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George Breitman

Labor’s Capacity and the Russian Revolution

(3 May 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 18, 3 May 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Do the workers have the political capacity to overthrow capitalism? From the very beginning the Marxists answered in the affirmative. Since 1917, however, it is no longer necessary to rely on theoretical arguments alone, for the Russian revolution conclusively demonstrated that the workers can take power under certain favorable conditions prepared by capitalism itself.

Why was the revolution successful in Russia and not in Germany a year later? Those who restricted their approach to this problem to an examination of the respective “political capacity” of the working classes in these countries would have had a hard time explaining. Russia was a far more backward country than Germany; its working class was relatively much smaller; and its workers did not have the benefit of the long political and organizational experience and traditions that the German workers had. In all these respects the German workers were at least as. well prepared to take power as their Russian brothers.

The Bolshevik Party

But Russia had one advantage that served to more than compensate for these shortcomings. It had a party, the Bolsheviks, representing the revolutionary vanguard elements in the working class. This vanguard, a tiny minority of its class, had been isolated from the workers during the long years of reaction preceding 1917. But during this difficult period, when the Bolsheviks were deserted by many weaklings and waverers, they stood firm in their principles, they swam against the stream, they based their calculations on (1) the workers’ capacity to take power in a revolutionary situation and on (2) their own ability to defeat the influence of the reformist and reactionary currents among the workers and win the leadership of the class.

The political capacity of the German workers as a class was not inferior to that of the Russian workers. They were defeated where the Russian Workers were victorious primarily because the German revolutionary vanguard took a longer time than the Bolsheviks to realize the need for an independent party to combat the treachery of the Social Democrats. As a consequence the German vanguard elements were not prepared to take full advantage of the first revolutionary outbreak at the end of the war in 1918 and were beheaded before the appearance of the second big opportunity in 1923.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that it is the duty of the revolutionary vanguard to prepare itself in time, especially in periods of reaction, for the role it must play in leading the workers to the fulfillment of their great historic mission in periods of revolution. Those who try to obscure this lesson by talk about the workers’ congenital incapacity Remonstrate thereby only their own incapacity to be of any use to the working class at a time when the future of the revolution depends on the vanguard’s tenacity and ability to resist capitalist pressure.

A Source of Optimism

The Russian revolution, constituting the most important event in political history, has naturally been a source of revolutionary optimism to the workers of all countries, because “if they could do it in backward Russia, we can do it anywhere else.” For the same reason, it has been a source of deep embarrassment to the back-sliders and refugees from Marxism of all varieties.

Now the peddlers of skepticism about the possibility of socialism can no longer hawk their shoddy wares (patented by Big Business) under the slogan – the workers can’t make a revolution. They have to make a slight amendment, as Jean Vannier does in the March Partisan Review, and say – the workers can’t “seize and hold power.”

The very manner in which Vannier is forced to pose the question is a tacit admission that the workers can make the revolution. He never admits it explicitly but he cannot logically deny it on the basis of his own formulation – which, incidentally, immediately negates three-quarters of his article. Once that is recognized, the question of whether the workers can hold power after winning it becomes a legitimate one for discussion.

We should begin by noting that Vannier’s sweeping conclusion about the workers’ incapacity to hold power is based on a mighty skimpy foundation. The workers have been successful in taking political power only once, and they have lost it only once. Vannier’s hard and fast law, based on a single test and supposedly good for all time, is hardly in keeping with the “rational and methodical scrutiny” which he professes to advocate. Such a method would certainly not pass muster in any reputable scientific laboratory.

A Worthless Method

This method is even more worthless in the field of history, to which we must look for the trends enabling us to understand contemporary developments. The history of the rising capitalist class, for instance, illustrates how hard it is for a revolutionary class to take power and keep it uninterruptedly. And it furnishes us with many examples of the capitalists being forced to give up political power for a period after they had won it in bitter struggle.

The one that comes most quickly to mind is the “great rebellion” of the 1640’s, when the British capitalist class, led by Cromwell, overthrew the feudal regime of Charles I. In 1660 the Stuart monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II. The counter-revolution was unsuccessful in its attempt to undo everything the revolution had done, but it did succeed in wiping out the political rule of the, capitalists. It wasn’t until the “glorious revolution” of 1688 that the British capitalist class put an end to the absolutism of the monarchy.

And in our own country the capitalist class had the power, in alliance with the Southern planters, after the revolution against Britain, only to see it fall into the hands of the slaveholders. It took another span of many decades, and a hard-fought civil war, before the capitalists regained national political rule.

“One strike – you’re-out!” Any umpire who made such a ruling would surely be booed, pelted with pop bottles and denounced as a dirty robber, if he could get away that easily. Vannier’s one-strike decision against the working class is just as raw and merits even stronger condemnation.

But why did the Russian workers lose power after winning it, and what conclusions is it valid to draw from that fact? Trotsky wrote many books analyzing this question, and the Trotskyist explanation was concisely summarized as follows in James P. Cannon’s pamphlet, American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism (whose last chapter definitively answers the croakings of the renegades on the very question we are discussing here):

The Real Reasons

“Russia was the most backward of the big capitalist countries. The proletariat, although highly concentrated, was numerically weak in relation to the population as a whole. Its industrial development and technique lagged far behind. On top of all that, the victorious workers’ revolution inherited from Czarism and the destruction of war and civil war, a devastated, ruined, poverty-stricken country and a frightful scarcity of the most elementary necessities. The disrupted productive apparatus taken over by the revolution was incapable of turning out a volume of goods sufficient to overcome the scarcity in a short period of time.

“The Russian Revolution was not an end of itself and could not build ‘socialism’ by itself, in one backward country. It was only a beginning, which required the supplementary support of a revolution In more advanced Europe and a union of the European productive apparatus and technology with the vast natural resources of Russia. The delay of the European revolution isolated the Soviet Union, and on the basis of the universal scarcity a privileged bureaucracy arose which eventually usurped power in the state and destroyed the workers’ organizations – Soviets, trade unions and even the revolutionary party which had organized and led the revolution. A horrible degeneration has taken place, but for all that, the great revolution has not yet been destroyed, and its ultimate fate has not yet been decided.”

In other words, the workers lost political power to the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy because of the temporary defeat of the European revolution combined with several factors peculiar to Russia alone. If the European workers had taken power after the First World War, Russian productive levels would have been raised considerably, the population’s fear about a capitalist war of intervention would have been eased, and the conditions for the rise of counter-revolutionary Stalinism would never have existed. Without those conditions, it obviously wouldn’t have required much additional “capacity” for the Russian workers who had won power by a successful revolution to hang onto it.

The Decisive Issue

The decisive issue then was not the capacity of the Russian workers, isolated in a hostile capitalist world, to hold the power – Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks never thought they could. The issue was really the capacity of the European workers to take power in the years following the Russian revolution. A concrete examination of the Russian development therefore brings us back to the fundamental question – can the worker take power – and here Vannier has already been compelled to admit tacitly that they can.

Properly analyzed, therefore, the Russian experience proves not the congenital incapacity of the workers to hold power, but that the workers cannot for long hold power in a single country and that the socialist revolution is by its very nature an international revolution.

To this it need only be added here that the extension of the revolution to other countries – even now, 25 years after the beginning of the Soviet state’s degeneration – would lead quickly to the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the restoration of the Russian workers’ political rule. Stalin, another disbeliever in the workers’ political capacities, understands this fact so well that he has shown himself ready to go to any extreme to strangle the workers’ revolution in any part of the world where it arises.

(Next week: The Prospects for Revolution)

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