Home > 2017 > The Russian Revolution was not a Coup d’etat

Mainstream, VOL LV No 13 New Delhi March 18, 2017

The Russian Revolution was not a Coup d’etat

Sunday 19 March 2017, by Barun Das Gupta

The Annual Number of Mainstream (December 24, 2016) carried a piece titled ‘On Rosa Luxemburg and Russian Revolution’by Paresh Chattopadhyay (hereafter referred to as PC), a member of the Faculty of Human Sciences, University of Quebec, Montreal (Canada). Incidentally, PC, as far as this writer knows, has never claimed to be a Marxist but a Marxologist, that is, one who specializes in the theory of Marxism, rather than one who believes in it and accepts it.

Students of post-Revolution Russian history know that bourgeois historians never accepted that what happened at Petrograd on November 7, 1917, was a revolution. According to them what happened was nothing but a successful coup d’etat carried out by Lenin with a small group of trusted lieutenants. The denigration of the October Revolution continues to this day, long after the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. What is intriguing is that PC the Marxologist fully endorses this view. He writes: “Far from being the work of the country’s ‘immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’ —to use the words of the 1848 Communist Manifesto—the decision to undertake this act was taken in a secret meeting by a very small group of radicalised intelligentsia constituting the leadership of a single party.”

Sure, the decision to capture power was “taken in a secret meeting by a very small group.” You cannot capture state power by convening a huge public meeting and solemnly announcing there that on such and such date and at such and such time we are going to seize power. Such decisions have to be taken in absolute secrecy by a small and well-knit group of party men.. And yes, it was led by a single party. Because the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was the only party that was dead against the Provisional Government of Kerensky and wanted to capture power. It may be recalled that when Lenin returned to Russia from Germany in April 1917, there was considerable confusion prevailing in the Bolshevik Party about supporting the Kerensky Government.

To spell out the task of the party in clear, unambiguous terms, Lenin had to write his famous April Theses and coin a new slogan: “Down with the Provisional Government, all power to the Soviets.” In this book Lenin recognized the fact “that in most of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies our party constitutes a minority, and a small one at that, in the face of the bloc of all the petty bourgeois opportunist elements . . . who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie. It must be explained to the masses that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies is the only possible form of revolutionary government and that, therefore, our task is, while this government is submitting to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent analysis of the errors and tactics, an analysis especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.”

PC laments that “there is no evidence that the workers themselves either initiated or led the Revolution”. What does he mean exactly by saying the workers themselves had neither initiated nor led the Revolution? The October Revolution was not a one-day wonder performed by Lenin and a handful of his associates. PC has observed that “Lenin never attached much importance to the Soviets as the workers’ self-governing organs, and always regarded them as instruments to be used for seizing power”.

Facts are to the contrary. Lenin understood the centrality of the Soviets not only in capturing power but after the revolution in retaining power, in helping create a new social order and in setting up civil administration. The preparation for November, 1917, started long back in 1905 with the setting up of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.The Soviets were the parallel organs of power that Lenin was building.They formed the embryo of the future state.

The Soviets prepared the people, especially the working class, for the revolution and to govern the country, post-revolution.

Now for the participation of the working class. Working class is an abstract concept. It assumes a concrete form only when the workers organise themselves and form a political party as the instrument of struggle, both economic and political, and later, after the revolution, as an instrument for exercising state power. The party is the embodiment of the class. Without the party, the members of the working class will be individuals, disparate entities, unable to become a force for bringing about a change in the correlationship of class forces. What happened after Lenin’s death in January 1924, is a grotesque caricature of what Lenin wanted the Soviet state to be. Joseph Stalin divorced the Commu-nist Party from the people and made it an instrument for exercise of power on behalf of and in the interest of the ruling bureaucracy. It is the apparatchiki that ruled. Years later, Yugoslav Communist writer and intellectual Milovan Djilas coined a name for this bureaucracy: the Priviligentsia.

How important the Soviets were in Lenin’s scheme of things becomes crystal clear from what he wrote in Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky:

The Soviets are the direct organisation of the working and exploited people themselves, which helps them to organise and administer their own state in every possible way. And in this it is the vanguard of the working and exploited people, the urban proletariat, that enjoys the advantage of being best united by the large enterprises; it is easier for it than for all others to elect and exercise control over those elected. The Soviet form of organisation auto-matically helps to unite all the working and exploited people around their vanguard, the proletariat. The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bour-geois education, of social connections, etc. (these real privileges are the more varied the more highly bourgeois democracy is developed)—all this disappears under the Soviet form of organi-sation. Freedom of the press ceases to be hypocrisy, because the printing-plants and stocks of paper are taken away from the bourgeoisie. The same thing applies to the best buildings, the palaces, the mansions and manorhouses. Soviet power took thousands upon thousands of these best buildings from the exploiters at one stroke, and in this way made the right of assembly—without which demo-cracy is a fraud—a million times more democratic for the people. Indirect elections to non-local Soviets make it easier to hold congresses of Soviets, they make the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and peasants at a time when life is seething and it is necessary to be able very quickly to recall one’s local deputy or to delegate him to a general congress of Soviets.

Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.

PC writes:

“He Lenin saw that the Tsarist regime could be successfully attacked only when temporarily weakened by military defeat and that in the ensuing disorganisation a resolute and well-disciplined group could by ruthless terror overthrow whatever other regime might attempt to replace it.”

What are the implications of this comment? First, that the Russian Revolution would have been impossible but for the First World War and the Czarist regime being “weakened by military defeat”. Second, “a resolute and well-disciplined group” — neither the Petrograd Soviet nor the Bolshevik Party unit — overthrew the existing regime “by ruthless terror”. This is exactly how the bourgeois historians have been describing the November Revolution.

David Shub in his biography of Lenin wrote:

“Lenin’s counsel, on the eve of the coup d’etat had been: ‘Let us seize power, try to nationalise the banks, and then see what to do next. We shall learn from experience.’ ”

Quite naturally. The Russian Revolution had no precedence in history. Lenin and the party could only ‘learn from experience’. The first step was to nationalise the banks, the instruments that controlled the economy.

During the transition period, when power had just been seized but kulaks and the bourgeoisie were still resisting, and the country was in the throes of a civil war, extraordinary steps had to be taken—steps that protagonists of bourgeois democracy would call ‘dictatorial’.

In his polemic against Kautsky, Lenin has dwelt at length on the question of democracy. He explained that democracy is always class democracy. Bourgeois democracy is democracy for the bourgeois but dictatorship over the working class. Similarly, proletarian democracy is democracy for the proletariat but dictatorship over the bourgeoisie. He did not mince his words to make them sweet-sounding.

What PC says about Lenin and the November Revolution is nothing new. Bourgeois historians have said these things a myriad times. What is new is that an academician who claims to be a ‘Marxologist’ has joined that chorus — and that, too, while writing about the Russian Revolution. Incidentally, this year marks the centenary of that Revolution.

Leon Trotsky, the second most important personality after Lenin in the November Revolution wrote in the Preface to his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution: “This history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. ... The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events..... The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

PC, the Marxologist, would not agree that the ‘masses’ had played any role in the Russian Revolution, that it was a coup d’etat successfully carried out by Lenin and a handful of people. He is entitled to his views.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.