The Early Years of the Russian Revolution

Aug 11, 2014

Red Army unit in the Russian Civil War

The Russian revolution marked the beginning of a new period in human history. It was the first time that the oppressed were able to come to power – to take power and hold onto power. It truly had a transforming effect on the world.

In this part of this series, we will lay the basis for later discussing what was to become the most famous split in political history: what is known as the Trotsky-Stalin split. We have to keep in mind that these names do not represent just individuals, but political groupings and political strata. This part is on the early years of the revolution, after the revolutionary seizure of power in 1917.

First, let’s review a quote that is good to keep in mind when analyzing the Russian Revolution. It is from Karl Marx’s pamphlet: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx wrote: “People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please. They do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” This is an important idea. People make history but it is not as if they can just decide to do whatever they want. They have to do it in the context of the objective conditions they are presented with. In dealing with the Russian Revolution, or in dealing with any of the countries that have attempted to build socialism, too often people start with the questions like why could they not just do everything? Why could they not just do whatever they wanted to do? Why could they not just plunge ahead and accomplish everything that they might have wanted to, or everything that someone else may have thought they should?

Of all events, the Russian Revolution inspired the greatest hope among the working people of the world, among those who aspired to build a society based on justice and equality. This included the working class, but not only the working class but also those from oppressed nationalities, everybody who was looking for a way out of the situation at the time. This is at a time when what later became known as the Third World in Asia and Africa was virtually all directly colonized. Latin America was mostly in a semi-colonial dominated position. The newly born Russian Revolution also inspired progressive intellectuals and artists, many of whom went there even before it was the Soviet Union – The Soviet Union was formed in December 1922.

The World of 1917

If we look at the conditions of the world in 1917, we can clearly see why the Russian Revolution was such an inspiration. Imperialist powers completely dominated the world. In Asia, Africa and Latin America people were dominated and exploited. Workers in capitalist countries were very oppressed, poor and for the most part downtrodden. Racism and white supremacy reigned in the world, along with the oppression of women. It seemed as if this was to be the permanent condition of the world and it was hard to see how there could be a way out of it. This situation existed even in the most “democratic” of countries, as the United States was referred to at that time.

In addition, 1914 saw the beginning of the most destructive war in history. By the time the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, millions upon millions had been killed in trench warfare, and tens of millions more were maimed, made homeless and starving. For the overwhelming majority of humanity, it looked like a world descending into hell. But a tiny section of the world’s population went on living in indescribable luxury.

It was in this world that the workers and peasants of the Russian Empire rose up. They toppled one of the oldest monarchies and, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, not only overthrew the monarchy but set about on a course to rebuild, on a socialist and egalitarian basis, this giant country – 11 time zones, compared to 4 for the U.S. Not only that, but the Russian revolutionaries openly declared that their intention was to help the workers and the oppressed peoples of the entire world to liberate themselves from capitalism and imperialism.

To merely say that the Russian Revolution had a big impact is the height of understatement. The Russian Revolution was like a light shining out in a very dim and dark world. And it drew towards itself all of the progressive humanity who heard about it. Of course, given the level of communications at the time, not everyone could hear about it and it took a while for the word to get out. But, almost immediately, the Russian Revolution became a magnet. Overnight, it transformed the world politically.

The big question in the world, in world politics, almost immediately became: “Are you for the Soviet Union or are you against it?” As soon as the Russian Revolution took place, it surpassed all the other issues in importance. Not only did this become the fundamental question in 1917, but it remained so up until the time of the disastrous collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And, in many ways, it continues to be a big question today, even though there is no more Soviet Union.

Obstacles Faced by Soviet Russia

The question this part of the series wants to address is not why the USSR was overthrown in 1991, which is the subject of a whole other discussion, but how did it possibly survive until 1921? Whether it would survive or not was a very big question. For the very same reasons that the Russian Revolution attracted the enthusiastic support of the world’s oppressed, it almost immediately drew the most bitter hostility of the world’s oppressors. The landlords, aristocrats and the bourgeois elements from not just the old Russian Empire, but from all over the world, set out to kill this young revolution before it could grow and consolidate itself.

The Bolsheviks and Soviet Russia faced odds and obstacles that appeared to be too great to overcome. In the previous part of this series, we discussed the pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? That pamphlet was written by Lenin three weeks before the revolution took place. He raised the question at the time because he was certain that the Bolsheviks were going to take state power. In early 1918, two months after the revolution, the answer to the question: “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” would appear to be no. It did not seem possible for the Bolsheviks to be able to hold state power because there were too many things arrayed against them.

But, in that period, in Petrograd, Moscow and elsewhere, there was revolutionary optimism. Among the Bolsheviks, the optimism was based not just on hope but on a firm conviction that the Russian Revolution was just the beginning; the first episode of an unfolding world revolution, which would soon spread, first to the countries of central and western Europe and then beyond. They all believed that without new revolutions in the more economically developed countries the Russian Revolution would not be able to survive. All the Bolshevik leaders, regardless of what their future positions were to be, shared this belief. This includes Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stalin and the rest.

The Three Great Tasks of the Revolution

Sam Marcy wrote a pamphlet in the late 1970s called: Eurocommunism: New Form of reformism. At the beginning, Marcy discusses the great tasks that the Russian Revolution faced.

The new, infant workers’ state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, had thrust upon it three Herculean tasks utterly unprecedented in the entire history of class struggle.

It had the duty and obligation to reorganize on a revolutionary basis the left wing of the social democratic movement, put it on a communist basis, and lay the foundation of a new and revolutionary international. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were thus obliged from the start not only to give revolutionary leadership at home but, in a way, to become the general staff of the world revolution, which seemed visible on the horizon, especially in Western Europe and later in the East, China.

Its second task, no less urgent and ultimately connected with it, was for the new workers’ state to defend itself against the most barbaric assaults by the united front of the imperialists, from Vladivostok to Murmansk.

And thirdly, it had to begin to lay socialist economic foundations and raise the living standards of the workers and peasants, who had passed through a most horrible period of destruction, civil war and famine.

Defending the country, which involved building a new military because the old military was gone; building a new economy based on socialism, which had never been done before; and reorganizing the world movement. These three interlocking tasks, any of which would be a monumental achievement, had to be done all at the same time, immediately after taking power.


To get an idea of the problem of defense, we need to remember that the Bolsheviks had taken the position that there were opposed to the imperialist war and that they wanted to end it. But the war did not end; it was still going on after the revolution, and it was to continue for a year after the revolution took place. In the war, Russia, France, England and Italy – now joined by the U.S. that had just entered the war – were lined up on one side. On the other side, the main powers were Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of the western part of Russia was occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian troops.

What could the Bolsheviks do about this situation? The people were exhausted. The war was a large part of the reason why the revolution occurred. They wanted to end the war but they still faced this aggressive imperialist enemy. So the Bolsheviks entered into negotiations with Germany, hoping that, with the growing unrest all over Europe, the workers, particularly in Germany, would rise up and that would force the German government to make peace with them and withdraw their troops. The Bolsheviks were really counting on this at first.

In the first days of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky was the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs. Interestingly, his attitude was that the Bolsheviks were not going to carry on foreign affairs, that this was not needed. He thought that the Bolsheviks were just going to publish all the secret treaties dividing up the world between the imperialists, make some arrangements to have an exchange of prisoners and that would be it. But as it turned out, that was not a realistic approach because the revolutions elsewhere did not happen fast enough. A cease fire was agreed upon in December 1917 between Germany and Soviet Russia.

What the Soviet negotiators tried was to stall and to issue appeals to the workers in Germany to rise up. But most of the appeals did not get through because they were blocked. So when the revolution in Germany did not happen, the Bolsheviks had to enter into real negotiations. They had three different options.

One was to call for a revolutionary war against the occupying forces. But they no longer had much of a military force. They only had a few regiments left from the old czarist army. They had actively worked to break up that army in order to make the revolution possible, which was great. But now there was no army, and they were facing the German army, the most powerful in the world.

Another option was to sign a treaty, which could only be a really bad treaty. For a while, Trotsky tried a third option, a policy of “we are out of the war but we are not signing the treaty.” The Germans would not accept this and launched a new offensive in February 1918.

By March, the Bolsheviks were faced with the fact that if they did not sign some kind of a treaty, the German military was going to drive right into Petrograd and Moscow and destroy the revolution altogether. So the Bolsheviks signed the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They decided, and this was Lenin’s view, to accept the treaty and hope that things would be different later and that the terms would be changed. But accepting the treaty would mean giving huge chunks of territory to the German Empire. This included all of the Ukraine, which was the breadbasket of the old Russian Empire, and also Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Byelorussia, known as White Russia at the time. In the south, the Turkish Empire, the Ottomans, took over Armenia and other areas. The Bolsheviks had to surrender a huge amount of territory.

Even signing the treaty, however, did not solve the Bolsheviks’ military problems. There was no breathing space at all. Already, by the time the treaty was signed, the White armies, extremely brutal armies led by various czarist military officers, had launched a campaign called “White Terror.” The White armies would go into villages where there was sympathy for the Bolsheviks and the revolution and slaughter everyone.

At this time, Russia was reduced to a small size. We know how huge czarist Russia had been and how large Soviet Russia was to be. But, at this point in 1918, Russia was being attacked from all sides and reduced to a very small size. They were being attacked by the White generals and admirals. Beginning in April and May of 1918, while World War I was still going on, the Japanese Empire landed troops in the far east, at Vladivostok, up to then under Soviet control. The U.S. came in and then more and more until there were 14 different imperialist countries were invading.

This is what made it appear that the Bolsheviks could not survive. They did not even have an army yet. Transferred from foreign affairs after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky had been put in charge of forming what was to be called the Red Army. It was an incredibly difficult situation that they faced. And the Bolsheviks had to urgently do this, to turn all of their attention towards building the Red Army, because otherwise they were going to be gone. They could be gone in a matter of weeks.

So that was one huge task the Bolsheviks faced: Defending the revolution

The Economy

The second task had to do with the economy and rebuilding it. Before the revolution, in the April Theses, Lenin had laid out his position about the revolution. To summarize, Lenin said that the working class needed to control the economy but that the economy should not be socialized immediately. The socializing of the economy, Lenin said, had to be done over a period of time and that it would have to be developed because otherwise it would be too disruptive and break things up. But, as it turned out, there was not really a choice. For the most part, the capitalist owners of the companies that were there fled. They took everything that they could with them, including, of course, their capital, their money. It was similar to what happened after the revolution in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, where much of the capitalist class just took everything they could out of the country, and the ones who stayed tried to subvert the economy.

And this was combined, as later in Cuba, Nicaragua and other revolutionary countries, with a blockade, totally cutting off Russia from the world. In that period, nobody would sell revolutionary Russia anything. In all of 1919, Russia was almost totally isolated from the world. The isolation was so complete that they could hardly even get a newspaper from Germany to read. As a result of this tremendous disruption, there were no goods to trade. Very little was being produced by the factories in Petrograd, Moscow and elsewhere.

This was a country that was still 90% peasant in population. And they had to have goods to trade with the peasants for food. The most elementary necessity of a workers’ government is to feed the workers. If you can’t do that, you can’t do anything else – not to mention trying to improve conditions, substantially improve the condition of the working people, which has to be the goal of a workers’ revolution.

War Communism

A lot of the peasants, particularly the wealthier ones called the kulaks, but also the middle peasants, were withholding their grain from the market. They could hold it back; they could just store it. And they were holding back vast amounts of the grain and demanding higher prices than what the new workers’ state could possibly pay. This led to the initiation of what came to be known as “war communism.” The party organized worker detachments in the cities, in the factories, that went into the countryside to get the grain. They got the food and requisitioned it. In other words, they went and said: “We look at how much food there is in the village, how much food the individual farmers have (the wealthier farmers of course). This is how much we believe you need to survive. And since you won’t trade with us, we have to take the rest of the food. We have to take it because otherwise the workers will starve and the revolution is gone.” That was the policy of distributing scarce goods on the basis of need. The government did this without regard for, and in effect bypassing, the market.

The most important, and most immediate, need was that of the Red Army that the revolutionaries were building to fight against all the invading forces. And food is really the most important ammunition that an army requires. An army cannot move, an army cannot do anything, without food.

War Communism was idealized by some. There were those in the Bolshevik Party who said: “This is really a way in which we can go straight to communism. We can bypass socialism and go right to communism.” But that is not what the purpose of it was, nor was this a realistic way of getting to communism. War communism was not based not on a plan, with the Bolshevik leadership deciding that was how they could get to communism faster. It was based, as it was said, on the “iron necessity” of the time.

The other major point about the economy is that it all had to be geared for defense. The government had to produce the weapons; it had to produce the uniforms, the boots, the shoes and the armored vehicles. They had to produce all of this internally. Nothing could be brought in from the outside.

It is important to point out that a civil war is far different from a war between countries. A civil war is a war to the death between two opposing sides because they cannot share power. Countries can decide to make an agreement between them. They could decide to move the border this way or that way and end the war in some form. But that is not possible in a civil war. And the civil war in Russia was a very devastating one. So, after three years of World War I, the most devastating war in history in which Russia had already lost millions of people, and under a blockade, the revolutionary government had to fight against the White Army and foreign intervention in a civil war.

These circumstances led to a downward spiral in the economy, such that by 1920 industrial production in Russia was only 14% of what it had been in 1913. 14%! It is almost impossible for us to conceive of what that means. Effectively, six out of seven of everything we can think of, everything people need, was gone. During the great depression, at its worst, the U.S. decline in production was something in the neighborhood of 40%-50%. In Russia, it was a decline of 86%. It left the country in a devastated condition. There was starvation and there were epidemics. It was such an extreme situation that by 1920 and 1921 there was the reappearance of cannibalism in some parts.

Reorganizing the world working-class movement

It is important to be honest about what really happened in order to understand what comes later for Russia and the Soviet Union. In early 1918, the Bolshevik Party had maybe a quarter of a million members. The conscious elements of the working class, other revolutionary elements, peasants who had been in the army and politicized, numbered maybe two million.

There are objective conditions and subjective forces in a revolution. That is, the objective conditions that exist and have come into being, and the subjective forces being the politically conscious elements, and there is a relationship between the two. But when a revolution happens, that subjective force, the politically conscious population, becomes an objective condition as well. It becomes one of the objective conditions and, without this particular objective condition, things would not have gone very far in the Russian revolution.

Not only did the Bolsheviks have to deal with this war of annihilation against them on all fronts and the hunger and the economic collapse, but they also had to take on reorganizing the left wing of the working class movement in the world. And it was not a secondary task. It was not as if they could deal with other tasks first and then tackle this one later, maybe in a few years. The reason the Bolsheviks could not wait was that they regarded the extension of their revolution to other countries as an absolute necessity for their own survival. And they were all completely dedicated to this. An indication of this is that shortly after the revolution, as soon as the war ended, Karl Radek, one of the leaders of the revolution, went to Germany and became an agent for revolution there. But the German government discovered this quickly, put Radek in jail, and held him in solitary confinement for six months.

This was what the leadership of the Bolsheviks was willing to do. They had just gone through this whole revolutionary process. But their internationalism was of such a character that Lenin, Trotsky and other leaders repeatedly said that they did not even see the survival of the Russian Revolution, their own revolution, as their number one priority. And, on many occasions, they said that if they had a choice of being able to take some action that would enable revolution to happen in Germany, and by doing so it would cost them power in Russia, they would do it. The German revolution, from their point of view, would have had so much greater effect on the whole worldwide struggle of the working class. Of course, that does not mean that they were not prepared to fight to the death for the Russian Revolution. They certainly were. But they believed that a German Revolution would have so much greater strategic weight.

The End of World War I

In November 1918, World War I came to an end. Something that is rarely talked about is why it came to an end. The Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were taking power in Germany. In parts of Germany, starting on the Nov. 6, 1918, the councils started functioning as the supreme political authority. And this is what brought about the end of World War I. The workers and soldiers could not take it anymore. It had been four years of this war and they had had it. The politically conscious German working class rose up.

But, at that time, there was not in existence a revolutionary party in Germany. Nevertheless, in Russia, this was considered to be the hoped-for beginning of the revolution in Europe. On Nov. 11, which is Armistice Day, now Veterans Day in the United States, the Soviet government declared that the Brest Litovsk Treaty was void, although that did not mean that the German troops pulled out of the occupied areas. But now a revolutionary situation existed in Germany. In many cities, there were soviet authorities, the workers’ councils, an alternative power much as they had been in the Russian Revolution in the period between February and October of 1917.

Alongside the worker’s councils was another source of power, the government, and that government was headed by the Social Democratic Party. This Social Democratic Party, which had been the party of the workers, had now become a pro-bourgeois party, a pro-capitalist party with a lot of socialist rhetoric. The bourgeoisie of Germany had no choice but to turn to the Social Democrats because it had lost all of its authority. The bourgeoisie had to turn to the Social Democratic Party and ask it to become the government. They were the government, and remained the government between that time and when Hitler took power in 1933. The Social Democrats governed and acted effectively on behalf of the German capitalist class.

A few months after this, in 1919, there were revolutions in Hungary, which lasted a few months, and in Bavaria, a southern state of Germany, which lasted only a few weeks. And over the next three years, there were several attempts at revolutionary seizures of power in Germany. These revolutionary situations were mainly in the countries that had lost the war; in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was now breaking up into smaller states. But the revolutions failed; they all failed. And why did they fail? The most fundamental reason why, in this revolutionary situation, even a situation in Germany where there were soviets in so many cities, was that there was not the existence of a party like the Bolshevik Party that could pull together all the forces of the working class; a party that could coordinate the movement, know how to move, to be able to maneuver against the bourgeoisie and to call for a revolutionary insurrection. And, more than any other, this is the main reason that the revolutions after the war failed in Europe.

The Communist International

The first journal of the Communist International, 1919

The first journal of the Communist International, 1919

The year 1919 was the height of isolation for Russia. But in March of that year, the Bolsheviks held the first convention of the Communist International, the Third International, in Moscow. So much was Russia isolated that people died attempting to get to this convention. Only 55 delegates, representing 19 countries, were able to make it to the convention. The Bolsheviks conceived of the Communist International as an international communist party in which there would be national detachments and that the Communist International would be the world staff of the revolution. Lenin said of the Communist International, years before there ever was a USSR: “It’s the union of soviet socialist republics of the world.” In this convention, the Bolsheviks made an appeal to the workers of all countries to come to the aid of the Soviet Republic that was under such tremendous duress and said: “if you don’t come to our aid, we will certainly die.” They added: “if you don’t come to our aid, we at least can die on our feet, while you will be condemned to living as slaves.”

The task of the Communist International was to try, as quickly as possible, to propagate the principles and tactics that the Bolsheviks had experienced and accumulated between 1903 and 1917, in order to build new revolutionary and communist parties – not social-democratic but communist parties – all over the world. And this was no small task either. The Bolshevik attempt to do this was not as big a task as the economy or as big a task as the war. But it meant that they had to have, out of very limited number of people capable of dealing with all of these tremendous challenges, people who were informed and educated down to the tiniest details about every country. This was necessary because they were having discussions with people from those countries about how to build the political movement, how to build the communist movement in Germany, France, the United States, Indonesia, China, all over the world. They had to set up departments, bureaus, for different countries and different parts of the world. It takes a huge amount of resources and personnel, especially for a country that is so impoverished and so under attack.

The failures of the revolutions from 1918 to 1921 gave capitalism a breathing space. The United States had now become the leading power in the world because it had sat out most of World War I and taken relatively light casualties. U.S. WWI casualties were around 117,000, compared with 3 to 4 million for Russia and 6 to 7 million for Germany. The U.S. had come in late in the war and played a role similar to the role England used to play in wars between imperialist rivals – supply all sides with what the arms and food, make huge profits from it, wait to see which side is winning and then join that side late in the war. By doing so, the United States had become the leading economic power in the world. And through means like the Dawes Plan, the U.S. began to funnel in money to stabilize Western Europe.

The revolutionary wave was blocked by its own lack of preparedness, because there were no other parties like the Bolshevik Party, and by the intervention of the United States and the relative re-stabilization of the capitalist system.

By 1921, what seemed to have been a totally hopeless situation in Russia had changed. The hastily put together Red Army and militias, workers’ militias, peasant militias, had pushed back the White armies. Even in 1921, large parts of the Caucuses region and the northern part of Russia were still occupied by the invading armies. But the tide had completely turned and the civil war was effectively over. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, as it was known then, had regained much of the territory it had lost, even out to the Pacific Ocean. It was impoverished but it was still standing.

How Did the Russian Revolution Survive?

How was this possible? This is a question that has to be asked. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party had thought: “If we don’t have other revolutions, we cannot survive. We are the most backward capitalist country. Facing all of what we face, it won’t be possible for us to live unless there are other revolutions.” The answer to this question is that, despite the defeat of revolutionary working-class attempts in capitalist countries, particularly in Europe, the international working class was supportive of and sympathetic to the Russian Revolution.

The failure of other revolutions left Russia – and in 1923 it became the USSR – isolated as a socialist country. But the imperialists were held back from massive invasions. None of the imperialists sent in a million troops, or a half a million troops, or anything close to that. Had they been able to do that, given their economic and military advantages, they probably would have been able to crush the Russian Revolution by sheer weight of force.

So why were the imperialists not able to invade with a large number of forces? Let’s read from E.H. Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution:

In January 1919, when the allied statesmen, assembled in Paris for the peace conference, discussed the occupation of Russia by allied troops, the British prime minister bluntly assured his colleagues that “if we now proposed to send a thousand British troops to Russia for that purpose, the armies would mutiny,” and that “if a military enterprise were started against the Bolsheviki, that would make England Bolshevist and there would be a Soviet in London.

Lloyd George was talking for effect, as was his manner. But his perceptive mind had correctly diagnosed the symptoms. Serious mutinies in the first months of 1919 in the French fleet and in French military units landed in Odessa and other Black Sea ports led to an enforced evacuation at the beginning of April. Of the troops of several nationalities under British command on the Archangel front, the director of the military operations of the War Office reported in March 1919 that the morale was “so low as to render them a prey to the very active and insidious Bolshevik propaganda which the enemy are carrying out with increasing energy and skill.” The details were disclosed much later through official American reports. On March 1, 1919, a mutiny occurred among French troops ordered to go up to the line; several days earlier a British infantry company “refused to go to the front,” and shortly afterwards an American company “refused for a time to return to duty at the front.” It was in the light of such experience that the British government decided in March 1919 to evacuate north Russia, though the evacuation was not in fact completed until six months later.

Mutiny among the troops was matched by widespread disaffection in the industrial centers of Great Britain. At the time of the armistice, a report handed by the Foreign Office to the American embassy in London expressed the belief that “apart from certain centers, notably the Clyde and South Wales, Bolshevism as such is innocuous for the present.” Nevertheless, no chances were taken: “A careful watch is being maintained for such Bolshevik propaganda as may reach this country from abroad, in order that it may be intercepted and destroyed, and the same measures are being taken wherever possible in respect to inflammatory literature secretly printed at home. Counter-propaganda is meanwhile being conducted through the unostentatious distribution of pamphlets designed to educate the people as to the true significance of Bolshevism, and appropriate articles appear in the Sunday papers customarily read by working men.”

The first serious attempt to challenge public order by calling a general strike was made in Glasgow at the end of January 1919; and “Red Friday” was long remembered as the peak of the revolutionary movement on the Clyde. Political discontent was focused on the government’s Russian policy by a meeting at the Albert Hall on Feb. 9, 1919, which launched a “Hands off Russia” campaign. At the founding congress of the Comintern a month later, the British delegate Fineberg spoke in a language that seemed to find support in facts: “The strike movement is spreading all over England and is affecting every branch of industry. In the army, discipline is much weakened, which in other countries was the first symptom of revolution.”

“England may seem to you untouched,” Lenin told a British correspondent at this time, “but the microbe is already there.”

Meanwhile, hunger was rife in central Europe, and disorganization was everywhere; strikes and disorders had occurred even in peaceful neutral countries like Holland and Switzerland. On March 21, 1919, just a fortnight after the founding congress of Comintern had dispersed, a Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Budapest. On the next day, House in Paris confided his apprehensions to his diary: “Bolshevism is gaining ground everywhere. Hungary has just succumbed. We are sitting upon an open powder magazine and someday a spark may ignite it.”

There was a serious discussion going on, particularly led by the French, to say: “Let’s just organize a big allied force and go in and get rid of this because we know this is our enemy, our class enemy, and we should destroy it.” But although the working class was not able to achieve political power in the other countries, as the passage from Carr’s book indicates, sentiment had developed strongly in support of the Russian Revolution. It was because of this real factor that the imperialists had to take into account what would happen if they tried to take too vigorous a military action, particularly when all of these countries were just coming out of a world war where the populations were so sick of war. Would being ordered to go to war again, this time against fellow workers in Russia, be the last straw? Would it push things over the edge? And would the imperialist powers face what happened in Russia in their own countries? This factor would not have existed had there not been demonstrations and strikes, including here in the United States. There was a general strike in Seattle that demanded no intervention in Russia.

The contradiction that the Soviet state faced when this revolutionary wave was not successful was the basis for the real contradiction in their policy of the revolutionary state. On the one hand, they wanted to promote revolution, and on the other hand if the revolution did not happen fast enough, they had to deal with the other states because there is a system of states in the world. On the one hand they were supporting the revolutionary movement in a country to overthrow the government, and on the other hand, they were sitting down to talk to the government, and that government knew this. The bourgeois governments all knew this very well and this comes back as a much bigger issue later

Against seemingly impossible odds, the most important factor in the survival of the new Soviet state, Soviet Russia, was the revolutionary enthusiasm that was unleashed by the revolution itself. Through its participation, workers became, for the first time in history, the subjects and not the objects of history. As mentioned previously, the revolutionary energy released by the revolution is, in a much more positive way, similar to a thermonuclear explosion. If you look at uranium there is no way to conceive of the tremendous amount of energy released when there is fusion. There is no way of calculating this factor in history, of what people are really able to do, of what’s really possible, of the potential that lies within the oppressed classes. This made it possible to attain what appeared to be unattainable.

In the process of attaining it, though, most of the best, the most dedicated workers, most of the communist workers were killed. They died in the battles to save the Soviet Union. Literally millions gave everything so that the first workers’ revolution could live. And it lived, but under very difficult conditions. And because it lived, communism became a world force. Also, for the first time now, there developed an area in the world that was under the control of the workers, under the control of the oppressed – one sixth of the world was now in their hands.

But by 1921, Russia was exhausted. The workers who now worked in the factories were new workers. This is something to think about to understand what happened in the next few years in the Soviet Union. There were no longer workers who had lived through the very rich, educational, revolutionary experiences from the late 1890s, when the working class began to become a factor in Russia, up until 1917. Most of those workers were lost. They were either dead or if they had survived, they were now doing some job in the state. They had to. It was a workers’ state and that’s where the personnel had to come from. So now the workers were new workers who had come in from the countryside and who did not have this kind of political experience and consciousness.

At the same time, in 1921, since the economy was still completely blockaded – with all that means in a modern, interconnected world – reforms to revive the nearly dead economy had to be carried out. These reforms were called the “New Economic Policy.” The reforms were somewhat similar to what Cuba has to do now, under the conditions of no longer having the Soviet Union to trade with, or the Eastern bloc to trade with. These reforms allow some capitalist incentives while trying to keep the commanding heights of the economy under socialist and workers’ control.

These two factors together have a lot of implications for what happened later: the tremendous decimation of the most revolutionary elements of the working class, combined with being forced to adopt certain capitalist-type initiatives and reforms in the economy, at least for a period of time in order to survive.

Effect on the World Movement

The last thing to be mentioned in this part is that the Russian Revolution and the Communist International, despite all these problems that they faced, had a dramatic effect on the world movement, on world politics. In the capitalist countries, all over Europe, in the United States and in Japan, new parties were organized out of the old socialist parties. New communist parties took all the most left-wing, revolutionary elements, and others who were new to politics, and formed new communist parties.

What was even more dramatic is that, up until this time, communist and socialist organizations had been mainly confined to the capitalist countries, to the imperialist countries. Now, in the course of the formation of the Communist International, Lenin said that they should change the slogan of “Workers of the World Unite” to “Workers and Oppressed People of the World Unite.” And, as one of their primary objectives, they set out to give aid to not just revolutionary movements in oppressed countries, but to the oppressed countries in their struggle against imperialism. It changed Marx’s fundamental slogan of “Workers of the World Unite” to include the oppressed peoples of the world, oppressed by imperialism.

One way in which this was expressed was that the Soviet government, within a couple of years of the revolution, signed a new treaty with China. China was all broken up into pieces and under imperialist domination. In the treaty, the Soviet leadership declared that it renounced all concessions, all privileges and renounced the right of extra-territoriality. After the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1890s, China had been forced to pay all of the occupying countries a yearly indemnity, including to czarist Russia. The Soviet government renounced that and said: “We’re done with the indemnity. We renounce all of the privileges.”

This was startling. No imperialist country had ever done this voluntarily, and none has done it voluntarily since.

The Bolsheviks published the secret treaties that the czar had entered into with other imperialist countries. One of those treaties was called the Sykes-Pecot Treaty. The British had promised the Arab people living in the Ottoman Empire, which was part of the British enemy camp in World War I, “If you fight on our side against the Ottoman Turks, when the war is over you will have your own country.” In 1915, at the same moment that the British were making this promise, they signed the Sykes-Pecot Treaty, a secret treaty with France and Russia by which they agreed that, after the war, England would get Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, and the French would get Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, the Soviet government published the treaty, which led to rebellions all over the Arab world. The publication of the treaty showed that the Bolsheviks were disclaiming any of the interests that had been entailed in the czarist treaties.

All of these actions drew toward the Russian Revolution and toward communism the most left-wing nationalist rebellious elements all over the world, who now saw that imperialism could be defeated. They saw that the misery that existed in Russia before the revolution and all over the world was not inevitable. They saw that it didn’t have to be like that, with a tiny group in control and all the rest oppressed. It was possible to get out of this. There was a way out, and the Russian Revolution showed the way out.

In 1920, the Indonesian Communist Party was formed. It was hard to get from Indonesia to Moscow, but someone got there. In 1921, the Communist Party of China was formed. The Communist Party of France contributed directly to the formation of a communist party in Vietnam. Without the communist party, known as the Workers’ Party of Vietnam, Vietnam would never have been able to defeat the United States. In 1922, in Chile the communist party was formed. Also in South Africa, and within a few years in Iraq and Cuba, communist parties were formed all over the world, where imperialism reigned. And now imperialism had to face something completely new. And now people all over the world had new hope.

There is a story recounted by British historian, E.H. Carr. There was a communist presence in Baku, Azerbaijan, part of the Russian empire. The majority of the people there were Islamic and they hated the domination of the Russian empire as well as imperialism. Among the people of Baku, word began going around that Lenin was a messenger of Allah. Of course, that is not what Lenin would like to be known as. But this story is an indication of what the Russian Revolution meant, how its victory was communicated around the world and the tremendous impact it had.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...