Revolutionary Reflections | After 1917: Civil war and ‘modernising counter-revolution’

Picture: Untitled (Flesh I) – Anna Maria Tucker (2016) – courtesy of Red Wedge

The centenary of the Russian Revolution provides an opportunity to reflect both on events in Russia and on related questions concerning processes of revolution, how power is attained and held, and what it means for a revolution to ’lose’ when it had appeared resoundingly successful. The Russian Revolution not only provides the most far reaching example of a socialist revolution in history, it also changes our understanding of counter-revolution. 

For the first time in history a counter-revolution claimed the mantle of Socialism and Communism. Under Stalin the revolution and its symbols were appropriated and turned into masks of an oppressive state. Communism signified gulags and the party the secret police. To comprehend this and continue drawing inspiration from the revolution itself requires moving beyond an identification of the revolutionary process with the formal institutions and symbols that it threw up—the communist party, the hammer and sickle, and so on. It demands that we mark the centenary with a sober assessment of what revolutionaries can learn today. It strives to see beyond the statues and to recover the molecular process of the millions who in 1917 went about transforming the world.

This piece by Gareth Dale sets out to understand how the revolution lost its social basis and political impetus through and after the Civil War. It updates the approach to understanding revolution in general, and the Russian Revolution particularly, that is distinctive to the International Socialist tradition.

A pdf of this piece can be found here: Gareth Dale – 1917 and After


For the scattered forces of the revolutionary left this year’s celebrations of the centenary of Russia’s October revolution are timely and valuable. They shine a light on what history revealed to be possible. But do they also provoke a slight sense of unease? Commemorating an event packages it as a fixed moment: it happened, in that specific year. For wars, or most of them, this works briskly enough: it began in 1914, or 1939, and so on. But we then, some years later, commemorate its end—for some nations in victory, for others in defeat. In celebrating the Russian Revolution we are remembering its commencement. A mass, largely bloodless, communist-led insurrection successfully overthrew the provisional government and transferred political power to the soviets, thereby opening the possibility of a radically new direction of the course of human history—a social revolution. But this begs questions. Did the social revolution happen, or not? If it did, when and how? Given that we evidently inhabit a global capitalist society, when did the revolution reach its terminus—or derailment? When did the counter-revolution triumph?

The conventional answer is that a social revolution did occur, in Russia and later exported to Eastern Europe and beyond, a revolutionary experiment that staggered to its finish in the 1980s. A version of this account is adopted by many Marxists too. For the historian Arno Mayer, for example, Soviet socialism represented a radical development of Enlightenment modernity. Whether in 1917, the 1930s or the 1960s, the Soviet order embodied commitments to social progress, economic planning, industrialisation and urbanisation, and the universal destiny of socialism.[1] Ranged against it, and in the 1918-21 civil war personified in the White Guards, was counter-revolution, understood as a continuation of the Counter-Enlightenment, i.e. based in the clergy and landowning aristocracy and espousing a pessimistic view of history and human nature, a conservatism rooted in ecclesiastical authority and agrarian custom. Counter-revolution, in this optic, is understood as the fight-back of the incumbent privileged orders, deep-dyed reactionaries who were hostile to modernity in all its forms: industry, technology, democracy, liberalism, socialism, the whole shebang. With its patriarchal, militaristic and ultra-nationalist politics, and its tarring of the revolution as Jewish, cosmopolitan, secular and morally decadent, it was able to gain a base beyond the stately homes.[2]

In this essay I pitch against the conventional account.

To be successful, the Bolsheviks knew, socialist revolution required a rollback of capitalism. A workers’ state in Russia could not subsist for long in isolation. It was situated, as Lenin put it, “in a system of states,” and it was inconceivable for it “to exist alongside the imperialist states for any length of time. One or the other must triumph in the end.”[3] The imperialist system would be pushed back, or it would impose a capitalist order on Russia. The wager of 1917 was that despite the inevitable assault, Russia’s revolutionary trajectory could be consolidated if similar gambles came off elsewhere, undermining the number and vitality of enemy states. But that assault—the invasion of over a dozen powers, allied to the Whites, in the attempt to crush the revolutionary regime—represented a major counter-revolutionary challenge. The attempt failed in an immediate, formal sense but did succeed in shredding Russia’s economic substance and its social fabric, which hardly helped the socialist cause.

In most readings, the counter-revolutionary telos would not arrive until 1989. According to the I.S. tradition—following Tony Cliff and others—it was reached far earlier. In this essay I present this case. I chart the internal reconstruction of the Soviet regime and argue that by the end of the 1920s the caste of functionaries that controlled Soviet society was beginning to act collectively as a capitalist ruling class. This case demands a broader understanding of counter-revolution than that which is offered by Mayer.

Picture: Untitled (Flesh II) – Anna Maria Tucker (2016)

Militarism and socialism

In March 1919, Russia was consumed by war. The counter-revolutionary international, headquartered in Washington, London and Paris, had funnelled astronomical sums into Russia, preventing the (otherwise all but inevitable) collapse of the White Guards. (Britain alone supplied them with as many new rifles as Soviet Russia was able to produce during the entire civil war.[4]) The Red Army was hemmed in. Moscow’s writ was limited to a central Russian-Ukrainian domain between Crimea, Saint Petersburg and the Urals, a sliver of the Okhotskian coast, and a patch of Central Asia east of the Aral Sea. Against this backdrop, Lenin addressed the central committee of the Communist Party. Social democrats—he named Karl Kautsky—had accused the Bolshevik government of having introduced “militarism” rather than socialism. Lenin smiled and shrugged his shoulders: no major revolution in history had escaped war. The revolution had to be defended.[5]

Kautsky’s charge was simple to rebut. The civil war, he held, had been instigated by the Bolsheviks, who were therefore responsible for the measures that followed.[6] Against this, it was straightforward to show that militarism had been imposed on the regime from without; it had not been autonomously introduced, as if a manifesto commitment. Nor was the implication that socialism hadn’t been introduced at all wounding to the Bolshevik leaders, for none supposed that it had. “I have no illusions about our having only just entered the period of transition to socialism,” Lenin clarified in January 1918.[7] Russia in his view was simply a worker’s state, defined not by a society-wide breaking with logics of capitalist power but by whether the working class exercised political rule, by whether the soviet state is one “in which the power of the workers and the poor is assured.”[8] As the war rolled on, however, that claim looked increasingly tenuous—as Lenin himself recognised. Militarism was indeed undermining the workers’ state.

Both Kautsky and Lenin advocated ‘world revolution,’ and one didn’t have to be drunk and sentimental to see its potential. Mass movements were toppling regimes across Europe and beyond. In 1918 Germany, a councils’ movement had surged, the old order collapsed. The following year saw a highly politicised strike wave in Britain and the establishment of councils’ republics in Bavaria and Hungary. In 1920, resistance to the Kapp putsch in Germany threatened to do to the SPD government what resistance against Kornilov had done to Kerensky’s government in Russia. Revolutionary struggles were in the ascendant: in Italy and Spain, in China and Latin America.

For Kautsky, world revolution would occur through a process of social-democratic encroachment on centres of capitalist power. It would find expression in a growing receptiveness to socialist ideas and swelling electoral shares for social democratic parties, leading to an expansion of their influence on a growing number of states. For Lenin, by contrast, states in capitalist society are inherently bastions of class rule. Prospects of socialist transformation therefore depend on mobilising working people into a counter-force capable of dividing and disrupting the military basis of state power, constructing an alternative, councils-based, power structure, and defending it against challenges from within and without. That defence required the use of military force—indeed, a militarisation of society. It was necessary. But it came at a price.

War and its anti-revolutionary outcome

In Mayer’s presentation of the civil war and the associated imperialist interventions and sabre-rattling, their effect on Russia in 1918-21, and in the late 1920s and 1930s, was akin to that of the war between revolutionary France and foreign powers in the early 1790s. War, he writes, “decisively revolutionized the French Revolution in 1792-94” and war and its threat “revolutionized the Russian Revolution in 1917-21 and in the 1930s.”[9] Both revolutions “were revolutionized by foreign war”; both the Committee of Public Safety and the Council of People’s Commissars “used terror to enforce conscription, price and wage controls, food requisitions, and the confiscation of church valuables.”[10]

With regard to France this is cogent enough—and the point is seen yet more plainly in the English Revolution, inextricable as it was from civil war. But to model the kinetics of socialist revolution on bourgeois predecessors won’t get us far. In England and France militarisation did have an essentially revolutionising effect. Peasants had existed in an atomised condition; now, many of them were rallied together in a people’s army, a manifestation, en marche, of a keystone capitalist institution: the nation state. In France, the exigencies of war cleaved the bourgeoisie and brought the plebeians into the streets, on whom the Jacobins increasingly leant. It was in the years of the ‘Second Revolution’ that direct action by the Parisian masses led to the arrest of the king and the calling of a general election with universal male suffrage. It was in 1792 that Toussaint led the slaves of St Domingue into battle, and in 1794 that the National Convention abolished slavery. War did also incubate the Terror, but in terms of mass action and institutional reform the dominant wartime tendency was radical and democratic—indeed even social democratic, in the case of price regulation.

Socialist revolution, by contrast, requires, from the off, a compact tissue of popular organisation. In Russia, urban workers, and in many precincts peasants too, were politically mobilised. They had established the councils that gave the workers’ state its being. But then the military draft drew workers—often militants, the main bearers of the soviet project—out of workplaces and into the trenches and barracks. Everywhere, the imperious demands of war prompted, and were used to justify, elevated authority gradients. The material requirements of the war effort, for labour, supplies, and funds, squeezed the peasantry, putting strain on the smychka (alliance) of workers and peasants. Military invasion, economic embargo and capital flight combined with the accompaniments of war (blockade, famine, epidemics, and so on), to reduce economic output to less than one third of its pre-war level.[11] The industrial workforce slumped: as a percentage of the 1917 figure it fell to around 39 in 1919 (23, in Red-controlled territory), and even three years later it was only at 31.[12] By 1920 Petrograd had lost 58% of its population and Moscow 45%.[13] In 1922, an estimated 7.5 million children were “starving and dying.”[14] Social and economic disintegration on this scale was without precedent. When the civil war ended, Mike Haynes notes, “on average some 17 cartloads of filth” were schlepped from every house in Moscow. “Piles of excrement, cholera and typhoid,” he concludes, “were no basis for a leap into the realm of freedom.”[15]

The Red Army saw off the Whites and the umpteen states of the anti-communist international, but the effect of war was not to revolutionise the revolution. The achievements of War Communism—communal dining halls and suchlike—were limited, elementary, and emergency-enforced. On balance the effect of war was, pace Mayer, to de-revolutionise. Whereas in France the tendency in 1792-94 was democratic, in Russia of 1918-21 it was the reverse. Political pluralism was abolished, inner-party democracy restricted, trial by jury abolished, and so on. Yes, the White Guards were vanquished, but the outcome was not as clear cut as some would have it. By 1921-22, in Mayer’s view, not only was “the counterrevolution crushed and shut out of Russia” but “the new-wrought political revolution went essentially unchallenged from the right within Russia.”[16] This is misleading, and is the crux of the issue. War had not simply threatened the regime directly, from without; it had also challenged it insidiously and indirectly, by enforcing its internal recomposition. In that process a new brand of conservative counter-revolution—posing as moderate pragmatism but in practice offering a challenge to the revolution ‘from the right’—began to take shape.

Picture: Untitled (Flesh III) – Anna Maria Tucker (2016)

Towards rearmament

Already by 1920, having lost its coalition partner (the Left Social Revolutionaries) early on, with the working class in a state of dissolution and the factory committees atrophying, the Bolshevik party-regime found itself hollowed out from within. The democracy of the soviets had expired, replaced by a one-party state. The Communist Party, having been swept to power by social movements that had to a large extent dissolved, now saw its ranks swelled by the officials on whom it increasingly relied to govern. Increasingly aloof from a shrinking working class, sections of the party inclined towards those forces which recommended the strengthening of commercial relations in agriculture (the ‘right opposition’) or to those, concentrated within the party and state bureaucracies, which advocated a programme of national modernisation, the build-up of state power as an end in itself (Stalin’s faction). Trotsky’s ‘left opposition’ retained a significant presence until the late 1920s. Its prospects were heavily reliant on the global wave of workers’ struggle, but the curtain fell on that—the final acts were the stabilisation of Germany (1924), the defeat of the British general strike (1926) and the crushing of communist-led uprisings in China (1926-27). In shivering isolation, the difficulties confronted by anti-capitalist revolution in a backward country could only deepen.

That a socialist rupture had occurred in Russia was, Victor Serge reasoned, in part due to the Bolsheviks’ “intransigence” but also “because the system here was weakest …, because the socialist revolution benefited from a bourgeois revolution which, though necessary, was feeble and tardy, unable to complete itself; because on the ruins of the tsarist regime the Russian proletariat found itself faced only with an inexperienced, disarmed bourgeoisie.”[17] These same factors, however, also account for the fragility of the regime to which it gave rise. If bourgeois frailty and the military defeats suffered by tsarist armies were symptoms of Russia’s economic and technological competitive disadvantage relative to rival powers, this same friability aggravated the difficulties confronted by the revolutionary regime: a small working class, rudimentary physical and institutional infrastructures, and a military that was inadequately equipped in comparison with most of those that had invaded, or supplied the Whites, in 1918–21.

In the mid-1920s, functionaries and army generals, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, began to press for a militarisation of society, rearmament and state-led industrialisation. During the civil war, Tukhachevsky, a successful general, had disposed over “more than 50,000 regular troops, three armoured trains, three armoured units, several mobile machine-gun units, about seventy field guns, hundreds of machine guns, and an aircraft unit.”[18] All such materiel had to be paid for. (“We plundered all Russia to conquer the Whites,” Trotsky acknowledged.[19]) It had enabled resounding victories, and would they not have to be repeated? States hostile to soviet power remained a menace. Citing the international counter-revolution that encircled the Soviet state, and the ongoing mechanisation of warfare, Tukhachevsky and others called for more of what had enabled success against the Whites: resources for the munitions industries. Until 1927, this programme had the support only of lower layers in the party, but in that year it began to gain traction in the upper echelons—especially in Stalin’s faction, geared as it was to a programme of national modernisation.

The programme of national modernisation had to confront the progressive consequences of revolution. The post-1917 regime had acted to lessen social inequalities and, where possible, improve workers’ and peasant’s living standards. This, together with the depletion of foreign capital and technology imports that had been vital to industrialisation under tsarism, curtailed the resources available for investment. Although the soviet regime succeeded in stabilising the postwar economy more successfully than some European states of the time, notably Britain, its per capita GDP remained paltry, as Table 1 shows. If a strategy of national modernisation was to entertain a chance of success, therefore, the obstacles to rapid industrialisation, above all the legacy of the 1917 revolutions, as embodied in the control of land by the peasantry, in the Communist Party’s commitment to raising workers’ living standards, and in the continued power and militancy of workers and peasants, would all have to be overcome. For despite the devastation of seven years of war and civil war, Kevin Murphy points out, Soviet citizens could still, in the mid-1920s, “openly criticise the regime; they had the right to practice their religion; workers continued to have considerable control in the factories; seven hundred thousand women participated in the proletarian women’s movement; the regime enacted favourable policies for national minorities, and the peasantry for the most part, was left alone.”[20]

Table 1, per capita GDP ($) of Russia and other states, 1917-27


In his indispensable account of late 1920s Russia, the Czech historian Michal Reiman has shown that the obliteration of these progressive legacies, although a necessary consequence of the policies of Stalin’s faction, was not planned in advance. The new system arose in an unpremeditated manner, as the emerging strategy of sections of the nomenklatura linked to Stalin responded to a set of interconnected crises that intensified at the end of the decade, commencing in 1927.

A concatenation of repressive moves

The crises of 1927 unfolded in several dimensions: international relations, economic affairs, workers’ and peasants’ discontent, and non-Russian republics chafing against Moscow’s rule. Policymakers reacted with short-term expedients. Nonetheless, the measures taken indicate in their general direction a clear set of underlying perspectives and priorities. The first and most important was the perception that external invasion threatened once again. “With increasing urgency,” Reiman has documented, “demands were made for the quickest possible strengthening of the army and the defensive capacity of the Soviet state” and “for a reorientation of the economy and social relations toward a perspective of imminent war.”[21] This imperative connected with a second priority, industrialisation. Even in 1926–8 the pace of industrialisation, measured against the meagre surplus released from agriculture, was fairly intense (or even, as Bukharin—a leader of the ‘right opposition’—saw it, excessive). By the unbending yardstick of modern warfare, however, its level remained totally inadequate. The New Economic Policy of encouraging a market-mediated siphoning of agricultural surplus into industry had run into difficulties due to the rudimentary state of market relations in the countryside, combined with a ‘goods famine’: the scarcity of industrial products available for which peasants could exchange their harvest. Opting to prioritise preparations for war, therefore, constricted the policy options available to tackle the crisis in agriculture, in particular with regard to the ‘procurements’ problem. The growing conviction of sections of the Communist Party around Stalin that rapid industrialisation was required at any cost helps explain why resort was made, in 1927–8, to forced procurements of grain, and why brute repression was meted out to those who resisted (and, notoriously, to many who did not).

The programme wasn’t planned in advance, or at least not in detail. Rather, through haphazard responses to short-term crises, the faction around Stalin stumbled upon what became their defining cause: rearmament through forced industrialisation. It required, moreover, the sidelining and eventual routing of those political forces that championed the interests of the peasantry and the working class, expressed within the Party by the ‘left’ (later, ‘united’) opposition and what Trotsky misleadingly called the ‘right’ opposition (Nikolai Bukharin and his allies). Trotsky assumed counterrevolution would come from rural Russia and foreign powers. In fact it was spearheaded from within the communist party, and not least by officials in repressive ministries and officers of the security forces—the classic counterrevolutionary milieu.[22] He failed to see the counter-revolutionary implications of Stalin’s industrialization proposals and, as Cliff pointed out, he failed to grasp that the bureaucracy was becoming a “ruling class bent on pursuing its own independent interests in fundamental opposition to both the working class and the peasantry.”[23] In retrospect, it is clear that Trotsky should have sought unity with Bukharin against Stalin, in the mid-1920s when the abiding strength of workplace militancy and other social movements bore at least some slim potential for a revival of workers’ democracy.[24]

The great war scare

It was in the concatenation of repressive moves that flowed from the imperative to accelerated industrialisation, triggered by a security scare, that the distinctive structures of bureaucratic state capitalism began to take shape. In 1927, concern for the Soviet Union’s security escalated into full-blown war fever when the crushing of the most militant section of the Chinese labour movement by Moscow’s putative ally, Jiang Jieshi,[25] in the ultimate defeat of the revolutionary ferment of the 1920s, was followed by a series of attacks on Soviet functionaries in Poland, Germany, and China and the abrogation by Britain’s Conservative government of trade agreements and diplomatic relations with Russia. This latter act in particular, the journalist Karl Polanyi perceptively observed at the time, had “created a new global conjuncture,” for it was bound to heighten tensions throughout Eastern Europe, with ramifications across Western Europe too (an emboldening of fascist Italy, for example).[26]

Stalin’s faction exploited the war scare. Invocations of an external threat were deployed wholesale to justify internal repression: against peasants resisting requisitioning and collectivisation, against labour unrest, and against internal party opposition. If we are to portray these years faithfully, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick enjoins, we must use “the imagery of war.” Russia was caught up in a “psychological state of war emergency [that] began with the great war scare of 1927” and which quickly became entrenched in the forms of “a war against Russia’s backwardness,” and at the same time a war against the Party’s “class enemies inside and outside the country.”[27] Groups that resisted Stalin’s authority were branded enemies of the state and allies of British imperialism. Just as Britain threatened communism “with war and intervention,” leftist forces at home, Stalin opined (with a red-baiting casuistry that even Joe McCarthy would hardly outdo), threatened his party “with a split. Something like a united front from Chamberlain to Trotsky is coming into being.”[28] Moral panics were concocted to threaten and cajole, to turn the population against the enemy within: the ‘kulak menace,’ the ‘saboteur in foreign pay,’ the ‘right-wing appeaser,’ the ‘Trotskyist,’ and the other stock miscreants and evildoers of the Stalinist imaginary. From here it was a straight line to the great purges of the 1930s and the extermination of the ‘Old Bolsheviks.’

Picture: Untitled (Flesh IV) – Anna Maria Tucker (2016)

‘Overtake and pass’

Meanwhile, still in 1927, the panic buying and hoarding that the war scare elicited exacerbated food shortages that were in any case approaching crisis proportions as government procurements of grain dwindled. By the end of the year the country was sliding toward an acute economic crisis. Peasants faced increased taxation and forcible requisitioning of grain. Wages slumped. Social tensions escalated, and found a variety of expressions: a sharp uptick in labour unrest together with growing activity by the united opposition within working class districts and the army; a wave of disturbances in rural areas, including attacks on officials and scores of peasant revolts; and an upsurge in nationalist sentiment in Georgia and Ukraine.[29]

Policymakers reacted with short-term expedients, notably the arbitrarily-enforced procurements of grain in 1927–8—but this only deterred the muzhik from sowing, intensifying the crisis, and turned peasants further against the regime. This was the moment of the Five-Year Plan, the most paradoxical aspect of Stalin’s late-1920s ‘revolution from above’: that something so progressive-seeming as ‘economic planning’ could form the centrepiece of counter-revolution. For it was with the first Five-Year Plan that “coercion and repression supplanted tolerance and persuasion in every aspect of Soviet society.”[30] This was the moment when the government, as historian Moshe Lewin relates, completely reshaped its relations with the peasantry. “The first five-year plan with its ambitious targets and insatiable pressures for ever more investment resources, had just been launched and was becoming a huge national effort on an unprecedented scale. The countryside, if not properly controlled and mastered, could wreck the whole effort: such was clearly the conclusion drawn by some of the key leaders from the ‘grain crisis.’”[31] Industrialisation targets were revised upwards, with the goal of catching up with the capitalist powers. ‘Overtake and Pass’ (the West) was the motto launched by a central committee meeting in 1928.

In 1929, crisis continued to rip through all sectors. The politburo responded with a ‘flight forwards’: ratcheting industrialisation targets again upward and imposing state ownership and continual operational control over agriculture. The four years that followed witnessed “the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history,” accompanied by what one historian has called “the unleashing of massive political and social conflict on a scale rarely seen in history.”[32] In this compressed period much of the existing social fabric—above all, protective institutions such as the traditional peasant community, trade unions and factory committees—was either torn up or stitched into the state bureaucracies. This enabled a dramatic rise in the rate of exploitation. Net investment soared from 1928 to 1937, rising from 10 to 23 per cent of net national product, while household consumption plummeted: from 82 to 55 per cent.[33] Russia’s industrial structure, which had been dominated by consumer goods industries in the 1920s found itself, only a decade later, geared to producer industries and arms.[34] In Russia, Peter Binns explains, “the subordination of consumption to the needs of accumulation took on an extreme form…. Acting as the agent for the accumulation of capital, the bureaucracy emerged as the collective capitalist at the same pace as the economy itself took on the same features of the giant corporations in the nations of the west that Russia was competing against…. From the beginning of the 5-year plans, armaments dominated the accumulation process. For instance in machine-building plants … already by 1932 munitions plants accounted for as much as 46 per cent of total iron and steel consumed.” By 1938 this figure had risen to a staggering 94 per cent, i.e. “virtually all other machinery plant construction had ceased.”[35]

The government now occupied, in relation to the national economy, “the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise,” as Trotsky portrayed the Soviet Union in the 1930s.[36] Trotsky didn’t draw the conclusion that the system had become state capitalist, but Cliff did. In his reading the Soviet Union operated as a unit of capital, with internal differentiation (not unlike a multi-divisional enterprise), its ‘laws of motion’ governed by economic and military competition with rival capitals and states.

Economising the party

Thanks to forced collectivisation, the proletarianisation of Russia’s agricultural labour force occurred in a compressed period, without historical antecedent in its scale and speed. Within a few years, a traditional agricultural arrangement consisting largely of petty production was subordinated to a single capitalist landlord. This was no feudal fusion of economics and politics, nor did it resemble the exaction of tribute from peasant smallholders by such empires as Ming China or Mughal India. It was, rather, the sundering of peasants and their means of production into absolute property, on one hand, and a proletariat, on the other. No longer did the state need to batten upon the peasantry, as feudal landlords or tributary tax collectors had done. Rather, it inserted itself between the means of production and the agricultural labour force, assuming coercive command of the former as well as direct control over the labour process. This gave it an unparalleled ability to appropriate the agricultural surplus and to funnel it directly into industry and the military, without the need to engage in the delicate and sometimes futile task of squeezing tribute from private landholders. The smallholding peasantry, for its part, was thrust en masse onto the labour market—or into the forced-labour zones known collectively as the Gulag. Whereas in 1794 France abolished slavery, in 1930s Russia the tendency was towards wage labour and slavery.

Had the functionaries who implemented the collectivisation programme been readers of Marx, they could have gained stimulating insights from the chapters on agriculture in Theories of Surplus Value. The “only requirement” of the capitalist mode of production, in respect of land, Marx writes, is that it “should not be common property, that it should confront the working class as a condition of production, not belonging to it.” This purpose will be “completely fulfilled” if land “becomes state-property.” The “radical bourgeois” therefore aspires to “a refutation of the private ownership of the land, which, in the form of state property, he would like to turn into the common property of the bourgeois class, of capital.” In practice, he “lacks the courage, since an attack on one form of property—a form of the private ownership of a condition of labour—might cast considerable doubts on the other form.”[37] However, in the peculiar circumstances of counterrevolution in 1920s Russia this is indeed what came into being—the “radical bourgeois” appearing in the guise of the Stalinist state.[38] In this analysis, the agent of the accumulation drive arose not, as Trotsky had forewarned, from peasants and other petit-bourgeois layers but rather, as some of his fellow oppositionists proposed and as Cliff later traced in detail, from within the party-state bureaucracy, which began to act as the “personification of capital.”[39]

The penetration of state into society that occurred during Stalin’s counter-revolution should thus be understood as a precisely capitalist moment. As Wolfgang Streeck has pointed out, the Stalinist economy-cum-state bore an uncanny resemblance in its core dynamic to “unreconstructed” laissez faire capitalism, of the sort that, Polanyi suggested, was impelled to “subordinate the social order entirely to rational-economic objectives” and to marginalise any and all “social institutions capable of representing a logic other than that of economic accumulation.”[40] Just as in Britain, in Polanyi’s thesis, the road to the free market was opened and kept open by a tremendous increase in continuous, centrally organised state intervention, so in the Soviet Union the mobilisation of society behind the drive to catch up with Western market economies occurred through an enormous expansion of state ownership but also, simultaneously, the ‘economisation’ of the state—and of the Communist Party. The party, as Lewin describes, underwent a process of ‘depoliticisation’ in the 1920s and 1930s. Its cells “became brokers in the service of their branch of the economy, sometimes even of just one enterprise. … The economy was declared to be the most important ‘front,’ to use the martial terminology of the times. … Hence the tendency to control and to mobilize institutions and activities in all walks of life and sectors of the state in order to harness them to the building of the country. In this way the country’s cultural, artistic, and other activities were ‘economized.’ Everyone, from writers to judges and procurators, had to contribute to the battle for the productivity of labor, the quality of industrial products, or the building of dams.”[41] That battle was prosecuted in the workplaces through techniques of individual competition, via income and status. What Martha Lampland has identified in the case of Soviet Hungary applied equally to Russia: notwithstanding the “pageantry of enforced collectivity” (mass rallies and so on), the Stalinist era saw an “intensive individuation of persons,” the goal of which was to create “a mass of individuated workers unfettered by the drag of an antiquated collectivity.”[42]

Reinventing empire

‘Stalin’s revolution,’ we’ve argued, centred on the conversion of the soviet party-state, spurred by geopolitical competition, into an agent of proletarianisation and capital accumulation. The party-state could project political power throughout society with such determination and resolution precisely because it was itself undergoing a process of ‘economisation.’ The fusion of state and economy implied a particularly direct geopolitical transmission of the law of value, and enabled the central state bureaucracy, in command of all channels of international competition, to prioritise the military sector. Stalin’s celebrated ‘catch up or go under’ speech encapsulates the overriding strategic goal: “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must catch up this distance in ten years. Either we do it or we go under.” That imperative—of geoeconomic and geopolitical competition—underpinned the programmes of breakneck industrialisation and forced collectivisation, as well as the extreme repression that these called for.

In short, the same historical transformation that “married the state and capital,” in Mike Haynes’ description, also “completed the subordination of the Soviet economy to the world economy.”[43] That ‘marriage-and-subordination’ was so successfully accomplished that within a matter of years the Soviet Union had punched its way to the top. By the 1940s the Red Army was proving a match for the Wehrmacht: its T34 and KV tanks outnumbered and outperformed their German rivals, enabling Russia to conquer most of Eastern Europe and to reign for half a century as the planet’s second power, with nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, allies across four continents, and legions of imitators. And not only was this an imperialist state, it also rescued the pre-Soviet imperial form. That is to say, in an age of declining empires (Ottoman, Habsburg Austro-Hungary, Wilhelmine Germany, and, in the mid-twentieth century, the Japanese and West European empires), the Soviet Union under Stalin succeeded in replicating, if in formally national guise, the tsarist model (Russia dominating a non-Russian periphery), at the very moment that, on the world stage, the imperial polity was experiencing its final, convulsive demise.

Picture: Untitled (Flesh V) – Anna Maria Tucker (2016)

Modernising counter-revolution

The Stalinist project, as it crystallised in late 1920s Russia, is best seen as a ‘modernising counter-revolution.’ In that it crushed the social and cultural gains of 1917, it was counter-revolutionary. Civil liberties, dissent, and intellectual freedoms were stamped out, workers’ organisations were subordinated to the party-state, oppositionists were exiled or murdered. Pace Mayer, this was in many respects a conservative regime. A hybrid national-imperial state was created. The reforms that had made the early Soviet Union “the world’s first Affirmative Action Empire,”[44] were dialled back. The radical social agenda of 1917-24 was overturned. The “fierce, libertarian commitment to individual freedom and ‘the withering away’ of the family” that had characterised official gender politics in the early period of revolution gave way to “a policy based on a repressive strengthening of the family unit.”[45] Abortion was outlawed, and the Zhenotdel was shut down, signalling the end of the proletarian women’s movement.

This “deep cultural and political regression” was accompanied by an “abundance of terror, magic and rituals,” Lewin observes, exemplified in the Stalin cult, which took off in 1928-29.[46] Marxism, as taught in Soviet institutions, was redesigned as a conservative philosophy, with society conceived as an organism based on the family unit, the nation, and a strong paternalistic state, with the division between leaders and led naturalised, with national, corporate and class harmony assumed, and with deviant groups identified as foreign bodies in the social tissue, to be quarantined or eradicated.[47] Great Russian chauvinism received a new lease of life, and anti-semitism too. The new rulers and the newly-elevated middle classes chucked out the experimental and modernist aesthetic in favour of conservative staples; they surrounded themselves with “chintz curtains and polka-dotted tea cups, thick pile carpets, red-plush hangings and monumental architecture.” Stalin’s police state ruled not only through murder, cruelty and paranoia but also through kitsch.[48]

For all the conservatism of the Stalinist counter-revolution, however, it was not cut from White cloth. The White counter-revolution was constituted by an alliance of liberal-capitalist states (Britain, the US, France, Czechoslovakia, etc) with the ultra-conservative Russian nobility. The Whites aspired not only to crush the revolution but to return to the ancien regime—to tsarism. This was conservativism in an unqualified and adamant sense: a counter-movement opposed to almost all liberal and all socialist values, in particular social equality and internationalism. Stalin’s counter-revolution was different. Its social base was not the ‘ancient order’ of private landowners but an emergent class of public functionaries. Its organising instrument was the communist party. Yet its principal antagonist, the movements, policies and ideas of October 1917, had of course been concentrated in that same party. To become an agent of counter-revolution it had to be re-engineered, and purged of bearers of the earlier traditions. Of the members of the Bolshevik Central Committee in 1917, by 1940 most had been murdered, only Stalin remained in position.

The pivotal moment was the first Five-Year Plan (1928). For Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga, 1928 was the year that saw the counterrevolution triumph.[49] For Cliff, the Five-Year Plan was the “turning point.” The bureaucracy, able to control the means of production for its own ends, “sought the rapid creation of the proletariat and accumulation of capital, in other words, as quickly as possible to realize the historical mission of the bourgeoisie.”[50] This required an embrace of science and technology, of mechanisation, rationalisation and urbanisation, of social and occupational mobility, and a veneration of industry and labour (including the incorporation of women into the industrial workforce, and the socialised childcare on which that depended). All of these, at the level of ideas, could be adapted, with a degree of imagination and violence, from the Bolshevik templates of 1917—typically, formal similarities masked a reversal of substance.

Under ‘Red’ despotism, then, the Soviet Union was able to slot into the groove of global capitalist restructuring in the mid-twentieth century, characterised by the systematic application of science to production, large-scale industry, Taylorism, national monopolies and dirigiste economic management, in a manner that could hardly have been achieved under a landlord-dominated White despotism. If the growth of the metallurgical industries, or of GDP, is one’s yardstick, then ‘Stalin’s revolution’ was indeed a historic achievement, Soviet degeneration began under Brezhnev, and Communist China today (or Modi’s India, choose your poison) currently occupies the vanguard of history.

In closing, let me return to this year’s commemoration. The October Revolution was a “historical event,” in William Sewell’s sense of a “ramified sequence of occurrences that is recognized as notable by contemporaries” and results in social-structural transformation.[51] But while unanimity exists on the event’s onset, battle continues regarding not only its meaning and value, but its fate, and even its end-date—we’d say, circa nineteen twenty-eight.



[1]             Arno Mayer (2002) The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Princeton      University Press, p.493. For this tip, and his searching thoughts on counter-revolution, thanks are due to Jamie Allinson. This paper benefited, too, from Mike Haynes’ detailed comments and a stylistic hint from Tithi Bhattacharya.

[2]               Jamie Allinson (2016) ’Why is there no counterrevolutionary theory?’ Unpublished manuscript.

[3]               Lenin (1919) ‘Report Of The Central Committee,’

[4]               Mike Haynes (2002) Russia: Class & Power, 1917-2000, Bookmarks, p.48.

[5]               Lenin (1919) ‘Report Of The Central Committee,’

[6]               Karl Kautsky Terrorism and Communism,

[7]               Lenin, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.123.

[8]               Lenin, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015), p.123.

[9]               Arno Mayer (2002) The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Princeton University Press, p.4.

[10]             Arno Mayer (2002), p.11.

[11]             Alec Nove (1992) An Economic History of the USSR, 1917-1991, Harmondsworth, p.62.

[12]             Mike Haynes (2002) Russia: Class & Power, 1917-2000, Bookmarks, p.51.

[13]             Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.121.

[14]             Wendy Goldman (1993) Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936, Cambridge UP, p.59.

[15]             Haynes, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.121.

[16]             Arno Mayer (2002), p.67.

[17]             Victor Serge (1992) Year One of the Russian Revolution, Bookmarks.

[18]             Arno Mayer (2002) The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Princeton University Press, p.392.

[19]             NLR Editors (1969) ‘Introduction to Tukhachevsky, New Left Review I/55, May-June.

[20]             Murphy, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.121.

[21]             Michael Reiman (1987) The Birth of Stalinism, Tauris, p.13.

[22]             Arno Mayer (1971) Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956: An Analytic Framework, Torchbook, p.73.

[23]             Cliff, quoted in John Marot (2012) The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect, Brill, p.92.

[24]             Reiman, op cit.; Marot, op cit.; Murphy, op cit.

[25]             In non-pinyin transliteration: Chiang Kai-shek.

[26]             Karl Polanyi (2003 [1927]) ‘Die neue Weltlage,’ in Michele Cangiani and Claus Thomasberger, eds., Chronik der groβen Transformation, Band 2, Metropolis, p.64.

[27]             Sheila Fitzpatrick (1984) The Russian Revolution 1917-1932, Oxford, p.110.

[28]             Stalin, quoted in Tony Cliff (1991) Trotsky, Volume III, Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy, Bookmarks, p.228.

[29]             Reiman, 1987.

[30]             Murphy, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.121.

[31]             Moshe Lewin (1985) The Making of the Soviet System, Methuen, p.144.

[32]             Alec Nove, p.207; Peter Rutland (1985) The Myth of the Plan: Lessons of Soviet Planning Experience, Hutchinson, p.75.

[33]             Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (2002) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR, Routledge, p.266.

[34]             Patrick Flaherty (1992) ‘Cycles and Crises in Statist Economies,’ Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 24, No. 3, p.125.

[35]             Peter Binns (1975) ‘The Theory of State Capitalism,’

[36]             Leon Trotsky (1972) The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder, p.43.

[37]             Marx (1863) Theories of Surplus Value,

[38]             A similar point was made by Walras, albeit with the neoclassical economist’s attention to relations of circulation rather than production, in his argument that the nationalisation of land is a means of spurring the mobility of agricultural labour and hence of hastening the attainment of the “general equilibrium of exchange.” In Robert Heilbroner (1996) Teachings From the Worldly Philosophy, New York., p.219.

[39]             Tony Cliff, (1974 [1948]) State Capitalism in Russia, Pluto, p.165.

[40]             Wolfgang Streeck (1997) ‘Beneficial Constraints: On the Economic Limits of Rational Voluntarism,’ in Rogers Hollingsworth and Robert Boyer, eds, Contemporary Capitalism; The Embeddedness of Institutions, Cambridge, pp.208–9.

[41]             Lewin, 1985, p.32.

[42]             Martha Lampland (2016) The Value of Labor: The Science of Commodification in Hungary, 1920-1956, University of Chicago Press

[43]             Mike Haynes (1985) Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Croom Helm, p.110.

[44]             Terry Martin (2001) The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, Cornell University Press.

[45]             Wendy Goldman (1993) Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936, Cambridge UP, p.337.

[46]             Moshe Lewin (1997) ‘Stalin in the Mirror of the Other,’ in Lewin and Ian Kershaw, eds, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison, Cambridge University Press, pp.107-117.

[47]             Nigel Harris (1971) Beliefs in Society: The problem of ideology, Penguin.

[48]             Vera Dunham, paraphrased by Larry Ray (1996) Social Theory and the Crisis of State Socialism, Edward Elgar, p.54. China Mieville (2017) October: The story of the Russian Revolution, Verso, p.315.

[49]             Amadeo Bordiga (1953) ‘Lessons of the Counterrevolutions,’

[50]             Cliff, quoted in Neil Davidson (2015) ‘Is Social Revolution Still Possible in the Twenty-First Century?,’ Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 23:2-3, p.126. Cf. Kevin Murphy (2005) Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow metal factory, Berghahn.

[51]             William Sewell (1996) ‘Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille,’ Theory and Society, 25, p.844.

Gareth Dale is a senior lecturer at Brunel University, London in 2005. His most recent books are Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left and Reconstructing Karl Polanyi: Excavation and Critique, and a critique of ‘Green Growth’ (all in 2016). His previous publications include books on Karl Polanyi (2010), the political economy of Eastern Europe, migrant labour in the European Union, and a trilogy on East Germany (its economic history, protest movements, and 1989 revolution).



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