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Russian Revolution: when workers took power. Paul Vernadsky. Review: ‘1917 and problems of democracy’.

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Image result for Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution

1917 and problems of democracy.  Solidarity. 6th of September. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The historian of the French Revolution, François Furet, wrote in 1995 wrote that that after the fall of the USSR, the October Revolution had ended its journey. Unlike the first French Republic, Soviet power, and Lenin, “left no heritage”. Over 800 pages later the critic of the Jacobins concluded that while it was hard to “think” of another kind of society, democracy manufactured the need for a world beyond “Capital and the Bourgeoisie”. If the figure of the Bolshevik party had disappeared, the “idea of communism” could be reborn in new forms.1

Twenty-two years later, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, much debate on the left remains about how to assess the legacy of the Bolsheviks. Many reject Lenin’s party, arguing that movements for socialism or communism should seek novel constituencies, structures and objectives. In contrast to these judgements, Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution by asserting, “The Russian revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in political history so far. It was the first occasion that working class people took political power and held it for a significant period.”

He states, “In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils).” The lessons of the revolution remain relevant to working class politics today.2 Vernadsky tells the story of 1917, from the slaughter of the First World War, initial protests and strikes, to the February Revolution and October.

The Bolshevik resurgence faced with a Kerensky-led government determined to continue the war, the July Days when the state was on the brink of a hard-right clampdown, to the dissolution of the elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and its replacement by Soviet Power. Celebrating the Carnival of the Oppressed, the “creative transformations” unleashed by the workers “ruling their own state”, he outlines the progressive decrees issued by the new Soviet government, beginning with the delivery of the slogan: “all land to the peasants”. “Without the RSDLP, the Russian Revolution would not have occurred.”3

The Russian Revolution is not just a history of events.

Vernadsky offers a valuable introduction to debates about this party, the Bolsheviks, much of which was stimulated by Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Other writers covered include Lenin enthusiast Paul le Blanc, and Tom Twiss’s measured account of Trotsky’s evolving, contradictory, views of the development of bureaucracy in the wake of revolution. There is a strong section on the Women’s Revolution, paying special attention to the “futuristic vision of Aleksandra Kollontai, as illuminated by studies of “Bolshevik feminists”.

Other areas in which members of Workers’ Liberty have contributed important debate figure in this context. Of particular interest are the critical sections on Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the chapter ‘War and the Myth of Defeatism’, inspired by Hal Draper’s studies. Unlike knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ the author cites Trotsky: “working-class policy on war is not “automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only he opposite sign…”4 One imagines that same quarters will reject the passages on nationalities, including the Jewish Question. In his conclusion Vernadsky is clear that “Israeli Jews are a nation and they should have the right to self determination today like any other nation.”5

Lih argued that the Bolsheviks were a lot more than, as the party leader Zinoviev put it in his lectures in 1923, a “hierarchical, closely knit organisation”, run from the top-down to enlighten the workers. It was not a “party of a new type”, but in the mould of democratic Marxist based organisations of the Second International, above all the German Social Democrats (SPD). Although it had its own stamp by operating in autocratic conditions, Lenin was, in key works such as What is to be Done? “directly inspired” by the German “model”. In more detail Lenin’s strategy was designed to bring together the “purposive worker” and the social democratic worldview conveyed by practical-minded activists, by the “power of a genuinely sound explanation.”

The Bolsheviks, if this account stands, were very far from political outriders, a messianic party-sect, but part of the mainstream of European socialism.6 Lih saw this as the basis for “fighting for democracy to the end” as a precondition for workers’ power, and socialism. For Lih this “old Bolshevik” stand guided Lenin right up to October and the overthrow of the Provisional government, “to carry out a thorough-going democratic transformation”. Vernadsky enters into the — lengthy — debate on this claim. He states that Lenin’s assessment of the growth of the soviets and soldiers’ committees meant that his call for the overthrow of the Provisional government meant that Lenin took “steps towards permanent revolution”.

That is, an acceleration of revolutionary “stages” towards, he contentiously asserts, a position where the victories of the Bolsheviks, “deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit.” It is undeniable that this prospect inspired millions inside and outside Russia, with the hope that socialism was on the agenda. For many of us that wish still burns.7 Yet, many unresolved issues remain to be discussed from this thought-provoking book.

Two could be signalled; questions about the body that “led” the Russian working class, and the direction it began to take them in the aftermath of October. If we accept the view that the Bolsheviks were a democratic party with open debate and a real base in the working class and popular masses, what kind of template had Lenin and his tendency adopted? A critical description of the pre-1914 SPD “oligarchy” by Robert Michels developed themes already circulating on the left in Germany itself, and internationally by “revolutionary syndicalists” like the French writer George Sorel. In light of the monstrous oligarchy of Stalinist bureaucracy these limits inside Lenin’s “model” apparatus might inspire further reflection.

Only Lenin’s most uncritical admirers would deny problems about the practices of “committee people”, however small in number they may have been initially, brought into the “smashed” state machine.8

The next is that even supporters do not argue that in power the Bolsheviks were always democratic. Many would also question as to how far they respected the workers’ democracy they contrasted to “formal” Parliamentary pluralism. The well-documented cases of human rights abuses, which began with October, and were accelerated by the creation of the Cheka, cannot be explained away by “external conditions”, the civil war, and the need for Red Terror to stave off the very real threat of a far-right regime that would have drowned the revolution in blood.

The need for independent law, in however difficult circumstances, respect for the people’s rights, was denied during the dictatorship of the proletariat. What kind of political instrument can introduce non-capitalist relations of production with these limits on democratic decision-making? Socialism was, and is, far from a self-evident thing. How can a transitional mode of production to communism be formed without free debate about what kind of economy, what kind of production, what social goals people are working towards?

Outlawing opposition papers, bourgeois, then all non-Bolshevik parties, ignoring the voices of “non-party” workers, stifled not just conflicting views but fostered the belief that those doing the outlawing knew better than anybody else. It was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off. It was in the early 1920s that the acceptance of a military and political police entered into what would become the established doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the first, far from “temporary”, stage to socialism. This is a very negative lesson from the Russian revolution.9


1. Pages 8 and 809. Le passé d’une illusion. François Furet. Éditions Robert Laffont. 1995.

2. Pages 9 and 19. The Russian Revolution. When the workers took power. Paul Vernadsky.

3. Page 114. Paul Vernadsky Op cit.

4. Page 197. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

5. Page 346. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

6. Page 398. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Brill. 2005.

7. On Lih Pages 163-9. Next quote, Page 19. Paul Vernadsky Op cit. Political Parties. Robert Michels. Transaction Publishers. 2009 (originally published, 1911.) Georges Sorel in 1902 had already written of the SPD’s “spirit of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in a New Church run like an huge civil service (“administration”) page 188. L’illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le debate intellectuel 1900. Schlmo Sand. La Découverte, 1984.

8. “La démocratie soviétique a été définitivement étouffée au moment de l’interdiction des partis soviétiques, après la guerre civile, et non pas lorsque l’alternative était soit capituler devant les Blancs, soit défendre la révolution par tous les moyens. Elle fut donc étouffée après la victoire, alors qu’aucune armée blanche n’était plus présente sur le territoire de la Russie des soviets. Ernest Mandel. Octobre 1917 : Coup d’Etat ou révolution sociale ? La légitimité de la révolution russe. Cahiers d’Etudes et de Recherches, n°17/18, 1992.

9. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987.

Extract from Paul Vernadsky’s book: The opening days of the Russian Revolution.



Written by Andrew Coates

September 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

5 Responses

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  1. Here’s an extract from my essay (still in progress) on Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy that I think is pertinent here.

    III: The Establishment of a Political Monopoly

    Deutscher showed a clear and sensitive understanding of both the broad class and the narrower organisational nature of the process that resulted in the Bolsheviks establishing a political monopoly after their seizure of power.

    Deutscher explained that the attempts by the Bolsheviks to deal with the overt counter-revolutionaries was not as simple as it at first appeared. It was a fraught question in practice, one that was not at all easy to implement. Like all revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks considered that they need only suppress an insignificant number of thorough-going reactionaries. But the old ruling class did not exist in isolation from the rest of society:

    ‘Every social class is connected with its immediate neighbour by many almost imperceptible gradations. The aristocracy shades off into the upper middle class; the latter into the lower layers of the bourgeoisie; the lower middle class branches off into the working class; and the proletariat, especially in Russia, is bound by innumerable filiations to the peasantry.’

    This overlapping of social classes and their shading into each other was reflected in the relationships amongst the various political parties in Russia. The revolution shook up these relationships, and long-running and often bitter rivalries amongst monarchists, conservatives and liberals were forgotten as they combined firstly against the leftward political shift and then against the Soviet republic. Moreover, links already existed between the liberal Cadets and the far right of the socialist parties. And so the Bolsheviks’ attempts merely to isolate the overt counter-revolutionaries, the White Guards, led them into conflict with a much broader range of political forces:

    ‘To deprive the White Guards of their political supply services, the Bolsheviks were compelled to outlaw the Cadets. The main body of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries would never had dreamt of defending Kornilov, Denikin or Kolchak. But they could not remain indifferent when the Cadets were declared ‘enemies of the people’, if only because their own right wing had lived with the Cadets in a sort of political symbiosis, hatching common political plans and plots.’

    The range of views represented amongst the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries themselves stretched from liberals with more in common with the non-socialist parties to left-wingers close to the Bolsheviks, and the former responded angrily when the Soviet authorities repressed the Cadets. Repression against counter-revolutionaries necessitated the Bolsheviks to negotiate a difficult slippery slope: where was one to stop? Deutscher continued:

    ‘The revolution cannot deal a blow at the party most hostile and dangerous to it without forcing not only that party but its immediate neighbour to answer with a counter-blow. The revolution therefore treats its enemy’s immediate neighbour as its enemy. When it hits this secondary enemy, the latter’s neighbour, too, is aroused and drawn into the struggle. The process goes on like a chain reaction until the party of the revolution arouses against itself and suppresses all the parties which until recently crowded the political scene.’

    There was a further complication in respect of the Bolsheviks’ relations with the other socialist parties, on both a broad theoretical and a narrower practical basis. Deutscher pointed out that in no democratic system can a minority party claim a right to participate in government, although it has every right to operate ‘unhampered in its activity as an opposition, on the understanding that that activity remains within a constitutional framework accepted by both government and opposition’. However:

    ‘No such commonly accepted framework existed after the October Revolution. One party had proclaimed a new constitutional principle, which was inherently unconstitutional in the view of nearly all other parties. Emphatically denying the sovereignty of the Soviets, the Mensheviks and their associates could not even become a loyal opposition within the Soviets (even though some groups of them occasionally tried to do so). Still less could they become the Bolsheviks’ partners. The opposed parties were all socialist in name; yet all that connected them now were fading reminiscences of a common past.’

    This was sensed by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who, when negotiating with the Bolsheviks after the revolution, accepted a coalition with them that was not based upon the soviets and precluded the participation of Lenin and Trotsky. This was ‘a demand that the Bolsheviks should declare the revolution null and void’, and effectively behead their own party. It was not a matter of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries sharing power with the Bolsheviks, but of their wresting power from them.

    In such a febrile atmosphere, it is not surprising that the Bolsheviks started to identify the rule of their party with the rule of the soviets. The Bolsheviks intended to govern through the institutions of the soviets, and declared their intention to obey the wishes of their electorate:

    ‘But the fact that their party alone was to embrace Soviet constitutionalism wholeheartedly could not but lead them to identify the policies of their party with Soviet constitutionalism, then to substitute the party’s wishes and desires for the principles of that constitutionalism, and in the end to abandon those principles altogether.
    To put it more broadly, the circumstance that the Bolsheviks were the party of the revolution impelled them first to identify the revolution with themselves, and then to reduce the revolution to being exclusively an affair of their party.’

    In recognising this process, Deutscher then proceeded to investigate a further fraught matter: the process by which the Bolsheviks substituted their rule for that of the class in whose name they had seized power.

    Dr Paul

    September 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

  2. Lenin was a mass murderer. End of.

    Dave Roberts

    September 7, 2017 at 9:12 pm

  3. The Bolsheviks in power, which they called the dictatorship of the proletariat,was based on the ‘institutions’ of the soviets, which had no real constitutional or regular existence and were not governed by any form of independent body to which disputes between different strands of opinion, parties or individuals could be settled, was from the word go a substitute for the working class.

    There are too many cases of manipulation, amply documented, of these bodies by the Bolsheviks, to take the claim that they were organs of working class democracy seriously.

    The question of monopoly of political power, which you raise Paul in the historical context, is important, but there is also the theory of the dictatorship that was born with the October Revolution and given codified shape in works such as The ABC of Communism Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, 1919, which advocated this,

    “Now ‘dictatorship’ signifies very strict methods of government and a resolute crushing of enemies. It is obvious that in such a state of affairs there can be no talk of ‘freedom’ for everyone. The dictatorship of the proletariat is incompatible with freedom for the bourgeoisie. This is the very reason why the dictatorship of the proletariat is needed: to deprive the bourgeoisie of freedom; to bind it hand and foot; to make it impossible for it to carry on a struggle against the revolutionary proletariat. The more vigorous the resistance of the bourgeoisie, the more desperate the mobilization of its forces, the more threatening its attitude, the sterner and harsher must be the proletarian dictatorship. In extreme cases the workers’ government must not hesitate to use the method of the terror.”

    On ‘law’,

    “In the epoch of the extremest intensification of the civil war, it has been found necessary to supplement the popular courts by the appointment of revolutionary tribunals. The function of the revolutionary tribunals is to deal speedily and mercilessly with the enemies of the proletarian revolution. Such courts are among the weapons for the crushing of the exploiters, and from this point of view they are just as much the instruments of proletarian offence and defence as the Red Guard, the Red Army, and the Extraordinary Commissions. Consequently, the revolutionary tribunals are organized on less democratic lines than the popular courts. They are appointed by the soviets, and are not directly elected by the workers.”

    “The dying out of the State will proceed far more rapidly when a complete victory has been gained over the imperialists. Today, when a fierce civil war is still raging, all our organizations have to be on a war footing. The instruments of the Soviet Power have had to be constructed on militarist lines Often enough there is no time to summon the soviets, and as a rule, therefore, the executive committees have to decide everything.

    This state of affairs is due to the military situation of the Soviet Republic. What exists today in Russia is not simply the dictatorship of the proletariat; it is a militarist- proletarian dictatorship The republic is an armed camp. Obviously, the above-described conditions will not pass away while the need persists for the militarization of all our organizations.


    It went into assert,


    As for State and Revolution, which is said to offer a more libertarian perspective, at least for workers and peasants, only published after the revolution, and whose influence is hotly contested, its chief model was the just over 2 month long heroism of the Paris Commune, which was ‘defensist’ against the German occupation, rent with administrative difficulties, and ended in the division between the Blanquist majority who wanted to proclaim a Committee of Public Safety, and the Internationalist minority,which included First International supporters.

    These facts about the Commune were well known in Lenin’s days, through the book Histoire de la Commune de 1871 written by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (1876) which had Marx’s approval (as is well known Marx also said, .The Commune “was in no wise socialist, nor could it be’. or as it is also put, “Perhaps you will point to the Paris Commune; but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. “Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis. In The Hague London, February 22, 1881. )

    Mémoires d’un communard. Auteur, Jean Allemane 1906 is also worth looking at for those who take Lenin;s reference to the Commune as a model for Russia in 1917 seriously.

    Andrew Coates

    September 8, 2017 at 11:36 am

  4. “Transitional mode of production” between capitalism and socialism/communism? What is this strange animal? A transitional period, sure (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”), but that’s not a mode of production. It’s in-between two modes.

    As for Marx’s comment on the Commune — of course it wasn’t socialist. It was “the social republic,” i.e. the rule of the working class. The rule of the working class isn’t itself socialist — it clears the way for the possibility of socialism provided it isn’t crushed and is replicated in many, many countries.

    Whatever did they teach people in orthodox Trotskyist groups in the 1970s?

    And of course Bukharin/Preobrazhensky’s pamphlet turned necessity into virtue. Most Bolshevik leaders did this. And they were wrong to do so, and it had a horrible influence on the Communist International even before “Stalinization.” (The “Group of Democratic Centralism” was an exception, and they generally weren’t Bolshevik leaders: Valerian Obolensky-Ossinsky, Vladimir Smirnov, Timofei Sapronov, others.)


    September 12, 2017 at 7:52 am

  5. In-between is also known as transitional, as in a transition in ways of producing from one to another, since the manner (mode) of producing is being transformed.

    Since when has the ‘social republic’ , a term used extensively in French left tradition, been the exclusive rule of the working class?

    Andrew Coates

    September 12, 2017 at 11:35 am

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