A Brief Trotskyist History of The Russian Revolution
“How the hell”, ask the critics of socialism, “is the October revolution relevant to today?”, on its 100th anniversary. The October revolution, we can say looking back, was a largely premature attempt to overthrow the capitalist system, but a crucial and mostly positive phenomenon nonetheless. It was a revolution led by the working class and peasantry of Russia that happened not in the most advanced capitalist country’s of the earth, as most socialists had expected, but in one of the poorest. It attempted to introduce industrial democracy to a population where 65% of the population was illiterate. It overthrew the prevailing bourgeois notions of democracy, that is, democracy where only property owning males could vote and participate in government, or one that de facto serves only the capitalist class. It instituted a socialist democracy, meaning a democracy exclusively of the poor and working masses that make up the true majority of the worlds population. “Freedom and democracy to the working people”, was the true slogan of Bolshevism.
The United States of America, a perfect example of bourgeois democracy today
In spite of these challenges, 14 of the most powerful country’s of the earth invaded the early Soviet republic. The anti-semitic white army, loyal to the Tsar, instigated a policy of reactionary terrorism, and the bolsheviks responded in kind. After a brutal civil war, a tough victory came at the cost of millions dead on both sides. The new Soviet Union found that international revolution, the only possible hope of completing a socialist system in the USSR, did not happen. It found itself in extreme poverty, in worse shape than before WW1. It had been through a world war, 2 revolutions, a civil war an invasion from abroad, and now it was facing a terrible famine.
When Lenin died, the Russian Revolution continued to degenerate. Stalin’s seizure of power represented a sort of Soviet Thermidor (similar to the Thermidor of revolutionary France). The revolutionary terror that was necessary to defend the revolution during the civil war period was not abolished in the post-revolutionary period as Lenin and Trotsky intended, but it continued de facto as an unofficial state terror, justified and obfuscated by an intangible Stalinist bureaucracy. Even what little freedom workers had during the revolution itself was stripped from them under Stalinism. This was justified in a self-contradictory manner, in the name of Lenin, that would have, and probably did, make Lenin turn over in his grave.
Enormous gains were still made in spite of these horrors. Under Stalin, the USSR did in a decade what took the west 150 years. But of course, a socialist economic system is “characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production”. Under Stalin, the means of production (factories, farms, industry, etc.) were no doubt socialized, but they were not under the democratic control of the working class. On the contrary, they were undemocratically managed by the bureaucracy itself. Without democracy, there can be no socialism. We Trotskyists do not call the USSR socialist, but rather a degenerated workers state for this reason.
Trotsky characterizes the degeneration of the Russian Revolution well saying,
“The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratization of a backward and isolated workers’ state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation – not only theoretically, but this time, practically – of the theory of socialism in one country.”
The October Revolution erupted because of the problems inherent to capitalism, the economic system we live under today. During the 20th century, countless countries, like Russia, also had revolutions against capitalist and imperialist exploitation. Their model for change was not the genuine workers democracy envisioned by Lenin and Trotsky during the October revolution, or a system similar to that of the Paris Commune praised by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but rather the political and economic model of Stalinist Russia. The countries of Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa which had socialist revolutions were won over to the Stalinist system, and, as a result, had many of the same problems inherent to Stalinism in Russia.
Trotsky predicted either two possible outcomes for these degenerated workers states, either a political revolution led by the working class in those countries to establish genuine, unfettered democracy and freedom for working people, or their total destitution and eventual capitulation to capitalism. The cold war ended in 1991, and we know that history unfolded upon Trotsky’s latter grim prediction. In this way, we can say that history has proven Trotsky correct.
The Problems Inherent To Capitalism
I saw something recently on Facebook that very clearly shows a major flaw in the capitalist system that I wish to address here, a problem that the October revolution attempted to address. A screenshot of the post can be found below:
What we see above is a prime example of how our late capitalist society values only the exchange value (profitability) of commodities, not their use value (their ability to address actual human needs). Because production is unplanned and uncoordinated, we have a crisis of overproduction, typical of the capitalist mode of production where too much of a certain commodity (in this case, bread) was produced and had to be thrown away because it could not generate a profit.
Of course, as many of us know, 1 in 5 children in our country are hungry. This commodity clearly has a use value, but because there is too much bread to meet market demand, it has negligible exchange value, and is thus thrown away. There are 5 homes for every homeless person in this country. There is a clear human need, a clear use value for those empty homes. But it is not profitable (i.e. does not generate exchange value) for the owners of those empty homes, so the homeless sleep outside in the cold. 5 men own as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity (3.5 billion people), yet we know that no 5 men could work as hard as the bottom half of humanity. These are all contradictions inherent to the capitalist system.
We produce, and have the means to produce more than enough to feed, clothe, and house every human being on this planet 5 times over. But we choose not to because it isn’t “profitable” in the monetary sense of the word.
What Is To Be Done?
All of these problems are inherent to the capitalist system, and as such, they cannot be resolved within the framework of the capitalist system. No, we don’t need a Stalinist Soviet style, undemocratically planned economy, a one-party state, or something that will bring about a restriction in negative liberty (freedoms of press, speech, protest, religion, etc.)
We do, however, need a democratically planned socialist economy to address these grave social ills. The working class, the class in our society that produces all the wealth, must have democratic control over all that is produced, and must be entitled to all they create.
I will quote from Marxists Internet Archive’s section of Freedom,
“In hitherto existing Socialist states, like the Soviet Union and China, “negative freedoms” were severely restricted, while “positive freedoms” were advanced. All people had universal access to health care, full university education, etc, but people could only use those things they had in a particular way – in support of the government. In the most advanced capitalist governments, this relationship is the other way around: “positive freedoms” are restricted or do not exist all together, while “negative freedoms” are more advanced than ever before. A worker in capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever she believes, but she does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease regardless of how much money she has. A socialist society that has been established from a capitalist society will strengthen “negative freedoms”, while ushering in real “positive freedoms” across the board, ensuring equal and free access to social services by all.
The fullest development of positive freedom is impossible however without a further development of negative freedom – people cannot be forced to be free.”
What we need is a socialism for the 21st century, one that addresses the horrors of our Stalinist legacy, and, at the same time, transcends the problems of capitalism today. We need a form of socialism that, like the Bolsheviks intended, would provide genuine democracy and freedom to working people. But this is not Russia. As Trotsky himself put it, “American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States of President Roosevelt differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II.” We have the means of production of an advanced capitalist society. Decades of rapid industrialization, of frantically creating the means of production, is not a necessary prerequisite to socialism here as it was in Russia. Everything needed to build a socialist system today is already here in America.
Lenin wanted to instigate a system of democracy similar to that of the Paris Commune. His ideal goal was one of true freedom and democracy, where there is no exploitation of man by man or oppression by the state. But semi-feudal Russia was the last place in the world where you would want a socialist revolution to break out. To say that the conditions were the opposite of ideal is an understatement. Regardless, it represents the first country in the world to be under the exclusive control of working class people, and for that, the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky are immortal.