A Socialist World is Probable (IV): Barbarism or Socialism?

March 18, 2013 12:00 pm

Next year marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. World War 1

David Cameron recently called on people to remember that it was a war fought in ‘defence of democracy’. Indeed, tragically, it was called ‘the War to End all Wars’. Standing where we are today, we know this to have been a false dawn. Almost two decades after its end, another far bloodier, catastrophic conflict broke out in 1939 that claimed millions more deaths. Since the end of WWII, there has hardly been a year passed by without some murderous conflict being played out in the world.

It’s a misnomer to claim WWI was a war fought ‘to defend democracy’ when Britain itself, at the time, denied women the vote; was in military occupation of Ireland; and kept a quarter of the globe in colonial captivity. WW I was  a war fought between the imperial powers of Britain, France, Russia on one side and Germany, Austria and Turkey opposing them. With much of the world already divided between them – ‘the Scramble for Africa’ being the final frontier – any further re-division meant war.

Defensive pacts between the ‘Great Powers’ meant, should a serious incident take place, each were honour bound to mobilise their armies in support of their allies. The rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Habsburgs, were intent on holding down the nationalist movements within their ramshackle empire that sprawled across the Balkans. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian Crown Prince, an ultimatum was issued. The timetable of war was launched. Once unleashed, each power was drawn irresistibly into the conflict.

The European labour movement, represented by the parties of the Second International, had for years committed themselves in opposition to war. Its leaders had proclaimed that, in the event of war being declared, each country’s trade unions would launch general strikes to prevent such a conflict. However, the ‘gradualists‘ at the top of the movement, the ‘labour aristocrats’ who had benefited from the reforms their capitalist ruling classes had been able to afford, refused to resist and each supported their own rulers. They acted as recruiting sergeants for their own capitalist class and must bear part of the responsibility for the loss of a generation.

The mid-wife of revolution

The Russian Empire was the weak link in the chain. With a backward, semi-feudal economy, it entered the war that would cost around five million casualties.

Under Tsarism, the country was misled, social structure was poor and its population was oppressed. It only needed the demands of war to unleash a groundswell of discontent from those at the bottom as its wealthy, corrupt ruling class seemed barely touched by the privations of warfare. As Marx said, so often ‘war is the mid-wife of revolution’.

Out of a population of 150 million, only around 7 – 8 million were working class who toiled in the new industries established by massive foreign investment during the 1880s. Socialist ideas had been carried across the borders and activists helped to build trade unions and organise strike waves to improve conditions. The best worker activists were recruited by socialists to form clandestine parties. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) acted as an umbrella for socialists of every hue – among them Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin.

Leon Trotsky

The RSDLP eventually split into two factions – the Menscheviks and the Bolsheviks, centre-right and leftwing respectively. By the outbreak of the war, both were separate parties. By January, 1917 strikes broke out in St Petersburg led by women workers and a mass demonstration was attacked by troops which sparked widespread strikes and unrest. By February, the strike wave spread among many troops at the front and naval personnel as well as workers.

A provisional government was formed which attempted to keep Russia in the war, but soldiers refused to advance and only agreed to fight a ‘defensive action’. There was dual political power in existence, the Soviets (or revolutionary workers’ councils) and the Provisional government. The Tsar was forced to abdicate but the Provisional government attempted to keep Russia in the war. By October, the Bolsheviks – who were, by now the largest party in the Soviets – called for a second revolution to prevent the parties of the centre-right forming a bloc with the imperialist-tsarist parties. On a programme of  ‘Peace, Land and Bread’ and drawing many sections of the peasant masses behind the working class, they took power.

They dissolved the moribund Russian parliament – the Duma – and proclaimed the only power in Russia would be the workers’ soviets, made up of several parties. The leadership of the Bolsheviks centred around Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin called on workers to take control of the factories, workshops and that the soldiers’ soviets should elect their officers. They then called for peace negotiations with the German invaders and repudiated all Tsarism’s foreign debts. Trotsky led the peace negotiations and stalled them as best he could to gain time to reorganise the country’s forces. The harsh Treaty of  Brest-Litovsk imposed by the Germans was accepted.

Lenin called on soldiers and workers across Europe to make an international revolution to come to their aid. Both Lenin and Trotsky understood that ‘without a revolution in the west, Bolshevism will be liquidated either by internal counter-revolution or external intervention, or by a combination of both. Lenin stressed again and again that the bureaucratization of the Soviets was… the potential beginning of the degeneration of the workers’ state’ (Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism).

The opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution, the reactionary forces (known as the ‘Whites’), were aided and abetted by 21 armies of intervention supplied by the west – Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, the USA. They all joined together to try to defeat the revolution in its cradle. The Russian ‘civil war’, following on the heels of the World War, lasted until 1922. The country ravaged and much of its infra-structure destroyed, its countryside suffered from famine, the Soviet Red Army was victorious and the world’s first workers’ state was firmly established.

‘Socialism in one country’

In an historic fight to the death, much of the working class were exhausted by the war, and the civil war. The Bolshevik Party was run now by a small cadre of bureaucrats. Their foremost representative was Joseph Stalin who now came more to the fore. Lenin himself was ill and was to die by 1924. This allowed Stalin to take a much firmer grip on the party apparatus, dampening down democracy, excluding workers from making decisions. His only political rival was Trotsky, who called for a second democratic revolution and for a democratic plan of industrialisation to rebuild the country.

Stalin began to build a clique around him that succeeded in isolating Trotsky.  They used the foreign parties of the recently founded Third International as a Russian foreign policy tool rather than to spread international revolution. Lenin and Trotsky had declared that the Russian Revolution could only survive if a successful workers revolution was completed throughout Europe. Stalin’s argument was that ‘Socialism in one country’ would suffice. He actively sabotaged any chance of revolutions elsewhere should they inspire similar movements at home that might usurp his power. Stalin began to close down democracy. Instead of open democratic debate, his clique preferred smears, lies and falsification to answer Trotsky’s campaigns for democracy.

Trotsky was exiled, his supporters arrested, imprisoned, executed. Trotsky began to build for a ‘Fourth International’ abroad. He was hunted down by a Stalinist agent and murdered in Mexico in 1940. By this time, Trotsky’s Left Opposition inside the USSR had been framed as counter-revolutionaries, ‘capitalist saboteurs’ and executed in the notorious Moscow Show Trials of 1936-37.

What Stalin could not do was reverse the basic gains of the revolution on which his power rested – the nationalisation of the means of production, the planned economy that guaranteed jobs, wages, homes, education, health services and other benefits. Within a couple of decades, Russia, once so economically backward, rivalled capitalism’s foremost industrial power, the USA.

Lack of democracy ensured the growth of the bureaucracy’s political reach. It domineered all areas of life. Stalin’s policies had almost brought everything to ruin when the Nazis invaded in 1941. It was only the stamina and determination of the Soviet people who forged the weapons in the factories and fought in the services that defeated fascism and liberated much of Europe from Hitler’s Third Reich.

This strengthened Stalin’s power. He installed governments based on the Russian ‘Stalinist’ model – lack of democracy, nationalised property relations, one party rule, bureaucratic police states that were gross distortions of genuine democratic socialism.

The USSR’s bureaucracy increased to 20 million members in the post-war period and after Stalin’s own passing. Initiative was stifled. Policy was dictated from top down and the privileged strata were an absolute fetter to further economic and political development. Any dissent – such as in Berlin (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1981) – was ruthlessly crushed by Russian arms.

Next stage of development

No longer able to keep a lid on internal discontent, by 1985, the bureaucracy used the figure of Gorbachev to introduce reforms from the top to prevent revolution from below. Reform meant relaxation. In the East European regimes, this gave a boost to campaigns for ‘liberalisation’ that saw mass movements rise up and topple government after government. This process was best illustrated by the fall of the Berlin Wall during 1989. In Russia itself, by 1991, a last ditch attempt by hardline Stalinists took place to seize power, to turn back the clock.  The genie was out of the bottle.  The military refused to back the coup. By 1993, the USSR was broken up and former bureaucrats busily used their stored up wealth to buy up former state enterprises to enrich themselves. Capitalism had been re-instated as forewarned by Lenin and Trotsky. Democracy is the oxygen of socialism. Without it, it turns into its opposite.


Since the welcome fall of Stalinism, we have experienced the empty triumphalism of capitalism which, unchecked, has unleashed a whirlwind of the global financial disaster we are experiencing today. The crisis of capitalism offers the majority of us only bleak austerity, mass poverty, unemployment, famine and war, and the growing threat of a rise of the far right.

The task of the political left is to build a movement to offer a viable way out of this wreckage and to move to the next stage of social development. The choice really is: continuing barbarism or a democratic socialist future.


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