“The lessons from the Soviet era are a vivid reminder that socialism is not a utopian ideal, but a historical reality that workers must fight for.”
On November 7, 1917, Russian workers and peasants achieved the seemingly impossible: creating a socialist workers state through peacefully occupying factories and seizing private property from the capitalist class. One hundred years later, this remarkable achievement is celebrated the world over as vivid evidence that the same gains are possible at a time when ruling classes dominate and exploit the entire world, that it is possible and likely that working classes can and will establish socialism again. The lessons from the Soviet era are a vivid reminder that socialism is not a utopian ideal, but a historical reality that workers must fight for. What did socialism do in the Soviet Union and the world that was and is now again subjected by capitalist Western imperialism?
Three years earlier, in 1914, Lenin and the Bolsheviks power broke ranks with leftist social imperialists in the West who supported the First World War. By that time, Western Europeans and North Americans had benefited greatly from more than 400 years of plunder in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which was the major source for capitalist profits, but also higher living standards and the development of its own labor aristocracies. While the West was only relatively prosperous, significant portions of its working classes suffered from low wages, discrimination, and oppression, especially Black and Third World workers and national minorities. As W.E.B. DuBois reminds us, a significant proportion of white workers were distracted from the struggle for socialism by achieving short-term gains under capitalism at the expense of the working-class majority. Thus, while many ‘socialists’ lament the Wests failure to create socialism in the early 20th century, they fail to recognize the importance of unifying the working class. In Russia, the Bolsheviks succeeded in building an alliance between urban workers and rural peasants and rejected racial and ethnic chauvinism. The German Social Democrats, who dominated the Second International, the major international communist movement in the early 20th century, were insensitive to bridging divisions in the working class and did not challenge Germany’s entry into the First World War, which forced workers of different national nationalities to fight one another to advance capitalist profits.
“In Russia, the Bolsheviks succeeded in building an alliance between urban workers and rural peasants and rejected racial and ethnic chauvinism.”
In this way, the most significant historic fracture on the Left, one which remains with us today, followed the eager embrace of liberal democracy by Second International reformist socialists. The rise and dominance of social democracy in Germany dashed any prospect of a transition to working class power in Europe by instead appealing to the base sentiment of nationalism. But even more importantly, the rise of social democracy under capitalism was a declaration of war against the revolutionary Left that advocated a socialist break with capitalism. Then, as today, social democracy is still more a declaration of war by the leading workers’ organizations of the imperialist countries, as well as their followers, on the oppressed nations of the Third World. From the late nineteenth century and increasingly until today, it is only the unrequited transfer of wealth from the latter to the former that has provided the rising incomes necessary to sustain a mass working class base for social democracy.
Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie
Lenin, as intellectual and revolutionary, identified the state as a coercive apparatus in Tsarist Russia and the capitalist west. Following Marx, Lenin also perceptively recognized that socialist revolution was a decisive break with capitalism. A workers’ state would not succeed without continuously challenging the bourgeoisie and its values, which continuously posed a threat to workers and peasants. Thus, it would be impossible to jump immediately from capitalism to a communist society. Those who blindly criticize the early Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, as well as revolutionary movements in the countries subjected to imperialism, deliberately neglect that the Western capitalist countries continuously waged war against these fledgling workers states. Thus, it is important to recognize that the bourgeoisie will never voluntarily give up power, even after its dictatorship is overthrown by the working class. The struggle for workers continues under socialism. This is why the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary for maintaining a principled and effective workers state and leading the way to establishing socialism
We in the West must support revolutionary anti-imperialist struggles, which will almost certainly lead to the establishment of a new workers state. Today, the socialist state, under attack from national and international capitalists, would operate at the directive of the working class and peasants. But to maintain and consolidate working class power, the Soviet state would only succeed if it was able to defend itself from internal and external threats from the national bourgeoisie and imperialist capitalist class. The formation of the workers’ state following the Bolshevik Revolution did not transform the fact that state power remains rooted in class power, in this case a dictatorship of the proletariat replacing a far more rapacious dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. To establish a democratic and egalitarian workers’ state it is first necessary to defeat the bourgeoisie and imperialists. Those leftists who apply western bourgeois liberal democratic standards are by definition, supporters of the old order, or living in a fantasyland. Taking state power is a serious enterprise: it requires and workers’ army to defend the country from national and international capitalists. The Red Army was formed to defend the working class and peasants of the Soviet Union from counterrevolutionaries at home and the invasion of twelve capitalist states. The creation of a workers’ state required the proletariat to continuously fight against bourgeois class domination. Proletarian power is not possible without defeating the bourgeoisie.
“Those leftists who apply western bourgeois liberal democratic standards are by definition, supporters of the old order, or living in a fantasyland.”
Of course, in 1918 the distinction was that the state would operate in the interests of the working class. This did not denote that the state would cease to be a effective force, even if it would be far less destructive than the bourgeois-liberal state that has operated and continues to operate in the form of a violent dictatorship. The liberal-democratic state is a violent class dictatorship. The targets of this violence and the forms it takes change over time. The maintenance of social peace and inter-class national solidarity in the developed countries has typically come about by displacing violent class antagonisms onto oppressed nations and peoples. Thus, for example, whilst placating the militant (and largely Jim Crow) white working class at home, the Roosevelt presidency of the 1930s stepped up repression of the Puerto Rican independence struggle. As such, the violent class dictatorship of bourgeois society can be seen most clearly in the colonial world. There, as Marx said, is displayed the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” In the same article, he wrote that capitalist progress resembled a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”
“The violent class dictatorship of bourgeois society can be seen most clearly in the colonial world.”
Lenin certainly recognized that the state was an instrument of class power and would be wielded in the interests of the class that seized power. As Lenin states: “The main thing that socialists fail to understand and that constitutes their short-sightedness in matters of theory, their subservience to bourgeois prejudices and their political betrayal of the proletariat is that in capitalist society, whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle intrinsic to that society, there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations.”5 Imperialist capitalism, of course, by displacing class contradictions onto a world scale, allows these dreams to become a reality for a minority of the world’s workers (and, initially, only a minority of the metropolitan workers, too). Further revolutionary workers’ states have not cynically asserted that they were an abstract force for freedom, equality, and a means of guaranteeing social rights, as was the case in every liberal-democratic regime.
Given the failure of European socialist revolutions in the early 20th century, the Soviet Union was most eager to develop the forces of production for the workers state. To do so also required the domination of the working class. The notion of the state as a transmission belt is a recognition that the seizure of power by workers and peasants would not transform the state straightaway into a socialist paradise.
State Power and Fascism
To understand the relevance of the state power in the contemporary era we are duty-bound to begin by detecting the profound transformations within capitalism over the past 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution, under which the working classes in the imperial world have gained material advantages through the marginalization and collective exploitation of workers more generally in the Global South.
It is fundamental to establish what we mean by the representation of state power. I would argue that the nature and location of state power has not appreciably changed over the last 100 years if understood through the prism of a hierarchical system of states dominated by an imperial core. The former colonial powers continue to dominate the world through international relations established upon superior force and economic dependency. However, state power does vary over time and place, principally according to the dynamic between the political exigencies of class struggle and the economic priorities of its protagonists.
In the early 20th century the United States and a handful of declining European powers dominated the world through the exertion of economic and military force. Today the domination of the US ruling capitalist class is more far-reaching than a century ago, through its increased capacity to demarcate the boundaries of independent state activity and to subordinate the interests of smaller states to its class and geopolitical interests. As imperialism has integrated the world economy even further, any state that threatens to depart from the dominant international neoliberal paradigm is scorned, punished, and excluded from the international system.
The state remains an oppressive instrument today and is controlled by the capitalist class.
“The violent suppression and eradication of political opponents of white supremacy and capitalism in the United States are a testament to the fraudulent nature of alleged “representative” liberal democracy there.”
Revolutionaries must challenge capital’s control over the state through exposing its sham democratic pretences that maintain and expand the power of the upper class and under which political competition offers no hope and only misery for the working class. The violent suppression and eradication of political opponents of white supremacy and capitalism in the United States are a testament to the fraudulent nature of alleged “representative” liberal democracy there. We must pursue a revolutionary strategy not just to challenge a rapacious state, but also to forestall the growth of national chauvinism which is emerging due to popular recognition of the failure of electoral systems and the alarming growth of paramilitary police and incarceration systems. The façade of democracy is now exposed to the popular masses at a time when fascist parties are emerging as the only organized political alternative. More likely is a rise of the fascist right, which can manipulate worker interests in Europe and elsewhere far better than liberals and social democrats. Fascism’s appeal to the metropolitan working class in the current crisis stems from its unmitigated promise to maintain and extend existing patterns of labor stratification based on established national and gender hierarchies. Social democrats and their leaders in settler-colonial states have a history of embracing outright white nationalism and chauvinism when the victims of colonial-capitalist exploitation appear as any form of labor competition amongst them. I would not say that workers whose living standards have always come at the expense of the superexploited and oppressed are being “manipulated” when they are encouraged to join in a renewed drive to plunder them further.
Support for the anti-imperialist struggles of the oppressed nations is a solid foundation for socialist ideology in the current age just as much as it was a century ago. Unfortunately, it faces the same and even greater obstacles now as then.
A revolutionary stance must first and foremost appear as a political movement that repudiates the existing bourgeois political system and categorically distinguishes the far more exploited workers in the South from those struggling in the North. “Occupy” gained traction in 2011 amid working class frustration with capitalist domination over state, politics, and society, not just in the West but throughout the world. But the diffuse movements lacked a dialectical historical analysis of class interest in global capitalism and were an expression of disapproval rather than a revolutionary challenge to capitalist hegemony.
The Struggle against Imperialism
A working class and anti-imperialist party form dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and in opposition to US and western hegemonic power is indispensable. Occupy was right to direct indignation at finance capital, but failed to express its opposition to the capitalist and imperial state as such. A socialist strategy must have at its core taking state power: but to succeed we must challenge the power of imperial states to dictate extractive and unequal policies around the world. We must seek a power bloc that is not the conventional set of left parties, but a bloc of working-class/anti-imperialist forces in the Global South, recognizing class inequality within a divided world system. We also must recognize the sustained importance of imperialism. In the 1970s to 1980s, smug Western Marxists and Eurocommunists all but jettisoned the concept as an applicable means for understanding the reality of class struggles on a global basis. Opposition to capitalism without a grasp of the class divisions that correspond with national boundaries is essential.
Social democratic praise for the development of civil liberties and human rights in the West is highly insensitive to cultural difference and relevant only to the privileged and a thin layer of the oppressed. We have no examples of successes on the Left in the West that could be sustained for more than a short period of time without a counterattack from capital.
Taking state power is only relevant if seized by socialists in the Third World countries on a regional geographic level. Yes, something like a Soviet Union. In the early 21st century most states can be turned into “failed states” if opposed by capital. Thus, we need to re-imagine taking state power on a much wider level. The axiom of the Cold War era that imperial wars were to be fought over the spoils in the Third World is more prescient today than ever, as class struggles expand in the Global South and the West is extending its exploitation from extractive industries to the production of commodities. The United States under Republicans and Democrats is reviving its Cold War stance not in opposition to Russia or other regional states, but out of fear that a working-class bloc could form at a time when the West is ever more dependent on both natural resources and commodities produced by workers subjected to imperialism.
Please come to our celebration of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in New York on Tuesday, November 7, activists in the US and from throughout the world are commemorating this significant day in world history. The event will begin with a presentation by Anthony Monteiro, a leading American activist and scholar of Civil Rights and Marxism. We will receive greetings from activists from Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond. Time, Date, Venue: Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, Tuesday Nov. 7th, from 6 PM to 9 PM at, Center for Worker Education
#25 Broadway, Manhattan NY, 7th-Floor Auditorium (Three blocks south of Wall Street. Take N, R, or W to Rector Street or take #2, #3, #4 or #5 to Wall Street) For more information, email [email protected] Look for the event notice and updates on Facebook at:
1917 Centenary Committee
The program is organized by the 1917 Centenary Committee under the sponsorship of the Journal of Labor and Society.