The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Questions Concerning Bolshevik Power and the Russian Revolution

    The question of inevitably depends upon ones understanding of history and how it unfolds. To assume the Bolsheviks’ win was inevitable vastly ignores the importance of human agency in the historical process. Human praxis, the action and reflection taken by real people involved in the material reality of a particular instance, plays a prodigious role in the flow of events. The Bolsheviks often provided lucid and resolute leadership in times of class struggle. As Trotsky once noted, the leadership was to the working class  as the box that channels the steam; either would be useless without the other.

    As the text notes, because of the deep roots Bolsheviks had in large urban factories, their support continued to grow after the overthrow of the Tsar and the failure of the parliamentary government to represent working class interests and stop World War I. Popular Bolshevik slogans and keen political leadership helped augment the Bolshevik Party to 200,000 members in mid-August of 1917, compared to only 80,000 of April of the same year. The Bolsheviks eventually dominated the democratically elected Soviets, with large sectors of working-class and peasant support (gained in part by the alliance with Left Social-Revolutionaries). Lenin articulated the need to overthrow the parliamentary regime and remove the tension between it and the Soviets created by the “dual-power” situation after the Tsar’s downfall. 

    Thus, it was active participation by thousands of working-class Bolsheviks and decisive political leadership that, in the end, helped the Bolsheviks win in November; nothing was predetermined. Human agency was absolutely essential in the Bolshevik revolution, and no amount of vacuous, dogmatic “Marxism” presented by Stalinist historians could prove otherwise. 

    The Russian Revolution took place in the midst of “wartime amid military defeat, economic collapse, and governmental disintegration." These were the fissures in the ruling class that that allowed for the subterranean energy of the masses to usher forward. These conditions, combined with the fact that the Russian working class and peasants had developed a sense of collective identity which gave them the confidence to fight back (especially after the overthrow of the Tsar), allowed the Bolsheviks to provide the political leadership necessary to take power and fight the White counter-revolutionaries. Despite claims from both the right and the left that Lenin was simply a political mastermind which devised the coup or revolution (the words change depending on whether the historian is a right-wing anti-soviet or bureaucratic Stalinist) and solidified power, the reality is the Bolsheviks had garnered massive popular support and “superior leadership, unity, and purpose” allowed them to overcome the foreign-funded and supplied White armies, who shared much less support among the people.

    The White army, lacking coordination, full of personal rivalries, and finding no coalescing idea to unite them, allowed for the Bolsheviks to pick apart the former ruling class of military officials, tsarist holdovers, and wealthy who composed the White leadership. However, it must also be noted that Trotsky, serving as war commissar, also reinstituted conscription and severe army discipline into the Red Army, thus taking a step backward and utilizing despotic means to preserve the society they fought for. This can be seen most lucidly, perhaps, in the brutal suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt revolt by 50,000 Red troops, where workers demanded more democratic processes and access to food.

    Still, the fact that the Bolsheviks supplied the masses with a highly centralized, yet popular framework under which they could organize the resistance, along with the miscalculations and political weaknesses of the White Army, allowed for a decisive Bolshevik win against counter-revolutionary forces, both domestic and foreign. 

    The merciless counter-revolution propagated by the White Army, along with the Allied Intervention of various capitalist nations on their side, drastically reduced the likelihood of peaceful and democratic transition within Russia. The needs required by armies and political organizations when faced with civil war “hardened and militarized” the Bolsheviks, pushed them into harsher economic policies, and greatly isolated them from the majority of the capitalist nations. Bolshevik policy, faced with possibly devastating pressure from civil war, was forced into draconian measures both internally and against foreign enemies.

     The democratic possibilities of a worker-run society were reduced to utopian dreams with the onslaught of hostile foreign armies, a white counter-revolution, a decimated working-class, and heavy losses in industry. The Cheka, an “incipient Soviet secret police,” was formed and a “Red terror” aimed at counter-revolutionaries began. At the same time, where previously workers’ committees had been told to seize factories, many industries simply were nationalized and became controlled by bureaucratic decision-makers not truly representing workers’ power. Reformist parties, such as the Mensheviks and sections of the Social-Revolutionaries, were made illegal and forced to disband. Rigid authoritarianism was reestablished in the military, and conscription was once again common. Nations, following true Leninist principles, had been granted national autonomy. However, as they became breeding grounds and entrance points for counter-revolutionary forces, Red Army troops intervened, galvanizing what would eventually became a long history of imperialist intervention (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, etc.). Political dissent, even while remaining true to workers’ power and democratic principles, were crushed, as exemplified by the repression in Kronstadt.

    Thus, the intense civil war and foreign invasion rightly fostered anti-Western distrust and hostility, along with internal autocracy. Essentially, the possibilities for a truly democratic society based upon working-class power was eroded by the decrepit material conditions and isolation of post-revolutionary Russia. Without the spread of revolution, which Lenin argued must occur for Russian Socialism to succeed, since it was too economically weak to do so on its own, the Revolution had a very short life span. This would eventually allow Stalin to develop his idea of “Socialism in One Country” which would be used to cultivate nationalist subservience to a Soviet bureaucracy.

    The question for us on the left, then, is what importance does this have for us? Many socialists uphold, rightly, the significance of the Russian Revolution in the history of socialist thought and action. Likewise, many accept that the revolution was fundamentally a progressive struggle against an inhumane society that fostered, for the first time in actual praxis, the true potential for the masses to take control of their own destiny. Fundamental questions remain, however. These questions, I must admit, I do not pretend to have the answers too. I have opinions concerning some of them, and others I am simply seeking out potential answers that will allow a dialogue to flourish. I am not convinced, at this point, that the Bolsheviks were completely innocent in Stalin's rise to power. I do not, however, believe that intentions of the early Bolsheviks were anything near what resulted. Among some of these questions, that I hope you all will take up, are the following:
1 - Is the primary reason for the failure of the revolution the objective, material conditions in which the revolution took place?
2 - If those on the left and right who accuse the Bolshevik Party of being organized in a manner conducive to the seizure of power by Stalin, what does this say concerning Lenin's theory of Democratic Centralism? And, if democratic decisions are not centrally enforced, how are collective measures to be taken that combat a system that is highly organized and and able to take advantage of splits and fissures within the revolutionary movement?

3 - Do actions taken by the Bolsheviks, such as the reinstitution of draconian measures in the military, the banning of political factions and a multi-party democracy, and the repression at Kronstadt, reflect fundamental anti-democratic predilections in the Bolshevik Party structure or the severity of the material situation and the decrepit conditions of the working class after World War I and the civil war?

4 - If it was the material conditions which galvanized anti-democratic Bolshevik policies, could these have been averted without a victorious workers' revolution in Germany? If not, what does this say for the role of human agency in transforming society?

5 - It is obvious that Stalin broke radically from Lenin and many leaders of the revolution. Likewise, it is obvious that Stalin's policies were tremendously harmful to the majority of the population in Russia, both peasant and working class. However, to what extent did the structure of the Bolshevik party, and the removal of a multi-party democracy, play in allowing Stalin's rise to power? Or, as some on the left contend, was this merely a reflection of the inability of the working class to overcome hostile conditions that were not suitable for a socialist society to emerge?

6 - If it is the case that the working class could not seize power and transform society in a socialist direction, given the objective conditions (a minority working class, a significant peasant population, a society lacking the technological advancements of other capitalist nations, etc.), without outside assistance, then was the October revolution (the Bolshevik seizure of power) simply voluntarism?

7 - What does this say about the potential for revolution in a country such as the United States, where the actual, objective, material conditions would allow a socialist society of equitable distribution and democratic-decision making to flourish? Would the revolutionary organizations argue for a one-party state during a transition period such as the Bolsheviks implemented or would a multi-party democracy be allowed to exist? Or, as some contend, would democratic representation and participation be so radically different that political parties would cease to exist?
    These are just some of the questions that I hope to explore. My intentions are to provoke dialogue, dialogue I believe is far too often muted in many circles concerning serious issues in our tradition. Dogmatically accepting what the Bolsheviks did, in my opinion, only isolates us from many people. Dogmatically rejecting or demonizing them, however, does similarly. All mistakes in my reading of the Russian Revolution are my own, and I attribute them to my own misunderstanding. I would, however, encourage anyone and everyone to weigh in on the questions I hope to explore.

*** Quotes were taken from a university level textbook (as the original portion of the text was written for a class), entitled Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century. Despite having some useful figures and data, it is not a source I would recommend for truly engaging the Russian Revolution. 

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