Russian Revolution: From victory to degeneration

Leon Trotsky addresses the Red Army during Russia's civil war in 1918.
November 11, 2017

The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the first socialist revolution in world history, was marked on October 25 — the date the Bolsheviks led the revolutionary seizure of power by the soviets (elected councils of workers, peasants and soldiers).

Socialist activist and historian Paul Le Blanc has written a detailed overview of the revolution, from its background to its aftermath. Green Left Weekly is running it over four parts. The final part, below, look s at the aftermath of the revolution, where civil war, foreign intervention, blockades and isolation lead to the destruction of the radical democracy of the revolution’s early days.

The full piece can read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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The radical democracy that the Russian revolutions of 1917 represented was overwhelmed by the harsh realities of the next three years. Several factors led to its demise.

VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other revolutionary leaders had anticipated an international wave of revolutions. They believed that revolutions in other European nations would grow out of long-standing exploitation and oppression of the working classes, heightened by revulsion for the slaughter of World War I and inspired by Russia’s revolution. They believed these revolutions would lead to working-class socialist governments in more industrialised countries that would come to Russia’s aid.

A wave of radical mass strikes and uprisings in many countries did take place from 1918 to 1920, but the new Communist parties in these countries were relatively inexperienced. Attempts at socialist revolutions outside of Russia failed. Soviet Russia found itself isolated in a hostile capitalist world.

Brest-Litovsk

Soviet efforts to pull Russia out of World War I also proved more difficult than anticipated. Representatives of the Soviet government, led by Trotsky, met with German representatives from December 1917 through to January 1918 at Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus). They put forward their revolutionary principles against the German negotiators’ threats of further military action and demands for territory and resources.

Trotsky hoped that working-class uprisings in Germany and Austria would soon cut the ground out from under his opponents. He therefore played for time, and eventually declared Russia was withdrawing from the war regardless of the demands of imperial Germany.

Germany then launched a military offensive against a disintegrated Russian army, quickly capturing a swathe of territory and resources. Germany then put forth even harsher peace terms.

Trotsky’s failure at the peace talks led to another crisis that undermined soviet democracy. After a fierce debate, Lenin persuaded a Communist Party majority in the government to accept the harsh peace terms. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a minority part of the government, strongly opposed agreeing to German demands, which included giving up the Baltic states, Finland, Poland and Ukraine.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918, and the Left SRs angrily walked out of the government. They began organising against both the peace settlement and the Communists.

The Left SRs had a far better understanding of realities among the peasants than the Communists. This government split opened the way for serious (sometimes even criminal) misjudgments by the government in dealing with the rural population.

In particular, efforts to secure grain from the countryside to relieve bread shortages in the cities resulted in violent conflicts that undermined government support.

Other left-wing groups also began organising against the government, in some cases through armed violence. Forces seeking to restore the tsarist regime also prepared for civil war. Some worked with foreign governments.

Capitalist nations imposed a devastating economic blockade on Russia to strangle the Soviet government. They also gave substantial material support to counterrevolutionary armies to help overthrow the Soviet regime.

The Communists had to build an effective military force as rapidly as possible. Trotsky was given responsibility for organising a Red Army and leading it to victory. The hard-fought victories were heroic but costly and brutalising.

The secret police (Cheka) was given expanded powers to deal with internal enemies (actual and potential) of the revolution. The death penalty, initially abolished by the Soviet regime, was re-established. Increasing restrictions were placed on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. Opposition parties were banned, allowed to operate again, and banned again at various points.

In 1918, there were assassination attempts against Lenin and other Communists, combined with worsening violence organised by opponents of the regime. In response, the Cheka initiated a huge Red Terror, a campaign in which suspected opponents of the revolution were arrested and often executed.

Although the peasantry had become hostile to the Communists, they supported Soviet rule, fearing a victory by the counterrevolution would result in a return to the monarchy. Poorly organised and without widespread support, the counterrevolutionaries were defeated by the Red Army in 1920.

Growth of bureaucracy

In this period, the Communists carried out a shift in economic policy that caused lasting problems. Threats of economic sabotage by capitalist factory owners hostile to the revolution led the government to take over more and more of the economy — far quicker than originally intended. Ordinary workers were put in charge of factories, and their inexperience caused economic difficulties.

The government’s expansion into the economy also generated the growth of bureaucracy, including the hierarchy of administrators, managers, clerks, and others intended to coordinate and control complex political, social or economic activities.

A bureaucracy can quickly become an extremely impersonal and inefficient structure, notorious for arbitrary power and unnecessarily complicated procedures. As the Soviet bureaucracy grew larger and more cumbersome, what was left of political democracy and economic efficiency degenerated.

This bureaucratic degeneration added to the severe strains of the civil war and economic blockade. These added strains resulted in a devastating breakdown of much of Russia’s industry.

The once vibrant working-class movement that spearheaded the revolution evaporated. Many experienced activists went into the new Soviet government or the Red Army. Many others perished through war and disease.

In the disintegrating economy, many workers left the factories and even the cities. Together with government efforts to maintain order, this led to a decline in factory committees and a substantial loss of trade union independence.

With the evaporation of multi-party politics, the soviets eventually became a rubber stamp of the only political grouping allowed to function, the Communists. While claiming to defend the interests of workers and peasants, the new government increasingly found itself quelling peasant rebellions and workers’ strikes, many instigated by Mensheviks and SRs.

Especially dramatic was the violent repression in 1921 of an uprising by sailors calling for the restoration of soviet democracy at the Kronshtadt naval base (previously a Bolshevik stronghold) outside of Petrograd.

Most Communists maintained hopes a return to soviet democracy that would be facilitated by the spread of socialist revolutions to other countries. The newly formed Communist International, established in 1919, was designed to help coordinate efforts for such revolutions.

But a sizable layer of Communist Party members was growing used to a Communist monopoly of power and authoritarian methods. A growing number of careerists, caring little for socialist ideas or working-class democracy, joined the new Communist regime. Even many committed to socialist ideals feared that if the Communists relaxed their grip on political power, counterrevolutionary forces could drown Soviet Russia in blood.

Legacy

By 1921, Lenin’s government had wonthe civil war and driven out foreign invaders. The major task was now rebuilding the country, especially the economy.

To do so involved creating a more harmonious balance between city and countryside, and carrying out industrialisation and modernisation. Much effort was made to extend health, education, cultural development and other gains to workers and peasants, and to draw them into running society at all levels.

For many years, the example of the Russian Revolution inspired workers and other oppressed peoples throughout the world. The Russian revolutionary experiences of 1917 influenced later revolutions throughout the 20th century.

On the other hand, hopes for rebuilding soviet democracy were dashed. The Communist Party was supposed to control the new government bureaucracy. However, the bureaucratic mode of functioning, combined with the brutalising effects of the civil war, transformed the Communist Party into an increasingly authoritarian body.

Lenin proved unsuccessful in his efforts, during the last years of his life, to push back the bureaucracy and end the growing influence of Joseph Stalin, the most authoritarian Communist leader. Similar efforts by other Communist leaders throughout the 1920s, most notably by the Trotsky-led Left Opposition, were defeated.

Stalin became the USSR’s unquestioned dictator. Millions, including many Communists, suffered and died after Stalin and his supporters consolidated their dictatorship in the early 1930s.

With the USSR experiencing significant economic development and becoming a major world power, the authoritarian nature of Stalin’s regime gave Communism the profoundly undemocratic connotation that it has for many today. For many, socialism came to mean not economic democracy, but merely state ownership and control of the economy.

Stalin’s successors in subsequent Communist governments later denounced his crimes, but they were never successful in overcoming the dictatorial legacy. That legacy ultimately undermined the country’s development, contributing in significant ways to the USSR’s collapse in 1991.

Many analysts argue that such a dictatorship was inherent in the nature of Lenin’s ideas, Marxism, socialism, and even revolution as such. Others explain its development by pointing to crucial factors, such as the failure of working-class revolutions in more industrialised countries and the impact of foreign hostility.

Many continue to see the dramatic events of 1917 as a positive example for workers and oppressed groups.

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