The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution
Talk for the Chicago Local of News and Letters Committees
By Franklin Dmitryev, November 13, 2017
Rewriting history is one of the rulers’ most potent weapons. That rewriting goes on constantly, every day, to fit our experience into the ruling ideology—above all, that there is no alternative to capitalism.
The Russian Revolution has been subject to the most strenuous rewriting, both by the ideologues attached to the ruling class and by various tendencies on the Left, both reformist and revolutionary.
From the proof that revolution can succeed and the working class can attain power, the magnificent events of 1917 have been turned into a fable of a straight line from Lenin to Stalin. The fable’s moral is that revolution must fail, that any attempt to overthrow capitalism necessarily ends in tyranny, that a class dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily turns into the dictatorship of one party or one person against the working masses.
I want to highlight as prime determinants of the revolution the self-activity of the masses, revolutionary organization, and Marx’s philosophy of revolution, and to highlight the transformation into opposite with the dialectic of counter-revolution coming from within the revolution.
We need to understand that the February revolution (I’m using the old Julian calendar dates; to much of the world the opening date of the revolution was March 8, International Women’s Day) was made solely by the historic initiative of the masses, first of all by the women workers on International Women’s Day. As Megan Trudell put it in “The Women of 1917”:
“Women workers were firmly in the forefront of the February Revolution that culminated in the destruction of tsarism. They were not merely its ‘spark,’ but the motor that drove it forward — despite the initial misgivings of many male workers and revolutionaries….
“In the dual power situation following the February Revolution, women’s protests did not disappear but became part of the process that saw workers’ support flow from the government to the Soviet and, within the Soviet, from the moderate socialist Menshevik-Social Revolutionary leadership to the Bolsheviks by September….
“By May, antiwar protests had forced the dissolution of the first Provisional Government and Menshevik-SR Soviet leaders had formed a coalition government with liberals — still dedicated to the war. Workers’ disillusionment led to further strikes, again led by women. Some forty thousand women laundry workers, members of a union led by the Bolshevik Sofia Goncharskaia, struck for more pay, an eight-hour day, and improved working conditions: better hygiene at work, maternity benefits (it was common for women workers to hide pregnancies until they gave birth on the factory floor), and an end to sexual harassment….
“In August, faced with General Kornilov’s attempts to crush the revolution, women rallied to the defense of Petrograd, building barricades and organizing medical aid; in October, women in the Bolshevik party were involved in the provision of medical aid and crucial communications between localities, some had responsibility for coordinating the rising in different areas of Petrograd, and there were women members of the Red Guard. Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyer describe another Bolshevik woman’s involvement in October:
“ ‘The tram conductor, A.E. Rodionova, had hidden 42 rifles and other weapons in her depot when the Provisional government had tried to disarm the workers after the July days. In October, she was responsible for making sure that two trams with machine guns left the depot for the storming of the Winter Palace. She had to ensure that the tram service operated during the night of 25 to 26 October, to assist the seizure of power, and to check the Red Guard posts throughout the city.’ ”
In the midst of the February Revolution, the soviets began to form. They became an organizational expression of the masses in revolutionary motion. They countermanded orders from the provisional government, and thus a situation of dual power arose. At the same time, a number of other forms of organization like factory committees arose from below.
The October revolution (again, that is old style, corresponding to Nov. 7-8 by our calendar) was not spontaneous. It was spearheaded by the Military Revolutionary Committee, really guided by a party, and led by Trotsky. However, the insurrection was made possible by the self-activity of the masses, supported by masses, participated in by masses, and carried out with the explicit aim of transferring power to the soviets, which were democratic organizations spontaneously created by and controlled by the masses of workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors.
What is crucial to understand is that, nevertheless, the way was paved for the success of the October revolution by Lenin’s return to Hegel’s dialectic and his break with the Second International, the international grouping of socialists, not only politically but philosophically. The most serious analysis of this is in the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, as seen in Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution and in Marxism and Freedom and Philosophy and Revolution.
At the same time we need to understand what happened to that moment of liberation, the dialectic of transformation into opposite through the counter-revolution coming from within revolution. This too is most seriously dealt with in Dunayevskaya’s works, including those just mentioned and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. The soviets and other mass organizations were taken over and turned into organs of the state from above, first partially due to the exigencies of the civil war started by the old ruling classes and the imperialist countries, but with Stalin’s rise after Lenin’s death they were permanently and totally statified. The direction of economic development was turned around, away from improvement of the conditions of life and labor and the involvement of the toiling masses in the management of production and the state, and toward capitalist industrialization and forced collectivization of the peasants, with no freedom and no real voice for the workers and peasants. The workers’ state was transformed into a state-capitalist society.
It is not only the rulers who bury this transformation into opposite. The rulers and reformists want to discredit revolution altogether. But they have been helped by Stalinists who portrayed the resulting totalitarian state-capitalist system as if it were socialism, as if that monstrosity were the goal we should aim for. And no solution to that rewriting could be found in the Trotskyist formula that the USSR remained a workers’ state because of nationalized property and state planning. In truth, that approach evades confronting the dialectic of counter-revolution coming from within revolution. So does the doctrine of some anarchists and council communists that Russia was immediately state-capitalist the day after the October revolution, and so does the doctrine of council communists like Pannekoek that echoes the Mensheviks by claiming that Russia at that stage could only accomplish a bourgeois revolution.
Let’s take a closer look at what the October revolution was. The point was to get rid of the provisional government and put state power in the hands of the soviets. The provisional government was inhibiting the revolution, it had enabled Kornilov’s August military coup, and if left in place it would certainly have gone down the road toward outright counter-revolution. The October action was necessary to prevent a bloody counter-revolution. The provisional government’s overthrow was not proclaimed in the name of the Bolsheviks but in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet and the Congress of Soviets that was opening on that very day. In subsequent years, the soviet government became more and more entangled with the Bolshevik Party, later renamed the Communist Party, and that became problematic. It raises the thorny question of the relationship between party, workers’ state, masses, theory, and philosophy, which to this day has not been answered satisfactorily. I’ll return to this briefly later. But I want to make the point right now that the aim of the October insurrection was to put state power in the hands of the soviets, not of a party.
Much rewriting of history portrays it instead as a party coup behind the backs of the masses. To see through this falsification, it helps to keep in mind that very often Lenin and/or the Bolsheviks and/or the October revolution are stand-ins for social revolution itself. That is, to portray it as a coup is a way to discredit the very idea of revolution, or at least of social revolution that aims at a fundamental transformation of society, as against a merely political revolution. We are supposed to think revolution is illegitimate unless it is strictly self-limited, as if the sham freedoms of bourgeois republican institutions are the best we could hope for. Lenin must be criticized seriously, but only on a historically and philosophically accurate basis, and certainly not as a way to reinforce the ideology that there is no alternative to capitalism.
The failure to confront the dialectic of transformation into opposite, that fundamental contradiction—and together with it, the failure to confront the vital question of what happens after the conquest of power—has undermined Left attempts to grasp the full meaning of the revolution, and so has the disregard of the role of philosophy.
What is needed is to recover that legacy as ground for revolution today—as ground for revolution succeeding as a fundamental transformation of all social relations, establishing new relations between the sexes, breaking down racism, sexism, and heterosexism, and putting the working class in power so as to begin breaking down all class divisions, and immediately beginning to break down the division between mental and manual labor, between thinking and decision-making by part of society and doing by another part. But also as ground for what happens after revolution so that it is not transformed into opposite with a new bureaucracy taking power out of the hands of the masses and reinforcing the division between mental and manual labor.
Recovering that legacy requires fighting the rewriting of history. That is not only a question of correcting the facts, as we should understand from the past two years. It is not only to establish that I’m right and someone else is wrong, but to establish a new human society. It requires setting the truly revolutionary ground of liberation as the ground for thought and activity, and that entails being grounded in a total view, that is, philosophy.
Since we need philosophy not in an academic sense but as a guide to action in changing the world, we need a philosophy of revolution.
Recovering that legacy for today crucially includes the role of philosophy, and not just in general. You cannot understand the Russian Revolution without grappling in detail with Lenin’s philosophical preparation for it, his rethinking and break with his own philosophical past through his return to Marx’s roots in Hegel. Here again, the most serious work on this is by Dunayevskaya.
When World War I broke out, the Second International collapsed because most of its member parties supported the war, siding with their ruling classes. Lenin was so shocked that he thought it was fake news at first. But then, while the war was raging, and while he was struggling from exile in Switzerland to rally real revolutionaries around implacable opposition to the socialist betrayers and around his call to “turn the imperialist war into civil war,” at that very moment he spent days on end, for months, in the library studying Hegel. He found the revolutionary dialectic in Hegel, the transformation of reality as well as thought. It set the stage for a new approach in both theory and practice, which is seen in his subsequent major works such as Imperialism and State and Revolution and in his very approach to revolution from April 1917 onward.
Lenin’s “April Theses” revealed a fundamental clash about how to proceed. In April 1917 even most of the Bolsheviks wanted to take part in the provisional government formed after the Tsar was ousted in the year’s first revolution. That provisional government was in reality an organ of bourgeois rule continuing oppression and even the war. Lenin, in contrast, urged the party to demand all power to the soviets as a “commune state,” a new revolutionary socialist International and an end to World War I. Otherwise he threatened to quit and “go to the sailors.” Note that he acknowledged that the Bolsheviks were a minority in the soviets, but he had confidence that if the masses had power then they would learn through experience and come around to a fully revolutionary approach.
This was more than a repetition of the old split shown before the 1905 revolution between those socialists who claimed that Russia could have only a bourgeois democratic revolution, although the working class would have to carry it out, and those who viewed any such upheaval as only the first phase of what could immediately go on to socialist revolution. Before we return to 1917, I want to point out that, as against post-Marx Marxist doctrines tying revolutionary possibilities tightly to the material conditions in a society, Marx himself had a multilinear approach that rejected that kind of stagifying. One place he made that very clear is in the Preface by Marx and Engels to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, which indicated that the revolution could come first in Russia, and could arise on the basis of the communal peasant social forms there, but would need to be complemented by proletarian revolution in the West.
In April 1917, on one side was Lenin, with the Bolsheviks he could persuade, demanding all power to the soviets as rule of the masses from below, vs. the rest of the Bolsheviks and other parties looking to the provisional government’s rule from above. This was immediately made very concrete as the Bolshevik slogan of “Land, Bread, and Peace” articulated the urgent demands from the masses, and the provisional government was stalling those demands. Immediately upon the October revolution, the new soviet government took concrete steps to make “Land, Bread, and Peace” real.
And yet it was only as late as August 1917, during a counter-revolutionary phase when Lenin was forced to hide, that he theoretically elaborated the thoughts in his April Theses in his State and Revolution, as guide for smashing the state and taking power.
Lenin never worked out his philosophical break as a rethinking of the vanguard party concept he inherited from the Second International, which was Lassallean rather than Marxian. And he never worked out his new findings in State and Revolution as a new concept of the party. This theoretical lacuna plus the fact that the rest of the party, including its leadership, never absorbed Lenin’s philosophical reorganization set the stage for the Trade Union Debate of 1920-21, which we can grasp in retrospect as a manifestation of the problem of what happens after the revolutionary conquest of power. This is taken up in Marxism and Freedom and in Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution. We can get into it more in discussion if anyone wants to, but for now let me point out that Lenin had to bring up the concrete nature of the workers’ state as one with bureaucratic distortions, and functioning in a country with a peasant majority. He had to bring up this concreteness in battling undialectical abstractions about the workers’ state from opposite sides—Trotsky and Bukharin not recognizing why workers would need strikes and unions to protect themselves from their own workers’ state, and Shlyapnikov, Kollontai, and the Workers Opposition wanting to turn everything over to a “producers’ congress” with no substantive role for the revolutionary party. It seems to me that an additional complication is that among all strains in the party, even among the Workers Opposition, there was a tendency to assume that the party was really the organ of the proletariat, and was really the vanguard of the class. There are times in revolution when that is true of a certain form of organization, but one cannot make a fixed particular out of it and assume that it remains so. That makes it impossible to catch the transformation into opposite as it is happening.
One major obstacle to comprehending the legacy of Lenin 1917 and after is what Dunayevskaya called his “philosophic ambivalence.” Lenin’s philosophical reorganization was crucial to his leadership in the revolution, and yet his projection of the centrality of philosophy was muted at best and did not reveal the depth of his break with his own past.
What he did not rethink was the vanguard party concept, so that it remained a doctrine for all who called themselves Leninists and even became a fetish that is nothing but a barrier to revolution today. Supposedly its necessity is proved by the fact that October could not have happened without the action of the Bolshevik Party. But does that really prove the indispensability of philosophy as well as organization?
And it is today that demands our attention and action, to make real the potentiality of revolution as an act of the self-activity of the masses in motion from below and at the same time demanding the intervention of philosophy of revolution as what gives action its direction. The point is to abolish the capitalist system that is suicidally driving us toward climate chaos, nuclear war, fascism, and economic depression.