External Affairs

A Hundred Years After October Revolution, Rethinking the Origins of Stalinism

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To learn from October is to learn from and about its defeat, about why a truly workers’ state never emerged and developed in the years when it should have, and what went wrong to preempt that from happening.

Joseph Stalin and Nikita Krushchev in 1936. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Stalin and Nikita Krushchev in 1936. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century

It should be obvious by now that the regime that came to be known as Stalinism wasn’t born overnight, but emerged in a succession of fatal steps over the greater part of the early 1920s. If this was not sufficiently clear already from E.H. Carr’s magisterial, multi-volume History of Soviet Russia, it is now abundantly evident in the most recent accounts to appear, based on the wealth of new documentation that has been thrown open in the post-Soviet state and party archives, in work like Barbara Allen’s fascinating biography of Alexander Shlyapnikov and Simon Pirani’s methodical analysis of the revolution’s “retreat” which deals with the period from 1920 to 1924. To this new, post-Soviet scholarship one can now add the expanded translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary published in 2012, restoring nearly 200 cuts that Serge’s translator Peter Sedgwick had been forced to make to the original translation.

That the October Revolution ended in the monstrous counter-finality of Stalinism remains the real challenge for the Left, especially those sectors of it that claim some part of the revolution’s legacy. To learn from October is to learn from and about its defeat, about why a truly workers’ state never emerged and developed in the years when it should have, and what went wrong to preempt that from happening.

Given the fact that Bolshevism stemmed from a tradition of revolutionary socialism, the most startling fact about the revolution itself was how rapidly the goal of workers’ control of the economy was given up. “Workers’ control had been abandoned in the winter of 1917–18,” Carr states laconically in The Interregnum 1923–1924. “The factory committees launched the slogan of workers’ control of production quite independently of the Bolshevik party”, but it was the “willingness of the Bolsheviks to support this demand which was a central reason for their growing appeal”, so runs a crucial argument in Steve Smith’s book Red Petrograd. Yet Vladimir Lenin saw the factory committees “as a means of helping the Bolshevik Party to seize power”. They were, for him, simply organs of insurrection, not, as the Turin factory councils would be for Antonio Gramsci in 1919, “embryos of the proletarian state”. If Lenin abandoned the factory committees in the early part of 1918, as Allen tells us, this was doubtless because “the ‘proletarian’ nature of the regime was seen by nearly all the Bolshevik leaders as hinging on the proletarian nature of the Party that had taken state power” (this is the substance of Brinton’s critique in The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control). Embedded in this assimilation between party and class was the ‘ultra-Bolshevik’ idea that the party was by definition a sort of distilled repository of class consciousness, an incarnation of the ‘advanced sectors’ of the working class.

Following this fatal initial regression, the political trajectory of the revolution is best summed up by a two-fold movement – a growing rift between the party and its working- class base; and a growing culture of repression. It is no accident that both of the strongest challenges to the Bolshevik leadership came from ‘worker communists’, workers who had identified with Bolshevism at an early age and remained in the party till they were either expelled (Gavril Myasnikov’s expulsion was one of the earliest, dating from February 1922) or murdered in Stalin’s great purge of 1937 (Shlyapnikov was executed in September 1937). Myasnikov was a metalworker from the Urals who had joined the party in 1906. He was deeply troubled by the “oligarchical tendencies within the party, the drift towards authoritarianism and elite rule” and lashed out at the rise of bureaucratism, the “arbitrariness and high-handedness of party officials, and the growing number of nonworkers in the party ranks and in positions of power”. In May 1921, Avrich tells us, “[Myasnikov] exploded a bombshell in the form of a memorandum to the Central Committee, calling for sweeping reform… The most striking demand of the memorandum was for unrestricted freedom of the press. Criticizing the Tenth Party Congress for stifling debate, Miasnikov called for freedom of the press for everyone, “from monarchists to anarchists inclusive”, as he put it…Miasnikov was the only Bolshevik to make such a demand. He saw freedom of the press as the only means of curbing the abusive tendencies of power and of maintaining honesty and efficiency within the party. No government, he realized, could avoid error and corruption when critical voices were silenced.”

Shlyapnikov, for his part, formed and led the Workers’ Opposition, the only platform to argue consistently for a workers’ control perspective, seeking management of the economy by the unions. This was a grouping with a purely working-class base, much of this among skilled metalworkers, the milieu Shlyapnikov was most familiar with.

Also read: The October Revolution Is Now a Historical Footnote in Russia

The growing culture of repression ties in directly with these challenges both because it utterly disabled them through reprisals (Myasnikov was closely watched by the Cheka, eventually arrested and finally escaped to France via Iran) and because it was a cardinal symptom of what was wrong with the party: its rapid transformation into an authoritarian-bureaucratic machine, the antithesis of a workers’ democracy which at the very minimum would have meant a regime whose vital principles were ‘freedom of criticism, the right of different factions freely to present their views at Party meetings,and freedom of discussion’, as Alexandra Kollontai puts it in a pamphlet specially written to explain the platform of the Workers’ Opposition.

Kollontai’s pamphlet, never properly published in Russian because it was quickly banned, ended with a scathing attack on bureaucracy and what the Russians called ‘appointism’, the practice of appointments from above, that is, through the secretariat of the Central Committee which, she complained, was ‘breeding an atmosphere altogether repugnant to the working class’. Simon Pirani’s recent study adduces abundant evidence of this. As a new party elite began to emerge in a more forceful way by 1921, many of the civil-war communists were becoming deeply disillusioned and there was a “steady stream of resignations, by valuable worker members among others”. Officials complained that “not only individual workers, but whole worker cells, are leaving”, a statement which substantiates Myasnikov’s charge that in centres like Petrograd, “Bolshevik influence among the workers was swiftly declining. Within the party, favoritism and corruption were rife…” (so Avrich). Pirani argues that by 1922, when the outflow from the party reached epidemic proportions, “As the party further consolidated its role in the state, its base among workers weakened. Its factory-based membership dwindled to a minority, and those who worked ‘at the bench’, rather than in management, to a minority of this minority.” It should be noted, of course, that the CC secretariat was dominated by Stalin once he became party general secretary in April 1922.

Soviet leaders celebrate the second anniversary of the October Revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Soviet leaders celebrate the second anniversary of the October Revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the welter of dissidence that grew up in the years 1919-23, a third oppositional current emerged as late as October 1923. This was the ‘platform of the 46’ and of the various oppositions it was the one the party leaders (Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Stalin) feared most. Its leading signatory, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, was an able economist known to be close to Leon Trotsky. Like the Workers’ Opposition and Myasnikov before them, the platform, comprising 46 leading party members, complained, “The regime established within the party is completely intolerable”. “We observe the ever increasing, and now scarcely concealed, division of the party between a secretarial hierarchy and “quiet folk”, between professional party officials recruited from above and the general mass of the party which does not participate in the common life” (quoted in Carr, Interregnum). But the platform’s call for ‘internal party democracy’ was almost certainly too late by now (October 1923). To take one example, earlier that year Stalin had gotten away with the outrageous arrest and trial of the Tatar Bolshevik Sultan-Galiev on thoroughly fabricated charges of having ‘factional’ relations with Turkestani and Kazakh nationalists. By cleverly implicating the entire CC, including Trotsky, in the arrest of Sultan-Galiev, Stalin was effectively serving notice that ‘the nationalities could appeal to no one against the apparat’, Stephen Blank wrote in ‘Stalin’s First Victim’. (Blank’s paper underscores the almost overtly racial/Russian-chauvinist aspects of the trial. Sultan-Galiev’s overriding problem was how a revolutionary politics could make any headway in the Muslim world if communists themselves were unwilling to allow for the Muslim cultural heritage. He was executed in 1940, after repeated arrests and ten years of hard labour.)

The emasculation of the Soviets and unions, repression of dissidents, ‘packing’ of conferences, remoulding of the party into a machine and reemergence of mass apathy were all tendencies that had matured fully by the mid-1920s, when, on Victor Serge’s testimony, Stalin was in full control of the party. In short, the Stalinism of the end of the twenties and thirties has inextricable roots in the period 1922–1926.  By 1927 the earlier generation of Bolsheviks whispered among themselves that the workers’ opposition “had been right”; they had “analyzed the bureaucratization of the Party and the condition of the working class in terms that we scarcely dared repeat aloud seven years later”. For Serge himself, “the perpetuation of terror after the end of the Civil War…was an immense and demoralizing blunder”. As GPU repression began to be used against party members, the opposition was both silenced and decimated. By 1930, the prisons were full of some 4,000-5,000 oppositionists. And although Serge himself was an active part of the Left Opposition following Trotsky’s expulsion and exile, he never ceased to retain his critical faculties. He would reproach Trotsky for what he saw as a misconceived ‘Party patriotism’ that had repeatedly led to serious miscalculations. “As for the idea that…a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it. From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party…We were defeated by Party patriotism…”

Jairus Banaji is research professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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  • Anjan Basu

    Jairus Banaji examines one of the most important, and fascinating, questions to emerge from the first ever serious attempt anywhere to build a workers’ state. He cites valuable material and makes a cogent, if by now well-known, case about why and how the proletarian revolution transmogrified into Stalinism. But shouldn’t he also have placed the wider perspective of Russia’s economic conditions in those first years after October and how they helped pave the way to state surveillance and repression, eventually enabling a totalitarian stranglehold on a system that had aimed to be the freest, the most open, workers’ democracy? He touches upon, rightly, the contradictions inherent in a group of professional revolutionaries (who believed they represented the proletariat) working from above ON BEHALF OF the self-same proletariat, but he does not seem to pay much attention to the circumstances that accentuated the deepening of those contradictions, both economic and political. — Also, while a lot of literature on the subject is cited, it was surprising to find the complete absence of any reference to Isaac Deutscher whose monumental biography of Trotsky is one of the most authoritative narratives of the rise and decline of the spirit of October. ( Even Deutscher’s relatively minor works, for example his ‘Ironies of History’, throw a great deal of light on the central problems of the Russian revolution. ) For that matter, shouldn’t we also turn to Trotsky’s writings for finding answers to some troubling questions? ( Of course, Trotsky having been an ‘insider’, and also one of the main antagonists in the internecine struggles inside the Party and the govt, his narrative is bound to provide a somewhat limited view on the drama.) — The period photos are excellent, like in the other articles in the series also. Grateful thanks to The Wire for running this important series on one of the most momentous events in human history.

    • Jairus Banaji

      Many thanks for this valuable comment. I have no disagreement with anything you’ve said, but seriously, how much can one say in 1750 words? It’s purely a matter of what one chooses to emphasize.

      • Anjan Basu

        Oh yes, of course! Editing,
        I guess, becomes the most important part of the writer’s craft when it comes to publishing. I didn’t notice earlier, but if your piece is of 1750 words only, you have managed to pack a great lot into a short article. My compliments!

  • Anjan Basu

    Could someone please help identify some of the faces appearing in the picture showing the second anniversary get-together? Lenin and Trotsky are easily identifiable, of course, maybe even Sverdlov and Stalin. But it would be wonderful to know the names of some of the others in this truly historic photograph.

  • Just Saying

    Without an underlying cohesive founding document, like the US Constitution, that reigns supreme over all, power will always be too tempting to those intent on “setting the world right” in their own image.