The Russian Revolution was not the first workers’ revolution. In 1871 the Communards set up the Paris Commune. It lasted for just two months before the French army massacred them. Between 10,000 to 20,000 were killed with many more put in prison & thousands deported. Lenin’s book State & Revolution, written a year before the October Revolution, has the experience of the Commune at its heart. He repeats Marx’s assertion that the Commune is the form of working-class democracy, not bourgeois parliament. It was to be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that waged on-going class struggle after the revolution to create the classless society of communism.
The Soviet Union failed. In 1991 it ceased to exist. The people of the ex-Soviet Republics then experienced a collapse in living standards of historical proportions, with life expectancy plummeting & the oligarchs plundered the economy with the intellectual support of western neo-liberal economists. Marx was dead & the market reigned. But what did the Soviet Union achieve?
The Bolsheviks transformed a backward, poor, peasant country into a superpower. Between 1928-70 only Japan had a faster growing economy than the Soviet Union. The Soviet people had equal access to quality education & healthcare, & there was no unemployment or homelessness. Was this communism, or even socialism? Neither Stalin, nor any leader of the CPSU would claim that they had achieved a communist society; at least in the sense of Marx’s definition of the higher stage of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. Some argued they had achieved the lower stage of communism, what Lenin referred to as socialism.
The concepts of the lower & higher stages of communism come from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. The lower stage is where the means of production are collectively owned & control, but entitlement to means of consumption are based upon labour time performed. Whereas the higher stage is where the distribution of the means of consumption is decided collectively based upon need & where the division of labour is largely abolished. Both are classless societies. Both do not have commodity production, so no money or markets.
Although the Soviet Union had a lot of state ownership & collective ownership of farms, there was still some private land with farmers selling their produce on the market. Money changed hands. Clearly, they cannot claim to have reached the lower stage of communism (socialism). They could perhaps claim that the means of production were no longer commodities as their production was planned & not sold on a market. But the means of consumption were commodities sold for money. Money that was also used to purchase commodities on the black market. It would seem the most they could claim was they were building socialism.
Speculation was repressed, especially under Stalin. This is class struggle. However, after Stalin the state became increasingly lax in clamping down on this black market. It’s growth in the Brezhnev years allowed a petty bourgeoisie to develop that would go on to become the new capitalist class. There was no transition to communism, not even socialism.
So, what went wrong & what lessons can we learn? First & foremost the revolution did not spread & the Soviet Union was isolated in a sea of capitalism. As big as it was the USSR could not seal itself off from the world market & build socialism in one country. Secondly, the working class was a minority at the time of the revolution & the civil war decimated it & the economy. Lenin’s New Economic Policy was a retreat to capitalism, even if heavily controlled by the state. Profit & markets were permitted. The NEPmen were a budding capitalist class in the Soviet Union. Stalin moved violently against them in 1928 as the party tried to impose communism from above with the help of the secret police & the gulag. It was this class element that despite decades of repression eventually won out. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or perhaps more aptly ‘dictatorship of the party’ lost the struggle.
The experience of the Soviet Union highlights the fact that there are three stages in the transition from capitalism to full communism:
1. the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ where there is still a class struggle to be won;
2. the lower stage of communism (socialism) where the means of production are collectively controlled;
3. the higher stage where there is collective control over the distribution of the means of consumption.
Importantly, the lower stage does not have class struggle as there are no classes.
We do not want to repeat the massacre of the Paris Commune, but neither do we want a Stalinist police state substituting itself for the working class. We need a genuine ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ exercised through Communes that are based upon direct, participatory democracy. The majority workers of the world imposing their will on the minority capitalists & by seizing control of the means of production abolishing classes & so consigning capitalism to the history books.
As Marx said, “Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”