Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/472-toward-the-united-front), pp. 305–337.
Translation: Translation by John Riddell.
HTML Markup: David Walters for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018.
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.
Comrades, sisters and brothers: The Russian revolution stands before us, today as five years ago, as the most colossal world-historical event of our time. Barely had this giant stretched itself up and charged forward, engaging in a tenacious and passionate struggle for its existence and development, then there was a parting of the ways, an intellectual division, in the working class of every country. Reform on one side; revolution on the other! That cry arose from all countries in response to the Russian revolution.
The situation thus announced gives the Russian revolution a quite specific and far-reaching importance. Since roughly the middle of the nineties, an intellectual and political attitude had developed in the working class, which was the ideological expression of imperialist capitalism and of its repercussions on the condition of the working class. In theoretical terms, we call that revisionism; in the realm of practice we call it opportunism. What was its essence? It was the opinion, or better said the delusion, that the revolution is superfluous and avoidable. The revisionists – today’s reformists – claimed that capitalism generates organisational forms that surmount its intrinsic economic and social contradictions, or at least moderate them to the point where the theories of immiseration, of crisis, and of breakdowns have lost their validity. According to revisionist theory, capitalism no longer created the objective conditions for an inevitable and irresistible revolution. This theory also excludes the social factor in revolution: the will of the working class to revolution. We were told that democracy and social reform ‘gradually hollows out capitalism. Society grows over from capitalism to socialism’.
To be sure, this viewpoint was rejected on a theoretical level at the conventions of the German Social Democracy, the leading party of the Second International. It was also condemned at the 1900 and 1904 international congresses of Paris and Amsterdam, although at the first of these not with the necessary clarity and severity. However, it became more and more dominant in the practical activity of the Second International’s parties. That was already apparent in the position of the international congresses in Stuttgart, Copenhagen, and Basel on the question of imperialism, militarism, and the threat of world war.
The World War broke out. The bourgeoisie of the belligerent countries proclaimed its philosophy with machine guns, tanks, submarines, and aeroplanes spewing out death and destruction. No sooner had the World War begun than it was clear – and it became ever clearer as it proceeded – that it signified nothing other than the crisis of all crises, and that it would end with a dreadful breakdown, the breakdown of world capitalism. It is a bitter irony of history that while the march of events confirmed the theory of crisis and breakdown, most of the organised working class of the highly developed capitalist countries clung to the theory that turned away from revolution and preached reformism. That led to the ignominious bankruptcy of the Second International when the war broke out.
The proletariat did not respond to the lessons of World War by joining together internationally for a general reckoning with capitalism. Rather we saw the opposite: the proletariat joined with the bourgeoisie of its so-called fatherlands. As the war ended, capitalism demonstrated its incapacity to surmount the breakdown. The bourgeoisie manifested its inability and its lack of will to rebuild the world out of the chaos it had created. The opportunists leading the workers redoubled their embrace of revisionist theory. They found a new way to explain it: socialism and communism would arise not out of capitalism’s breakdown but out of its reconstruction, its renewed flowering. The wickedness of the war would be overcome and society reconstructed not through revolutionary class struggle but only through collaboration, harmony, association, and coalition of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. No to a revolution that could rebuild society on a communist basis! Instead, unite with the bourgeoisie to restore capitalism. That was the reformist slogan. Comrades, in this oppressive atmosphere, the Russian revolution came as a cleansing storm. The Russian proletariat was the first to draw with logical consistency the practical conclusions from imperialist war and capitalist collapse. Unfortunately it remains alone in this, apart from the creation of the small Soviet republics that have been formed on what was once Great-Russian territory.
The Russian revolution began by doing away with revisionism and reformism, just as is done by the world revolution itself. The Russian revolution expressed unequivocally and manifestly that the proletarian masses understood and were determined to effect the abolition of capitalism once and for all. It is the first mighty act of the world revolution, the last judgment of capitalism.
It is true, comrades, that the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries, and their co-thinkers outside Russia advance the theory that the Russian revolution is nothing more than a small national occurrence, which is supposed to remain within the framework of a purely bourgeois revolution. The goal, they say, is to go back to the February revolution. Now it is very true that the Russian revolution expressed the given historical conditions that pushed toward the destruction of tsarism on Russian soil and toward the state taking new forms. But from its very first days, it also showed that the Russian revolution is no minor national episode, but rather part of the great cause of the world proletariat. It showed that this revolution cannot be retained within the narrow riverbanks of a bourgeois and purely political revolution, because it forms part of the mighty process of proletarian world revolution.
In the Russian revolution we see more than merely the objective and subjective factors that grew up, living and weaving, on Russian soil. We see in the Russian revolution the impact of economic, social, and revolutionary tendencies and forces of international capitalism, of bourgeois society around the world. That is already evident in the fact that the revolution was unleashed by a world war that was no accident but the unavoidable result of the combination and interpenetration of world economic and political conditions under the rule of finance capital, of imperialist capitalism. In the Russian revolution we see the expression of all the economic, political, and social conditions created by world capitalism both inside and outside Russia. We also see crystallised within the Russian revolution the concentrated historical understanding and revolutionary will of the proletariat of all countries. International revolutionary socialism, together with the intellectual and moral forces that it aroused and schooled, became living and effective in the Russian revolution.
The Russian revolution is thus a great demonstration on a world-historical scale of the vigour, power, and irresistible nature of the social factor in historical development, that is, the understanding, will, action, and struggle of the proletarian masses, who aim to bring down capitalism and realise communism.
It has been claimed that the proletarian revolution began in Russia because of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie. This weakness is supposedly the reason why the world revolution has risen up, rattling and roaring, on Russia’s soil and nowhere else up to the present day. That is true, but only to a degree. Comrades, I maintain that a factor much more decisive than the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie was the strength of the Russian proletarians’ revolutionary action and thought, ideologically schooled and raised high by the Bolshevik party. Thus was it filled with a revolutionary spirit and joined together as an organised force that became the conscious agent of history. As evidence for this opinion I offer this: It is true that, at the outset of the revolution, the Russian proletariat was able to catch unawares and trample the relatively weak Russian bourgeoisie. But the ongoing triumph of the revolution, its continued existence for five years, during which each day was a day of struggle against the mighty world bourgeoisie – this triumph shows that the Russian revolution possessed something much more decisive than the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie: the strength, passion, endurance, in a word the determined will to carry through this revolution that inspired the proletarian masses under Bolshevik leadership.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: It was evident from the start that the revolution in Russia could not be a purely bourgeois revolution in terms of either its most important social force, the proletariat, or its content. The demand rang out ever louder: The revolution must bring peace, land to the peasants, workers’ control of production, and above all the demand of all power to the Soviets, the councils. These demands were incompatible with a bourgeois revolution. True, they receded for a time. During the months that followed the February/March revolution, they did not find full expression. Yet they were raised with increasing emphasis, gained in influence, and were transformed from propagandistic slogans into the goals of struggle.
The bourgeoisie intervened as an organised force in this revolution in the zemstvos [local councils] and dumas [representative assemblies] of different major cities and in many industrial associations and federations that had arisen during the World War. The Russian proletariat, on the other hand, had no organisation of revolutionary struggle. These were created only during the revolution itself in the form of the councils. It is significant that the councils initially did not take up the struggle for revolutionary goals on a revolutionary footing and with revolutionary decisiveness. In the councils, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries initially had the upper hand. They clung to everything in the Russian proletariat that expressed the essence of reformism and the voluntary abdication of the proletariat before the bourgeoisie’s power. This essence consisted of deficient courage to take responsibility and deficient faith in its own power.
It is characteristic that the conference of eighty-two delegates of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which met in Petrograd in April 1917, adopted a resolution stating that the struggle between capital and labour must take into account the conditions created by the incomplete state of the revolution and the results of the war. The forms of struggle, they said, had to correspond to these conditions. The faintheartedness of the Russian proletariat, indeed of its elite organised in trade unions, found expression in the decision of a conference of union leaders from all Russia, which opened on 20 June of that year. The demands adopted by this conference already showed the growing influence of the Bolshevik party, the revolutionary class party of the proletariat. Alongside other radical demands, the call was raised for workers’ control of production. But a condition was added, specifying that the proletariat could not take over sole responsibility for the activity of state bodies regulating the economy. This task was supposedly so difficult, so complicated, that all productive forces, all layers of the population had to be drawn into collaboration.
This stand by the organised workers was thoroughly consistent with the policy of proletarian coalition with the bourgeoisie, promoted by the petty-bourgeois, reformist, socialist, and Social Revolutionary parties since the February/March revolution. It was in reality a bourgeois policy in democratic disguise, an expression of capitalist class rule. It found its most extreme expression by bringing about not peace but the June offensive, not satisfaction of the peasants’ hunger for land but the shooting down of rebellious peasants, not workers’ control of production in order to heal the economy but the denial of any social reform and the plundering and sabotage of the economy, and above all through the hostile rejection of any concession to the demand of the proletariat and the peasants for all power to the councils.
In the struggle against the revolutionary offensive of the proletariat, [bourgeois] democracy soon abandoned its principles. It was increasingly exposed as the naked class rule of the bourgeoisie, sharpened into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The coalition of socialist petty-bourgeois and intellectuals did not dare go beyond the framework of a bourgeois, political revolution, out of concern for the bourgeoisie with which it was tied. The outcome was that in September the next step was to set up a dictator. And whether that dictator would be Kerensky or a general, lurking behind him would be the restoration of tsarism.
At this moment the proletariat under the leadership of the Bolshevik party stepped in decisively. It drove out the government of harmony, of ‘pure democracy’, and transferred all state power to the councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers. From their representatives a provisional government was formed. In this decisive historical moment, the proletariat showed that it had shed its lack of confidence in its own strength and had achieved the courage, previously lacking, to take responsibility for destroying an old world and building a new one. The Russian proletariat was the first, and until now the only one to cease being an object of history and to become its subject, no longer enduring history but making history on its own account.
The proletariat’s seizure of power, under Bolshevik leadership, highlights a lesson for us. This concerns the right to carry out an armed revolutionary uprising, even if of only a minority, and such an uprising’s significance. But this lesson is sharply delimited on both the left and the right. It shows that there is no historical justification for the petty statistical diligence that reduces the revolution to a simple case of addition and subtraction – that sophistry that ‘permits’ revolutionary struggle, proletarian struggle for the seizure of state power, only subject to a condition. And that condition is namely that such an overwhelming majority has been won to this struggle that victory is guaranteed in advance regardless of circumstances. This conception reduces the revolution to an insurance agency demanding prompt payment in cash. The Russian revolution gave this the lie.
But the decisive revolutionary uprising of the proletariat of Petrograd and Moscow is just as sharply delimited from all romantic putschist adventurism. It was not the action of a brave, small party, operating without a firm connection with the proletarian masses in the blue skies of revolutionary slogans and demands. No, the Bolsheviks’ action was the heroic deed of a party of an organised minority, which had established a connection with the masses on a broad front and which was rooted in the proletarian masses.
The conquest of power for the soviets, led by the Bolsheviks, is portrayed historically as a brilliant isolated action that happened as if with one blow. But that was not the real situation. The brave deed was proceeded by months of the most energetic and tenacious agitational, propagandistic, and organisational work by the Bolsheviks among the masses. Through this the struggle was assured of not merely the support of the broadest masses, but of something more. The Bolsheviks’ slogans for the struggle were understood by the masses and could become goals of struggle for the masses themselves. So the act of insurrection was not a deed of petty revolutionary gymnastics by a daring party, but a revolutionary deed of the broadest revolutionary masses. But the decisive factor in this was a wager. Despite all preparations, the answer to the question, ‘victory or defeat’, was not given in advance. The wager could not and should not have been avoided. To delay the revolution, the insurrection, until victory is assured, means postponing it to never-never-day. And ultimately that means rejecting not merely the revolutionary struggle by the revolution itself. No matter how intelligent and carefully prepared revolutionary action may be among the masses, victory is not assured. You must wager in order to win. If the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary proletariat won in the revolution in their first brave attempt, it was only because they had the courage to wager. That is a lesson of the Russian revolution that must be taken to heart by the proletarians of every country: Weigh the situation carefully, to be sure, but in the process of weighing, do not forget to wager. Weighing must be the basis and preparation for wagering.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: When the Russian workers conquered power with the help of Russian peasants and set about building their dictatorship in the form of the Soviet system, another historical insight was validated. As early as 1884, our old teacher, Engels, wrote a letter to Bebel on 11 December. This letter stands in harsh contradiction to the singing and saying of reformists of all countries that democracy alone is the path that leads to liberation of the proletariat. This insight is incompatible with the policies of bourgeois-proletarian spiritual harmony and of coalition government. Engels pointed out that at the moment of crisis, after the proletarian revolution, there will be no more angry and embittered foe than ‘pure democracy’. I will read the relevant passage.
At the moment of revolution, pure democracy can acquire new meaning as a final sheet anchor. Thus, between March and September 1848, the so-called feudal and bureaucratic masses reinforced the liberals in order to hold the revolutionary masses down. At the moment of crisis and the days thereafter, our only opponent is reaction as a whole, which unites around pure democracy. This is something that we must not lose from view.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: It is striking that the reformists of every variety who so busily assemble quotations from Engels and Marx in order to dispute the right to make the Russian revolution, the proletarian revolution, these gentlemen who proclaim praise for democracy in every language, seem to have forgotten the opinion of Engels that I have just referred to. Remarkable – or perhaps not. The Russian revolution made it evident just how right Engels was. On the first day of the revolution and in the initial period after establishment of Soviet power, ‘pure democracy’ had already emerged as the bitterest enemy of proletarian class rule. Since the February/March revolution, the Russian proletarians had seen this ‘pure democracy’ at work as capitalist class rule, as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. ‘Pure democracy’ took up the struggle against Soviet democracy, against workers’ democracy with the slogan, ‘For the Constituent Assembly and against Soviet power’. ‘Pure democracy’ counterposed the demand for the Constituent Assembly against Soviet democracy, legitimised through revolution and itself a creation of the revolution and its foremost upholder. That has an odd ring. ‘Pure democracy’ had almost eight months to hold elections for the Constituent Assembly and convene it. This it had not done. It had rejected bringing into being the purest expression of the popular will. Why? The Constituent Assembly could not convene without raising threateningly the spectre of agrarian and proletarian revolution – agrarian revolution in the form of the peasants’ demand for land and peace; proletarian revolution in the form of the demand for peace and workers’ control of production. And thus as for ‘pure democracy’, first the election of the Constituent Assembly and then its convocation were again and again postponed. Then suddenly the demand for the Constituent Assembly was raised as the goal and battle flag of ‘pure democracy’ as a means to overthrow Soviet power. The Constituent Assembly was declared to be untouchable, the holy of holies, whose creative power alone could create a legally valid state.
The demand for a Constituent Assembly was raised not only by petty-bourgeois socialists, reform socialists, in league with the bourgeois parties in each country. It also found an echo in our own revolutionary ranks. I recall that no one less than that theoretician of communism, Rosa Luxemburg, at a certain time raised the demand for the Constituent Assembly plus the soviets as the backbone of proletarian state power. It is typical of the importance of this demand that not long after it cropped up again. During the Kronstadt uprising it was raised by some of the Social Revolutionaries, while ultimately rejected by others. It was raised even by Milyukov, leader of the Cadets. Constituent Assembly plus soviets, we were told. But it was of course to be soviets without Communists, which amounts to saying, a body without a soul, content without essence, word without deed.
But let us move on. What was the situation after the conquest of power by the proletariat? The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, as it convened on 5 January 1918, is still fairly often held against the revolutionary government in significant sectors of the working class. What was the justification for this act? Let us weigh the facts objectively. Immediately on its convocation, the Constituent Assembly declared that it met not in order to collaborate with the soviets but as their enemy, that it denied the legitimacy of Soviet power and thus the right of revolution itself. Its Social Revolutionary, Menshevik, and bourgeois majority rejected the request that it recognise Soviet power and the provisional government it had established. Indeed it refused even to discuss this. The Bolsheviks in the Constituent Assembly, and with them the Left Social Revolutionaries responded to this impudent declaration of war in the only way possible. They left the Constituent Assembly, and the Soviet authorities declared it to be dissolved and dispersed it.
This action is endorsed by many critics in the camp of European and American proletariat of Bolshevik policies, which represent the policies of the Russian revolution itself. The Soviet authorities were justified, they concede, in dispersing the Constituent Assembly, for it had been elected under other conditions and no longer reflected the opinions and desires of the broad productive masses. The Soviet elections that had since taken place had shown that clearly and irrevocably. However, they add that the Soviet government should immediately have called new elections. Technical and external considerations spoke powerfully against new elections, against convoking a new Constituent Assembly. Given the breakdown of transportation and the very flimsy connections between the centres of political live and the periphery, it would be difficult to quickly organise elections that would reflect with true accuracy the will of the people. But that was not the only consideration.
No, much more profound historical and political considerations spoke against this course. To convoke the Constituent Assembly and place the decision on the structure and power of the state in its hands would ultimately deny Soviet power, the Soviet order, the revolution, and its rights. What would and could be the function of a Constituent Assembly beside the soviets? Would the Constituent Assembly function as an advisory body, with the decision resting with the soviets? That solution would certainly not have served the goal of ‘pure democracy’. For ‘pure democracy’ did not want to counsel and advise; it wanted to rule and govern. The Soviet government could not conceivably accept being reduced to an advisory body. The Russian proletariat would be wrong to share political power with the bourgeoisie or even return it, given that the revolution had laid this power in its strong hands. If the soviets and the Constituent Assembly had coexisted, one beside the other, it would have created a situation of dual power, which would necessarily have quickly led to a struggle for power. The revolution’s achievements would have been put in question and threatened. The Constituent Assembly beside the soviets would have been nothing more than a legal focal point for legal and illegal counter-revolution, enraged and enflamed. Therefore, no Constituent Assembly, all power to the soviets! That is what the slogan of the Russian revolution must be in order to keep political power genuinely in the hands of the proletariat.
Along with the rejection of the Constituent Assembly, there is another measure of Russian revolutionary politics that has provoked the indignation of its severe critics: the Soviet electoral franchise. As you know, this franchise is restricted in that it is denied to all exploiters, who can neither vote nor be elected. Other than that, it is universal for all working people more than eighteen years old. This limitation was necessary for the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. The Soviet system places all political power in the hands of the broad productive masses. In factory and mill, in the village, they elect their representatives in the Soviets. Barring the bourgeoisie from voting and being elected excludes the possibility of returning a portion of political power to their hands.
It has been said that making this provision permanent is a petty measure that discourages creative forces and deters them from contributing with pleasure to building the new order. True, the number of bourgeois who have been denied the right to vote is not large. But by contrast the social and economic power that still lay in the hands of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the revolution was very large indeed. In seeking to establish its power, the proletariat truly had no cause to give so much as an iota of political power and political rights to the caste of its previous exploiters and lords.
There is more to it than that. The denial of the right to vote was intended as a sign of social contempt and denunciation. Those who do not work, be it with their head or their hand, those who are social exploiters and parasites, shall also have no right to influence the shaping of political and social conditions, whether directly or indirectly. And there is yet another consideration in denying the Soviet franchise to the exploiting classes. That is the fundamental significance of the franchise as a political and legal expression of the character of a social order. The nature of the franchise reveals the economic foundation of society, power, and law as it affects different classes. The franchise established by the revolution that created the bourgeois order originally signified only the extension of political rights and power from the possessors of the old feudal fixed property to the possessors of moveable capitalist property. That is why it was linked to property, income, tax payments, and such factors. The introduction of a universal franchise expresses the fact that beside the possessing class, a new class of those without property has begun to press its way forward. In the universal franchise, in addition to property, an individual’s labour and social achievement is valued as a basis for political power and rights. But the Soviet government is building society not on a division of power between the bourgeois and the proletariat, between labour and property, but on labour alone. In accord with the Soviet state’s character as a workers’ state and with the character of the new social order, the franchise can pertain only to working people and not to the exploiters.
It is not enough, comrades, for the Soviet republic as a government, as a dictatorship of the proletariat, to be expressed in paragraphs and on a piece of paper. It had to take form in life. That could only happen in fierce struggle with the bourgeoisie and the counter-revolution. From almost the first day of its existence, it had to defend itself against not only the Russian bourgeoisie but that of the world, which felt an immediate impulse of solidarity. The Soviet republic had to combat counter-revolution at home and on all fronts. The young proletarian power had to be protected against enemies from outside and inside.
The Soviet government’s first word was one of peace. I say peace not in the sense of pacifism, as I will soon explain. Soviet Russia exited from the World War and demobilised. But what was the response to this? The armies of German imperialism, including Social Democrats carrying the Erfurt programme in their knapsack, drove on against Petrograd. They held Ukraine and other territories under occupation. The Entente bestirred itself to attack the Soviet government and provided the counter-revolution with political, financial, and military assistance. To maintain Soviet power, the Red Army had to be created. It was a matter of creating a force, organising it, employing force, and defending it against force. One form of this force defending the workers’ state was the Red Army, which defended this state’s existence and independence on the battlefields. The other form of force was the dictatorship of the proletariat, raised to the level of terror. Both forms of force were hard, historical necessities, unavoidable means of defence, so that Soviet Russia could live, build, and develop.
As a result of the influence of reformist leaders, there is still a considerable mass of workers who do not grasp the historical necessity of a war to defend the revolution and the nature of the terror. They let the Red Army be cursed as an expression of so-called Soviet imperialism; they wax indignant in particular about the ‘barbarity’ of the terror. But let us see things as they are. The Red terror in the Russian revolution was the answer to the White terror of the bourgeoisie, which was still in possession of strong instruments of power. The bourgeoisie did not only set about shattering the proletariat’s political power through conspiracies, uprisings, and the like; it also mustered up its entire influence to wreck efforts to build and renew the economy and social life. The soviets’ Red Terror was simply elementary self-defence. The Russian revolution had to do what Marx termed, in his profound work, Class Struggles in France, as the first duty of every revolution: it had to ‘suppress the enemy’.
It was not merely a matter of striking down the enemy. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which under certain circumstances is sharpened into a terror, had yet another task to fulfill. It had to dishearten the counter-revolutionaries and banish from their soul the last hopes that they might some day succeed in winning back their vanished power to exploit and rule. A revolution cannot simply walk through the country, uniformed as in a girls’ school, in a spotless white robe bearing a garland of peace in its hands. It must come wearing sandals of iron, girded with a huge sword, because its opponents want it so and demand it. The proletarian dictatorship’s severity, its measures of terror, are not freely chosen expressions of the revolution’s will. They were rather forced on it by the counter-revolution. And they have a great goal. By taking bad measures, they serve to prevent what is even worse. The necessity of defence encompasses also the necessity of prevention. They wail over the hundreds and thousands that have fallen in the Civil War to the terror. They tear their hair in despair over the supposed strangling of ‘democracy’ and bourgeois freedoms through the dictatorship of the proletariat and the terror. But no one speaks of the tens of thousands that have fallen as victims of the counter-revolution. No one thinks of the tens of thousands more who would surely have faced the same fate, if revolutionary force had not broken the force of counter-revolution. No one in the reform socialist camp considers the fact that without the harshness of the revolution millions and millions would continue to languish in the barbarity of capitalist exploitation and servitude, condemned to ruin and death.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: I ended my remarks yesterday by explaining that in defending and maintaining itself the Soviet government cannot dispense with force. However, nothing could be more wrong than the assertion of our reformist and bourgeois opponents that the Soviet government exists only because of force. State power cannot rest long on bayonets. That was clearly shown by Russia’s eight months of coalition governments and in particular the months of the Kerensky Social Revolutionary government.
This is especially true during a time of revolution, in which days must be measured as months, and years as decades, and sometimes centuries. The Soviet government had to affirm its right to exist through its creative and active policies. One of the foremost characteristics of Soviet policy is its internationalism, which was strongly expressed in its stand on the question of war and peace. The first call of the proletarian state was for peace. The demand for peace was certainly strongly rooted in the destitution generated by the war, and was voiced by the peasant and proletarian masses under this strong pressure. Its other source, equally strong, was the consciousness of international revolutionary solidarity of working people, of producers around the world.
Marx wrote in Class Struggles in France: ‘The socialist revolution was proclaimed in France. But it cannot be consummated there. In general, the socialist revolution cannot be consummated within national limits’. This conviction was one of the central themes of the Russian revolution and of Bolshevik revolutionary policy. Among the first decrees of the Provisional [Soviet] Government was an appeal to all governments and peoples for peace. Far from being inspired by bourgeois-pacifist illusions, it demanded peace as the revolutionary act of proletarians, as a gate, the first step toward world revolution. This appeal accorded special praise to the workers of Germany, Great Britain, and France, who had already provided such great and valuable services for humanity. Therefore, the appeal said, they now had to do their duty to liberate humanity from the misery of war.
The Soviet republic’s call for peace through proletarian revolution went unheeded, although surely peace and revolution could never have been achieved so cheaply and under such advantageous circumstances as through a direct extension of Russia’s proletarian revolution. A year of crimes, abominations, and devastation of human lives and belongings would have been avoided. And most important, the broad proletarian masses possessed weapons then and could have turned against the exploiting class with full force. But world peace was not achieved by world revolution. The Soviet republic was compelled to make a separate peace at Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. For the young proletarian state, this peace greatly increased the difficulties of its internal situation. It was utilised by the Social Revolutionaries, the most firm and energetic organised force of counter-revolution within Soviet Russia, to shamelessly vilify the Soviet government. All the responsibility for military collapse was heaped on its shoulders.
But what was the real state of affairs? The severities and humiliations of the Peace of Brest-Litovsk were the young Soviet state’s atonement for the crimes and folly of the Kerensky government’s June offensive. It had to pay for the imperialism of ‘pure democracy’. In addition, the Social Revolutionaries – counter-revolutionaries, in fact – set in motion another attack against Soviet power, saying that the Peace of Brest-Litovsk had reinforced German, Hohenzollern militarism at the expense of the so brilliantly displayed ‘democracy’ and ‘civilisation’ of the Entente imperialists. However, German imperialism marched directly from Brest-Litovsk to Versailles and the Peace of Versailles. German imperialism’s madness in victory enflamed the will to victory of the other side and heightened it to a fever pitch. They were shocked by the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. It led them to throw every instrument of power into the war. The result was the collapse of German militarism, German imperialism.
However, among the forces that led to this collapse, the Russian revolution and its example must without a doubt be counted among the strongest moral and political factors that wore down the will of the German and Austrian armies to stay the course. When the German proletarians began to refuse to bleed on the battlefields for the profit and purposes of the German bourgeoisie, the first word stammered by military rebellion was ‘soldiers’ councils’! And when the military collapse became a political overturn, when the revolution arose in Germany, its first word was ‘workers’ and peasants’ councils’. How had the working masses of Germany learned this slogan, which expressed their indignation and lust for freedom? They had learned it from the Russian revolution.
Unfortunately, their learning did not go beyond the revolutionary ABCs. The German proletariat had then not yet learned to read the language of revolution fluently. They had not learned what the Russian workers and peasants, those ‘backward’ illiterates, had learned in eight months from the bourgeois, capitalist policies of the coalition governments. Even now, four years later, this has not yet been learned. The German workers gave back to the bourgeoisie the political power concentrated in the hands of the councils. In place of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they set up ‘democracy’, that is, bourgeois class rule. So the expectation of the Russian revolutionary leaders that waves of world revolution would roll rapidly onwards was not fulfilled. The Bolsheviks’ opponents smiled and chided them for their firm conviction that the Russian revolution would be the starting point for a world revolution that would unfold at a rapid pace.
Comrades, sisters and brothers: such ridicule is both facile and unjustified. The leaders of the Russian revolution judged rightly the direction and objective of the world revolution that had broken out. They could fall into error regarding its tempo. Why was this? The goal and direction of historical development can be clearly recognised, clearly understood, and sketched out in perspective. They are fixed by the operation of objective social forces. But the tempo depends to the highest degree on the subjective forces of historical evolution, that is, in this case on the revolutionary understanding, will, and activity of the proletarian masses. So many imponderables come into question in assessing this factor that it is not possible to foresee accurately the tempo of development of world revolution. But what is chalked up as the Bolsheviks’ arithmetical error by world history’s masters of displeasure and deceit was in fact one of the strongest driving forces for the enduring and driving power of the Russian revolution. This arithmetical error is ten times, a hundred times more fruitful in its impact far beyond Soviet Russia’s borders then the so carefully proven formulas of the accomplished mathematics instructors. The unshakeable conviction that the world revolution must stride forward and will complete what was begun on Russian soil – it is to this conviction that the Russian proletariat owes the power of its confidence, its almost religious belief in world revolution, in the revolutionary solidarity of proletarians of all countries, which even now, after five years of the most intense struggle, of unprecedented suffering, has kept the masses of Soviet Russia fresh, enthusiastic in the struggle, brave, and determined.
Let us turn from the Russian revolution’s policy for peace to its economic policy. This economic policy was to be generated by the solid and creative power of the revolutionary proletariat. It was to remake society. From its outset the revolution paraded its proletarian character. Its economic policy had to be oriented to its final goal: communism. If the soviets’ political power had the task of achieving communism, then it had to abolish private ownership of the means of production. And that was not all. It had to organise the entire society anew, according to a plan and in a communist spirit. That was an enormous task, and in its resolution the tragedy of the Russian revolution came to the fore. This tragedy is lodged in the contradiction between a manifest and passionate will to construct communism if possible at once, to realise it completely, and a weakness born of the backwardness of inherited economic and social conditions within which this will was active.
To understand the economic policy of the Russian revolution, we must have an accurate picture of the social forces available to the proletarian state to carry through the communist revolution. What were the forces from which the Russian revolution could draw support for this overturn?
In contrast to utopianism, Marxism holds that the foundation for social revolution is established by the highest possible economic and technical development, which enormously expands the productive forces, creates the most advanced means and methods of labour as well as organisational forms and methods, and, on the other hand, by a proletariat that makes up the immense majority of the population, a proletariat of those who work with hand or brain, and that is capable of carrying out the economic and social tasks of communist transformation and the building of communism.
What is the situation in Soviet Russia in this regard? In its economic and social structure, the Soviet state resembles a pyramid, established by the revolution at its summit. Underneath, as its foundation, is a new, backward, and comparatively as yet little developed modern heavy industry; and a new proletariat, comparatively few in number, still young in its schooling and capacity to administer, govern, and lead the productive apparatus, to achieve highest productivity, and also relatively inexperienced in the administration and leadership of the public and state business. On this narrow, cramped foundation lies the immense bulk of the poor-peasant population and the poor-peasant economy, whose mode of operation still encompasses the most backward forms, ‘backward’, as Rosa Luxemburg said, ‘as in the times of the Pharaohs’. And obviously also the mentality that goes with that.
Comrades, examining closely this state of affairs, we must say that historically it is a miracle of miracles that this topsy-turvy pyramid still stands today, although shaken for five full years by all the powers and storms of counter-revolution. But over time such a situation is untenable. The greatest master of balancing acts could not prevent this pyramid from ultimately toppling or the great solid blocks above from crushing the small and thin foundation. It could be different only if the narrow foundation of modern industry and the modern proletariat were to broaden, grow high, and become so spacious, thick, and firm that it could stand against all the pressures from above. Or, on the other hand, if the small foundation at the bottom were to gain support through revolution, through the creation of Soviet republics outside the Russian Soviet state, if the proletariat of new Soviet states with higher economic development and a higher civilisation – as they put it in bourgeois society – were capable of rapidly broadening the development of Soviet Russia’s narrow foundation, of reinforcing it, and in this way speeding its communist transformation.
That did not come to be. No such Soviet states were formed. And the result of that was that the Russian revolution and its creation, the Russian proletarian state, had to come to a modus vivendi with the peasantry and with the capitalists both within and outside Russia. This modus vivendi is the New Economic Policy. In assessing it, we must not lose from view the given and specific Russian conditions. We must not judge on the basis of whether some measure that has been taken corresponds to very elaborate plans for a social revolution thought up in some study. Our criterion must be to judge whether the action in question, measured against circumstances that are not freely chosen but merely found, represents steps that lead in the direction of development toward communism; whether the measures aim toward communism as their goal.
It is above all from this angle that we must judge Bolshevik agrarian policy, which has aroused sharp criticism not only in the ranks of reformists and bourgeois but also among Communists. I will give some attention to this agrarian policy. To understand the Russian revolution it is extremely important to grasp this policy in its broad outline – we cannot, of course, enter into details here. This understanding is also extremely important in order to resolve tasks that will likely face the world proletariat after the conquest of political power in all countries, although under different circumstances than those in Soviet Russia. In their own way, the Menshevik Beckmessers who reject the Russian revolution on the grounds of its agrarian policy are thinking logically. Whether they can rightly be called Marxist thinkers is of course quite another question.
In evaluating Bolshevik agrarian policy we must recall that capitalism, despite the profusion of its instruments of power, was unable over long periods of time to go beyond small-peasant operations and replace them with higher productive forms. True, capitalism proletarianised the small peasantry across wide areas and entire countries. Still the small-peasant form of production has persisted, despite everything. There is no need for us to look to the Balkan countries, which are still overwhelmingly dominated by small peasants. There is no need to think of the small-peasant masses of Italy and France. Even in Germany, so highly developed industrially, there is still a strong small peasantry. Even in the United States, small-peasant operations are numerous, although small farms must be measured there by American and not by European standards.
How can it be expected that the Russian revolution and Bolshevik agrarian policy could put an end to small-peasant farming through a wave of the hand? Given the strength of the poor-peasant population, it was inevitable that the revolution in Russia would not be possible without an agrarian policy that satisfied the peasant masses. In Russia, eighty per cent of the population is small peasants, among whom nine-tenths are working peasants. For the proletariat to have seized political power and carried out a revolution against the will of these masses would have been utterly excluded. I will go further. A revolution without the support of these masses was not possible. Anyone who wanted proletarian revolution in Russia had also to swallow the Bolshevik agrarian policy in tough and sour chunks. You had to choose; there was no way around it.
Bolshevik agrarian policy began with one of the first decrees of the Provisional [Soviet] Government, which abolished private ownership of land. The right to use land was promised to all persons, as individuals, without distinction of sex, on the condition that they personally work the land. A period of time followed in which the peasants divided up the large estates in wild, anarchic fashion. The large estates’ inventory of machines, tools, cattle, and so on was also divided. There was then a period of attempts to shape the division of land according to firm rules, to avoid the division of large estates, and to integrate small-peasant farming in a planned way into the economy as a whole. That happened during the period of ‘war communism’ with its ‘collection commissions’ and ‘requisitions’. Hunger for land had made the peasant masses revolutionary; satisfaction of this hunger made them a strong support of the Soviet government.
Rosa Luxemburg had feared that as a result of an agrarian upheaval of this sort the Russian peasant would fall into political apathy. But this did not happen. He did not claim his piece of land in order then to crawl onto his oven. No, the satisfied hunger for land made him a heroic defender of the Soviet republic. By doing so, he defended his soil against the return of the great landowners. But in another respect the hopes of the Russian revolution’s leaders were not fulfilled. The distribution of land did not sharpen rural class contradictions, driving the poor peasant masses to the side of the industrial proletariat, so that they together could overcome the class antagonism between worker and capitalist. Instead a broad layer of middle peasants grew up, whose interests rapidly came into contradiction with those of war communism. These middle peasants held possession of nourishing bread and deadly weapons. They were able to compel adoption of the new policy, with its measures to introduce a tax in kind in place of the compulsory delivery of the entire agricultural product aside from a ration for personal consumption. They compelled adoption of free trade and the other well-known economic innovations.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: It has been held against the Bolshevik agrarian policy that it is not communist and leads away from communism, in contradiction to the task of the Soviet state to prepare and carry through a communist transformation. Even worse, it is said to erect a barrier to this transformation. What is the truth? The first question is whether it was at all possible to carry out an agrarian revolution that would maintain the great estates, establish other great estates, and transform them into modern large-scale enterprises. Anyone who claims that to be possible is talking through his hat.
The agrarian economy of Soviet Russia is characterised not by modern large-scale enterprises but by small-peasant operations. When the revolution broke out, large-scale enterprises were present in significant quantity only in Poland, the Baltic countries, and some parts of Ukraine. If we follow the old socialist formula, what does that tell us about resolving the agrarian question? The agricultural productive apparatus that might have enabled us to press forward toward creating large-scale enterprises simply did not exist. Further, there did not exist a modern rural proletariat that could have taken such a productive apparatus in hand, governed it, and led it. It is characteristic that we constantly hear mention in Russia of the ‘village poor’ but not of a peasant or agricultural proletariat. Such a proletariat in the proper sense of the word does not exist. The large estates that existed were still run by the landlords according to the old feudal pattern and not according to the methods of modern capitalism, which were implemented by only a very few individual liberal-minded aristocrats.
So it was excluded for the Russian revolution’s agrarian policy to set about creating large agricultural enterprises. Given these facts, and also considering the initially weak central government, the agrarian reform had to be carried out in chaotic fashion by the peasant masses themselves. It had to happen in the way it did.
It is true that Bolshevik agrarian policy has placed absolutely insurmountable obstacles against the development of agriculture along a communist path? I dispute that. True, the ‘ancestral psychology of ownership’, of which so much is said in criticising the agrarian measures of the revolution, is still powerful among the small peasants of Soviet Russia. Indeed among many of them, doubtlessly, it is initially strengthened and reinforced. But will this endure? That is another matter. Surely the peasants’ opposition and indeed rebellion against the measures of war communism was shaped by factors other than simply the supposedly irresistible outbreaks of innate petty-bourgeois peasant mentality.
Hunger for land made the peasants supporters and defenders of the Soviet state. Hunger for goods, arising from their work, drove them away from communism and led them to economic views that were capitalist and counter-revolutionary.
How did they become acquainted with communism? Not as solidarity arising from the integration of city and countryside, no, but rather as ‘war communism’, which took everything from the peasants without giving them the products that were essential and indispensable for their farm operations and consumption. That is why we should anticipate that when industry revives, the Soviet economic policy will not run into any insuperable anti-Communist attitude among the peasants.
In assessing small-peasant psychology, there are several other factors that must not be forgotten. Among the Russian small peasants, there are old and deeply felt traditions of indigenous village communism that have not entirely died away. They have been sustained and reinforced by primitive religious feelings that view all property as ultimately from God, as God’s property. These sentiments are nourished by the propaganda of Tolstoy’s followers, Social Revolutionaries, Narodniks, and many religious sects. And these beginnings of communist understanding are systematically encouraged and promoted by the measures of the proletarian state.
To begin with, despite all the new policies, the land has not become the private property of the peasants. It remains the property of the proletarian state. The peasant receives it for his use, but he can neither bequeath nor sell it. Exploitation of wage labour is forbidden. In addition, the poor-peasant economy is integrated into the national economy as a whole – not only by the tax in kind, but even more through a whole number of regulations, arrangements, and rules for tilling and utilising the land. Finally the Soviet government is proceeding consciously and systematically to lead the development of agriculture in the direction of cooperative enterprise. That is taking place in part through the initiative of the peasants themselves, pressed by poverty. Bad harvests and famine in recent years have led the peasants toward founding cooperatives and associations of various types. Leagues of neighbours and relatives have been formed for the collective acquisition and use of machines, ploughs, and the like. In addition, the Soviet government is striving to create as many large Soviet farms as possible, while encouraging the establishment and success of cooperative farms and agricultural enterprises. Certainly the Soviet and cooperative farms that function as modern agricultural enterprises are only tiny islands in the huge ocean of small-peasant farms, whose number is estimated at about twelve million. But they can play a significant role as technical and social models, and we know they are doing so in no small measure.
There is one more factor we must take into account. We must not fall into viewing the Russian agrarian revolution in terms of the emancipation of peasants in France, regardless of the many superficial analogies between these two mighty events. We must not forget that the emancipation of French peasants took place linked to a bourgeois revolution whose essence was expressed by the words ‘property’ and ‘individualism’. The Russian agrarian revolution, on the other hand, is integrated into a proletarian revolution, whose central concepts are labour and solidarity. This creates a social atmosphere for the development of poor-peasant attitudes quite different from those in the time of the French revolution.
Above all, the Russian small peasants will learn from experience that their conditions are intimately linked – for better or worse – with the development of industry and the proletariat’s rise to new forms of economic and social life. The peasant cannot rationalise his operations unless this process is supported by the flowering of modern industry and the achievements of proletarians. In this regard I would like to say that the best and most effective agrarian reform is the electrification of the Russian economy. The Soviet government has this task in focus and is striving to accomplish it. This task creates solidarity between city and countryside – a linkage of the economic and cultural interests of industrial proletarians and small peasants, stronger and more solid than anything one could imagine.
Let me wrap up this topic. It is true, of course, that the Bolshevik agrarian reform has not been able to resolve the agrarian question overnight, through the realisation of complete communism. Nonetheless it does not at all represent a deviation from the direction and goal of a communist society. On the contrary! Through one innovation after another, it is leading the small peasantry economically, socially, and culturally along the path to communism, and it will steer a steady course. And the psychology of small proprietors will change with their transformed conditions of labour and life.
The petty-bourgeois reform socialists regard the Russian Communist Party’s agrarian policy as equivalent to the Fall of Man in the paradise of revolution. In their view, this policy is the capitalist original sin in the Bolshevik world, the original sin that can result only in the revival of capitalism altogether. In my view, this opinion is totally wrong. Even without the Bolshevik agrarian policy, Soviet Russia could well have been obliged to come to an accommodation with capitalism, in order to follow a consistent path to communism. From the beginning, the leading party of the Russian revolution, while aiming for communism, did not neglect to inquire regarding the road that would lead to communism. It tested and weighed the specific and practical political conditions under which it must be achieved in Russia. The Bolsheviks therefore expressed their economic policy through limited and immediate goals that nonetheless were steadfastly directed toward communism. Lenin formulated this in April 1917. What did he pose as the immediate economic tasks after the conquest of power? Socialisation of heavy industry, transport, and the banks; the monopoly of foreign trade; and workers’ control of production. And the initial decrees of the Provisional [Soviet] Government did not go much beyond these demands. Only bit by bit were further measures taken to end private property of the means of production, estates, and so on.
The proletarian revolution pressed forward in this direction, toward going beyond the April slogan of workers’ control. Why was that? A large segment of the employers responded to the Soviet government’s measures with sabotage or by shutting up shop and running away. There was nothing left for the workers to do but to take over management of these factories, to occupy them. Otherwise the factories would have been shut down and the economy totally destroyed. There was another factor: Soviet Russia had to arm and sustain the Red Army in a struggle with armies equipped and maintained by the advanced armaments industry of the entire world. That could not be done within the framework of the initial and rather modest economic measures. It demanded that all available means of production be taken over and utilised, that all productive forces be employed. In addition, although the political power of the bourgeoisie had been expropriated, it was still in possession of rich social resources that it ruthlessly employed against the workers’ state. It was necessary to strike at the roots of the bourgeoisie’s power, namely, its property. This took place through the nationalisation of all available means of production and inventories.
Finally, there was also another consideration. The defence of Soviet Russia against the assault of counter-revolution required of the broad masses enormous and unprecedented sacrifice and deprivation. The masses accepted this gladly because – how shall I put it – a rough-hewn primitive communism of consumption was created. In this way the Russian revolution was driven economically far beyond its originally adopted goals.
Those who now moan that the revolution is defeated and is in flight are quite wrong. The Russian revolution has retreated from its initial positions in good order, retaining in fact more commanding heights and fortresses than it originally set out to occupy and had initially occupied. True, capitalism has come again, although its power was broken and seemed to have been banished from the sacred revolutionary soil of Soviet Russia once and for all. It has returned in the form not only of small peasants but of those receiving leases and concessions. It is obvious that these gentlemen are not taking part in the Russian economy for the sake of the edifying feeling of building it up, lifting it, and thus serving the cause of civilisation. They are pursuing a more ‘tangible’ goal: to make a profit, the largest profit possible. But, comrades, the capitalist who returns to Soviet Russia is no longer absolute master of the house in his own enterprise. Why not? Because he is no longer master of the house in the state. The drive for profit on the part of concessionaires and lessees is reined in by the laws of the workers’ state, and through the application of these laws by the agencies of Soviet power.
Certainly the contradiction between capital and labour will break out in the framework of the New Economic Policy in all its ruthlessness and severity. But the Soviet state acts as a custodian appointed by the proletariat over all productive forces, all natural resources, all human labour power. The interests of the proletariat are its highest law. Its legal regulations and conditions make it impossible for national and foreign capitalists to plunder natural resources. It also prevents the capitalists, however great may be their lust for profit, from increasing their profits through the plunder and devastation of human beings. The proletarian state is aware that the greatest wealth of Soviet Russia is the labouring population, the source of all value. It is aware that it is necessary not merely to maintain the Russian proletariat as it presently lives and strives. No, its physical, intellectual, and professional competence and moral cultural power must be raised to a much higher level, so that it may create and maintain perfected communism.
That is why, in the unavoidable conflicts between capital and labour in the enterprises that have been leased or granted as concessions, the trade unions and cooperatives will once again play an enormous role and develop their activity fruitfully. How will this differ from the situation in non-Soviet countries, where the capitalists still rule politically? There, state power is nothing but a brake on the functioning of unions and cooperatives. It always intervenes in the conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for the greater good of capitalism, unless the working masses have become strong enough to prevent this. But in Soviet Russia, in all workers’ conflicts with industrial, commercial, or loan capital, state power will be on the side of the trade unions and cooperatives.
However, we must consider another side of ‘state capitalism’. The Soviet republic is not only engaged in ‘state capitalism’ by providing leases and concessions. It must also be a ‘state capitalist’ in its own enterprises. Only a part, and so far only a small part, of Russian industry and the Russian economy is provided to the capitalists as a loan for their exploitation. The other part, and it is the most important – including heavy industry, transportation, and so on – remains, in its commanding heights, in the hands of the Soviet government. The Soviet government, the workers’ state itself, is the biggest employer in Soviet Russia. But what does that mean in a period when the Russian economy is not linked with states on the road to communism but is integrated into the capitalist world economy? It means that the written and unwritten laws of this world economy exert an influence, within certain limits, on the shaping of relationships in the first workers’ state. The Soviet state too must be concerned as an employer, on behalf of the class it represents, with the ‘profitability’ of the enterprises. Indeed I will go further. Even when the transition period is over, even when we have achieved pure communism, society will generate surplus value in its economy. It will have to accumulate in the interests of further economic and cultural development. What is the result of this? The result is that the workers’ state may come into temporary conflict here and there with the demands and interests of individual workers and groups of workers, toward whom it must represent the present and future interests of the entire proletariat as a class. Obviously such conflicts must not be resolved on the basis of the temporary and momentary interests of individual persons or groups within the proletariat and individual branches of the economy. No, they must be resolved, today and in the future, in terms of the interests of the proletariat as a class, in its entirety.
Obviously conflicts of this sort will not be absent from Soviet Russia. Conflicts will arise for this reason alone: The Russian proletariat is not yet able to put forward out of its own ranks all the forces needed to occupy the administrative, leading, and decisive posts. Thus people are named to these posts who have profound economic, technical, and professional training and experience but lack the necessary communist outlook. Comrades, brothers and sisters: In this regard too, the trade unions and cooperatives have an extraordinarily important task – as agencies not only of economic construction but of education both ‘upwards and downwards’, to coin a phrase. Downwards, in order to raise the proletarian masses as producers to the highest possible productive capacity. Proletarians will sometimes experience this as severity. But in weighing this apparent severity and the backwardness of which our friend Lenin spoke yesterday, we must not forget that outside Russia, in the highly developed capitalist states, the proletariat has gone through the dreadful school of capitalism for hundreds of years in order to achieve its present capacity to produce and to labour. This education begins with the ‘bloody legislation’ in England, and instruction continues today using the whip of hunger and the scourge of class exploitation and class rule. The Soviet Russian workers’ state will educate its worker masses with the aid of trade unions and cooperatives and using gentler and more humane methods consistent with the meaning of communism. But it must still educate – educate to achieve work discipline, skilled production, and so on. And that encompasses the possibility of clashes.
The workers’ state will also simultaneously work together with the trade unions and cooperatives to train a staff of employees, officials, managers, and agents who will be imbued with the spirit of communism and will transform the economy as rapidly and fundamentally as possible in a communist direction. The employees and officials must become aware of what it means to be representatives of the workers’ state.
Another factor: Despite its poverty and the devastation of its economy, Soviet Russia is today the state with the most advanced legislation for workers’ protection and social welfare. And this is not merely on paper. Trade unions and cooperatives have the task, together with the Soviet bodies, of supervising the implementation of labour and social welfare legislation and of working for its improvement. They are effective agents of social reform. The activity of cooperatives and trade unions with regard to social reform was earlier hailed by reformist gentlemen, as previously said, as a means to hollow out capitalism and avoid revolution. Now we see just how right we ‘radicalskis’ were in maintaining that the trade unions and cooperatives could only contribute to truly transformative social reform after the proletariat’s conquest of political power. Only after the conquest of political power do they become a factor for transformation of the economy in the direction of communism. Social reform then takes on an entirely new face, a different meaning. Through the protection and defence of the proletariat against capitalism, they become contributors to the construction of communism. The proletariat’s conquest of political power and the establishment of its dictatorship in the form of the Soviet system stands as a towering milestone at the turn in the road where all social factors acquire a higher development and new tasks.
There is no need for me to point out the effects of the New Economic Policy in other areas. Our friend Lenin did that yesterday in illuminating fashion. However I consider it necessary to strongly emphasis this side of the new policy. For it highlights two facts. First, that in conquering and maintaining political power, the proletariat is not yet on the down slope but is right up against the mountain. By means of its overall policies and especially its economic policy, the proletarian government must clamber over the mountain into the promised land of communism. This raises a number of difficult problems: that of the relationship between city and countryside; that of the political power of the workers incorporated in the Soviet state and the proletariat’s economic organisations – the trade unions and cooperatives; that of the relationship between productive workers on the one hand and, on the other, the employees and officials in the factories and the bureaucracy in all the varied offices of the central and local Soviet authorities. These thorny problems will confront the proletariat of every country following the conquest of political power.
We therefore have an extraordinary amount to learn from the relevant developments in the Russian revolution – not only from what appears to be correct but also from what appears defective or is so in fact. However, in all this we must keep our focus on the central problem, which is the conquest and maintenance of political power, state power, in the hands of the proletariat. On this stands or falls the possibility of transforming society all the way to communism, as an achievement of the proletariat itself. The defence of state power by and for the proletariat must take priority over all other considerations. If evidence is needed of the decisive role of state power in communist transformation, we need only look at two classic examples: Soviet Russia is one; the other is Germany under the coalition government.
In Soviet Russia: Defence of proletarian state power; socialisation of heavy industry; strengthened legislation to protect workers; securing of the eight-hour day; a consistent struggle against the scourge of overtime, which is allowed only where it is demonstrably essential in the higher interest of the workers’ state itself; strengthening of social welfare; expansion of the school system as in no other country, despite all the poverty. All things considered, a beginning of economic reconstruction, small steps forward in economic life, and – most important, a slight but clearly perceptible improvement in the conditions of the proletariat.
Against that, consider Germany: the proletariat lacks state power; a coalition ranging from Stinnes to Scheidemann, and indeed to Hilferding and Crispien; instead of socialising, the threat of Stinnes-ising state-owned enterprises; dismantling of the eight-hour-day with the aid of bourgeois state power; dismantling of social welfare institutions; the schools handed over to the priests; the middle class proletarianised under conditions of great impoverishment; the economy more devastated with each passing day. All in all, the growing impoverishment of the working masses, which brings millions close to the point of death.
These facts, in my view, show more clearly than anything the decisive significance of the proletariat’s grip on state power. But it is not this reason alone that has led Soviet Russia to the ‘new policy’ as an ‘unavoidable evil’, arising from specifically Russian conditions. Rather I see the ‘new policy’ as the only path under these conditions that leads from capitalism to communism.
Soviet Russia’s path to communism requires not merely holding firm to the ‘new policy’. Beside this must stand the deepening of Communist understanding, the consolidation of communism’s idealistic core and of the powerful cultural values that communism embodies and brings to full development. For this reason, hand in hand with the new policy – and partly in order to lift the economy to a new, higher level – systematic and comprehensive work is required for popular education, especially of youth. This must be education and training for communism.
Comrades, brothers and sisters: It would be beyond my scope to try to portray even a hint of the colossal achievements of the Russian revolution in this field of cultural work. The Russian revolution is a vehicle of culture, a cultural power, as is found nowhere else today. Recall all the measures taken in the fields of popular education, training, and art. The Red Army soldiers, who have passed through the school of revolutionary ‘militarism’ in Soviet Russia, return to their distant villages as bearers of culture in the truest sense of the word. During the five years of its reign, the Russian revolution has achieved wonders. Even by this criterion alone, it is already immortal. What could it have achieved without the proletarian government? But what is the precondition for the Soviet government’s continued existence as a strong force to transform society economically and culturally to communism? I believe that an essential precondition for this is the intimate organic connection between the Communist Party, the leading revolutionary class party of the proletariat, and the broad proletarian masses outside this party. The Russian revolution was born of this firm unity, which has enabled it to survive to this day. It must also secure the Communist future. This organic unity of party and masses does not consist of the rigid application of a highly mechanical schema. It is not a power imposed on the proletariat from outside. No, it is a life that pours out of the masses themselves.
The nature and activity of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia is the most complete and most powerful expression of revolutionary understanding, will, self-activity, and self-motion of the proletarian masses. Life and activity flow in a rich alternating current from below out of the masses to the party and through a thousand visible and invisible channels back from the party to the masses. We hear the clamour about a crippling and deadly dictatorship in Soviet Russia of a party clique, a leadership clique. It is nurtured by formulas that are merely a poor imitation of anti-Bolshevik lies and slanders regarding conditions in the state where the proletariat has not only taken power but has preserved it and is no longer under bourgeois control. Against this outcry we must accurately evaluate the role of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia as a rich source of the most intensive creative life. And for this we need only to glance at the life and work of the proletarian and peasant masses. What a burning desire to learn, what enthusiasm for learning! What a moving and stirring among countless previously dormant forces!
Thanks to the Soviet government and the influence of the Communist Party, wonderful talents are blooming in the working masses. The most beautiful intellectual and moral values are raised from the depths into the light. Look at the Soviet structures, look at the different social institutions. Everywhere things are weaving and working, as in no other country of the world today. Millions are striving forward, upward. And in their will and their action flashes the brain and beats the heart of the Communist Party. Certainly we, coming from abroad, see much cruel suffering, many harsh abuses. Nonetheless we are overwhelmed by the feeling that here is such new and strong life! The spirits are awakened. Here it is a pleasure to live, a pleasure to work, and a pleasure to die, when nothing more is left.
Comrades, sisters and brothers: I will conclude. When we survey what the Russian revolution has achieved, a question will be posed by some elements who prize order – those who want to avoid revolution, those who hate and fear it, or who at least would like to have it for a very cheap price in the form of a beautiful revolution. They will ask whether to get these results it was necessary to go through the storms of revolution; could it not have been achieved on the path of democracy and reform? I say ‘no'! For without the revolution, Soviet Russia would not have its creative and transformative political power, its Soviet order, its workers’ state, its dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this decisive turning point, there would be no new, higher, and liberating historical life.
The Russian revolution truly does not need to apologise for the supposed insignificance of its achievements. On the contrary, these achievements are astonishing, are amazingly great. The tasks before a proletarian revolution are much greater, more encompassing, and more profound than those of any bourgeois revolution. The bourgeois revolution creates only the state apparatus and the political power relationships, and what is tied in with that. It does not reach creatively into the social economy. And nonetheless, after the great French revolution for example, it took a hundred years before its finest achievement, the republic, was secured by the uprising of the Commune.
Proletarian revolution cannot be content to ‘hammer the rotten old hulk’ of the capitalist state ‘young again’ in Soviet form; it must also transform the social economy, and with it the entire social superstructure. That is a mighty task that cannot be completed overnight and cannot be accomplished by great personalities. It must rather be the achievement of the entire proletarian class over decades. Marx wrote in his polemic against Max Stirner that we should not be discouraged if the proletarian revolution is extended over decades. For its task is to create not only new social conditions but new human beings, and to educate them to build the new social relationships.
We must take that to heart with regard to the first proletarian state in the world. Russia’s revolution has achieved more than any other revolution before it. It has not been thrown back to its starting point but has rather advanced far beyond it. With an iron broom it has swept the soil of Russia clear of all feudal institutions and relics. This it has done with a thoroughness not found in any bourgeois revolution in any country of Europe. Look at Britain! Despite a bourgeois revolution and long bourgeois class rule, strong survivals of the feudal order exist there even today. Look at Germany, the country of the most recent bourgeois revolution. The achievement of that revolution, the republican form of state, is still so little secured that its defenders tremble at the prospect of another Kapp putsch or Orgesch putsch. In Soviet Russia, by contrast, it is inconceivable that the old tsarism would return again. Nor is it conceivable that a modernising capitalist state could arise here, as was dreamed by the reformists in alliance with petty-bourgeois democracy. The proletarian revolution has sown so many seeds of new and fruitful life, both institutionally and in the consciousness of millions, that this life can never be extinguished and destroyed.
Soviet Russia as a proletarian state stands firm. It is the first form of proletarian state in the epoch of transformation from capitalism to full communism. Certainly it is not the only form, and this must be borne in mind, for the historically given conditions for establishment of a proletarian state are varied. But still it is the first and as yet the only state with a proletarian dictatorship. Given this fact, all that it does and achieves and also its mistakes and weaknesses are fruitful and meaningful for the world proletariat and the world revolution. Russian’s proletarians and Russia’s Communist Party have paid the highest tuition fees to learn how a proletarian state, abandoned by the world proletariat, can gradually be transformed into a Communist society. In this regard Bolshevik policies are decisive and instructive. Many screw up their noses dismissively, regarding them as merely a zigzag course, a chain of errors and aberrations. But the opposite is true.
The policies of the Bolsheviks, the Russian Communists, display as a whole an almost magnificent unity, homogeneity, and consistency of line. These policies are the first attempt on a world-historical level to convert Marxism from theory to practice; it is the first world-historical attempt to ‘make’ world history in freedom. Certainly this is being done in the framework of already existing conditions, but the main thing is surely to make history consciously, and no longer to accept history as the anarchic interplay of the blind and objective commanding forces of bourgeois society.
Comrade Lenin said yesterday that we all have very much to learn. You here in Soviet Russia and we who are abroad. He said that we abroad do not understand enough Russian to correctly comprehend the resolution of our Third World Congress, which was Russian in thought and feeling. In a certain sense he is quite right. The proletariat abroad has not yet learned to read Russian, that is, to act in a Russian manner. Since the Communist International is to be the centre from which revolutionary struggle surges outwards over the world, it must also be the university for our mutual education and experience. Lenin calls on us to learn, to win time. To win time is to win everything! His conception here coincides with the profound words of Goethe regarding human development:
Inheritance splendid, here and now!
For time is my estate, and time my field to plough.
Yes, comrades, time, but not experienced as a futile, idle waiting. No, time whose every minute is utilised in passionate activity. For you, here in Soviet Russia, it is to learn, to ply the trowel building the proletarian state. For us, abroad, to wield the sword in revolutionary struggle to conquer political power. Thus is closed the circle of world revolution that will free humankind. Thus will new life bloom from the ruins of world war. For in these times, the highest, mightiest, most fruitful and creative form of all historical evolution is revolution, the revolution as free expression of the will of the proletarian masses. (Extended, loud applause)
8. The Stuttgart, Copenhagen, and Basel congresses were held in 1907, 1910, and 1912 respectively. For their resolutions on war and militarism, see Riddell (ed.), Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984), pp. 33–5, 69–70, 88–90.
9. Zetkin probably has in mind the German phrase, ‘Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht’ (world history is the last judgement), from a poem written by the revolutionary nationalist writer August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1840.
10. The German text, ‘leben und weben’, is an example of the rhyming pairs that are a characteristic feature of Zetkin’s style.
11. Zetkin is probably referring to the all-Russian conference of soviets, 30 March–3 April 1917. For an account of this event, see Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution: A Personal Record (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 254–65.
12. The Third All-Russian Trade Union Conference met in Petrograd 20–28 June 1917. For an account, see Shkliarevsky 1993, pp. 68–79. For the proceedings, see Koenker (ed.), Tret’ya vserossiiskaya konferentsiya professional&nykh soyuzov, (Millwood: Kraus International Publications).
13. The ‘provisional government’ referred to here by Zetkin is the Council of People’s Commissars, appointed by the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 26 October 1917.
14. A paraphrase of Engels’s text; see Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 234.
15. See The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), pp. 299–302. Luxemburg’s text on the Russian revolution, written while imprisoned in 1918, had been left among her papers and was published by Paul Levi in 1921. Zetkin wrote a book-length reply to the criticisms raised by Luxemburg (Um Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zur russischen Revolution).
16. Probably a paraphrase of The Class Struggles in France in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 10, pp. 56, 70.
17. See Decree on Peace in Degras (ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), pp. 1–3. The newly formed Soviet government could be referred to as provisional because of the pending convocation of the Constituent Assembly.
18. On 18 June 1917, Russian armies launched an offensive in Galicia. Despite initial gains, the attack ended two weeks later in a crushing defeat for Russian forces. Kerensky was then Minister of War. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed 3 March 1918, ended the war between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers led by Germany. Russia ceded territory including about one-quarter of its population and industry.
19. Luxemburg’s criticism of Bolshevik agrarian policy had been published by Levi in 1921. Criticisms of the Bolshevik agrarian policy had been voiced in the Second Congress by Crispien and Serrati. A contrary policy had been followed by short-lived Soviet governments in Hungary (1919) and parts of Poland (1920), with bad results. See The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 290–3; Riddell, (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Resolutions of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 52–5, 357–8; and 2, pp. 653–4.
20. Sixtus Beckmesser is a censorious and narrow-minded critic in Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
21. For the decree on land adopted by the Second Soviet Congress on 26 October 1917, see Lenin Collected Works, vol. 26, pp. 258–60.
22. See, for example, Lenin Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 73–4, 211.
23. See Chapter 28 in the first volume of Marx’s
24. By ‘coalition government’, Zetkin is referring to the alliance of the SPD with bourgeois parties that ruled Germany from 1919 to November 1922.
25. The quoted words are from the poem ‘Von unten auf’ (Up from Below) by the German revolutionary poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876).
26. Marx’s criticism of the German anarchist philosopher Max Stirner (1806–1856) is developed in The German Ideology. See Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 117–443.
27. Verse translation from Goethe, Poems of the West and East, Bern: Peter Lang, 1998. In German: ‘Mein Erbteil, wie herrlich, weit und breit/Die Zeit ist mein Acker, mein Besitz ist die Zeit’, in West-östlicher Divan.
Last updated on 5 January 2021