The Second Soviet Revolution or the Transition from Statism to Socialism

By Sherman, Howard J. | Monthly Review, March 1990 | Go to article overview

The Second Soviet Revolution or the Transition from Statism to Socialism


Sherman, Howard J., Monthly Review


THE SECOND SOVIET REVOLUTION OR THE TRANSITION FROM STATISM TO SOCIALISM

The first Soviet Revolution took place in 1917; the second is presently under way. If it succeeds, the Soviet Union will undergo a profound transition from a statist political-economic system to a democratic socialist political-economic

system.

From the 1920s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union had a statist system, that is, economic planning by a one-party dictatorship. Call this system what you will, the name is unimportant as long as one recognizes that it was not capitalism nor was it Marx's vision of socialism.

How shall we define socialism? To me, it means economic democracy, the extension of political democracy to the economy. Socialism is public or collective ownership and control, where the public institutions (the government) and the collectives (or cooperatives) are democratically governed.

There is an enormous literature on the Revolution of 1917; this article does not add to it, but merely highlights a few points that are relevant to the main thesis. The major participants in the Revolution believed in socialism and in democracy, as they defined these words. Lenin advocated a Soviet government as a higher form of democracy--he declared specifically in State and Revolution that there can be no socialism without a genuine democracy. Of course, he also had many questionable qualifications, such as the need to disenfranchise the old ruling class and the need for a more direct democracy rather than a traditional parliament. Yet he clearly envisioned a recognizable democratic mechanism. Why did this noble vision turn into the statist nightmare?

What were the conditions before the Soviet Revolution? Russia was an undemocratic and underdeveloped country. The vast majority had been officially liberated from serfdom only in 1861, the power of the nobility was still great, and most people lived in grinding poverty. Not only were most people poor, but over 80 percent were illiterate. There was no tradition of democracy. Some very limited democracy was practiced only from 1906 to 1917, but the Russian parliament, or Duma, was neither very popular nor very effective.

The Bolshevik party was an underground party, fighting a war with Tsarism, with both sides resorting to violence at times. In order to fight their war, the Bolsheviks developed the tradition of democratic centralism; the idea was a democratically elected leadership, which would be followed in a disciplined way as an army central command is followed by the common soldier. Unfortunately, democratic elections proved to be impossible, but the notion of centralism was followed religiously. The party continued this underground mode after it came to power, with dire consequences. Thus the Revolution began under conditions that both objectively and subjectively made democracy next to impossible.

How was the Revolution achieved? First, it came under conditions of the First World War, when urban workers had no bread, soldiers had no ammunition, and an enemy was slowly taking over Russia. Second, although it succeeded initially with remarkably little violence, the forces of monarchy and capitalism soon organized militarily. Since the army had disintegrated, with some units joining one side and some joining the other, a long and bloody civil war ensued. Third, the anti-communist armies were joined by the armies of 14 foreign countries. Twenty years later, there was again a devastating military invasion in the Second World War, followed by the negative impact of the Cold War.

The needs of survival during the Civil War led directly to the beginnings of dictatorship, the suppression of all anti-socialist parties and news media. By the end of the long Civil War, when there was economic ruin and much popular discontent, all parties except the Communist Party were suppressed. At the same time, as a "temporary" measure (and all of these measures were said to be temporary at the time) factions within the Communist party were banned.

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