How the Revolution was Lost?

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Chris Harman's "How the Revolution was Lost" is an attempt by the SWP to explain the rise of Stalinism while exonerating the politics of Bolshevism at the same time. [1] First published in 1967, this essay is still used by the party and, therefore, worth looking at in order to see how its claims have survived recent research and whether the original assertions bear up to logical analysis. Sadly, they do not.

Needless to say, Harman places the blame on the degeneration of the revolution on the civil war and the isolation of the revolution. In effect, the exceptional circumstances facing the revolution were the source of the deviations of Bolshevik policies from socialist ideas. However, as Lenin himself acknowledged in 1917, "revolution . . ., in its development, would give rise to exceptionally complicated circumstances" and "revolution is the sharpest, most furious, desperate class war and civil war. Not a single great revolution in history has escaped civil war. No one who does not live in a shell could imagine that civil war is conceivable without exceptionally complicated circumstances." [2] As such, it seems difficult to blame the inevitable resistance by the ruling class for the problems of a revolution. If it cannot handle the inevitable, then Bolshevism is clearly to be avoided.

Got no class?

Harman sees the key as "the dislocation of the working class. It was reduced to 43 per cent of its former numbers. The others were returned to their villages or dead on the battlefield. In purely quantitative terms, the class that had led the revolution, the class whose democratic processes had constituted the living core of Soviet power, was halved in importance. . . What remained was not even half of that class, forced into collective action by the very nature of its life situation." Thus the "decimation of the working class" meant that "of necessity the Soviet institutions took on a life independently of the class they had arisen from."

The major problem with this assertion is simply that the Russian working class was more than capable of collective action throughout the Civil War period -- against the Bolsheviks. In the Moscow area, while it is "impossible to say what proportion of workers were involved in the various disturbances," following the lull after the defeat of the workers' conference movement in mid-1918 "each wave of unrest was more powerful than the last, culminating in the mass movement from late 1920." For example, at the end of June 1919, "a Moscow committee of defence (KOM) was formed to deal with the rising tide of disturbances . . . KOM concentrated emergency power in its hands, overriding the Moscow Soviet, and demanding odedience from the population. The disturbances died down under the pressure of repression." In early 1921, "military units called in" against striking workers "refused to open fire, and they were replaced by the armed communist detachments" who did. "The following day several factories went on strike" and troops "disarmed and locked in as a precaution" by the government against possible fraternising. On February 23rd, "Moscow was placed under martial law with a 24-hour watch on factories by the communist detachments and trustworthy army units." [3]

Nor was this collective struggle limited to Moscow. "Strike action remained endemic in the first nine months of 1920" and "in the first six months of 1920 strikes had occurred in seventy-seven per cent of middle-sized and large works." For the Petrograd province, soviet figures state that in 1919 there were 52 strikes with 65, 625 participants and in 1920 73 strikes with 85,645, both high figures as according to one set of figures, which are by no means the lowest, there were 109,100 workers there. In February and March 1921 "industrial unrest broke out in a nation-wide wave of discontent . . . General strikes, or very widespread unrest, hit Petrograd, Moscow, Saratov and Ekaterinoslavl." Only one major industrial region was unaffected. In response to the general strike in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks replied with a "military clamp-down, mass arrests and other coercive measures, such as the closure of enterprises, the purging of the workforce and stopping of rations which accompanied them." [4]

Given this collective rebellion all across the industrial centres of Russia throughout the Civil War and after, it hard to take Harman seriously when he argues that the working class had "ceased to exist in any meaningful sense." [5] Clearly it had and was capable of collective action and organisation -- until it was repressed by the Bolsheviks. This implies that a key factor in rise of Stalinism was political -- the simple fact that the workers would not vote Bolshevik in free soviet and union elections and so they were not allowed to. As one Soviet Historian put it, "taking the account of the mood of the workers, the demand for free elections to the soviets [raised in early 1921] meant the implementation in practice of the infamous slogan of soviets without communists," although there is little evidence that the strikers actually raised that "infamous" slogan. [6] It should also be noted that Bolshevik orthodoxy at the time stressed that, to quote Lenin, that "the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class . . . It can be exercised only by a vanguard." [7] Zinoviev clarified what this meant: "the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party." [8]

Harman presents a somewhat contradictory account of the working class in this period, arguing that many workers fled "returned to their villages" and that "raw peasants from the countryside, without socialist traditions or aspirations, took their place." [9] Why would peasants come to the starving towns when workers were fleeing them? Looking at the strike wave of early 1921, the "strongest reason" for accepting that it was established workers who were behind it was "the form and course of protest" which reached "back through the spring of 1917 and beyond [and] were an important factor" in its organisation. [10]

Clearly, Harman's argument can be faulted. Nor is it particularly original, as it dates back to Lenin and was first formulated "to justify a political clamp-down." Indeed, this argument was developed in response to rising working class protest rather than its lack: "As discontent amongst workers became more and more difficult to ignore, Lenin . . . began to argue that the consciousness of the working class had deteriorated . . . workers had become 'declassed.'" However, there "is little evidence to suggest that the demands that workers made at the end of 1920 . . . represented a fundamental change in aspirations since 1917." [11] So while the " working class had decreased in size and changed in composition,. . . the protest movement from late 1920 made clear that it was not a negligible force and that in an inchoate way it retained a vision of socialism which was not identified entirely with Bolshevik power . . . Lenin's arguments on the declassing of the proletariat was more a way of avoiding this unpleasant truth than a real reflection of what remained, in Moscow at least, a substantial physical and ideological force." [12]

This explains why working class struggle during this period generally fails to get mentioned by the likes of the SWP. It simply undermines their justifications for Bolshevik dictatorship.

Divide and Rule?

Harman argues that "to keep alive" many workers "resorted to direct barter of their products - or even parts of their machines - with peasants for food. Not only was the leading class of the revolution decimated, but the ties linking its members together were fast disintegrating." This seems ironic, for two reasons.

Firstly, in 1918 Lenin had argued that "those who believe that socialism will be built at a time of peace and tranquillity are profoundly mistaken: it will everywhere be built at a time of disruption, at a time of famine." [13] Again, if Bolshevism becomes unstuck by the inevitable side effects of revolution, then it should be avoided. [14]

Secondly, there is the issue of Bolshevik ideology. For example, Bolshevik policies banning trade helped undermine a collective response to the problems of exchange between city and country. For example, a delegation of workers from the Main Workshops of the Nikolaev Railroad to Moscow reported to a well-attended meeting that "the government had rejected their request [to obtain permission to buy food collectively] arguing that to permit the free purchase of food would destroy its efforts to come to grips with hunger by establishing a 'food dictatorship.'" [15] Bolshevik ideology replaced collective working class action with an abstract "collective" response via the state, which turned the workers into isolated and atomised individuals. [16] Other policies undermined working class collectivity. For example, in early 1918 Lenin stated that "we must raise the question of piece-work and apply it . . . in practice." [17] As Tony Cliff (of all people) noted, "the employers have at their disposal a number of effective methods of disrupting th[e] unity [of workers as a class]. Once of the most important of these is the fostering of competition between workers by means of piece-work systems." He notes that these were used by the Nazis and the Stalinists "for the same purpose." [18] Obviously piece-work is different when Lenin introduces it!

Combine these with the turning of the soviets and unions into rubber-stamps for the Bolshevik party, the undermining of the factory committees, the disbanding of solider committees and the elimination of freedom of assembly, press and organisation for workers, little wonder the masses ceased to play a role in the revolution!

From soviets to state

We must stress that this process started before the start of the Civil war that Harman blames for all the problems of Bolshevism in power. He states that "until the Civil War was well under way" the "democratic dialectic of party and class could continue. The Bolsheviks held power as the majority party in the Soviets. But other parties continued to exist there too. The Mensheviks continued to operate legally and compete with the Bolsheviks for support until June 1918."

Given that the Civil War started on the 25th of May and the Mensheviks were expelled from the Soviets on the 14th of June, it is clear that Harman is being less than honest in his account. Indeed, extensive evidence exists to disprove his assertions. Looking at Getzler's Martov (which Harman quotes to prove Bolshevik popularity in October 1917), we discover that "Menshevik newspapers and activists in the trade unions, the Soviets, and the factories had made a considerable impact on a working class which was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Bolshevik regime, so much so that in many places the Bolsheviks felt constrained to dissolve Soviets or prevent re-elections where Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries had gained majorities." [19]

The Bolsheviks expelled the Mensheviks in the context of political loses before the Civil War. As Getzler notes the Bolsheviks "drove them underground, just on the eve of the elections to the Fifth Congress of Soviets in which the Mensheviks were expected to make significant gains." [20] Moreover, recent research disproves Harman's claim and confirms Getzler's. "The Bolshevik's soviet electoral hegemony began to significantly erode" by the spring of 1918 with "big gains by the SRs and particularly by the Mensheviks." In all the provincial capitals of European Russia where elections were held on which data exists, the Mensheviks and the SRs won majorities and "Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results" of these elections (as well as the resulting workers' protests). [21]

In Petrograd, the elections of June 1918 saw the Bolsheviks "lost the absolute majority in the soviet they had previously enjoyed" but remained the largest party. However, the results of these elections where irrelevant as a "Bolshevik victory was assured by the numerically quite significant representation now given to trade unions, district soviets, factory-shop committees, district workers conferences, and Red Army and naval units, in which the Bolsheviks had overwhelming strength." [22] Similar "packing" of soviets was evident in the Moscow elections of early 1920. [23]

Rather than the Civil War disrupting the "democratic dialectic of party and class," it was in fact the Bolsheviks who did so in face of rising working class dissent and disillusionment in the spring of 1918. In fact, "after the initial weeks of 'triumph' . . . Bolshevik labour relations after October" changed and "soon lead to open conflict, repression, and the consolidation of Bolshevik dictatorship over the proletariat in place of proletarian dictatorship itself." For example, on June 20th the Obukhov works issued an appeal to the unofficial (and Menshevik influenced) Conference of Factory and Plant Representatives "to declare a one-day strike of protest on June 25th" against Bolshevik reprisals against the assassination of a leading Bolshevik. "The Bolsheviks responded by 'invading' the whole Nevskii district with troops and shutting down Obukhov completely. Meetings everywhere were forbidden." Faced with a general strike called for July 2nd, the Bolsheviks set up "machine guns . . . at main points throughout the Petrograd and Moscow railroad junctions, and elsewhere in both cities as well. Controls were tightened in factories. Meetings were forcefully dispersed." [24]

While Harman argues (in his discussion on Kronstadt, ironically enough) that "for all its faults, it was precisely the Bolshevik party that had alone whole-heartedly supported Soviet power," the facts are that the Bolsheviks only supported "Soviet power" when the soviets were Bolshevik [25]. If the workers voted for others, "soviet power" was quickly replaced by party power (the real aim). Harman is correct to state that "the Soviets that remained [by the end of the civil war] were increasingly just a front for Bolshevik power" but this had been the situation before its start, not after its end! As such, he assertion that "the Soviet State of 1917 had been replaced by the single-party State of 1920 onwards" is simply unsupportable. The Bolsheviks had consolidated their position in early 1918, turning the Soviet State into a de facto one party state by gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets before the start of the Civil War.

Thus, when Harman that argues that "of necessity the Soviet institutions took on a life independently of the class they had arisen from," the "necessity" in question was not the Civil War, but rather the necessity to maintain Bolshevik power (which Lenin continually identified with working class power).

Harman maintains that "those workers and peasants who fought the Civil War could not govern themselves collectively from their places in the factories." The obvious question arises as to why these workers and peasants could not "govern themselves collectively" while in the Red Army. The answer is simple -- the Bolsheviks had eliminated soldier democracy in March 1918 (again, before the start of the Civil War). In the words of Trotsky, "the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree." [26] An army with appointed commanders is hardly an environment for collective self-government and so it is little wonder he does not mention this.

Unsurprisingly, Samuel Farber notes that "there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers' control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921." [27]

War! What is it good for?

The Bolshevik tradition has found a use for war, namely as justification for the degeneration of Bolshevik policies. Harman argues that "the tasks at hand in Russia were determined, not by the Bolshevik leaders, but by the international imperialist powers. These had begun a 'crusade' against the Soviet Republic. White and foreign armies had to be driven back before any other questions could be considered." It is easy to refute this claim by noting that fundamental decisions on important "questions" had already been formulated before this "crusade" took place. As well as the gerrymandering and disbanding of soviets, the Bolsheviks had already presented economic visions. Lenin, in April 1918, was arguing for one-man management and "[o]bedience, and unquestioning obedience at that, during work to the one-man decisions of Soviet directors, of the dictators elected or appointed by Soviet institutions, vested with dictatorial powers." [28] The first group of workers subjected to this policy were the railway workers. As such, "the tasks at hand" were determined by the Bolshevik leaders, who had answered numerous "questions" before the White and foreign armies appeared (which, according to Lenin, was inevitable anyway).

This makes Harman's comment that after 1921 "the 'red industrialists' began to emerge as a privileged group, with high salaries, and through 'one-man management' in the factories, able to hire and fire at will" seem inadequate. If, as Harman implies, this was a key factor in the rise of Stalinism and state-capitalism, then, clearly, Lenin's input in these developments cannot be ignored. After advocating "one-man management" and "state capitalism" in early 1918, he remained a firm supporter of them. In early 1920 "the Communist Party leadership was no longer distracted by the Civil War from concentrating its thoughts and efforts on the formulation and implementation of its labour policies . . . The apogee of the War Communism economy occurred after the Civil War was effectively over." Indeed, one-man management only became commonplace in 1920. [29]

Clearly, you cannot blame an event (the civil war) for policies advocated and implemented before it took place. Indeed, the policies pursued before, during and after the Civil War were identical, suggesting that Bolshevik policy was determined independently of any "crusade."

The Opposition

As Harman recounts, the Bolsheviks suppressed the opposition (in the case of the anarchists, before the start of the civil war although he does not mention this). As regards the Mensheviks, he argues that "their policy was one of support of the Bolsheviks against the counter-revolution, with the demand that the latter hand over power to the Constituent Assembly . . . In practice this meant that the party contained both supporters and opponents of the Soviet power. Many of its members went over to the side of the Whites (e.g. Menshevik organisations in the Volga area were sympathetic to the counter-revolutionary Samara government, and one member of the Menshevik central committee . . . joined it)." He quotes from Israel Getzler's book Martov (page 183) as evidence. What he fails to mention is that these people were "expelled from the party" (and the Central Committee member went "without its knowledge" to Samara). The Volga Mensheviks were "sharply reproved by Martov and the Menshevik Central Committee and instructed that neither party organisations nor members could take part in . . . such adventures." These quotes, it should be stressed, are on the same page as the one Harman references! Moreover, in October 1918, "the party dropped, temporarily at least, its demand for a Constituent Assembly." [28] It would be harder to justify the suppression of the Mensheviks if these facts were mentioned. Little wonder he distorts the source material for his own ends.

The official Menshevik position was one of legal opposition to the Bolsheviks as "any armed struggle against the Bolshevik state power . . . can be of benefit only to counter-revolution" and any member who ignored this was expelled [31]. They developed a policy of "legal opposition party" which was, as noted above, successful in period running up to June 1918. Harman argues that "the response of the Bolsheviks was to allow the party's members their freedom (at least, most of the time), but to prevent them acting as an effective political force." In other words, even those who legally opposed the Bolsheviks were crushed. Little wonder working class collective power in the soviets evaporated.

Harman produces an impressive piece of doublethink to justify all this. He argues that "in all this the Bolsheviks had no choice. They could not give up power just because the class they represented had dissolved itself while fighting to defend that power. Nor could they tolerate the propagation of ideas that undermined the basis of its power - precisely because the working class itself no longer existed as an agency collectively organised so as to be able to determine its own interests." If the working class did not exist, nor could express itself collectively, then why would Menshevik propaganda be harmful? And, of course, Harman does not mention the fact that the Bolsheviks generally blamed strikes and other forms of workers protest on opposition parties. Nor does he mention that the Bolsheviks refused to "give up power" before the start of the Civil War when they lost soviet elections. Simply put, opposition ideas had to be suppressed because the workers were capable of collectively determining its own interests and taking collective action to realise them. The general strike in Petrograd which inspired the Kronstadt revolt is proof enough of that.


Turning to that revolt, Harman argues that "Kronstadt in 1920 was not Kronstadt of 1917. The class composition of its sailors had changed. The best socialist elements had long ago gone off to fight in the army in the front line. They were replaced in the main by peasants whose devotion to the revolution was that of their class." This popular assertion of Leninists has been refuted. Israel Getzler has demonstrated that of those serving in the Baltic fleet on 1st January 1921 at least 75.5% were drafted before 1918 and so the "veteran politicised Red sailor still predominated in Kronstadt at the end of 1920." Further, he investigated the crews of the two major battleships which were the focus of the rising (and renown for their revolutionary zeal in 1917). His findings are conclusive, showing that of the 2,028 sailors where years of enlistment are known, 93.9% were recruited into the navy before and during the 1917 revolution (the largest group, 1,195, joined in the years 1914-16). Only 6.8% of the sailors were recruited in the years 1918-21 (including three who were conscripted in 1921) and they were the only ones who had not been there during the 1917 revolution. [32]

Harman argues that this change in "class composition" was "reflected in the demands of the uprising: Soviets without Bolsheviks and a free market in agriculture." However, the Kronstadt rebellion did not raise either of those demands. As Paul Avrich notes, "'Soviets without Communists' was not, as is often maintained by both Soviet and non-Soviet writers, a Kronstadt slogan." [33] As for agriculture, Kronstadt demanded "the granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour." In other words, no market for labour in agriculture! And this was point 11 of 15, indicating its importance in their eyes. Ironically, most workers' strikes during the civil war period raised the demand for free trade (including the general strike in Petrograd which the Kronstadt sailors rebelled in solidarity with).

In reality, what the Kronstadt rebellion demanded first and foremost was free elections to the soviets, freedom of assembly, organisation speech and press for working people and the end of party dictatorship: "In effect, the Petropavlovsk resolution was an appeal to the Soviet government to live up to its own constitution, a bold statement of those very rights and freedom which Lenin himself had professed in 1917. In spirit, it was a throwback to October, evoking the old Leninist watchword of 'All power to the soviets.'" [34]

Little wonder Harman distorts its demands.

The German Revolution

Harman quotes Lenin from 7th March 1918: "The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish." The idea that "isolation" was the root of Russia's problems is commonplace. However, on closer inspection the idea that a German revolution would have saved the Russian one is flawed.

As, according to Harman, "direct workers' power had not existed since 1918," we need to compare Germany in the period 1918-19 to Russia in 1917-18. Simply put, Germany was in as bad a state as Russia. In the year the revolution started, production had fallen by 23% in Russia (from 1913 to 1917) and by 43% in Germany (from 1913 to 1918). Once revolution had effectively started, production fell even more. In Russia, it fell to 65% of its pre-war level in 1918, in Germany it fell to 62% of its pre-war level in 1919. Thus, in 1919, the "industrial production reached an all-time low" and it "took until the late 1920s for [food] production to recover its 1912 level . . . In 1921 grain production was still . . . some 30 per cent below the 1912 figure." Of course, in Germany revolution did not go as far as in Russia, and so production did rise somewhat in 1920 and afterwards. What is significant is that in 1923, production fell dramatically by 34% (from around 70% of its pre-war level to around 45% of that level). This economic collapse did not deter the Communists from trying to provoke a revolution in Germany that year, so it seems strange that while economic collapse under capitalism equates to a revolutionary situation, a similar collapse under the Bolsheviks equates to a situation where revolution is undermined. [35]

Thus, if a combination of civil war and economic disruption caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, then why would a similarly afflicted Germany help Russia? Equally, Russia and Germany both prove Kropotkin's argument that a revolution means "the unavoidable stoppage of at least half the factories and workshops," the "complete disorganisation" of capitalism and that "exchange and industry suffer most from the general upheaval." Ultimately, it seems strange that Harman blames the side effects of every revolution for the failure of the Russian one. [36]

While Harman notes that the idea of extending the revolution abroad was "Bolshevik orthodoxy in 1923," yet he fails to comment on that other Bolshevik orthodoxy at the time, namely dictatorship by the party.

Bolshevism and Party Dictatorship

Harman notes that "in 1923 when the Left Opposition developed, it was still possible for it to express its views in Pravda, although there were ten articles defending the leadership to every one opposing it." He claims "there can be no doubt that in terms of its ideas" it was "the faction in the Party that adhered most closely to the revolutionary socialist tradition of Bolshevism . . . It retained the view of workers' democracy as central to socialism." One of their "three interlinked central planks" was that "industrial development had to be accompanied by increased workers' democracy, so as to end bureaucratic tendencies in the Party and State."

The only problem with this is that it is not true. He fails to mention that in 1923, Trotsky (leader of the Left Opposition) was arguing that "if there is one question which basically not only does not require revision but does not so much as admit the thought of revision, it is the question of the dictatorship of the Party, and its leadership in all spheres of our work." He stressed that "our party is the ruling party . . . To allow any changes whatever in this field, to allow the idea of a partial . . . curtailment of the leading role of our party would mean to bring into question all the achievements of the revolution and its future." [37]

Trotsky was just stating mainstream Bolshevik ideology, echoing a statement made in March 1923 by the Central Committee (of which he and Lenin were members) to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. It sums up the lessons gained from the revolution and states that "the party of the Bolsheviks proved able to stand out fearlessly against the vacillations within its own class, vacillations which, with the slightest weakness in the vanguard, could turn into an unprecedented defeat for the proletariat." Vacillations, of course, are expressed by workers' democracy. Little wonder the statement rejects it: "The dictatorship of the working class finds its expression in the dictatorship of the party." [38]

Needless to say, Harman fails to mention this particular Bolshevik orthodoxy (which dates back to at least 1919). He also fails to mention that the 1927 Platform of the Opposition (a merger of the Left and Zinoviev Oppositions) shared this perspective, ironically attacking Stalin for weakening the party's dictatorship. In its words, the "growing replacement of the party by its own apparatus is promoted by a 'theory' of Stalin's which denies the Leninist principle, inviolable for every Bolshevik, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party." As Harman does not bother to mention this particular "principle," we cannot discover how party dictatorship and workers' democracy can be reconciled. [39]

Given this Bolshevik orthodoxy, it seems incredulous that Harman states that "if at home objective conditions made workers' democracy non-existent, at least there was the possibility of those motivated by the Party's traditions bringing about its restoration given industrial recovery at home and revolution abroad." After all, party dictatorship was the prevailing Bolshevik orthodoxy. Those Bolsheviks, like Miasnikov's Workers' Group, who stood for real workers democracy had been expelled and repressed. [40] Ida Mett shows a greater appreciation of reality: "would not a revolution in another country have been influenced by the spirit of the Russian Revolution? When one considers the enormous moral authority of the Russian Revolution throughout the world one may ask oneself whether the deviations of this Revolution would not eventually have left an imprint on other countries. Many historical facts allow such a judgement. One may . . . have doubts as to whether the bureaucratic deformations of the Bolshevik regime would have been straightened out by the winds coming from revolutions in other countries." [40]

A "new" class?

Harman's article is an attempt to show how Leninism and Stalinism were different, that the former was a new class (state capitalist) system. However, he fails to prove his argument. As Harman himself acknowledges, the class structure of "state capitalism" already existed under Lenin. In 1921 "it was objectively the case that power in the Party and State lay in the hands of a small group of functionaries." He argues that "these were by no means a cohesive ruling class" and "were far from being aware of sharing a common intent." However, these groups were "cohesive" enough to resist working class and peasant revolt in order to defend their rule. During the 1920s, he argues, this changed: "the bureaucracy was developing from being a class in itself to being a class for itself." Thus the class structure did not change during this time.

So we have a paradox. While ("objectively") Lenin's regime was state capitalist, Harman argues that it was not. This is because the "policies they [the bureaucracy] implemented were shaped by elements in the Party still strongly influenced by the traditions of revolutionary socialism." Thus Lenin's regime was not state capitalist because, well, Lenin was a "revolutionary socialist" and he was in charge of it! Does this mean that a capitalist state becomes less so when a Labour government holds office? Thus Harman's argument rests on the good intentions of those in power. Eschewing any discussion of changing social relationships and class structures, we are left with an example of philosophical idealism at its worse, i.e. that ideas somehow determine the nature of a regime.

Harman argues that it is "often said that the rise of Stalinism in Russian cannot be called 'counter-revolution' because it was a gradual process . . . But this is to misconstrue the Marxist method. It is not the case that the transition from one sort of society to another always involves a single sudden change." While this is the case "for the transition from a capitalist State to a workers' State," it is not the case in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In the transition to capitalism, there are "a whole series of different intensities and at different levels, as the decisive economic class (the bourgeoisie) forces political concessions in its favour." He argues that the "counter-revolution in Russia proceeded along the second path rather than the first." Of course, the bourgeoisie was fighting against an existing ruling class and its class position was already well defined. Thus, Harman's analogy undermines his argument as the bureaucracy also built on its existing class position.

Harman acknowledges this by arguing that the "bureaucracy did not have to seize power from the workers all at once" due to the "decimation of the working class" and so its "members controlled industry and the police and the army." As such, it was already the ruling class ("It did not even have to wrest control of the State apparatus to bring it into line with its economic power" in Harman's words). Thus, the "new" ruling class "merely had to bring a political and industrial structure that it already controlled into line with its own interests" and did so by changing "the mode of operation of the Party" to bring it "into line with the demands of the central bureaucracy." This could be achieved "only . . . by a direct confrontation with those elements in the Party which . . . still adhered to the revolutionary socialist tradition." In other words, the bureaucracy was already (objectively) the ruling class and so 1928 did not mark any change at all in the class structure of Russian society and so does not, obviously, signify any change in the nature of the regime. If Russia was then state capitalist, it had already been so under Lenin and Trotsky.

Thus Harman's "analysis" of the rise of Stalinism concentrates on the rhetoric of those in charge, not the class structure within society (which he admits had not changed). In 1928, nothing changed beyond a change in some of the management. This can be seen from Harman's assertion that Stalin "had a social basis of his own. He could survive when neither the proletariat nor the peasantry exercised power." Yet this was true of the Bolsheviks under Lenin (to re-quote Harman, "direct workers' power had not existed since 1918"). Thus his attempt to justify the SWP's argument that Stalinism represented a new class system fails.

Harman ends by arguing that "there can be no doubt that by 1928 a new class had taken power in Russia. It did not have to engage in direct military conflict with the workers to gain power, because direct workers' power had not existed since 1918." Indeed, "direct workers' power" had been broken by the Bolsheviks long before 1928. In early 1921, "direct military conflict with the workers" had taken place to maintain Bolshevik power, which had raised the "principle" of party dictatorship to an ideological truism in 1919. Not that you would know this from Harman's account. As such, when he argues that "the one class with the capacity for exercising genuinely socialist pressures - the working class - was the weakest, the most disorganised, the least able to exert such pressures" we are not surprised as the Bolsheviks had to repress it to remain in power!

Discussing the tactics used against the Left Opposition, Harman states that they were "likely to find themselves assigned to minor positions in remote areas" and in 1928 Stalin "began to imitate the Tsars directly and deport revolutionaries to Siberia. In the long run, even this was not to be enough. He was to do what even the Romanoffs had been unable to do: systematically murder those who had constituted the revolutionary Party of 1917." However, all this also occurred under Lenin. For example, "Anarchist prisoners . . . were sent to concentration camps near Archangel in the frozen north" after Kronstadt. [41] Mensheviks were also banished to remote locations, including Siberia. [42] During the Civil War, "Yurenev . . . spoke at the [Bolshevik's] Ninth Congress (April 1920) of the methods used by the Central Committee to suppress criticism, including virtual exile of critics: 'One goes to Christiana, another sent to the Urals, a third -- to Siberia.'" [43] Given that the murder of anarchists and other opposition socialists by the Cheka under Lenin was commonplace, Harman seems to be complaining that Stalin implemented within the party policies which had been used outside the party by Lenin.

Therefore, a new class had taken power in Russia long before 1928, a class of party leaders and bureaucrats who repressed the workers to maintain their own power and privileges. What should be explained is not the rise of Stalinism under these circumstances but rather how Trotsky could still argue for party dictatorship in 1937, never mind in 1927, and why the SWP consider him a leading exponent of "socialism from below"!


All in all, this account of the degeneration of the Russian revolution leaves much to be desired. Harman misuses source material, fails to mention that the apparently "democratic" Left Opposition supported the Bolshevik "principle" of party dictatorship and that Lenin had advocated "one-man management" since early 1918. His accounts of Kronstadt and the death of soviet democracy have failed to survive more recent research (unlike anarchist accounts). The attempt to exonerate Bolshevik politics for the rise of Stalinism simply fails. Bolshevik politics played a key role in the degeneration of the revolution. Rather than seeing "workers' democracy as central to socialism" Bolshevism (including its anti-Stalinist factions) raised the dictatorship of the party over workers' democracy into an ideological truism (and, of course, practised it).

Part of the problem is that Harman considers as "the essence of socialist democracy," namely "the democratic interaction of leaders and led." In other words, a vision of "socialism" based on the division between leaders (order givers) and led (order takers). Rather than seeing socialism as being based on self-management, the Bolshevik tradition equates rule by the party with rule by the working class. Combine this with a perspective which sees class consciousness as being determined by whether workers support the party, we are left with a very small jump to the Bolshevik orthodoxy of party dictatorship. After all, if the workers reject the party then, clearly, their consciousness has dropped, so necessitating party dictatorship over a "declassed" proletariat. Which, of course, is exactly what the Bolsheviks did do and argue.

For anarchists, the lessons of the Russian Revolution are clear. Working class power cannot be identified or equated with the power of the Party -- as it repeatedly was by the Bolsheviks. What 'taking power' really implies is that the vast majority of the working class at last realises its ability to manage both production and society and organises to this end. As Russia shows, any attempt to replace self-management with party rule "objectively" creates the class structure of state capitalism and.

Only when working people actually run themselves society will a revolution be successful. For anarchists, this meant that "effective emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action . . . of the workers themselves, grouped . . . in their own class organisations . . . on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass and the professional, technical, defence and other branches." [44] By creating a (so-called) workers' state and so substituting party power for workers power, the Russian Revolution had made its first fatal step towards Stalinism.


1. Chris Harman, "Russia - How the Revolution was Lost," first published in International Socialism 30, Autumn 1967 and subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet and included in Russia: From Workers' State t State Capitalism.

2. Lenin, Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 80 and p. 81

3. Richard Sakwa, Soviet Communists in Power, p. 94 and pp. 94-5 p. 245

4. J. Aves, Workers Against Lenin, p. 69, p. 109, p. 120

5. The fact that the Russian working class was capable of collective action was known in 1967. For example, Ida Mett: "And if the proletariat was that exhausted how come it was still capable of waging virtually total general strikes in the largest and most heavily industrialised cities?" [Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Rebellion, p. 81] As such, ideological reasons explain Harman's assertions.

6. quoted by Aves, Ibid., p. 123

7. Lenin stressed that this formula was applicable "in all capitalist countries" as "the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts." Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21

8. Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 152

9. Ironically, the Mensheviks blamed the rise of Bolshevik popularity before the war and in 1917 precisely on its appeal to the "new proletariat," i.e . those new to the cities and still tied to its village origin.

10. Aves, Ibid., p. 126

11. J. Aves, Ibid., p. 18, p. 90 and p. 91.

12. Sakwa, Ibid., p. 261

13. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.27 p. 517

14. It should be noted that the Russian revolution confirmed Kropotkin's argument (see Conquest of Bread and Act for Yourselves) that any revolution would see economic disruption and dislocation. Leading Bolsheviks like Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin came to realise this decades latter and, unlike their followers, saw it as a "law" of revolutions.

15. David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power, p. 392

16. As such, the Bolsheviks provided a good example to support Malatesta's argument that "if . . . one means government action when one talks of social action, then this is still the resultant of individual forces, but only of those individuals who form the government . . . it follows. . . that far from resulting in an increase in the productive, organising and protective forces in society, it would greatly reduce them, limiting initiative to a few, and giving them the right to do everything without, of course, being able to provide them with the gift of being all-knowing." [Anarchy, pp. 36-7] Can it be surprising, then, that Bolshevik policies aided the atomisation of the working class by replacing collective organisation and action by state bureaucracy?

17. The Immediate Tasks Of The Soviet Government, p. 23

18. State Capitalism in Russia, pp. 18-9

19. Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 179

20. While the Bolsheviks "offered some formidable fictions to justify the expulsions" there was "of course no substance in the charge that the Mensheviks had been mixed in counter-revolutionary activities on the Don, in the Urals, in Siberia, with the Czechoslovaks, or that they had joined the worst Black Hundreds." Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 181

21. Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, pp. 22-4

22. Alexander Rabinowitch, "The Evolution of Local Soviets in Petrograd", pp. 20-37, Slavic Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, p. 36f

23. Sakwa, Ibid., p. 177

24. William Rosenberg, "Russian labour and Bolshevik Power," pp. 98-131, The Workers' revolution in Russia, 1917, Daniel H. Kaiser (ed.), p. 117, pp. 126-7 and p. 127

25. As recognised by Martov, who argued that the Bolsheviks loved Soviets only when they were "in the hands of the Bolshevik party." [Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 174]

26. quoted by Brintin, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, pp. 37-8.

27. Farber, Op. Cit., p. 44

28. Six Theses on the Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, p. 44

29. Aves, p. 17 and p. 30

30. Getzler, Ibid., p. 185

31. quoted by Getzler, Ibid., p. 183

32. Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921, pp. 207-8

33. Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p. 181

34. Ibid., pp. 75-6

35 Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. 3; V. R. Berghahn, Modern Germany.

36. Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread, p. 70

37. Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 158, p. 160

38. "To the Workers of the USSR" in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, p. 213, p. 214. It should be noted that Trotsky had made identical comments in 1921 at the Tenth Party Congress (see Brinton, Ibid., p. 78).

39. Given that Trotsky was still talking about the "objective necessity" of the "revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party" in 1937, Harman's comment that the Left Opposition "adhered" to the Bolshevik tradition takes on a new meaning! Trotsky's comment that the "revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution" fits in well with Bolshevik ideology in the run up to Stalinism. [Writings 1936-37, pp. 513-4]

40. The Kronstadt Revolt, p. 82

41. Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 234

42. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, p. 184

43. Tony Cliff, Party and Class, p. 66

44. Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 197