Workers Vanguard No. 990
11 November 2011
From the Archives of Marxism
Revolution and Counterrevolution in Russia
The 20th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Uprising and the Degeneration of the Soviet Power
By Max Shachtman
New International, January 1938
To mark the 94th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, we reprint an excerpt from a 1938 article published in the American Trotskyist journal New International (January 1938). On 7 November 1917 (25 October 1917 by the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time), the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, seized power in Russia, thus far the greatest historical victory for the proletariat. Overthrowing capitalist rule, the new workers state, based on workers’ and peasants’ soviets (councils), handed the landed estates to the peasantry and declared an immediate end to the country’s involvement in the interimperialist slaughter of World War I. The October Revolution acted as a beacon for all the world’s exploited and oppressed, who saw in Soviet Russia the promise of their own liberation.
Dedicated to the construction of an international socialist society, the Bolsheviks saw theirs as the first in a chain of workers revolutions that would have to extend to the main imperialist centers. However, the Soviet workers state remained isolated due mainly to the failure of newly fledged Communist parties to consummate proletarian revolutions elsewhere despite opportunities to do so, crucially in Germany in 1923. In Russia, which was emerging from deep backwardness inherited from tsarism and the devastating effects of imperialist war and civil war, a bureaucratic caste centered on J.V. Stalin usurped political power from the proletariat beginning in 1923-24. This was the political counterrevolution referred to in the headline of the article.
Of the sections of Max Shachtman’s article that we are not including below, the bulk deal with the degeneration and bureaucratization of the Bolshevik Party, the trade unions and the soviets under Stalin’s rule. Leon Trotsky’s 1936 work The Revolution Betrayed elaborated a Marxist analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucracy threw overboard the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary internationalism, adopting the anti-Marxist program of “socialism in one country” with its inevitable corollary of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. The counterrevolutionary content of this program was graphically demonstrated in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when, as Shachtman noted, the Stalinists’ efforts were “directed towards crushing the proletarian revolution in Spain, preserving Spanish bourgeois democracy as an instrument in the hands of Anglo-French imperialism.”
A central purpose of Shachtman’s article was to argue against those in the workers movement who claimed that there was nothing left to defend in the Soviet Union because of the crimes of Stalinism. But only a year and a half later, Shachtman himself abandoned unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against the capitalist class enemy as the pressure of impending world war intensified. This was precipitated by Shachtman’s capitulation to petty-bourgeois public opinion following the signing of the 1939 pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. In 1940, Shachtman along with other leading cadre, notably James Burnham and Martin Abern, split from the Socialist Workers Party, the U.S. Trotskyist party. Eight years later, he definitively turned his back on Trotsky’s Fourth International.
In continuity with the program outlined in Shachtman’s article, the International Communist League fought to the end in defense of the gains of October. We opposed the forces of capitalist counterrevolution from Poland to East Germany and in the Soviet Union itself and fought for proletarian political revolution against the parasitic Stalinist regimes. Today we uphold this program in regard to the remaining countries where capitalist rule was overturned: the deformed workers states of China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos. Our Trotskyist defensism is integral to the struggle to reforge the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. For new October Revolutions!
What remains of the Russian revolution? Why should we defend the Soviet Union in case of war?
A number of realities still remain. The conflict between German fascism (and fundamentally, also, of the capitalist world as a whole), and the Soviet Union, still remains no less a reality than, let us say, the conflict between fascism and social-democracy or the trade unions, regardless of how corrupt may be the leadership of the latter, regardless of how it may compromise and capitulate, regardless of how much it may seek to place itself under the protection of one capitalist force (as did the Austrian social democracy) against another. The conflict can be resolved only by the capitalist world being overturned by the working class, or by the Soviet Union, its present bureaucracy included, being crushed and reduced to the status of a colonial or semi-colonial country, divided among the world’s imperialist bandits.
Another great reality is the economic foundation established by the October revolution. Despite bureaucratic mismanagement and parasitism, we have the prodigious economic advances made by Soviet industry, the great expansion of the productive forces in Russia (without which human progress is generally inconceivable) in a period of stagnation and retrogression in the capitalist world, the principle and practise of economic planning. All these were possible only on the basis of the abolition of socially-operated private property, of the nationalization of the means of production and exchange, their centralization in the hands of the state which is the main prerequisite of an evolution towards the classless society of universal abundance, leisure and unprecedented cultural advancement.
Outraged by the brutality of the reactionary usurpers, by their blood purges, by their political expropriation of the toilers, by their totalitarian régime, more than one class conscious worker and revolutionary militant has concluded that nothing is left of the Russian revolution, that there are no more grounds for defending the Soviet Union in a war than for defending any capitalist state. The professional confusionists of the various ultra-leftist grouplets prey upon these honest reactions to Stalinism and try to goad the workers into a reactionary position. Some of these philosophers of ignorance and superficiality prescribe a position of neutrality in a war between the Soviet Union and Germany; others, less timid, call for the strategy of defeatism in the Soviet Union. At bottom, the ultra-leftist position on the Soviet Union, which denies it any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state, reflects the vacillations of the petty bourgeoisie, their inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism.
Class rule is based upon property relations. Bourgeois class rule, the bourgeois state, is based upon private ownership, appropriation and accumulation. The political superstructure of the bourgeois class state may vary: democratic republic, monarchy, fascist dictatorship. When the bourgeois can no longer rule directly politically, and the working class is still too weak to take power, a Bonapartist military dictatorship may arise which seeks to raise itself “above the classes,” to “mediate” between them. But it continues to rule over a bourgeois state (even though, as in Germany, it has politically expropriated the bourgeoisie and its parties), because it has left bourgeois property relations more or less intact.
The October revolution abolished bourgeois property relations in the decisive spheres of economic life. By centralizing the means of production in the hands of the state, it created new property relations. The counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, although it has destroyed the political rule of the proletariat, has not yet been able to restore capitalist property relations by abolishing those established by the revolution. This great reality determines, for Marxists, the character of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, bureaucratically degenerated, it is true, usurped and therefore crucially imperilled by the Bonapartists, but still fundamentally a workers’ state. This great remaining conquest of the revolution determines, in turn, our defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack and from its Bonapartist sappers at home.
Because it is not a simple question, Lenin pointed out at the 9th Congress of the party in 1920, we must be careful not to sink into the morass of confusion.
“Wherein consists the rule of the class? Wherein consisted the rule of the bourgeoisie over the feudal lords? In the constitution it was written: ‘in freedom and equality.’—That is a lie. So long as there are toilers, the property owners are capable and, as such, even compelled, to speculate. We say that there is no equality there, and that the sated are not the equals of the hungry, the speculator is not the equal of the toiler. Wherein does the rule of the class express itself? The rule of the proletariat expresses itself in the abolition of landed and capitalist property. Even the fundamental content of all former constitutions—the republican included—boiled down to property. Our constitution has acquired the right to historical existence, we did not merely write down on paper that we are abolishing property, but the victorious proletariat did abolish property and abolished it completely.—Therein consists the rule of the class—primarily in the question of property. When the question of property was decided in practise, the rule of the class was thereby assured; thereupon the constitution wrote down on paper what life had decided: ‘There is no capitalist and landed property,’ and it added: ‘The working class has more rights than the peasantry, but the exploiters have no rights at all.’
“Therewith was written down the manner in which we realized the rule of our class, in which we bound together the toilers of all strata, all the little groups. The petty bourgeois proprietors were split-up. Among them those who have a larger property are the foes of those who have less, and the proletariat openly declares war against them when it abolishes property....
“The rule of the class is determined only by the relationship to property. That is precisely what determines the constitution. And our constitution correctly set down our attitude to property and our attitude to the question of what class must stand at the head. He who, in the question of how the rule of the class is expressed, falls into the questions of democratic centralism, as we often observe, brings so much confusion into the matter that he makes impossible any successful work on this ground.”
Nr. 10, July 1920, p. 8)
[see Lenin, “Ninth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.),” March 1920, Collected Works, Vol. 30]
Liberal apologists have distorted Lenin’s concepts into an argument for the compatibility of the bureaucratic dictatorship, and even a personal dictatorship, with a consistent development towards the new social order. “So long as industry remains nationalized and the productive forces expand,” runs their apology, “what does it really matter if Stalin maintains a bureaucratic despotism, which we civilized liberals would not tolerate but which is good enough for backward Russians?” It is of course quite true that Lenin saw no absolute incompatibility between proletarian democracy and “individual dictatorship” in industry under given conditions. A year before his quoted speech at the 9th Congress, he observed:
“That the dictatorship of single persons in the history of the revolutionary movements was very often the spokesman, the carrier and the executant of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes, is evidenced by the incontestable experience of history.... If we are not anarchists, we must acknowledge the necessity of the state, i.e., of coercion, for the transition from capitalism to socialism. The form of coercion is determined by the degree of development of the given revolutionary class, furthermore, by such special circumstances as, e.g., the heritage of a long, reactionary war, furthermore, by the forms of the resistance of the bourgeoisie or of the petty bourgeoisie. Therefore there is not the slightest contradiction in principle between Soviet (i.e., socialist) democracy and the application of the dictatorial rule of individual persons.”
—(Sämtliche Werke, Bd. XXII,
pp. 524f., Ger. ed.) [see Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” April 1918, Collected Works, Vol. 27]
But in order to make clear his real thoughts, he hastened to add the following indispensable supplementary statement, without which everything is one-sided and therefore false:
“The more resolutely we now come out in favor of a ruthlessly strong power, for the dictatorship of individual persons in definite labor processes during certain periods of purely executive functions, the more manifold must be the forms and methods of control from below in order to paralyze every trace of a possibility of distorting the Soviet power, in order to tear out, incessantly and tirelessly, the weeds of bureaucratism.”
—(Ibid., p. 532)
It is precisely those manifold forms and methods of democratic control from below which the bureaucracy has destroyed in its development towards despotic rule. In destroying proletarian democracy and the political rule of the working class, the bureaucracy has lifted itself beyond the reach of the masses out of which it emerged. Having abandoned its original class base, it must find a new one, for it cannot last long as a thin bureaucratic stratum hanging, so to speak, in mid-air. The social layers with which it has linked itself are the well-to-do farmers, the factory directors and trust heads, the Stakhanovite aristocracy, the officialdom of the party, the Soviet apparatus, the Red Army and the G.P.U. But none of these, nor all of them taken together, represents a class, with a distinctive function in the productive life of the country, or with specific property forms upon which to build a firm class and firm class rule. Their whole tendency is to develop into a new property-owning class, that is, into a capitalist class based on private property. Blocking the road to the realization of this yearning stands the still powerful reality of the nationalization of the means of production and exchange, centralized planning, and the protection of nationalized industry which is afforded by the monopoly of foreign trade.
The bureaucracy, closely interlinked with these restorationist strata of Soviet society and embodying their social aspirations, is now driven by inexorable forces to take its next big step backward. Hitherto, the reaction has been confined essentially to the destruction of the whole political superstructure of the workers’ democracy established by the revolution, and to the physical annihilation of all those who were the living connection between today and the revolutionary yesterday. From now on, the anti-Soviet bureaucracy will, and in a certain sense, must seek its self-preservation by an assault upon the economic foundations of the workers’ state: nationalized property, planning, the monopoly of foreign trade.
In our opinion, it cannot and will not succeed in establishing the rule of an independent, new Russian capitalist class, even if we arbitrarily exclude the possibility, by no means exhausted, of the crushing of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy by a resurgent proletariat. The new strata of society gathered around the ruling Soviet clique may prevail over the Russian proletariat in the period to come. But we do not believe that they are strong or solidly rooted enough to develop into a national neo-bourgeoisie capable of resisting, on a capitalist basis, the infinitely stronger bourgeoisie of the foreign imperialist countries.
In other words, the Stalinist bureaucracy and its satellites are doomed regardless of the outcome. They cannot develop into an independent ruling capitalist class in Russia. Either they are defeated by the proletariat which carries through a political revolution for the purpose of restoring workers’ democracy and of safeguarding the economic basis of the workers’ state which still exists. Or they are defeated by powerful foreign imperialism, which would wipe out that old economic basis, reduce the Union to a semi-colonial country, and convert the restorationist strata not into a ruling capitalist class for Russia but merely into a compradore agency of world imperialism, occupying a position not dissimilar from that of the Chinese national bourgeoisie.
The class conscious workers will place all their hopes and bend all their efforts towards the realization of the former outcome of the struggle. The building of the revolutionary party to lead the Russian masses in the battle to save the Russian revolution is dependent upon the success of the revolutionary movement in the capitalist world. The depression and reaction in the ranks of the Russian proletariat was created by the defeats of the working class in the rest of the world, by the feeling of the Russians that they had no powerful allies in the capitalist world. The growth and victories of the Fourth International will galvanize the latent revolutionary strength of the Russian masses and set it into irresistible motion. Everything depends on the speed with which we accomplish our indicated task.
* * *
The crisis of the Russian revolution has emboldened all the critics of Bolshevism, that is, of revolutionary Marxism—all of them, old and new. But all their hoary argumentation leaves the Marxist unrepentant for his solidarity with those principles and ideas which made the Russian revolution possible. For in abandoning these ideas, he would have to adopt others, and what others are there? Should he adopt those of the Mensheviks? It is true: had they triumphed, the proletarian revolution in Russia would not have degenerated into its Stalinist caricature for the simple reason that there would have been no proletarian revolution. Should he adopt those of the Western European confrères of the Mensheviks, the parties of the Second International? It is true: they did not let the proletarian revolution in Germany and Austria and Italy degenerate, and that by the simple device of crushing it in the egg and thus facilitating the consolidation of their famous bourgeois democracy which brought the working class directly under the knife of Hitler and [Austrian chancellor] Schuschnigg and Mussolini. Should he adopt those of the anarchist politicians who have become so clamorous of late, especially about the Kronstadt rebellion? But the lamentable collapse of anarchist politics in Spain, the servile collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the heaping of capitulation upon capitulation and the yielding of one position after another without a struggle, are not calculated to attract us away from Marxism.
It is not in place here to dwell on the flawlessness of Bolshevism and all its policies in the great period of the revolution. Its defects may be freely granted. But the oppressed and exploited of the world have not yet been offered a scientific guide to action in their struggle for freedom which can even remotely claim to serve as a substitute for the party and principles of Lenin. In the face of enormous obstacles—not the least of which were created, with arms in hand, by the present-day bourgeois and reformist critics—Lenin and the Bolsheviks carried through the first conscious proletarian revolution. They laid the economic foundation for the new society without class rule, without iniquity or exploitation or oppression. They—and nobody else—gave us a picture of the truly breath-taking prospects for human advancement and human dignity which are open to us as soon as capitalism is sent to the rubbish-heap.
Rash indeed would he be who forecast the immediate future of the Russian revolution. But whatever it may be, its historical achievements are already imperishable. The first steam engine may not have been much faster than the old-fashioned stage-coach, if it was able to move at all. But the country’s network of rails is today skimmed by speedy, advanced, stream-line locomotives, while the stage-coach can be found only in museums. The creation of the steam-engine was a monumental contribution to human progress. The creation of the first Soviet republic was an even greater contribution. History will give little place to the period of Stalinist counter-revolution, for it will treat it as a passing historical episode. But the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and its enduring achievements will never be wiped out of the consciousness of man, for it sounded the knell of all class rule, marked the beginning of the end of man’s pre-history, the inauguration of a new era for a new man. In this sense, Lenin and his party of revolutionary Bolsheviks could say with Ovid: Jamque opus exegi: quod nec Jovis ira, nec ignes, Nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas.
“I have now completed a work which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor the sword, nor the corroding tooth of time, shall be able to destroy.”