The 1917 Russian Counter-Revolution


[NB This is part 2 of 'The Many Deaths of Socialism']
The second key event in the many twentieth century failures of socialism is the 1917 Bolshevik October Coup in Russia. This has resulted in the long lasting confusion of ‘socialism’ with the horrors of bourgeois counter-revolution and totalitarian dictatorship from which it has never really recovered.
Despite Communist and much socialist mythology, October 1917 was in fact a counter-revolution. Having taken over the state by populist, cleverly opportunist demagogy (‘Peace, land and soviets!’, ‘All power to the soviets!’) and minor but strategic military intervention, Lenin and his Bolshevik subordinates quickly proceeded to successfully liquidate the actual spontaneous revolutionary process at the grass roots that was the supportive social context of their own successful coup. This officially (by both socialist and bourgeois historians) much under-emphasized social process was one that found its quintessential expression in the autonomous, non-party dominated, soviets and factory committees of self-organising peasants and factory workers that – in the tradition of the first Russian Revolution of 1905 – had been developing since the March revolution of 1917. This true, emerging social revolution had produced a political revolution that had, almost bloodlessly, overthrown the Tsarist system [i]
From this libertarian, non-Leninist perspective, the term ‘Russian Revolution’ should thus actually be restricted to the spontaneous process of mass self-organisation in both cities and countryside between March and November/December 1917. The latter was a real, i.e. social, revolution, potentially changing the relationships of social production and distribution and thus class relationships. In contrast, the Bolshevik October ‘revolution’ was merely political, i.e. a military coup that simply replaced one form of government and ruling class with another while in fact greatly increasing class repression in production, distribution and general life to the benefit of this new ruling class.
Diplomatically cementing a veritable militarist counter-revolution, the new Bolshevik government made peace with the German monarchist imperialists at Brest-Litovsk by simply handing over the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasants to their occupied fate. Against the long dominant Lenin- and Trotsky-hagiographers of the Left, it is necessary to underline that it was not Stalin but Lenin and Trotsky themselves who then instituted the Red Terror, the Cheka secret police, the crushing of worker and peasant soviets and the bloody massacres of revolutionaries, the terroristic militarisation of labour and the outright slavery of the forced labour/concentration camps.
As early as June 1918, Trotsky had called for the setting up of ‘concentration camps’ (kontslager: a term that had first appeared in Russian as a translation from the Boer-English, probably thanks to Trotsky’s familiarity with the history of the Boer War where the practice was first extensively practised by British imperialists on Boer civilians).[ii] In August of the same year, Lenin also used the term as a recommended policy for dealing with ‘the unreliable’ in a telegram to Bolshevik commissars attempting to quell an anti-Bolshevik insurgency in Penza (town of my father’s maternal ancestors).[iii] After an assassination attempt on Lenin’s life by the agrarian Left Social-Revolutionaries in September 1918, the newly created Cheka (acronym for the ‘Extraordinary Commission’ of the Bolshevik Party itself outside all state jurisdictions) was directed to implement Lenin’s policy of ‘Red Terror’. The organ of the Trotsky-led Red Army Krasnaya Gazeta described its revenge in the dulcet berserker tones of the blood-crazed warrior caste known since Sumer and Jehovah:
Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie - more blood, as much as possible…[iv]
Concentration camps, the so-called ‘special camps’, were central to the Red Terror and explicitly mentioned in its very first decree. One year later, by the end of 1919, there were 21 registered camps and by the end of 1920 there were already 107.[v] Although the purpose of the camps still remained ambiguous at this early stage of their development, Cheka boss Dzerzhinsky was already defining them as ‘labour re-education camps’, not just for designated ‘class enemies’ but also for those ‘who demonstrate unconscientious attitudes to work, tardiness, etc…. In this way we will create schools of labour.’ [vi]
In the civil war period of so-called ‘war communism’ (1918-21), the Red Terror was applied not only to the reactionary White forces and designated ‘class enemies’, but also to peasants, workers and all political opponents right and left. Peasants’ crops were simply stolen at the point of a gun while workers were forced into slave labour in state-owned factories managed by authoritarian top-down decree and run along the oppressive Taylorist lines (piece work, ‘time and management’ terror) that Lenin so admired in Henry Ford, a fan of Adolf Hitler. The workers’ own representative organs (factory committees, soviets, unions) were locally emasculated, bureaucratically centralised and totally absorbed into the Bolshevik state apparatus, their strikes squashed, their strike leaders imprisoned, exiled or shot by the omnipresent Cheka. At the same time the US capitalist Armand Hammer was given asbestos mining concessions under Lenin’s patronage and military protection for his assets by Trotsky; according to Hammer, the latter succinctly clarified the Bolsheviks’ capitalist and counter-revolutionary role in telling him that not only did the mineral-rich Ural region offer ‘great possibilities to American capital’ but that US finance capital ought to regard all of Russia as a desirable field of investment ‘because as Russia had had its Revolution, capital was really safer there than anywhere else.’ [vii]
All this Bolshevik state terror against peasants, workers, political opponents and others was, of course, officially legitimised as being in the national interests of the ‘socialist fatherland’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in its ‘revolutionary life and death struggle’ with the allied intervention, the White counter-revolution and its parallel vicious White Terror. Most socialists and even many anarchists, both within Russia and internationally, generally accepted this rationalisation at the time (given the general lack of verifiable information flowing from civil war Russia, perhaps, but only for a short period, understandably).[viii]
However, even after this struggle ended with the defeat of the last White general, Wrangel, in 1920, the Red Terror and Bolshevik state violence of course did not cease. The final tragic denouement was the attempt at a radically democratic and now necessarily anti-Bolshevik (‘third’) revolution at Petrograd’s port of Kronstadt in 1921.[ix] 
The Kronstadt sailors and revolutionaries did not mince their words when analysing what they were fighting against in the new Bolshevik system of oppression:
In place of the old régime, a new régime of despotism, insolence, favouritism, theft and speculation has been established, a terrible régime in which one must hold out his hand to the authorities for every piece of bread, for every button, a régime in which one does not belong to himself, where one cannot dispose of his own labour, a régime of slavery and degradation.[x]
This valiant attempt at a new revolution was drowned in a sea of blood [xi] by Soviet state troops and, indeed, the Bolshevik Party’s own members who were attending the 10th Party Congress in nearby Petrograd, all under the direct orders of Lenin and the military command of civil war victor Trotsky[xii]. The Petrograd striking workers – with whom the radical sailors in Kronstadt had declared their solidarity and on whom they based their revolutionary hopes – had been weakened and demoralised by a powerful combination of slow starvation, Cheka repression and brutality, the bribe of extra food rations and sustained Bolshevik slander about Kronstadt’s ‘counter-revolution’. They thus, perhaps crucially in terms of Russia’s fate, did not come to the aid of the Kronstadt insurrection[xiii].
The words of the Kronstadt revolutionary sailors and workers – the previous revolutionary avant-garde of the 1905 and both 1917 revolutions – explaining their heroic attempt at a third revolution, now against the Bolshevik ‘commisarocracy’, still resonate with future meaning when we attempt to understand the defeat of ‘socialism’ as a container of popular hope in the 20th century:
         The workers’ patience is at an end. (…) The workers have gone on strike. (…) Here in Kronstadt the foundation for the third revolution has been laid which will open a wide path for the socialist cause. This revolution will convince the masses of workers in east and west that what has arisen here up to now has had nothing at all to do with socialism. (…)
This revolution gives workers the opportunity to elect their soviets freely without having to fear the pressure of any party; it also enables the bureaucratised unions to transform themselves into free associations of manual and mental workers. (…)
The Communist Party has grabbed power by pushing aside the peasants and workers in whose name it acted… A new serfdom that calls itself ‘communist’ has seen the light of day. The peasant has been transformed into a day labourer and the worker into a wage slave of the state, the mental worker into a nothing. …Now the time has come to topple the commissarocracy. (…)
The autocracy has fallen. The Constituant Assembly is a thing of the past. The commissarocracy will also fall. The time has come for real worker power, for the power of the soviets![xiv]
Having brutally squashed the last popular armed resistance to their rule in Kronstadt as well as Nestor Makhno’s anarchist peasant army in the Ukraine, and under the banner of ‘socialism’, the new Bolshevik ruling class were then unhindered in erecting a totalitarian system of bureaucratic state capitalism. From a wider and eminently Marxist perspective, the historical function of this system and its Bolshevik ruling class was to enforce a terroristic process of modernisation (rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and proletarianisation) of a rural society. In again classical Marxist terms, this was the ‘primary accumulation of capital’ which the Russian bourgeoisie had not been historically strong enough (or the Tsarist monarchy liberal enough) to fully accomplish itself. This process, following its own inherent historical logic, then culminated in Stalinism and its state-terrorist extension of Trotzky’s and Lenin’s concentration camps into the infamous extensive network (Gulag) of slave labour concentration camps (cf. below The Inner Truth of Bolshevism: Red Fascism/Stalinist Totalitarianism). From such a Marxist historical perspective, the ‘communist’ ideologies of ‘Leninism’, ‘Trotskyism’ and ‘Stalinism’ were nothing but ‘grandiose terms for the inevitable phases the Bolsheviks’ bourgeois revolution had to go through if it was to modernise Russia and defeat her small but precociously revolutionary working class for the eventual benefit of international capitalism.’ [xv]

[i] For a concise chronology of this Bolshevik counter-revolution from a libertarian Marxist perspective, cf. Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921. For a German scholarly account, cf. Oskar Anweiler, Die Rätebewegung in Russland 1905-1921, pp. 180-320. For the anarchist perspective of a Russian combatant with the peasant army of Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Mahkno, cf. the three volumes of Voline, La Révolution Inconnue. Despite temporary alliances with the Red Army, Mahkno’s anarchist peasant army in the end had to fight against not one but three enemy forces: Ukrainian nationalists and both Whites and Bolsheviks, the antagonistic and yet complementary forms of the counter-revolution against mass self-organization in the workers’ and peasants’ soviets and factory committees. Mahkno died in impoverished and depressed exile in Paris in the 1930s.
[ii] A. Applebaum, Gulag, p. 19 and p. 31. Applebaum points out how the British probably built on the experience of their fellow imperialists the Spanish, who in 1895 in Cuba had begun to prepare a policy of reconcentration, a policy intended to move peasants to camps in order to deprive insurgents of food, shelter and support (p. 19). In 1904 German colonists in South-West Africa then adopted this British model, adding forced labour and even human medical experiments to the state terror recipe and the word Konzentrationslager to the German language in 1905 (p.19). Hitler and the Nazis obviously had quite an imperial tradition to build on.
[iii] Penza was the original hometown of my paternal grandmother Lydia Lach-Newinsky, née Poroshina.
[iv] Appelbaum, op.cit., p. 32.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Quoted from Hammer’s memoirs (Hammer: Witness To History, 1987) in A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 76.
[viii] It is fascinating to follow the slow process of disillusion and tortuous inner conflict in anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman during their stay in Russia in the civil war period between 1919 and 1921. Despite their direct experience of Bolshevik terror and repression of workers, peasants, Mensheviks, Left Social-Revolutionaries and anarchists, Goldman and Berkman twice rejected fellow-anarchist Nestor Makhno’s offer to join him and his peasant army in combat against the Bolshevik Red Army in the Ukraine. Despite the sparse evidence available outside Russia in 1918, a very early perceptive critique of Bolshevik oppressive practice was achieved by Rosa Luxemburg six months before her murder by SPD-supported right-wing troops in Berlin in January 1919 (cf. her ‘Die russische Revolution’ in S. Hillmann (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg – Schriften, pp. 163-193).
[ix] The probably definitive history of the Kronstadt insurrection is Ida Mett’s La Commune de Cronstadt (1938), translated into German as Kommune von Kronstadt (Berlin 1971). Cf. also Emma Goldman’s autobiographical account in Living My Life, Vol. 2, pp. 875-886. The key immediate demands of the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors and citizens, unanimously accepted in a public meeting of 16,000 people, were: freedom of speech and assembly for all workers, peasants and leftists, free elections to the workers and peasant soviets, abolition of Communist party cells in the military and in factories, freedom for peasants to dispose of their crops and to own animals, release of all leftist, working and peasant class political prisoners, equal food rations for all workers. (Mett, pp. 32-33).
[x] Quoted in M. Rosen & D. Widgery (eds.), The Vintage Book of Dissent, p. 86.
[xi] Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time, speaks of ‘tens of thousands slain – the city drenched in blood’ and of ‘Those not fortunate enough to die fighting had fallen into the hands of the enemy to be executed or sent to slow torture in the frozen regions of northernmost Russia.’ Goldman, op.cit., p. 886. Both Goldman (p. 884) and Mett (p. 50 and p. 57) record that during the 10 day siege the Bolsheviks also used aeroplanes to drop bombs onto Kronstadt, including onto non-combatants.
[xii] Trotsky’s ultimatum to Kronstadt included the notorious threat that he would ‘shoot like pheasants’ all those daring to ‘raise their hand against the Socialist fatherland’ (Goldman, p. 883).
[xiii] Goldman, p. 884 and Mett, p. 47. Similar strike actions in Moscow, Nijni Novgorod and other cities ended for similar reasons.
[xiv] Taken from two articles in the Kronstadt Isvestia newspaper in March 1921, cited in Rudolf Rocker (1921), Der Bankerott des russischen Staatskommunismus, p. 101 (own translation, PL-N).
[xv] A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 75. Peacock further differentiates: ‘Leninism and Trotskyism were therefore the expansionist periods of Stalinism just as Stalinism was later to become the protectionist period of Trotskyism.’ (p. 77)

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