The relevance of the Russian Revolution, Part II

Dec. 2017 Trotsky Red Army
Leon Trotsky speaks to Red Army soldiers.


This is the second part of a series of articles. Part I appeared in the October 2017 issue of Socialist Action.

The Russian Revolution of Oct. 25, 1917 (Nov. 7 in the new calendar) remains the seminal event in modern human history, if for no other reason that it marked the first time a consciously-led revolutionary struggle brought to political, economic, military, and social power the vast majority of a nation’s people—the working class and poor peasants. The rule of the “one percent,” (actually one thousandth of one percent or less) was abolished in one earthshaking blow. It was replaced by the institutionalized rule of workers, peasants and soldiers.

Organized on a local, regional, and national basis and having initiated and ratified the Oct. 25 revolutionary seizure of power from the capitalist Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, this Soviet [council] Government was established on Day One as the official and only government of what would become the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.)

Contrary to its vilifiers around the world, it was this Soviet Government (not the revolutionary socialist Bolshevik Party) that ruled the new revolutionary workers’ state that encompassed one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Its representatives were directly elected by soviets at every workplace and region, from the cities to the countryside to the military garrisons. Soviet delegates, paid the wages of skilled workers, were subject to immediate recall if they failed to carry out the mandate of their constituency.

This simple notion that the working people should govern their own lives through their own institutions, and in their own interests has been central to the ideology and practice of revolutionary socialism from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to the co-leaders of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and to every serious revolutionary socialist today.

The Stalinist perversion of this elementary conception—substituting the rule of a political party, not to mention the cult of a single individual, for the institutional rule of the working class—has been a boon to all seeking to discredit socialism as a minority dictatorship.

In my previous article on this subject (Socialist Action, October 2017) I reviewed some of the immediate and unprecedented decrees approved and implemented by this Soviet government, including granting the land to the peasantry, who were 90 percent of the population, granting the right of self-determination to Russia’s conquered and colonized nations, ending Russia’s participation in World War I, establishing workers’ control of all basic industries, and implementing an unprecedented range of social measures. These ended the subjugation of women by socializing key nuclear family institutions, establishing free health care and education, abolishing all laws restricting and punishing gender preference, legalizing free abortion and the right to immediate divorce at the request of either partner, as well as opening up an amazing range of scientific, artistic, and cultural endeavors that astonished the world.

The Preface to Leon Trotsky’s monumental “History of the Russian Revolution” succinctly captures the above: “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” Unfortunately, many of these achievements were undermined, distorted, or reversed during the Stalinist reaction that followed within less than a decade after the October 1917 victory.

Ending Russia’s participation in World War I

Flush with an excess of revolutionary optimism following the seizure of power, an almost immediate division emerged within the Bolshevik Party as well as within the Soviet Government over the critical question of how to meet the party’s promise to end Russia’s participation in World War I. A current inside the Bolshevik Party, the “Left Communists,” as well as other soviet parties, including the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, were incensed by the spurious imperialist accusation that the new Soviet Government was nothing less than an “agent of the German empire.”

In opposition to Lenin, who demanded the immediate signing of a peace accord with Germany and its allied Central Powers and the Ottoman Empire, they proposed that the Soviet Government transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary war, which they envisioned as virtually an immediate prelude to world revolution. A temporary compromise was reached based on Trotsky’s proposal to proceed to the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk (now in Belarus, near the Polish border) based on the proposition, “neither war nor peace”—that is, that Russia would not sign a peace treaty but would not engage in any further military actions.

While Trotsky’s brilliant delaying speeches at Brest-Litovsk were a model for socialist propaganda at that time, one German general negotiator aptly noted that the Russian Army was “a figment of the imagination.” The truth of this assertion was measured on the ground as Germany and its allied troops proceeded to march across Russia unimpeded. Russia’s ill-equipped, war weary, demoralized, and until recently imperialist-led troops, who had been conscripted under Tsarism to fight for imperialist conquests and booty, were in no condition to be overnight transformed into a revolutionary fighting force for world revolution.

Within a few months, this reality became obvious to the great majority of the Soviet Government. Trotsky dropped his original delaying proposal, sided with Lenin, and thus established a majority in the soviet to sign the humiliating but absolutely necessary March 3, 1918, peace treaty at Brest Litovsk.

The imperialist world invades the USSR

The terms of this treaty gave Germany control of Finland, the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and the Ukraine. Parts of the Caucasus region had to be ceded to the German-allied Ottoman Empire. “Shameful,” said Lenin of this “peace” treaty, but it was absolutely essential to fulfill the promise of his party to end the war. Fully one-third of Russia’s population was now under German control, as was half its industry, 90 percent of its fuel production, and 55 percent of its grain and wheat production. The Soviet Government’s signing of this treaty provided an historic example of real-life politics wherein revolutionary rhetoric was no match for the patient consolidation of a fragile revolution, beleaguered on every side.

Russia’s wartime “allies” and “enemies” alike took advantage of the Soviet Government’s promise to its people that peace would be forthcoming. An article published in the May 2017 International Courier adequately describes the predation that both sides of the imperialist World War I had in store for the nascent workers’ state:

“On April 3 [a month after Brest Litovsk], Japanese troops invaded in Vladivostok and occupied southern Siberia. The next day the Turks took Batumi, Georgia at the Black Sea and reached the Caucasus. The Romanians took Bessarabia. The fearsome Czechoslovak Legion, sponsored by France, revolted and joined the [Tsarist] White Guards in western Siberia and began a military campaign seizing the entire region. French troops occupied the southern Ukraine and the Crimea; and the British Army took Archangel on the banks of the North Dvina River, while Turkish units took the oil-field center at Baku. The White Army was created, commanded by the [former Czarist] Generals Nikolai Yudenich, Lavr Kornilov, Alexander Kolchak and Anton Denikin fighting on several fronts.”

We might add that the U.S. took its turn to send invasion troops to Russia’s Siberia to defeat the world’s first workers’ state. In total 14 nations invaded, wreaking untold horrors. The Courier concludes: “In late 1918, the … Soviet Republic was about the size of medieval Muscovy before the [year 1547] conquests of Ivan the Terrible. In Lenin’s words it was ‘an oasis in a raging sea of imperialist banditry.’”

The Red Army and Soviet war strategy

But there is another side to this complex equation, the side that at least partially explains why the combined counterrevolutionary efforts of the world’s imperialist powers failed to reverse the fundamental gains of October 1917. The day after the signing of the Brest Litovsk “peace” agreements, Trotsky was appointed by the Soviet Government to be president of the Supreme Council of War. A month later, he became People’s Commissar of War and proceeded to construct and lead the Red Army.

Until that time the fighting forces under the direct control of the Soviet Government were essentially the Bolshevik-organized Red Guards, which had successfully defeated General Kornilov’s effort to defeat the approaching October insurrection in Petrograd and Moscow. These forces numbered an estimated 7000 worker-soldiers, recruited from the ranks of the city’s vanguard workers and soldiers.

Under Trotsky’s leadership a highly professional, technologically equipped and disciplined Soviet Army, the Red Army, became an impressive fighting force numbering 5 million. From a near-enslaved army of poor peasants compelled by their autocratic masters to fight against their own interests, the Red Army was transformed into an unprecedented powerhouse that defeated the combined militaries of most of the imperialist world.

This carefully constructed army was consciously begun with a central core of seasoned worker-Bolsheviks, whose political training, experience, and loyalty to the revolution’s highest aspirations were unmatched in history. With this core the Red Army was politically armed to not only inspire its broad ranks but to see the Soviet Government’s future as inextricably tied to the world revolution. It became a political force on the battlefield, whose impact reverberated in capitals across Europe and beyond. Internationalist fighters from around the world joined its ranks.

While Trotsky’s army used thousands of former Tsarist officers as its military commanders, in every instance each was accompanied by a Soviet political commissar, whose critical assignment was to educate and inspire the ranks with the revolution’s highest ideals, not to mention to keep a sharp eye on the political loyalty of the officer core. This responsibility included, when necessary, making recommendations to the appropriate soviet body for an abusive or incompetent officers’ immediate removal.

International support for Russian Revolution

In the course of the terrible years of the 1918-22 Civil War between the Red and White armies, the latter abetted by the armies of world imperialism, simultaneously fighting on 14 fronts, the Red Army emerged victorious.

While the world revolution that the Bolsheviks expected to come to their immediate aid did not materialize due to the crisis of leadership and betrayal of the reformist, chauvinist, pro-war “Socialist” International, in a real sense the revolutionary fervor and ideals imbued by the October Revolution in the world’s working masses did become a critical factor in the revolution’s survival.

The three revolutionary upheavals in Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1919 and 1923, including the formation of soviets in some key German cities, forced the abdication of the German Kaiser, effectively nullified the onerous provisions of Brest Litovsk, and led to the withdrawal of German and allied troops from Russia. So frightened was the German capitalist class with the return of the radicalized and often revolutionary-minded soldiers that they were initially banned from German cities where rebellious worker mobilizations vied for power.

Similarly, stunned by the revolt of Black Sea-based French sailors, France ceased its military operations in the Soviet South. Massive working-class mobilizations in England compelled the British government to withdraw from the Soviet North. In the U.S., among the actions of the five-day 1919 General Strike in Seattle, involving 65,000 workers, was the longshore union’s refusal to load U.S. arms destined for the White Armies fighting the Soviet Government. Indeed, the longshore workers physically challenged anyone who attempted to load ships bound for Russia.

Similar and massive working-class actions across Europe and beyond cautioned Europe’s would-be Soviet occupiers to proceed with caution—indeed, to retreat from their intentions to divide up Russia for future occupation and colonization.

Thus, on every front the inspiration that the October Revolution provided to the world’s working masses, consciously advanced by Soviet propagandists in every nation on earth, combined with the revolutionary zeal and self-sacrifice of the Soviet masses and their army to make the impossible a reality. Terribly crippled, near starvation, plagued with war-induced famine coupled with an imperialist embargo and blockade, some 9.5 million Russians perished. But the revolution survived.

Among those who perished first were the central working-class cadre of Russia’s Bolshevik Party, a generation of hundreds of thousands of youth in whom the revolution inspired the greatest dedication and sacrifice. This unavoidable imperialist-imposed catastrophe and resulting leadership void provided the future basis for the emergence of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In a future article we will discuss how this bureaucracy then replaced—or better, physically exterminated—virtually the entire Bolshevik Party Central Committee leadership team of the 1917 Revolution. But again, the conditions that led to Stalin’s rise to power, as we shall see, were above all, the product of the world imperialist invasion as opposed to any inherent flaw in the ideology or practice of revolutionary socialism.


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