Jairus Banaji - Revolution Destroyed

As the Left celebrates the centenary of the Russian Revolution this month, it is important to learn lessons from its tragic fate.

The Russian Revolution is a startling paradox. It was a revolution largely based on the working class, the first workers’ revolution in history, creating a state that was not a workers’ state. This searing paradox would clinch the fate of the radical left for the rest of the twentieth century, since the chief outcome of the revolution (the regime known as ‘Stalinism’) would exert a preponderant influence on radical sectors of the left in countries like India no less than in Europe, and crucially affect the course of major political events internationally, most notably, Hitler’s unimpeded rise to power at the end of the twenties and the tragic fate of the Spanish Revolution a few years later.

As Don Filtzer showed in his seminal book Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, by the 1930s the working class in the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a collective force, and the sole basis on which a strong opposition might have emerged was therefore preempted. Even more tragically, ‘with Stalin socialism came to mean something altogether different from [its] revolutionary vision, as socialism became identified with top-heavy, centralized bureaucracy, government attempts to control every aspect of social and individual life, a repressive and brutal police apparatus, scarcity, and general economic mismanagement’. The key issue thrown up by the revolution, then, is how this came about or how this was allowed to happen.

The Bolsheviks had seized power in October 1917 by garnering the support of Russian workers because they were seen as endorsing the slogan of workers’ control of production and because of the support they extended to the Factory Committees that mushroomed from the middle of 1917. As the most detailed study of those committees suggests, ‘There is no doubt that the notion of workers’ control of production was very popular at the grass roots, and it was the willingness of the Bolsheviks to support this demand which was a crucial reason for their growing appeal’ (S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd, p. 165). Already by June, factory committees were widespread throughout the bigger establishments, where they were dominated by ‘skilled, experienced, relatively well-paid workers’. 

Yet within a few weeks of the Revolution the Bolsheviks were demanding the subordination of the factory committees. The first Congress of Trade Unions held in January 1918 ‘voted to transform the Factory Committees into union organs’ (Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 32). By March that year, Lenin ‘made the first of a series of appeals to return to one-man management’ (Smith, Red Petrograd, p. 241). A year later, when the eighth party congress declared portentously, ‘the trade unions must achieve a de facto concentration in their hands of the whole administration of the whole national economy considered as a single economic unit’, the factory committees had ceased to matter entirely. 

With a brutal civil war dominating most of 1919 and 1920 and massive supply shortages throughout the country, Trotsky was arguing for the ‘militarisation of labour’, that is, for the unabashed exercise of compulsion in industry and other economic sectors, and for the subordination of the unions to the state. Although this was never officially endorsed, by 1920 industrial workers in post-revolutionary Russia were again subject to what one historian called ‘the familiar forms of capitalist industrial organisation’, as if the clock had moved full circle.

The only significant challenge to all of this, the group known as the Workers’ Opposition, which emerged at the end of 1920 to espouse a vision of an economy run jointly by the unions and factory committees in a sort of articulated system of management, came closest (among the Bolsheviks) to the revolutionary aspirations of 1917 but was met with sharp reprisals by the party leadership, causing widespread disillusionment among more class-conscious workers (many of them part of the Metalworkers’ Union) and effectively ending an earlier tradition of inner-party democracy. When ‘factions’ were banned at the tenth party congress in March 1921, the Workers’ Opposition was almost alone in opposing the ban publicly.

Suspended in a social void for lack of any organised expression of the autonomous power of the workers such as the factory committees, the Party ‘now exercised absolute power and was outside the control of any social force whatsoever’. This was the situation Kollontai would presciently denounce early in 1921. What it entailed increasingly over the 1920s was a ‘dictatorship of the Party over the proletariat’. .. read more:

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