Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 65August 2017

Why Russia?

In the early part of the 19th century the industrial revolution grew apace. As industry grew, so did the number of industrial workers. It was quickly and glaringly apparent that the people who actually created the wealth – those who toiled in the mines and mills and those who transported both the raw materials and the finished product – did not receive compensation commensurate with their actual input. The wealth they produced was in fact appropriated by a class who owned rather than toiled. The appallingly dangerous and unhealthy working conditions of those who did toil also prompted many serious thinkers to question the validity of a social system that would tolerate – let alone take advantage of – such iniquities.

Some thought the solution lay in abolishing all authority. Workers languishing under ruthless and uncaring bosses backed by the power of police and soldiers often found anarchism appealing but it was unable to sustain a viable vision of a workable future. The other solution that resonated with workers and intellectuals alike was Socialism.

Various concepts were advanced as to how to achieve and operate a social system in which those who produced the wealth would own the wealth, in which those who toiled would run the country and where society was organised to benefit them and not an exploiting class of parasites. Marx and Engels put it on a scientific basis and showed not only how Socialism could be achieved but how it would be achieved.

Nevertheless, even among those who claimed to be Marxists there were various sectional interests and competing approaches. Scientific socialists argued with utopian socialists; some championed the working class while others put their faith in the peasantry; some thought trade unions were revolutionary while others preferred reform to any type of revolution.

In the late 19th century, the seeming impossibility of overturning the autocratic power of the ruling class in the most developed countries led some of those who were impatient for change to resort to individual acts of terrorism, hoping to provoke a change of policy by tossing a bomb under some big wig’s carriage. Lenin’s older brother was one such. His execution for trying to kill the Tsar was one of the factors that convinced Lenin of the futility of individual acts of terror and that the only effective way to bring about social change was through mass action, led by a revolutionary party.

Most revolutionaries of the time thought that the first country where the workers would be likely to take power – however temporarily – would be one of the developed capitalist countries of Europe. It certainly seemed logical: surely such a move would be led by the most advanced workers, which of necessity meant you needed an industrialised country in order to have an industrial working class. And surely that working class would have to be the moderately well-educated if they were to grasp the complexities of Marxism or some other philosophy? In some countries, such as Russia, the bulk of the population were peasants rather than industrial workers and many were actually illiterate.

And yet it was in Russia that the Revolution took place. It should not have surprised anyone: there had already been an attempted revolution in 1905. Although Stalin was able to sustain an uprising in the south of the country against Tsarist rule for two years, the 1905 Revolution proved abortive because the necessary conditions for a successful revolution had not yet matured.

For a revolution to be successful, you need a revolutionary situation. That is a situation that is classically defined as one where the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way and the people refuse to go on trying to live in the old way. In Russia in 1905, the Tsarist ruling class had suffered a crushing defeat in the East at the hands of Imperial Japan and the people were seething with discontent. But they had not yet given up on their institutions and their ruling class was still able to exercise its power to rule. However, although 1905 was abortive, it taught the Russian revolutionaries some valuable lessons in the actual practice of revolution.

The single most important consideration determining why the Revolution broke out in Russia, however, was the nature and calibre of the revolutionary party itself. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had been formed by Lenin and although it had to operate underground his continued leadership meant it had a very developed political understanding. The biggest faction in the party was made up of those who supported Lenin’s position – known as the “Bolsheviks” (the majority). The minority were called “Mensheviks”. Although their relative sizes changed in subsequent years, the names stuck.

Prior to WW1, the Socialist parties of Europe had been united in their opposition to an imperialist war. But when it came, all but two of them caved in to jingoism and jumped on board the war bandwagon. The two that did not were the Spartacus League in Germany and the Bolsheviks in Russia. Lenin was so disgusted by this betrayal of principle by most of the Social Democrat parties that he announced that he would no longer be known as a Social Democrat but in future would call himself a Communist. His followers have called themselves Communists ever since.

Lenin correctly characterised the First World War from the outset as essentially a trade war. It was a war for the possession and domination of markets, resources and colonies. Lenin called for the Bolsheviks to campaign to turn what was essentially a predatory imperialist war into a class war: “Peace to the villages, war on the palaces!” he cried.

The huge, lumbering, poorly equipped and shockingly led Tsarist army suffered terrible losses. Its troops were reduced to retaking at the point of a bayonet at night the trenches they lost to artillery barrages in daylight. Tsarist troops were peasants conscripted off their farms. As the war dragged on, they became acutely concerned for the welfare of their families who faced starvation if the menfolk were not able to return to work the land.

Revolutionary organisations (“soviets”) were formed in the cities and in the armed forces. Agitation for and against the war – and for and against revolution – raged openly where possible and underground where necessary. Political parties of all persuasions produced newspapers and flyers. Political agitators found ready audiences – this was after all literally a matter of life and death.

In February of 1917, Russian capitalism decided the prosecution of the war could no longer be left to the Tsarist aristocracy. The hereditary princes and grand dukes had made a total botch of the military campaigns. Grumblings among the populace had turned to mutinies and strikes, so the capitalists put themselves at the head of a popular revolt and overthrew the Tsar. European-style bourgeois democracy was declared to be the way forward for Russia and a Provisional Government was installed.

However, the new “democratic” capitalist regime was still committed to protecting Russia’s colonial possessions and developing its markets. It had no intention of ending the grievously unpopular imperialist war and sought to continue it while trying to suppress the Bolsheviks and other opponents of the war. So unpopular was the war that in July there was an abortive uprising against it. Although the Bolsheviks warned that an uprising at that time was premature, they were obliged to support it. As they had predicted, it failed and Lenin had to go into hiding to avoid capture by the Provisional Government.

Forced to continue fighting an unwanted war against Germany and its allies, the Russian army continued to disintegrate. Soldiers in droves walked away from the front. There were non-stop mass meetings and delegations to the capital, Petrograd, all seeking to try to influence the course of the war or to stop it altogether.

Military discipline collapsed. In the navy, officers who got stroppy with their mutinous crews were likely to be put in a sack, tied up and dropped over the side. In the army, soldiers threatened their officers at gun point, causing many officers to tie red ribbons to their shoulder straps as evidence of their revolutionary sympathies.

In the Petrograd Soviet there was almost continuous debate. The Soviet had been dominated by reformist Mensheviks (social democrats) but increasingly support was swinging towards the Bolsheviks and their outstanding leader, Lenin. His keen analytical brain left his opponents floundering as his argument that an armed revolutionary uprising was necessary accorded with the historical conditions.

The Mensheviks attempted to steer the people’s revolutionary sentiments into a less “radical” direction by advancing the slogan “Soviets without Bolsheviks”, but the people quickly realised that without Bolsheviks the soviets would be toothless tigers.

By November of 1917 (October in the old inaccurate Tsarist Russian calendar still being used at the time) Lenin judged the time had come for the Revolution to succeed. It called for fine judgement. A day too soon and it would fail; delay a day too long and it would also fail. On the evening of October 25 (November 7 new style) armed workers, soldiers and sailors seized the Winter Palace, the bridges over the Neva River, the Post Office and other important centres. The “Provisional Government”, still issuing decrees to which no one paid any attention, was arrested.

Lenin mounted the rostrum at the Petrograd Soviet and announced that the Revolution had been carried out. The old Menshevik leadership of the Petrograd Soviet was swept away, replaced by the Bolsheviks and their then allies the Left Social Revolutionaries, a peasant-based party. (The next year, 1918, the Left SRs would turn against the Bolsheviks. Viewing the harsh terms of the peace of Brest Litovsk as a “betrayal of the revolution”, they assassinated the German ambassador in an attempt to restart the war with Germany and at the same time tried unsuccessfully to organise a coup against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It was put down the same day.)

The line is advanced by anti-Communists in today’s Russia that what took place in November 1917 was not a revolution but merely a putsch, an armed seizure of power by a small group of ruthless individuals. The lie to that is given by the determination with which the people of revolutionary Russia defended their new society, despite intense privation.

At first, the forces of imperialism thought that they could deal with the revolution in Russia without difficulty while continuing the world war. But the world war had destroyed too many lives and too many communities. The call by the new Soviet government in Russia for an immediate end to the war resonated with people everywhere. It quickly became clear to the leaders of the imperialist powers that they would have to bring their global war for colonies and markets to an abrupt end or face the possibility of revolution spreading far and wide.

The Russian Empire had already fallen over. Within the year, the German, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires would follow suit. In addition, there would be mutinies in the French and British armies, as soldiers expressed their anger at the way the war was dragging on. The United States was the only Great Power that emerged from the First World War with its economy more or less intact. Britain and France suffered enormous economic damage. And yet, when it became apparent that revolution might break out in several countries, Britain and France joined with other imperialist powers in trying to wipe out the revolutionary threat.

Dressed in rags, the Russian workers and peasants stood firm in their support of a new government that had done away with the rule of the hated aristocracy but had yet to make the Soviet Of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies into an effective administration. The civil war that was soon launched by the forces of reaction lasted until 1922, cost thousands of lives and caused tremendous destruction in a country that was technologically undeveloped before the war even began. Moreover, the Russian Civil War was marked by terrorism on an unprecedented scale, as the Whites gave vent to their hatred of “upstart” workers and peasants. The refined brutality of Kolchak’s White army in Siberia was so extreme that it revolted the US interventionist force that was supposed to assist him. The Americans refused to co-operate with Kolchak and the rumour was immediately spread that the US commander had “become a Red”.

Japan and the USA had invaded Siberia. Britain and France had invaded European Russia. Ten other countries also invaded parts of revolutionary Russia. Which brings us to the other reason it was important to the success of the revolution that it took place in Russia in 1917: it would not have been successful in a smaller country at that time.

When WW1 broke out, many armies still dressed their troops in brightly coloured uniforms. Aircraft and tanks as weapons were almost unknown. In the trench warfare on the Western and Eastern fronts, artillery, machine guns, poison gas, high explosives and flame throwers took a dreadful toll. But when imperialism tried to aid the armies of the counter-revolution in Soviet Russia they found that the size of the country made trench warfare impractical. A fluid, mobile warfare was called for. Tanks and armoured cars, however, were scarce: most transport was horse-drawn, armies moved on foot.

Across the vast expanse of Russia – occupying no less than one sixth of the world’s land surface – these relatively slow-moving forces struggled for supremacy, revolution versus counter-revolution. And counter-revolution, with imperialist support, came close to crushing the revolution. It did crush the revolutionary regime that took power in Hungary and put down the attempted revolution in Germany. But although the combined forces of the counter-revolutionary Whites and the foreign Interventionists occupied huge tracts of Red territory in Russia, the Soviet government continued to function and the Russian people continued to fight tenaciously on its behalf.

The technology of the time meant that the White forces were unable to overpower the Reds before popular pressure began to make itself felt in the various Interventionist states for the repatriation of their soldiers. After all, people said, the World War is over, so why are our men still fighting abroad? And workers’ organisations in numerous countries (including Australia) came out in defence of the first Socialist state with a very effective “Hands Off Russia!” campaign.

Although Britain provided the Whites with a number of tanks – the “super-weapon” of 1918 against the trenches and barbed wire of the Western Front – the war in Russia was not trench warfare, and by the time the tanks arrived and went into action they could do little to affect the outcome: the Reds had won.

The Russian workers and peasants, taking advantage of their country’s size and topography and supported by a global workers’ movement, had defeated several large and (for the time) well-equipped counter-revolutionary armies supported by the armed forces of 14 capitalist countries. The world would not see a similar one-sided debacle for imperialism until the United States was defeated in the Vietnam War.

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