Was the Russian Revolution a success?

While I am in the mood for taking on a few unpopular topics (such as whether the Chinese government is communist), I would like to tackle another one: the success of the Russian Revolution.

After seven decades of unrelenting polemic against the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe – they were dictatorships, autocratic, undemocratic, brain-washed their people, callously allowed famines to decimate the people, consigned people to grinding poverty, imprisoned all and sundry and threatened the world with nuclear war – a new phase in the narrative emerged after 1989: communism in Eastern Europe and Russia has failed. The most astounding feature of this narrative is how vast numbers on the Left swallowed this story. All communism did was enable the rapid industrialisation of Russia and the Eastern Europe, they said. Or, that was not ‘true’ communism; or, if only Trotsky had outsmarted Stalin; or, Lenin and Stalin et al were merely new incarnations of the tsar; or, Lenin et al were no different from Hitler and the fascists (that one from Hannah Arendt, to her eternal shame, as well as Fred Nile); or, how can you expect communism to succeed in backward countries? (that one from an increasingly wayward and haughty Terry Eagleton); or, simply because communism came to an end, it was obviously a failure in those parts of the world.

Difficult it might be to push back against such an ingrained narrative (especially by bourgeois cynics and the fashionable left for whom the revolution is yet to come), but let’s see if we can do so.

To begin with, the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. With a mixture of extraordinary planning, unbridled optimism, sheer guts and deal of good luck, the communists succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government set up after the February Revolution of 1917. As Alain Badiou (to his rare credit) points out, that act inspired a century of revolutions. Lenin became the most read author of the first half of the 20th century, and revolutions won through in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and so on. They were the defining feature of the 20th century.

Further, the fact the communists were able to weather attacks from all sides in the so-called ‘civil’ war – USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan et al supported Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich, Wrangel and others as they attacked in wave upon wave from all directions. At times the new RSFSR was a rump of its final extent, losing the Ukraine, the whole east, Byelorussia and much more. Any other army would have given in, but the new Red Army (built almost from scratch after the mass and undisciplined demobilisation of the Russian Army in the later years of the First World War). How did they manage? We can gain an insight by looking at Stalin during World War II. Stalin? Yes, Stalin has emerged in research as the key figure who won the war. How did he do so? Under immense threat from Hitler’s attack, he drew together the most creative and independent strategists and let them get to work. Meanwhile, he inspired people to draw on the deep social, culture and economic resources of communist restructuring, moved whole industries east and out of harm’s way and dug deep to repel the bulk of Hitler’s armies. Let me put it this way: Stalin saved the world for Jews, gypsies, gays and communists – all subject to Hitler’s exterminations.

What about democracy and freedom and all that crap? Wasn’t the USSR a one-party state that allowed no opposition? In that respect, it was no different from any western states, which had variations on one pro-capitalist party. There was one huge difference, however: the Russian Revolution went past the arrested development of the bourgeois revolution, pushing through to a full communist revolution. What about dissidents and the Gulag? In any other country the act of plotting to overthrow the state is called high treason. But for some reason the capitalist world called them ‘dissidents’ in the USSR. I probably wouldn’t have executed so many of those, but I can understand why.

Still, what about democracy? I have little time for bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with its formal freedom in which you can choose variations on the same pro-capitalist party. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enacted an absolute freedom, the freedom to choose what type of state you want. And in the new Soviets, a far more radical form of democracy developed. The old bourgeoisie and aristocracy did not get a look in (as they shouldn’t), for this was a democracy characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even some fellow socialists were horrified. Karl Kautsky, of the German Social-Democratic Party, who had once been immeasurably influential on Lenin, was eventually seduced by bourgeois democracy into thinking socialist aims could be achieved in the formal freedom of the ballot box. Lenin saw through it and denounced Kautsky as a renegade.

Economics? Wasn’t the USSR a basket case by 1989? Didn’t people have to line up in queues for the odd loaf of bread, as the standard propaganda image would have us believe? I have little add here from my earlier post, which shows that, by and large, more than two decades of capitalism since 1989 has been disastrous for these places.

But didn’t the USSR finally fail in 1989, since it came to an end? Given the immense pressures from the capitalist world, the construction of the Cold War by the USA, the continued economic sanctions and drain on vital resources, it is a surprise that the USSR lasted as long as it did. Lenin and all those following dreamed of peace that would allow the building of communism. In the absence of that peace, their achievement was stupendous.

But probably the biggest success of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe is that they gave us a sustained example of how difficult it is to construct communism after the revolution, how devilishly complex such a process is. To be sure, they made plenty of mistakes, only to learn from them and try something else. Until then, revolutionaries had dreamed, romanticised, formulated ideal blueprints, as they tend still to do today (especially in the West). Here was a moment when a revolution succeeded and communist construction began. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle put it, the USSR gave the capitalist world the biggest fright it ever had. I would add: at least until China.

Plus, the Russian Revolution gave us some of the sexiest communists, ever.

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12 thoughts on “Was the Russian Revolution a success?

  1. An objective analysis, though you will get a lot of stick for making it.

    You might be interested in looking the following.

    One of the more interesting bits of research to come out in recent years is based on biometric data. This shows a dramatic improvement in height and weight – a good proxy for standard of life – from about 1937 onwards.

    Surprisingly, the improvement for children was sustained through the war years. Given the very real hardships and food shortages the most likely explanation for this is that there had been a big cultural shift in the attitude to children.

    Sorry I don’t have the reference to hand.

  2. If I may add my 2 kopecks here: where Revolution did succeed is with its attempt to generate a new ‘race of people’: selfless, greedy-less, and identity-free workers for the communist future, something we’ve been loosing so quickly in the last 20 years of ‘democracy.’ Perhaps, this is what lies behind the victories you are describing.

  3. I like your blog, you seem to know a fair amount on Russian revolution and so can I ask you if there are any really controversial moments in the revolution that perhaps could have been done differently? I know a little about it but not a lot. your help would be much appreciated

  4. I find your answers to certain criticism to the ussr concerning democracy and freedom of speech troubling. The argument “but capitalism is also bad” is a weak argument and reeks of logical fallacies.

    The main problems with the USSR are not pragmatic in nature but rather ideological. I agree that what the USSR showed was that a economy based on a plan system does not function as bad as many capitalistic people would suggest. But the failures of the USSR are its crimes against the ideas of communism. The USSR cultivated a rabid nationalism within its country, where the state did no wrong and the leader was a god. This was far from lenin and marx their intentions. The small group who were in power, might have been chosen by the collective but quickly misused this power by making their living situations a lot better than those off the masses. The use of propaganda and silencing of dangerous ideals (by execution or threat there of) completely alienated the collective from politics and ideology. Instead of a jumping board to a more just society the USSR became stuck in its ways.

    Marx was outraged by the way the workers became alienated from their work. He also held the belief that no person should be a certain arbeider, but embraced the multifaceted nature of humans. This was in no way represented in the USSR, and in fact might made this condition worse. The workers were giving repetitive state ordered tasks, you had one job, that was it.

    I could go on. Of course a communist state doesn’t necessarily have to be a perfect reflection of the ideas of Marx, Lenin or any other political philosopher, but the USSR failed to deliver on many of the key idea’s of communism.

    We should not needlessly defend the USSR. Instead we need to observe what worked, what didn’t and learn from it. We should not minimize the absolute wrongness of propaganda or the executions. But we also should not point to the USSR and say that no facit of communism could ever work, the USSR had a strong economy with a lot of solvable flaws.

    1. I appreciate your effort to be balanced in this respect, and the leaders of the Soviet Union were all too aware of their mistakes. However, many ‘Western’ Marxists have a tendency to deploy a betrayal or ‘Fall’ Narrative by comparing it with the pre-revolutionary writings of Marx, Engels (not so often) and Lenin, instead of seeing socialism in power as part of a tradition with new turns and developments.

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