The Bolshevik Experiment

Jan Wachla's article 'experimentia est optima rerum magistra' brought Red Action to book for its 'routinely predictable' logic in defending a Marxist conception of The 'Dictatorship of The Proletariat'. Well, who knows whether our logic is predictable or not; the interesting question is, is it correct? We would like to give the readers of 'Open Polemic' (a title we hope that will be lived up to in practice) the opportunity to judge for themselves.

It is certainly a singular feature of Red Action, in contrast to almost every other revolutionary Group, that it has refused to join in the common fetishism of 'Dead Russians'. A quote from Lenin or Trotsky is not seen as the automatic conclusion or moral of a discussion. This atittude has generated a certain amount of disdain amongst those who regard themselves as amongst the intellectual aristocracy of the British left. A number of recent articles in the 'Red Action' paper have concentrated in articulating on 'instinctive' repudiation of the fetishistic and scriptural attitudes inherent in the contemporary left's fixation with the early history of Soviet Russia and its leaders.


Red Action regards the construction of contemporary Marxist groups upon a Bolshevik (or Leninist or Trotskyist) model as a profound mistake and as a principal reason for the failure to build a mass socialst organisatIon within capitalist countries. The essential question for any analysis of the Russian Revolution therefore becomes: to what extent did the Bolsheviks succeed in establishing a workers' state in the conditions of Russia in 1917 and after, and in what ways did they fail to do so? Only when this issue has been addressed will it be possible to relate the formative experience of the Bolshevik regime to contemporary conditions and demands.

The traditional left divides into approximately three strands on this question.

1. Those who maintain that although degenerated or distorted, the Soviet Union has always represented a form of workers' state.

2. Those who date the decline of the soviet system into a form of irredeemable totalitarianism from the time of the demise of the Left Opposition and the Stalinist bureaucracy's drive to capitalist accumulation (1928-30).

3. Those who see the personal departure of Lenin from the political scene and the death knell of the workers' state (1923-25).

Clearly the position of Red Action is a revisionist one in these terms - that the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party had ceased to represent a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in any Marxist sense while Lenin himself was still the leading personality and theoretician amongst the Bolshevik leaders.

This implies that the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 instituted a form of workers' state in the sense that the industrial proletariat and semi-proletarian peasantry established effective forms of political direction and control of an economy that remained fundamentally capitalist, and that the revolution itself was the result of a genuine mass proletarian movement.

Lenin himself defended the October Revolution against charges of Blanquism in these terms:

'To be successful, insurrection must rely not only upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class ... insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people ... insurrection must rely upon the turning point in the history of growing revolution, when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy are strongest.'

It was upon this basis that the Bolshevik revolution was made. But increasingly, the problems raised by the necessity of a 'transition period' before communist forms of apparatus and control could be introduced and the perspectives raised by 'holding out until the coming of the world proletarian revolution' as Trotsky expressed it in 1918, replaced the impetus of the revolutionary upsurge of 1917.

Lenin later summed up the position and Its difficulties in this way;

'Before the revolution and even after it, we thought: Either revolution breaks out in the other countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish. Notwithstanding this conviction, we did all we possibly could to preserve the Soviet system under all circumstances, come what may, because we knew that we were working not only for ourselves but also for the international revolution.'

It will be argued that although the Bolshevik party did not actively usurp the 'dictatorship' of the proletariat, it assumed increasing authoritarianism and even totalitarian powers as the proletariat disintegrated under pressure of the civil war. This process continued to the point where the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' became the mask for the totalitarian rule of the Bolshevik party, which itself came to represent the interests of the non-proletarian, bureaucratic class forces. As the perspectives raised by the anticipation of an immediate international revolution faded, so the perspectives raised by a socialistically restricted form of 'transitional period" coloured by the prospect of an international revolution at some indefinite time in the future, began to dominate. The systematic slide in Bolshevik ideology away from democratic or even libertarian forms towards bureaucratic and totalitarian forms reflects this change in perspectives and the balance of forces. This 'slide' can be traced in both economic and political forms of control.

The principal limitation of the regime of October 1917 as a model of socialist society is immediately apparent: the impossibility of sustained socialist construction, of the extreme difficulty in implementing revolutionary political forms, under conditions of extreme material deprivation. In the classic formulation of Marx,

'defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher that the economic structure of society and the cultural development thereby determined.'

Understandably, the revolutionary enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders in 1917 tended to sweep such reservations aside. Immediately prior to the October revolution, Lenin wrote a pamphlet entitled. 'Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power?' in which he confidently outlines the manner in which 'the majority of the working people' will take hold of a new form of control and administration. As he proclaimed in November 1917.

'Creative activity at the grass roots is the basic factor of the new public life ... Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical, bureaucratic approach; living creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.'

'The soviets' he wrote, 'provide an organisational form for ... the most class-conscious, most energetic and most progressive section of the oppressed classes, and so constitutes an apparatus by means of which (they) can lead the entire mass of these classes.'

This political control of working people is only slightly qualfied a few months later.

'For Soviet power is nothing but an organisational form of the dictatorship of the proletariat... which raises to a new democracy and to independent participation in the administration of the state tens upon tens of millions of working and exploited people, who by their own experience learn to regard the disciplined and class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat as their most reliable leader.'

By contrast, the Constituent Assembly, the parliament elected along the lines of bourgeois, formal democracy, represents the interests of classes opposed to the proletariat and the revolutionary democracy of the soviets. No Bolshevik voice objected to its abolition in January 1918, when as Lenin accurately observed, the slogan 'all power to the Constituent Assembly' had become the principal demand and rallying cry of the bourgeoisie and 'White' generals. Its dissolution was welcomed both by the anarchists and the Left SRs (a political group representing the poorer sections of the peasantry). Its abolition reflected the actual distribution of political power in the country. The local and regional soviets exercised almost undivided power - a situation first disrupted not by the centralised power of the Bolshevik party, but by the conditions created by the outbreak of the civil war.

In the factories, the situation was paralleled, with local factory committees (supported by the anarchists) in dispute with the authority of the trade unions. One prominent Bolshevik (Larin) felt obliged to remonstrate that;

'The workers in each enterprise should not get the impression that the enterprise belongs to them.'

The Bolsheviks proposed in place of workers' management or direct ownership of their factories, workers' 'control',

'the strictest and country-wide accounting and control of production and distribution of goods.'

This could even be compatible with capitalist ownership. The necessity of improving the productivity of labour and so of the standard of material well-being demanded as a precondition, as Lenin was soon to assert,

'the raising of the educational and cultural level of the mass of the population.'

Lenin described the situation this way;

'When we say: 'workers' control', always juxtaposing this slogan to the dictatorship of the proletariat, always putting it immediately after the latter, we thereby explain what kind of state we mean. The state is the organ of class domination.'

The Bolsheviks were,

'centralists by conviction. by their programme and by the entire tactics of the party.'

As increasingly came to be the case, the libertarian accents of 'State and Revolution' became overlaid with progressively tighter, more paradoxical qualifications. By the summer of 1920 he was insisting that,

'absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline in the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie.'

This proclaimed workers' state came to be stressed in stronger and stronger terms. On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Lenin explained how;

'We expected ... to be able to organise the state production and the state distribution of products on communist lines in a small peasant country directly as ordered by the proletarian state. Experience has proved that we were wrong. It appears that a number of transitional stages were necessary - state capitalism and socialism - in order to prepare ... for the transition to communism.'

'Taylorism', the American system of work intensification which Lenin described in 1914 as 'man's enslavement to the machine' became an instrument of soviet practice; the German war-time system of state capitalism was declared to be the precondition of socialist advance, praised as 'something centralised, calculated, controlled and socialised.'

Even in 1918 there were instances of strikers being imprisoned for the duration of a strike; other strikers were deprived of their wages. The idea of a 'workers' state' in which such intervention is necessary or permitted is not an authentic interpretation of the Marxist concept of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. With the intensification of labour began the intensification of terror. At first, the objectives of the revolutionary terror were well defined:

'We must... 'terrorise' the capitalists. i.e. must make them feel the omnipotence of the proletarian state and give up all ideas of actively resisting it.'

But at the beginning of 1920, Lenin was instructing the political police, the Cheka, to direct 'revolutionary coercion' against the 'unstable and the wavering elements among the masses themselves'. Shooting anyone who was felt to be acting against the interests of the state became a declared instrument of Bolshevik policy.

Once again, the motive power behind this transition was undoubtedly the appalling material conditions introduced by the civil war which beginning in 1918, extended to the end of 1920.

On the eve of the revolution, Lenin had written.

'A revolution .., is the incredibly complicated and painful process of the death of the old and the birth of the new social order ... revolution is a most intense, furious, desperate class struggle and civil war. Not a single great revolution in history has taken place without civil war.'

Yet it is plain from the context that Lenin here was thinking of a relatively isolated rebellion against the revolutionary state, along the lines of the abortive putsch led by the right-wing general Kornilov a month or two earlier. In actual fact, the civil war developed into a far more desperate affair in which the Bolshevik regime came to the very brink of being overthrown. Production levels were devastated - down to 10% or 20% of pre war production - virtually a medieval standard of living.

In retrospect, Trotsky summed up the political effects of the civil war in this way:

'The demobilisation of the Red Army of five million played no small role in the formation of the bureaucracy. The victorious commanders assumed leading posts in the local soviets, in the economy in education, and they persistently introduced everywhere that regime which ensured success in the civil war. Thus on all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country'.

To this it is worth adding that Trotsky himself was the leading advocate of a thoroughgoing militarisation of labour. In March 1920 he was demanding that:

'militarisation is unthinkable without the militarisation of the trades unions as soldiers of labour, who cannot dispose of himself freely ...who looks after this? The trades unions.This is the militarisation of the working class.'

He added for good measure that:

'the militarisation of the inevitable method of organising and disciplining labour power in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism.'

It is notable that Trotsky affirms not that such measures are a short-term expedient in the particular circumstances facing the Bolsheviks during the civil war, but the militarisation of labour is 'inevitable' in any transition to a socialist society. This necessity had not been mentioned by any of the Bolshevik leaders prior to the revolution and certainly has no precedent in Marx's own writings.

Hand in hand with these inauspicious developments within society and the economy, went the progressive elimination of political pluralism. Of the leading parties existing at the time of the 1917 revolution, the overtly counter-revolutionary elements, the Kadets and the SR's were swiftly repressed. The Kadets were banned immediately. The SR's representing the more prosperous sections of the peasantry, were banned from the Soviets in June 1918, together with Menshevik representatives. Shortly afterwards, the left element within the SR's (the peasant party) launched a revolt against the Bolsheviks with whom they had previously shared the government. The revolt failed and the left SR's disintegrated. The Mensheviks however, were re-legalised and through 1919/20 made a vocal defence of labour rights and the independence of trade unions within the soviet institutions. Few Marxists would quarrel with the elimination of unequivocally counter revolutionary organisations. Yet the events of the winter and spring of 1920/21 saw the end of Bolshevik toleration towards all forms of opposition, and the Mensheviks as a political force were finally eliminated.

It is these events, the strikes of the winter of 1920/21, the Krondstat rebellion and the political reaction of the Bolsheviks to them coupled with the economic reaction constituted by the "turn to the peasantry" in the New Economic Policy which marks the crucial stage of the disintegration of the soviet 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in a Marxist sense, the split between the working class, and its declared vanguard, the Bolshevik party, developed into a decisive and entrenched break.

Inspired in part by severe food shortages, the previous strongholds of Bolshevik support, in the factories of Moscow and Petrograd, took strike action against the regime, calling for the restoration of political and civil rights. The Bolshevik administration declared martial law, forbidding political assemblies and instituting a curfew. Force was used against the striking workers and when this proved insufficient, certain concessions were made. The strike wave had finished by the beginning of March, only to be replaced by an even greater threat. The sailors of the Krondstat fortress, formerly the 'pride and glory of the revolution' (Trotsky) staged an armed insurrection - which was severely and forcibly suppressed. The principal demand of the Krondstat rebels was for an end to the Bolshevik monopoly of power and the restoration of rights to left socialist parties, anarchists and the trade unions.

In Lenin's own revealing image the Krondstat events were:

'like a flash of lightning which threw more of a glare upon reality than anything else.'

The reality is of a regime which has broken away from its base in mass political consciousness. Again, it is important to be clear that this repression of previously revolutionary elements was preceded by the partial disintegrating of the proletariat itself as the levels of industrial production collapsed.

Bukharin, a member of the 'Left Communists' referred to this 'disintegrating' as early as March 1918. Three years later, Lenin himself admitted that the proletariat had been 'largely declassed' owing to 'extreme want and hardship'. A few months later, in October 1921, he concluded that 'the industrial proletariat ... has ceased to exist as a proletariat' and 'has disappeared'.

In brute figures, the collapse of industrial production in Russia during the civil war had caused the number of industrial workers to fall by nearly 60% by 1921, from just over 3 million in 1917. to 1.25 million. Moreover, the turnover of labour meant that a significant proportion of these workers were former petty bourgeois elements.

The ideology and tactics of the Bolsheviks clearly reflected this shift in social forces. Already in the spring of 1918, Lenin was reinforcing the distinction between politically advanced and reactionary sections within the proletariat, insisting that:

'prolonged and persistent efforts must be exerted by the best and most class-conscious workers and peasants in order to ... bring the people onto the proper path of steady and disciplined labour.'

From this declaration of the role of the advanced worker elements in the production process (Stakhanovites) developed Zinoviev's assertion in 1920 that:

'every class conscious worker must realise that the dictatorship of the working class can only be realised through the dictatorship of its vanguard, that is, through the communist party.'

Lenin himself was prepared to state that,

'The dictatorship of the working class is being implemented by the Bolshevik party, the party which as far back as 1905 and even earlier merged with the entire revolutionary proletariat.'

The concept of a distinct party apparatus which has nonetheless 'merged' with the entire proletariat (or the entire 'revolutionary' element) evidently conflicts with Marx's own statements concerning the 'self-emancipation' of the class.

While Trotsky as late as July 1921 could voice Marx's own position: 'The idea of replacing the will of the masses by the resoluteness of the so-called vanguard is absolutely impermissible and non- Marxist. Through the consciousness and will of the vanguard it is possible to exert influence over the masses ... but it is impossible to replace the masses with this vanguard'. It was significant the he already plainly identified the Bolshevik party alone with the vanguard; and moreover, was delivering this rebuke not to the Russian leaders, but to the German Communist Party.

Shlyapnikov, a prominent leader of the Workers' Opposition Group more aptly summarised the position when at the 11th Party Congress in 1922 he observed,

'(Lenin) said yesterday that the proletariat as a class did not exist in Russia. Permit me to congratulate you on being the vanguard of a non-existent class.'

Debate and even factions within the Bolshevik party, in contrast to the limited opposition tolerated from non-party sources, continued to be very lively right through the civil war. But again, the collision with former rank and file supporters of the party in the winter and spring of 1921, proved to be a decisive turning point. Opposition to the leadership within the Bolshevik party concentrated around two groups, the 'Democratic Centralists' and the 'Workers' Opposition'. The Democratic Centralist group was largely intellectual in character and protested against 'bureaucratic and authoritarian' centralism, warning against the development of a 'bureaucratic dictatorship.'

The Workers' Opposition group were more firmly attached to proletarian elements, particularly within the trade unions. It gained considerable support within the rank and file of the Bolshevik party although this was not reflected in the number of delegates, 40 or 50, that represented it at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. The principal leader of the Workers' Opposition. Alexander Kollontai, outlined and defended their position in a widely read pamphlet. 'The Workers' Opposition'. She admitted that the Opposition possessed no great theoreticians but was rather the voice of the rank and file worker, lacked a development programme, and that its main function was to express concern that:

'during these three years of revolution, the economic situation of the working class, of those who work in factories and mills, has not only not been improved, but has become more unbearable.'

She identified the basis of the controversy as this;

'shall we achieve communism through the workers, or over their heads by the hands of soviet officials?'

Kollontai declared that the Workers' Opposition 'relies on the creative powers of its own class; the workers. The rest of our programme follows from this premise.' Therefore, 'The administrative economic body in the workers' republic during the present transitionary period must be a body directly elected by the producers themselves.'

The problem could be posed in these direct terms: a choice between a 'bureaucratic state system or wide practical self-activity of the working masses.' She again identified the bureaucracy as the fundamental threat to the workers' state;

'Bureaucracy is a direct negation of self mass-activity. Whoever therefore accepts the principle of involving the masses in active participation as a basis of the new system of the workers' republic cannot look for good and bad sides in bureaucracy. He must openly and resolutely reject this useless system.'

For the bureaucracy to be defeated, it would be necessary to:

'expel from the party all non-proletarian elements. The stronger the Soviet authority becomes, the greater the number of middle class ... elements joining the party. The elimination of these elements must be complete and thorough.'

Again the objective situation illustrates the reality behind Kollontai's demand. By 1919 only 11% of party members were workers; 53% were government officials; 27% were in the army. It is possible that the syndicalist-tinged programme of the Workers' Opposition would have not proved feasible in practice, that the weakness of the proletariat would have proved too great, that some non-Marxist reliance on pure worker 'spontaneity' can be detected.

Yet Lenin's own position, particularly in 'State and Revolution' was once aligned with elements of that of the Opposition itself. At the time of the 1917 revolution he wrote with enthusiasm of

'the bold, conscientious, universal move to hand over administrative work to proletarians and semi- proletarians'.

By the spring of 1918, a subtle shift has taken place:

'The more resolutely we now have to stand for a more ruthlessly firm government ... for the dictatorship of individuals in definite processes of work ... the more varied must be the forms and methods of control from below in order ... repeatedly and tirelessly to weed out the bureaucracy.'

Yet by 1922 addressing the Eleventh Party Congress, Lenin confessed that these proposed forms of control were inoperative,

'if we take that huge bureaucratic machine ... we must ask, who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be said that the communists are directing that machine. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed.'

Objective facts once more bear out the observation. The number of soviet officials rose from 100,000 in 1918 to nearly 6 million by the end of 1920. This testffies to a greater distortion than Lenin owned up to in his famous formula, that,

'ours is not a workers' state, but a workers' state with a bureaucratic twist to it.'

Whether or not the programme of proletarianisation and workers' management proposed by the Workers' Opposition would have proved possible to fully implement in practice, the fact is the Bolshevik strategy of party control, party dictatorship and party political direction of the non-proletarian bureaucracy and political apparatus had by the end of the civil war, proved a comprehensive failure.

Yet to the end of his life, Lenin stuck to the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised in the place of the politically coherent and active proletariat, by the Bolshevik party. He never ceased proposing ever more redefined bureaucratic solutions to the problem of the bureaucracy. His pet idea was the creation of a new, ultraclass-conscious bureaucracy to oversee the bureaucracy as a whole, The Workers and Peasants Inspectorate (Rabkrin). This would then become 'the model for our entire state apparatus.' The Inspectorate proved an abject failure, itself becoming hopelessly bureaucratised and Lenin proposed yet another more fundamental reorganisation. Ironically, his dream that it would become a model for the rest of the soviet apparatus became true. All Lenin's proposals were carried out by Stalin in 1923 and the Inspectorate became one of the principal foundations of the Stalinist apparatus. Trotsky records than his last conversation with him, Lenin, 'spoke of the terrible growth of bureaucratism in our Soviet apparatus'. To remedy this, 'He proposed to create a special commission of the Central Committee...' The bankruptcy of this approach, the creation of a committee to check the proliferation of other committees, is painfully obvious. Not for the first time, Trotsky could only draw the obvious lesson much later, in 1936, when he observed:

'The bureaucracy has not only disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses' and had, 'grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion.'

Yet at the crucial time Trotsky was foursquare behind the drive towards a bureaucracy headed by a monolithic political machinery. In 1923, he was declaring that;

'We are the only party in the country and in the period of the dictatorshIp it could not be otherwise.

Trotsky later attempted to justify the elimination of factions (although simultaneously claiming that 'the history of Bolshevism is the history of the struggle of factions') by claiming that

'the forbidding of factions was regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation.'

Yet once the ban on factions introduced at the Party Congress of 1921 in response to the challenges from proletarian and semi-proletarian forces outside the party and the opposition groups within the party was in place, the entrenchment of the party leadership and its attendant bureaucracy was guaranteed. How could a closed, non-proletarian bureaucratic system be expected to decide that circumstances were ripe for circumscription of its own power? Of course, it could only pursue the course of consolidating the monolithic authority -a social force which found its personification in Stalin.

Again, the Trotsky of 1936 could see this;

'The prohibition of factions ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than in the infallible leaders.'

Lenin's own part in the repression of internal opposition was a vigorous one. He asserted that:

'the political conclusion to be drawn from the present situation is that the party must be united and any opposition prevented', and that, 'factionalism of any kind is harmful and impermissible'; he added that the so-called left-wing were White Guards in disguise.

Victor Serge noted the inevitable consequence of such an attitude:

'With the disappearance of political debates between parties representing different social interests through the various shades of their opinion, soviet institutions ... now function in a vacuum.

Serge correctly emphasise that to regard 'the proletariat' or 'the working class' as undifferentiated by partially conflicting social interests or 'shades of opinion' is to reduce the revolutionary class to a blank abstraction - an abstraction whose counterpart is, logically, the monolithic party organisation. The pluralism of revolutionary socialist parties therefore becomes an essential part of the concept of a workers' state. Existing in a 'vacuum' of the kind Serge describes, only the interests of the bureaucracy itself can prevail and the state moves irresistibly from 'bureaucratic centralism' to a form of bureaucratic totalitarianism. This process is once again mirrored in the systematic transition from the libertarian tones of Lenin's 'State and Revolution', to the authoritarianism of his later assertions. Already in 1918, he is talking of the necessity of the dictatorship of individuals as the

'channel, the expression, the vehicle' of 'The dictatorship of the revolutionary classes', and insists that there is 'absolutely no contradiction in principle between socialist democracy and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals.' In order to guarantee the conditions of socialism it is necessary that, 'thousands subordinate their will to the will of one.' The people must 'unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour.'

To achieve this,

'We must learn to combine the 'public meeting' democracy of the working people ... with iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the soviet leader while at work.'

The tone of a totalitarian ideology is unmistakeable. Lenin, it is true, at this stage has in mind industrial rather than political authority. Yet it is equally plain that according to any Marxist analysis, the two are finally indissoluble. By the time the pamphlet, 'Left Wing Communism - an Infantile Disorder' appeared in 1920, the authoritarianism had developed an explicitly political dimension. He declares that any attempt to oppose the dictatorship of the party to the dictatorship of the class 'testifies to incredibly and hopelessly muddled thinking.' Talk of proletarian state power 'from below' opposed to 'from above', 'the dictatorship of leaders or the dictatorship of the masses' is dismissed as 'ridiculous and childish nonsense.' The class dictatorship is now explicitly conducted 'under the leadership of the party.'

In one of his last published speeches, Lenin declared that the path to socialsm is being determined by,

'Our Party, a little group of people in comparison with the country's total population' and that, 'This tiny nucleus set itself the task of remaking everything, and it will do so.'

This is not very far from a prescription for the Stalinist dictatorship that within a very few years was to 'remake everything' in the image of a totalitarian dictatorship - as Trotsky much later himself confirmed:

'The regime had become 'totalitarian' in character several years before this word arrived from Germany.' 'Stalinism and fascism' he noted, 'in spite of a deep difference in social foundations,. are symmetrical phenomena.'

With hindsight ( and a notable absence of self-criticism) he warned that,

'All past historical experience, wholly negative, demands of the workers least and first of all an implacable distrust of privileged and uncontrolled guardians.'

This was as true in 1921 (or before) as it was on the eve of the Stalinist show trials when Trotsky finally pointed to this lesson. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, in much the same manner as Lenin, Trotsky had announced that;

'Our government is the force exercised by a majority of the people against the minority, This is beyond dispute. This is the ABC of Marxism.'

It seemed to him then that,

'If after taking power we are incapable of realising our own programme, then we ought to go to the soldiers and workers and declare ourselves bankrupt.'

During the course of the civil war, he evidently changed his mind in the same manner as Lenin changed his. In 1921 he could argue,

'What is indispensable is the awareness .., of the revolutionary birthright of the party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship in spite of the temporary wavering in the spontaneous mood of the masses, in spite of the vacillation even in the working classes. This awareness is for us the indispensable unifying element,'

This could hardly state more explicitly that the rights and authority ( "the birthright") of the party ought to dominate those of the class. The 'self-emancipation' of the working class has finally slipped out of sight. Although acknowledging that the Bolshevik revolution was 'the salvation of the honour of international socialism', Rosa Luxemburg identifies the principal mistake of the Bolshevik's progressive and systematic delimitation of revolutionary democracy in this way:

'The danger begins only when (the Bolshevik leaders) make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances.'

Yet even this does not adequately define the real danger, seeming to imply that the mistake somehow lies in overlaying an acceptable practice with an unacceptable theory. The fatal error is prior to theory, in the divorce of party from class and the supremacy in practice of party interests over and in place of those of the class.

It is a crucial touchstone for all left groups even today: are they able to grasp the nettle and accept that a party divorced and opposed to the will of the class it presumes to represent has no right to power, or do they, in actual practice and in the historical judgement which determines their practice, accept some form of special pleading regarding to the paramount rights of the party?

Engels' analysis in his 'Peasant War in Germany', is far more pointed than that of Luxemburg here:

'The worst thing that can befall the leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents ... he is compelled to represent not his party nor his class, but the class for whom the conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in that awkward position is irrevocably lost.'

With the failure of communist revolutions in the developed West to come to the aid of Soviet Russia, the 'weakest link' in the capitalist chain, the prospects for the establishment of a socialst regime in Russia itself were fatally diminished by the time of the end of the civil war.

This article cannot undertake to indicate in detail possible alternative outcomes in hypothetical worlds even if that were thought desirable. Yet it may be worthwhile briefly to indicate an alternative perspective to some of those current on the left.

First, the 'what if Lenin had lived'? scenario. The general argument of this article has been that the tendency of the Bolshevik state to a form of totalitarian bureaucracy was established, and indeed reinforced by Lenin himself by 1921. Any differences within the regime thereafter would have involved personalities rather than the distribution of power between rival social forces. It is impossible and un-Marxist to suppose that the survival of a particular individual has any weight against the march of objective class forces. As Lenin's wife, Krupskaya remarked in 1926, 'If [Lenin] were still alive, he would probably already be in prison.'

How then in general, to regard the establishment and decline of the workers' state of 1917? Trotsky, surveying the future in 1927 as a member of the 'Left Opposition', wrote.

'A whole series of five year plans will leave us far from the level of the advanced countries of the West. What will be happening in the capitalist world during this time? .., If you admit the possibility of its flourishing anew for a period of decades, then talk of socialism in our country is a pitiable nonsense. Then it will be necessary to say that we are mistaken in our appraisal of the whole epoch as an epoch of capitalist decay. Then the Soviet Republic will prove to have been the second experiment in proletarian dictatorship since the Paris Commune, broader and more fruitful, but only an experiment...'

He adds that the Bolsheviks were not mistaken, that capitalist contradictions are reviving in a sharper form, and that the 'meaning of the October Revolution [is] as a link in an international revolution.' Over fifty years on, we can recognise that this latter perspective is mistaken, and that the analysis that Trotsky offers only to reject it, was in fact the correct one. The model of the Bolshevik party, as it developed in the years following revolution represents an experimental socialism; an experiment conducted in the specific conditions of post-Tsarist Russia, not an iconic organisation to be replicated in contemporary political practice.

It is vital for the future of revolutionary socialism that the implications of this analysis are accepted; that no special pleading for the Bolshevik rejection of workers' democracy and the progressive substitution of a monolithic and totalitarian bureaucracy is tolerated, and the lesson of the Bolshevik 'experiment' are thoroughly learned.

Three lessons are paramount yet still to be widely accepted-the necessity of unconditional democracy within the revolutionary organisation, the commitment to socialist political pluralism, and the supreme importance of the class composition of the organisations themselves.

Contributed by F. Gordon of Red Action