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Ian Birchall

In Defence of the Russian Revolution

(Winter 1995/96)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Winter 1995/96, pp. 191–94.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Al Richardson (ed.)
In Defence of the Russian Revolution
Porcupine Press, London, 1995, pp. 287, £12.95

‘NO REVOLUTION resembles those that preceded it’, wrote Karl Radek in 1917 (p. 22). History does not repeat itself, and the one thing we can be sure about any future revolution is that it will correspond to nobody’s predictions. The study of history is valuable in that we can see how revolutionaries confronted unique concrete circumstances in the past, in order to prepare ourselves to confront unique concrete circumstances in the future.

Porcupine Press has thus done us a service by producing this volume of writings by leading Bolsheviks from the 1917–23 period. Too often the history of the Russian Revolution is presented as though there were only three actors – Lenin, Trotsky and the masses. This book presents substantial amounts of hitherto unavailable material from Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, Bukharin and Tukhachevsky, thus helping to give a fuller picture of how the collective leadership of the Revolution viewed events.

The volume opens with four pieces by the acute but erratic Radek. We are able to see the theory of Permanent Revolution as formulated by Radek, together with an extended quotation from the pre-war Kautsky showing how he viewed the prospects for revolution in Russia. These texts help to show that the theory of Permanent Revolution was not Trotsky’s personal property, but was integral to the Marxist tradition.

In a later section Trotsky advises friends of Soviet Russia to practise honest reporting – ironically addressing his words to the young Anna Louise Strong! There is a shorthand report of a speech by Lenin on the war in Poland that is not included in the Collected Works, and Tukhachevsky shows how completely the pioneers of the Red Army had broken with nationalism: ‘The army must have forgotten of what nationality it was in its majority composed. It must be aware that it is the army of the world proletariat, and nothing else.’ (p. 173)

There is also a delightful piece of dialogue, written by Trotsky, about the national question. The protagonists are a naive young Communist who has fought in the Red Army, and a more sophisticated comrade. The youngster believes that all forms of oppression can be dealt with by means of simply repeating ‘the class question ... is incomparably more important’ (p. 175). The species is still extant, and not all its members are young. Trotsky cuts through the confusions by advocating a non-uniform attitude to Great Russian and to Muslim nationalism: in relation to the former, ruthless struggle, stern rebuff, especially in those cases when it is displayed in the administrative and governmental sphere; in relation to the latter, patient, attentive, painstaking educational work (p. 181). They are words that should be pondered by those Marxists who saw fit to line up with the French bourgeois state against veil-wearing Muslim schoolgirls.

In a review it is only possible to skim the surface of this valuable and well-presented book. The notes are thorough and unobtrusive, though inevitably a few errors have been included. Alexandre Millerand was not the first French Socialist to enter a bourgeois government; that honour goes to Louis Blanc and Albert in 1848. And it seems odd to describe Fourier as being ‘famous for his asceticism’ when he planned to turn the ocean into lemonade (though I appreciate that some comrades would have preferred real ale) (p. 20).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to be so complimentary about the editor’s introduction. Richardson has rather overreached himself here, trying to use a collection of texts from the 1917–23 period to construct an explanation of events up to 1989. He points out, quite correctly, that no-one on the left predicted the cataclysm of 1989, but since there is no record of Richardson having predicted it either, the mildly messianic tone in which everyone but the editor is pronounced to be out of step is not really justified.

Thus we are told that ‘the present debate between supporters of the workers’ state theory and the proponents of state capitalism’ is ‘a puerile exercise, unworthy of the attention of serious Marxists, as well as being a waste of time and effort’ (p. ix). That puts us all neatly in our places. But is not Richardson, the foremost historian of British Trotskyism, being a little ‘light-minded’ in thus dismissing a debate that preoccupied the movement over at least six decades? As Victor Serge testifies, it was a debate which was carried on amongst Russian oppositionists in face of imprisonment and death. And for a very simple reason. They wanted to know what the enemy was.

And that is a question that Richardson’s analysis will not answer. He tells us that from the outset of the Revolution Russian society contained features of both the workers’ state and state capitalism. Of course he is quite correct in this claim – in fact Lenin saw post-revolutionary Russia as containing no less than five socio-economic structures: patriarchal, small commodity production, private capitalism, state capitalism and socialism (Collected Works, Volume 27, pp. 335–6). From this he deduces that ‘there is no such thing as a healthy workers’ state. It is a necessary, temporary, social evil.’ (p. vi) Again, there is no problem with following Richardson in this, but it does not take us very far. There is no human body free from germs; but some of us walk around quite cheerfully, while others lie on trolleys in the corridors of NHS hospitals. A workers’ state will be contradictory until the day it withers away, but that does not excuse revolutionaries from perpetual vigilance in the struggle to keep it as healthy as possible.

And identifying the contradictions that lay at the heart of the new-born workers’ state does little to assist in the understanding of Stalinism and its aftermath. What made Russia a workers’ state in the first place was the existence of soviets, or organs of direct working class power. They were fragile and imperfect from the outset, but they nonetheless account for the peculiar attractive power that October 1917 had for a whole generation of revolutionaries.

The original soviets were short-lived, as the working class itself was eroded by the course of the Revolution. But in the early 1920s there was still a government committed to restoring the principles of workers’ democracy as fully and rapidly as was possible, as is shown in Trotsky’s article The Rôle and Tasks of the Trade Unions in this volume. And Russia remained, at least until 1923, a base from which revolution might spread to other countries. But by 1929 what ‘gains of the Revolution’ actually survived? Why should any worker, in Russia or elsewhere, have risked his life to defend the Russian state? Surely not state ownership, since Richardson himself concedes that the Russian experience ‘has all but discredited the very concept of public ownership’ (p. i). That is the question that Richardson’s neither-flesh-nor-fish analysis cannot resolve.

Richardson has some inkling of the difficulty. He recognises that there is ‘more than an atom of truth’ (what? a whole molecule? thanks!) in Tony Cliff’s account of the turning-point of the late 1920s, but refuses to recognise it as a qualitative change (p. xii). (Richardson gives no footnote for this reference to Cliff; one wonders why he does not want to encourage his readers to consult the original source.)

This is the crux of the argument. The post-revolutionary Russian workers’ state was indeed contradictory. But the later period of Stalinism was characterised by quite different contradictions – the contradictions of capitalism. As Marx showed in the Communist Manifesto capitalism is a profoundly contradictory system; it is both revolutionary and oppressive. Failure to grasp the contradictions of Stalinism produced the twin errors of Mandel, who saw Russia as economically superior, and the Critique school, who could not explain the very real economic successes (the sputnik) that existed alongside the failures of the so-called ‘planned economy’. Richardson dismisses the state capitalist analysis of the 1989 crisis with the ‘cheap jibe’ that ‘few monopoly capitalists dream of being small shopkeepers’ (p. ii). He should find the time to study Chris Harman’s article The Storm Breaks (International Socialism, no. 46), with its analysis of the transition from state capitalism to multinational capitalism on a world scale. He would find the argument a little more complex than he imagines.

Ironically, Richardson’s analysis defeats his own purpose. He sets out to refute the notion that Leninism led to Stalinism. But by claiming that Stalinism can be explained solely in terms of contradictions inherited from the Revolution of 1917, rather than from the counter-revolution of the late 1920s, he plays straight into the hands of those who seek to establish the Lenin-Stalin continuity. Fortunately, the texts will stand very well by themselves; the introduction may be discarded.

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