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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 65August 2017

Cause and consequences:
Changes in Bolshevik policy from
the October Revolution until Lenin’s death

Part One

The following is part one of a multi-part series exploring the Post-October Revolution situation in Russia, the challenges facing the Bolsheviks and how they faced and defeated each of these immense challenges. Through this examination, Michael Hooper draws a number of conclusions that are relevant for examining the conduct of modern socialist states and improving the work of Communist Parties in countries like Australia.

The formation of the first socialist state was a momentous occasion for working people all over the world. Despite the passage of time, the lessons of one hundred years ago remain as important to the Communist movement today as they did at the time of the October Revolution. The challenges facing the Bolsheviks, their actions and their reasons for taking them provide insights into the conduct of modern socialist states and may help modern Communist parties avoid the mistakes that threatened to destroy the fledgling Soviet Republic. In part one of this series, the first nine months of Soviet power will be presented in two sections, the immediate aftermath of the seizure of power and the first counter-attacks by the bourgeoisie, followed by the temporary breathing space provided by the Brest-Litovsk peace where the Bolsheviks began the first period of socialist construction. In each section, the challenges facing the Bolsheviks, their policies and the rationale for these policies will be presented. In later parts, to be printed at a later date, the Civil War and the New Economic Policy periods that followed will be examined using the same pattern before lessons applicable to modern conditions will be drawn from the above four periods of Soviet history.

Consolidation of working class power (November 1917 to June 1918)

Immediate steps

On November 7th, 1917, the guns of the cruiser Aurora announced the beginning of a new stage in history. The Bolshevik pamphlet, To the Citizens of Russia, declared: “The Provisional Government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies” (p.236). At 10:45pm, on the very night of the storming of the Winter Palace, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was convened at the Smolny, the Bolshevik headquarters. What immediate challenges lay before the Congress of Soviets and how would it wield its newly won state power?

The class enemy answered these questions for the Bolsheviks, just as it had created the conditions that necessitated the October Revolution. Within days of the successful revolution in Petrograd, Alexander Kerensky, former leader of the bourgeois provisional government, raised several Cossack units under General Krasnov to attack the capital. A day later, members of the “Socialist-Revolutionary Party” (SR), a petty bourgeois party representing minor agrarian exploiters, formed the “Committee for the Salvation of the Fatherland and the Revolution”, which contrary to its name, was a counter-revolutionary organisation that organised mutinies in Petrograd. Unlike Petrograd, where the revolution was practically bloodless, Moscow saw heavy fighting for days. The comparative difficulty of the uprising in Moscow was partly due to another kind of counter-revolution that would continue to plague the Bolsheviks for decades to come – betrayal from within.

On the Central Committee of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party Bolshevik (Bolsheviks) there was a small and vocal minority who opposed any uprising and instead advocated merely taking part in elections. For a short time after the February bourgeois revolution there was a space for open and legal political work, which the Bolsheviks enthusiastically used. However, the Provisional Government’s crack-down, following the April demonstration against the continuation of the war, proved in blood that open and legal means were no longer appropriate. Zinoviev and Kamenev hadn’t learned this lesson and continued to argue on the Central Committee against an uprising. Two days after their defeat on the Central Committee, Zinoviev and Kamenev published an article in the Menshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn, publicly divulging the plan for an uprising. Lenin condemned the pair, stating: “Can you imagine an act more treacherous or blacklegging any worse?” (“Letter to Bolshevik”, p.217). Not only was this a gross breach of discipline, an act that would spread confusion among workers and undermine the uprising, it also gave advanced warning to the counter-revolutionaries who began preparing in earnest. Unlike in Petrograd, the counter-revolutionaries successfully deployed large numbers of loyal troops to Moscow, using the advance notice they received, hence the especially difficult uprising.

In the face of reaction, from within and without, the primary challenges facing the Bolshevik-led Soviets could be nothing other than the smashing of the power of the exploiters and consolidating working class power. This fact was clearly understood, as their policies and actions demonstrated. At the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, the Decree on Peace, Decree on Land and the structure of the new Soviet government were all established. The Decree on Peace called on the belligerents of World War One to agree to an immediate armistice while the Decree on Land abolished private ownership of land; turned 400 million acres of land belonging to the Tsar, monasteries and landlords over to the peasants; and released the peasantry from paying rents totalling 500 million roubles a year. All mineral resources, forests and waters became property of the whole people, while all large scale enterprises were nationalised. The final major act of the Congress was to create the Soviet Government, which took the form of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars. In the days following the Congress, the armed assaults of the counter-revolutionaries were defeated by armed workers and revolutionary soldiers who would later form the core of the Red Army.

The decisions of the Second Congress immediately demonstrated the Bolshevik’s commitment to the slogan “land, peace, bread”, which embodied the immediate demands of Russian workers and peasants. Now, having won power, the Bolsheviks were in a position to turn their principled policy into action.

The Constituent Assembly, which nominally ruled Russia after the February Revolution in 1917, remained a steadfast enemy of the Soviets and a legal façade for anti-Soviet activities. In his draft resolution to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, Lenin argued “To relinquish the sovereign power of the Soviets, to relinquish the Soviet Republic won by the people, for the sake of the bourgeois parliamentary system and the Constituent Assembly, would now be a step backwards and would cause the collapse of the October workers’ and peasants’ revolution.” (“Draft Decree” p.435). Lenin’s draft was accepted and the Constituent Assembly was dissolved.

With the defeat of the class enemy’s initial counter-attack, the Bolsheviks turned to securing a respite from the external onslaught of German imperialism. Unsurprisingly, the imperialist powers ignored the Decree on Peace and German forces continued to advance into Russia. It is also worth noting that the old Tsarist generals, Cadets, SRs and Mensheviks all supported continued hostilities. The Bolsheviks alone took a consistent stand against the imperialist war. Aside from being a matter of principle, and in the interests of the workers and peasants, an end to the war was necessary because the old Tsarist army was ruined. The History of the CPSU(B) described the situation: “... the country was in a state of economic disruption, when war-weariness was universal, when our troops were abandoning the trenches and the front was collapsing.” (p.215). To continue fighting under these circumstances would have been absurd. The new Soviet government managed to halt the German behemoth with an armistice agreement on December 5. All that remained was to sign a peace treaty.

Once again, the spectre of betrayal raised its head. Trotsky and his group of “Left Communists” agitated against peace with Germany and actively sabotaged the negotiations. Using his position as leader of the Soviet peace delegation, Trotsky broke off negotiations and informed the Germans that the Soviet Republic would unilaterally disarm and demobilise! The declaration was welcomed in Berlin, prompting a renewed assault on the fledgling Soviet Republic. Twelve days after Trotsky’s unilateral declaration, Germany demanded new terms for peace more onerous than those Trotsky had turned down. The Central Committee accepted these terms and, at the cost of large swathes of valuable land, finally won peace.

In response to this news, the Left Communist dominated Moscow Regional Bureau of the Party adopted a resolution expressing a lack of confidence in the Central Committee and their intention to ignore the Central Committee’s decisions in regard to peace with Germany. The explanatory note of the resolution stated, “In the interests of the world revolution, we consider it expedient to accept the possibility of losing Soviet power which is now becoming purely formal.” (“Strange and Monstrous” p.69) Lenin criticised this position as “strange and monstrous” (p.69), taking it to task in his article of the same name. He questioned how world revolution could possibly benefit from the loss of working class power in Russia and exposed the empty phrase mongering about “ruthlessly suppressing counter-revolution”, when the policy advocated by the Lefts would result in the victory of counter-revolution domestically. The Left Communists and their views would be defeated at the Seventh Congress which opened on March 6, 1918.

The signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace and the opening of the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) marked the closing of the first period of the Soviet Republic’s existence. The Bolsheviks weathered the first blows of the counter-revolutionaries; delivered on their promises to the workers and peasants; began the formation of a working class state apparatus; and won a breathing space in which to begin socialist construction.

In Lenin’s analysis, the Bolsheviks had largely achieved the first two of three necessary tasks, which were to firstly “convince, the majority of the people that its programme and tactics are correct” and secondly to “capture political power and to suppress the resistance of the exploiters” (“The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” pp.241-242). In the following period, the Soviet government would begin work on “... the immediate task and one which constitutes the peculiar feature of the present situation, namely, the task of organising administration of Russia.” (“The Immediate Tasks ...” p.242).

From expropriation to organisation

In the opening of his pamphlet, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, published in April of 1918, Lenin stated, “Thanks to the peace which has been achieved ... the Russian Soviet Republic has gained an opportunity to concentrate its efforts for a while on the most important and most difficult aspect of the socialist revolution, namely, the task of organisation.” (“The Immediate Tasks ...” p.237). Thus it was, in the respite won by the Brest-Litovsk peace that a period of economic work began. During this period, the Bolsheviks faced the task of organising the economic life of a devastated country, where economic ruin, hunger and unemployment were growing steadily worse. They would be dogged at every step by the actions of opportunists, domestic class enemies and then eventually invasion from the imperial powers.

According to Lenin, the fledgling Russian Soviet Republic faced two “principal misfortunes”, hunger and unemployment (“The Immediate Tasks ...” p.266). The increasingly serious nature of the food situation is reflected in Lenin’s works. In an April speech to the Moscow Soviet, Lenin warned “... the terrible spectre of approaching famine and mass unemployment confronts us ...” (“Speech in the Moscow Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Red Army Deputies” p. 232), while in his May thesis on the contemporary political situation, Lenin wrote: “... the disorganised food situation has become extremely acute and in many places has led to real hunger ...” (“Theses on the Present Political Situation” p.361). Ten days later he addressed the Congress of Commissars for Labour, saying “We now have to face the most critical moment, when hunger and unemployment are knocking at the door of an increasing number of workers, when hundreds and thousands of people are suffering the pangs of hunger ...”(“Speech at the Second All-Russia Congress ...” pp.399-400).

The general ruin of the economy was no less serious than the famine. The previous government of Russia had left to the Bolsheviks “... a heritage of disruption and extreme economic ruin” (“Speech at the Second All-Russia Congress ...” p.399). Shortages of fuel were common and where goods existed, the means to transport them did not. The rail and methods of inland water transport were either in ruins or disorganised by workers influenced by anarchism. Lenin made the urgency of the situation clear in a letter to the workers of Petrograd, stating:

There is also an acute shortage of bread for machines, i.e., fuel; the railways and factories will come to a standstill, unemployment and famine will bring ruin on the whole nation, if we do not bend every effort to establish a strict and ruthless economy of consumption and proper distribution. We are faced by disaster, it is very near. An intolerably difficult May will be followed by a still more difficult June, July and August.

The causes of this disastrous situation were numerous. As mentioned earlier, the Bolsheviks inherited a ruined country. Lenin wrote “Romanov and Kerensky left to the working class a country utterly impoverished by their predatory, criminal and most terrible war, a country picked clean by Russian and foreign imperialists.” (“On the Famine” p.393). The effects of the First World War were also felt in the imperialist centres, as in Germany where “... the health of poorer urban dwellers was seriously compromised as a result of nutritional deficiencies” (Home Fires Burning p.22). If the richest countries of Western Europe suffered food shortages and fed their working class ersatz food made with such delicacies as saw dust, what could be expected in dysfunctional Russia? Worse still, the Soviet Republic had surrendered large tracts of prime agricultural land, coal fields and other fuel sources to the Germans as part of the Brest-Litovsk peace. This sudden loss, combined with the enormous indemnity payments to Germany, was keenly felt.

These problems were compounded by the sabotage and wrecking activities of bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements. While the poor and workers suffered from hunger, class enemies engaged in profiteering in food and grain. The bourgeoisie acted to disrupt fixed prices, the distribution of grain and the state grain monopoly in general, seeking ways to profiteer or engage in bribery and corruption. Lenin placed the blame for the famine squarely on these class elements, stating:

The famine is not due to the fact that there is no grain in Russia, but to the fact that the bourgeoisie and the rich generally are putting up a last decisive fight against the rule of the toilers ... on this most important and acute of issues, the issue of bread.

Rich peasants (kulaks) and petty bourgeois merchants worked together to profiteer and undermine Soviet power while capitalists in cities closed their businesses and fled the country with everything they could carry, leading to a mass exodus of capital. Lack of capital would hamper the Soviet economy until long after Lenin’s death.

It wasn’t only the petty-bourgeoisie as a class that threatened the October revolution, but their mentality which infected some workers and peasants. “We have one extremely dangerous secret enemy” Lenin told the Moscow Soviet “... more dangerous than many open counter-revolutionaries; ... this enemy is the anarchy of the petty producer” (p.232). Lenin summarised the outlook of the petty producer as “I’ll grab all I can – the rest can go hang” and stated that “... a new Kornilov will grow from each petty proprietor, from each greedy grabber” (p.232). It is an outlook that embraces private property as sacred, opposes state control and resists organisation, discipline and self-sacrifice.

Two serious manifestations of this trend among the working class were anarchism and a lack of labour discipline. Lenin stated: “It is now particularly clear to us how correct is the Marxist thesis that anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism are bourgeois trends, how irreconcilably opposed they are to socialism ...” (“The Immediate Tasks ...” p.254). Organisations such as the Water Transport Workers Trade Union believed that all management of their industry should be carried out by their union. Lenin rejected these demands stating that the union had spent three weeks arguing and “crusading” against the centre while the boats went unrepaired and water transport ground to a halt. This kind of resistance to accounting and control, stemming from a petty bourgeois anarchistic outlook, was a form of sabotage, whether conscious or unconscious. On this topic, Lenin said: “... it is those who violate labour discipline at any factory, in any undertaking, in any matter who are responsible for the sufferings caused by the famine and unemployment” (The Immediate Tasks ... p.266). He further commented: “The fight to instil into the people’s minds the idea of Soviet state control and accounting, and to carry out this idea in practice ... is a great fight of world-historic significance, a fight between socialist consciousness and bourgeois-anarchist spontaneity”(p.254).

The final contributing factor to the dire straits the Bolsheviks found themselves in was their own failure to effectively manage and organise expropriated property. This point is summarised well in Lenin’s Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government where he said:

If we decided to continue to expropriate capital at the same rate at which we have been doing it up to now, we should certainly suffer defeat, because our work of organising proletarian accounting and control has obviously ... fallen behind the work of directly “expropriating the expropriators”.

It is clear that the Bolsheviks faced the dual economic and political tasks of organising the accounting and control of everything they had expropriated while suppressing class enemies and their representatives. Lenin identified the key tasks ahead as: “... the introduction of the strictest and universal accounting and control of the production and distribution of goods, raising the productivity of labour and socialising production in practice” (The Immediate Tasks ... p.241). The emphasis on the word “practice” demonstrates that the issuing of decrees is not sufficient for ensuring the actual implementation of policy, and the difficulty that the Bolsheviks had on this score.

At this time, a number of policies more often associated with the NEP were first introduced. Lenin argued for the hiring of bourgeois experts with high salaries, making agreements with bourgeois cooperative societies on favourable terms, “one-man management” of enterprises, piece rates and Taylorism. Other policies included the consolidation of state monopolies; improving the functioning of state banking (attracting deposits, simplifying transactions, abolishing queues); compulsory labour service for former exploiters; and the organisation of state organs to effectively run the national economy, especially in transport. While these measures sufficed for the cities, the question of the kulaks and organisation in the vast Russian countryside required additional measures.

On the question of ensuring the food supply, Lenin called for a state grain monopoly, banning all private trade of grain, compulsory delivery of surplus grain to the state at fixed prices and making the hoarding of grain illegal. This was part of the policy of the “food dictatorship”. Force was to be used against class enemies who attempted to starve the Soviet Republic into submission. Complementing the aforementioned policies would be the reorganisation of grain transportation, the building of grain reserves and a just distribution controlled by the state to ensure the rich couldn’t benefit. However, as was the case in the cities, the real challenge was realising decrees in practice. Lenin said: “Our state grain monopoly exists in law, but in practice it is being thwarted at every step by the bourgeoisie”. (“On the Famine” p.393)

Rather than merely issuing decrees and hoping for the best, or employing a bureaucratic apparatus, the Bolsheviks relied on advanced elements of the working class to enforce the food dictatorship in practice and to form alliances with friendly class forces in the countryside. Lenin insisted that:

... a great “crusade” must be organised against the grain profiteers, the kulaks, the parasites, the disorganisers and bribetakers, a great “crusade” against the violators of strictest state order in the collection, transportation, and distribution of bread for the people and bread for the machines.

The motive force of this great crusade were the advanced, class conscious workers. Lenin called for “... tens of thousands of advanced and steeled proletarians” able to educate and provide leadership to poor peasants in the struggle against the kulaks, disciplined enough to avoid the temptations of bribery or banditry and devoted enough to suffer the hardships of the crusade, to go to the countryside (“On the Famine” p.396).

As ever greater numbers of advanced workers departed for the countryside, Committees of Poor Peasants were established. These committees served to organise the struggle against kulaks, just as urban Soviets allowed workers to organise against the capitalists. By keeping account of food, these committees helped to expose kulak hoarding and profiteering. Through them and with the help of advanced workers, poor peasants confiscated surplus food hidden by kulaks and redistributed land. These measures not only helped reduce the effects of the famine, but also weakened the kulaks and strengthened the dictatorship of the proletariat in the countryside.

While the working class and poor peasants were locked in a life or death struggle with the domestic class enemy, elements pretending to be friends of the revolution once again reared their heads and threatened the peoples’ gains. Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, former members of the Socialist Revolutionary party who sided with the Bolsheviks in November of 1917, demonstrated their adherence to petty bourgeois interests and class forces. Despite earlier cooperation with the Bolsheviks, Left SRs sided with the “Left” Communists in opposing the Brest-Litovsk peace and argued for continuing the war with Germany. Further, they opposed the formation of poor peasants committees and measures against the kulaks, as their social base was the rich peasantry. (A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 – Vol.1 p.162)

Things came to a head in June at the 5th All Russian Congress of Soviets when the Left SRs withdrew in protest at the failure of their pro-kulak motions, the reinstitution of the death penalty (SRs were perfectly happy with extra-judicial killings, terrorism and assassination, but were against a legally sanctioned death penalty) and the continued Brest-Litovsk peace. Following their withdrawal from the conference, Left SRs hatched a plot to provoke war with Germany by assassinating the German ambassador, which was ultimately successful. Next, Left SRs launched armed uprisings in major cities, coinciding with British, French and American landings on the Russian coast. The SR terrorist, Boris Savinkov was funded by the French to establish terrorist cells with the aim of assassinating Lenin (The Great Conspiracy Against Russia p.13).

In the four-month period between the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace and the 5th Congress of Soviets, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the respite from war to organise the administration of Russia. Rather than ruling by decree, they paid close attention to the real, material conditions and to solving real material problems in practice. These problems were always resolved with the class interests of the proletariat and their allies, the poor peasantry, in mind. In the face of vicious reaction from domestic and eventually foreign class enemies, the Bolsheviks staved off the worst of the famine, salvaged the tattered remains of the Tsarist economy, putting it to work in the interests of the working class and rallied the workers and poor peasants to face the coming civil war. Had the Bolsheviks failed at any of those practical tasks, or buckled under the pressure of domestic class enemies, they and the revolution would have been swept away in the sea of blood unleashed by the resulting White Terror.

The uprising of Czech soldiers in the process of being repatriated, the landings by the imperialist powers and the open terrorism of Left SRs (with assistance from imperialist intelligence agencies), marked the end of the respite won by the Brest-Litovsk peace. In part two of this series, the context and reactions of the Bolsheviks to the civil war and then the second period of peaceful construction known better as the NEP will be examined, providing a number of lessons directly relevant to analysing the current situation of modern socialist states, and advice for the work of our own Party in the coming years.

Implications for the modern reader

The lessons of the October Revolution and the following months are as numerous as they are significant. Every one of Lenin’s speeches, pamphlets and letters during this period provides valuable insight into the process of consolidating working class power and achieving socialism under incredibly difficult circumstances. However, not all of these lessons are immediately useful to Marxists in countries like Australia or for comrades attempting to make sense of the current socialist countries.

The first lesson that is particularly applicable to modern socialist states is that the class struggle continues to persist even during periods of peaceful socialist construction. The Bolshevik experience demonstrates that domestic and foreign class enemies do not recognise class peace unless they are exercising their own class dictatorship over the exploited masses. The willingness of revolutionaries to forgive class enemies, as demonstrated by the Bolsheviks when they released chief White generals such as Krasnov, is repaid with treachery and the blood of workers. Even during periods where the “primary focus” may be economic development, the class struggle must never be sidelined or forgotten. Socialist economic construction is a political task with a specific class character that takes place not simply to raise living standards or productive forces, but to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat, and advance society along the path of Communism. It is a task that must, according to Marx and Lenin, gradually exclude exploiters and teach workers to manage society in ever decentralising ways. Although temporary and partial retreats in times of desperation are acceptable, they must be carried out to achieve a specific measurable change, with a class conscious attitude and a clear Communist goal lain before the proletariat.

A more directly applicable lesson for modern comrades, regardless of circumstances, is the danger of opportunism within Communist parties. Empty phraseology by comrades disguising their lack of understanding, or principles, is a curse on our movement today, just as it was one hundred years ago. Empty ultra-left slogans advancing reactionary processes in practice, such as those of the Moscow Regional Bureau condemning the Brest-Litovsk peace, betrayed the revolutionary cause they pretended to uphold. The Soviet government struggled for many years against the open rightists and the left-sounding allies in their midst. We have our share of these elements in Australian political life, too, and it is our task to point out the consequences of their corrosive politics in our movement and lead the struggle against them.

“Revolutionary” groups that end up supporting US imperialism in the Middle East and elsewhere, characters who substitute barren, jargon-laden “analysis” for practical forms of struggle and all manner of distractions from the role of the working class and its Party abound in an increasingly confused political scene. I will examine the struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks further in the next part of this essay in an effort to draw out the keys to their success at a critical time in the history of their Party and their revolution.


Works Cited

Carr, E. H. (1978). A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (Vol. 1). London: The Macmillan Press.

Central Committee of the CPSU. (1939). History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). New York: International Publishers.

Davis, B. (2000). Home Fires Burning. London: Chapel Hill.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “Strange and Monstrous”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “Speech in the Moscow Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Red Army Deputies”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “Theses on the Present Political Situation”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “Speech at the Second All-Russia Congress of Commissars for Labour”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1974). “On the Famine”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 27). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1977). “Letter to Bolshevik Party Members”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 26). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1977). “Draft Decree on the Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly”. In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 26). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V. I. (1977). “To the Citizens of Russia!” In Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 26). Moscow: Progress.

Sayers, M., & Khan, A. E. The Great Conspiracy Against Russia. (1946) New York: Boni & Gaer.

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