A Sympathetic Critical Study

Peter Solenberger

Before Stalinism:
The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy
By Samuel Farber
Verso, 1990 and 2018, 221 pages + notes, bibliography and index, $24.95 paperback.

VERSO, A NEW LEFT Books imprint, has republished Samuel Farber’s Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, originally published in 1990. In the Introduction to the book, Farber describes his aim in writing it:

“[T]his study should be seen as an attempt at synthesis focusing on the theme of revolutionary democracy and its fate in the early years after the October Revolution… In other words, this book is an attempt at a political reflection on history, an inquiry into what alternatives existed and might have worked at the time, as well as what can we learn for today, particularly in light of recent developments in the Communist and Western capitalist worlds.” (13)

The book is valuable on four levels: 1) as an account of the rise and fall of Soviet democracy in the revolutionary period 1917 through 1923; 2) as a critique of Bolshevik thinking and policy on workers’ democracy, whether one agrees with the critique or not; 3) as a posing of alternatives for the time, whether one agrees with them or not; and 4) as a drawing of lessons for future revolutions.

Before Stalinism acknowledges that the Russian Revolution faced a very difficult situation: economic backwardness; a relatively small working class in an overwhelmingly peasant country; the devastation of World War I; the further devastation of the civil war launched by the counterrevolution, imperialist blockade and military intervention; and the failure of the revolution to spread west to Germany and other European countries.

The book argues that making a virtue out of necessity in the face of these difficulties, Lenin and the Bolsheviks inadequately appreciated the critical importance of workers’ democracy in the transition to socialism. As a result, they pursued top-down policies which aggravated the difficult situation, further undermined soviet democracy, and ultimately contributed to the rise of Stalinism.

It develops this theme with respect to the soviets, factory committees, trade unions, the press, political parties, repression, and socialist legality. It explores the alternatives proposed at the time by right and left oppositions in the Bolshevik Party and by Lenin himself. It proposes a possible alternative scenario following the Bolsheviks’ victory in the brutal Civil War (1918-21) centered on the need to preserve soviet democracy.

Whatever one thinks of the book’s argument about 1917-23, Before Stalinism provides invaluable information and poses essential questions. Future working-class revolutions will face the problems Farber takes up. Revolutionary socialists need to understand what went wrong in 1917-23 to help lead the working class to a better future outcome.

A Possible Alternative Scenario?

Farber’s argument is controversial among revolutionaries of the Trotskyist tradition and other non-Stalinist revolutionary socialists. Knowing this, and also responding to the August 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Against the Current hosted a symposium on Before Stalinism beginning with its January-February 1992 issue (ATC 36).

ATC 36 carried articles by Susan Weissman, Boris Kagarlitsky and Tim Wohlforth; 37 ones by David Mandel and Ernest Haberkern; 38 by Tim Wohlforth and Bernard Rosen; ATC 41 included a response to critics by Farber.

I particularly agree with the contributions of Susan Weissman and David Mandel, which argue that Before Stalinism raises key questions for revolutionary socialists to consider but inadequately takes into account the constraints the Bolsheviks faced, the limitations of the objective situation.

In her “The Onus of Historical Impossibility” Weissman writes: “What Farber does successfully is to point to political errors that facilitated the counterrevolution represented by Stalinism. What he cannot do is suggest remedies to problems that were insoluble.”

In his comment “The Rise & Fall of Soviet Democracy” Mandel writes: “To the degree that the book sensitizes socialists to the central issue of democracy and provokes a concrete discussion about the institutional arrangements required for its real functioning and safeguarding, the book serves an important purpose.

“As a study of what went wrong with soviet democracy, however, it suffers from some serious methodological weaknesses. One of the main ones is its perfunctory treatment of the ‘objective situation.’”

To take the clearest example of Before Stalinism’s inadequately taking into account the objective situation, toward the end of the book Farber elaborates a possible post-Civil War scenario:

“In l921 and 1922, such negotiations might have led to a power-sharing arrangement with these other Soviet parties [Mensheviks, Left Socialist Revolutionaries], or even, in the most extreme outcome, to the Bolsheviks leaving the government altogether. In the event of such an extreme and unprecedented situation developing, certain minimum conditions could have been agreed through the above-mentioned negotiations. First, a programmatic iron-clad guarantee preserving the major gains of the October Revolution, e.g., that there would be no attempt to return the major industries to private capitalists, and that the growth of private capitalism in the countryside would remain subject to strict controls. The Communist Party could have insisted on these conditions on the high moral and political grounds that, just as bourgeois democratic countries could not allow the “democratic” restoration of slavery, neither could a popular soviet democracy allow the wholesale restoration of wage slavery. Second, the Communist Party would have retained full freedom of agitation and propaganda, including the right to support revolutionary movements abroad, although obviously it could only have done so as an independent party, and not in its capacity as a partner in a coalition government. Lastly, the Communist Party would have publicly announced that it possessed the determination and material ability to resort to armed struggle if the stipulated agreements or the physical integrity of the Communist parry membership were violated by the new government.” (207)

David Mandel’s response to this is:

“In my view, the restoration of soviet democracy after the Civil War, that is, the enfranchising of the workers and peasants (excluding or not the wealthy peasants), would almost certainly have quickly led to a full capitalist, or a capitalist-landlord, restoration in a very authoritarian form. The author’s suggestion that the Bolsheviks, in negotiations with the other socialist parties, could have insisted on ‘iron-clad guarantees’” smacks of the same naiveté that he attributes to Lenin’s own proposals to control the bureaucracy by merely appointing more workers to the party’s Central Committee and Central Control Commission, the latter to be merged with the Commissariat of Worker-Peasant Inspection.”

If Mandel is correct, and I think he is, the only way out was to spread the revolution to the west. The defeat of the German revolution in 1923 put this possibility out of reach.


Farber faults Lenin and the Bolsheviks for top-down policies and also for what he sees as the root of those policies —“voluntarism,” the view that will can prevail over material reality. In “Lenin’s NEP as an Alternative (1921-1923),” the last chapter before the Epilogue, he writes:

“Therefore, in a very real sense, Lenin’s original views on the party and society were closer to Jacobinism than to Stalinism. His sometimes uncritical endorsement of the Jacobins is very suggestive in this regard. One of the principal features of what I would call Lenin’s “quasi-Jacobinism” was his frequent emphasis on what the revolutionary dedication and consciousness of a few individuals and groups such as parties could accomplish. This emphasis was usually accompanied by an insistence that these groups have organizational roots in the working class and that individual leaders have an appropriate working-class (or peasant) background. This, as distinct from an approach that, while recognizing the indispensability of political leadership, still places the central emphasis on the development of class democratic institutions such as factory committees, unions, and soviets.” (213)

This criticism is unfair, in my opinion. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed in leadership, but they also believed in structures of working-class democracy — soviets, factory committees, trade unions and other mass organizations. Their problem was that these structures failed under the conditions of Russia’s backwardness, isolation, war, the decimation of the working class and the absorption of the most politically conscious and active workers into the government. The Bolshevik Party became the main structure of workers’ democracy, and under the conditions this wasn’t enough.

In the first chapter, “The Rise and Fall of Democratic Soviets,” Farber approaches the problem in a more balanced way. He writes:

“But what about the possible objection that War Communism, “excesses” and all, was a desperate gamble to fight counterrevolution and help bring about international revolution that would break the vicious cycle of underdevelopment and allow Russia the opportunity to construct socialism? The answer to that is that there are very different kinds of gambling. The October Revolution was itself a gamble of course, but it was a gamble based on a revolutionary but still objectively plausible program for economically backward Russia: namely, a quick end to the war, denunciation of all imperialist treaties and annexationist claims, self-determination for the victims of the Tsarist ‘prison-house of nations,’ radical redistribution of the land, and, last but not least, workers’ control of large-scale industry. This was a worker-led majoritarian program that could expect to and did win the support of the broad masses of the exploited and oppressed. Furthermore, this program could and did become a beacon and call for the radical wing of the international workers’ movement to make an even more advanced revolution in their own countries. Had this revolution succeeded in the more developed countries, then and not before, the material possibilities might have been developed for truly, socialist institutions in Soviet Russia. What is politically not acceptable from a revolutionary democratic point of view is the kind of gambling that involves highly voluntaristic social and economic policies. Given the economic backwardness of Russian society, such policies could not possibly have been carried out without the systematic mass coercion and oppression of at least a major part of the exploited and oppressed classes (e.g., the peasantry). Again, the notion that democratic working-class rule could survive in such a situation is surely utopian.” (61)

This distinction between the “acceptable” gamble of the October Revolution and the “not acceptable” gamble of “highly voluntaristic social and economic policies” is not as clear as Farber suggests. With the failure of the revolution to spread to the west, the “acceptable” gamble became the “not acceptable” gamble. But the gamble was, I think, still worthwhile.

Twenty-eight Years On

Twenty-eight years after the publication of Before Stalinism and 26 years after the ATC symposium, I have a somewhat different take on the book than I’d have had at the time, if I’d read it, which regrettably I did not. The book’s exaggerated criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks seems less important now, and its advocacy of soviet democracy more important than ever.

Partly this is a consequence of events. In December 1989, when Farber finished writing Before Stalinism, a part of the Soviet bureaucracy led by Mikhail Gorbachev was still pursuing perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”), borrowing from the capitalist market and bourgeois democracy to try to reform the system. Stalinism was collapsing in Eastern Europe, and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. The Tiananmen Square protests and their repression were six months in the past. The Stalinist world was in flux.

Trotsky wrote in the “The USSR and Problems of the Transitional Epoch” section of the 1938 Transitional Program:

“The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” (https://bit.ly/2HHcRX8)

With that moment then upon us, I for one was not very receptive to what I’d have viewed as unfair criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the revolutionary trajectory.

Today we know the outcome. Capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and Indochina, with corrupt, authoritarian regimes across the vast expanse from from Hungary and Poland to Russia and the former Central Asian republics of the USSR to China and Vietnam.

The workers didn’t rise. Instead, capitalism and imperialism consolidated, with Russia and China joining the imperialist ranks. All the governments coming out of the national-liberation struggles, apart from Cuba, became neoliberal, most of them also authoritarian.

In the wake of all that, whether Before Stalinism was fair to Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917-23 seems secondary. Revolutionary socialists can learn much from the book to prepare us to do better next time.

Another Look

There are many points on which Farber is simply right. The military measures and “war communism” of the 1918-20 civil war period promoted a habit of command in the government and party bureaucracy, komchvanstvo (“communist conceit”) and a tendency to try to solve problems by administrative, rather than political or economic, means.

Repression by the Cheka (the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution and Sabotage) went too far and helped create an atmosphere of fear and submissiveness. Mass deprivation led to disaffection, and the incompetence and corruption of officials bred cynicism.

One-party rule developed because, as Viktor Serge tartly observed, “In 1921, everybody who aspires to socialism is inside the party; what remains outside isn’t worth much for the social transformation.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1939/02/letter.htm). But Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, made a virtue of this necessity, not seeing its dangers.

When the Soviet government introduced the New Economic Policy in 1921, the Bolsheviks knew that its expansion of markets would stimulate capitalism and strengthen internal forces favoring full capitalist restoration. To counter this they tightened discipline in the Bolshevik Party, the last bastion of workers’ democracy in the Soviet federation, with a faction ban. Not seeing that the political counterrevolution would come from inside the party and state bureaucracy, they made exactly the wrong move.

Farber doesn’t take this up, but a further problem was that the Bolsheviks allowed the Communist International to be shaped in “too Russian” a fashion, as Lenin put it a the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922. This contributed to the 1923 defeat of the German revolution, which pretty much sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.

Then, claiming that the root of the defeat in Germany was the lack of “Bolshevik discipline” in the German party, Zinoviev, with the support of Stalin and Bukharin, launched a campaign to “Bolshevize” the Communist parties. Charlie Post describes this history well in an ATC 150 review of Pierre Broue’s The German Revolution, 1917-1923.

For Future Revolutions

The value of Before Stalinism goes deeper than these points of agreement. In his Introduction Farber explains his reasons for writing the book, beyond contemporary events and concerns. I quote at length because Farber clearly explains his positive views, no commentary necessary:

“Indeed, I would like to think of this book not as just one more reexamination of the Russian Revolution, but as an effort to begin the construction of a theory of the politics of the post-revolutionary transition to socialism in the light of that experience. Socialists, and Marxists in particular, have been prone to the development of numerous analyses of the economics of the transition to socialism. Yet, in the absence of a theory of revolutionary democracy, these analyses tend to deal with the question of democracy as if it was in some way derivative from the economics, if not altogether irrelevant.

“When I write about democracy, I have in mind a society where institutions based on majority rule control the principal sources of economic, social, and political power at the local and national levels. I am also thinking in terms of an authentic participatory democracy based on the self-mobilization and organization of the people.

“However, majority rule would need to be complemented by ample minority rights, and civil liberties. There can be no real socialist democracy, or for that matter full and genuine innovation and progress, with dissident individuals and minorities terrorized into silence and conformity ….

“The key question then becomes if, and to what degree and for how long, objective obstacles and crises confronting a successful revolutionary movement can justifiably be claimed as reasons to abridge democratic freedoms. In such a context, the politics and ideologies prevalent among the revolutionary leadership and rank-and-file are critical …

“In addition, it is also important to examine how various responses to danger are compatible with the original short- and long-term goals of the revolution, and the way in which tese responses are publicly justified.” (3-4)

From this perspective, the chapters of Before Stalinism read like a checklist of what should have happened in 1917-23 — whether or not it could have happened then — with regard to soviets, workers’ control, trade unions, media, political parties, repression (particularly what Farber calls “surplus repression” beyond what’s necessary to defeat counterrevolution) and socialist legality, and as a checklist of what should happen in a future socialist revolution.

For reasons of length, I won’t try to summarize the contents of those chapters beyond Farber’s generalizations above. I encourage readers to get the book and read them for themselves.

We’ve now seen the movie of the rise and fall of Soviet democracy — and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union — from beginning to end. That gives us an immense advantage over Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

We know that if we, meaning our political descendants, see the symptoms Farber points out and do nothing to remedy them, the result will be degeneration of the revolutionary project and counterrevolution by bureaucratic usurpation. Diagnosis doesn’t solve the problem, it isn’t a cure, but it’s a necessary first step.

Revolution seems far off today, but in human history a century since the 1917 Revolution isn’t such a long time. The capitalist system has massive excess capacity worldwide. To maintain profits it jacks up the rate of exploitation. As a result, inequality is increasing rapidly. Reactionary nationalism, racism and xenophobia are growing. Inter-imperialist rivalry is intensifying. The climate is warming. The seas are rising.

For revolutionary socialists, thinking about what went wrong the last time the working class tried to emancipate itself is only prudent.

March-April 2019, ATC 199