The creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 through the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Russian revolution was a huge step towards realising Marxism. But it turned into a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare that’s been dangled before people as an inevitable consequence of what happens if you go down the Marxist road.
Marxists, especially those influenced by Leon Trotsky, have normally argued along these lines:
- The 1917 revolution was a great achievement leading to the expropriation of the capitalist and landlord class in Russia. It ended centuries of Tsarist tyranny and put the working class firmly in control
- But Karl Marx had never anticipated a revolution in a relatively backward country like semi-feudal Russia, eyeing up heavily industrialised Britain, Germany or France. He believed capitalism had to create the conditions for socialism.
- However, despite the objections of some Marxists (the Mensheviks), Lenin argued that capitalists in Russia were incapable of carrying through a full transition from feudalism to capitalism. They were basically stuck in a semi-feudal rut. And the only way out was to leapfrog from the current state of affairs to socialism
- But Lenin didn’t doubt that in order for Russia to develop into a mature socialist society, other countries like Germany would have to rise up in revolution otherwise Bolshevik controlled Russia would be isolated and encircled by imperialist powers
- However, the revolution in Germany was crushed in 1919 and other workers’ uprisings after World War One were similarly put down
- With Lenin’s failing health, Stalin emerged as the champion of an emerging bureaucratic caste in the new Soviet Union that was more interested in consolidating its power, derived from the state-run control economy than spreading revolution to other countries. In fact, it slowly came to the view that it might be more beneficial to reach a rapprochement with the capitalist world
- However, an underlying antagonism remained between the capitalist world and the Soviet Union with the existential threat that it posed to private property and capitalism
- Marx and Lenin had anticipated the need for the working class to exercise dictatorial power to crush capitalism for an unspecified period of time but Marx believed the state would “wither away” once class relations – and the need for one group of people to exploit another – disappeared. Stalin turned the dictatorship of the proletariat into a permanent, bureaucratised version of Marxism that tolerated no dissent – including from other Marxists
Through various twists and turns we will outline on the blog, Stalin lashed out at enemies to the left (Trotsky and the Left Opposition) and then enemies to the right (Bukharin and those who wanted an element of capitalism competition in the economy). This was reflected on the global stage where Stalin directed communist parties to form broad popular fronts at one moment and then denouncing socialists as “social fascists” the next.
So horrific did Stalinism become that it was brutally satirised by George Orwell in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In the former book, a revolt by farm animals sees the farmer driven out but the pigs emerge as a new elite. In the latter, Orwell damned the Stalinist culture of double think and totalitarian mind control.
Stalin’s bitterest critic was Leon Trotsky, the man who led the Red Army after 1917 and had been a close comrade of Lenin. He was driven out of the Soviet Union and eventually assassinated by an agent of Stalin at his compound in Mexico City. Towards the end of his life, Trotsky developed an utterly grim view of Stalin, convinced that he would even accommodate the Nazis to retain his grip on power.
Of course, not everybody accepts this analysis:
- Stalinists argue that Stalin had no option other than to take necessary measures to defend the Soviet Union against attack from capitalist powers and their allies, who they think included erstwhile Marxists like Trotsky
- Then there are those who think that had Trotsky managed to take power instead of Stalin, he would have been forced by events and objectively existing conditions into the same measures. They even argue that Trotsky was vain, arrogant and resentful that Stalin had got the top job after Lenin’s death
- There is some dispute over the relationship between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin – who did Lenin really prefer? Trotsky was adamant that he was the designated successor to Lenin while Stalinists reject that emphatically
- There are some who call themselves Trotskyists but take the view that by the 1930s, when Stalin carried out widespread and bloody purges, the Soviet Union had ceased to be socialist and had instead become “state capitalist”. Stalin and his fellow bureaucrats were no longer a caste sitting atop a nationalised economy but a new type of capitalist and no better than the West. This analysis has some major flaws we’ll examine in the blog
It’s important to understand Stalinism as the Soviet Union was the biggest experiment in implement Marxism to date. It begs the question whether Marxism automatically leads to totalitarian terror and the destruction of basic human rights.
Back in the 1980s, Trotskyists optimistically yearned for a political revolution in the Soviet Union and its satellite states in central and eastern Europe that would sweep away the bureaucratic elite while retaining the nationalised economy – only now under democratic workers control.
But history has been cruel to Trotskyism. Because once the Stalinist dominoes started to topple in the late 80s, those countries lurched dramatically towards a very unregulated free market capitalism. The children of the bureaucratic elite plundered the state and created new business empires, turning themselves into billionaires.
Eventually, those plutocrats elevated Vladimir Putin to power, a former Stalinist intelligence officer, who has ruthlessly combined the controlling tendencies of the Soviet Union spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories on social and mainstream media with some of the trappings of Tsarism – re-gilded palaces, the blessing of the Orthodox church and nationalist chauvinism.
So – does that mean 1917 is well and truly buried? Well, that’s the question we are going to try and answer on the blog.