Bolshevism, the civil war, and after

Submitted by AWL on 27 February, 2019 - 11:18 Author: Barry Finger

Review of In Defence of Bolshevism, £12 including UK postage. Purchase here.

Mass socialist parties, trade unions, workers councils and organs of struggle are places for debate, discussion, deliberation and opposition, where, ideally, everything is openly evaluated. Their functionality requires constituencies free to transmit their will to the administrators of power, not only within these organisations themselves but also to the broader institutions and arenas in which they participate.

The organisation is where members safeguard themselves by providing for the recall of those who fail to adequately represent the aspirations of their base; who fail, that is, to translate majoritarian rank and file understanding of social conflict into appropriate legal and organisational terms. At least, that, to a large extent, was the Bolshevik viewpoint, the perspective of Lenin in State and Revolution. It was how Bukharin and Preobrazhensky explained the Programme of the Communist Party in 1919.

It is in part why socialists believe a workers’ democracy, where all the in-built class obstacles that thwart the will of the people under capitalism have been removed — and which therefore actively encourages rather than suppresses the full flourishing of politics — is infinitely more conducive to attaining and securing a democracy more representative, protective of minority opinions, and operational than any previous form of democracy.

The socialist class dictatorship — a workers’ democracy — exercises the organised coercive force of the revolutionary state against the property-holding minority only insofar as the latter attempts to resist the social revolution. The form and extent of its coercive measures are conditioned by the strength and effectiveness of that resistance. Within that space, the revolution aims to secure the greatest possible degree of self-government and the least possible scope for the emergence of a distinct civil or military bureaucracy.

The revolutionary class anchors its rule by ever-expanding the space for peaceful ideological combat and propaganda within the new order. So runs a sketch of the revolutionary socialist tradition. To continue and expand, coercive measures, unavoidable at a certain stage of the revolution, must be implemented in a self-dissolving manner, before they consolidate themselves and create a permanent set of institutions capable of frustrating the organised initiative and autonomy of the revolutionary class itself. A passing familiarity with the pre-1917 writings of the Bolsheviks and Trotsky indicates their full accordance with that tradition.

They conceived of socialist power, along with Marx, as rising from the bottom up; a permanent empowering of the mass majority politically marginalised under capitalism. They assumed, as did all socialists, revolutionary or reformist, not only the desirability and indispensability, but also and more importantly the centrality of democracy, at least in abstract principle, for socialism.

We also know that the abstract commitment of socialists to the advancement of democracy was abrogated, violated and betrayed again and again in the concrete by reformist socialists who repeatedly sacrificed revolution for order, even when such order led to the chaos of war, by allying themselves with the established centres of capitalist power. What then of revolutionary socialism? How did the Bolshevik party, unique in the annals of working class politics, that led a broad uprising of workers, peasants and soldiers — a revolution of the majority of the Russian people — and that mobilised these self-empowered masses against fourteen invading armies, transform itself in less than a decade into an all-powerful monolithic party-state that swallowed the revolution? How did the party that spirited the soviets and breathed vigour into the trade unions and the Red Army transform itself into the vehicle for the imposition of the will of a narrow party bureaucracy over the people? How did it create a new class society based on collectivised property?

Those are the framework questions that Max Shachtman addressed in his polemical broadside against Ernie Erber, a leading militant, educator and activist within the Trotskyist movement associated with the Workers Party, who — upon his departure — called into question how the movement came to understand and evaluate that revolution. Had Erber offered new insights? A more comprehensive revolutionary perspective based on previously untilled ground? Or — as Shachtman averred — was he merely repackaging in Marxist phraseology all the old social-democratic, reformist shibboleths of the enemies of the Russian Revolution and of socialist revolution as an engine of democracy itself?

The larger question for Shachtman was this. If democracy – the empowering of the masses as masters of their own fate — will not be advanced by reformist politics and cannot be advanced by revolutionary methods, is socialism itself doomed to failure indicting itself as a utopian project? What case did Erber offer against the Bolsheviks? That it dispersed a counter-revolutionary Constituent Assembly? That it outlawed parties and political organisations that took up arms against the revolution? That it put down political rebellions, such as Kronstadt, that were sustained by the forces of reaction?

We don’t have to look to Shachtman to understand the revolutionary dilemmas at play. The great Menshevik theoretician and critical supporter of the revolution, Julian Martov, laid it out for us with disarming honesty.

"Our Party’s influence began to drop uncontrollably, with no little contribution from the Seitensprünge (defection) of our comrades in Siberia, on the Volga, in the Caucasus, the Crimea, and so on, which enabled the Bolsheviks to represent us as allies of the Allies, of Kolchak, and so forth. Illegal agitation is infinitely more difficult under a regime like the Bolshevik, which after all had its roots in the masses, than under tsarism. … Insofar as we nevertheless did act, we ran into the lamentable situation in which any party finds itself during an intense civil war if it propounds ‘moderate ideas’ … We had a sympathetic audience but it always turned out to be more rightist than we. Following a healthy instinct all those who feel crushed by Bolshevism gladly supported us as the boldest fighters against it. But they… took in only what they needed — only the critical exposure of Bolshevism. So long as we branded Bolshevism, we were applauded; as soon as we went on to say that a changed regime was needed to fight Denikin successfully… to eliminate speculation and facilitate the victory of the international proletariat, our audience turned cold or even hostile. We did not have our own masses of the proletariat and revolutionary intelligentsia. That is, we only had their own decimated cadres. The new, younger elements, who have come to politics only now, are either irresistibly drawn into the Communist camp…- or despite their proletarian origin, into the camp of reaction, which rejects, along with Bolshevism, all socialism…"

And there we have it. For what Martov concedes about Menshevism is equally applicable to the full gamut of democratic, anarchist and socialist opponents of the revolution. The war-consumed Bolsheviks did not disqualify and exclude other socialist parties; they disqualified, isolated and ejected themselves. They disgraced themselves in the manner that other reformist socialists had so recently done and will have done again in the post war aftermath, by aligning themselves with the forces of the status quo under the bad-faith banner of the “defence of democracy”. If they expected to reap a working-class whirlwind, they found, to their utter disappointment and exasperation, only an audience for counterrevolution.

But when the exigencies of war dissipated, a battle-hardened, embittered and resentful Bolshevik party would not tolerate the return of yesterday’s armed putschists back into the soviet fold. Lenin, Trotsky, Radek, Bukharin and Kamenev famously penned ad hoc justifications, unthinkable in content prior to the civil war, of a permanently unaccountable dictatorial power wielded by the one and true revolutionary party. Their writings began to incrementally upturn and violate every democratic norm and tradition that had long nourished and inspired them. Belatedly, Lenin in his time and Trotsky later began to rethink and pull back from the brink of the abyss. Space is too limited to detail Lenin’s final misgivings or Trotsky’s voyage from his New Course advocacy of a revived inner party democracy to his later championship of a full-throated multiparty soviet democracy. Suffice it to say, in Shachtman’s words:

"One-party government, which is anything but abnormal in all countries at all times, and was just as normal and unexceptional in Russia, was transformed to mean: Only one party can enjoy legal existence in the country. To this, Stalinism succeeded in adding: Only one faction can enjoy legal existence in the party. The extension of full democratic rights…to all parties, without exception, would have strengthened the country and reinvigorated the Soviets themselves. It should now be clear that without the presence of other political organisations capable of freely debating (debating, not shooting at) the proposals presented to the Soviets by the Bolshevik party, the Soviets would rapidly and inevitably deteriorate to the position of a superfluous duplicate of the ruling party, at first only consulted by the latter, then disregarded by it, and finally discarded altogether for the direct rule of the party alone (the bureaucracy of the party at that!). In this process, the decay of democracy within the Bolshevik party and the decay of Soviet democracy went hand in hand, each having the same deleterious effect upon the other until both were suppressed completely, and along with them, all the achievements of the revolution itself.... (P)roletarian democracy cannot exist for long it is confined to one faction or one party, even it be the revolutionary party, that it must be shared equally by all other working-class and even — under favourable circumstances — bourgeois parties and groups, for without it the proletarian party and the proletarian democracy both die and with them die the prospects for socialism."

If we are to defend Bolshevism – and defend we must — we cannot do it as idolators. That is the lesson of Shachtman’s polemic. There was a dynamic context that drove the greatest revolutionary tacticians since Spartacus to lead the slaves of capitalism from the depths of slaughter and oppression to the heights of a new order, a briefly lived experiment prior to the civil war among the freest and most democratic in history. And there was also a reactive context of betrayal from within and from without by the paladins of reformist socialism that sought a reconciliation with capitalism on better terms. In the end, “the Russian workers lost power, because the workers of the other countries failed to take power.” That is, the Stalinist counterrevolution has to be explained first and foremost by socio-economic events.

The Bolsheviks themselves – Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin — nevertheless “took the theoretical lead,” in Hal Draper’s words, “in gutting socialism of its organic enrootment in the mass of the people” paving the “juridical” framework for the counter-revolution in class power.

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