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John G. Wright

Twenty-five Years of the Revolution

(November 1942)

From Fourth International, Vol. 3 No. 11, November 1942, pp. 338–341.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Twenty-five years ago the Russian workers, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, carried through the first victorious proletarian revolution. This anniversary finds the Soviet Union in the gravest crisis of its entire existence. We Trotskyists remain what we have always been: the best defenders of the Soviet Union.

The victory of the Russian revolution, as Lenin said, opened up a new epoch in world history. For this new epoch in which we live the experience and lessons of the Russian revolution are still the decisive ones.

The Russian revolution, which resulted directly from the first imperialist world war, demonstrated irrefutably that in modern society there is only one class capable of solving all the burning social problems and of providing the program and leadership for the attainment of social progress. That class is the working class.

Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, were the first to discover, analyze and clarify the historic mission of the workers under capitalism. They did this in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a time when capitalism was still in its ascendancy. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian workers proved in action in 1917 that the scientific doctrine of Marxism was not a Utopia but the living reality.

Let us briefly review the unparalleled achievements of the Russian working class. They comprised a minority of the population in one of the most backward countries of Europe. But their numerical strength was not at all the true gauge of their internal powers and resources. They attained power. Upon establishing the workers’ rule in the territories of the former Czarist empire, they could not proceed immediately to the solution of socialist tasks as will the workers in the advanced capitalist countries like the United States, England, Germany. The Russian workers found themselves confronted with tasks far more complex. They, like the workers in all backward countries, had first to accomplish the tasks of the democratic revolution, above all the agrarian revolution. Historically, these tasks were those of another class, the capitalist class. But the belated Russian capitalists, like their counterparts in all other backward countries, were not only impotent to carry out these tasks but actually opposed their solution. To fulfill the democratic revolution it was necessary to overthrow both the Czarist autocracy and the Russian capitalists. This is precisely what the Russian workers did in an alliance with the peasants in October 1917.

They swept from the face of the earth the most reactionary government which had existed up to that time in Europe. They purged the country of all the rubbish of feudalism. They carried through the democratic revolution more completely than was ever done before. Had the Russian workers accomplished nothing more, this alone would have amply justified their revolution. However, as is well known, they did not stop with this.

The backward and predominantly rural economy of the former Czarist empire had been shattered during the years of Czarist participation in the first World War. During the eight months of the Provisional Government, there was a further decline. Russia was bankrupt. Upon this bankrupt country, German imperialism imposed the infamous peace of Brest-Litovsk. And over and above this, the combined forces of world reaction then imposed three years of civil war, the most bitter and destructive in modern times.

It was under these conditions and against such insuperable odds that the Russian workers proved the ability of workers not only to get power but to keep it.

In the very heat of struggle the Red Army was organized. This task was entrusted to Leon Trotsky, who remained Commissar of War throughout the civil war and for almost five years thereafter. The onslaught of the counter-revolution and of imperialist intervention was beaten back on 22 fronts.

There was nothing accidental about this epoch-making victory of the Soviet Union at its very birth. The lessons of the civil war apply with just as much force today as they did in 1918–21.

What Leninism Built and Stalinism Destroyed

The principal instrument of the Russian revolution was the Bolshevik Party. This party prepared and insured the October revolution. It created the Soviet state and safeguarded its. conquests. The Bolshevik Party was built by Lenin and his collaborators in more than thirty years of irreconcilable struggle. Stalin destroyed it completely in less than a decade. He murdered entire generations of Bolsheviks, the oldest as well as the youngest. During the infamous Moscow Frame-ups (1935–38) he killed all of Lenin’s closest collaborators – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, Serebryakov, I.N. Smirnov, Piatakov, Preobrazhensky and countless others. In the same purges and subsequent ones that were kept secret, he destroyed the next generation which had raised him to power. He ruthlessly crushed the youth. The Komsomols – the Russian YCL – were erased as a political organization in 1936. Even this “reorganized” Komsomol was purged and re-purged. As late as May 1940, over 70 per cent of the leaders of this organization were removed. The party and the youth have ceased to exist politically. They are now bureaucratic shells completely isolated from the masses. They are not even permitted to issue statements on the war. The burning and immediate task of the Soviet workers is to reconstitute their revolutionary party, and thus regain the indispensable instrument for the preservation of the workers’ state.

The Russian revolution revealed the Soviets – the Councils of Workers, Soldiers, Agricultural Laborers and Peasants – as the most natural, most efficient and most democratic form of government in the transition period between capitalism and socialism. Lenin hailed the Soviets as a million times more democratic than any bourgeois parliamentary republic. And this was true of the Soviets under Lenin and Trotsky. They played a central role in the civil war. Victory would have been impossible without them. They welded the alliance between the workers and peasants against all the exploiters. They assisted and facilitated the work of the Revolutionary Military Council. They mobilized the draftees; conducted a struggle against deserters, collected foodstuffs, raw materials, supplies. Above all, they developed the initiative and the creative abilities of the masses themselves. Stalin abolished the Soviets long ago. They were replaced by the fiction of the Stalinist “Constitution” and its equally fictitious “Supreme Council.” This handpicked body has not been summoned a single time since the outbreak of the war. Even its Presidium, of which Stalin is now chairman, has played no role whatever. The revival of the Soviets, and of workers’ democracy without which they are only a sham, remains essential for the successful defense of the USSR.

Lenin and Trotsky viewed the trade unions as a school of Communism and as one of the institutions through which the workers ruled in the factories and in the Soviets. Democracy in the trade unions was for the Bolsheviks an indispensable condition for the preservation and advancement of the workers’ state. The last time there was a convention of the Red Trade Unions was in 1932. The trade unions have become the same silent lifeless shells as the destroyed party, the suppressed Komsomols, the “Supreme Council of the Soviets,” not to mention the Third International and its “helmsman,” Dimitrov.

Victory was gained under Lenin and Trotsky because under their leadership the workers depended on their own program, their own strength, their own organizations. For lack of these they suffer defeats today. The responsibility for these defeats must be placed where it belongs, not on the workers but on the treacherous Stalinist leadership.

At the termination of the civil war, the Russian workers were for the first time free to turn their attention and efforts to the task of economic reconstruction. The country was in a catastrophic condition.

“Industrial production for 1921, immediately after the end of the civil war, amounted at most to one-fifth of the pre-war level. The production of steel fell from 4.2 million tons to 183 thousand tons – that is, to 1/23 of what it had been. The total harvest of grain decreased from 801 million hundredweight to 503 million in 1922. That was a year of terrible hunger. Foreign trade at the same time plunged from 2.9 billion rubles to 30 million. The collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever witnessed.” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 22.)

The imperialist enemies of the workers’ state and their Menshevik flunkies were certain that the Bolsheviks could never emerge from the economic chaos, famine and ruin into which the combined forces of world reaction had plunged the country. To make things doubly sure, the imperialists maintained a blockade. The restoration of Soviet economy did indeed appear to be a hopeless task. The country’s economic life had to be rebuilt literally from the beginning in almost every sphere. But the Russian workers once again accomplished the seemingly impossible. In the space of a few years, despite the fact that the work of reconstruction had to be carried on in conditions of isolation from the world market, they brought production back to pre-war levels.

In making their revolution the Russian workers had banked – as they had every right to – upon the help of the workers in other countries, particularly of the advanced capitalist lands. They looked upon their revolution as the first stage of the world revolution that would free all countries from the yoke of imperialism and allow the development of productive forces on a world scale, through world cooperation and planning. This international socialist outlook is simply the political expression for the needs and realities of modern technique and industry, and therefore of all the peoples today. But the treachery of the parties of the Second International enabled the world bourgeoisie to emerge from the post-war crisis and to keep the Soviet Union isolated. The young parties of the newly found Communist International were as yet too weak and inexperienced to wrest power from the class enemy. This unexpected tardiness of the world revolution brought about a temporary stabilization between the young workers’ republic and the decaying system of imperialism. And this unstable correlation of forces in its turn laid the basis for the growth of political reaction inside and outside the Soviet Union.

From the Czarist empire, the Soviet working class had inherited along with backwardness an enormous bureaucracy. Considerable sections of these chinovniks (Czarist functionaries) were retained in the machinery of the newly founded state. At the same time, the conditions of backwardness and isolation provided a favorable milieu for the solidification and intrenchment of a new bureaucratic layer. These new formations merged with the old. The bureaucratization of the government led in its turn to the growth of the bureaucracy within the Bolshevik Party and finally resulted in its complete destruction by Stalin.

This rising Soviet bureaucracy, with its chieftain Stalin, bears the chief responsibility for the continued isolation of the Soviet Union and for the subsequent delay of the world revolution. Grown conservative, this bureaucracy brought about the defeat of the German workers in 1923 through its influence upon and control of the Third International. From 1923 on, Stalin and his flunkies began to lose confidence in the power of the world working class. The preservation of their own power and privileges became more and more their prime consideration. In the autumn of 1924, after Lenin’s death, Stalin promulgated the false and reactionary theory of “socialism in one country.”

The uncompromising internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky taught the workers that it was necessary to make “the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism.” Under Stalin it became more and more the doctrine of the Third International to make the greatest international sacrifices for the sake of safeguarding the “irrevocable triumph of socialism” in the USSR. Stalinism led section after section of the world working class to defeats, each graver than the one preceding.

These defeats increased the isolation of the Soviet Union. At the same time they facilitated the intrenchment of Stalin’s personal dictatorship over the workers’ state.

But even under the reign of a monstrous, rapacious, inefficient, self-seeking and self-perpetuating bureaucracy, the Soviet working class was able to demonstrate to the world the superiority of the socialist methods of production. The bureaucracy sapped but failed to destroy the inner power and resources of the isolated proletariat. Under the Five Year Plans, Soviet industry and agriculture developed at unprecedented tempos. Entire new branches of industry were developed. The economic gains of the USSR are all the more significant since they were made in the period of the most profound and debilitating economic crisis in the history of world capitalism. The Soviet workers did not and could not build socialism as the criminals and misleaders in the Kremlin boasted. But they did prove once and for all that the abolition of capitalism assures the possibility of unprecedented economic progress even under the most adverse conditions imaginable, even in a backward country, even under conditions of isolation and under a leadership that mismanaged, wasted and devoured. Many of these conquests are now charred ruins. Many others are in the hands of the Nazis. But the significance of these successes can never be deleted from the annals of history or lost to mankind.

The economic successes of the Soviet Union point the road of salvation to our war-torn civilization. Decaying imperialism is now engaged in a work of destruction which threatens to throw mankind back to barbarism. Untold wealth has already been expended, and vaster amounts are scheduled for annihilation. Not only entire cities but enormous productive areas have been reduced to rubble and wasteland. Completely geared to their respective war machines, the productive forces of the most advanced countries are deteriorating more and more rapidly. Cold, hunger and disease hover over continents while millions die behind the lines or in the global battlefields.

Each additional month of warfare poses more and more imperiously before the peoples of all countries the question: How can we ever emerge from and repair the havoc of this war?

The prospects of an imperialist peace – which is itself being postponed by “democrats” and fascists alike to a more and more indefinite future – are no less fearsome than the present reality. In peace as in war, decaying capitalism has nothing to offer except greater oppression, degradation and suffering. Capitalism will, if permitted to emerge from this war, undertake the work of reconstruction, and this under conditions of post-war stagnation, depression, crises and armies of unemployed that will make the last economic convulsion of 1929-1939 seem like “good times.” Capitalist diplomats, if permitted, will arrange another peace which will be only a preparation for still another and vaster slaughter. But the experience of the Russian revolution has already pointed out the only road of salvation: Only socialist methods can make good the ravages of the Second World War, to say nothing of moving society forward.

If the Soviet workers, in a degenerated workers’ state, were able to achieve what they did, what will the German proletariat, under the regime of a genuine workers’ democracy, be able to accomplish with the resources of their country? Or the workers of England? Or of the United States? What will the Socialist United States of Europe do?

In the light of the Russian experience these are no longer questions of speculation or theory. They are today questions of fact. The masses of the world have nowhere to turn for guidance except to the Russian revolution. From it alone can they gather renewed hope and strength and courage.

The Stalinist bureaucracy has from the beginning tried to usurp the credit for the economic achievements under the Five Year Plans. Those petty-bourgeois fainthearts and deserters who today deny the proletarian, character of the Soviet Union are in effect trying to perpetuate this monstrous lie of Stalinism, but in a different .form. They assign these achievements to a “new exploitive class.” But planned economy and its successes are not, as these betrayers of Marxism claim, the product of a mythical new class of managers and bureaucrats. They stem directly from the October revolution whose banner Stalinism succeeded in usurping.

The program of industrialization and planned economy was literally forced upon the bureaucracy by the irreconcilable struggle of the Soviet proletarian vanguard, the Left Opposition (1923-29) led by Leon Trotsky. Having brought the country to the very edge of disaster by their domestic policy, the bureaucracy had no other recourse left except to adopt this program and to apply it in a terribly distorted form. Despite Stalin and against the Stalinist regime, the Soviet workers carried through on their shoulders the entire burden of the Plans. No amount of falsifications will alter these facts.

The Strangled Revolution Still Lives

For the last seventeen months, the working class of Russia has been compelled to fulfill, once again under the greatest handicaps and the most adverse conditions, the great historical task of the defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. They entered into their titanic struggle against the Nazi invasion without their most qualified military leaders. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, Stalin beheaded the Red Army. In the space of a single year – May 1937 to May 1938 – the Red Army was stripped of all those commanders who had been recruited during the civil war. Together with them were removed those rank and file fighters who rose to command in the next 15 years. Between 30,000 and 40,000 officers were imprisoned, exiled or murdered. Among those executed was the flower of the General Staff – Tukhachevsky, Gamarnik, Yakir and the other generals who had modernized and mechanized the Red Army, who devised the strategy and plans of defense and who built the fortifications on the Western and Eastern fronts. In August 1940, Stalin crowned his crimes by assassinating Leon Trotsky, the only man to whom the Soviet masses could have turned with confidence for leadership.

Moreover, Stalinism has deprived them of their most powerful and reliable weapons and allies: the program of the socialist struggle and the aid of the revolutionary workers of Germany, Europe and the whole world. Even at this critical hour victory would be assured if the embattled masses of the USSR raised the banner of revolutionary struggle for socialism and summoned the workers of Europe, above all those of Germany, to join them in the struggle against the imperialist oppressors, “democratic” and fascist alike and for the establishment of the Socialist United States of Europe. But this road is barred by Stalin and the Soviet masses have to continue the fight thus handicapped. Every day, every hour of this isolated struggle drains away vital blood, vital territories. Because of Stalinism the Soviet Union has suffered staggering and unnecessary sacrifices and losses. The further continuation of the struggle poses more and more imperiously before the workers of the Soviet Union the problem of how to remove this Stalinist incubus without endangering the defense at the front.

Only traitors can spread the lie that this heroic and tragic struggle against such insuperable odds is a reactionary one. The Soviet soldiers, workers and peasants are fighting one of the most progressive wars ever fought. Beneath contempt are those who try to explain away their incredible military feats and resistance as a docility of slaves driven to slaughter. The truth is that they are not fighting to perpetuate the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nor are they fighting, as the Stalinist lie has it, a national war for the sake of “Holy Russia.” They are fighting and will continue to fight to the end in order to protect the conquests of the October revolution. They are demonstrating on the battlefields that the October revolution, although strangled, still lives on.

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