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John Passant

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September 2009



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Would Russia have been better off without a revolution?

John Quiggin, in response to my previous post about the forthcoming Socialist Alternative talk in Canberra on Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism and Trotsky’s attempts to keep alive the the ideas of socialism from below, said:

Looking back, it seems clear to me that the Russian people would have been much better off if the revolution had never taken place. They would presumably have ended up in much the same position as now (a relatively backward capitalist state) but with much less suffering along the way. 

My response was as follows (now updated and edited).


This is an argument that crops up now and again.

I think your approach views the situation in static national terms, not in the internationalist ways the Bolsheviks (and indeed, until the first world war, the second international) did. 

The revolution in Russia was not some sort of coup but an expression of the wishes of the majority of the working class and for a while the peasantry.

The Bolsheviks couldn’t turn on and off the drive for revolution that captured the working class and dragged the peasantry behind it.

It could lead and guide it, but the march of history was almost unstoppable.

For the working class, through the Bolsheviks, not to have taken power would have been a Canute like attempt to prevent the incoming tide and a crime against history.

The Bolsheviks were internationalists. They realised that a revolution in Russia could not survive on its own.

Indeed in 1919 Lenin wrote that without a revolution in Germany the Russian revolution was doomed.

The Russian revolution not only gave Russian workers and peasants the chance of liberation from autocracy, it also put on the agenda revolution across the globe. 

The Soviets’ taking power became an inspiration to workers around the world.

In fact there were revolutions across Europe; one in November 1918 in Germany helped end the first world war.

But 1923 I think was the key. The weakness of the German Communist Party leadership and its failure to grasp a world historical moment of genuine revolutionary potential condemned us to the horrors that have followed – fascism, war and the like.

The defeat of the German revolution meant the fate of the Russian revolution – its defeat – was sealed. The counter-revolution, in the form of Stalinism and the anti-socialist ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’, triumphed.

Stalin’s task then became to use the state to drag Russia out of its backwardness. He imposed a form of state capitalism to do so – wage slavery and the crude accumulation of capital went with the gulag.

As to your implied point about steady and peaceful development, I think the forces at work in the Russian revolution and the fever pitch they had reached presented two choices -revolution or fascism.

As Trotsky wrote, if the workers’ revolution in Russia had been defeated fascism would have had a Russian name. There was no ‘bourgeois democratic’ option.

I also  wonder about this idea that suffering can be avoided through not having a revolution.

The barbarity of capitalism in its formative years in Europe and its period of colonial expansion seems to raise serious questions about that. 

When Marx writes in Capital about the history of capitalism being written in blood, one can but marvel at the similarities between his descriptions then and the brutality of Stalinist state capitalism in Russia.

The maturation of the revolution from below, and the resolution to the class contradictions driving this, was the working class taking power and inspiring workers around the world to do the same.

A workers’ revolution in Germany would have laid the material basis for the development of socialism in Russia. It didn’t happen and the Russian revolution withered, with Stalinism and its state capitalist project the effective counter revolution emerging from that defeat.

Many readers will no doubt find this discussion arcane and irrelevant.

When the next working class upsurge occurs, these are the sorts of questions – what type of society do we workers want – that will arise.

In arming ourselves theoretically now, we are laying the groundwork for putting the ideas of socialism from below into practice when the class moves.



Comment from Benjamin Solah
Time September 8, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Funny that that question is asked. We’re having a debate on this very question on October 1.

Does this chap perhaps live in Melbourne?

Comment from John
Time September 8, 2009 at 9:59 pm

‘Fraid not Benjamin. Professor Quiggin is in Brisbane from memory. I doubt the leading Keynesian economist in Australia (and this description may do him an injustice) is going to attend a Socialist Alternative meeting. He blogs at

Comment from John Quiggin
Time September 8, 2009 at 10:22 pm

A few scattered responses

I didn’t mean to imply peaceful and steady development. As Marx says, capitalist development has everywhere been a bloody process, but nowhere as bloody as Stalinism and Maoism. And I’m unconvinced about the inevitability of fascism; it drew its support, at least in part, from those who feared Stalinism and envied its strength.

That said, the disaster from which all other 20th century disasters sprang was the Great War, a pure product of capitalism.

Still, I’m sceptical of all proposals that rely on the efficicacy of violence.

Comment from John
Time September 9, 2009 at 7:38 am

Thanks John.

I think the process overseen by Stalin and Mao was essentially the same as that of early European capitalism, and just as bloody.

I am not going to enter into a discussion about degrees of bloodiness, – all bloodiness is to be abhorred.

My point wasn’t to defend Stalin or Mao but to condemn them and to argue that what they did was not socialist – it was to establish state capitalism in Russia and China.

My point about fascism was not its development in Germany in the late 20s and early 30s but that the option facing Russian society in 1917 was revolution or fascism.

The provisional Government could not survive – it didn’t have the social forces behind it. The majority wanted revolution (and we can have endless arguments about the Constituent Assembly but I think that analysis is correct.)

The fascism of the late 20s and its growth in the 30s are a response to the economic crisis and saw the ruling class looking for a battering ram to smash the defensive organisations of the working class like trade unions and labour parties and communist parties to drive down wages and conditions and restore profit rates.

As you know Marx thought profit rates had a tendency to fall, and that appears to be the case in Europe over the 20s when the rising organic composition of capital saw profit rates decline.

And as to the inevitability of fascism in the 30s, Trotsky’s writings on this are perhaps his finest political works. His analysis of its rise in Germany (from about 1928), the real danger it posed even then, and the need for all currents in the workers’ movement to unite against it are magnificent.

There is nothing inevitable about the success of fascism, but that depends on clear thinking and action by workers and their political organisations. The SPD and KPD in Germany – what a crime against histiry was the social fascist analysis of the stalinists – were not up to the historical task of combating and defeating fascism. The German working class, with appropriate leadership, could have been.

As to violence, it is true the Russian revolution has some violence. In fact however the transfer of power from the provisional Government to the Soviets was remarkably peaceful. Only a few were killed in St Petersburg, mainly because workers’ support there for the revolution was so overwhelming.

The Civil War on the other hand was a bloody affair. The response of the Bolsheviks and the working class was of defensive violence against the white would be fascists.

But there is a wider point. All class rule is built on violence. Our armies, police etc are armed representatives of the capitalist state, and represent the interests of the few against the many. The violence of the workers’ state in defending itself against the ruling class when they take up arms against the vast majority is justified. As the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and others show one of the first acts of the working class in power is the abolition of the standing army and the democratisation of force by making it a social responsibility to enforce order.

But this ‘violence’ of the majority will wither away as classes disappear and the state too disappears.

Comment from John Mullen
Time September 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm

The problem with counter-factual history (“What would have happened if…”) is that the question you ask defines the whole debate. How about “Would we all be better off if the German revoluton had succeeded in the early 1920s in eliminating capitalism?” “Would Hitler have been possible if the victors at the end of world war one had not been determined to dominate the world?” “Would historians ask the same questions if they weren’t dependent on different kinds of approval from the ruling elites?”…

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