Was Russia Really Socialist?

by Adam Ritscher

When most folks hear the word socialism, the first thing that comes to mind is Russia. Now for different folks, that means very different things. This is true even of the left, within which there is much disagreement on whether or not Russia was socialist.

To answer the question of whether or not Russia was socialist I intend to take a look at the Russian Revolution of 1917, see how it unfolded and what came out of it, and then determine what its character was.

Prior to 1917 Russia was a developing country, semi-feudal really. The vast majority of its population lived in abject poverty, peasants whose lot was above that of serfs by only a small degree. Within the country though were pockets of modern industry, which contained some of the largest and most up to date factories in the world.

Leon Trotsky developed a theory called “combined and uneven development” to describe Russia and countries like it. It basically states that developing countries, while being far behind industrial countries, and often even semi-feudal, were often home to super-modern factories and mines as a result of capitalists from the industrialized countries seeking cheap labor and raw materials. The result was small but advanced working classes existing in very ‘backwards’ countries.

The Russia left of the time hotly debated what the consequences of this was. The majority held that because of the small size of Russia’s working class, and the relative backwardness of its economy, it would have to go through a long phase of capitalist development before socialism could be put on the agenda. Trotsky though developed his famous theory of “permanent revolution” in response, stating that the inter-conectedness of Russia’s emerging capitalist class with the country’s feudal aristocracy precluded any kind of capitalist revolution that would break from feudalism. Because of the warped evolution of developing countries like Russia, they wouldn’t follow the model of industrialized countries. He also argued that despite the small size of Russia’s working class, the fact that it was concentrated in huge modern factories gave it the social weight, and the potential consciousness to lead a socialist revolution.

The year 1917 was to solve the debate in real life however. Russia’s involvement in World War I had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of young men at the front, and intense economic hardships for the people at home. Peaceful protests before the palace of the czar asking for bread were met with machine gun fire. This proved to be a spark that initiated a mass uprising that forced the czar to flee in February. Provisional government led by a liberal reformer named Kerensky took his place. Kerensky though, representing Russia’s small capitalist class, was unable and unwilling to carry out any meaningful reforms that were being demanded by the people, such as the redistribution of the land to the peasants, and an end to Russia’s involvement in the war. At the same time workers’ councils, or Soviets, were springing up throughout Russia as revolutionary enthusiasm and dissatisfaction with Kerensky grew.

The existence of these soviets amounted to a situation of dual power, where the workers and their institutions existed alongside the capitalist government of Kerensky. Within these soviets, different left groups put forward their perspectives. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, and which Trotsky had joined, put forth the call for “all power to the soviets” and went on a campaign to convince the workers to finish the revolution by making it a socialist revolution. Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet, and the Bolsheviks won a majority of the delegates to the soviets. The soviets then simply voted to replace the Kerensky government and a delegation was sent to inform him of the fact.

This was the October Revolution. It was certainly a genuine workers’ revolution, and not a coup, and it would be pretty hard to imagine a much more democratic scenario. What followed after the revolution was an inspiring blossoming of revolutionary sentiment and enthusiasm. Soviets spread to hundreds of factories, towns and rural regions like prairie fire. Housewives formed soviets, as did passengers on trains while en route!

Once in power the Bolsheviks redistributed the land to the peasants, granted self-determination to all oppressed nationalities within Russia, legalized abortion and divorce, eliminated all anti-gay legislation, established a government monopoly of foreign trade and set up public day care center, laundries and cafeterias to free women from the home. They also got Russia out of the war, much to the horror of their former allies.

The capitalist world’s reaction to the Russian workers was swift and decisive. 21 capitalist countries invaded, and massive aid was pumped into the White armies being formed by the recently deposed Russian feudalists and capitalists. The Bolsheviks responded by organizing the Red Army, which under Trotsky’s leadership successfully defeated the counter-revolution. The price though was staggering. Many of the workers who made the revolution died in the fighting, the countries industry was in ruins and the countryside was on the verge of starvation (there were reports of cannibalism in some regions).

Lenin and the Bolsheviks had expected the revolution to spread, and while indeed there were numerous workers’ uprisings and revolutions in Europe after the Russian revolution, all were repressed leaving the Bolsheviks alone in a hostile world. It was under the immense pressure of this situation that a bureaucracy began to develop in Russia. Opportunists began joining the Bolshevik party in droves, and czarist engineers and technicians agreed to help rebuild the country at a price. To make matters worse, Lenin suffered a series of debilitating strokes at this time, and by early 1924 was dead. Stalin, whose social base was the emerging state and party bureaucracy, made a bid for power and successfully usurped political power from the workers. Trotsky, who resisted Stalin by organizing the Left Opposition, was defeated and expelled from the party, and then forced into exile (he was eventually murdered by a Stalinist agent who drove an ice pick into his skull).

Stalin’s seizure of power had devastating consequences. Any hope of a revival of soviet power was squelched, and as a result of his theory of “socialism in one country,” international revolution was sold down the river to secure a peaceful coexistence with capitalism. Much of the international communist movement soon became pawns parroting the Kremlin’s foreign policy, whatever it may be.

Trotsky, while in exile, analyzed the degeneration in his book “The Revolution Betrayed.” In it he developed his theory of the degenerated workers state. In essence his theory holds that the Russian revolution resulted in a post-capitalist society on the road to socialism, but its development was arrested by the development of the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky predicted this very unstable and contradictory state of affairs would have to be solved by the workers overthrowing the bureaucracy and putting the country back on the road to socialism, or else the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy would in time attempt to restore capitalism (as they are openly trying to do today). He pointed however, that despite the degeneration of the revolution there were still gains of the revolution that remained such as social ownership of the means of production, a planned economy and a monopoly of foreign trade, and as a result workers and socialists are duty bound to defend it against capitalism. It should be treated in the same way as a corrupt union, it’s still a union, and any housecleaning can only be done by the workers themselves.

In summary then, to the answer to the question of was Russia socialist, we’d have to say no, Russia did indeed have a real working class revolution, and was on the road to socialism, but it was prevented from getting there. It is a task of the future for the revolution to be completed in Russia, and beyond that, to expand the revolution to the whole world. It is only then that all of us will finally be able to live in a world that is based on solidarity, and that is free of exploitation, oppression and alienation.