Max Shachtman

Thirty-One Years After Russian Revolution

On Bolshevism and Democracy

(November 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 46, 15 November 1948, p. 3.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website, where it was called 1917 was a democratic revolution!
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We present herewith a series of excerpts from a speech delivered by Max Shachtman, national chairman of the Workers Party, at a meeting in New York on November 7, commemorating the thirty-first anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The text that follows is less than half of the original. We have been compelled, through lack of space, to omit the entire second part of the speech, which dealt with the rise of Stalinism, the appearance of the Trotskyist movement and other matters. In the text that is presented below, omissions are indicated by dots (...). – Ed.

Less than three months after the victory of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin remarked at a meeting that the Soviet power of the Russian workers had already lasted longer than the Paris Commune of 1871 which lived for only 10 weeks.

The statement was made with pride, but no doubt with some wonderment. It reflected the conditions, incredibly complicated and difficult, under which the Russian proletariat took power into its own hands so that, for the first time in history, it could proceed to translate into reality the oldest dream of man: a society of free and equal brothers

Thirty-one years have passed since the attempt was begun. It is not a very long time as history is measured. But we live in an age when change is rapid, frequent and profound. The thirty-one years since the Russian Revolution have seen epochal changes. None is so deep-going, so unexpected and so confounding as the change in the direction of that Revolution. The attempt made in 1917 failed. The hideous reality of Stalinism is nothing like the noble purpose of socialism which the Bolsheviks set out to achieve. In almost every respect, the former is the gruesome caricature of the latter; in many respects it is diametrically opposite. In the great initiative of the Bolsheviks, millions throughout the world saw the beginnings of the new freedom. In the present-day outcome in Russia, millions see the new slavery and millions more suffer in silenced anguish under it.

No great enterprise in history ever started under brighter auspices or ended under gloomier ones. When it began, there began also a stormy and confident offensive of revolutionary socialism, of Marxism, whose principles and programs were embodied in the Bolshevik movement. With the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution, Marxism is today everywhere on the defensive.

The offensive against Marxism

The ideas of Bolshevism were summed up in this: the road to freedom lies through the establishment of socialism; the road to socialism lies through the overturn of capitalism by the revolutionary power of the working class.

The offensive against Marxism is directed against these ideas, as tested in the Russian Revolution. It is an offensive on an unparalleled scale. It is sponsored by the highest government authorities. Dutifully and enthusiastically, it is carried out in virtually every number of every daily, weekly and monthly periodical ...

The theme of this offensive is quite familiar: “Bolshevism leads to Stalinism. The Stalinist totalitarianism was inherent in Bolshevism itself. The Russian Revolution could have produced nothing else than what we have in Russia today.” At the right wing of the stage, you hear: “Stalinist despotism is socialism, it is the only thing you can get if you fight for socialism.” At the left wing of the stage, you hear a variation on the same theme: “Stalinist despotism is not socialism, to be sure, but it is the only thing you can get if you fight for socialism which is now proved to be unattainable. In any case, it is true that Stalinism is the inevitable product of Bolshevism.”

The aim of this offensive is a political one; its effects certainly are. And its political aim is a reactionary one.

The whole capitalist world, including that part of the working class world whose ideas and activities are decisively influenced by it, is now mobilized for preparations for the third world war, the war between the US and Russia. War preparations are inconceivable nowadays without ideological preparation of the people to accept the war or at least without a campaign to prevent the people from fighting during and after the war to put an end to the social system and the regime which breed war.

Because they are worried about the popular opposition to the war and the war preparations, the warmongers try to present their course to the people as a crusade for democracy against totalitarianism.

Because they are worried about the people bringing an end to the war the way the Russians did in 1917, they cry out in every imaginable key: “Don’t even think of it! Whatever else you do, don’t even dream of such a thing! Look what happened in Russia when the people took power into their own hands! All they got and all they could get and all you would be able to get is the monstrosity of Stalinist despotism! And if you don’t believe us, who have such a miserable reputation, why, here are some experts whom you can believe – people right out of the socialist and even the Bolshevik movement itself ...”

That is the political meaning of the contemporary offensive against the Russian Revolution. The abysmal degeneration of Stalinist Russia and of the Stalinist movement everywhere has provided the enemies of socialism with all the basic materials for the weapons in their offensive, with materials of such a kind and in such quantity as they never dreamed of having in their century long struggle against socialism.

School of falsification

With the weapons they have thus forged, they have slashed and mutilated the true portrait of the Bolshevik revolution so that it can no longer be recognized. We know a good deal already, thanks above all to Leon T1917rotsky, of the Stalinist school of falsification. We do not realize, however, that there is another school of falsification about the Russian Revolution that is actively at work. It is the school run by the social-democrats, zealously assisted by turncoats from the revolutionary movement. It is at once the complement of the Stalin school and of the reactionary imperialist campaign against socialism. Like all falsifiers of history, it operates with outright lies, with snapshots of events ripped away from the attending circumstances, and in the best of cases with an utter failure to understand what a revolution is or with criteria applied to a revolution which belong at best in a drawing room discussion or a game of cricket ...

The fact which enemies of socialism are most anxious to keep in the dark is that the Bolsheviks represented not only the most revolutionary socialist movement of their time but also the most consistently vigorous democratic movement.

There is no other intelligent or intelligible explanation for the big fact that the Bolsheviks, starting as a tiny party even after the overturn of the rule of the Czar, took power and were able to maintain it for years with the support of the decisive sections of the people of Russia.

Bolsheviks supported people’s demands

Whatever the forms it may take, democracy must express the will of the people. In 1917, the people of Russia were completely exhausted by the war, tired of the horrible bloodletting, tired of fighting for the imperialist aims not only of Russian Czarism but of British and French bankers and monopolists. They wanted peace above all other things. They wanted it so passionately that they overthrew the regime of the Czars which they and their ancestors had endured for centuries.

What they got in place of Czarism, was a government of the Russian capitalists which wanted to continue the war, which wanted to maintain the reactionary landlordism of Russia, which feared and hated the aroused masses and sought to circumvent the will of the people and to thwart their aspirations by all the vicious devices of modern governments. This government, the provisional government of Kerensky, was supported by the two non-Bolshevik parties which enjoyed popular support, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, or S.R.s ...

The Bolsheviks gathered millions and ever more millions of workers, soldiers and peasants around them by militantly supporting the demands of the people. They did not talk about them but fought for them. They were for immediate peace, for land to the peasants, for workers’ control of the factories, for immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly, for a truly democratic republic. And that is the fundamental reason why the Soviets rallied, in one locality after another, to the support of the Bolsheviks – in the cities, in the trenches and in the villages ...

The taking over of power by the Soviets was the greatest victory in history for democracy, and this victory was made possible by the Bolshevik leadership and no other. The Bolsheviks had not invented the Soviets in some cellar or house of dogma. The Soviets were first brought into existence in 1905 by the Mensheviks. In the 1917 revolution, they were constituted and for a long time led by the Mensheviks and S.R.s not by the Bolsheviks. But it was only the Bolsheviks who said that these most democratic organs and representatives of the people shall rule in the name of the people and in their interests.

Once in power, the Bolsheviks did everything in their power to bring peace to war-exhausted Russia. If Russia was to know very little peace within its own frontiers for the next few years, the responsibility was in no sense that of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet power. The Bolsheviks took Russia out of the imperialist war, even if it meant great sacrifices in the form of tribute to the armies of the German Kaiser. The Bolsheviks actually gave the land to the peasants, which no other political group in Russia was prepared to do except the allies of the Bolsheviks, the Left-wing S.R.s ...

The Bolsheviks actually proceeded to suppress the counter-revolutionary forces and movements of the Czarists, the bankers, the clergy, the reactionary generals and the landlords. And as is befitting in a revolutionary upheaval. they proceeded by revolutionary means. When rifles were raised against the Soviet power, the Soviets replied with rifles. No revolutionary government in history worthy of the name has ever acted differently. The criticisms of the Bolsheviks in this case are made by people who never seem to have heard of the Great French Revolution or even the American Revolution and the Civil War. Every revolution has its traducers and its detractors – the dilettante detractor and the malicious detractor – who complain because it acted like a revolution and did not deal with its opponents the way you deal with them at a game of bridge. The Bolshevik revolution is no exception.

Development of the Revolution

One of the greatest difficulties about a revolution is that those who oppose its victory seldom understand its purpose and its determination, seldom reconcile themselves to its working existence. Here too the Bolshevik revolution was no exception.

The Bolsheviks, for example, did not even start with the idea of suppressing the capitalist parties or of disenfranchising the capitalist class. Lenin repeatedly insisted that depriving the capitalists of the right to vote was a specifically Russian phenomenon, that it might not be necessary in the revolution of other countries, and that in any case it was not a principle of Bolshevism.

Neither did the Bolsheviks start with the idea of confiscating all capitalist property and nationalizing all industry. On the contrary, they opposed it. They knew the backwardness of Russia. They knew the lack of experience and culture, not only of the workers in general but of themselves as well. They not only wanted the capitalists to remain in the factories but even guaranteed a reasonable profit.

But the logic of the class struggle is inexorable. The Russian capitalist class could not reconcile itself with the idea of a Soviet state ruled by the workers and peasants. They sabotaged their own plants; they refused to co-operate in any way; they fled from the revolutionary centers and immediately launched a counter-revolutionary civil war to overturn the Soviet power. They outlawed themselves; they placed themselves, voluntarily and even eagerly, outside of Soviet legality, and nobody, least of all the Bolsheviks did that for them. Confronted with this situation, with the fact that complete economic chaos threatened the already chaotic country, the Bolsheviks proceeded to take over industry, to nationalize it, or more accurately, to legalize the seizures of the industries which the workers themselves were spontaneously carrying out, on their own initiative.

What held for the Russian capitalist class, held in substantially the same way for the two big popular parties, the Mensheviks and the S.R.s. They could not reconcile themselves to the decisive fact that a great revolution had taken place which brought the Bolsheviks to power. They could not understand the decisive fact that the Soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants were the most democratic and the most widely supported organizations in existence, the ones through which the Russian people could rule the country in the most democratic way, the ones through which the economic reconstruction of the country could be undertaken, directed and controlled.

Instead, these two parties championed the Constituent Assembly which finally convened two months after the Bolshevik revolution but which no longer represented the people of Russia. Not only the Bolsheviks withdrew from this Assembly but also the Left-wing S.R.s, who had split with the Right-wing but which represented the big majority of the peasants.

The Soviet government was not weakened, but strengthened thereby. The Constituent Assembly could only become a rallying center, a war-cry, for the counter-revolution in Russia, and that is why it was dispersed by the revolutionary regime. That is what the Mensheviks and Right-wing S.R.s did not understand. But its truth was soon demonstrated. The Assembly became the program of every counter-revolutionary inside and outside of Russia – from the Cossack generals to Winston Churchill who was soon to spend millions of pounds sterling in the attempt to overturn the workers’ and peasants’ power in Russia. Nowhere did the cry for the Constituent Assembly appeal successfully to the workers and peasants. They understood who championed it and why. The result was inevitable: the people rallied more firmly around the Soviets and the Soviet regime. All the efforts of the counter-revolution, organized with world-wide imperialist support, failed to overturn the new regime. Its contribution was solid, and even now it remains our permanent acquisition: for the first time in history a government of, for and by the toiling masses.

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Last updated on 25 January 2015