By Colin Foster
Al Richardson overdoes it a bit in his response to Robin Blick (WL 20). To Blick’s claim “that during the Russian Revolution Lenin’s ‘elitist and coercive “blood and iron” state socialism’ triumphed over Martov’s ‘vision of a society that was both collectivist and democratic’,” he replies that the option “both collectivist and democratic” was impossible in 1917 because of the harsh world context and the great backwardness of Russia. So what did the Bolsheviks think they were doing? He does not, or seems not to, dispute Blick’s description of the Bolshevik revolutionary regime as “elitist and coercive state socialism”. He seems — however revolutionary — to think it a good idea.
Maybe Al intended only to argue that gentle, piecemeal, moderate parliamentary progress was impossible in Russia in 1917, and “the choices were a military dictatorship or the Bolsheviks”. If so, I agree.
But a regime “both collectivist and democratic”, if not quite as Martov wished, was possible in 1917. It existed ! The revolution created it. The Soviets of 1917-18 — councils of workers’ and peasants’ elected delegates, subject to recall — were a more responsive and flexible form of democracy than any parliament.
The Bolshevik regime was “coercive”, of course. But it was not “state socialism” in the style of Fabian and other schemes for “socialism from above”. It made widespread nationalisations only from the autumn of 1918, and under pressure from below. After the emergency regime of the civil war (1918-21) had been unwound, as late as 1927 the platform of the Left Opposition noted that the state budget took a smaller proportion of national income than under Tsarism.
The Soviets were the very opposite of elitism. Then, during the civil war and after, the working class was dispersed, and soviet rule was replaced by Bolshevik party rule. For the Bolsheviks, this was an expedient to hold on until workers’ revolutions in Europe came to their aid. But to the extent that the regime became elitist, it, so to speak, “negated itself”, and at a certain point the “self-negation” turned into outright counter-revolution, under Stalin.
Al Richardson’s presentation, perhaps inadvertently, fades out all the political choices which shaped the Bolshevik regime. And choices did shape it. It was not all mechanically determined by the material background.
What of Lenin’s successful battles to unwind the coercive civil war economic regime, and to save the independence of the trade unions? Or his unsuccessful battle, jointly with Trotsky, in his last months of activity, against growing bureaucratism? Or the Left Opposition’s later struggle against Stalin? Or the mistakes the Bolsheviks made? We should not use the benefit of hindsight to condemn the Bolsheviks for what they did in the maelstrom, but we should use it.