As the world marks the centenary of the October Revolution, it is crucial for the creation of a better world that everyone be disabused of what Alexander Berkman coined the Bolshevik Myth—that is, the notion that the Bolshevik takeover of Russia constituted a shining success for socialism which would serve as the template for every other revolution. “It is imperative,” wrote Berkman, “to unmask the great delusion, which otherwise might lead the Western workers to the same abyss as their brothers in Russia.” In addition to this, I’d contend that the most pernicious and insidious aspect of this myth is the generally accepted convention that the Bolsheviks were even socialists. Karl Marx said we must judge people not by what they say but by their actions and the Bolsheviks’ actions were perplexing and counter-productive for so-called socialists who supposedly sought a society run by the workers. They managed to dismantle all the socialist institutions that had been developing since the February Revolution of earlier that year, as Noam Chomsky sums up in Understanding Power:
“In the stages leading up to the Bolshevik coup in October 1917, there were incipient socialist institutions developing in Russia–workers’ councils, collectives, things like that. And they survived to an extent once the Bolsheviks took over–but not for very long; Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated their power. I mean, you can argue about the justification for eliminating them, but the fact is that the socialist initiatives were pretty quickly eliminated.”
Now why on earth would any socialist worth their salt destroy all the authentically socialist work done by the people and replace it with an economic system that fused capitalism with the state? The Bolshevik rationalization for their blatantly anti-socialist deeds was because, as Vladimir Lenin wrote, “State capitalism is a complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no gaps” and socialism “is nothing but the next step forward from state capitalist monopoly.” But why can there be no gaps? Why exactly can’t this stage be skipped over? A stateless, classless society can be reached immediately so the Bolsheviks better have a sound, cogent explanation for undoing socialist progress.
It wasn’t for reasons of inadequate economic development or for security concerns—the handy, standard excuses trotted out by modern-day Bolshevik apologists—that the jump to socialism couldn’t be made, as Lenin candidly admitted “The economic power in the hands of the proletarian state of Russia is quite adequate to ensure the transition to communism” and that the abolition of antagonistic classes—“ousting the landowners and the capitalists”–was “something we accomplished with comparative ease.” Lenin’s grand excuse to not build actual socialism was because the Bolsheviks needed to win the peasants to their side (as if peasants weren’t already socialist in their predilections) and have a socialist culture instilled within them because they (for some inexplicable reason) had to be weaned off the capitalism to which they were supposedly traditionally accustomed, and have it demonstrated to them that state capitalism is superior.
“Our aim is to restore the link, to prove to the peasant by deeds that we are beginning with what is intelligible, familiar and immediately accessible to him, in spite of his poverty, and not with some thing remote and fantastic from the peasant’s point of view. We must prove that we can help him and that in this period, when the small peasant is in a state of appalling ruin, impoverishment and starvation, the Communists are really helping him. Either we prove that, or he will send us to the devil. That is absolutely inevitable…We must organise things in such a way as to make possible the customary operation of capitalist economy and capitalist exchange, because this is essential for the people. Without it, existence is impossible…Cast off the tinsel, the festive communist garments, learn a simple thing simply, and we shall beat the private capitalist. We possess political power; we possess a host of economic weapons. If we beat capitalism and create a link with peasant farming we shall become an absolutely invincible power. Then the building of socialism will not be the task of that drop in the ocean, called the Communist Party, but the task of the entire mass of the working people. Then the rank-and-file peasants will see that we are helping them and they will follow our lead. …The chief thing the people, all the working people, want today is nothing but help in their desperate hunger and need; they want to be shown that the improvement needed by the peasants is really taking place in the form they are accustomed to. The peasant knows and is accustomed to the market and trade. We were unable to introduce direct communist distribution. We lacked the factories and their equipment for this. That being the case, we must provide the peasants with what they need through the medium of trade, and provide it as well as the capitalist did, otherwise the people will not tolerate such an administration.”
And Lenin got all this from Marx himself: “or the proletariat…must as government take measures through which the peasant finds his condition immediately improved, so as to win him for the revolution; measures which will at least provide the possibility of easing the transition from private ownership of land to collective ownership, so that the peasant arrives at this of his own accord, from economic reasons.”
Strange that Marx and Lenin believed that peasants had to be enticed into socialism when peasants had revolted in the past for egalitarianism and their communalist traditions. Didn’t Engels rave about Thomas Muntzer and the Peasant War in Germany? It was a glaring error (and perhaps a deliberately malicious one) by them to assume that peasants were wedded to capitalism. Peasants were resisting the encroachment of capitalism as late as the early Twentieth Century. In footnote 77 of chapter 1 of David Szatmary’s Shay’s Rebellion, we are given this example: “Similarly Daniel Chriot and Charles Ragin, “The Market, Tradition, and Peasant Rebellion; The Case of Romania in 1907,” locate the roots of the 1907 Romanian peasant uprising in the reaction of “the strong residual peasant traditionalism” against the “rapid penetration of market forces.” So why did socialism have to wait until they were “transformed and re-educated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work”? What could the ‘vanguard’ Bolsheviks possibly have had to teach them? The refinement of their socialist instincts would not have taken very long at all, much less a protracted process of indefinite length. There was no need to postpone socialism and arguing that it had to be on these deeply mistaken grounds is all the evidence I need to aver that the Bolsheviks–and all proponents of ‘socialism from above’–are not socialists.