Thursday, March 8, 2012

A debate with an anarchist on the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution of 1917

I am able here to only reprint part of the debate, but it is interesting nonetheless, even if taken in media res.



Lenin and Trotsky had frantically managed to position themselves as ‘leaders’ by October, yes, but that doesn’t mean that their tactics precipitated the revolution. Read Trotsky’s “history of the Russian revolution” where he admits this openly : He writes: “‘The soldiers lagged behind the shop com­mittees. The committees lagged behind the masses … The party also lagged behind the revolutionary dynamic - an organisation which had the least right to lag, especially in a time of revolution … The most rev­olutionary party which human history until this time had ever known was nevertheless caught unawares by the events of history. It recon­structed itself in the fires, and straightened out its ranks under the onslaught of events. The masses at the turning point were a hundred times to the left of the extreme left party” The Bolsheviks actually OPPOSED the Petrograd strikes in February, urging workers to wait till mayday and were rightfully ignored. Trotsky admits that the Bolsheviks had no role in instigating the revolution, why can’t you?

The October coup merely replaced one bourgeois government with another. The article you link to describes the set up of what Lenin called ‘workers control’, but in practice it was anything but [the article being referenced here on "Lenin and workers' control" can be found on this blog at]. Yes, workers had voted for them in large numbers late in 1917 (they were the party promising most workers power after all), but as early as 1918 these promises were being exposed as opportunistic lies. No land was to be given to the peasants. Workers found that they were banned from going on strike, they were not allowed to form independent trade unions or elect whoever they chose to the Soviets.

Let me ask you this: if the Soviet system as set up by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was so democratic, what happened when they failed to elect Bolsheviks? What happened when Mensheviks and SRs won majorities, as they did in Tula, Kostroma, Briansk, and many many other industrial centres in 1918? They were ALL disbanded by FORCE. There’s your Bolshevik ‘democracy’.

As Volin wrote in ‘the voice of Labour in 1917’, “‘Once their power has been consolidated and legalised, the Bolsheviks, as state socialists, that is as men who believe in centralised and authoritarian leadership - will start running the life of the country and of the people from the top. Your soviets … will gradually become simple tools of the central government … You will soon see the inauguration of an authoritarian political and state apparatus that will crush all opposition with an iron fist… “All power to the soviets” will become “all power to the leaders of the Party”

History proved him 100% right.


My Rebuttal:

First of all, let me say that I sympathize with your clear antipathy to authoritarianism and oppression, which I share. However, I think your reading of the Russian revolution and the behavior of the Bolshevik Party is misguided and incorrect.

You claim that the Bolsheviks did not instigate the revolution and intimate that the only role they played between February and October was to "position" themselves as leaders. I will not contest that the Bolsheviks weren't the "instigators" the revolution; that the whole thing was simply orchestrated by the Party, No genuine mass revolution in history has been this way. However, the Bolsheviks did play a very important role in the whole period leading up to February 1917, and certainly between February and October.

Maybe the fact that Trotsky did not join the Bolshevik Party until the summer of 1917 explains his ignorance on the pre-October role of the Bolsheviks. Or maybe it's just Trotsky's penchant for the dramatic and grandiose, sweeping views of events that make him miss the trees for the forest, so to speak.

In any event, here's Trotsky's full view of the revolution, in which he enumerates the necessary factors leading to its ultimate success:

"1. The rotting away of the old ruling classes—the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy.
2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.
3. The revolutionary character of the peasant question.
4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nations.
5. The significant weight of the proletariat.
To these organic preconditions we must add certain conjunctural conditions of the highest importance.
6. The revolution of 1905 was a great school, or in Lenin’s words, the ‘dress rehearsal’ of the revolution of 1917. The soviets, as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the revolution, were created or the first time in the year 1905.
7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility and thereby prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.
But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the revolution. For this victory one condition more was needed:
8. The Bolshevik Party." (Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky: 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press, London, 1970), pp.184-185.)

Trotsky maintained that the spontaneous outpouring of the masses in the form of strikes, mutinies, and peasant rebellions, was a phenomenon that no party could merely conjur up single-handedly. But without the presence of a mass revolutionary party, this inchoate uprising would have been stifled under the forces of the bourgeoisie -- the Cadet Party, the Mensheviks, the SRs, or even the remnants of the monarchists.

This point is quite irrefutable, as even anarchist authors admit that there simply was no alternative organization -- be it anarchist or otherwise -- that was positioned in 1917 to actually forcefully overthrow the bourgeois government and organize the workers and soldiers in such a way as to ensure the supremacy of the Soviets.

Moving beyond Trotsky, the fact of the matter is that the Bolsheviks were incredibly active in agitating and encouraging the development of class-consciousness and workers' self-organization between 1905 and 1917. When many of the anarchists in Russia in 1914 supported their own government during the outbreak of WWI (for instance, Peter Kropotkin), the Bolsheviks stood nearly alone in organizing the most class-conscious workers to oppose the imperialist war and actually call for the defeat of their own government, so as to hasten the possibility of its revolutionary overthrow.

Likewise in August 1917, when General Kornilov threatened to lead a right-wing coup to bring back the monarchy, it was the Bolsheviks who led the arming of the working-class of Petrograd in preparation for a fight against Kornilov. Having thus been armed, the workers of Petrograd were then in a position to impose their will on the bourgeois Constituent Assembly come October.

Finally, beyond the "leaders" like Lenin, Trotsky, etc., there were thousands of working-class Bolsheviks and sympathizers constantly organizing amongst their co-workers in the factories and cities. Attempts to write these brave revolutionaries out of the history of the revolution is quite unforgiveable.

For instance, in August 1915, the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee called for a general strike, the creation of a people’s militia, armed attacks on police headquarters, confiscation of essential foodstuffs, organization of a soviet of workers’ deputies, and recruitment of the soldiers and officers into a general strike. Although these demands were well ahead of the masses’ political consciousness, they were almost a blueprint for what was to come eighteen months later. (Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The February Revolution: Petrograd 1917 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 111).

Another example: Bolsheviks organized a strike to defend Baltic Bolshevik sailors on trial. It started on October 26, 1916, and lasted for three days, with 80,000 out on the final day. At first, the Tsar responded by locking out workers. He then backed down and removed the threat of the death penalty. This victory, during wartime, showed the Bolsheviks the influence they now had. With events like this in mind, the Bolsheviks reestablished a Russian Bureau of the Central Committee when three comrades who had been in exile were sneaked back into the country. Soon, all the socialist groups began to speak of impending revolution in their propaganda. (E. N. Burdzhalov, Russia’s Second Revolution: The February 1917 Uprising in Petrograd (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987),53).

And, as regards the start of the revolution on February 23rd of 1917, International Women's Day: "[That morning] women workers at five textile plants walked out and headed to nearby factories to call out other workers, in the Petrograd tradition. Why these women? They were among the few textile workers who participated in strikes during the war. The day before, they had met with some Bolsheviks for a study group on the meaning of International Women’s Day." (

You state that "The October coup merely replaced one bourgeois government with another." Maybe we have very different ideas of what constitutes a "bourgeois goverment"? Are you implying that the Soviets of Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies were a type of bourgeois government? On what basis?

If the Bolsheviks wanted a bourgeois government, why did they outlaw parties that precisely wanted to get rid of the Soviets (i.e., workers' power) and bring back the bourgeois government in the form of the Constituent Assembly? This explains the on-again-off-again war between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks/SRs. These latter two parties explicitly were opposed to workers' control of production and society. They wanted to establish a fully capitalist government and society ruled by Russia's bourgeoise. They were quite explicit about this, actually.

From wikipedia: "On 7 May 1918 the Eighth Party Council of the Socialist Revolutionary Party convened in Moscow and decided to start an uprising against the Bolsheviks with the goal of reconvening the Constituent Assembly. While preparations were under way, the Czechoslovak Legions [allied with the bourgeois-monarchist White Army durign the Civil War] overthrew Bolshevik rule in Siberia, Urals and the Volga region in late May-early June 1918 and the center of SR activity shifted there. "

It is actually interesting because between 1917 and 1919, the Soviet government led by the Bolsheviks would repeatedly ban the Mensheviks/SRs when they took up arms against the Soviets, only to then lift the ban and allow free and open agitation for these latter parties as soon as they would summarily renounce their violent counter-revolutionary actions.

Let me just say here as an aside that I am not a pacifist. I am not against the use of "FORCE" (as use put it in all capitals). Indeed, I have no problem with a succesful workers' revolution actually radically limiting the freedoms of the bourgeoisie and its parties. For instance, in the U.S. this would mean that FOX News, etc., would be shut down by FORCE and the capitalist Democratic and Republican Parties would be banned from participating in any workers' government, by FORCE.
It is necessary to limit the freedom of the bourgeoisie in order to expand the freedom of the working class, in the same way that it is necessary to expropriate the bourgeoisie and abolish their existence as a class in order to win the total emancipation of the working-class and the subsequent abolition of classes altogether.

You claim that by 1918, "no land was to be given to the peasants. Workers found that they were banned from going on strike, they were not allowed to form independent trade unions or elect whoever they chose to the Soviets." I don't know where you get this from. Trade unions were legal and independent of the Soviet government well into the 1920s. In fact the Tenth Party Congress of the now-renamed Communist Party in 1922, specifically debated this question at length and decided overwhelmingly that trade unions in Russia must remain independent of the state and be free to strike, organize against the government, negotiate over pay, etc. This is all a matter of public record.

I believe it wasn't until 1928 or so that independent unions and strikes were completely banned by the government (by this time, of course, Stalin had already completely risen to power by crushing the skulls of the majority of the original Bolshevik Party. including most of its "leaders" as well as its working-class base).

Finally, you quote Volin from "The Voice of Labor", in 1917, in which he predicts the eventual authoritarianism of the Bolshevik-Communist Party. This is quite interesting especially because it was under the first few years of rule of the Bolshevik-dominated Soviets that the anarchist-affiliated "Voice of Labor" was enabled to circulate more freely than it had been able to in the countries of its origin (the U.S. and Canada).

Indeed, Volin was even a supporter of the Soviet government until 1919. As describes it, during this early stretch of "comparative freedom in Russia, when other social movements beside the Bolsheviki still enjoyed opportunity to spread their ideas through their own publications and at public meetings, Volin was constantly busy in many fields. He took part in the work of the Soviet Department for Public Education and Enlightenment of the People, first in Voronezh and later in Kharkov." (

Of course, Volin's prediction that the mass, emancipatory Bolshevik-led revolution would ultimately turn into its authoritarian opposite was not unique to him, before or since. Virtually the entirety of the bourgeois world was screaming this refrain during the months and years leading up to and following the Russian revolution.

Aside from the capitalist press, however, most of the international anarchist movement continued to support the Soviet government in Russia at least up until 1921. In fact, Emma Goldman famously commented in 1922, after she had turned from an ardent support to an opponent of the Bolsheviks, that she felt "quite alone" and "cut off" from the rest of the anarchist and socialist left because of her position. It was really only much later, after the rise of Stalin, and after the bourgeoisie of the world had popularized the notion that Stalin's crimes originated in the very project of the Bolshevik Party itself, that the broad left began picking up this refrain as 'common sense.'

Even after Kronstadt, most of the best, working-class anarchist revolutionaries of the world understood the position the Bolsheviks were in and supported their efforts at sustaining workers' power in the most unfavorable of conditions. When Emma Goldman accepted large sums of cash as payment for a series of anti-Bolshevik articles she wrote for various capitalist newspapers in the U.S. in the wake of the Kronstadt affair, the American anarchist Lucy Parsons called her a "traitor" and characterized her articles as "a rehash of the supercilious vapourings of capitalist reporters.” (

The famous anarcho-syndicalist, William "Big Bill" Haywood had this to say of Goldman's praise for the Ukranian anarchist Nestor Mahkno in his fight against the Bolsheviks:

"The “anarchist” Mahkno is mentioned by Emma Goldman as a friend and sending food to Kropotkin. In a diary of Fedora-Gianko, the wife of Mahkno, are recorded facts and dates to show that these marauders were guilty of arson, train-wrecking, murder, robbery, all committed against the Soviet Government. By them workers were killed, villages destroyed, bridges blown up, wrecks caused by wild engines turned loose against approaching trains until Mahkno was driven from the country. This kind of work against the Soviet Government meets with the approval of Miss Goldman. Her heart was never with the Bolshevik revolution. Compelled to leave the United States, she came to Russia as there was no other place to which she could go. Friends have not cut her off; she has excommunicated herself." (

In conclusion, it's important to go back to the beginning and separate out the essential from the non-essential in what ultimately became of the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik Party. No greater source than the Bolsheviks themselves likewise predicted the downfall of the revolution as far as back as 1917 (and arguably as far as back as 1904). However, for them, their prediction wasn't born of a mystical belief that any form of organization or party must necessarily lead to pure evil, but rather that without the spread of the revolution internationally, a proletarian revolution would be doomed to failure in Russia, owing to the backward and underdeveloped economic position of their society, coupled with the fact that the majority of Russian society was still composed of a rural, isolated, peasant class.

Unfortunately, the revolution did not spread, Russia was subject to an economic blockade and military intervention carried out by all of the largest imperialist nations of the world, and Russia's isolated, undeveloped economy was left in complete tatters and decay. In such a situation of societal breakdown, a new class led by a strongman, Stalin, was able to impose his rule on a society in disarray. The revolution had failed. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had, unfortunately, been proven 100% correct in their prediction.

Despite this failure, however, the Russian revolution and the work of the Bolshevik Party provide us to this day with a wealth of information that we can draw on and learn from in our efforts to once again see the rise and triumph of the working class over the horrors of capitalism.

As the German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg put it shortly before her untimely death:

"The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.…

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.…

Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy…

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity forced upon them by these fatal circumstances…and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.…

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks.…

It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism.’" (

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