Marxist Theory

The Legacy of the Russian Revolution

Kunal Chattopadhyay


The Russian Revolution is dead – screech bourgeois scholars and journalists. When bourgeois commentators and professors speak of it, they do so as though it was nothing but an egregious mistake that the world has evolved beyond, a costly mistake that resulted in much unwarranted loss of human life, an experiment that resulted in economic hardships and absurdities, a dogmatic attempt to implement pre-conceived theoretical notions into practice that could be done only by a ruthless and pre-planned dictatorship.

After the shocks suffered by communists repeatedly – after the XXth CPSU Congress, after the Sino-Soviet split and the open armed confrontation at the Ussuri river, after the invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, after the fraternal invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, and above all after the transformations since the late 1980s, with capitalist restorations in different ways and stages, in the Soviet Union as well as in China, along with all the East European “Peoples’ Democracies” – there are also many on the left who have either abandoned the “communist” tag altogether, or who, despite calling themselves communists, accept much of the bourgeois commentary summarised above.

And of course there are the troglodytes, who do not believe that there was anything wrong – till a villain came along. Earlier, Khrushchev used to be considered the principal villain, while from the late 1980s the badge of infamy was stuck to Gorbachev. For them, the Stalinist dictatorship was a good thing. Time has not moved forward, so making the revolution has to be as close to their model (1917 or 1949) as possible.

For those who claim to be Marxists in Marx’s sense, that is, those who assert that communism is associated production, and that it will come about through international revolution whereby workers fight for their self emancipation, coming to grips with the Russian revolution remains important.

What must not be forgotten is that the Russian Revolution is a threat. Capitalism has never recovered from the fright it received in 1917 and its aftermath, regardless of what Stalinism was. That was why it has never ceased attacking and maligning the Russian Revolution. Considering how seemingly confident the bourgeois leaders and pundits are that communism is a failed and deeply buried dystopia, it is worth looking at writings that do touch on the revolution. There have been, for example, close to half a dozen books on Trotsky within the last decade, most academically garbage. Had such error filled books as the one written by Robert Service for example been written about any bourgeois historical figure, the book would have died at the Refereeing stage of any halfway decent publisher. Journalistic articles are of course worse, for they constantly write distorted stuff, arguing that from Day 1 the Russian Revolution was a conspiracy, a despotism, and the Bolsheviks were a small conspiratorial party devoted to totalitarian principle and objectives. The result has been, in the local case of West Bengal, to bring up a generation, perhaps two, given the rule of the CPI(M) and its own false identification with the Bolsheviks, in ignorance of the real history of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism.

Had the Russian Revolution been so dead, would there have been any real need for such a sustained campaign? The reality is, history itself is dangerous, because it threatens the class interests of our rulers and their tame intellectuals. The fall of the USSR and the spread of the rule of capital to virtually every point of the globe have not meant an end to the problems facing capitalism. The long wave that ended in the period between 1969-1974 was followed by capitalist offensives. In his Long Waves of Capitalist Development (1980), Ernest Mandel argued that the reversal of the protracted economic crisis that had begun in the early 1970s depended on three elements: massive defeats for the working class in key industrialized countries; major changes in the economies of the so-called third world so that they became large markets for capitalist commodities; and finally the possibility of huge expansion of markets in the post-capitalist countries [the bureaucratized workers’ states] In short, Mandel argued that such a reversal "depended on the outcome of momentous battles between capital and labour....".

The massive defeats inflicted on the working classes in the imperialist countries, the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and China, and the exploitation of the ex-colonies through new mechanisms (examined, for instance, by Eric Toussaint in his Your Money, Our Lives) all came together. By the mid 1980s, the downward curve of global economy was over. This was not due to innovations. This was because of key defeats of the working class. The smashing of the PATCO union of air traffic controllers in the USA, Thatcher’s determined offensive against the Miners in Britain, etc were important mileposts. As Paul Volker, the US Federal Reserve chiefadmitted, the best thing the US state had done to aid his economic programme was to smash PATCO and thereby instil fear into other workers. Through austerity programmes, a new long wave's upswing was initiated. But the new long wave has been gasping for the past few years. The crisis of 2008 was a clear signal that the golden days of globalisation were over.

At the same time, new and previously unthought-of dimensions have hit hard. By 2020, the world could go past an important tipping point, so that by the end of the present century there would be drastic ecological changes. And such climate changes will neither be “natural” nor evenly spread out. Toiling people would be badly hurt. As Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath showed, this would be true even in the USA. In the exploited ex-colonies, rulers, regardless of whether they are portrayed as democrats by the US or whether they are openly dictatorial, make profits while the burden of exploitation fall on the workers and poor peasants. The rhetoric of democracy is shown as utterly hollow. In India, a quiet, dignified lady named Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for twelve years, under government custody and fed by instruments, because her home province of Manipur has been under ruthless de-facto military rule, through the instrument of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In Greece, popular anger drove out of power a government that had agreed to terms dictated by the European Union and by institutions like the IMF. But after fresh elections, despite the massive increase in the votes of the left wing Syriza, the discredited ruling parties came together to form a coalition government that would ignore popular will and impose austerity.

Ruling classes across the globe therefore fear working class resistance and the memory of the one occasion, when, for a few years, the workers had seized power and run the state. It is not a matter of a few workers becoming ministers, though even such a thing is rate enough. Lev Trotsky, the leader of the October insurrection, who later wrote the most important history of that revolution to be written till now, explained that :

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny". (History of the Russian Revolution --

What did all this mean in concrete terms?

John Reed, radical US journalist who would play a role in the formation of the Communist Party of the USA, wrote in his account of the revolution:

All Russia was learning to read, and reading—politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know…The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute [headquarters of the Soviet] alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts—but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky…

Then the talk…Lectures, debates, speeches—in theaters, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, union headquarters, barracks.… Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories.… What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.…

…We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, "Did you bring anything to read?"

Lenin, the man repeatedly vilified as a ruthless dictator, wrote in moving terms:

Hitherto the whole creative genius of the human intellect has laboured only to give the advantages of technique and civilization to the few, and to deprive the rest of the most elementary necessities—education and free development. But now all the marvels of technique, all the conquests of civilization, are the property of the whole people, and henceforth human intellect and genius will never be twisted into a means of oppression, a means of exploitation. We know this: surely it is worth striving with all our might to fulfill this stupendous historic task? The workers will carry out this titanic historic labour, for there are vast revolutionary powers slumbering in them, vast powers of renovation and regeneration. (Quoted in Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p.197)


 This is just what the bourgeois professoriat cannot stand. And so Orlando Figes, in his much boosted book, has this to say:

Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles-it was all part of the macho culture, you know the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action, the cult of violence-that was the essence of Bolshevism.

Not stopping there, Figes describes Lenin as "barking, militaristic, manic, violent, cruel and angry," who saw the masses only as instruments, yet was personally a coward. And Eric Hobsbawm, by then in full retreat from any kind of Marxist outlook, wrote that the Figes book was going to be the standard work on the Russian revolution.

The reality then is, socialism has a weak resonance today, but capitalism is in bad shape and is driving the world to ruin in its mad hunt for profits. The Russian Revolution had halted the practice of putting profits before people, even if only for a small period. Capitalism is destroying the globe. The Russian Revolution has left a legacy of ecological concern, though later overturned by Stalinism. Capitalism pushes women into double burden. Despite its many weaknesses, the Russian Revolution attempted to overcome the hurdles women face from its very beginning.

For those who want to uphold the legacy of October, there are critical questions galore to be answered, however.

First, we must come to a fuller understanding of the rise of Stalinism, and the fact that it was able to hold power for such a long time. Trotsky, who alone among the leaders of the revolutionaries of 1917 had fought against Stalinism and sought to explain it, thought it would surely crumble as a result of the shock of a new World War. Instead, it survived for another nearly half century in the USSR, and replicated itself in a number of countries. Neither the theory of State Capitalism nor that of New Class ever explained this satisfactorily. Yet the over-optimistic predictions of Orthodox Trotskyism about a working class led political revolution also had little bearing on what actually happened. So the destruction of working class democracy and the long period of bureaucratic rule has to be studied.

It is also necessary to explain what is living and what is dead in the Leninist Party. On one hand, Paul Le Blanc, Lars T. Lih and others have punched a big hole through the Cold War notions of a Leninist Party as Jacobin elite. On the other hand, the world has changed and to expect a revolutionary party to play the precise kind of role or to have the precise tactics as the Bolsheviks is pointless. But does that mean there are no lessons to be learnt from them? Far from it. The struggle for consistent democracy for the majority of people, the building of a revolutionary party by basing itself on workers and by developing a large layer of working class cadres, the rejection of tactical lines that subordinate the class independence and the class goals of workers to so-called higher or more priority goals and alliances (alliances with “progressive” bourgeoisie) are as devastating for the working class today as they had been when the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries practiced them in the Russian Revolution.

After all this, the vital legacy today is still summed up by the critical but friendly words of Rosa Luxemburg, made in 1918.

The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.…

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.…

Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy…

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity forced upon them by these fatal circumstances…and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.…

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks.…

It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism'.

If that is the case, why did the revolution collapse?

The crisis of the revolution came with Civil War and isolation. The Civil War saw virtually all the socialist parties moving to alliances with the bourgeoisie and even ex-tsarist generals. Not previous schemes of the /Bolsheviks but the Civil War brought the end to soviet democracy. White Terror had to be combated, and this led to Red Terror. Opposition parties often joined counter revolution, and were banned. Under Civil War conditions, freedom of the press could not be maintained. To feed the army, and the workers, peasants’ grain was requisitioned leading to conflicts, as well as an attitude that many Bolsheviks would never shake off and that would later lead them to welcome forced collectivization and the terror on the peasants.

Yet it is also a matter of fact that the Civil War was won because popular support was mobilized. The Whites lost, despite the support of international imperialism. But the revolution was contained. Revolutions broke out in Austria, in Hungary, in Germany, and elsewhere, but were defeated, mostly with the active support of the moderate socialists.

The objective conditions in Russia were favourable for the taking of power, but the same conditions meant that moving to socialism was impossible if the revolution was isolated. Emergency after emergency bent and twisted the original egalitarian impulses. As Trotsky said, it was "easier to come to power in Russia than move toward socialism."

The Bolsheviks adopted authoritarian practices in the Civil War that undermined their democratic goals.  They thought they were doing all this to save the revolution, and in the short term they were correct. But they all too often justified these in the name of higher principles, instead of admitting that such flaws were important deviations from the goal.

But the German revolution, the Finnish and Hungarian revolutions, all the insurrectionary general strikes went down to defeat.  These defeats showed that the world bourgeoisie learned more from the Russian revolution than the world working class.  The Italian General Strike was followed within a few years by the rise of fascism in Italy. And later on, Stalin consciously drove revolutions to defeat, so that in the balance between the isolated Russian revolution and an imperialist world not capable however of immediately attacking the revolution, the bureaucracy would gain power.

Had the Party remained democratic this might have been delayed; had Lenin and Trotsky fought against the bureaucracy from the first, they might have prevented Stalin from coming to power. Had the Bolsheviks created strong institutions of workers' democracy they might have inspired more revolutions in the West, though they could not have lasted long isolated in power, representing a constituency that was not the majority in society.  But Lenin died, and Trotsky saw the main danger in Bukharin, not Stalin. The earlier opposition groupings who later often allied with Trotsky had given warnings, but had failed to make the party aware in time.

Stalin from 1924 developed a theory of Socialism in One Country, which really meant turning the Communist International into an instrument of nationalist foreign policy, and of giving up the struggle for world communism. The defeat o the Left Opposition by 1927 was the end of the voice of the proletariat in the party, which was turned simply into an apparatus of the bureaucracy.

By the end of the decade, faced with fresh economic crises and the breakdown fo the worker-peasant alliance, Stalin decided that rapid industrialisation by exploiting workers and peasants alike was necessary. Terror became an instrument of everyday life in the 1930s. Forced collectivization, quick march industrialisation, killed tens of millions in peacetime. This in turn was linked to systematic political purges. Collective resistance was broken and the working class utterly annihilated.

The revolutionaries who wanted democratisation, international revolution, planning with democracy, and reduction of bureaucracy  found themselves back in exile, in jail, and finally facing systematic butchery. In a chilling passage in his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Victor Serge wrote, using the persona of the Old Bolshevik, and subsequently Trotskyist leader Ryzhik, a major character of several of his novels (Conquered CityMidnight in the Century, and The Case of Comrade Tulayev):

“Ryzhik clearly deciphered the hieroglyphics (perhaps he was the only person in the world to decipher them, and it gave him an agonizing feeling of vertigo)… He knew, almost by heart, the falsified reports of the three great trials; he knew all the available details of the minor trials in Kharkov, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Krasnoyarsk, trials of which the world had not heard. Between the hundreds of thousands of lines of the published texts, weighted down with innumerable lies, he saw other hieroglyphics, equally bloody but pitilessly clear. And each hieroglyphic was human: a name, a human face with changing expressions, a voice, a portion of living history…. If he had credited himself with the slightest poetic faculty, Ryzhik would have allowed himself to become intoxicated by the spectacle of that powerful collective brain, that brain which brought together thousands of brains to perform its work during a quarter of a century, now destroyed in a few years by the backlash of its very victory, now perhaps reflected only in his own mind as in a thousand-faceted mirror… All snuffed out, those brains; all disfigured, those faces, all smeared with blood.”

The new system was neither socialist nor capitalist. Political power had to be used to ensure that the new elite got its loot. Industry and terror were closely linked.  

But Stalinism and Social Democracy, two damning cancers of the working class movement, kept the working class disarmed. It is precisely the fall of Stalinism that has created an ideological problem. An entire generation of workers have grown up since 1991, not burdened with the Stalinist legacy. And it is to ideologically confuse them that the permanent campaigns against the Russian revolution have to be mounted.

An entire generation has grown up in capitalist countries too, that is not burdened by the memory of past defeats and that is contemptuous of traditional bureaucratic and reformist unionism, which too has gone into decline. No results can be predicted before the battle is joined, but working class struggles and organisations have  a healthier look than forty years back.