Response to Sander

The Economy in the Russian Revolution


In IP 28, we published a discussion article on "The Economy in the Russian Revolution" and a response to it by Sander. Without wanting to get into an endless polemic, I feel I should reply to this response. To me, it raises fundamental questions for our current debates. These questions concern three points:

THE RETURN TO THE LESSONS OF HISTORY

Revolutionaries have always had the concern to return to past experiences. This tendency goes in the sense of the capacity, for the working class to reappropriate its history - that is, to see itself as a distinct class in a historic continuity. While the dominant ideology tends to deny the notion of classes with incompatible interests, and while the process of the "recomposition" of the working class makes this perception of the class of itself even more difficult, to return to the lessons of history gives back into the hands of the proletariat a part of what constitutes its historic identity.

But to return to the Russian revolution has an additional interest. In the revolutionary milieu of today - that is, the part of the class that possesses the clearest consciousness - the weight of Leninism is considerable. There is, therefore, a direct link between the critique of the positions taken by the Bolsheviks after the revolution and the examination of the political concepts of today, and their impact on the process of the development of class consciousness. It's no coincidence that, for an important part of the revolutionary political milieu, the Bolsheviks are the model to follow. That's why my critique took the point of view of examining a certain type of political positions based on the immediate tasks and the seeking of the support of the masses, rather than the question of the chances of success of a worldwide revolution in 1917.

My aim was to make a modest contribution on the principles that must be combatted within the revolutionary milieu, in order to reach greater clarity. So I can only agree with Sander, when he writes, in his response: "Clearer revolutionaries would have had the merit of not portraying their economic management as "socialist". That would have saved the world a lot of confusion and mystification." (p.27)

THE ROLE OF THE REVOLUTIONARIES

At the time of the Russian revolution, the Bolshevik party was a young party, influenced by social-democratic concepts. As a result, it developed a view on its role which was linked more to the immediate tasks than to the defense of global historic perspectives. Lenin wrote, in his April theses: "Our immediate task is not to "introduce" socialism, but only to pass control over social production and the distribution of products immediately to the Soviets of workers delegates."

This quote raises the question of the usefulness of the "period of transition", the period which follows the taking of power and which must lay the foundations for the construction of a new society. We know that such a period is inevitably very complicated: it is situated between the heritage of a society and the task of destroying its foundations. Through the contradictions and ambushes of this period, revolutionaries have only one weapon to guide them: their principles, just like class consciousness serves as the guide of the proletariat during the struggle for power. And precisely, what Sander's response completely dodges, is the question of the political principles defended by the Bolsheviks.

To take an example, let's return to the agrarian question. The peasants formed the majority of the Russian population at the beginning of the century. From the end of the 19th century on, progressive bourgeois factions examined the question of agricultural productivity. The idea of collective exploitation of the land existed and it functioned in the "agricultural communities" (M.I.R. and Obchtchinas). So it's clear that collectivisation was concretely realisable and was realised, even if within the framework of a capitalist society (we do not, of course, defend a "collectivisation" with that sauce!). From a political point of view, several currents confronted each other at the moment of the revolution: some wanted a collective organisation but without the exploitation of the capitalist relations of production; others were for the destruction of these collective structures and the distribution of the land. The position of the Bolsheviks on this was a "tactical" one, which I denounced earlier.

Amongst the peasants, there were rich landowners, well-off farmers and agricultural workers without land. In the aftermath of the revolution, the tendency went towards the abolition of the large estate, which was seen as a representation of the brutal exploitation of the peasants. The position of the Bolsheviks did not go in the direction of putting forward the general principles which could bring together the interests of factory workers and agricultural workers, of collective ownership of the productive forces and the distribution of this production according to the needs. Such a principle nevertheless guided the organisation of the peasants in certain places, such as in the Ukraine with the "Makhnovist" movement. It is quite elucidating to see how the Bolsheviks drowned this collectivist initiative in blood. In Russia, the Bolsheviks, far from basing themselves on the Ukrainian dynamic, hurried to legalise the distribution of the land, in order to consolidate their power. That inspired Lenin to write: "We have succeeded in basing ourselves for some months on the entire peasant class. That's an historic fact. At least until the summer of 1918, until the formation of the committees of poor peasants, we could stay in power because we had the support of all the peasants". (Complete Works, second French edition, vol. XV, p.19) For Lenin, the main thing was to consolidate Bolshevik power, even if this favored what he would call "a bourgeois revolution" in the countryside. It is this same "bourgeois revolution" which would refuse the provision of agricultural surpluses and starve the proletariat of the factories. The response of Lenin to this resistance of those on whom he had relied himself was the creation of "mobile groups", charged with forcible requisitions, which widened the gap between cities and countryside.

So, the position of the Bolsheviks on the question of the land was very explicit: not a defense of positions opening the way to a new society, but an immediate, "tactical" position of consolidation of power, without any consideration for its political impact, and with consequences that were answered with repression.

The same attitude prevailed with regard to all economic structures: as I showed in my article in IP #28, the main concern of the Bolsheviks was to develop the productive forces (their inspiration was the structures of young capitalisms such as in Germany) and the organisation of the society in the direction of a centralisation and a control, which would lay the bases of state capitalism.

The economic measures went in the direction of maintaining the existing structures which were simply submitted to "workers control". We know that economic activity raises the question of the dynamic which makes it function. The economic measures of the Bolsheviks did not go in the direction of destruction of the capitalist foundations (such as the law of value). The banks and industries kept their own organisation, and even their executives! The economic policy of the Bolsheviks was aimed more at the control of society than at its progressive destruction so that a new society could emerge. The wages were not changed either: they were never a simple tool to distribute the social wealth, but remained an instrument aimed at increasing the productivity of labor, and therefore, at the exploitation of the workers. We know, for instance, that piece-rate wages and productivity bonuses never really disappeared and were systematized outright from 1919 on. So it's clear that the Bolshevik policy, just like on the agricultural question, barred the road to a change of society, rather than opening it. This tendency hardened when they were confronted with class struggle: the Bolsheviks remained deaf to the growing divergence between the interests of a proletariat, which was still conscious of its victorious revolution, and a party which had taken over the exploitation of the masses. It's this progressive divorce which provoked class reactions from 1920 on, and which ended with the rebellion of the sailors of Kronstadt and its bloody repression by the Bolsheviks.

THE FUTURE REVOLUTION

While we can only agree with Sander that the conditions of the future revolution will be different from those of the Russian revolution of 1917, we must avoid the trap of idealizing this future revolution. Indeed, even if the conditions of globalisation of the economy favor the homogenity of working conditions, and thus the consciousness that we face the same problem, we shouldn't forget that this process is not completed at the dawn of the revolution but continues in the very dynamic of the pre-revolutionary conflicts. Therefore, it is not certain that the context of a future revolution will not present serious difficulties for our class and its revolutionaries. There is, for instance, a new problem in the existence of whole layers of the population which are excluded from production, not because they have left it, but because they never entered it: populations of the "Third World", inhabitants of slums, and so on. Those will have to be won over to the revolution and its political goals. Similarly, when Sander tells us that the economic task of the future revolution will be how to re-orient production, in contrast to the Russian revolution which had to make the productive forces grow, he creates an opposition which hides the real economic problems. Sander portrays capitalism as a fruit that is ripe for picking. But despite the enormous development of the productive forces, decadent capitalism has created a relative scarcity and imbalances, such as in the management of the environment and natural wealth. The future revolution will probably have to do more than to re-orient production.

CONCLUSION

Sander's response to my article contains a number of confusions and idealisations. In particular, his refusal to make a fundamental critique of the positions of the Bolsheviks, under the pretext that the context of 1917 prevented the development of a worldwide revolution, obscures the understanding of the role of revolutionaries in such a period. Whatever difficulties they encounter, revolutionaries must defend the positions which agree most with the historic interests of their class.

But this was not what guided the attitude of the Bolsheviks. They showed themselves poorly armed to understand the functioning of the capitalist system, what leads to communism, and their role as a revolutionary minority. It is clear that the measures taken in the aftermath of the Russian revolution had a negative impact on the consciousness that the proletariat had of its own action; in Russia, but also in other countries where there were also revolutionary movements. Thus, in 1919, while a general strike was paralyzing the Ruhr in Germany, the Bolsheviks condemned strike movements in Russia!

Rose


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