What is the central objective of a revolution? To carry out its programme? To transform society? No. Its central objective is survival. History is littered with examples of revolutions which did not survive to carry through its programme or transform society. It is usually a history written in blood and despair. The greatest triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was that, despite colossal obstacles, it did in fact survive.
When the Bolsheviks launched the revolution, they did so on the basis of four assumptions – every one of which quickly unravelled and was proved wrong. The first was that the revolution would bring an end to the war given that the horrendous Russian experience of conflict was a driving force in the revolution. In fact, for Russia the end of the Great War flowed into a barbaric civil war fuelled by massive outside intervention – a war which killed millions through conflict and famine. The second was that the economic collapse which had engulfed Russia would be halted. In fact, it accelerated. In the period immediately after the revolution, Russia had no functioning economy. The third was that the collapsing Tsarist state would be quickly replaced with a new form of radical democracy based on the system of soviets. But this noble ideal quickly disintegrated in the face of war, famine and economic collapse requiring the Bolsheviks to govern through a ruthless dictatorship. Finally, the Bolsheviks believed that revolution in Russia could only be sustained by an international revolution. Their great fear was that the Revolution would perish if left isolated. While a revolutionary movement did sweep through Europe, by the summer of 1918 it had largely dissipated leaving the Russian Revolution in the state of isolation the Bolsheviks so feared.
Given the above, what where the Bolsheviks meant to do? Give up? Of course, not. They needed to survive and do everything necessary to ensure that survival. It is usual, though not very helpful, to define the Russian Revolution as a single event which took place in October 1917.
In reality, we are dealing with a revolutionary episode which began with the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 and ended with the establishment of the Soviet Union in December 1922. It was a period involving the overthrow of two governments, the unilateral withdrawal of Russia from the Great War, economic, social and political collapse; famine and civil war. The Soviet Union which emerged in 1922 was a dramatically different place from the Russia which saw the overthrow of the Tsar almost five years earlier. And, it was these objective conditions that would shape developments in the Soviet Union for the next 20 years.
There are some on the left who have a kind of idealised view of revolution. For them, the revolutionary process must follow a pre-ordained blueprint. Any change from that blueprint represents a deviation and corruption of the revolution itself and will ultimately lead to betrayal. This approach is utopian in the extreme and not based on any kind of reality.
In fact, revolutions and post-revolutionary societies emerge organically from objective circumstances and are shaped by those circumstances. The Bolshevik revolution is a classic case in point. The Bolsheviks saw their revolution as part of a wider European revolution. When that failed to materialise, they attempted to create ‘socialism in one country’ because there was no alternative. The ideal of a new radical democracy founded on the soviets disintegrated in the face of economic collapse, famine, war, foreign intervention and counter-revolution.
Faced with this, all that mattered was that the Bolsheviks survived in power and they could only do this thorough the imposition of an iron dictatorship. For the revolution to survive they had no choice. Later, with the country facing economic catastrophe with an economy which had ceased to function at any real level they brought about a partial re-introduction of capitalism through the New Economic Policy. They did so because they had no choice.
One of the great myths perpetuated by some on the left was that the revolution was proceeding fine until Stalin’s so-called ‘revolution from above’ in 1927. This had two elements; the consolidation of a Stalinist dictatorship with its mass repression and emerging cult of the personality, and a programme of forced industrialisation. For some this represented a kind of counter-revolution; the final break with the legacy of 1917. This however, does not stand up. Stalin did not create a ruthless dictatorship and mass repression. That had existed from the start. In fact, if Stalin had not emerged as the main leader how would things have been different? The Soviet Union would still have been governed by a Bolshevik dictatorship whose primary concern was to remain in power.
As for the economic break with the NEP and the programme of forced industrialisation, what was the economic situation in the Soviet Union in 1927, fully a decade after the revolution? Industrial production was at a level significantly lower than in 1914. Indeed, the Soviet Union had a smaller industrial base than Belgium. Almost every other economic indicator showed similar results. The only parts of the soviet economy which were developing were through the richer peasants or kulaks in the countryside and capitalist elements in the cities thriving under the NEP. The Soviet Union needed to rapidly industrialise or it would perish. If Stalin had not been around this would still have been Soviet economic policy because there was no real choice.
What emerged from the 1917 Revolution was an authoritarian model of socialism. This developed through various phases from the mass terror of the Stalin period to the more benign and stable period under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Yet the authoritarian nature of the system remained. It had an autocratic political system and an economic system based on universal state ownership which included everything from nuclear power stations to local shops (although the latter were fairly scarce).
By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was at a crossroads. It could remain more or less as it was with some minor reforms along the way. It could make the transformation from an authoritarian model of socialism to a more democratic and open model of the system or it could do neither and collapse paving the way for the re-introduction of capitalism. Of course, this was the worst option and unfortunately the one which unfolded.
For all its faults the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the twentieth century and a hammer blow for the international socialist movement. Twenty seven years on the movement is still trying to come to terms with this event. It was a disaster for the peoples of Russia and beyond who by almost every social and economic indicator are still in a much worse place than then. It allowed capitalism to become a truly global system for the first time and it created a dangerously unbalanced world in which American imperialism could proceed pretty much unchallenged.
What does the Bolshevik revolution tell us about the nature of revolution generally? The experience to date is that such revolutions have come about through social and economic collapse and war as in Russia. Socialist transformation came to most of central Europe on the backs of Soviet tanks in countries either occupied by or allied to Nazi Germany. The Chinese revolution emerged out of thirty years of civil war, foreign occupation and general chaos. Elsewhere, we saw societies emerge in the struggle against the most violent forms of colonialism and imperialism as in Vietnam. No wonder that the post-revolutionary societies which emerged were deeply scarred.
In modern industrial and post-industrial society, it would be difficult to foresee any of the above scenarios. Even in the worst examples of capitalist economic crisis, the idea that society itself would collapse is unimaginable. Also why would any socialist want this with all its resulting human suffering? In such societies such as Britain or Scotland there has to be a different road to socialism.
This would involve the election of a socialist government carrying a programme of radical social and economic reforms sustained by a mass movement outside parliament. This programme would include extending public ownership, strengthening democracy and engaging in a continuous battle of ideas in the face of what would be fierce capitalist opposition. The overall aim would be to so change the balance of forces between capitalism and socialism in favour of the latter in a way that would make the final transition to socialism much more feasible. Such an approach recognises that this transition, i.e., revolution, will not be a single act but a process. And, it recognises that the way we achieve this revolution will shape the post-revolutionary society which emerges.
William Bonnar is a founding member of the Scottish Socialist Party and was previously a member of the editorial board of Marxism Today