Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The International Character of the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution of October (November, by our calendar), 1917, was not organized and led to victory by its authentic leaders with the idea of establishing an autarchic paradise, a national socialism, a classless society in a single country. Whatever illusions or miscalculations may have entered the minds of Lenin, Trotsky, and their comrades in 1917, this most preposterous of all illusions was not among them. Throughout his political life, Lenin had not even put a socialist revolution at the top of the agenda for Russia, but only a democratic revolution; the most radical democratic revolution in history, but still one that did not go beyond the boundaries of bourgeois society. In common with all the Bolsheviks, Lenin held that even such a limited revolution could not maintain itself for any length of time in Russia alone. It would be doomed to defeat unless it generated and was supplemented by proletarian socialist revolutions in the more advanced countries of Western Europe. Should these occur, however, and only if they should occur, could revolutionary Russia be preserved from inevitable ruin, and experience a more or less painful transition from a radical bourgeois democracy (“the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”) to a socialist republic.

Trotsky, it is true, had a much bolder and fundamentally more correct view from the days of the first Russian revolution in 1905. The proletariat, he foretold, was the only class capable of leading a democratic revolution and striking the fetters of feudalism from the country. But in the very course of performing this belated historical operation, it would find itself compelled, by the resistance of a Russian bourgeoisie intertwined with feudal-monarchist reaction, by the requirements of its own preservation in power, as well as by unpostponable social needs, to go beyond the social limitations inherent in a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It would be constrained to make what Marx called “despotic encroachments into private property,” and therewith pass directly into the socialist stage of the Russian revolution. Once in power, however, the Russian proletariat could not by its own efforts do more than lay the foundations of a socialist society. Without the aid of victorious socialist revolutions in the West, it could not only not achieve even a real rise in socialist economy, but also could not expect to hold its political power for any considerable period of time.

Both these great revolutionists thus founded their ideas and perspectives upon a theory of the “revolution in permanence.” As is known, the events of 1917-1918 while they did not (and could not be expected to) correspond exactly to the theory of Trotsky, corresponded much more closely to his than they did to the theory of Lenin, which the latter, moreover, had partially abandoned in 1915-1916 and altogether discarded in the summer of 1917. In any case, however greatly and even violently the two leaders disagreed on the perspectives of the Russian revolution in the past, on one question there was the strictest possible identity in their views: whatever its character, the Russian revolution cannot long exist isolatedly. As for an isolated socialist Russia, they never even bothered in all their writings to condemn the idea for the simple reason that up to 1917, and for years afterward, it had occurred to nobody – to nobody.

This is not to say that the works of Lenin and Trotsky are not filled with references to the international character of the Russian revolution, to its utter dependency upon an international revolution for even temporary maintenance, to say nothing of ultimate success. But they are not polemical references; the statements are each time made as if dealing with a matter of course, a generally realized commonplace as much taken for granted among Marxists as is the existence of the class struggle, or of a dominant world market.

Eight months before the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin wrote the Swiss workers that “the Russian proletariat cannot by its own forces victoriously complete the socialist revolution.” Four months after the revolution, on March 7, 1918, he reminded all that “the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany, we shall perish.” A year later, he wrote that “the existence of the Soviet Republic side by side with imperialist states for any length of time is inconceivable.” The same thought is expressed by Lenin in a hundred different places. It differs in no respect from the views of Trotsky, officially condemned by the Stalinist bureaucracy from 1924 onward as the cardinal sin of “Trotskyism,” as “lack of faith” in the revolution.

If the revolution in the West does not come in time, just what is meant by the “perishing” of the Soviet Republic? To Lenin, Trotsky, and all the other Soviet leaders, it meant only one thing: the overthrow of the Soviet Republic by a capitalist counter-revolution, the restoration of private property and the rule of the bourgeoisie. Did this prediction come true? Before dealing with this most important question, let us see how the revolution did develop.

The conviction that the success of the Russian revolution depended decisively upon the unfolding of the world revolution “in the more highly developed capitalist countries, otherwise we would perish,” did not signify that the Russians were to wait with folded hands for salvation from abroad. “Notwithstanding this conviction,” said Lenin in 1921, “we did our utmost to preserve the Soviet system under any circumstances and at all costs, because we know that we are working not only for ourselves but also for the international revolution.”

To preserve the Soviet system under the conditions imposed upon the Bolsheviks was not a simple matter. There was the wretched heritage of Czardom in the most backward of all European empires. There was the ruin of three years of imperialist carnage. There was the savage resistance of the overthrown bourgeoisie and the armed forces of world imperialist intervention. There was a proletariat doubly weak, in that it was small and socially unconsolidated in Russia in particular and because, like its equals everywhere, it is the only important class in history that comes to power without any experience in governing – the bourgeoisie does not give the workers even those opportunities it itself often enjoyed under feudalism and which helped it pave the way for its own exclusive social dominion. Given the retardation of the world revolution, these proved to be colossal handicaps.

Government implies men; different governments, different men; revolutionary governments, altogether different men. To say that on November 8, 1917, the revolution had at its disposal the tens of millions of men from the ranks of the working class and the peasantry is to say something so general as to mean nothing. These millions were there before the revolution, too. Only on paper is it possible to make a painless, instantaneous transition from the bureaucratic government of even the most democratic of capitalist states to the democratic ideal of self-government by the masses under socialism. In life, and especially in the life of a country as backward as Czarist Russia was, the transition can be neither painless nor instantaneous. The coming to power of the proletariat in Russia meant that it raised to a new state power, through its democratic mass organizations (Soviets – councils – of workers, soldiers and peasants), the most authentic, representative and trustworthy vanguard of the people, the Bolsheviks. Who else was there to take power and hold it7 Read all the lamentations and whimperings of the thousand-and-one critics of the Bolshevik revolution, and you will find no answer to this key question, except, of course, from the advocates of Kornilov, Kaledin, Yudenich, Wrangel and other White Guard tools of the French bankers, English manufacturers and the House of Romanov.

The young Soviet Republic was not given a chance to breathe, much less to organize rationally the economic life of the country. In the first place, the new rulers had to fight almost barehanded to acquire a country, that is, to drive out of their land the organizers and armies of the counter-revolution. No trifling task. They had to combat not only the forces of their own bourgeoisie and landlords, but also armies of England, France, Germany, the United States, Japan, Rumania and others of lesser strength. Add the economic consequences of the years it took the accomplish this end to the economic consequences of three years of the World War prior to the revolution, and the true picture of chaos and devastation in industry and agriculture begins to take on shape and color.

The country knew neither unity nor peace until well toward the end of 1920, more than three years after the seizure of power. The war with Poland came to an end with the Treaty of Riga, followed by other peace treaties with the border countries of Esthonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Baron Wrangel was finally liquidated in the South. The Far East was to remain a problem for some time. There were the remnants of Kolchak’s armies, supported by Japan, to crush; there was the struggle against the Ataman, Semyonov, and against Baron Ungern; General Pepelyayev undertook an adventure against the Soviets as late as 1923–1924; the Japanese did not evacuate Vladivostok until late in 1922 and Northern Sakhalin until two years later. But by and large, the year 1921 opened with peace and unity ... and economic ruin. The ruling party faced the enormous task of economic reconstruction. But it seemed to have the breathing spell in which to accomplish it.

Three years of civil war had produced many changes in the Soviet machinery – the “apparatus.” The Bolshevik Party was not the same, either. The Bolsheviks were the “altogether different men” that a revolutionary government requires. But for all that, they were comparatively few in number to begin with, they were not uniform in quality, they were mortal; and they had undertaken an all but superhuman task, unequaled in history. The Bolsheviks, not the latecomers, the bandwagon-climbers, the )ob-hunters, but the real Bolsheviks, had gone through years of the process of selection and tempering in three Russian revolutions, the long period of Czarist reaction between the first two revolutions, and the trying darkness of the World War. Not all of them came out of it with the same honors, but as an organized community of revolutionists they stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. In point of devotion to the interests of the masses, to the cause of socialist freedom, in point of selflessness and idealism, of courage and the capacity to lead, as well as to set an example and to sacrifice, they had no peer. These qualities made it possible for the Bolshevik Party, by and large, to constitute the central guarantee of socialist integrity and continuity in the country, the spinal column of the workers’ republic. But only by and large. As for the guarantee, it was not absolute, but relative, and required constant renewal and supplementation.

The Bolsheviks were not generals who died in bed. The firmest among them, the most idealistic, the most courageous, died by the thousand in the front-line fighting of the civil war. That was an almost irreplaceable loss. They were among the most socialistically-cultured elements in the country, and socialist culture is not borne on air but borne by human beings. In a country where virtually all political and economic life and machinery is in the hands of the state, and the state is in the hands of a political party, a vast administrative apparatus is required under any circumstances. How many reliable Bolsheviks were there to staff the apparatus and thus provide some guarantee of its socialist character and direction? In April, 1917, that is, before Bolshevism became popular enough to attract all sorts of elements, including undesirables, the party numbered just 80,000 members, more than half of whom were in the Petrograd, Moscow, Ural and Donetz Basin branches, leaving less than 40,000 members for the rest of the vast land. The party grew in the succeeding months, and grew swiftly; at the end of July, 1917, in the face of the defeat of the Bolsheviks in the “July Days,” the party already numbered almost 200,000 members. But it remains true that the cream of the party was represented by the few tens of thousands assembled under its banner on the morrow of Czardom’s death.

It was impossible to staff the whole government apparatus, the industrial, financial and transportation administration, and most important of all (during the civil war), the military machine, with reliable members of the ruling party. The non-Bolshevik labor organizations, anarchist, Social-Revolutionary and Menshevik, proved to be unreliable for the most part. They could not be brought into the machinery of administration for the good reason that so many of them were engaged in trying to overthrow the Soviet government with arms in hand. Cooperation under such circumstances is notoriously difficult. However, as hope for restoration diminished, many minor officials of the old regime reconciled themselves to one degree or another with the new. N. Popov, an official Stalinist historian (himself a former Menshevik) writes of “the necessity of attracting scores of thousands of former Czarist officials to the task of building up the state apparatus, organizing industry and creating a machinery for distribution.” Against this new element, the Bolsheviks did not have too many “scores of thousands” of their own. To Popov’s categories should be added one other of considerable importance, the employment of tens of thousands of former Czarist officers, to whose national patriotic sentiments Trotsky successfully appealed, in the building up, staffing and directing of the Red Army.

It should not be thought that former Czarist officials were the only ones that reconciled or appeared to reconcile themselves with the new regime. Note should also be taken of the fact that former Mensheviks and Social revolutionists began to flow, not only into the government apparatus, but above all right into the Bolshevik Party itself, in almost direct proportion to the degree to which the new regime beat back the counter-revolution which the newcomers had at one time or another aided actively or passively. With insignificant exceptions, they found eminent places later on in the Stalinist apparatus and, it goes without saying, voted with interested unanimity and regularity in condemnation of “Trotskyism” and the “permanent revolution.”

In addition, it should be remembered that the Bolsheviks became the only legal party in the course of the civil war. This was in no way due to some a priori concept of Bolshevism. Quite the contrary. Lenin emphasized before and after the seizure of power, that one of the advantages of the Soviet system lay in the possibility of one Soviet party replacing another as the ruling group without violence and the clash of armed forces. The idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat is incompatible at all times with the existence of more than one (the ruling) party, or even that it necessarily means the denial of the suffrage to out-and-out bourgeois elements, is utterly without foundation in fact or in Bolshevik theory. One after another, the non-Bolshevik labor organizations and parties grew impatient with the minority position to which a majority of the workers and peasants had condemned them in the democratic Soviets, and sought to reverse roles by launching or joining in armed attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks. cooperation with the bourgeoisie attracted them more than cooperation with the communists in power. The latter, driven to the wall by the counterrevolution at home and the interventionists from abroad, had no alternative but to outlaw their rivals among the workers and peasants, one after the other. What was undertaken as a defensive measure imposed by the not very normal circumstances of the civil war, became the permanent rule when peace was established, and undoubtedly contributed to the gradual decay of workers’ democracy in the country.

Inadequately considered, as a rule, is the fact that with all other parties outlawed, the most motley elements joined the only, and ruling, party. A resolution of the Eleventh Bolshevik Congress, in 1921, pointed out that “in seeking a field of action, groups and strata have penetrated the ranks of the only legal party who, under different circumstances, would have found themselves not in the ranks of the Communist Party but in the ranks of the Social-Democracy or some other party of petty bourgeois socialism. These elements, often sincerely convinced of their communism, have not really thrown off their ‘old Adam’ of petty bourgeoisdom and bring into the RCP their petty bourgeois psychology and habits of thought.” The infiltration of such elements did not contribute to fortifying the socialist cohesiveness and integrity of the old Bolshevik Party.

Finally, a molecular transformation occurred among the old militants themselves. Regardless of the ax-Czarist officers, the real control and direction of the Red Army, from top to bottom, lay essentially in the hands of the Bolshevik military commissars, who saw to it that the former servants of the Czar served them, and nothing more. The organization and conduct of military operations is not an ideal culture medium for the development of democratic processes. It is a point most of the democratic enemies of Bolshevism might have thought of when they launched or supported the civil war or the intervention against the Soviet Republic. The fact that the Red Army had to be created anew, out of nothing, so to speak, that it had no tradition of discipline behind it, merely emphasized the need of a super-discipline in the only group that could hope to hold it together – again, the Bolsheviks. In the party, on the home front, there was time for discussion, and there was discussion. The situation on the war front was different. The Bolshevik commanders and commissars, throughout the ranks of the army hierarchy, became increasingly habituated to taking orders and giving them without much or any debate. It is the custom in warfare. Even a new regime cannot improvise and firmly establish a new one overnight.

It was the period of War Communism, and it was a hard and rude period. It was imposed upon the Bolsheviks, not chosen by them. But imposed or chosen, it set in motion processes of its own. The system of commanding instead of persuading, of a military instead of a new democratic regime, could not, in the very nature of the situation, be confined to the army. Even a revolutionary army travels on its belly. Where the acquisition of food is a matter of life or death, and does not brook delays of any kind, even of those dictated by democratic principles, and in a land where the countryside is completely disorganized and food stocks are simply non-existent, the army does not stop for more than the minute required to take what is within its reach. Be that army what you will, the very un-normal pressure of enemy forces before it or at its heels does not allow time for the normal regulation of provisioning the soldier or his rifle. The system of food requisitioning became the rule. Everything produced by the peasant above his own physical requirements was subject to seizure, and was seized. The transportation system came under virtual military rule as a matter of course. Work in the factories was organized, insofar as it was organized at all, on essentially a military basis. The worker had his ration card, which corresponded neither to the amount or kind of work he did nor to a high standard of living. In the civil war days, the front of socialism was literally the war front, and everything was concentrated on winning it. The regime on the war front tended to become the regime on the countryside, in mine and mill, and in the Bolshevik Party itself.

The period of War Communism was not only hard and rude, but it generated illusions, extravagances, and dangers. Lenin never had the idea of a direct transition to socialism in Russia. He knew the social realities of Russia as few others did, its backwardness, its unculture. He repeated afterward what he had often said before, that Soviet Russia could maintain itself on the two conditions of aid from revolution in the West and a solid alliance between the ruling proletariat and the huge peasant mass. War Communism was undermining the alliance that the Russians call the “smychka.” The peasants, as Trotsky once put it, were strongly for the “Bolsheviks,” who had given them the land, but they were increasingly cool to the “Communists,” who not only gave them no manufactured products for their surplus, who not only confiscated this surplus, but acted toward them in a high-handed and arbitrary manner. Popov does anything but exaggerate when he writes that the “bureaucracy continued to grow and by the end of 1920 it had assumed large dimensions, manifesting a tendency in individual links of the Soviet apparatus to eliminate altogether all contact with the masses and to replace it entirely with measures of external compulsion toward these. This tendency undoubtedly led to degeneration and decay in these links of the Soviet apparatus.” These are euphemisms, but they suffice to indicate the real state of things.

Trotsky was among the first to understand what was going on and what had to be done about it. Not astonishing. As commander of the Red Army he came into daily and not always gratifying contact with the peasant and the problem of the relationship of the Soviet power with the peasantry. This Marxian intellect, about whom the persistent myth of “underestimation of the peasantry” was sedulously woven by the Stalinist bureaucracy-to-come – Trotsky, the only socialist who ever succeeded in organizing millions of peasants into a fighting proletarian organization, the Red Army – perceived that a radical change was needed from the system of War Communism. Not the least important part of The New Course is Chapter Six, where Trotsky quotes from recommendations he made to the Central Committee as early as February, 1920. They provided for the establishment, essentially, of that New Economic Policy which Lenin found it mandatory to put forward at the Tenth Party Congress a year later, under the guns of the Kronstadt insurrection.

In 1920, however, Trotsky’s program was rejected. “We committed the error,” Lenin wrote later, “of deciding to carry out a direct transition to communist production and distribution. We decided that the peasants, through the grain quotas, would give us the necessary amount of bread, which we would distribute to the mills and factories, and the result would be communist production and distribution.” Bukharin went so far (in his Economics of the Transformation Period) as to canonize the policy of War Communism as the only policy to follow under a proletarian dictatorship in order to assure a direct transition to communism. Such extravagances and theorizing were not uncommon in those days. Lenin hesitated. As a result (and not at all as a result of Trotsky’s alleged “underestimation of the peasantry”), the famous “trade union discussion” broke out at the end of 1920.

His plan for a new economic course having been rejected, Trotsky proposed in effect: If the regime of War Communism is to be maintained, then the only way out of the growing economic crisis is the organized transference of “shock methods” to all economic life.

There were two reasons for this. First, industry and agriculture had reached an unprecedentedly low point. As compared with the pre-war year of 1913, the production of hemp was only ten per cent in 1920, of flax only twenty-five per cent, of beets only fifteen per cent, of cotton only eleven per cent, of tobacco only ten per cent. The peasant had simply cut down producing only to have his crop confiscated. Industry was no better. Less than three per cent of the pre-war output of pig iron was being produced in 1920. “Although forty-three per cent of the pre-war number of workers were engaged in the industries, their output was only eighteen per cent of the prewar level.” The situation was at its worst in heavy industry. Second, the civil war was ending and the problem arose of demobilizing the Red Army. It could not be done at one stroke without creating chaos. For this and the preceding reason, Labor Armies were created out of the Red Army troops. In January, 1920, a beginning was made by the Third Red Army creating the First Revolutionary Labor Army in the Urals; the Fourth created another on the southern Volga; the Seventh another in Petrograd; and so forth. Strict military discipline was maintained. Railways were repaired; rolling stock put into condition again; wood fuel accumulated from forests; twenty million poods of coal (a pood is about thirty-eight pounds) were dug out of the Ukraine in four months by a Labor Army. Compared with total disorganization, these were such impressive successes as to conceal the inherent limitations of the effectiveness of the method. Trotsky proposed to extend the system by virtually incorporating the trade unions into the state apparatus. Lenin opposed him violently, but he was opposing an error that followed consistently from his own attempt to maintain the outlived system of War Communism. Lenin won the debate, but War Communism did not long survive his victory.


Last updated on 9.4.2005