THE ONGOING global economic crisis is producing resistance on a scale unseen in decades, from the Occupy movement in the United States, to mass strikes and left electoral victories in Europe, to the toppling of dictators in the Middle East. In this context, the question of revolution, and of how to achieve a lasting alternative to capitalist crisis, is more urgent and relevant than ever.
Europe in the years 1917–1923 posed these questions in all their intensity and complexity. Millions around the world were inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, where for the first time in history, a government run by workers and peasants, led by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, was in power. Revolutionary upsurges gripped country after country, and Karl Marx’s vision of workers in the fight for a socialist world seemed closer at hand than ever before.
Yet, the upsurge ended in defeat. With the failure of Russian Revolution to spread to Germany and elsewhere, a decimated and isolated Russian regime sank into bureaucratic degeneration. How did this come to pass—and was it inevitable? Was the Bolshevik model replicable in the rest of Europe? And did the party built by Lenin in the years leading up to 1917 pave the way for Stalin’s rise to power?
Revolution Besieged, the third volume of Tony Cliff’s political biography of Lenin—all now published for the first time in the United States by Haymarket books—is an excellent starting point for answering these and other questions. Cliff’s books offer neither a straight academic history nor personal biography, but apply a dialectical approach to examining the role played by Lenin and his party within the context of specific material and historical conditions, with the aim of drawing out lessons, both positive and negative, for revolutionary practice.
Readers would do well to start with volumes one and two, which cover the long years of experience Lenin and the Bolsheviks spent forging a revolutionary organization that proved critical to making a successful working class revolution. Cliff demolishes the mainstream caricature of Lenin as a power-mad manipulative demagogue, showing through his writing a commitment to the principle of workers’ self-emancipation.
Lenin’s main contribution to Marxism was in translating this conviction into practice, in other words a theory of revolutionary organization, which as Cliff noted, was developed in the course of struggle:
The two basic themes in this [Lenin’s] theory of the party were: first, adherence to firm principles, involving a willingness to accept for a time the position of being a tiny minority in the working class; and secondly, the closest possible relationship with the mass of the workers by providing a practical, i.e. adaptable, leadership in every struggle involving them. Only one’s own struggle enables a person or a party to assimilate both.
October of 1917 provided a stunning vindication of the Bolshevik model in practice. This was a model adapted to the varied forms of struggle against capitalism. After October, however, the Bolsheviks found themselves in an entirely new situation. As Lenin noted:
How socialists should fight within a capitalist society is not a difficult problem and has long since been settled. Nor is it difficult to visualize advanced socialist society. This problem has also been settled. But the most difficult task of all is how, in practice, to effect the transition from the old, customary, familiar capitalism to the new socialism, as yet unborn and without any firm foundations.
Lenin was initially undaunted by the tasks ahead due to his faith in the power of workers to perform “miracles of proletarian organization.” In an appeal to the population published in Pravda in November 1917 he wrote:
Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state...Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.
The achievements of the first months the revolution are indeed remarkable. The new revolutionary government—based on workers’ and peasants’ soviets (democratically elected councils of delegates)—got to work right away in issuing a series of decrees to be carried out by the workers directly and immediately. These included the major demands of the revolution, a democratic peace, land to the peasants, self-determination for oppressed nations, and workers’ control of industry. Other dramatic reforms including the right of immediate recall for all elected officials and judges, the legalization of divorce, and the separation of church and state. The revolution unleashed a wave of creativity and initiative among the masses of ordinary workers, as well as a tremendous thirst for knowledge and culture.
At same time, the fledgling workers’ state was immediately beset by both external and internal threats. High-skilled public sector workers who did not support the revolution went out on strike. Factory owners engaged in industrial sabotage. Counterrevolutionaries who were leniently released from prison in the early days of the revolution began to regroup and arm themselves—with help from foreign powers—ultimately resulting in full-blown civil war from 1918 to 1922.
Opponents of the Russian revolution often point to the ‘Red Terror,’ in which thousands were arrested and summarily executed, as evidence of how terrible the Bolsheviks were. But the Red Terror has to be seen as a reaction (and arguably a belated one at that) to the White terror—in which domestic counterrevolutionary forces were aided by the armies of fourteen nations eager to ensure that the Russian example did not spread. Their goal was to annihilate the gains of the revolution, and as such their enemy was the vast majority of the population.
“The revolutionary terror in Russia, like its predecessor in France during its great revolution, was a reaction to foreign invasion and the immensity of the threat to the revolution,” writes Cliff. “Compared to the White terror, however, the Red terror was mild. Thus in Finland alone, in April 1918 between 10,000 and 20,000 workers were slaughtered by the counter-revolutionaries.”
The depth of support for the revolution was evident in the fight to defend it, as more than 100,000 volunteered against a ferocious and far better armed foe. That the Red Army, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, eventually won the war was nothing short of a miracle, but it came at a horrendous cost. The scourges of hunger, cold, and disease dwarfed that of combat. All told, there were an estimated nine million premature deaths between 1918 and 1920. To put that in perspective, the overall death toll for all countries involved in the First World War was four million.
The peasantry had rallied to the revolution because of its commitment to land redistribution. But peasants resented and rebelled against the soviet government’s forced requisitioning of grain, a policy necessary to feed the towns and the Red Army at a time when industrial collapse meant the new government had nothing with which to trade for grain. While the policy of forced requisition had been tolerated to some extent in exchange for the Red Army’s defense against White Terror, the contradiction between the needs of town and country in what remained a majority peasant country only intensified in the years following the war.
Meanwhile, the urban working class, the backbone of the revolution, was decimated—a 58.7 percent drop from 1917 to 1922. As Cliffe notes: “While the revolution managed to defeat the counter-revolutionary forces by relying on popular support, enthusiasm and sheer will power, it paid for victory with the destruction of the proletariat that had made the revolution, while leaving intact the state apparatus built by it.”
Added to the constant threat of counter-revolution was the decimation of the small but highly concentrated and combative working class as a result of the collapse of the economy. First, tens of thousands of workers volunteered for the front and became Red Army soldiers. As early as the spring of 1918 famine stalked Russia’s main cities as a result of the breakdown of transport and the German seizure of the Ukraine. With the collapse of industry and increasing bread shortages, unemployment shot up, and many workers fled to the countryside in search of food.
These developments provide the key to understanding the consolidation of one-party rule and the bureaucratic degeneration of the party and state. Lenin was constantly arguing for temporary compromises and retreats—from signing a costly peace treaty with Germany, to adopting a form of “state capitalism,” as Lenin put it, in order to develop industry.
Likewise, the banning of other parties from the government, and then of factions within the party, were never a part of Lenin’s vision. As he wrote in State and Revolution a few months before the October insurrection, the party and the state were not seen as synonymous.
In reality, some of the parties were not contesting for leadership within a workers’ state, but actively seeking to destroy it, by both legal and extralegal means. In this scenario, the tolerance for “freedom of speech” in the abstract meant giving space for the counterrevolution to organize. Even so, the initial crackdown against dissent was neither total nor fully implemented. A spirit of heated debate within the Bolshevik Party likewise persisted for many years.
According to Cliff,
Lenin certainly did not call for a dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, even less for that of a bureaucratized party over a decimated proletariat. But fate—the desperate condition of a revolution in a backward country besieged by world capitalism—led precisely to this . . .The machine of state and party was moving in a direction which Lenin certainly did not wish or expect.
For Lenin, all of these temporary retreats were a matter of buying time. In a economically underdeveloped country like Russia, the need for the revolution to spread was of the utmost urgency.
Regarded from a world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries. When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries.
It is the absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed.
The second half of the book (originally published as a separate volume) deals with the Bolsheviks’ efforts to spread revolution elsewhere in Europe. The founding conference of the Third International, or Comintern, convened on March 2, 1919. Although the first conference was small and represented very few mass parties outside Russia, Cliff argued that:
Nothing was further from Lenin’s mind than the intention of giving an assortment of small sects the label of an international. When he founded the Communist International he was relying on what he foresaw as going to happen in Europe: mass communist parties would emerge in the revolutionary struggles ahead. He assumed, correctly, that in the revolutionary situation existing after the war and with the example of victorious Bolshevism in Russia, the communist sects would rise to achieve mass influence.
In this, Lenin, proved to be (partially) correct. The postwar period in Europe saw a massive wave of strikes and revolutionary activity and socialists everywhere flocked to the communist banner.
Everyone was convinced that Europe-wide revolution was on the horizon. Take the terrified observations of British prime minister Lloyd George:
The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but also of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.
In short order, the Comintern came to represent mass parties in countries across Europe, many of which were poised to play decisive roles in determining the outcome of the struggle.
The problem was, unfortunately, that these parties were extremely new and inexperienced, often made up of heterogeneous elements from reformist career politicians to ultra-left sectarians. Moreover, the experience in much of Europe of a long peaceful electoral growth of mass reformist parties left the working classes of those countries with little experience in navigating a period of crisis and mass revolt.
The question of training these new parties in tactics and strategy became central. Such training had to be done right in the midst of open mass struggles. The communist parties had to be built up at the same time as the leadership of swiftly developing mass movements was being taken over. Whereas the Bolsheviks had had prolonged training for October— a whole series of offensive struggles followed by retreats, of uprisings followed by defeats, of activities, electoral and trade union—preparations spread over some 14 years—the communist parties of central and western Europe had to go through a short course of tempering for revolutionary victory.
Time was not on their side. In Germany, by far the most advanced economy in Europe with the largest working-class movement, the newly-formed Communist Party, or KPD, committed a series of colossal mistakes, which ultimately sealed the fate of revolution in Russia as well.
In January of 1919, an unplanned attempt to seize power in Berlin cost the lives of the leading figures of German Communism— Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Luxemburg had opposed the adventurist action, but feared alienating the radicalizing new members of her party; she had failed to build an independent revolutionary party in the years prior. Cliff compares this tragedy to the Bolsheviks’ success in reining in ultra-leftism during the July Days:
By contrast Lenin had already built a party. Its militants were already so widely respected within the working class that they could afford to adopt views that risked temporary unpopularity among the newly radicalized workers and soldiers—providing, of course, that they participated in the mass action.
Again in March of 1921, the KPD engaged in disastrous adventurism, calling for an armed insurrection when it did not have the support of the majority of the workers. The outcome of this disaster then pushed the party to the opposite extreme, such that, when a genuine revolutionary situation did arise in 1923, and the KPD was in a position to lead it to victory, it missed its chance.
In the wake of a French occupation and economic collapse leading to catastrophic levels of inflation, the working class in Germany spontaneously rose up in revolt, overthrowing the Cano government. The KPD, now a mass party, was rooted in the working class and leading strikes everywhere. Yet, pessimistic about the prospects of revolution, the KPD clung to a defensive strategy of a united front with the reformists. A ridiculous plan to begin the insurrection by entering a coalition government with the socialists was total failure, and the revolutionary wave dissipated.
In the wake of this defeat, the KPD once again swung wildly ultra-left, and seeing Social Democracy as the main enemy, eventually paved the way for the Nazis to rise to power.
As Trotsky summarized in Lessons of October: “we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world-historic importance.”
Who was to blame for these tragic blunders? Certainly the inexperience of the KPD, attempting to learn in the course of events what the Bolsheviks had taken years to assimilate, was the overall of crux the problem. But the Russian leadership of the Comintern also played a most destructive role, and perhaps the decisive one in the defeat of 1923.
The reasons for this lay in the degeneration of the Russian party, which we will return to shortly, and the leadership of the Comintern under Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek, in particular. Aside from active participation in the first few conferences, Lenin was little involved in the day-to-day operations of the Comintern.
“Protected by the aura of Bolshevism, the Comintern apparatchiks became increasingly high-handed in dealing with the foreign communist parties. Instead of letting the leaders of the national sections learn by experience, they simply replaced them at every point of crisis, thus preventing the leaders and cadres from gaining real experience, and learning from their mistakes and successes. Instead, an obedient ‘leadership’ was gradually selected, with no independence of judgment, self-reliance or capacity for self-criticism.”
The pitfalls of this deference to Russia were illustrated clearly in the lead up to the adventurist 1921 Marzaktion, which was in fact encouraged by Comintern leaders and agents. In contrast, KPD leader Paul Levi argued for a united front policy of blocking with the (still much larger) SPD as a way to win over leadership of the class in the struggle for reforms. While this policy at the time was undoubtedly correct—and Lenin and Trotsky agreed—the Comintern instead engineered his expulsion on disciplinary grounds. Even more disturbingly, when the Marzaktion proved a complete disaster, the Comintern leadership searched for scapegoats in the German party while covering up its own complicity.
The failures of the KPD coincided with a series of defeats in Russia as well. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was inaugurated in 1921 and represented a turn back towards capitalist organization as a means to modernize a still semi-feudal economy. “From the fact that Lenin,” Cliff argued, “called NEP a ‘retreat’ and a ‘defeat’, it is clear that he a) tried to minimize the extent of the retreat in the framework of NEP, and b) was looking for a way to end NEP as soon as possible.”
He goes on to note that, “For Lenin, whose Marxism was never mechanical or fatalistic, the definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transitional period meant that there could be two outcomes of this phase: going forward to socialism, or backsliding to capitalism.”
The NEP accelerated this backslide. Workers’ control was done away with in favor of “red managers”—really the old capitalist managers, but now with communist party credentials—who went on a campaign of layoffs and wage cuts. A strict, egalitarian culture was transformed back to one of conspicuous consumption for the few. In the prophetic words of Marx, “all the old crap” was revived.
Whether a victorious revolution elsewhere in Europe could have turned things around we will never know. Without international support, as Rosa Luxemburg observed, “even the greatest energy and the greatest sacrifices of the proletariat in a single country must inevitably become tangled in a maze of contradictions and blunders...The danger begins only when they [the Bolshevik leaders] make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances.”
This is exactly what Stalin did when he ultimately consolidated his power. In the last year of his life, while battling deteriorating health, including strokes that left him partially paralyzed, Lenin became increasingly attuned to the danger of the growing power of the bureaucracy, and of Stalin in particular. In his final months he proposed a series of reforms to check the rise of the bureaucracy and restore some semblance of worker and party democracy. Unfortunately, there were no worker masses to which to appeal in enacting them.
“The masses in flood tide,” as in 1917, bore up the party and the leadership; in the ebb, the masses, with different moods and objectives, had the opposite effect. The contrast between the dream of 1917, with Lenin’s absolute confidence in the magnificent potential of the proletariat, and the actuality of the atomized working class and largely non-proletarian party, provided the elements of the human tragedy, demonstrating the impotence of the individual (and individuals) in the face of fate, of social forces far larger than themselves.
In summarizing this period, Cliff writes:
The magnificent success of the Bolshevik Party before the revolution, during the revolution and in the heroic years of the civil war did not mean that its organization on Leninist lines was in itself any guarantee for the consolidation of achievements. It was not an organizational key to all the doors of history. The revolutionary party is indispensable, but is not sufficient for revolutionary advance.
Lenin’s genius was that he was able, again and again, to appeal to the masses, so as to make the party respond to their aspirations and at the same time use the party to raise the level of activity and consciousness of the proletariat. In the final analysis the party remained always subordinated to and dependent on the working class. The party can affect the class only to the extent that its words, its propaganda, produce the desired activity by the class; without working class action the party is impotent.
While the revolutionary epoch of 1917-1923 ultimately ended in tragedy, it left behind a wealth of experience for future generations. It was an inspiring demonstration of the ability of working people to organize, fight for, and begin building a new social order. Cliff’s biography highlights the role of revolutionary leadership and organization in this process, not as a substitute for the struggle of the working class, but an essential component of its victory.
Cliff also shows clearly that there are no blueprints and no guarantee of ultimate victory. Those looking for ready-made solutions to all the problems of revolutionary organization will not find them here. For those attempting to synthesize the lessons of past struggles, while testing them through their own experience, this book—and the previous two volumes Cliff wrote—are a good place to start.