U.S. and World Politics

Russia 1917

How the revolution we need today prevailed then

By Chris Kinder

Long disparaged and denounced as it is, the Russian Revolution of 1917 still demands our attention today. No event in history was quite like the Russian Revolution, because no other event before or since has attempted to change the motive force of history in the fundamental way that this event did. By forming the world’s first and only lasting (if only for a few years) workers’ state, this revolution alone offered the promise of a world without the endless class conflict that defined all previous history: a world based on genuine human cooperation; free of exploitation, war, racism, sexism and national, ethnic and religious oppression. The promise of the Russian Revolution embodied the true goals of the vast majority of humanity then, and yes, of humanity today. The fact that this revolution soon was unraveled, betrayed and eventually destroyed only makes the lessons it holds for us today more important to understand.

Like the Paris Commune before it, the Russian Revolution established the dictatorship of the proletariat as the path to the eventual elimination of class-based society. But unlike the Commune, this revolution carved its way to power not by trying to take over the institutions of the bourgeois state, but by an uncompromising insistence that the working class take the power in its own name. Yet, that is not quite how it all began.

In February of 1917, a mass popular outpouring of women and men workers in Petrograd, exhausted, starved and fed up with the war, and soon joined by rank and file soldiers, toppled the brittle and inept Tsarist regime within a few days of strikes and street demonstrations. Workers councils (soviets) were immediately formed, but their reformist leadership turned state power over to a bourgeois Provisional Government which sought to keep the capitalists and landowners in power, and to continue Russia’s involvement in the world war, to which their class was committed by finance and treaty.

The masses had demanded more

The masses in the streets—workers who had been peasants, and soldiers who were peasants in uniform—had demanded much more. The women who led it off on International Women’s Day shouted calls for “bread” to address the chronic shortages of food for Petrograd’s workers, and shouts of “down with the war” were soon everywhere in the streets. With the Tsar gone days later (after 300 years of autocracy, his own generals told him his time was up), soldiers established committees which proclaimed equality and terminated both the rule of officers and the death penalty in the military. Desertions from the trenches of the war with Germany, already high, increased dramatically.

Workers demanded higher wages and workers’ control of production. Peasants in the countryside began to burn the mansions of the landlords and seize the land. In short, the working people were putting forward their own demands, for peace, land and bread: demands, which the bourgeoisie could not and would not accede to. It was a stand off, known as “dual power:” the soviets had the masses, but the bourgeoisie, though weakened, still held the reins of power.

The permanent revolution

In 2017—the centennial year of the Russian Revolution—plagued as it is with a degenerate but still dominant imperialist power in the throes of decline, and a world which seems embroiled in a Hobbesian nightmare1 of endless war, it is important to understand how the stand-off in Russia’s February evolved into a revolution, known as the October Revolution, which established a workers’ state in Russia. The question of leadership was key, but more than that, what were the principles upon which leadership operated to pull the masses together into a struggle to put them in power? Here we need to look first of all at the theory of permanent revolution.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, was nothing if not a confirmation of this theory. The “permanent revolution” is a Marxist concept, which is just as vital today as it was in 1917. Permanent revolution refers to the proposition that in the modern world—that is, since the abolition of feudalism in Europe—the bourgeoisie is incapable of achieving even the most basic demands of a democratic revolution. The lessons of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, as Marx and Engels made clear in their “Address of the Central Committee To the Communist League” in 1850, were that the bourgeoisie, now empowered after the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, had become a brake on any further revolution in order to prevent the working-class masses from becoming a threat to their property.

In the failed revolutions of 1848-49, the bourgeoisie had allied with its fellow propertied class, the aristocratic landowners and other hangovers from feudalism, in order to prevent any concessions to the working masses. They wanted to stop the revolution at their “stage,” i.e., with the bourgeoisie in power, regardless of the anti-democratic compromises that required. What Marx and Engels so brilliantly concluded, is that the working-class would not only have to complete the bourgeois revolution, but also needed to struggle independently to achieve its own socialist and internationalist goals:

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands [final abolition of feudalism and of laws against usury, ‘democratic’ governmental forms, etc.,] it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society but the foundation of a new one.”2

Two years later, Marx detailed how the interests of the peasantry had radically changed since the Revolution of 1789 in France. Peasants had allied with the bourgeoisie in 1789; and following the destruction of the feudal nobility, which had held them as serfs, they had become small holders of agricultural plots. But now, they were the victims of the mortgages and taxes imposed on them by the new bourgeois ruling class. Agricultural production was down, and the peasants were immiserated, including “five million who hover on the margin of existence and either have their haunts in the countryside or...continually desert the countryside for the towns....”

“Therefore” Marx went on, “the interests of the peasants are no longer, as under Napoleon, in accord with, but are now in opposition to bourgeois interests, to capital. Hence they find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task it is to overthrow the bourgeois order.”3

Russian Marxists were divided into three camps

There could hardly have been a better description of the situation, and the revolutionary tasks, in Russia prior to the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. But Russian Marxists were divided in their analysis into roughly three camps. The Menshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) pointed to Russia’s backwardness to insist that the working class could only be an appendage to the bourgeoisie, which must lead the revolution to establish capitalism, which must develop before the workers could advance to socialism. “Always and everywhere,” said Trotsky in 1919, “the Mensheviks strove to find signs of the development of bourgeois democracy, and where they could not find them they invented them.” (Results and Prospects 1906—see footnote 5)

Lenin’s Bolsheviks, on the other hand, while accepting that a capitalist democratic republic was a necessary stage of the revolution, had absolutely no confidence in the ability of the bourgeoisie to overthrow Tsarism and carry out its own revolution. Lenin’s formula for the revolution was that the working class must make the revolution and establish a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” (DDPP), which alone, through workers and peasants sharing power together, could bring about bourgeois democratic revolution.

Lenin also foresaw something more, which gives a hint at least, that he understood the inherent contradiction of the DDPP, in which two classes with two separate interests could hold power together. “Its future [that is, the future of the DDPP] is the struggle against private property, the struggle of the wage worker against the employer, the struggle for socialism,” Lenin explained. Even under a democratic republic established by the DDPP, “A Social-Democrat must never for a moment forget that the proletariat will inevitably have to wage a class struggle for socialism even against the most democratic and republican bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.... Hence, the absolute necessity of a separate, independent, strictly class party of Social-Democracy.”4 

This last point—the need for a coherent revolutionary party—had been at the core of the 1903 split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and was to underlie all their growing differences. And it was to be a decisive feature of the Revolution of 1917.

The third vision of the coming revolution was that of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, who after the 1903 split briefly went with the Mensheviks, then became independent, and finally joined Lenin in the Revolution of 1917, made the most coherent class analysis. In several works written around the time of the first (1905) revolution (in which he played a leading role as head of the Petrograd Soviet), he laid out his concept of the revolution in permanence in Russia. Having the most concentrated industry, and with the largest factories in Europe, combined with the most backward agricultural situation, Russia was saddled with a tsarist aristocratic state which rested on a powerful landed gentry born of another era. The capitalist enterprises, heavily invested in by foreign (principally French) capital, were fully intertwined with the landed aristocracy through financial arrangements. The capitalist class had been established within, was integral to, and was supportive of the gentry-dominated state. This “uneven and combined development”—modern capitalist industry imbedded within a dominant agricultural/aristocratic state just advanced from feudalism by inches—meant not only that the working class would have to make the bourgeois democratic revolution, as Lenin insisted, but that it would have to immediately press forward with its socialist, working-class demands.

Trotsky: permanent revolution

The standpoint that Trotsky and his co-thinker Parvus supported in 1904-05 was that, “... the revolution, having begun as a bourgeois revolution as regards its first tasks, will soon call forth powerful class conflicts and will gain final victory only by transferring power to the only class capable of standing at the head of the oppressed masses, namely to the proletariat. Once in power, the proletariat not only will not want, but will not be able to limit itself to a bourgeois democratic program.... It must adopt the tactics of permanent revolution, i.e., must destroy the barriers between the minimum and maximum program of the Social Democracy, go over to more and more radical social reforms and seek direct and immediate support in revolution in Western Europe.”5

Trotsky rejected Lenin’s slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry because it was embroiled in class contradictions. The peasantry, while it had sometimes managed to overthrow governments in Europe, had never been able to establish its own state power, largely due to the “unceasing class differentiation among the peasantry,” namely the inevitable conflicts between the richest peasants (kulaks, in Russia), middle peasants and landless peasants, who were agricultural laborers on other peasants’ farms. Either a new landed aristocracy (as in the endless imperial overturns in China, for example), or an urban class had always inherited the power after peasant revolts.

Furthermore, a two-class state would be rife with contradictions and could not survive. The peasantry must either give way to petty-bourgeois democrats, i.e., a new capitalist regime, or follow the lead of the proletariat, which, Trotsky said, “will bring all forces into play in order to raise the cultural level of the countryside and develop the political consciousness of the peasantry.” He goes on, “From what we have said above, it will be clear how we regard the idea of a ‘proletarian and peasant dictatorship.’ It is not really a matter of whether we regard it as inadmissible in principle, whether ‘we do or do not desire’ such a form of political co-operation. We simply think that it is unrealizable...” And if taking the lead in the coming revolution did not mean that “the advanced workers should magnanimously shed their blood without asking themselves for what purpose, but means that the workers must take political leadership of the whole struggle, which above all will be a proletarian struggle, then it is clear that victory in this struggle must transfer power to the class that has led the struggle, i.e., the Social Democratic proletariat.”6

The final split, and the war

Following the decisive split with the Mensheviks, which had happened in 1912; and with the experience of the inter-imperialist war then raging in Europe, by January of 1917 Lenin had come to a position on the revolution in Russia similar to Trotsky’s. Emphasizing that the coming Russian revolution would be a prologue to working-class revolution in Europe, Lenin said that “Undoubtedly, this coming revolution can only be a proletarian revolution, and in an even more profound sense of the word: a proletarian, socialist revolution also in its content.”7

Lenin was in exile in Zurich at this time, but as soon as he received word of the February Revolution and the setting up of a Provisional Government, he set about expounding his views. Noting that the workers of Petrograd were responsible for making the revolution happen, and had immediately established soviets as they had in 1905, Lenin said that, “...the new government that has seized power in St. Petersburg, or more correctly, wrested it from the proletariat, which has waged a victorious, heroic and fierce struggle, consists of liberal bourgeois and landlords... [this government] cannot give the peoples of Russia (and the nations tied to us by the war) either peace, bread or full freedom. The working class must therefore continue its fight for socialism and peace...”8 And in “Letters on Tactics,” written in April just after his return to Russia, he denounced his earlier slogan:

“The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times...he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks.’)” Later, in the same writing, he attacked one of these “old Bolsheviks” for proposing that the party should follow the revolutionary masses instead of sticking to their own, communist program: “Comrade Kamenev contraposes to a ‘party of the masses’ a ‘group of propagandists.’ But the ‘masses’ have now succumbed to the craze of ‘revolutionary’ defencism. Is it not more becoming for internationalists at this moment to show that they can resist ‘mass’ intoxication rather than to ‘wish to remain’ with the masses, i.e., to succumb to the general epidemic? Have we not seen how in all the belligerent countries of Europe the chauvinists tried to justify themselves on the grounds that they wished to ‘remain with the masses?’”9

Lenin here refers to old Bolsheviks, principally Stalin and Kamenev, who had taken over leadership in the party press while Lenin was still in exile. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), who comprised most of the leadership in the soviets, had guided the workers into collaboration with the Provisional Government, while the Bolshevik leadership had at first put forward opposition to the Provisional Government and the war more or less along the lines that Lenin had advocated. But Stalin and Kamenev, after returning from their Siberian exile in March, took over the editorship of the party paper Pravda and moved the position of the Bolsheviks sharply to the right. They advocated limited support to the Provisional Government, denounced the slogan “Down with the war,” and demanded an end to disorganizing efforts at the front, which Bolshevik agitators had been encouraging. Kamenev proclaimed in Pravda that, “‘While there is no peace, the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.’ The slogan ‘Down with the war’ is useless, echoed Stalin the next day.”10

Lenin replied with his “April Theses,” spoken at the Finland Station, and delivered to the party within days of his arrival, and subsequent works and statements such as “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” in which he hammered away on all his key points: no support to the bourgeois Provisional Government or the pursuance of the Anglo/French/Tsarist inter-imperialist war; for renunciation of all imperialist annexations, secret treaties and capitalist interests; and for the nationalization of the land under the control of peasant soviets, and the expropriation of the banks and capitalist syndicates. All of this was to be pulled together with a “new type of state,” bringing the working class to power, which “could only” be established through the soviets of workers and poor peasants.11

Lenin’s April Theses dumbfounded some Bolshevik leaders

This last point, of all power to the soviets, left Bolsheviks dumbfounded when Lenin first proposed it to an informal gathering of party members and others in Petrograd on the evening after his arrival at Finland Station, according to Nikolai Nikolayevich Sukhanov, a former Socialist Revolutionary, who was present at the event. “ one had ever dreamt of them [i.e., the soviets] as organs of state power, and unique and enduring ones besides. ...this whole schema was incomprehensible.”12 While Sukhanov clearly had his own conceptual lenses in this observation, Lenin was indeed a minority of one for a time on the main issues of his “April Theses,” which were first published in Pravda a few days later with only his signature—no one else had signed on—and with a disparaging introduction by the editors to boot.

This was a party cadre which, though it immensely respected Lenin as its historic leader, was nevertheless still stuck in its “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” formula, in which the workers would make the bourgeois revolution, and only then fight for their own demands, perhaps sometime later. However, it was also a committed and disciplined party, which was clear that this was a workers’ revolution. And since the immediate tasks in the workers’ eyes, such as ending the war, feeding the people, mobilizing against the counter-revolution, abolishing the landed estates, and even establishing an eight-hour work day were being actively opposed and resisted by the government of the capitalists and landlords, it was not long before most Bolsheviks came around to Lenin’s view. As Trotsky later related in his seminal History of the Russian Revolution:

“Once the Leninist formulas were issued, they shed a new light for the Bolsheviks upon the experience of the past months and of every new day. In the broad mass of the party, a quick differentiation took place—leftward and leftward, toward the theses of Lenin. ‘District after district adhered to them,’ says Zalezhsky, and by the time of the all-party conference on April 24, the Petersburg organization as a whole was in favor of the theses.’ The struggle for the re-arming of the Bolshevik ranks, begun on the evening of April 3, was essentially finished by the end of the month.”13

The revolution, enabled

So it was that Lenin, and soon the Bolshevik Party with him, had grasped the real issues in the class struggle that were operative in Russia in 1917, and come around to the permanent revolution analysis put forward by Trotsky in 1904-06, and first enunciated by Marx in 1850. This is what enabled the October Revolution: it laid the basis in the leadership for the conquest of power by the working class, and the subsequent transformation of Russia into a workers state that managed to survive for decades, despite the Soviet state’s later degeneration into a distorted, bureaucratic shadow of its former self. The impact of this historic 1917 victory still reverberates, and its lessons inform and instruct conscious revolutionaries to this day. Meanwhile Stalin, who in a few years would be condemning the permanent revolution as a Trotskyite heresy, quietly supported Lenin, and slipped into the background.

There were, of course, many hurdles between the acceptance of the April Theses and the final insurrection in October which established the new workers state, including continued opposition from the right within the Bolshevik Party, as well as some challenges from the left, such as when the Petrograd workers sought an immediate insurrection during the July days. The Bolsheviks opposed this at that time because the masses throughout the country were not ready for that as yet. And the Bolshevik Party was not strong enough. Lenin never sought decisive actions in isolation; only when the masses were clearly on board. The Kornilov affair, in which a reactionary Tsarist General organized an attempt at a counterrevolutionary assault on Petrograd, in collaboration with Kerensky, the “socialist” then head of the Provisional Government, was stopped in a well organized mass response by the Petrograd proletariat, who recruited most of Kornilov’s troops to the revolutionary banner, and thus demonstrated the working-class resolve to preserve and protect the revolution from any backsliding. And the October insurrection happened just at the opening of the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets as Lenin planned, despite some opposition on the timing, and the defection of Kamenev and Zinoviev (Lenin’s close ally in exile and collaborator at the Zimmerwald antiwar conferences) in opposing the insurrection plan in the public press!

Trotsky sees the need for the Bolshevik Party

Trotsky, who arrived back in Russia from exile in New York only by the 4th of May, when the theoretical re-arming of the Bolshevik Party was mostly completed, soon joined the Bolsheviks and became a stalwart ally of Lenin throughout the revolutionary period, including by serving as the chief organizer and leader of the Red Army throughout the Civil War. It should be noted that in his 1919 Preface to the re-issue of Results and Prospects, Trotsky acknowledged his error in not recognizing the importance of the Bolshevik Party earlier:

“…the author [i.e., Trotsky] did not fully appreciate the very important circumstance that in reality, along the line of the disagreement between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were being grouped inflexible revolutionaries on the one side and, on the other, elements which were becoming more and more opportunist and accommodating. When the Revolution of 1917 broke out, the Bolshevik Party constituted a strong centralized organization uniting all the best elements of the advanced workers and revolutionary intellectuals, which—after some internal struggle—frankly adopted tactics directed towards the socialist dictatorship of the working class, in full harmony with the entire international situation and class relations in Russia.”14

The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October was fully in accord with the needs and demands of the masses, with the permanent revolution, and with Lenin’s April Theses, which had called for all power to the soviets. Other approaches to power from both within (rightists such as Kamenev) and without (Mensheviks and SRs) the Bolshevik Party, such as focusing on the Constituent Assembly or on a coalition of all the parties of the soviets, would have resulted in a petty-bourgeois government and a continuation of capitalism. After a thunderous endorsement of power to the soviets by the delegates of the second all-Russian Congress, 60 percent of whom were Bolsheviks, the first two decrees of the new government were proposed and passed overwhelmingly: peace and land. The Provisional Government, despite its many promises of reform, had in its nine months of existence come nowhere near the initial accomplishments of this workers’ government in these two critical decrees.

The first, on ending the war, demanded an armistice, and “immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.” The Bolshevik government declared that it “considers it the greatest of crimes against humanity to continue this war.” It denounced the secret diplomacy which had contributed to the start of the war, and pledged to “proceed immediately with the full publication of the secret treaties,” which it presently did, much to the chagrin of all the competing imperialist powers, whether friend or foe of Russia. The decree also denounced all plans of the Tsarist and other governments regarding annexations of territory, and declared that all such territories should have the right to a free vote on their fate. With this statement alone, the Bolsheviks announced to the world their renunciation of capitalism and imperialism, and secured their place in history by putting the interests of humanity first, ahead of nationalism, imperialism, and all exploitative interests.15

The Bolshevik land decree

The Decree on Land, which like the Decree On Peace is so important for understanding in today’s world, was also revolutionary in its intent and implications. The Decree, written by Lenin and fully supported by Trotsky, had as its first clause, “1. Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation,” period. And later, under the clause, “The most equitable settlement of the land question is to be as follows,” we have “1. Private ownership of land shall be abolished forever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated. All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it.”16

Despite its clear wording of explicit state expropriation of the land—i.e., nationalization without compensation—the Land Decree did not have the immediate effect of abolishing private holding in land. While making land “become the property of the whole people,” it nevertheless allowed the land to “pass into the use of all those who cultivate it,” which meant that peasants, now freed from the rent and debt to landlord and money lender, which ever increasing burden they had suffered under ever since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, could divide up the large estates, and work the land that they had long held as their own, free and clear. The wording of the decree was in fact based on the “land to the tiller” program of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the descendants of Narodniks, populists who based themselves on the peasantry. Although the Land Decree was approved by a resounding acclamation, Lenin did face questions about it from some Bolsheviks. When asked after the passage of the Land Decree why he had applied the agrarian program of the SRs instead of his own, he said:

“Voices are being raised here that the decree itself and the Mandate were drawn up by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. What of it? Does it matter who drew them up? As a democratic government, we cannot ignore the decision of the masses of the people…. Let the peasants solve this problem from one end and we shall solve it from the other. Experience will allow us to draw together in the general stream of revolutionary creative work, in the elaboration of new state farms. We must be guided by experience; we must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses.” While the old, Tsarist government had only “fought the peasants,” Lenin continued: “The peasants have learned something during the eight months of our revolution; they want to settle all land problems themselves…. The point is that the peasants should be firmly assured that there are no more landowners in the countryside, that they themselves must decide all questions, and that they themselves must arrange their own lives.”17

Rosa Luxemburg on the land decree

Rosa Luxemburg, though a firm supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, said that “Formerly, there was only a small caste of noble and capitalist proprietors and a small minority of rich village bourgeoisie to oppose a socialist reform on the land. And their expropriation by a revolutionary mass movement of the people is mere child’s play.”18 Whose expropriation is “mere child’s play,” the noble and capitalist proprietors and rich village bourgeoisie, or them plus the mass of the peasantry, who thought the land belonged to them? And who was to do the expropriating, in the absence of an active, mass rural proletariat? Much as I respect Rosa Luxemburg, I must say that this statement is an over-simplification, which ignored the realities in Russia.

The peasants had indeed been learning something after the overthrow of the Tsar in the February Revolution, and the situation was “unstable” to say the least. In rural areas during the summer and fall of 1917 all hell was breaking loose. As the air of revolution permeated the countryside, peasants began to invade the big landed estates and cart off crops of hay and other resources such as tools and other implements. Some of the estate owners tried to get the weak Provisional Government’s support to protect their properties to no avail, up until July, that is. Many panicked and sold their estates to foreign investors, notably from France (which was Tsarist Russia’s major trade and investment partner.) The expropriation of the landlords was proceeding apace!

The peasants were also looking around for leadership. This is when the Socialist Revolutionaries, who promised, “land to the tiller,” surged to prominence as the peasants’ chief representatives. As Trotsky put it in 1923, “The Socialist Revolutionaries considered that the peasantry was created for the purpose of being under their leadership and, through them, to rule the country.”19 The inability of the peasantry to take power on its own, and the fact that the peasantry in power would mean rule by the petty-bourgeoisie, and hence the capitalist parties, completely escaped the understanding of the SRs. More to the point, the SRs along with Menshevik ministers were in fact the petty bourgeois government, by virtue of their majority in the Kerensky cabinet—Kerensky himself being an SR—as of May. Yet not only did they do nothing to implement their “land and freedom” program, which had the full backing of the peasantry, but after the defeat of the insurrectionary movement of the Petrograd workers in July, the Provisional Government (with its SR ministers!) sent troops to defend the landlords in the countryside, and managed to reverse some of the peasants’ gains. As a result, reports Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution, “...the peasants steadily lost confidence in both the government and the [SR] party. Thus the swelling out of the Social Revolutionary organizations in the villages became fatal to this universal party, which was rebelling at the bottom but restoring order at the top.”20

SRs had to be driven out of power

Despite all this, the SRs still had the nerve to criticize Lenin over the Land Decree: “The SRs cried: ‘A fine Marxist, who for fifteen years baited us from the heights of his grandeur for our petty-bourgeois lack of science, and then executed our program the moment he took power!’ And Lenin snapped back: ‘A fine party, that had to be driven out of power for its program to be realized!’”21

This brief exchange captured something fundamental: only the working class in power could finally uproot the aristocratic remnants of feudalism, and implement the basic democratic demands of the masses that petty-bourgeois or peasant parties were unable to bring about. But what about the socialist demands? Did the Bolsheviks’ failure to immediately establish a system of collective agriculture mean they had betrayed the permanent revolution, the theory Lenin adhered to, and which Trotsky had promoted early in the century?

The first thing to note in answer to this question is that Lenin’s Bolsheviks had adhered to their own formula, that this revolution had to be a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the peasantry. This support had not been acquired through the earlier Bolshevik slogan of a joint dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This would have been two-class rule, as in, for instance (hypothetically,) a joint government of Bolsheviks and SRs. Rather; it had been achieved by the inability of the SRs to implement their own program, and by the accession to power of the Bolsheviks alone (along with Left SRs, who recognized the need for working class rule.) As Trotsky put it, “The chief task lay in the substance of the historic task itself—a democratic agrarian revolution.” (See footnote 19)

Secondly, the Leninists had not for an instant forgotten the need for a class differentiation in the countryside. Lenin had tirelessly pursued attempts to organize the agricultural laborers and other poor peasants into their own soviets and other organizations, counterposed to the kulaks, who were often their employers. As more and more big landlord holdings were being looted however, the kulaks and small-landowning peasants took the lead and had the advantage of well-fed horses and carts to hold crops and equipment. So, in the thirst for “land and freedom,” the peasants had instead rallied behind the better-off. Thus the Land Decree could only implement collectivization as a future goal, through state ownership of the land. As a result, the kulaks did become a brake on the further development of the revolution, by withholding grain from the cities and, in a few cases, supporting counterrevolutionary forces in the Civil War.

Third and finally, if the Bolsheviks hadn’t adopted the Land Decree when they did, the revolution could well have been doomed. In this massive and mostly agrarian country, peasant support was vital, and the peasants needed to be “...assured that there are no more landowners in the countryside,” as Lenin said in his opposition to critics (above.) Or, as Victor Serge said in his Year One of the Revolution, the Land Decree “alone would make the new authority invincible, by assuring it the support of millions of peasants.”22 A vital part of this is that the new workers’ state had to deal with providing the peasants with modern machinery—tractors, tools etc.—in order to make any collectives viable. This would have required a transformation of industry, which was essentially impossible, especially given the looming danger of counterrevolutionary assaults and imperialist interventions. If the Bolsheviks had immediately counterposed themselves to, and alienated the mass of the peasantry with collectivization efforts which they weren’t ready for, and which the state couldn’t provide the tools for, they easily could have gone down in flames in the ensuing civil war, and the chance of future socialization would have been lost. As it was, Bolsheviks did promote communal efforts, and special experimental farming collectives and other collective farms wherever possible. Overall, the Lenin and Trotsky-led workers state, threatened as it was in the next few years with all sorts of potential disasters, nevertheless did a spectacular job of implementing the permanent revolution.

The Bolshevik housing policy

The housing policy of the Bolsheviks, though a much less prominent feature of their program compared to the land policy, is nevertheless important for the lessons it carries for today. In both the land policy and the housing policy, the workers state sought to dissolve the bonds of private property.

In his polemic against anarchists in State and Revolution, Lenin outlined the principles of the Bolshevik position on housing, first by quoting Engels on The Housing Question:

“... one thing is certain: there is already a sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real ‘housing shortage,’ provided they are used judiciously. This can naturally only occur through the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes.” Lenin quotes further, “...It must be pointed out that the ‘actual seizure’ of all the instruments of labor, the taking possession of industry as a whole by the working people, is the exact opposite of the Proudhonist [anarchist] ‘redemption.’ In the latter case the individual worker becomes the owner of his dwelling, the peasant farm, the instruments of labor; in the former case, the ‘working people’ become the collective owners of the houses, factories, and instruments of labor...”

Lenin himself added that, “The letting of houses owned by the whole people to individual families presupposes the collection of rent, a certain amount of control, and the employment of some standard in allotting the housing. All this calls for a certain form of state.... The transition to a situation in which it will be possible to supply dwellings rent-free depends on the complete ‘withering away’ of the state.”23 All of this adds up to a fundamental change in how society was organized, and how the needs of the masses were to be met, which, needless to say, would have been impossible without the complete abolition of capitalism which the Bolshevik insurrection and establishment of the workers state made possible.

These principles began to be implemented immediately after the October Revolution in major cities in Russia, as masses of working people in the cities moved into an active political life, forming committees of all sorts to make the workers’ state a reality on the ground, so to speak. On the question of housing, local soviets struggled to keep up. In September of 1918, for instance, the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Red Army Deputies issued a decree on the commandeering of dwellings, etc., which provided for a housing commission to be set up in each district “With the object of finding, and providing workers with healthy dwellings...” conducting inspections and redistributions of tenants as necessary, with preferences for working people and noting that: “Persons engaged in work of public necessity are to be provided with a dwelling in the region where they work.”24

Ongoing problems in housing

Of course there were problems involved with Soviet housing from the start, such as inability of the workers’ state to renovate old, and build new housing during the time of famine, civil war and counterrevolutionary threats both internally and from abroad. These led to conflicts within families over shared facilities, and problems of overcrowding. And such problems were compounded by an influx of former landowners and others into the cities, many of whom were declared “parasites” who needed to be moved out of town to make way for workers. In later years, many of these problems were indeed on going.

However, to judge by the numerous critiques of Soviet housing that emerged in modern times, one would think that problems such as these were the whole story, as they repeat endless horror stories about inadequate housing in the USSR. Yet, how many homeless people were there in the Soviet Union? Virtually none. One article, by Jeff Harrison of the University of Arizona, about the switch to private ownership following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought home another side of the story: today’s Russians don’t like mortgages, and can’t understand why Americans think they own their own homes if they are saddled with a mortgage. Harrison quotes Jane Zavisca in 2011, in a review of a then-forthcoming book of hers: “‘It may be a legacy of Soviet entitlement to housing, where housing is viewed as a right to them. Even though the Soviet government owned the housing, people thought of it as their own and had the right to pass it down to their children, or swap with someone who wanted to trade with you.’ She said Russians find it odd that Americans call themselves ‘homeowners’ from the day they close on a mortgage loan. For Russians, ownership only begins after all debts are paid off.”25 How true that was for millions of so-called “homeowners” in the U.S. who lost their homes in the mortgage fraud-induced crash of 2008!

Capitalism equals fraud and homelessness

Fighting against the endless rent increases, fraudulent mortgage foreclosures and homelessness under capitalism is indeed a very hard slog. Many cooperatives which start out as “affordable housing” opportunities eventually give way to privatization, and many private, including city-subsidized projects are still not affordable for the low-income would-be tenants. The market economy in housing promotes rapid gentrification, which is enriching landlords while destroying traditional low-income neighborhoods. Runaway increases in housing costs in San Francisco, for instance, are destroying the historic Mission district, and creating a teacher shortage by preventing education workers from living in the city where they teach.

Some cooperative housing organizations are able to make a small dent in the capitalist/landlord armor by adopting a mode which bears a resemblance to the principles of land and housing adopted in the Russian Revolution: the community land trust (CLT). A CLT operates by separating ownership of the land from ownership of the building in a contractual arrangement, which prevents privatization and preserves affordability for even the lowest income tenants. The Cooper Square Committee (CSC) in New York City got its start in 1959 by successfully opposing city planner Robert Moses’ “slum removal” and re-development assault on the Lower East Side neighborhood, which had threatened to displace thousands of inhabitants. It ultimately saved over 300 buildings. The CSC then set up a CLT based on donations, and on take-overs of buildings abandoned by landlords and owned by the City, and now manages nearly 400 low-income apartments in 23 buildings. More recently in California, the Bay Area Community Land Trust uses the same principles to provide low-income housing, currently in 18 buildings. Ownership of the land under the building by the CLT, combined with cooperative management of the housing and democratic leadership structures is what preserves the low-income housing. These solutions hold promise, but can only be fully implemented through the expropriation of the banks, and nationwide nationalization of the land, so that all working people may enjoy the benefits.

Lessons for today from the
revolution of 1917

Housing is a right, and homelessness is abolished! Mortgage debt to the big banks is liquidated, and rents are fixed at a reasonable percentage of a tenant’s income! The rich are expropriated, and their tenement buildings and multiple palatial homes and condominiums are divided up to provide adequate housing for all working people! Such are just some of the possibilities suggested by the Russian Revolution if its lessons were to be applied in the modern world today. But that is not all. If we widen the lens a bit, we can see applications of lessons from the Russian Revolution throughout the crisis of 2008, for instance. In this crisis, the U.S. government bailed out the big banks, not the homeowners who had lost their homes to fraud, and it also bailed out the auto industry when General Motors faced bankruptcy. Of course it was a different time with different conditions, but in the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were very careful to address the specific situation with appropriate demands which carried the revolutionary process forward, such as “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!” This demand addressed a particular situation—that of socialists serving in the Provisional government alongside bourgeois representatives—and helped the working class to see that by combining with capitalist forces, the Social Democrats were holding back the essential immediate demands of the working masses, summed up as bread, peace and land. Trotsky would later call this a “transitional demand,” which is a demand which, in order to be realized, must drive the class struggle forward toward workers’ revolution.

In 2008 in the U.S. there was no such revolutionary situation, and no mass revolutionary party to implement such a strategy. But if we focus on the lessons of the Russian Revolution, we can see how such a party might have begun to build itself up into a position to actually effect the class struggle. Instead of the government’s bail out of General Motors, we might have demanded: “Nationalize big auto without compensation and under workers’ control!” And we might have added, “Employ auto workers to transform the industry to make electric and hybrid autos only!” With that, we would have expanded our scope to include not just housing, and not just auto, but the threat of global warming as well, which challenges not just workers but the planet as a whole to wake up to what is ahead for all of us. And if that last demand (or maybe all of them) seems like a stretch, then so was the Russian Revolution itself. Lenin said in January 1917 that, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the confidant hope that the youth...will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.”26 In a month or so, the Russian Revolution had entered into history.

Despite its many great achievements, this revolution degenerated into a shadow of its former self within six to seven years. Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx himself, along with most Bolsheviks, had expected the revolution to happen first in the most advanced industrial countries, such as Germany, rather than in backward Russia. And the Bolshevik leadership was clear that a socialist revolution in Russia could not survive unless it spread into Europe. There was a great revolutionary upsurge throughout Europe and the world following the revolution and the end of the war, but none besides Russia ended in the conquest of power by the working class. Then, with the failure of the German Revolution in October 1923—due to inadequate leadership both in the German party and at the head of the Communist International (CI)—things in Russia quickly began to change. The Russian workers, exhausted by civil war and deprivation—and with the untimely death of Lenin in 1924—became demoralized. The revolutionary state was captured by a conservative, bureaucratic clique headed by Joseph Stalin, who proclaimed that Russia would survive with “socialism in one country,” a formula unheard of before in the cannon of revolutionary and internationalist Marxism. The purposes for which Russia was ruled, the way it was ruled, and its leadership all changed. It was Russia’s Thermidor.27

Stalin distorted and destroyed the lessons of 1917

The Stalin regime distorted or dispensed with all the revolutionary lessons of 1917. That the working class needs an independent, disciplined revolutionary party to make a revolution even in a backward country was replaced with orders for the Chinese CP to enter the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, which led to a slaughter of the revolutionary workers in 1927. That the workers should refuse to enter or support coalition governments with capitalist parties—as Social Democrats did in the Provisional Government in Russia—was replaced with support for the “popular front” of workers’ and bourgeois parties, which led to the defeat of the revolution in Spain in the 1930s. Even the principle of the united-front, in which the working class struggles independently but alongside other socialists against a counterrevolutionary threat (such as Kornilov) was abandoned, which led to the virtually unopposed coming to power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933. All this was a result of Stalin’s international strategy, which abandoned revolutionary politics for a policy of diplomatic alliances to protect the Soviet Union. With the 1933 German defeat, Trotsky, now several years in exile, declared the Third International dead, and called for formation of a new Fourth International of revolutionary workers parties.

Every step of the way, from his work with a Left Opposition in Russia in the 1920s to his fight to build new revolutionary parties around the world, Trotsky fought to uphold and extend to the world the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1917. With regard to the great gains of the Russian Revolution, and the inspiration they provide for revolutionary answers to critical problems from the housing crisis to the largest global issues, we can only say, with Trotsky as he was dying from a blow inflicted by a Stalinist agent, “go forward.”

1 “…referring to the 17th century English author Thomas Hobbes, whose best-known work, Leviathan, describes a situation of unrestrained, selfish and uncivilized competition.”

2 Marx and Engels, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” London, March 1850, Selected Works, vol. 1, Moscow 1962, p. 110.

3 Karl Marx, “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” New York 1852, in Selected Works, vol. 1, Moscow 1962, p. 338.

4 Lenin, VI, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” June-July 1905, in Collected Works, (CW) Vol. 9, Moscow 1962.

5 Trotsky, Leon, “Preface to the Re-Issue of this work,” (1919) in Results and Prospects, 1906. This preface is Trotsky’s summary of his views in 1904-05. About the “minimum” and “maximum” program, this was the rationalization of Social Democrats to justify their focus on reform of the capitalist system. When it came to imperialist war or socialism, they betrayed both Marxism and the working classes of the world.

6 Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects, 1906,

7 Lenin, VI, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” January 9, 1917, in CW vol. 23, Moscow 1964.

8 Lenin, VI, “Draft Theses, March 4 1917” in CW vol. 23, Moscow 1964.

9 Lenin, VI, “Letters On Tactics,” April 8 and 13th, 1917, CW vol. 24, Moscow 1964.

10 Rabinowitch, A, Prelude To Revolution, The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Indiana University Press, 1968, page 36.

11 Lenin, VI, CW vol. 24, op.cit., contains both these documents.

12 Sukhanov, N.N., The Russian Revolution of 1917, Eyewitness Account, vol. 1. Oxford 1955, Harper reprint 1962, p. 283. Sukhanov’s history (which he denied was a history) is useful for it’s rare and lively eyewitness account of the 1917 events, despite his contradictory and often derogatory comments on Lenin and Trotsky.

13 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, 1932-33, Sphere Books Edition, London, 1967, p. 307.

14 Trotsky, Results and Prospects, op.cit.

15 Akhapkin, Yuri, 1970, First Decrees of Soviet Power, Lawrence and Wishart, London, pp. 20-22.

16 Akhapkin, Yuri, op.cit., pp. 23-26

17 Lenin, CW, Vol. 26, page 261

18 Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918, quoted in Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg,

19 Trotsky, The New Course, 1924, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1975, page 105.

20 Trotsky, History..., op.cit., Vol. 3 The Triumph of the Soviets, Chapter 1, “The Peasantry Before October,” pp 9 - 38.

21 Sukhanov, N.N., 1955 op.cit., vol. 2, p.661.

22 Victor Serge, 1930, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Peter Sedgwick translator, New York, 1972.

23 Lenin, VI, The State and Revolution, August 1917, CW vol. 25, Moscow 1964, quotes from Engels, The Housing Question, 1872, and writes, on pages 433 and 434.

24 Executive of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Red Army Deputies, Decree...,

25 Jeff Harrison, “Why Russians Think Americans Don’t Own Their Own Homes.” 2011

26 Lenin, VI, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” op.cit., page 253.

27 The Revolution Betrayed, By Leon Trotsky

“Thermidor is a reference to the later stages of the French Revolution, when conservative forces took hold of society.”