Tony Cliff’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution

Issue: 129

John Rose

In Tony Cliff’s original four-volume series on Lenin published in the 1970s, the second volume was entitled All Power to the Soviets and the third Revolution Besieged.1 Besieged may not mean destroyed, but the civil war, which began in May 1918, fundamentally altered the relations between the soviets and the ruling Bolshevik Party. Lenin described this as follows at the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1919: “The soviets, which by virtue of their programme are organs of government by the working people, are in fact organs of government for the working people by the advanced sections of the proletariat but not by the working people as a whole”.2

Clearly this was a retreat from the fundamental principle of soviet power. Of course this was not of their own making but forced on the Bolsheviks by the shocking circumstances of civil war that would drain the soviets of their leadership and much of their manpower. Nor did it necessarily mean that the principle of government by the working people could not be re-established.

Victor Serge has left us this fascinating description of the Petrograd Soviet meeting in October 1919. Trotsky and Zinoviev were reporting about the military situation, as the city itself was under siege. It’s a soviet “for the working people”: but it’s not at all difficult to see how, even at this late stage, its original mandate might have been restored under transformed circumstances:

The meeting of the soviet is thinly attended. A number of its members are at the front. There are many army greatcoats, fur or leather jackets, revolvers on belts. Young women, workers, Bashkirs, Muslims from the southern Urals. Not a single intellectual in sight. It really is the people itself, the people which suffers, toils, labours, fights, the people with horny chapped hands, the people which is inelegant, rough, a little brutal, with clumsy movements, with faces not refined by civilisation.

Nobody speaks to reply or asks questions. This is not the time for debating; in any case, the soviet does not debate much—there is nothing parliamentary about it. As it is at the moment, it is nothing but a very simple apparatus for popular consultation and dictatorship…

Nonetheless, the assembly is not passive. Such acceptance on its own would be worrying. But now, as people are leaving, someone shouts out: The Internationale. The whole hall rises to its feet, bare-headed, and two thousand manly voices intone the song of the “last fight”.3

However, this brief article questions to what extent soviet power could properly develop at all even during those first six months. Was there really any opportunity to implement mass-based workers’ democracy?

The implications of the political and practical realisation of the call for all power to the soviets had been profound. Soviet power meant direct producer democracy, prelude to the abolition of social classes and potential breakthrough to a new era in human history. It was a dramatic realisation of the principles expressed by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and built on the first practical experiment in workers’ power during the Paris Commune of 1871. The revolutionary decrees issued in the soviet government’s first weeks signalled the arrival in the world of a new type of politics of emancipation.4

Lenin had always anticipated this—the central goal of the revolution. The administration of the new workers’ state was to be controlled by the mass of workers, not just their representatives. Expanding on his famous one liner that “every cook shall govern”, Lenin writes:

The conscientious, bold, universal move to hand over administrative work to proletarians and semi-proletarians will, however, rouse such unprecedented revolutionary enthusiasm among the people, will so multiply the people’s forces in combating distress, that much that seemed impossible to our narrow, old, bureaucratic forces will become possible for the millions.5

The soviets were at the core of this new rank and file activist democratic state.6 The immediate aftermath of the revolution, that festival of the oppressed, seemed to more than justify Lenin’s optimism as famously recorded in John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. In the same spirit Lenin had predicted in The State and Revolution, effectively the foundation document of the October 1917 Revolution, the relative ease with which the soviets would control the defeated counter-revolutionary social classes, especially the bourgeoisie. The exploiters had been unable to exploit the people without a highly complex machine. But Lenin argued that when the formerly exploited people take power “they can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple ‘machine’, almost without a ‘machine’, without a special apparatus, by the simple organisation of the armed people”.7

Reporting this passage, Cliff interjects that the “simple organisation of the armed people” would be the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. But, of course, this proved completely inadequate in the face of the
monstrous scale of attacks faced by the revolution even in its early days, as Cliff himself makes clear elsewhere. It was the highly complex machine of the Red Army, which Trotsky began to build at extraordinary speed just a few months later, that defended the revolution. The second volume of Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, The Sword of the Revolution, is dominated by the centrality of the Red Army. A catastrophic price would be paid—the effective neutering of the soviets. But this is to run ahead of the argument.

According to a key chapter in the widely acclaimed Year One of the Russian Revolution by the former anarchist turned Bolshevik, Victor Serge, “the first flames of the civil war” threatened the revolution from the beginning.
This took three forms and reflected the counter-revolutionary backlash over the three main demands of October: land, peace and bread. Control of the land forced the soviets into confrontation with the Constituent Assembly. The peace terms split the new revolutionary government, the Bolshevik Party and the soviets. Lack of bread came close to starving the revolution in its industrial heartlands. Here I adopt Serge’s approach, though I have changed the order following Cliff”s chronology, analysing these three sets of events separately, but recognising that “in reality they were aspects of a single process”, sabotaging the revolution.8

The constituent assembly and its dissolution

In retrospect, it seems quite astonishing that over the years writers in the International Socialist tradition have paid so little attention to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly which followed the October Bolshevik Revolution. After all, from the vantage point of the 21st century, constituent assemblies and democratic parliaments seem rather more successful expressions of democracy than do soviets. For most people the word “soviet” is damned by associations with words like Stalin, Stalinist, totalitarianism, bureaucracy and terror, and for understandable reasons. How then can we defend the Bolsheviks dissolving the Constituent Assembly, especially since they had campaigned for it right up until the eve of the revolution?9

Workers and peasants may have made the October Revolution but at the same time the peasantry posed the most immediate threat to its working class content. Or, as Cliff put it in particularly stark form,”the enormous threat facing the proletarian dictatorship [came] in the form of the mass petty bourgeois peasantry. The island of industry in the hands of the proletariat might be engulfed by the vast seas of the backward peasantry”.10

This potentially lethal division found its precise expression in the outcome of the elections for the constituent assembly, which were dominated by the success of the Social Revolutionary Party (SRs). The SRs were the main peasant party but had attracted, over the years, shopkeepers, minor “progressive” officials of the Tsarist state, large sections of the intelligentsia and as the revolution approached a few of the more liberal landowners, bourgeoisie and even army officers. Cliff returned to the complexities of the land and peasant question many times in the four volumes of his Lenin biography. Suffice to write here that the slogan “All land to the tiller”, which the Bolsheviks adapted from the SRs, was riddled with ambiguity. It could mean collective land ownership by poor peasants. But it could equally mean small-scale, competitive private farming by individual peasant farm owners. Moreover a rural class system was developing in the countryside.11

A speech in the Constituent Assembly by the Menshevik Tseretelli, hostile to the Bolsheviks, inadvertently put his finger on the problem: “The land taken by the peasants has in reality been taken by the kulaks, the rich peasants who possess the farming equipment”.12

It is in this context that Cliff provides a very bleak analysis of the threat posed to the revolution by the Constituent Assembly:

The catchment area covered by the Constituent Assembly was far wider than that of the soviet. While the Second Congress of Soviets represented about 20 million people, the number of votes for the Constituent Assembly was more than 40 million. The Bolsheviks, together with the Left SRs, represented the overwhelming majority of the urban proletariat, the peasantry in the neighbourhood of the industrial centres, and the troops in the north and north west. These were the most energetic and enlightened elements of the masses, on whose active support the revolution depended for survival. The SRs who dominated the Constituent Assembly represented the political confusion and indecision of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns and the millions of peasants relatively distant from the capital and the industrial centres.13

Lenin spelt out the implications in an article, “Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. While in terms of voting power the countryside outweighed the towns, in real social and political power the towns were far superior: “The country cannot be equal to the town under the historical conditions of this epoch. The town inevitably leads the country. The country inevitably follows the town…big commercial and industrial centres…decide the political fate of the nation”.14 Cliff comments: “Lenin was compelled to take refuge in the anti-democratic measure of counting one worker’s vote as equal to five peasants’ in the elections to the soviets”.15

Despite this, Chernov, the SR leader and president of the Constituent Assembly, seemed desperate to blur the differences with Lenin in his opening address in what Serge describes as a “masterpiece of sweet evasiveness”:

Several times he touched on the nation’s “will for socialism”, remarking: “The revolution has merely begun… The people want actions not words…socialism is not equality among poverty… We desire controlled socialist construction…We shall pass from the control of production to the republic of labour…” Finally he endorsed the nationalisation of the land without compensation.

Chernov called for collaboration between the Constituent Assembly and the soviets. But Bukharin for the Bolsheviks “refuted his ‘chatter’ in a short speech, as brutal as the other had been unctuous. ‘How,’ he asked, ‘can a man talk of the will to socialism and at the same time be the assassin of socialism?’16

The SRs had a long record of violent hostility to the Bolsheviks. Even after October SR-led insurrectionary demonstrations and coup attempts against the Bolsheviks had been under active consideration. Kidnap and assassination attempts on Lenin and Trotsky were called off at the last minute. “Their reasons? The two leaders were too popular; their disappearance would have provoked terrible reprisals”.17

“Throughout the years of the civil war in Russia (1918-1920),” writes Cliff, “the slogan of the Constituent Assembly served as a screen for the dictatorship of the landowners and capitalists”.18 The Constituent Assembly would have been effectively dominated by representatives of the emerging peasant kulak class and backed by all the forces of reaction. For the Bolsheviks to tolerate it alongside the soviets would almost certainly have hastened the civil war by giving its leaders a rival political platform and hence a rallying point in the industrial heartlands.

On the other hand, its dissolution disenfranchised 20 million peasants in the outlying areas and institutionalised the split in the revolution between town and country. As we shall see, this immediately intensified the new and ominous threat to the revolution and the soviets: famine.

The “peace” of Brest-Litovsk

The word “peace” has been placed in inverted commas here because of the terms insisted upon to end the war in the early months of 1918 by the German High Command negotiators with the Bolsheviks. They were so harsh that, despite the overwhelming desire and demand for a genuine peace, a continuation of the war suddenly seemed preferable to probably more than half of the Bolshevik Party and certainly to a majority in the soviets. “Peace” was one thing, abject humiliation and “peace” terms which could wreck the revolution something else.

Trotsky’s outstanding role prolonging the negotiations while fanning anti-war sentiment amongst front line German troops, the first stirrings of a revolutionary German workers’ strike movement against the war, the fascinating and intense arguments between Lenin and Trotsky on tactics, important though they were, unfortunately are secondary to Lenin’s absolute insistence on ending the war as soon as possible.

Of course, like Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks, Lenin viewed ending the war as the potential trigger for the expected German socialist revolution, the taken for granted precondition for the survival of the Russian Revolution. But he was adamant that the Bolsheviks could not wait for it.19

Nevertheless the idea of turning the war into a “Revolutionary War” swept through the ranks of the Bolsheviks. Lenin was furious at what he saw as “revolutionary phrase-making…the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances”. Lenin had only one argument. But it was decisive: “The old army does not exist. The new army is only just being born… It is one thing to be certain that the German revolution is maturing and to do your work helping it mature…it is another thing to declare…that the German revolution is already mature (although it obviously is not) and to base your tactics on it.” The Bolsheviks were split down the middle. Only by threatening to resign both from the government and the party leadership could Lenin secure his position.20

It is essential to stress that this was an argument that tested the nerves, the intellectual, political and moral fibre to breaking point, of the most committed Bolshevik. It was finely balanced throughout. The terms of the Brest-Litovsk “peace” treaty were indeed designed to wreck the revolution and inevitably hastened the civil war—not least because so much of the territory lost undermined the industrial and agricultural supply base of workers’ power in the centrally strategic cities and towns:

It was estimated that by this treaty Russia lost territories and resources approximately as follows: 1,227,000 square miles, with 62,000,000 population, or one fourth of her territory and 44 percent of her population; one third of her crops and 27 percent of state income; 80 percent of her sugar factories; 75 percent of her iron and 75 percent of her coal. Of the total 16,000 industrial undertakings, 9,000 were situated in lost territories. 21

And, as Mike Haynes has observed, “puppet regimes were set up (in the south) which attracted the revolution’s opponents. Miliukov [the leader of Russian liberalism], Chernov later said, ‘went quite calmly to the zone of German occupation to seek salvation in friendship with the enemy of yesterday’.”22

The debate over the war in the Bolshevik Party dominates the relevant chapter in the writing of both Cliff and Serge. Cliff reports a referendum of the views of 200 soviets in February, with a majority for continuing the war. In the industrial cities, Cliff writes that the “majority in favour of war was overwhelming. Only two large soviets—Petrograd and Sebastopol—went on record as being in favour of peace”.23

The argument in the party concluded with a specially convened Seventh Congress from 6 to 8 March 1918 that, after a bitter debate, voted by 30 to 12 in Lenin’s favour. The final ratification of the treaty took place at the Fourth Congress of Soviets on 15 March 1918 by a vote of 748 to 261.24 What made a lasting impression on Serge was the flourishing, open and dynamic rank and file democracy of the Bolshevik Party itself and its honourable conduct in the debate about the war:

This party, so disciplined and so little encumbered by abstract fetishism for democracy, still in these grave hours respects its norms of internal democracy. It puts its recognised leader in a minority: Lenin’s tremendous personal authority does not hinder the militants in the central committee from standing up to him and energetically maintaining their point of view; the most important decisions are settled by vote, often by small majorities (a margin of one vote…) to which the minorities are willing to defer without abandoning their ideas. Lenin, when in the minority, submits while waiting for events to prove him right, and continues his propaganda without breaking discipline. Even though impassioned, the discussion remains objective. Neither gossip nor intrigue nor personalities play any important part in what is said. The militants talk politics, without trying to wound or discredit the comrades on the opposing side. Since the opposition is never bullied, it shows only the minimum of emotion that one would expect in events of this order, and soon recovers from its rash decisions…

At this hour the party really is the courageous “iron cohort” of Bukharin’s later description. It is a living organism, teeming with initiative from the lowest to the highest ranks.25

Famine and industrial breakdown

Analysing these tumultuous events immediately following the October Revolution, Cliff interrupts the historical flow with a reflective chapter, “The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism”. It serves to prepare and warn the reader for the shock of what amounts to the industrial breakdown of the revolution in the early months of 1918. The chapter discusses the difficulty Lenin had as he searched the writings of Marx and Engels for revolutionary guidelines for managing a workers’ state in its initial stages. Arguments, probably familiar to readers of this journal, are restated, distinguishing Utopian socialist futuristic blueprints from concrete practicalities.

But the main problem was the one that Lenin already understood only too well. Marx and Engels always took it for granted that socialist revolution would build on the solid foundations of a developed capitalist industry. Socialist revolution was not, and could not be, a motor to industrialise a backward peasant country. This unique circumstance had only one remedy—socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries in Western Europe and North America. But meanwhile the Bolsheviks had to manage the economy and society in the here and now. Lenin reached for the only conclusion, however unpalatable: compromises with capitalism.

In this chapter Cliff raises the more general problem of how a workers’ state would impose its will on capitalism, following the socialist revolution. In other words, capitalism most certainly does not disappear over night. But the problem for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was obviously of an altogether much greater magnitude. Cliff quotes Lenin at some length struggling to reconcile the released energies and creative potential of liberated workers with an argument for strict work discipline and the integration of, and coordination with, capitalist expertise.

The tension is palpable and is stunningly expressed in the title of the next chapter as well as some of the chapter’s subheadings. The chapter is called “We Need State Capitalism”, a quotation from Lenin.26 Subheadings include “We Need Bourgeois Specialists” and even “One Man Management”, where Lenin defends the use of “Taylorism”, the principles of “scientific management” that used the stopwatch in industry as a means of extracting intensified labour from workers.

But the most shocking part of this chapter is its first two pages, summed up by the telegram Lenin and the food commissar dispatched to all provincial soviets and food committees on 11 May 1918:

Petrograd is in an unprecedentedly catastrophic situation. There is no bread. The population is given the remaining potato flour and crusts. The Red capital is on the verge of perishing from famine. Counter-revolution is raising its head, directing the dissatisfaction of the hungry masses against the Soviet Government.27

Cliff goes on to describe industry in a state of nothing less than “complete collapse”.28 There was no food to feed factory workers, no raw material or fuel for industry.

The opening of Soviet archives following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 has provided powerful confirmation of industrial breakdown. In his ground-breaking study of a major Moscow metal factory, Kevin Murphy describes hungry workers leaving the factory in March 1918 and going home to their villages. Later management complains about their peasant backgrounds. At the same time Bolshevik organisation in the revolution’s second city was disintegrating. Although Moscow party membership stood at 40,000, only 6,000 were in the factories and less than half of those were on the shop floor. The local Bolshevik leader complains that “cells are falling apart because comrades have left for the Red Guards… Comrades call each other saboteurs”.29

But Murphy’s most staggering statistic trumps even Cliff’s nightmarish description of famine, industrial breakdown and the threat to the revolution: “By the summer of 1918, Soviet Russia had shrunk to the size of the medieval Moscovy state and had lost almost all grain producing regions”.30 It is inconceivable that the soviets could have functioned effectively in such circumstances. A further factor touched on by Murphy reinforces this conclusion. Civil war was looming and Trotsky was recruiting for the Red Army the best Bolshevik workers from the industrial areas, and hence emptying the soviets of their most able cadres. Cliff reports that by 18 April the number of volunteers “numbered nearly 200,000 men, practically only from the urban proletariat”.31

Soviet Petrograd

The above arguments are powerfully tested by a microscopic case study of “Red Petrograd”, in the first year of the revolution, based on recently released archival materials. Alexander Rabinowitch’s hostility to Lenin and Trotsky offers us an unintended template of objective reporting. It is easy to see beyond, and despite, his ideological limitations.32 A highly professional scholar, he provides a plethora of evidence that pinpoints with precision what we might call the Lenin/Cliff case for the strengths and weaknesses of the Petrograd Soviet, and of soviets more generally because he has thoroughly explored the local district soviet archives as well. Here, following the pattern of this article, I will concentrate mainly on the early months of 1918.

The administration of the soviets at first depended upon what Rabinowitch describes as “veteran civil servants”. They were hostile to the revolution and had been on strike against it. They were not replaced “by freshly trained representatives of the revolutionary masses, as Trotsky advocated”.33 What makes this comment particularly interesting is both the author’s implicit explanation and his later observations about the civil servants. The Bolsheviks did not have the cadre to facilitate and supervise the training of a new revolutionary “civil service”. Why not?

Civil war was already looming in the Don Territory in the south:

Beginning in late November, in response to Lenin’s urgent appeals to suppress the bourgeois counter-revolution on the Don, thousands of Petrograd Bolsheviks, Red Guards, Baltic Fleet sailors, and ordinary workers, many of them mobilised by district party committees, joined the rag tag Soviet forces bound for the south… This first episode in the Russian Civil War was typical of the post-October period with respect to the drain of Bolshevik personnel from Petrograd… The record shows that during the first year of Soviet power in Petrograd massive outflows of the most effective party workers, leading to organisational dysfunction, were the rule in all districts.34

Nevertheless, we learn much later from this author that the civil service problem had at least partly resolved itself. We discover not only “lower ranking civil servants…positively disposed to Soviet power”, but that in the words of one of their representatives, they considered themselves not so much employees but “faithful servants of the revolution”.35

However, it would be foolish to gloss over the implications of “organisational dysfunction”, the result of draining of the Bolshevik cadre from Petrograd, both in the soviets and in the Bolshevik Party itself. Despite the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, Lenin still feared a German military invasion and occupation of Petrograd. Consequently he insisted that the government administration move from Petrograd to Moscow. This allowed the revolution’s enemies in Petrograd to make claims about a cowardly retreat and reawaken the debate about the Bolsheviks’ “capitulation” to Germany. The argument merged with crippling food shortages—a result noted earlier, at least in part, of the Bolsheviks’ forced surrender of vital grain producing regions under the Brest-Litovsk treaty—and rocketing unemployment, 46 percent of industrial workers, with many factories lying idle.

The severely weakened Bolshevik Party was thus unable to prevent the emergence of the Extraordinary Assembly of Delegates from Petrograd Factories and Plants (EAD). Although this movement gained credibility from former and now deeply disenchanted Bolshevik supporters, it was in essence a cover for counter-revolution and would open the door to the extreme right, with “frustrated workers, in increasing numbers…venting their desperation in anti-Semitic pogroms”.36

Over the months the EAD would pose an increasingly menacing threat to Bolshevik authority, including threats of strike action. An example of just how frightening the situation was becoming occurred in the Petrograd district of Kolpino with bread shortages over the Easter holidays. Furious housewives descended on the local soviet and a fight erupted with soviet officials. The local commissar and soldiers pulled their guns and some of the housewives were shot at and wounded. Later an electricians’ union official was killed.37 Trotsky once remarked about the danger to the revolution when the Bolsheviks had to police food queues. That danger had arrived.

This was the moment, noted earlier, that Lenin defined as “famine…and counter-revolution…raising its head”. In desperation the Bolsheviks turned to the prodotriady, food procurement detachments. But this would shatter the degree of political stability in the Petrograd soviets’ structure provided by the coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs.38 According to Rabinowitch, “Lenin’s policy of squeezing the peasantry to feed starving workers, and the resulting creation of a virtual state of war between town and country, was implemented on a large scale in the late spring and summer. At that time, armed worker and Red Army units, the …prodotriady, were dispatched to farming regions to seize surpluses from the peasants at gunpoint”.39

As we shall see, Cliff not only concurs with this description, but also defines it as an extremely dangerous signal, even a turning point for the worse, in the revolution. Petrograd once again was called upon to provide the shock troops for the prodotriady—20,000 “select” workers for, in Lenin’s words, “a merciless assault on the rural bourgeoisie”. By July 1918, Lenin was calling for another 10,000 workers. Very reluctantly, the Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd had to say no. They were fearful of wiping out entirely the party’s base in the city and its soviets.40

The party was already in catastrophic decline and in the next three months would collapse even further, by half, to a mere 6,000 members. More worrying, nearly half were new recruits who had joined since October, including, according to Soviet officials from Zinoviev down, “many corrupt profiteers who belonged in jail”.41 The soviets might be surviving but they were in danger of hollowing out, with the vacuum filled with counter-revolution.

Meanwhile, the Left SRs’ opposition to prodotriady was denounced by Lenin, describing them as accomplices to counter-revolution, the “party of the weak willed, apt to defend the kulaks”.42 The Left SRs had also been in national coalition with the Bolsheviks in the CEC, the Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. And since January 1918 they had controlled the Peasant Section headed by the legendary Maria Spiridonova.43

Tensions were inevitably built into this arrangement because of a fundamental disagreement about the leading role of the working class, in relation to the peasantry, in the revolution. They were at boiling point after the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which the Left SRs vehemently opposed. Now they exploded. In an open letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Spiridonova exposed brutalities inflicted on peasants, many not just poor but often themselves victims of the famine. She described “villages battered by artillery. Whole villages set on fire.” The Bolsheviks could not deny it. Lenin would later concede that indeed “terrible errors” had been made.44

Spiridinova was a complex political persona. On the one hand she and the Left SRs shared many of the Bolsheviks’ central objectives. At first she refused to publicly condemn either the Brest-Litovsk treaty or the
prodotriady. Like the Bolsheviks, she was convinced that Europe was on the brink of revolution. She called on her supporters to defend the Bolsheviks and not cave in to the Mensheviks and Right SRs, who were “exploiting the hunger to mobilise the masses against Soviet power”.45

On the other hand, as the split with the Bolsheviks over prodotriady widened, she gave way to earlier and frankly irrational Narodnik pressures. She sanctioned the Left SRs’ assassination of the German ambassador in Moscow in July, as a deliberate provocation to force Germany to break the Brest-Litovsk treaty.46 The Bolsheviks obviously then had to ban the Left SRs. It was a measure of Spiridonova’s persisting credibility that she was held in prison only until November. She would repudiate the assassination.47

“The Peasants’ Resistance Shapes the State”

This is the title Cliff gave to arguably one of the most important sections of his third volume of Lenin.48 It deals uncompromisingly with the implications of the Bolsheviks’ food requisitioning programme. He cites Engels to make a comparison of the attitude of the Russian peasantry to the Bolsheviks with that of the French peasantry to the Jacobin government in the French Revolution of 1789. The French peasants had acted “in a revolutionary manner just so long as was required by their most immediate…private interests; until they had secured the right of ownership of their land which had hitherto been farmed on a feudal basis… Once this was achieved, they turned with all the fury of blind avarice against the movement of the big towns”.49

In the fourth volume of his biography of Lenin, Cliff repeats the same point even more forcefully. He is explaining how the Bolsheviks’ attempt to feed the towns and cities by using armed force for food requisitioning in the countryside eventually threatened to destroy the revolution. The policy met such massive peasant resistance that it overwhelmed them.50 Lenin had to reverse the policy, introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP), which economically enfranchised the petty peasant proprietor. He saw it explicitly as a resumption of the “state capitalist” policy that he had initiated in early 1918, but which had been suspended by the civil war:

Lenin wrote a note, 1794 versus 1921. In 1794 in France, the beneficiaries of the revolution, especially the more prosperous peasants, pressed for relaxation of Jacobin control and demanded freedom of trade. This demand swept away Robespierre and the whole revolution moved to the right… Lenin’s note showed he intended to carry out an economic retreat so as to avoid a head-on clash with the forces equivalent to those which broke Robespierre.

He still saw this as a purely temporary retreat, a manoeuvre by the workers’ state encircled by capitalism and banking firmly on revolutionary developments in Europe.51

As noted earlier, Cliff distinguished Lenin’s formulation of the need for a temporary “state capitalism”, in which the soviet government used private enterprise, from Cliff”s own later formulation of bureaucratic state capitalism, which he argues, after Lenin’s death, became the firm foundation of Stalin’s claims to be building “Socialism in One Country”. Nevertheless we can see clearly the seeds of degeneration here: “The rise of the bureaucracy in party and state was a very long process starting during the period of civil war, accelerated during the NEP, and culminating at the time of Lenin’s departure from the political arena. There was nevertheless a gap between the victory of the bureaucracy and the establishment of a bureaucratic state capitalist regime”.52

That time gap provided the last opportunity for the wider European working class revolution and its rescue of the socialist content of the Russian Revolution. The soviets were by now bureaucratically controlled by the Bolsheviks. Workers’ power had dissipated. But enough Soviet officials still understood themselves as Bolshevik cadres, vision battered but undimmed. They were perfectly capable of responding to the long anticipated European socialist revolution which would reinvigorate Soviet industry and an active working class. Alas, it was not to be.

So were the Bolsheviks justified leading the working class to take power in an overwhelmingly peasant country? Cliff writes: “In the last few weeks before he completely lost consciousness Lenin suffered not only from a complete sense of isolation but from a moral agony almost unprecedented in the history of men and movements. Feelings of personal guilt pervaded all his utterances. Was the Russian Revolution a false spring? Did the Bolsheviks take power prematurely?”53

Rosa Luxemburg, his old adversary in Germany, who had constantly worried about Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks’ “substitutionism”, would provide the resounding answer. October had showed us the potentialities of the proletariat:

Theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism.54

The victory of the October 1917 Socialist Revolution was the single most important historical and political event of the last century. Its failure continues to cast a long shadow over this century. The deepening crisis of capitalism is presenting a new generation of radical activists with searching political questions. Yet workers’ power and communism hardly seem a plausible democratic alternative. The left has to rise to the formidable intellectual as well as the political and public challenge that this now poses. In a different context Lenin once cited the virtue of “patient explanation”. That’s precisely what we need in defence of “October”, that workers’ power really did exist even if only momentarily. It offered a vastly improved future for the great majority with the realisable objective of a classless society, but simply could not survive confined to a mainly peasant society.


1: I would like to thank Ian Birchall, David Crouch and Ken Muller for reading and commenting on the first draft of this article. Almost all of their suggestions and additional references have been incorporated. Also thanks to Kevin Murphy for our very stimulating and positive email exchange about the second draft.

2: Cliff, 1978, p174, emphasis in the original. See also “Decline of local power of soviets”, Cliff, 1978, pp149-151.

3: Serge, 1997, p56.

4: Cliff, 1978, pp5-12. Serge, 1992, pp122-123. See Haynes, 1997, for a discussion about the immediate threats to sabotage the new revolutionary regime from the Mensheviks and the peasants’ party, the SRs, the Social Revolutionary Party, in alliance with the Right; the conservative role of striking civil servants and the railway workers’ union; and crucially the split in the SRs, leading to the Left SRs entering a coalition with the Bolsheviks.

5: Cliff, 1976, p331. And here is the answer to Simon Pirani. Whatever the merits of his argument with Kevin Murphy in this journal, he undermines his case with his assertion that it was the Bolsheviks’ “vanguardism and statism that made them blind to the creative potential of democratic workers’ organisations”-Pirani, 2008, p235. On the contrary the Bolsheviks’ “vanguardism”, an unnecessarily gratuitous way of describing their selfless and exhausted mainly working class cadre, was devoted to unleashing that democratic potential. Their “statism” was, as we shall see, a desperate defence of the revolutionary potential of the new state, the network of soviets, from the overpowering threat of counter-revolution.

6: See John Reed’s brilliant contemporary description of the structure of the soviets in Reed, 1974.

7: Cliff, 1976, p322.

8: Serge, 1992, p122.

9: John Rees mounted a robust “Defence of October”, including the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the constituent assembly, against all the fainthearts, many of them former Communists like the leader of the South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo-Rees, 1991. In the aftermath of the collapse of “Communism” two years earlier, not only did they belatedly discover the evils of Stalinism but were keen to point the blame also at Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. See also Trudell, 2000.

10: Cliff, 1978, p76.

11: Cliff had an unpublished book on the subject of the collectivisation of agriculture-available as a manuscript at Warwick University

12: Serge, 1992, p133.

13: Cliff, 1978, p34-35.

14: Cliff, 1978, p36.

15: Cliff, 1996, p61.

16: Serge, 1992, p133.

17: Serge, 1992, p130.

18: Cliff, 1978, p38.

19: Cliff, 1978, pp39-40.

20: Cliff, 1978, pp46-47, 48.

21: Cliff, 1978, p50.

22: Haynes, 2002, p36.

23: Cliff, 1978, p50.

24: Cliff, 1978, p51.

25: Serge, 1992, pp173-174.

26: Lenin saw “state capitalism” addressing both the problems of industrial and agricultural breakdown. His concept here needs to be distinguished from Cliff’s own alternative usage as an analysis of the later, Stalinist state. Lenin means that the fledgling workers’ state had to use private capital to develop the country: but under a tight regime of state regulation combined with some supervision of management by elected workplace committees (though he conceded that private management would also retain independent direction of the enterprise)-Cliff, 1978, pp69-71. Lenin saw measures like these “as a purely temporary retreat”. See also the concluding paragraphs of this article.

27: Cliff, 1978, p67.

28: Cliff, 1978, p68.

29: Murphy, 2007, p66.

30: Murphy, 2007, p64. Trotsky is the original source for the catastrophic scale of the shrinkage of the soviet

31: Cliff, 1990, p66.

32: Rabinowitch identifies with the so-called “moderate Bolsheviks” and their greater willingness to resolve the post-revolutionary crisis by seeking coalition with the Mensheviks and SRs-only to be thwarted by Lenin and Trotsky.

33: Rabinowitch, 2008, p57.

34: Rabinowitch, 2008, pp59-60.

35: Rabinowitch, 2008, p234.

36: Rabinowitch, 2008, p228.

37: Rabinowitch, 2008, pp223-236.

38: Read critically, Rabinowitch provides a useful background to this coalition-2008, pp260-270.

39: Rabinowitch, 2008, p270.

40: Rabinowitch, 2008, p273.

41: Rabinowitch, 2008, pp343-344.

42: Rabinowitch, 2008, p271.

43: In 1906, as a student member of the SRs, Maria Spiridonova assassinated the governor of Tambov province, who had crushed peasant unrest with signal brutality. She spent 11 years in a Siberian convict prison, “a regime so harsh that suicide became the political inmates’ final form of protest”-Serge, 1992, p411, n70. She became the Left SR leader in 1917.

44: Rabinowitch, 2008, pp285-286.

45: Rabinowitch, 2008, p280.

46: Rabinowitch, 2008, p290.

47: Rabinowitch, 2008, p294, p308.

48: It is most unfortunate that this volume is out of print. Bookmarks must seriously consider republishing all four volumes of Cliff’s Lenin.

49: Cliff, 1978, p139.

50: For a fuller discussion of the background and the double edged attitude of the peasantry to the revolution and its leadership, see Cliff, 1978, pp132-143.

51: Cliff, 1979, p141.

52: Cliff, 1979, pp216-217.

53: Cliff, 1979, p230.

54: Cliff, 1979, p236. Ian Birchall, Cliff’s biographer, adds a final footnote about Cliff and Serge and their approach to Lenin and the revolution:

“I think it’s worth noting that the strength of Cliff-and Serge-is the way they catch the duality of the process-the terrible difficulties and hardships, but also the enormous creativity and hope unleashed by the Revolution. I would contrast Cliff with Jean-Jacques Marie’s Lénine [Paris 2004], which gives a scrupulously honest account of post-revolutionary Russia, but which tends to see so much gloom that it loses sight of what the Revolution was all about.”


Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin Volume 2: All Power to the Soviets (Pluto),

Cliff, Tony, 1978, Lenin Volume 3: Revolution Besieged (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, 1979, Lenin Volume 4: The Bolsheviks and World Revolution (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, 1990, Trotsky 2: The Sword of the Revolution (Bookmarks),

Cliff, Tony, 1996 [1960], “Trotsky on Substitutionism”, in Party and Class (Bookmarks),

Haynes, Mike, 1997, “Was There a Parliamentary Alternative in Russia in 1917?”, International Socialism 76 (autumn),

Haynes, Mike, 2002, Russia: Class and Power, 19172000 (Bookmarks).

Murphy, Kevin, 2007, Revolution and CounterRevolution in a Moscow Metal Factory (Haymarket).

Murphy, Kevin, 2010, “Conceding the Russian Revolution to Liberals”, International Socialism 126 (spring),

Pirani, Simon, 2008, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 192024 (Routledge).

Pirani, Simon, 2010, “Socialism in the 21st century and the Russian Revolution”, International Socialism 128 (autumn),

Rabinowitch, Alexander, 2008, The Bolsheviks in Power, The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (Indiana University Press).

Reed, John, 1974 (1918), “Soviets in Action”, International Socialism 69 (first series, May)

Rees, John, 1991, “In Defence of October”, International Socialism 52 (autumn).

Serge, Victor, 1992, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks),

Serge, Victor, 1997, Revolution in Danger (Bookmarks).

Trudell, Megan, 2000, “The Russian Civil War: a Marxist Analysis”, International Socialism 86 (summer),