90 years ... and one day since the October Revolution, Keele Socialist Students organised an evening with Dave Griffiths of the Socialist Party and Pat Deutz of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to debate the events and legacy of the Russian Revolution.
Dave heralded the revolution as one of the greatest events in human history. It signalled the first attempt to wrest control of the blind social forces that had hitherto operated as if behind the backs of the human race, and as a species we stand a head higher for the experience. Dave then gave a short account of the revolutionary process in 1917. With the outbreak of the February revolution, the Russian masses entered the stage of history. The condensation of contradictions arising from peasant and workers' grievances, the continued Great Power oppression of nationalities, and the devastation and dislocation of the war saw the masses dispense with the autocratic senility of Tsarism. But the second act in the revolutionary drama, October, was not pre-ordained. History is not a script. The process culminated in the transfer of power to the soviets as a result of political struggle and the experience of the masses - the Bolshevik programme was the only one that met their aspirations. It must also be remembered that 90 years on, the Bolsheviks were quite aware Russia was far from ripe for socialism, but the revolution could be the harbinger of a Europe-wide socialist revolution - which it very nearly was. It's also worth remembering that the initial phase of the revolution saw universal suffrage, the parcelling out of lands to the peasantry, and a cultural flowering never seen before or since in Russian history. As we know, this revolutionary democracy was snuffed out by civil war exigencies, general backwardness, and bureaucratisation; but we can never pretend the alternative to revolution was a parliamentary democracy with Kerensky at its head. The brutality of the counterrevolution gave an insight into the alternative, an alternative of massacres, pogroms, and dictatorship.
Pat laid out her what the SPGB stood for, which is socialism and nothing else. The only route to socialism is for the overwhelming mass of the working class to understand what it is and be prepared to start organising society around their interests. So, returning to the Socialist Standard of August 1918, that issue pointed out 80% of Russian society was composed of the peasantry and by contrast, the working class was tiny. So setting aside the question of consciousness for the moment, was Russia ready for socialism? As Marx and Engels believed socialism could only be built on the foundations of the most advanced capitalism, Russia could not become a socialist society. True, the masses did enter the stage of history between February and October, but they were not and could not be pursuing socialist aims. This suited Lenin and the Bolsheviks fine because they held workers were capable only of trade union consciousness and therefore needed a revolutionary elite to lead them to the promised land. Unfortunately, this promised land could only be state capitalism. Other parties were banned by the summer of 1918 and the institutions of radical democracy were displaced as the imperatives of state capitalist development assumed priority. Such state-led authoritarianism laid the groundwork for Stalin and with it, the identification of his regime with genuine socialism. Herein lies the tragedy of the whole experience.
The floor opened to comments and questions. A number came up concerning the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism, the role of unions in the revolution, why Stalinist regimes tended to be extremely brutal, what concrete advice - if any - did the SPGB offer the Bolsheviks, and what does the Russian revolution mean for us now fighting for a socialist society in 21st century Britain?
Responding directly to the SPGB position, S, from India, said she'd heard many times how Russia "wasn't ready" for revolution. But then, who is ready for revolution? If capital has to be mature, are the USA and UK any more ready for socialism? She then when on to ask if backward countries are the weak links in the world chain of imperialism - if they are to break, who are we to decide whether a country is "not ready"? M, of KSS, defended the SPGB's position, noting socialism has to be international. Also, because wage labour had existed in the USSR (implying the expropriation of surplus value by the bureaucracy, acting as 'collective capitalist') meant capitalism was alive and well there under Stalinism. A of Stoke SP argued that the Bolsheviks managed to condense the anger and experience of the Russian working class, and showed his exasperation how Pat could dismiss them as "not conscious" after going through 10 months of revolutionary upheaval and struggle. If they weren't conscious, how did the one avowedly revolutionary socialist party succeed in winning the mass to its banner?
After the debate, Pat responded first by pointing to Russia's backwardness and reiterating her point that socialism requires material abundance. She also picked up on M's point on wage labour. As surplus value was being realised throughout the Soviet Union's life, the overturns of 1989-91 were not a restoration of capitalism. Furthermore, under Stalinism the bureaucracy had effective ownership and control, despite what the constitution and the statutes said. Top bureaucrats could access special shops for the elite and could pile up several salaries akin to the common bourgeois practice of possessing several part-time directorships at once. In sum, nationalisation of the means of production cannot mean socialism. Turning to the question of revolution in Britain, she evoked the SPGB's strategy of winning a parliamentary majority for socialism to mark the passing of power from the bosses to the workers, and inaugurate the beginnings of the new society.
Dave's reply looked at the nature of the revolution. He argued revolution is as much a part of social evolution as piecemeal change. But whether a revolution assumes a peaceful or violent character depends on the balance of class forces and the extent of working class organisation. The latter is really crucial - where the balance has been fairly favourable but the class isn't sufficiently organised and united, such as Germany, China, Spain, France, Iran; at best the class is defeated, at worst the revolutionary process is drowned in blood. Responding to Pat and echoing S, Dave argued the SPGB were guilty of trying to fit the revolution into a pre-conceived schema. When it didn't fit, they withdrew support. He also disputed the continuity between Lenin and Stalin - the red terror was an outcome of civil war necessity, whereas Stalin's crimes were committed in the pursuit and consolidation of power. Finally, turning to the fate of the revolution, because it ended in Stalinism and eventual capitalist restoration, need the Russian workers have bothered? The SPGB answered no. What this amounts to in practice is revolutionary abstention from struggles that don't meet its strict criteria. To finish off, Dave called on all present to study the revolution themselves and recommended Trotsky's three-volume history as an excellent place to begin. As Churchill's condemnation put it, "never has evil been so dazzlingly presented", stands it in good stead.
From the chair, I then rounded off the meeting with a revolutionary call ... to attend the postgrad bar, where comrades continued the discussion deep into the night.