After the ravages of foreign invasion and civil war, Stalin led a counter-revolution in Russia that installed a new class in power and betrayed the ideals of 1917, writes Tom Fiebig
One hundred years ago, workers took power in Russia and began to organise a socialist society.
But the revolution ended in tragedy with the rise of the brutal Stalin dictatorship.
It is common to hear it claimed that “Stalinism” was the inevitable outcome of the revolution, or more specifically, the supposed anti-democratic character of Leninism.
But Stalinism wasn’t inevitable. It was the product of the degeneration, and ultimate defeat, of the revolution.
The man who was to become the infamous Joseph Stalin (meaning “the man of steel”) had humble origins. Joseph Djugashvili—as he was originally known—was born in 1878 into a poor Georgian family.
His father was a cobbler, his mother was a peasant.
His father was known to be a heartless drunkard, cruel and brutal to his wife and child. Tsarist Russia was itself a brutal society, marked by bitter poverty and authoritarian power.
Stalin took the only route to education available for a poor peasant—he went to train as a priest.
After reading Marx’s Capital he became an atheist and a Marxist and, in 1899, was expelled from the seminary for revolutionary activities. Taking on the pseudonym Koba, he operated as an organiser and agitator in the underground socialist movement, joining Lenin’s Bolshevik faction in 1904.
His work in illegal revolutionary networks, carrying out robberies of banks and cartels, saw him repeatedly jailed, and exiled to Siberia.
Stalin was not a profound theoretician. Nor was he a man of the people. In fact, from March to October 1917, Stalin is reported to have only spoken in public three times.
His skill was as a practical administrator and organiser. A trusted Bolshevik functionary, Stalin generally followed the prevailing mood, which—when Lenin happened to be absent—typically meant vying for “the middle ground”.
Prior to Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917 and his April Theses, Stalin had been part of the leadership group opposing the aim of overthrowing the bourgeois Provisional Government.
The 1917 revolution
The 1917 revolution saw workers take power into their own hands, forming democratically elected soviets, or councils.
The Bolsheviks took power after winning the majority in the soviets (along with the Left SRs). Historian Isaac Deutscher writes that this, “was no clandestine, self-appointed group or clique of conspirators but a body openly elected by a broad representative body”.
The Bolsheviks recognised Russia’s economic backwardness, arguing that socialism in Russia was only possible as the first stage in a worldwide revolution, on which it depended for protection against foreign intervention and tensions between the peasantry and the cities.
The 1917 revolution sent shivers down the spines of ruling classes everywhere. Fearing similar upheaval in their own countries, the major capitalist powers brought their military power to bear on the recently established workers’ state.
The civil war that ensued decimated the Russian economy.
The German occupation of the Ukraine, sanctioned by the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in March 1918, meant that the Bolsheviks no longer had access to 80 per cent of Russia’s pre-war grain production. Only one seventh of Imperial Russia’s sugar beet fields and one quarter of its coal mines, iron foundries and steel mills remained in their control.
Due to the combined shortages of raw materials, fuel and food, industrial production in Russia in 1920 shrunk to less than a third of its 1917 level.
The total number of industrial workers fell from about three million in 1917, to 1.2 million in 1921. But many of them were newly recruited to the factories from the countryside. The bulk of the militant and politically conscious workers, those who had made the revolution of 1917, died in the civil war.
Before the October revolution Lenin had continually stated, “the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish”.
But the failure of the revolution to spread across Europe, despite numerous miscarried and stifled uprisings, left the Bolsheviks in Russia isolated.
The Bolshevik party therefore found itself suspended in a vacuum, maintaining the gains of 1917 only through its acquired political authority and the socialist aspirations of the Bolshevik “old guard”.
Instead of holding power as the direct representatives of the working class, the Bolsheviks increasingly operated as a one-party regime. This was the price of the regime’s survival.
The opposition press was banned. By 1919, there had been no elections to the Moscow soviet for over 18 months. In 1921, at the Tenth Congress of the Party, Lenin even moved to pass a strict ban on “factional actions” within the Bolshevik Party itself, concerned with their political isolation and the continued threat of external aggression.
Doing otherwise would have meant yielding to counter-revolution and the wholesale slaughter of supporters of the regime.
The regime was only able to recover from the devastation of the civil war by making concessions to internal capitalism, in the form of the 1921 New Economic Policy (NEP). While offering “brief respite” to the ailing country, the NEP facilitated the rise of a small business owning class (NEPmen) and an aspirant, rich peasant class (kulaks), hostile to the revolutionary spirit of 1917.
Even in 1917 Russia had been an overwhelmingly peasant country, with the working class only a tiny minority of the population.
Once the civil war had ended and the threat of a return of the landlords was gone, the peasants demanded a better price for their grain and became increasingly hostile towards the regime. There were numerous peasant uprisings.
But industry was too shattered to be able to meet their demands.
Thus, as British Marxist Chris Haman has argued, the post-war conditions of the country necessarily transformed the Bolshevik Party into a bureaucratic apparatus controlling the economy, whose representatives were constantly forced to make concessions to the interests of non-worker elements.
The rise of the bureaucracy
Just as the period of revolutionary advance created individuals like Lenin and Trotsky who articulated the popular hopes and dreams of the masses, the consequent period of reaction found its ideological figurehead in Stalin.
Between 1917 and 1922, Stalin was gradually elevated to become the most powerful figure in the Bolshevik party, appointed to the post of General Secretary of the Central Committee.
Stalin’s power rested on serving the interests of the party bureaucracy which was in effective control of the country. Only in 1922 did Lenin warn the Party about Stalin, recommending his removal as General Secretary:
“Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”
The dominant group of the party leadership of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Stalin suppressed Lenin’s testament, while Trotsky, despite his original intentions, remained silent and maintained “party discipline”.
In 1924 Stalin announced a new aim of building “socialism in one country”.
Until that point, the party as whole had taken as incontrovertible the view that the fate of Russian socialism depended on spreading the revolution in Europe.
Stalin’s assertion that socialism in Russia could be self-sufficient thus marked a major shift.
It was an attempt to justify, using the language of socialism, the all-encompassing top-down control of the economy by a new ruling class of bureaucrats.
This set the course for a brutal program of forced industrialisation, driven by the desire to compete militarily with the West.
As Stalin put it, “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.”
Thus, owing to its internal degeneration and the failure of revolution to spread in Europe, the democratic socialism from below that had briefly existed in 1917 became twisted, trampled, and finally extinguished as Stalin emerged as the head of a state capitalist dictatorship.
In the coming decade Stalin would opportunistically invoke “the cult of Leninism” to enable him to extend anti-democratic measures and to manoeuvre himself into his final position of near absolute of power.
Stalin orchestrated the arrest, deportation, and murder of many Bolshevik leaders and party members. On his orders, the Bolshevik “old guard” of central committee members Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov were sentenced to death in the famous Moscow show-trials in 1936 and 1938, while he had Trotsky assassinated in 1940.
These crimes were designed to extinguish the memory of 1917 and the ideals of the October revolution.
The scale of Stalin’s purges underline the immense gulf between the genuine revolutionary tradition of 1917, and the Stalin regime that replaced it.