Max Shachtman


The “Mistakes” of the Bolsheviks”

(November 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943. pp. 303–306.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book: The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Vol. 1.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The causes for the decay of the Russian Revolution are often sought in the “mistakes of the Bolsheviks.”

If only they had not suppressed freedom of speech and press! If only they had not suppressed the freedom of political organization and all the non-Bolshevik parties! If only they had not established a one-party dictatorship! If only they had not set up a Communist International to split the Western European labor movement! Had they acted otherwise, we would have no fascism today, and no Stalinism, but instead a progressive development toward democratic socialism inside Russia and out.

That is the tenor of most of the criticism leveled at the Bolsheviks in the labor movement. Consistently thought out, they boil down to the idea that the real mistake was made in November 1917 when the Bolsheviks took power. This judgement is based essentially on the same factors that generated the fundamental theory of the Stalinist counter-revolution – “socialism in one country” – and differs from it only in that it is not on so high a level.

Class Relations in Russia

The bonds by which Czarism held together the Russian Empire were brittle in the extreme. Under the stress of so minor a struggle as the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and the revolutionary rehearsal a year later, the bonds almost shattered. Twelve years later, under the much heavier stress and pounding of the World War, they exploded beyond repair and tore Czarism to bits like the shot from shrapnel.

With Czarist despotism gone as an integrating force, who was left to keep the nation together and maintain it as a power, economic as well as political? One or two hundred years earlier in similar circumstances, it was the bourgeoisie. In one country after another, it united the nation on a new basis, eliminated or repressed the disintegrative forces, expanded the wealth and power of the country, and vouchsafed democracy to the masses in one measure or another. In Russia, however, the bourgeoisie had come too late. The solving of the problems of the democratic revolution had been too long postponed to permit a repetition of the French Revolution. This was the theory held in common by Lenin and Trotsky.

The period of the revolution in which Czarism was overturned tested the theory to the end. The bourgeoisie did come to power, but it was quite incapable of mastering the centrifugal tendencies which Czarism, in the comparatively peaceful days, had been able to hold in precarious check. The empire was falling apart. Be it in the person of Lvov, or Miliukov, or Kerensky, or Kornilov, the bourgeoisie made desperate, violent, but vain efforts to keep the subjected peripheral countries like Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, the Caucasus, inside the old empire with a new nameplate. It is unbelievable, but it is a fact, cried Lenin, that a peasant uprising is growing in a peasant country, “under a revolutionary republican government that is supported by the parties of the Social Revolutionists and the Mensheviks”. The peasant rising did not come to strengthen the bourgeoisie and its pallid democracy, but was directed against it. The bourgeoisie was unable to deal with it in any better way than the Czar had discovered. At the same time, a proletarian power, the Soviets, not at all Bolshevik, grew up spontaneously by the side of the bourgeois power and threatened its existence.

The bourgeois democracy was incapable of seriously approaching a single one of the social and political problems at home. Given the collapse of Czarism, all the long-standing, outer-Russian imperialist tendencies to reduce Russia to a colony – tendencies most vigorously represented by the Germans, but not exclusive with them – received free rein. The country ruled by the bourgeois republicans was about to be overrun by foreign imperialism as a prelude to its partition among the great powers. This problem, too, the “revolutionary democracy” was unable to solve, or even undertake seriously to solve. The country faced complete economic ruin, political disintegration, chaos, dismemberment and subjugation from abroad, the imminent triumph of counter-revolution and reaction, with all the consequences flowing from them. The bourgeoisie, the bourgeois democracy, was impotent in dealing with the situation, notwithstanding the support it received from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists.

The “Interference” of the Bolsheviks

To say that they might have solved these problems democratically if the Bolsheviks had not interfered is not only to ignore an overwhelming mass of facts, but to stand the question on its head. The “interference” of the Bolsheviks was made possible only because the bourgeois democrats, plus the social democrats, could not solve the problems.

Political action can be understood, not in the abstract, but in the concrete conditions in which it occurs. It cannot be rationally appraised by itself, but only in terms of the alternative. The alternative to the “risky” seizure of power by the working class under Bolshevik leadership was not the painless flowering of “democracy” but the triumph of savage counter-revolution and the partitioning and colonialization of the country.

The “mistake” of the Bolsheviks in taking power when they did and where they did, not only saved the honor of international socialism and gave it a new and powerful lease on life, but it saved Russia. Without this “initial mistake”, the greatest likelihood is that long ago German imperialism would have been ensconced in Petrograd and Moscow, French imperialism in Odessa, British imperialism in the Caucasus, Japanese imperialism throughout Siberia, Kerensky in a clerk’s chair, with the Mensheviks running errands for them all.

The Bolsheviks cannot, and therefore must not, be judged as if they were uncontested masters of a situation in which they could calmly and undisturbedly plan a campaign of social reorganization. The disdainful critics like to overlook the fact that they, or at least their friends and patrons, left no stone unturned or unhurled to prevent the new state power from working out its destiny. Class interest came before “scientific interest” in the “new social experiment.”

Both Czar and bourgeoisie left the Bolsheviks, who took power almost without shedding a drop of blood, a heritage of chaos and violence and multitudinous unsolved problems.

The sabotage of the bourgeoisie, loyal patriots of the fatherland who were ready to sell it to foreign imperialism rather than have it ruled by the proletariat, forced the Bolsheviks to resort to the most radical socialist measures from the very beginning. The Bolsheviks were anything but Utopian. Their program was modest and realistic. If they took what would otherwise have been premature steps, it was done under the compulsions of the bitter class struggle immediately launched by the counter-revolution.

Decrees permitting capitalists to continue owning their factories under workers’ control are impotent against shells loaded and fired at these factories by their departed owners. Terroristic attacks upon the government and its officials cannot be effectively met with sermons on the superiority of oral agitation and moral suasion. Freedom of the press cannot be extended by a government to “critics” who come to overthrow it with arms and battalions furnished by Czarists and foreign imperialists. Freedom must be defended from such critics, and with all available arms. Not only the bourgeois democrats like Kerensky, but the Mensheviks and SRs resorted to arms against the democratic Soviet power. Nor were they too finicky about the company they kept in their crusade against the Bolsheviks. Alliance with the Bolsheviks against their reaction was inadmissible in principle and beneath the integrity of these democrats. Alliance with reaction, with the Czarist generals, the Cossacks, the Clemenceaus and Churchills against the Bolsheviks, that was good, practical politics, realistic, tolerable by democracy.

In any country, such “practical politics” are commonly known as treason and treated accordingly. Against the Soviet power, this was not merely “treason to the nation,” but treason to the working class and the working-class revolution. Those who tolerated the traitors, who even collaborated with them in a common party, who did not join the Bolsheviks in crushing them, were not much better. The Soviet power had no alternative but to outlaw these elements and their political institutions. This can be contested only by those who ignore facts – we say nothing of the class interests of the proletariat, of the interests of socialism! – including the fact that civil war is not conducted in accordance with the rules recommended in finishing schools for young ladies of good breeding.

What is downright outrageous is the impudence of the criticism of Bolshevism’s dictatorial measures leveled by the very persons or groups which acted in such a manner as to leave the Soviet power no alternative but stern decisions of sheer self-defense.

The Place of the Comintern

This holds true also for the organization of the Communist International. The picture of Lenin as some sort of wild and irresponsible “professional splitter” is three-fifths myth and two-fifths abysmal misunderstanding. The social democracy during the war had led the working class into the cattle corrals of the bourgeoisie. The Communist International was organized to restore the class independence of the proletarian movement, of which it had been robbed by the leaders of the Second International. It was organized to unite the proletariat once more around a revolutionary socialist banner, to have it serve itself again, instead of serving the Kaiser, the French Steel Trust or the British Empire.

Above all, however, it was organized as an indispensable weapon of the Russian Revolution itself. The Comintern was the general staff of the world revolution. Its task was the organization of the victory of the proletariat in the capitalist countries. This was assigned to it by the Bolsheviks, not out of considerations of abstract internationalism, but out of the thousand-times-repeated conviction that without the revolution in the West, the Russian workers’ state could not hope to survive, much less solve its fundamental problems.

This fact is well known and widely acknowledged. Its full significance is not always grasped. The Russian Revolution was the first act of world revolution. That is how it was conceived by its authors. That was the starting point of all their policies. The heart of the question of the “mistakes of the Bolsheviks” is reached when this is thoroughly understood. Everything remains mystery and confusion if the question is studied from the standpoint of Stalin’s nationalist theory.

The program of the Bolsheviks called for establishing the widest possible democracy. The Soviet regime was to be the most democratic known in history. If a state power, that is, coercion and dictatorship, was needed, it was to be directed only against a counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Was so much concentration of dictatorial power and violence needed against the Russian bourgeoisie, that is, against a bourgeoisie described as helpless and hopeless? On a Russian national scale, the answer could easily have been in the negative. But as the world bourgeoisie understood, and immediately showed, the Russian Revolution was directed at international capitalism. Without world capitalism, the Russian bourgeoisie could have been disposed of by the Soviet power with a wave of the hand. With world capitalism behind it, the bourgeoisie of Russia, which is only another way of saying the danger of a victory for the counter-revolution, was a tremendous force against which the greatest vigilance was demanded.

Because the problem was only posed in Russia but could be solved only on a world scale, the Bolsheviks counted on the international revolution. Because they counted on the international revolution, the Bolsheviks allowed themselves all sorts of infringements upon the standards of political democracy, and even upon the standards of workers’ democracy.

The suppression of democratic rights for other working-class organizations, even of those which were not directly engaged in armed insurrection against the Soviets, was first conceived as a temporary measure dictated by the isolation of the Russian Revolution and in virtue of that fact by the dangers to which it was immediately subject.

The victory of the revolution in the West would have meant a vast relaxation of suppressive measures. To this day the best of the Russian Mensheviks (if there are any left who have not gone over to Stalin) do not understand that the primary responsibility for their disfranchisement in Russia (and, more important, the degeneration of the revolution) falls upon the shoulders of their German co-thinkers, who so effectively prevented the German proletariat from coming to power.

In other words, if the October Revolution is looked at as a purely Russian revolution; if the world revolution on which the Bolsheviks reckoned is looked upon as a Utopia doomed in advance to failure; or if the world revolution is looked upon as a movement that should have been suppressed, as was done by the reaction and its social-democratic supporters; or if the world revolution is looked upon from the standpoint of the Stalinist theory of nationalist reaction – then the dictatorial and suppressive acts of the Bolsheviks (the Bolsheviks, not the Stalinists) become a series of mistakes and even crimes. If, however, these acts are regarded as measures imposed upon the Bolsheviks seeking to hold out at all costs while the world revolution was maturing – the world revolution on which they had every right to count – then their true nature is revealed. They are then understandable, not as something “inherent” in Bolshevism, as that which “unites” Bolshevism with Stalinism (or fascism!), or as that which produced the degeneration of the revolution; but as temporary measures aimed at overcoming the effects of an enforced isolation and superfluous to the extent that this isolation was relieved by socialist victory abroad.

Democracy in coming revolutions

However, if this is so, an important conclusion follows. The proletariat that triumphs in the next wave of socialist revolutions and triumphs in several of the advanced countries will have neither wish nor need to repeat all the measures of the Russian Revolution. It is absurd to think otherwise. It is much more absurd for the revolutionary movement to adopt a program advocating the universal repetition of all the suppressive measures of the Russian Bolsheviks. This injunction applies most particularly against the idea of a single, legal, monopolistic party, or as it is sometimes (and inaccurately) put, a “one-party dictatorship”.

The workers’ power in the advanced countries will be able to assure the widest genuine democracy to all working-class parties and organizations, and (given favorable circumstances, which mean, primarily, no attempt at counter-revolution) to bourgeois parties, and this assurance must be set down in advance. The assurance cannot be confined to a ceremonial pledge on holiday occasions, but must be reflected in the daily political practice of the revolutionary vanguard party. In the concrete case, the “daily practice” includes a critical re-examination of the Russian experience.

There were “mistakes” imposed upon the Bolsheviks by the actions of their opponents and by conditions in general. There were mistakes, without skeptical quotation marks, that cannot be sheltered under that heading. The most critical and objective reconsideration of the Bolshevik revolution does not, in our view, justify the attacks made upon Lenin and Trotsky for the violence they used against their violent, insurrectionary adversaries. Nor, even after all these years, can the excesses in repression and violence be regarded as having been weighty factors in the degeneration of the Soviet state. To condemn a revolution for excesses is to condemn revolution; to condemn revolution is to doom society to stagnation and retrogression.

But after having been compelled to overthrow all the non-Bolshevik parties, the leaders of the party in power made a virtue, and then a principle, out of a temporary necessity. “There is room for all kinds of parties in Russia”, said one of them, Tomsky, if we rightly recall, “but only one of them in power and all the rest in prison”. Tomsky merely expressed what had become the rule and principle for the other leaders.

The idea of one party in power is one thing, and not at all in violation of either bourgeois or workers’ democracy. The idea that all other parties must be, not in opposition, with the rights of oppositions, but in prison, violates both bourgeois and workers’ democracy, and it is with the latter that we are concerned here.

Even if every non-Bolshevik group, without exception, had resorted to armed struggle against the Soviet power, it was a disastrous mistake to outlaw them in perpetuity. From every point of view that may legitimately be held by a revolutionary party or a revolutionary government, it would have been wise and correct if the Soviet power had declared:

“Any political group or party that lays down its arms, breaks from the foreign imperialists and the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie at home, adapts itself in word and deed to Soviet legality, repudiates armed struggle against the government and those who resort to armed struggle, will enjoy all democratic rights in the country, equal to those of the party in power.”

The Bolsheviks made no such declaration. Instead, the kind made by Tomsky gained prevalence. There can be no question in our mind that the adoption and enforcement of the “Tomsky policy” contributed heavily to the degeneration of the revolution and the victory of Stalinism. From the prohibition of all parties but the Bolshevik, only a step was needed to the prohibition of all factions inside the Bolshevik Party at its tenth congress. Anyone acquainted with the history of the subsequent developments knows that this decision, also taken as an “emergency” measure, was a most powerful weapon in the hands of the bureaucracy against the Left Opposition. Disloyally construed, disloyally used, it smoothed the road to the totalitarian dictatorship of the bureaucracy.

The whole Bolshevik Party was politically miseducated and ideologically intimidated against the very idea of more than one party in the country, and for this miseducation none of its leaders can escape his share of responsibility. It is enough to recall that from the time of Zinoviev’s first capitulation to Stalin in 1927 to the time of the last of the capitulators, every desertion from the Opposition was motivated to a considerable extent by the cry, “No two parties in the country!”

Proletarian Revolution and Democracy

The Bolshevik revolution was betrayed and crushed by the Stalinist counter-revolution. It is not right to say that nothing remains of the revolution. Much remains: its great tradition is still alive in millions of men; its ideas and teachings remain fundamentally sound for the much greater socialist revolution to come; its experiences are still before us and so are the lessons to be learned from them.

Not the least important lesson is the need to return to the principles set forth by Lenin in The State and Revolution. Especially in the light of what has happened the heaviest emphasis must be laid upon the dictatorship of the proletariat as the democratic rule of the workers; as the widest and most genuine democracy the workers have ever had; as the equitable enjoyment of democratic rights by small groups, political opponents of the government included, and military opponents alone excluded; as the safeguard of the principle of electivity of officials, above all of the trade unions and the soviets.

The revolutionary Marxists must learn, and then must teach, that the struggle for democratic rights is not just a clever device for embarrassing the undemocratic bourgeoisie, that the struggle is not confined to the days of capitalism. On the contrary: it is precisely when the new revolutionary power is set up that the struggle for democratic rights and democracy acquires its fullest meaning and its first opportunity for complete realization. The revolutionists after the overturn of capitalism differ from the revolutionists before that overturn not in that they no longer need democratic rights and no longer demand them, but in the fact that they are for the first time really and fully able to promulgate them and to see to it that they are preserved from all infringement, including infringement by the new state or by bureaucrats in it. The right of free speech, press and assembly, the right to organize and the right to strike are not less necessary under the dictatorship of the proletariat, but more necessary and more possible.

Socialism can and will be attained only by the fullest realization of democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat must be counterposed to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in this sphere because the latter denies the people access to and control over the very material bases whose monopoly by the bourgeoisie makes its “democracy” a formality not really enjoyed by the great masses.

That is what the revolutionary Marxists should teach. But first of all they must learn it, and thoroughly. It is one of the most important lessons of the Russian Revolution and its decay.

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