Max Shachtman


The October Revolution was made
for freedom in equality!

(November 1957)

From Labor Action, 18 November 1957.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 7, 1917, has been celebrated all over Russia and in many other countries. The triumph of that revolution marked the most important dividing line in the history of mankind: between the end of the age of capitalism and the beginning of the age of socialism. That is how every thoughtful person judged it at the time, and the judgement remains fundamentally sound.

The forty following years have shown, it is true, that this line is not as straight and clear as we first believed. It has often been twisted and tangled up since the ten titanic days that shook the world.

It has bent back upon itself and been broken off by unforeseen detours or overlaid with rubbish. But it has not been obliterated from the consciousness and aspirations of tens of millions of people, far more in number today than there were four decades ago.

If the achievement of socialism will, as we believe, signify a great new epoch for man, there is nothing in the annals of his striving for freedom that more fully merits celebration than the first herald of the socialist age.

Yet, nowhere, least of all in Russia herself, did the official celebrations of the revolution raise the banners under which it was won or extol the programme to which it was devoted. There is no mystery about that. If the workers and peasants who carried out the revolution of 1917 would fail to see the fulfilment of its promises and hopes in 1957, it is not because the revolution has matured and flowered beyond their dreams, but because it was cut down and crushed by a counter-revolution.

It is in reality this counter-revolution that has just been celebrated under the command of its beneficiaries, just as it has been for a good quarter of a century.

The importance of this counter-revolution is hard to overstate. Indeed, it can be said, even if it sounds paradoxical, that the failure to understand this counter-revolution lies at the base of almost every misunderstanding and misjudgement of the revolution which it displaced. And those are in turn the source of most of the immense confusion that prevails today about socialism and the socialist movement both among their supporters and their opponents.

The essence of the Bolshevik Revolution was the transfer of all power in the country to the Soviets (Councils) of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.

Russia was then being ravaged by a crisis inherited from the Czarist regime and unalleviated by its first successors. The whole people was sick and tired of the war; the peasants, who formed the bulk of the population, wanted the land for themselves; the workers wanted an end to the paralysis in industrial life which was accompanied by rampant profiteering; and almost everybody wanted a democratic regime that would wipe out all vestiges of Czarist autocracy.

The first heirs of collapsed Czarism could not even begin to solve the crisis. The genius of Lenin, and of the Bolsheviks whom he finally persuaded to follow him, lay in proposing a new and revolutionary solution to the problems of the crisis.

Let the peasants simply take the land they till. Let the workers themselves set the economy into rational motion by establishing their own organized control of industry, starting right in the shops and factories. Let the people as a whole end the war on the instant by proposing a democratic peace without annexations or tribute.

And who or what is to guarantee that these measures can not only be undertaken but carried out? The mass of the people themselves, not as brought together in institutions for which the Bolsheviks or anybody else had worked out a faultless blueprint in a political laboratory, but as they had already been brought together, spontaneously and naturally, of their own accord, into organizations embracing virtually all the toiling people of city and village and the military forces as well – the Soviets.

The Bolsheviks did not invent Soviets. They did not create them, not in the Revolution of 1905 or in the Revolution of 1917. These councils were the elementary form of the people’s demand for self-determination and self-government.

The Bolsheviks simply gave the clearest, simplest but most incisive expression to this demand in terms of the already organized life of the Russian people.

In a country where the official, although unelected, government (the “Provisional Government”) showed not the slightest ability to govern, let alone to comply with the wishes of the people, the Bolshevik slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” proved to be irresistible.

Tirelessly and in language understandable by all, the Bolsheviks repeated: If the peasant to have the land, if the worker is to have control in the factory, if the people are to have peace – the Soviets which already embrace all the people must have the power to govern.

They pointed out that even the most frantic opponents of this idea, the supporters of the Kerensky Provisional Government, nevertheless always referred to the Soviets as the “revolutionary democracy”. The idea that the revolutionary democracy should establish itself as the state power prevailed.

The Bolshevik Revolution thus confirmed the prediction and war cry of the Communist Manifesto seventy years earlier: “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”.

If this central characteristic of the Bolshevik Revolution is not grasped in full as the heart and soul of the revolution, of the reason why the people rallied to the Bolsheviks, and of why they all carried it though with unexampled enthusiasm and sacrificing spirit, everything of importance will be missed or misunderstood.

Lenin, who was so often plain to the point of bluntness, even harshness, was never so direct, harsh, unambiguous and unyielding as he was on this score in 1917.

He would not even list to any proposals for a peace programme, for a land reform, for reorganizing the economy, for any change or promised change in the social life of the country, unless it was coupled with the proposal for all power to the people that would enable them in reality to carry out the proposals in their own interests, all power to the people already organized democratically in their Soviets.

In these muddled days, when the mere word “planning”, for example, sends so many people, including socialists, into paroxysms of approval, it is instructive as well as refreshing to recall Lenin’s own words just a few days before the revolution:

“The proletariat, when victorious, will act thus. It will set the economists, engineers, agricultural experts and so on to work out a ‘plan’ under the control of the workers’ organizations, to test it, to seek means of saving labour by means of centralism, and of securing the most simple, cheap, convenient, general control.

“We shall pay the economists, statisticians, technicians, good money, but – but we shall not give them anything to eat unless they carry out this work honestly and entirely in the interests of the workers.

“We are in favour of centralism and of a ‘plan’, but it must be the centralism and the plan of the proletarian state – the proletarian regulation of production and distribution in the interests of the poor, the labouring, the exploited, against the exploiters.”

Everywhere the emphasized words are Lenin’s, and they give us a far truer idea of his own conception of the essential features of the socialist revolution and the reconstruction of society on socialist foundations than is to be found in a thousand books by his successors or his adversaries. They give us also a true idea of what the Russian workers wanted at that time, and found in the programme of the revolution.

This is not the place to set forth all the reasons why the idea of the revolution could not be maintained for long in the isolation of an economically backward land, harassed for years of its infancy by hostile forces at home and abroad. It may suffice to say that there were few problems the revolutionary leaders were more keenly aware of than that of remaining in isolation, that is, of the revolution failing to extend its frontiers to the advanced countries of Europe.

In that event – and they did not hesitate to proclaim this view over and over again – the counter-revolution would triumph and the revolution would perish. In this, they proved to be only too tragically correct. They did not, to be sure, foresee the unique form and nature that the counter-revolution would have, but then neither did anyone else.

At first, the curbs were imposed by the rigours of the civil war and the war against foreign intervention, and, on the whole, no working-class government could or would have acted otherwise. But when, after the civil war ended, the curbs were not only maintained and extended but were even exalted as principles for a normal development of socialism, the revolutionary ideal, the essential characteristic of working-class self-administration, starting in the factories and running all the way up to the highest governmental institutions, was undermined more and more gravely.

Without the increasingly conscious self-administration of society by the producers – for which the constant expansion, not restriction, of democracy is a synonym – socialism is a fraud, or in any case unrealizable.

And to the extent that the architects of the revolution restricted democracy, in the Soviets, in the trade unions, and even in the Bolshevik party itself in the first few years of the revolution, they contributed to the undermining of the socialist revolution itself, to enfeebling the resistive capacity of the socialist organism.

In that sense, they themselves unwittingly facilitated the work of the counter-revolution in completely destroying the organism. Once this is said – and the wisdom which hindsight makes so much easier dictates that it be said – the distinction must nevertheless be maintained. The main who unthinkingly neglects to maintain the fireproofing qualities of the home cannot, regardless of justified criticism, be equated with the arsonist whose work of destroying the home utterly has been made easier.

The essence of the Stalinist counter-revolution lies in the destruction, root and branch, of every form, institution and right of democracy. Perhaps worse even than this sinister achievement is the fact that it has destroyed, as it had to, the socialist thought of an entire generation of revolutionists who were drawn to the Russian Revolution: those it has not corrupted intellectually it has demoralized, those it has not demoralized it has disoriented, those it has not disoriented it has reduced to cynical courtesans.

The whole conception of the socialist society and and the road to it, the whole conception of a political movement having socialism as its goal – all this has been hideously distorted beyond recognition or resemblance to what it always was in the past. There is not a single element in the defence of the Stalinist regime by ardent advocate or mild apologist that is not an abominably discrediting abuse of socialism.

The fact that the gulf between producer and director of production is greater in Russia than in any modern country of the world, is never even mentioned by defenders of Stalinist “socialism”. The fact that the Russian worker (and peasant) has less to say about determining the conditions of production than has the worker in any other modern country, is of no importance to this “socialism” – even though Marx so rightly emphasizes that the rule of society lies in the hands of those who determine the conditions of production.

The fact that there are not and for decades have not been any workers’ or peasants’ or soldiers’ Soviets in Russia – or that where the people establish such councils, as in Hungary last year, it is Russian tanks and cannon that blast them out of existence – may or may not be of importance “in itself”, but it is of no relevance to the reality of this “socialism”.

The fact that literally millions of people, guilty of the crime of having different political views or even innocent of the crime, were slaughtered by the Russian regime with a cold-bloodedness and callousness excelled, if at all, only by Hitler’s regime, is, belatedly, deplored, but does not change the “socialist” character of the regime.

The fact that the people as a whole, even including the members of what is supposed to be the ruling party, do not have the right to speak, to meet, to publish, to vote, to worship (if they wish to), is of no fundamental consequence to this “socialism” – it might be better, conceded some apologists, if they had these rights, but it is not fatal to socialism if they do not have them.

What, then, is important to socialism? Planning? But that is a commonplace to capitalism in every crisis, particularly the crisis of war, when production is organized according to plan, instead of being left to “free enterprise” and the regulation of the capitalist market.

The overcoming of illiteracy? That is almost a commonplace, also, under capitalism; indeed, the highest development of capitalism is increasingly impossible without the elimination of illiteracy.

The statification of the means of production and exchange, a formula which has a hypnotically numbing effect on the thinking of some socialists? And the enormous development of the productive forces with which the Stalinist regime has so greatly awed the entire world?

There is no private ownership of property under Stalinism, it is true, and the development of the productive forces is likewise a fact. But it is a terrible mark of the deformation of socialist thinking that these two facts are somehow equated with socialism or the organic development toward socialism.

Without democracy, without complete political and administrative control by the producers, the centralization of all economic power, all the means of production and distribution, in the hands of the state combined with the expansion of the means of production, signify not the development of socialism but the establishment of the most potent tyranny of modern times – exceeding, not exceeded by, the tyranny of capitalist exploitation.

Here indeed has Stalinism wrought its destruction of the socialist mind as well as the socialist goal.

A concrete foundation is essential to a good home, just like the nationalization of the means of production and distribution is essential to the construction of a socialist society. But on the same foundation of concrete can be built a prison (in fact, the foundations of most prisons are supposed to be stronger than of most homes).

Very few people, however, speak of prisons as “imperfect homes” the way the Stalinist states are sometimes called, by affable apologists, “imperfect socialism”. And even fewer people are ready to call upon the prisoners for “unconditional defence” of their prison because the concrete foundations on which it rests might some day be used to build a happy home on.

Of all the known societies based on class exploitation, our socialist teacher, Frederick Engels, once wrote:

“It is not the producers who control the means of production, but the means of production which control the producers. In such a society each new lever of production is necessarily transformed into a new means for the subjection of the producers to the means of production.”

There is not a capitalist country where each “new lever of production”, where every expansion of the productive forces, has more effectively subjected the producers than it has those who are under the rule of the class that owns and controls the means of production through its monopoly of state power in the Stalinist states.

It is not socialism we see there, but its brutal denial in the name of socialism.

The Russian Revolution had as one of its achievements the reinvigoration of international socialism which was so deeply discredited by the blood and filth of the First World War which most of the European socialist parties supported with chauvinistic enthusiasm. The new movement drew its inspiration from the socialist idea which was being transformed into reality by the Russian working class.

The promise which it bore, despite all its primitive and infantile errors, was as completely smashed by the Stalinist counter-revolution as was the Russian revolution itself.

When one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks said at a party congress in 1919 that it would not be a bad thing if all the Communist parties of the world were subordinated to the Central Committee of the Russian party, Lenin was horrified to the point of the rebuke:

“If there were anything like this in the programme, there would not even be any need to criticize it: the authors of such a proposal would have dug their own graves.”

When the Stalinist regime finally succeeded in reducing all the Communist parties to vassals of the Russian party Secretariat, it dug the grave of the Communist movement as a working-class or socialist movement.

The international socialist movement today, too, requires reinvigoration and reorientation. In our eyes, the aim of the socialist movement remains, or must again become, the establishment of a working-class government, the winning of the battle of democracy, as the road to the socialist reorganization of society.

But all that has happened in the last quarter of a century – the rise of fascism, on the one side, and the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism masked as socialism, on the other side – emphasizes the urgent and indispensable need of once more identifying, not just associating but identifying, the fight for socialism with the fight for democracy in every part of the world and in every sphere of social life – not in Russia alone, but in Algeria too, not in Hungary alone but in Guatemala and Okinawa as well, not in parliamentary reforms alone but in the foundations of society, the factories, as well; not in bureaucratic arbitrariness in the Kremlin alone but in the United States as a whole and in our trade unions in particular.

In the very first periodical published in England by the German Communists of the time of Marx and Engels, with whom they were associated, the Communist Journal of London, in September 1847, we find these remarkably timely words:

“We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse.

“There are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.

“We are convinced, and we intended to return to the matter in subsequent issues, that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.”

The socialist movement which maintains the divorce between socialism and democracy, between socialism and freedom, will never succeed in establishing socialism, but only in discrediting it. The socialist movement which champions, in word and in deed, the identity of the two, which realizes in the social flesh the idea of the Russian Revolution of freedom in equality, will be irresistible. The future belongs to it.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 3.5.2011