The Russian Revolution & the Struggle Against War

by Mary Scully  /  December 2007

To understand the Russian Revolution in its relationship to World War I, we need to start with the origins of WW I, not as it is taught–as a response to German aggression–but as it actually was. The assassination of the Austrian crown prince by a Serbian nationalist is insignificant and the catalog of German military aggression an evasion. Attributing all guilt to Germany is a ruse to cover up the class nature of WW I along with the culpability of all the imperialist powers.

WW I was about economic rivalry between the six largest capitalist powers; its purpose– for each to achieve world supremacy by subjugating small nations as outlets for investment and a source for raw materials. Marxism agrees with Clausewitz who said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. WW I was the continuation of an economic policy requiring annexation and the continuation of a policy entailing the extermination of entire nationalities along with unbelievable atrocities committed especially in Africa and Asia but also in the Pacific and Mideast.

Between 1876 and 1914, the six largest imperialist powers grabbed 30 million square miles of land between them, enslaving 520 million people. Mass exterminations, and barbarisms of all kinds including the introduction of rape and syphilis were the required methods. This period of intense colonial plunder and competition for colonies between the imperialists is what led to the era of imperialist wars between them.

The period of laissez-faire capitalism in the l9th century was one of capitalist industrialization and expansion. Industrial development led to overproduction and the emergence of surplus capital–transforming the national economy into a system dominated by speculation and investment capital—i.e., bankers, gamblers and swindlers. Investment limited by national borders was now insufficient to maintain economic growth and profit. The search for colonies and the clash of competing imperialist economies emerged out of an attempt to overcome the stagnation of the national economy by internationalizing investment, i.e., by developing a world market, as an outlet for surplus capital investment. The Marxist solution, of course, requires the overthrow of capitalism and establishing the global economy on a socialist basisserving all humanity– not just a minority of swindlers and profiteers.

Militarism and the arms race began with the dominance of monopoly capitalism as an instrument of brute force to suppress colonial resistance and maintain colonies as safe havens for investment, and to forcefully resolve inter-imperialist conflicts. The existence today of thousands of U.S. military bases all over the globe in an ironic way indicates not just the strength of imperialism but its Achilles Heel—i.e., it is a system maintained by coercion and brute force.

Jingoism is the ideology of militarism. Using metaphysical thinking to explain war is not unique to monopoly capitalism but its refinement is an essential feature of that system. Absolutist states had less need to justify their crimes—coercion sufficed. But when you need to induce millions of young men (and now women) to willingly fight in wars of aggression you need to resort to mystification.

The emergence of national chauvinism and racist stupidities against colonial peoples was, and remains an essential ideological weapon in the arsenal of imperialism.  The colossal importance that Marxist theoreticians give to the colonial question and our unconditional solidarity with their struggle against imperialism is rooted in the inextricable connection between these rancid ideologies and imperialist war.

The strongest, best-organized opposition to imperialism was the socialist movement, united in the Second International. In the several decades leading up to WW I, the Second International was a pretty impressive political force, numbering in the millions in Europe—they had hundreds of deputies in various parliaments, held thousands of prominent positions in the trade unions, mobilized enormous crowds in public meetings and demonstrations, particularly against the threat of war.

The key issues of concern to the International were militarism and war, the colonial question and immigrant workers. The expropriation of small nations, long with capitalization in agriculture, and mass unemployment of workers replaced by machines drove millions of people worldwide to immigrate in this era—not just to the U.S. but to all advanced capitalist countries.  Studying the transcripts of the International’s debates at their many conferences is thoroughly disconcerting.  While the International always took formal positions against colonialism, militarism and war, their discussions reveal a strong current of racism when discussing the colonial question, and a strong current of economic nationalism when discussing immigrant workers as competitive with native labor.  Faltering theoretically on these matters proved to be of the greatest consequence. Lenin and others noted these problems and wrote extensively about the regressive influences of economism, opportunism, and social chauvinism within the International.

In August, 1914, under the pretext of national defense and the influence of social chauvinism, the Second International collapsed like a deck of cards: the social democratic parliamentary delegates in Germany voted for war credits and unqualified support of its own aggressor government.  Social Democrats throughout Europe followed suit, voting war credits to their own governments. You have to keep in mind that the imperialists were going to war against each other with or without the approval of the social democracy. When fighting for its life imperialism is willing, in a New York minute, to dispense with the services of parliamentary debating societies—as the rise of fascism in WW II makes perfectly clear.  By voting for war credits the social democracy misused its authority as the leadership of the working class and put the entire strength of its apparatus and influence at the disposal of the imperialists. The jingoism of patriotism, i.e., “defense of the fatherland”, dragged the working class into the vortex against the colonial revolution.

It’s not the point of this talk to examine the reasons for the betrayal of the Second International but it is of the greatest importance to study it and there is no dearth of materials. In brief, the immense wealth produced by laissez-faire capitalism and by colonialism made it possible to provide concessions and material benefits to the upper strata of the working class. This upper stratum, particularly the trade union officers and parliamentary officials of social democracy, were in a sense mortgaged to imperialism. For the imperialists this was a form of social insurance. The English capitalist politician, Lord Chamberlain, called it a “ransom”.  Wealth, he argued, must justify its possessors by reasonable amenities to the working class. By which, of course, he did not mean all of the working class, but only the privileged layer we refer to today as the “aristocracy of labor”. A political rapprochement was forged between the labor aristocrats of social democracy and the capitalist class at the expense of the mass of workers, and certainly at the expense of the colonial subjects.

The revolutionary movement, faced with the most catastrophic war in human history up to that time, was left with no international movement.  This malignant betrayal in the long run strengthened imperialism, allowing them time to consolidate their economic, political and military positions at the expense of the working class and colonies. The Marxist movement wasn’t hesitant:  it decisively declared the international bankrupt and set its sights on building a new revolutionary one. Only after the Russian Revolution, the Third International was initiated in Moscow in March 1919.

WW I started in August 1914. Not even two and a-half years later, in March 1917, the Russian Revolution began led by Lenin. “Bread, Peace, Land!” these were the slogans inspiring the Russian Revolution.  The movement was provoked by the complete breakdown of economic life, including bread lines and widespread famine among workers and peasants.  It was impossible to produce the necessities of life like food because war production took first priority.  Everything was sacrificed to the war and to war profiteering by the Russian imperialists who were themselves mortgaged to foreign investment, especially English and French.  Keep in mind that although the war was going badly at the front for the soldiers, for the Russian imperialists war profits were monumental.

Going on with the war was impossible after the Revolution. There was massive opposition to it. Ten million soldiers were completely exhausted by it. There was no food and with desertions by millions of peasants, along with army insurrections, increasingly no army. Delegations of soldiers to the Petrograd Soviet threatened that unless peace was signed, soldiers would make peace by desertion. They wanted to get back home and to the land the revolution had promised them.

The problem facing the new soviet state was how to extricate itself from the war.  Remember Russia was part of an international clique of imperialists so the Russian Revolution had not only German aggression to face but also that of the former imperialist allies with investment in Russian industry, along with what was left of the czarist army, and facing opposition and sabotage by the capitalists led by Kerensky.

Nevertheless in March 1918, not even 6 months after the Bolsheviks took state power from the Russian capitalists, the treaty of Brest Litovsk was signed with Germany.  There were sharp disputes in the soviets and charges of Lenin being in league with the Germans but the Bolsheviks felt it was the only way to save the weak Russian Revolution from collapse. Trotsky, the chief Soviet negotiator, and others have described the negotiations and what is remarkable about them is that annexations and the self-determination of nations were the matters under dispute with Germany. Despite the weakness of the Russian Revolution, their revolutionary commitment to colonized peoples was not for sale.

The Bolsheviks knew the negotiations with Germany were just stalling for time and were not taken by surprise when soon after signing the treaty Germany again attacked Russia, annexing disputed territories, and was soon joined by 14 imperialist armies and by White Russian troops. Imperialism was now in league against the Russian Revolution.

Imagine that after promising an end to the war, the Bolsheviks now had to forge a new army against the imperialist and White Russian armies.  I have read idealized accounts—perhaps it’s better to say theoretical accounts—of the formation of the Red Army but the civil war did not afford ideal conditions, to say the least.  In many ways the formation of the Red Army was an improvisation. Eventually nearly 6 million soldiers—mostly peasants—were mobilized.  Conscription was involved but that didn’t keep the czarist army intact and it wouldn’t keep the Red Army intact either.

The Bolsheviks began by appealing to the elementary class interests of its soldiers: its first decree was for peace and the second for immediate distribution of land to peasants. Millions of peasants emptied the trenches to take part in this redistribution. Thousands of Bolshevik workers were sent to the front to educate and agitate and turn the remnants of the czarist army into a revolutionary fighting force. Russia was the biggest multi-ethnic state in Europe—a prison house of nations—and it contained hundreds of thousands of immigrant and colonized workers. Thousands of these joined the Red Army, including 50,000 Chinese workers. Thousands of Czarist army officers were put in charge of military training or sent to the front to lead. Many colluded with the enemy; most remained remarkably loyal. Corporal punishment –a feature of the Czarist army–was banned, and Trotsky personally appealed to thousands of deserting peasants who rejoined the Red Army because it alone would defend their rights to the land.   Only a small number of women were engaged in combat as far as we know. A Red Army air force was formed.  They won despite the most serious privations—defeating all belligerent nations and the White Terror in 1921.

German imperialism was defeated in 1919 but international imperialism won the war.  Forty million people died in WW I (half of these civilians).  The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was simply the imperialist victors dividing up the booty, depriving Germany of all its colonies and taking them for themselves.  As WW I ended, the example of the Russian revolution unleashed a new wave of anticolonial struggles across the Asian continent. Another element fueling this upsurge was opposition to the continuation of colonial plunder, legitimized by the treaty.

Because of the betrayal and collusion of the Second International the German revolution was defeated in 1918 and because of their continued betrayals not a single issue raised by the war has been resolved up to today. Imperialism was strengthened and the stage set for WW II (72 million dead), Korea, Vietnam, and the list goes on and on—colonialism is still with us.  Because that’s what it’s all about—resolving the crises of profiteering on the backs of humanity.

Among reactionary smart-asses it has become de rigueur after the collapse of the Soviet Union to smugly dismiss the ideas of the Russian Revolution as an exhibit in the museum of hopeless causes; among radicals it is very in vogue to blame Lenin or Leninism (almost an epithet) for the problems of the socialist movement.

But to my mind, along with the first socialist revolution, Lenin and all the great Marxist teachers of that era have left us a remarkable body of literature– one of the greatest bodies of literature the Marxist movement has produced, analyzing imperialism, revolution, colonialism, social chauvinism, racism, opportunism, economism, immigration–and no socialist can possibly make sense of this world without studying that literature.  The other dominant explanation is the metaphysical one employed by capitalism, i.e., the planetary struggle between good and evil.

The war in Iraq and globalization represent a different stage in the development of imperialism. That means Lenin’s critiques, although fundamental, are insufficient. Time and imperialism have marched on. The emergence of fascism in WW II made that eminently clear. The imperialist class, in its need to profiteer, is now taking deadly aim at the working class in the economically advanced countries. That requires a fuller elaboration of Lenin’s ideas, showing that the impasse of imperialism–which it is trying to resolve at the expense of the working class–is also its Achilles Heel, providing political openings for the socialist movement.  Social democracy has only grown more rancid in 90 years; their debasement plays a monumental role in the devastation of the labor movement in the U.S. and elsewhere—it’s a matter of chickens coming home to roost for social chauvinism and racism.

The confluence of racism, war, and anti-communism (and now anti-terrorism, i.e., colonial resistance) is not accidental.  Imperialism understands its best interests. The fact that we’re still fighting these battles, we owe to the renegades in the Second International; the fact that antiracism and anti-imperialism are yoked with socialism we owe to the victory of the Russian revolution.