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A.J. Muste

The Significance of the Russian Revolution
for the American Working Class

Explanation of Basic Elements of Revolution
Will Spur Desire to Emulate It

(2 November 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 45, 2 November 1935, p. 8
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The idea of winning American workers to Communism by showing them or talking to them about the progress of “socialist construction” ill the Soviet Union always had, its limitations. Of course, the Stalinist propaganda in this connection was always based on a fallacious theory, namely, that socialism could be built within the borders of the Soviet Union alone, if only war could be put off a few years by whatever means. Today “the final, irrevocable victory of socialism in the land of the Soviets” has been achieved according to the Seventh Comintern Congress. Any ideas or hopes based on such a theory, on an illusion, were bound to lead to confusion or disillusionment.

Achievements in the S.U.

Apart from this, it is true that there have been important technical and other achievements in the S.U. and we have every right to say that even the beginnings of a planned socialist economy under a workers’ state can do more for the workers, in the face of the greatest obstacles, than capitalism. But even when based on this more sober and correct approach, the demonstration of the economic progress made in the S.U. was not calculated to impress and convince the general run of American workers. They could not visualize the low plane of the prewar economy in Russia. They could see too plainly that the standard of living, technical development and labor productivity were still exceedingly low, compared to what they saw under their own eyes in the post-war U.S. under the most favorably situated capitalism in the world. They lacked the political development to analyze and understand what they saw.

There was a brief interval at the very close of the Hoover reign when very large numbers of American workers were impressed by the picture of no unemployment, etc. under the Five Year Plan in contrast with the misery, demoralization and vague alarm which pervaded the U.S. in those days, and said: “Pretty soon we’ll have to do as they did in Russia.” But even then the concept of Russia as the promised land was far more generally accepted among the intellectuals and even some of the agricultural population than among the workers; and the talk about doing as they had done in Russia often expressed a flight from reality rather than any determination to face it. Stalinist publicity seems now intent not so much on showing that things in Russia are superior to what obtains in the U.S. as upon showing that they are much the same in the Soviet Union as in the U.S.

Tell the Story of the Revolution

Yet the Russian revolution was and is of immense significance for American workers. The idea that it is a “Rooshian” affair, “foreign,” something that does not concern us, unless it be as an evil example, is of course false and dangerous. It is furthermore possible, I believe, to get large numbers of American workers to understand something of the significance of the Russian revolution, though it must always be remembered that the average worker is mainly concerned about things very near to home. It is after a new regime has been established in the U.S. also; not before, that his psychology and. outlook be genuinely internationalist.

In the first place, the story of the revolutionary crisis itself, the misery and disorganization resulting from the war under the Czarist bureaucracy, the overthrow of the czar, the miserable failure of the bourgeois and non-revolutionary parties to stop the break-up of all economic life, to meet the needs of the masses, the gradual upsurge of the masses and their rise to power, – all this merely as a dramatic spectacle is tremendously impressive. Workers who have been in strikes can live it from the inside. A popular version of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution would be a powerful means for mass propaganda.

Show the Connection with War

The development should be shown in connection with the war. war is the only “way out” that capitalism knows. Permitted to remain in power it will lead the masses everywhere, in the U.S. too, to the abyss into which the Russian masses were thrust. Capitalism will stop short of nothing in order to retain its hold. The American workers are not immune, do not live in a universe apart, as they thought in the Coolidge-Hoover era. The depression has dispelled that illusion. There are only two ways to “stop war” – complete exhaustion, the collapse of civilization, or the way the Russian workers chose, the road of revolution which puts an end to capitalism itself.

The idea that finally the workers have to take things into their own hands, that they can trust no one but themselves; the great idea of masses in motion, no longer inert, no longer meekly obeying orders, but standing up in their own right, marching, sweeping everything before them – all this makes a genuine appeal to American workers. On a small scale they have demonstrated in their own strikes that it can be done. Paint the picture of mass action, direct action, on the grand scale in the Russian revolution and they will understand.

Revolution No Tea Party

Show them, too, that the revolution is not a tea party. The masses have to arm themselves in order to escape slaughter at the hands of capitalist henchmen. It is not a question of electing one set of politicians to replace another. A clean break has to be made. The government has to be overthrown. The whole capitalist state and its machinery, police, courts, army must be destroyed. The workers must put their own state, their own revolutionary government, in Its place. That is the lesson of the Russian revolution. American workers will come to see this too. There is that in their own tradition which will help them to see it.

The story of the Russian revolution, especially in connection with the contrasting policy pursued and results obtained in Germany and Austria, e.g. is the very best medium for teaching the workers what working class unity is and how it can be obtained. Impatience with divisions and “wrangling,” desire for unity, are deep-seated. But history shows us that all forms of “unity” between workers and other classes on another than working class basis, all forms of “unity” in the working class itself, on anything save a revolutionary program are undependable, a death-trap indeed for the workers. Precisely at the critical moment they break down. They produce not unity, but confusion and division. Genuine unity is achieved on the basis of a revolutionary program and under the leadership of the revolutionary party. There can be and there is no other way – the way of Lenin and Trotsky.

Only the First Battle

The impression conveyed by much of the Stalinist propaganda is that the war of the working class for emancipation basically came to an end with the Russian revolution. It “established” socialism. Henceforth virtually the sole duty of the working class of the world is to “defend the Soviet Union,” protect it from external attack, and then pretty much as a matter of course socialism will gain universal sway. This is bad, un-Marxian theory; it is also bad psychology. The Russian revolution resulting in the establishment of the first workers’ state in all history, is indeed of incalculable significance. But it was not the war of the workers against their oppressors which came to an end in 1917 on Russian soil. The first major battle of a direct revolutionary character was fought there and the first great victory recorded. But the war is on. Subsequently, the workers have suffered heavy defeats. No matter. The shining example of 1917 stands. The war is still on. Here on American soil also the battle must be fought. Preparing for that battle against American imperialism is the primary duty of the American working class which has also its fighting traditions, a fresh, vigorous class which has never yet suffered a major defeat, but which has also tests to face such as the past never presented. Put the matter thus and American workers will see and feel the Russian revolution as their own heritage, because it was not “Russian” but of the working class, not a war which is over, but a battle in a war in which they are themselves Inextricably involved, which for them also means either defeat with all the misery and degradation of a Fascist dictatorship or glorious triumph and emancipation. Put it this way, and set-backs and delays in “building socialism” in the Soviet Union do not have to be explained by a false theory which does not explain anything but simply confuses the workers, emasculates the revolutionary movement, and enables a bureaucracy to entrench itself. These set-backs and delays then appear as well-nigh inevitable incidents in a war in which the fortunes of battle swing back and forth until the final victory is won.

The Importance of Leaders

Finally, the masses see ideas as embodied in outstanding personalities. The revolutionist of course adheres to no “great man” theory of history. Washington and Jefferson did not “make” the American revolution of 1776 and Lenin and Trotsky did not “make” the very different proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917. But the revolutionist also knows that the masses are not theoreticians and that, as I have suggested, under the lash of objective conditions they will act to revolutionary effect in an historical crisis, if there exists the leadership of a Marxist revolutionary party whose theories and aims will embody themselves for the masses in its organization and its leadership. Now even the average worker in the U.S. senses that he is part of the world, does not live behind mountainous walls. He has begun to fear and hate Hitler and Mussolini. Despite all the propaganda of Hearst and the other red-baiters over a pace of nearly two decades, millions of American workers regard Lenin and Trotsky as their own.

The Figure of Trotsky

And it is through the medium of the life, the activities, the sayings of Lenin and Trotsky that the conceptions of revolutionary internationalism must in large measure be made real and living to American workers. A pamphlet of the most popular character on the life of Trotsky is one of our immediate needs for the broadest mass work. A popular book on the same subject is needed for those who have time and aptitude for more extensive reading. The conception that the figure of Trotsky, the chief organizer of the revolt in Petrograd during those “ten days that shook the world;” organizer of the Red Army, first army in all history under the control of the workers; bearer of the banner of revolutionary internationalism, the banner of world-revolution, in the face of bitter and colossal persecution – the conception that this symbolic figure must be kept in the background is not sound. He belongs to the Russian Revolution, to the Soviet State though not to the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalinist domination. He belongs to China also, to Germany, to France, to Latin America. He belongs to the working class and to the revolutionary party, the Workers Party, in the United States. Even Stalinist defamation win in the long run make clear rather than obscure that fact.

The American workers were deeply stirred by the Russian events of 1917, as those of us who were old enough at that time can well remember. The American workers are much nearer not only in point of time but with respect to the development of economy under which they live, and in point of their own political development – much nearer now to facing such a crisis as the Russia masses encountered eighteen years ago. As the capitalist crisis, including the war crisis, swiftly develops, so will the American workers rapidly develop a greater interest in the Russian revolution; come to know it as “their” revolution also, the first mighty victory in the world-revolution which will not be stopped until the working class has everywhere established its rule and humanity can advance to a new stage of civilization in comparison with which the highest that has so far been achieved will appear cheap and barbaric.

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