the basis of factional platforms, Lenin, quick to sense the danger, replied:

I think that the desire of comrade Riazanov is unfortunately not realizable. If fundamental disagreements exist on a question, we cannot deprive members of the Central Committee of the right to address themselves to the party. I cannot imagine how we can do this. The present congress can in no way and in no form engage the elections to the next congress. And if, for example, questions like the Brest-Litovsk peace arise? Can we guarantee that such questions will not arise? It cannot be guaranteed. It is possible that it will then be necessary to elect by platform. That’s quite clear. (Minutes of the 10th Congress, p.292, Russ. ed.)

And again, elsewhere, during the same period Lenin wrote:

But if deep, fundamental disagreements of principle exist, we may be told: “Do they not justify the sharpest factional action?” Naturally they justify it, if the disagreements are really deep, and if the rectification of the wrong policy of the party or of the working class cannot be obtained otherwise. (Works, Vol.XVIII, Pt.1, p.47, Russ. ed.)

In the period of acute danger to the Soviet regime, when it had to make the painful and hazardous transition to the New Economic Policy, and when the party imposed certain organizational restraints upon itself, Lenin nevertheless called for freedom of discussion and criticism, for internal discussion organs, and acknowledged the permissibility and even inevitability of factions, platforms and the “sharpest factional action”. By this he was merely testifying to the existence of a living party.

The Stalinist bureaucracy has changed all that. It started with the Trotsky-Zinoviev Opposition. In 1927, it prohibited the publication of their Platform, arrested those leaders and militants who mimeographed it for circulation in a pre-congress discussion period, and expelled all those who defended it. It demanded not only that the Opposition supporters cease advocating the views in their Platform, but that they cease believing those views! In 1932, Stalin demanded the execution of the old Bolshevik, Riutin, for circulating a “platform” which ended with Lenin’s demand that Stalin be removed from his post; Riutin was “merely” imprisoned by the GPU. In the last few years – the years of Stalinist domination – not one single word of criticism of the party leadership has been uttered; not one single proposal different from the proposals of the Führer. Nobody dares. Yet there are differences of opinion, whispered about and muttered in tiny grouplets. Only, the party does not decide these differences. The party is dead. The GPU decides them in accord with the instructions of the Secretariat.

The congress of the party is its highest and most authoritative instance, selecting the leadership to carry out the line of policy which the congress adopts. At least, so it was in Lenin’s time. The question of seizing power, the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the New Economic Policy, the trade union question – all these were decided at party congresses, after the fullest discussion of all the conflicting standpoints. In the Stalinist epoch, congresses no longer take place. In their stead, the bureaucracy organizes palace assemblies of hand-picked lieges who listen without discussion to the Throne Speech of the Führer. The lesser bureaucrats appear only for the purpose of burning frankincense to Stalin and of giving him assurances of their blind fealty in terms reminiscent of the fawning speeches made by provincial princelings to an Oriental potentate.

Just think: In the days of illegality and thin purses, under Tsarist despotism, the Russian party nevertheless held four regular congresses between July 1903 and May 1907. (Of party conferences under Tsarism, there were eight, from the Tammerfors meeting in 1905 to the Poronino meeting in 1913.) In the revolutionary period, between the overthrow of the Tsar and the death of Lenin, the party held eight regular party congresses (and seven conferences). The Stalinist record is quite different. The first real post-Lenin congress was the 14th, in December 1925; the 15th was held 2 years later; between it and the 16th, 2½ years were allowed to elapse; between the 16th and the 17th Congress – the last to be held, in January 1934 – more than 3½ years went by. The statutes adopted by the Stalinists themselves at the 17th Congress provided (§27) that “regular congresses are convened no less than once in three years”. In cynical violation of its own statutes, the bureaucracy has let four years pass and the fiction of a party is not even allowed to hold its fiction of a congress. And what four years these have been! What drastic changes the bureaucracy has made without even going through the formality of consulting the party! Under the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Bolshevik party (if it may be called that) has been allowed to meet in congress (again, if it may be called that) only four times in more than thirteen years. The party met more often under the Tsar! The bureaucracy has crushed the old party.

THE TRADE UNIONS. – In the early days of the revolution, the Bolsheviks regarded the trade unions as a school of Communism, and as one of the institutions through which the workers ruled in the factories and the Soviets. The Bolsheviks did not fear debate and discussion, and as late as 1920, almost three years after the revolution, Dalin and Martov could still appear as the official representatives of the Menshevik party at the 3rd Congress of the trade unions to present their views and debate the Bolshevik spokesmen. But even more: the Bolsheviks regarded the trade unions as an indispensable instrument for the defense of proletarian interests from the transgressions, abuses and wantonness of the state itself, and especially of its bureaucracy. It was only in 1927 that Molotov put forward the bigoted, bureaucratic conception that since Russia is a workers’ state there can be no question of defending the workers from it. Lenin had nothing in common with this bureaucratic idealism. Speaking before the party fraction of the 8th Soviet Congress on December 30, 1920, during the discussion on the trade union question, he said:

Comrade Trotsky speaks of the workers’ state. Permit me, that is an abstraction. When we wrote about the workers’ state in 1917 that was understandable; but when it is said today: Why defend, defend the working class against whom, there’s no longer a bourgeoisie, don’t we have a workers’ state – then an obvious error is being committed. The whole joke is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That’s where the basic mistake of comrade Trotsky lies! We have passed over from general principles to objective discussion and to decrees, but that’s where we are being held back from practical objective work. That will not do! Our state is in reality no workers’ state, but a workers’ and peasants’ state. A whole lot follows from that ... But still more. From our party program it follows that our state is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations. We have to paste this – how shall we call it? – sorry label on it. That is the reality of the transition! ...

Our present state is such that the organized proletariat must defend itself and we must utilize these workers’ organizations for the defense of the workers against their state and for the defense of the state by the workers. (Der Kampf um die soziale Revolution, pp. 593f.)

What a decisive role Lenin assigned to the trade unions in this profoundly dialectical concept of the interrelations between the economic organizations of the workers and the real – not idealistically perfect – workers’ state, a concept beyond the grasp of superficial minds accustomed to abstract and absolute categories. The trade unions are an instrument for the defense of the workers’ state and for the defense of the workers from that state! And if the latter was necessary seventeen years ago, how infinitely more urgent is it today that the trade unions defend the workers from a regime in which the bureaucratic cancer has grown to monstrous, undreamed-of proportions? What, for example, has happened to the right to strike, solemnly recognized by the party congress in Lenin’s time? Most likely it has not been abolished by law; only, the exercise of that right is rewarded by a prompt visit by the GPU.

The right to intervene in the question of hiring and firing and of management in general was taken from the trade unions, from the factory committee and from the party nucleus in the factory, in September 1929. The trade unionists and the unions themselves are silent in the face of the most abominable abuses of the factory directors. The bitterness of the average worker against the growing disparity between his wages and the salary of the industrial bureaucrat or the labor aristocrat who carries the title of Stakhanovite, is felt in the heart and muttered in the most discreet privacy, but is not expressed in or through the trade unions.

The trade union leadership is composed of case-hardened bureaucrats, appointed from above and removed just as easily. They know they have neither obligations nor responsibilities to the ranks; nor are they under their control. As a result the Soviet press is compelled to print countless depressing reports of wantonness, irresponsibility, embezzlement, brutality and degeneration among the trade union officialdom. The worker does not know today who will be the head of his trade union tomorrow; he is not consulted and, knowing quite well that he has a union in name only, he cares precious little. He is aware that the armed guard who watches over him in the mine pit, as described by Kléber Legay elsewhere in this issue, is far more real and far more powerful than the empty shell that was once the Russian trade union movement.

The first All-Russian congress of the trade unions met in January 1918; the second early in 1919; the third in April 1920. The 9th Congress met towards the end of 1928; the 10th Congress early in 1932. Since then – that is for almost six crucial years – there has been no congress. If one knew nothing else about the Russian trade unions, the comparison between the two sets of dates would suffice to indicate the difference between a living movement, a real foundation stone in the structure of proletarian democracy – and a fiction. But behind the fiction stands the usurpatory bureaucracy.

THE SOVIETS. – The Russian revolution laid bare the Soviets – the councils of workers, soldiers, peasants – as the most natural, most democratic, most efficient form of proletarian state rule in the transition period between capitalism and communism. In all other countries where a revolutionary situation matured, Soviets, just like the Russian or slightly varied in form, developed spontaneously as the embryonic organs of insurrection and power, and not as a product artificially imported from Russia.

The original Soviets were a million times more democratic than any bourgeois republic precisely because they smashed the monopoly of the professional capitalist politician and bureaucrat whose relationship with the masses is confined to electoral campaigns once a year or less often. The Soviets made it possible for the masses to throw off the yoke of “voting cattle” which bourgeois rule imposes upon them, and to act as the direct, independent administrators of their own affairs. Unsatisfactory representatives could be recalled at will and replaced by others. Lenin saw especially in the right of recall not only one of the main pillars of Soviet democracy but also a guarantee of the peaceful settlement of conflicts and disputes in the country. Four weeks after the Bolshevik uprising, he said at a session of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets:

Various parties have played a dominant role among us. The last time, the passage of influence from one party to another was accompanied by an overturn, by a fairly stormy overturn, whereas a simple vote would have sufficed had we had the right of recall ... The right of recall must be granted the Soviets, which are the most perfect carrier of the state idea, of coercion. Then the passage of power from one party to another will proceed without bloodshed, by means of simple new elections. (Izvestia, No. 233, Dec. 6, 1917)

The whole course of the Stalinist bureaucracy, climaxed by a “democratic election under the new democratic Constitution” which is gruesomely mocked by the never-ceasing purge, has proceeded by trampling under foot every one of the conceptions of the place and function of the Soviets which prevailed in the early years of the revolution. From the local Soviets to the Central Executive Committee itself, the administrations are appointed and removed at will by the corresponding party apparatus-bosses, and without the slightest intervention of the masses themselves. The right of recall exists, to be sure, but it is exercised only by the Stalinist bureaucracy. What Soviet institution, what mass organization or movement intervened, for example, to remove the recently condemned People’s Commissars of White Russia, of the Ukraine, of Georgia, of the RSFSR, of the Soviet Union, and to put others in their place? Only the GPU, acting as administrative agent of the party secretariat. What “democratic” significance have the new constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly when they are enjoyed exclusively (and even then limitedly) by the myrmidons of the bureaucracy who are themselves under the constant surveillance of the secret police? What value has the secret ballot when there is but one candidate to choose from, and he hand-picked by the apparatus? The elections to the Soviets and all other alleged legislative and executive bodies are classic examples of Bonapartist plebiscites; they are an abominable caricature of Soviet democracy, the very negation of it.

The bureaucracy has strangled the Soviets of the revolution. The political rule of the workers and peasants has been supplanted by the political rule of the bureaucracy and those social strata which are its direct props. What a revealing story there is in the social composition of the guaranteed-to-be-elected candidates to the Council of the Union! Of actual workers and peasants, there are none or next to none. The overwhelming majority of the candidates is made up of party officials, factory directors, labor aristocrats (Stakhanovites), GPU and army officers, well-to-do farmers, that is, the reactionary bureaucracy and its associated social layers. The Soviets were to make it possible, in Lenin’s words, for any charwoman, for the lowest and most despised, to become the administrators of the state, so that it would no longer be, properly speaking, a state in the old sense of a bureaucratic apparatus of oppression with special bodies of armed men separate and apart from the people. The triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been accomplished by the political expropriation of the charwomen, of the proletariat. It signifies the victory of the political counter-revolution.

THE FOREIGN POLICY. – At home, the bureaucracy has not yet been able to free itself from the confines of the economic basis achieved by the Russian revolution, about which more later. But abroad, it has a free hand, so to speak, and there its course is openly counter-revolutionary. It is the gendarme of law and order, of the status quo throughout the capitalist world. A comparison between the situation even in 1923, when the reactionary tumor was already apparent in the Soviet body, and 1937, when the totalitarian bureaucracy is celebrating its triumph, will indicate the profound change.

In 1923, when the German revolution was expected, the Soviet Republic stood at attention to aid it. The harbor of Petrograd was filled with grain ships ready to sail for Stettin so that the German Soviet republic would not be starved out by the Entente. Representatives of the Comintern and the Russian party were active on German soil, preparing for the uprising as best they could under the leadership of Brandler and Zinoviev. Specialists of the Red Army were assigned to give expert assistance to the German communists. The close diplomatic alliance existing at that time between the Soviets and the German bourgeois republic had not converted the International into the main prop of German capitalism – quite the contrary.

In 1937, all the diplomatic moves in Europe, all the aid sent by the Soviet Union to the Spanish loyalists (in the form of munitions, arms, military experts, GPU agents, etc.), are directed towards crushing the proletarian revolution in Spain, preserving Spanish bourgeois democracy as an instrument in the hands of Anglo-French imperialism. The policy of Stalin in Spain is distinguished from that of Noske and Scheidemann in the Germany of 1919 only by its more systematic savagery. All the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy are based upon its self-preservation. Abroad, at the very least, in the international labor movement and class struggle, it is indisputable that the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy come into head-on conflict with the interests of the working class. These interests produce not the policies of the Mensheviks of 1905, nor even of 1917, but of those Mensheviks who took up arms, in alliance with Anglo-French imperialism in 1918-1919, to overthrow the young Soviet republic. They are not just non-revolutionary policies, they are the policies of counter-revolution.

What remains of the Russian revolution? Why should we defend the Soviet Union in case of war?

A number of realities still remain. The conflict between German fascism (and fundamentally, also, of the capitalist world as a whole), and the Soviet Union, still remains no less a reality than, let us say, the conflict between fascism and social-democracy or the trade unions, regardless of how corrupt may be the leadership of the latter, regardless of how it may compromise and capitulate, regardless of how much it may seek to place itself under the protection of one capitalist force (as did the Austrian social democracy) against another. The conflict can be resolved only by the capitalist world being overturned by the working class, or by the Soviet Union, its present bureaucracy included, being crushed and reduced to the status of a colonial or semi-colonial country, divided among the world’s imperialist bandits.

Another great reality is the economic foundation established by the October revolution. Despite bureaucratic mismanagement and parasitism, we have the prodigious economic advances made by Soviet industry, the great expansion of the productive forces in Russia (without which human progress is generally inconceivable) in a period of stagnation and retrogression in the capitalist world, the principle and practise of economic planning. All these were possible only on the basis of the abolition of socially-operated private property, of the nationalization of the means of production and exchange, their centralization in the hands of the state which is the main prerequisite of an evolution towards the classless society of universal abundance, leisure and unprecedented cultural advancement.

Outraged by the brutality of the reactionary usurpers, by their blood purges, by their political expropriation of the toilers, by their totalitarian regime, more than one class conscious worker and revolutionary militant has concluded that nothing is left of the Russian revolution, that there are no more grounds for defending the Soviet Union in a war than for defending any capitalist state. The professional confusionists of the various ultra-leftist grouplets prey upon these honest reactions to Stalinism and try to goad the workers into a reactionary position. Some of these philosophers of ignorance and superficiality prescribe a position of neutrality in a war between the Soviet Union and Germany; others, less timid, call for the strategy of defeatism in the Soviet Union. At bottom, the ultra-leftist position on the Soviet Union, which denies it any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state, reflects the vacillations of the petty bourgeoisie, their inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism.

Class rule is based upon property relations. Bourgeois class rule, the bourgeois state, is based upon private ownership, appropriation and accumulation. The political superstructure of the bourgeois class state may vary: democratic republic, monarchy, fascist dictatorship. When the bourgeois can no longer rule directly politically, and the working class is still too weak to take power, a Bonapartist military dictatorship may arise which seeks to raise itself “above the classes”, to “mediate” between them. But it continues to rule over a bourgeois state (even though, as in Germany, it has politically expropriated the bourgeoisie and its parties), because it has left bourgeois property relations more or less intact.

The October revolution abolished bourgeois property relations in the decisive spheres of economic life. By centralizing the means of production in the hands of the state, it created new property relations. The counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, although it has destroyed the political rule of the proletariat, has not yet been able to restore capitalist property relations by abolishing those established by the revolution. This great reality determines, for Marxists, the character of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, bureaucratically degenerated, it is true, usurped and therefore crucially imperilled by the Bonapartists, but still fundamentally a workers’ state. This great remaining conquest of the revolution determines, in turn, our defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack and from its Bonapartist sappers at home.

Because it is not a simple question, Lenin pointed out at the 9th Congress of the party in 1920, we must be careful not to sink into the morass of confusion.

Wherein consists the rule of the class? Wherein consisted the rule of the bourgeoisie over the feudal lords? In the constitution it was written: “in freedom and equality.” – That is a lie. So long as there are toilers, the property owners are capable and, as such, even compelled, to speculate. We say that there is no equality there, and that the sated are not the equals of the hungry, the speculator is not the equal of the toiler. Wherein does the rule of the class express itself? The rule of the proletariat expresses itself in the abolition of landed and capitalist property. Even the fundamental content of all former constitutions – the republican included – boiled down to property. Our constitution has acquired the right to historical existence, we did not merely write down on paper that we are abolishing property, but the victorious proletariat did abolish property and abolished it completely. – Therein consists the rule of the class – primarily in the question of property. When the question of property was decided in practise, the rule of the class was thereby assured; thereupon the constitution wrote down on paper what life had decided: “There is no capitalist and landed property,” and it added: “The working class has more rights than the peasantry, but the exploiters have no rights at all.” Therewith was written down the manner in which we realized the rule of our class, in which we bound together the toilers of all strata, all the little groups. The petty bourgeois proprietors were split-up. Among them those who have a larger property are the foes of those who have less, and the proletariat openly declares war against them when it abolishes property ...

The rule of the class is determined only by the relationship to property. That is precisely what determines the constitution. And our constitution correctly set down our attitude to property and our attitude to the question of what class must stand at the head. He who, in the question of how the rule of the class is expressed, falls into the questions of democratic centralism, as we often observe, brings so much confusion into the matter that he makes impossible any successful work on this ground. (Russische Korrespondenz, Nr. 10, July 1920, p. 8)

Liberal apologists have distorted Lenin’s concepts into an argument for the compatibility of the bureaucratic dictatorship, and even a personal dictatorship, with a consistent development towards the new social order. “So long as industry remains nationalized and the productive forces expand,” runs their apology, “what does it really matter if Stalin maintains a bureaucratic despotism, which we civilized liberals would not tolerate but which is good enough for backward Russians?” It is of course quite true that Lenin saw no absolute incompatibility between proletarian democracy and “individual dictatorship” in industry under given conditions. A year before his quoted speech at the 9th Congress, he observed:

That the dictatorship of single persons in the history of the revolutionary movements was very often the spokesman, the carrier and the executant of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes, is evidenced by the incontestable experience of history ... If we are not anarchists, we must acknowledge the necessity of the state, i.e., of coercion, for the transition from capitalism to socialism. The form of coercion is determined by the degree of development of the given revolutionary class, furthermore, by such special circumstances as, e.g., the heritage of a long, reactionary war, furthermore, by the forms of the resistance of the bourgeoisie or of the petty bourgeoisie. Therefore there is not the slightest contradiction in principle between Soviet (i.e., socialist) democracy and the application of the dictatorial rule of individual persons. (Sämtliche Werke, Bd. XXII, pp. 524f., Ger. ed.)

But in order to make clear his real thoughts, he hastened to add the following indispensable supplementary statement, without which everything is one-sided and therefore false:

The more resolutely we now come out in favor of a ruthlessly strong power, for the dictatorship of individual persons in definite labor processes during certain periods of purely executive functions, the more manifold must be the forms and methods of control from below in order to paralyze every trace of a possibility of distorting the Soviet power, in order to tear out, incessantly and tirelessly, the weeds of bureaucratism. (Ibid., p. 532)

It is precisely those manifold forms and methods of democratic control from below which the bureaucracy has destroyed in its development towards despotic rule. In destroying proletarian democracy and the political rule of the working class, the bureaucracy has lifted itself beyond the reach of the masses out of which it emerged. Having abandoned its original class base, it must find a new one, for it cannot last long as a thin bureaucratic stratum hanging, so to speak, in mid-air. The social layers with which it has linked itself are the well-to-do farmers, the factory directors and trust heads, the Stakhanovite aristocracy, the officialdom of the party, the Soviet apparatus, the Red Army and the GPU. But none of these, nor all of them taken together, represents a class, with a distinctive function in the productive life of the country, or with specific property forms upon which to build a firm class and firm class rule. Their whole tendency is to develop into a new property-owning class, that is, into a capitalist class based on private property. Blocking the road to the realization of this yearning stands the still powerful reality of the nationalization of the means of production and exchange, centralized planning, and the protection of nationalized industry which is afforded by the monopoly of foreign trade.

The bureaucracy, closely interlinked with these restorationist strata of Soviet society and embodying their social aspirations, is now driven by inexorable forces to take its next big step backward. Hitherto, the reaction has been confined essentially to the destruction of the whole political superstructure of the workers’ democracy established by the revolution, and to the physical annihilation of all those who were the living connection between today and the revolutionary yesterday. From now on, the anti-Soviet bureaucracy will, and in a certain sense, must seek its self-preservation by an assault upon the economic foundations of the workers’ state: nationalized property, planning, the monopoly of foreign trade.

In our opinion, it cannot and will not succeed in establishing the rule of an independent, new Russian capitalist class, even if we arbitrarily exclude the possibility, by no means exhausted, of the crushing of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy by a resurgent proletariat. The new strata of society gathered around the ruling Soviet clique may prevail over the Russian proletariat in the period to come. But we do not believe that they are strong or solidly rooted enough to develop into a national neo-bourgeoisie capable of resisting, on a capitalist basis, the infinitely stronger bourgeoisie of the foreign imperialist countries.

In other words, the Stalinist bureaucracy and its satellites are doomed regardless of the outcome. They cannot develop into an independent ruling capitalist class in Russia. Either they are defeated by the proletariat which carries through a political revolution for the purpose of restoring workers’ democracy and of safeguarding the economic basis of the workers’ state which still exists. Or they are defeated by powerful foreign imperialism, which would wipe out that old economic basis, reduce the Union to a semi-colonial country, and convert the restorationist strata not into a ruling capitalist class for Russia but merely into a compradore agency of world imperialism, occupying a position not dissimilar from that of the Chinese national bourgeoisie.

The class conscious workers will place all their hopes and bend all their efforts towards the realization of the former outcome of the struggle. The building of the revolutionary party to lead the Russian masses in the battle to save the Russian revolution is dependent upon the success of the revolutionary movement in the capitalist world. The depression and reaction in the ranks of the Russian proletariat was created by the defeats of the working class in the rest of the world, by the feeling of the Russians that they had no powerful allies in the capitalist world. The growth and victories of the Fourth International will galvanize the latent revolutionary strength of the Russian masses and set it into irresistible motion. Everything depends on the speed with which we accomplish our indicated task.

The crisis of the Russian revolution has emboldened all the critics of Bolshevism, that is, of revolutionary Marxism – all of them, old and new. But all their hoary argumentation leaves the Marxist unrepentant for his solidarity with those principles and ideas which made the Russian revolution possible. For in abandoning these ideas, he would have to adopt others, and what others are there? Should he adopt those of the Mensheviks? It is true: had they triumphed, the proletarian revolution in Russia would not have degenerated into its Stalinist caricature for the simple reason that there would have been no proletarian revolution. Should he adopt those of the Western European confrères of the Mensheviks, the parties of the Second International? It is true: they did not let the proletarian revolution in Germany and Austria and Italy degenerate, and that by the simple device of crushing it in the egg and thus facilitating the consolidation of their famous bourgeois democracy which brought the working class directly under the knife of Hitler and Schuschnigg and Mussolini. Should he adopt those of the anarchist politicians who have become so clamorous of late, especially about the Kronstadt rebellion? But the lamentable collapse of anarchist politics in Spain, the servile collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the heaping of capitulation upon capitulation and the yielding of one position after another without a struggle, are not calculated to attract us away from Marxism.

It is not in place here to dwell on the flawlessness of Bolshevism and all its policies in the great period of the revolution. Its defects may be freely granted. But the oppressed and exploited of the world have not yet been offered a scientific guide to action in their struggle for freedom which can even remotely claim to serve as a substitute for the party and principles of Lenin. In the face of enormous obstacles – not the least of which were created, with arms in hand, by the present-day bourgeois and reformist critics – Lenin and the Bolsheviks carried through the first conscious proletarian revolution. They laid the economic foundation for the new society without class rule, without iniquity or exploitation or oppression. They – and nobody else – gave us a picture of the truly breath-taking prospects for human advancement and human dignity which are open to us as soon as capitalism is sent to the rubbish-heap.

Rash indeed would he be who forecast the immediate future of the Russian revolution. But whatever it may be, its historical achievements are already imperishable. The first steam engine may not have been much faster than the old-fashioned stage-coach, if it was able to move at all. But the country’s network of rails is today skimmed by speedy, advanced, stream-line locomotives, while the stage-coach can be found only in museums. The creation of the steam-engine was a monumental contribution to human progress. The creation of the first Soviet republic was an even greater contribution. History will give little place to the period of Stalinist counter-revolution, for it will treat it as a passing historical episode. But the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and its enduring achievements will never be wiped out of the consciousness of man, for it sounded the knell of all class rule, marked the beginning of the end of man’s pre-history, the inauguration of a new era for a new man. In this sense, Lenin and his party of revolutionary Bolsheviks could say with Ovid:

Jamque opus exegi: quod nec Jovis ira, nec ignes, Nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas.
“I have now completed a work which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor the sword, nor the corroding tooth of time, shall be able to destroy.”


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Max Shachtman
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Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 18 April 2015