The argument that the Russian Revolution was a working-class or socialist revolution is based in the end on the single assumption that the Bolshevik party represented the working class and was its vanguard. If you believe this, then logically you believe that the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November 1917 was a working-class revolution and that the rule of the Bolshevik party was the rule of the working class. On the other hand, if it can be shown that the Bolshevik party did not represent the working class, as is the purpose of this article, then the argument that the Russian Revolution was a working-class revolution falls. The Bolshevik party was, above all, a party of professional revolutionaries. This is what Lenin said it should be - and what he succeeded in making it.
The idea of a party of professional revolutionaries, as a disciplined party of full-time agitators organised as a military-style command structure, was not invented by Lenin. It was part of the Russian anti-Tsarist revolutionary tradition, which he inherited. Previously, anti-Tsarist revolutionaries had envisaged such a party either seizing power on its own in a daring coup d'état, or leading a peasant uprising. Lenin's innovation was to orient such a party towards the working class; to try to use the working class rather than the peasantry as the battering ram, the foot soldiers to be commanded by the professional revolutionary officers, in the battle to overthrow the Tsarist regime. This enabled him to call himself a 'Marxist'. (In fact, in Russia up to the First World War, a 'Marxist' was precisely an anti-Tsarist revolutionary who looked to the working class rather than to the peasantry as the mass force to be used to overthrow Tsarism.)
It also enabled him to claim that his party of professional revolutionaries (the Bolshevik party) represented, indeed was, the 'vanguard of the working class'. This was a rather arrogant and patently absurd claim. For a start, its founding members were not recruited from the working class, nor did they have any particular connection with it. They were recruited from amongst students and ex-students (and in those days, no students came from a working-class background). In the semi feudal Tsarist social order, these formed part of a legal estate officially known as the intelligentsia. This is a Russian word, and refers to university educated experts and specialists of one kind or another who couldn't be fitted into one or other of the legal estates of Tsarist society (nobility, clergy, merchants, peasants).
The whole of the leadership of the pre-First World War Bolshevik party was made up of such people. For such a group to claim to be the vanguard of the working class, let alone to be working-class, was absurd. Actually, they did not claim to be working-class; only to be its vanguard, that is. its leaders. Lenin was quite explicit about this. In What Is To Be Done?, written in 1902, which puts the case for a party of professional revolutionaries, he argued that workers left to themselves were only capable of achieving a trade union consciousness. Socialist consciousness had to be brought to them from outside, by members of the bourgeois intelligentsia (like himself and the other leaders of the Bolshevik party). So, in his view, there was nothing incongruous about the vanguard of the working class being composed of people who were not working-class themselves; in fact, for him, this was quite natural and normal given the limited intellectual capabilities he attributed to the working class as a class.
What Lenin was proposing was the need for the working class to be led, and to be led, initially at least, by people from outside its own ranks organised as a party of professional revolutionaries. He conceded that some individual members of the working class would be able, as individuals, to achieve a socialist consciousness and so be able to be incorporated into the party is professional revolutionaries. In fact, he hoped that this would happen increasingly. But it didn't. The leadership of the Bolshevik party remained overwhelmingly recruited from the intelligentsia, whilst most working-class members occupied a subordinate position as relays (NCOs) to mobilise the mass of workers (foot soldiers) on the ground.
Originally (before the First World War), Lenin advocated a party of professional revolutionaries only for Russia, and saw its aim not to overthrow capitalism, but to overthrow Tsarism. What Lenin was proposing was a formula for carrying out the bourgeois revolution in Russia as the political revolution that would overthrow the Tsarist regime, and allow the further development of capitalism there. According to him, the capitalist class in Tsarist Russia was too weak and too dependent on Tsarism to be able to carry out this revolution itself; some other group, therefore, had to do it for them precisely a party of professional revolutionaries of the type Lenin advocated, mobilising the working class is its weapon.
Insofar is Lenin's Bolshevik party was the vanguard of any class, it would have to be of the capitalist class, especially as its leading members were overwhelmingly recruited from those Lenin called the educated representatives of the bourgeoisie'. This wasn't just a feature of the Bolshevik party. but of all the other anti-Tsarist revolutionary groupings such as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. In fact, the whole anti-Tsarism movement was an intelligentsia-led movement.
As it happened, the Tsarist regime was not overthrown by a party of professional revolutionaries. It collapsed under the impact of the First World War — a mass popular upsurge in March 1917 forced the Tsar to abdicate. This — not October or, more accurately, November — was the date of the real Russian revolution: the anti-Tsarist bourgeois revolution. It placed power directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie as such. The trouble, from their point of view, was that in the chaotic economic and military conditions of the time, they were not able to consolidate their rule, especially as they made the mistake of giving in to Allied pressure to try to continue the war against Germany and Austria, so alienating the rank and file members of the armed forces who were no longer prepared to fight, and who, as Lenin put it, were voting against the war with their feet.
Lenin realised that here was a chance for his party of anti-Tsarist professional revolutionaries. He immediately negotiated with the German military authorities his return from Switzerland to Russia. The German authorities were only too keen to transport an opponent of Russia's participation in the war across the territory they controlled. When Lenin arrived in St Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in April 1917, he announced a change of perspective: the Bolsheviks' immediate aim was no longer to be to push the bourgeois revolution to its limit; it was now to seize power for the socialist revolution. Some of his colleagues in the leadership of the Bolshevik party were astounded by this change, but the party adopted the new tactic. Trotsky, who up till then had not been a member, was so impressed that he soon joined.
From April onwards, Lenin and the Bolshevik party plotted to seize control of political power, that is, to overthrow the Provisional Government and to form the government of Russia themselves. The way they chose to do this was via the soviets. Soviet is merely the Russian word for 'council', and, in the absence of any other democratic, representative structures, these had sprung up amongst soldiers and factory workers (and later peasants) after the overthrow of the Tsar in March. The Bolsheviks won support in these bodies by campaigning incessantly an three popular themes: Peace, Bread and Land.
When by November they calculated they could rely an a majority of delegates to the Petrograd Soviet, Lenin and the central committee of the Bolshevik party decided the moment to seize state power had come. This was not to be a straightforward coup d'état by the Bolshevik party itself, but was to take place in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. And, nominally, it was the Military Committee of the Petrograd Soviet that took the decision, but this was controlled by the Bolsheviks. Its president was Trotsky, who took his orders directly from the central committee of the Bolshevik party. These facts are not controversial, but are all in Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.
So, on the night of 6/7 November the Provisional Government was overthrown. Workers woke up (for they had been asleep while the Bolsheviks carried out a 'revolution' in their name) to find that they had a new government which called itself the Soviet government, and whose head was Lenin. Lenin's centralised disciplined party of professiona1 revolutionaries had stood him in good stead, not as originally envisaged to carry out the bourgeois revolution in Russia but to seize power for itself. In the chaotic conditions that followed the overthrow of the Tsar in March, the Bolshevik party proved itself to be the only group capable of acting in a determined way, and of imposing its political will.
The Bolshevik party, it should be noted, seized power, not from the Tsarist regime, but from other anti-Tsarist revolutionaries, and in the face of the overwhelming desire amongst anti-Tsarist revolutionaries generally (including some Bolsheviks) for some form of broad-front government, to emerge from the planned elections to the Constituent Assembly. But this was not to be. The elections to the Constituent Assembly did take place, and after the Bolshevik seizure of power, but that's as far as it went. At its first meeting, the Assembly was dissolved on the orders of the Bolshevik government. The Bolsheviks had only won a quarter of the seats, and were not prepared to be replaced by whatever government might emerge from the Constituent Assembly.
From a purely factual point of view, the seizure of power by the Bolshevik party an 7 November 1917 was the seizure of power, following the overthrow of the Tsar in March, by one group of anti-Tsarist revolutionaries at the expense of all other such groups, an incident in the course of Russia's bourgeois revolution without any socialist or working-class content, a settlement of accounts amongst the former intelligentsia as to who was to govern post-Tsarist Russia.
But Lenin and Trotsky viewed it differently. They saw it as a socialist revolution, the seizure of power by the working class in Russia; in fact, as the beginning of the world socialist revolution. This claim that the Bolshevik coup was a socialist revolution was based on the assumption that the Bolshevik party represented the working class by virtue of being its vanguard.
We have just seen how this is a quite untenable, not to say absurd, assumption. But if it is abandoned, then the whole Leninist/Trotskyist interpretation of the significance of the Bolshevik coup collapses. It wasn't the working class that seized power in November 1917, but the Bolshevik party.
The dictatorship of the Bolshevik party was not, as Lenin and Trotsky claimed, the dictatorship of the vanguard of the working class, but the dictatorship of one group of anti-Tsarist revolutionaries over the rest of society, including the working class. The defence of the Bolshevik government in the Civil War that resulted was not the defence of a 'proletarian regime' or a 'workers' state', but the defence of the Bolshevik government, as perhaps the most determined anti-Tsarist regime. But that's not the same thing at all.
State Capitalism for Russia
In the event, the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, and in 1921 found themselves the unchallenged government of all Russia. On paper, they were committed to introducing socialism, but as conditions were not ripe for socialism (not that socialism can be introduced from above by an elite), they had no alternative but to develop capitalism.
Lenin, to give him credit where it is due, recognised this and openly proclaimed that the development of capitalism under the control of the Bolshevik government was the only economic way forward for Russia. He called this policy 'state capitalism'. It was an accurate description, and this is what happened. The Bolshevik government, first under him and later under Stalin, did develop state capitalism in Russia, though, unlike Lenin, Stalin called it 'socialism'.
The form of capitalism that developed in Russia was different from the form that had developed in the West, with its legally owning private capitalist class. Such a class was eventually to emerge in Russia under Yeltsin after 1991, but for the previous 60 or so years the ruling class in Russia was made up of the top layers of the Bolshevik party and their hangers-on, who, collectively as a class, monopolised the state-owned means of production through their exclusive, one-party control of the state. This enabled them to lead a privileged lifestyle through exploiting the wage-labour of the Russian working class.
Lenin's party of professional revolutionaries had proved to be not just an instrument for seizing political power in conditions of political instability, but also an instrument for rnonopolising political power and eventually the basis for the emergence and maintenance of a new ruling class. This is generally associated with the name of Stalin, and it is true that the process reached its culminating point under Stalin. But the process was begun under Lenin and Trotsky soon after November 1917. They were in power when other anti-Tsarist parties were banned, and also when, in 1921, opposition groups within the Bolshevik party itself were outlawed as well. So, well before Stalin assumed full power, the political regime in Russia was one-party dictatorship by a hierarchically-organised monolithic party.
Looking at the origin and outcome of the Russian Revolution from a Marxist point of view — and it was Marx who pointed out that you should judge historical events not by what their participants said or thought they were doing, but by the material results of what they did — a clear picture emerges. The theory and practice of the party of professional revolutionaries (the vanguard party) was the ideology of the social group within Tsarist society (the intelligentsia) that was to develop capitalism in Russia in the form of a state capitalism ruled by such a party. Lenin took the idea of a vanguard party and forged one that proved able to take and hold of power in Russia, but with no alternative but to develop capitalism there in one form or another.
In this sense, Leninism has never had anything at all to do with the interests of the working class. It was a theory of capitalist revolution and development for Russia.
(A.Buick, New Interventions, Vol 8, nr.2)
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