The Rise & Fall of Soviet Democracy

David Mandel

IN BEFORE STALINISM, author Samuel Farber sets out to show that the demise of soviet democracy, which began so soon after the October Revolution, was not due merely to unfavorable “objective circumstances,’ the economic collapse, Civil War and foreign intervention. He argues that “mainstream Bolshevik ideology” was characterized by an insensitivity to the importance of the institutional underpinnings of a working democracy and, to a degree, by outright authoritarian tendencies.

These “ideological elements,” so often ignored or denied by the left, played a crucial role in how the new regime responded to the unfavorable “objective conditions? Were it not for them, the revolution might well have led to a different outcome—if not a democracy, then at least a less authoritarian regime. Stalinism, as the extreme, “pathological” form of bureaucratic rule, would almost certainly have been prevented from developing.

There is much in this thesis with which one must agree. 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.” Given the focus on the role of the “subjective factor,” that is, “mainstream Bolshevik ideology,” this is perhaps understandable. A serious treatment of the “objective situation” would have required a very long book indeed.

The Desperate Realities

But how is the reader to judge the independent contribution of these ideological shortcomings to the sad fate of soviet democracy if he or she is not offered a much fuller picture and discussion of the obstacles todemocracy that lay beyond the regime’s control?

One of these “objective factors” that requires much fuller and more careful treatment is the weakness of the social basis of soviet—or, for that matter, any—democracy after the October Revolution. The failure of the author to deal more seriously with this is surprising, since at the very start of the book he cites Christian Rakovsky’s famous letter of 1928 on the “Professional Dangers of Power.” That letter is almost entirely devoted to the question of the social basis of socialist democracy, to the fate of the working class after the revolutionary seizure of power, and very little is said of the Bolsheviks’ ideological errors.

A central feature running through all of modem Russian history is the weakness of civil society as against the autocratic state. This began to change only with the start of industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century. The working class soon proved itself the only social force capable of forcing democratic concessions through its direct pressure on the state. It was the vanguard of the democratic movement in Russia almost from its inception at the end of the nineteenth century.

Farber cites figures to the effect that only seven months after the soviets took power, Petrograd’s employed industrial work force declined by two-thirds due to the economic crisis. The material situation of those who kept their jobs throughout the Civil War was hardly better than that of the unemployed.

The economic crisis and Civil War destroyed the working class as an autonomous political force. The peasantry—and not only in Russia—was incapable on its own of subordinating the state to its own control and interests.

It seems to me that any analysis of what happened to soviet democracy must begin from this stark reality and ask Had the working class remained what it was m 1917, or in 191214, or even 1905, would the ideological flaws and authoritarian tendencies that the author attributes to “mainstream Bolshevism” have been decisive in determining the fate of soviet democracy? It seems to me that the answer must be negative.

Alternatives and Possibilities

Farber would strengthen his case if he moderated his claims to argue that, given the weakness of the working class after the October Revolution, these ideological-political flaws did become decisive. A wiser policy after the Civil War would have given the various oppositions to the rising bureaucracy a better chance and most certainly would have been able to limit the extent of the bureaucratic degeneration.

Consequently, as the working class recovered from the effects of the Civil War and reconstituted itself as an independent political force, it would be in a much better position to challenge the bureaucracy’s usurpation of power.

I doubt very much, however, that soviet democracy was possible in the period covered by this book. If the author is blaming Lenin’s and “mainstream Bolshevik ideology” for its demise (and he is not clear enough about the relative weight he attributes to this factor), he is on weak ground. 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.

Revolutionary Power in Isolation

Does that mean that the Bolsheviks were right in holding onto power, even if this required reinforcing a dictatorial regime? This is a question of utmost importance for revolutionary socialists, one that the author, unfortunately, does not treat in any depth. The experience of Nicaragua after the Sandinista regime’s agreement to submit to the verdict of elections needs to be closely studied and debated by revolutionary socialists.

In any case, Lenin and the great majority of Bolsheviks were not prepared to submit to such a verdict One factor that undoubtedly played a role was their hope in the world revolution. Its perspective had retreated, but no one knew for how long. Certainly, world capitalism had not stabilized. The author is wrong to perceive the germs of “socialism in one country” in the Leninist period—one need only recall the Bolshevik regime’s reaction to the hopes raised in the months and weeks leading up to the “German October” in 1923.

Lenin’s stress on culture after the Civil War, on encouraging cooperation among peasants and on the educative role of trade unions, was aimed at facilitating the formation of an active social base for socialism and consequently for soviet democracy. It is regrettable that Farber focuses his own suggestions almost entirely on the institutional arrangements for socialist democracy and does not deal at any length with the issue of now activism, surely the most critical condition for socialist democracy. (Bourgeois democracy, on the other hand, is threatened by mass political activism and requires a passive majority to function “well,” that is, for the bourgeoisie.)

One cannot but agree with the author that Lenin’s proposals, including those aimed at control of the bureaucracy by means that fell far short of democracy, were very limited and suffered from idealism. But they flowed from his perception of the very real dilemma (or tragedy) of the Bolshevik regime as a socialist state in a society in which the social forces favorable to socialism were extremely feeble.

This leads to the final issue I will treat in this brief review. At times, the author seems set on finding original sin in “mainstream Bolshevik ideology,” mainly certain of Lenin’s ideological positions and political actions. To show that these were no mere conjunctural adaptations, not reluctant concessions to an unfavorable reality, the author uses a number of methods.

Farber cites passages from Lenin, in which Lenin justifies various undemocratic practices in terms of principle; in addition, he sometimes cites authoritarian passages from Lenin that precede the Civil War, finally, he shows that the regime became significantly less democratic after the Civil War emergency had passed.

It is indeed true that in many respects the regime became more authoritarian after the Civil War. But whether justified or not (in retrospect, it clearly was not), this was a reaction to an changed objective situation, which many Bolsheviks viewed as more threatening, though in a different way, than the Civil War.

The socialist state was now presiding over a partial restoration of capitalism, and for what was seen as a relatively prolonged period, Tightening political control was seen (wrongly, it turned out) as a way to protect the state’s socialist character from the pressure of the society it governed. Lenin said this in many places.

Authoritarian Improvisations

At times, Lenin (and Trotsky) did indeed justify the authoritarian measures as if they were direct applications of principle. At other times, he was much less categorical. But surely such passages are not a sufficient basis to argue that the bureaucratic dictatorship is the logical working out of the dominant elements of Lenin’s theoretical views.

The evolution of the Bolsheviks,’ including Lenin’s, attitude to the economic policies of War Communism (which the author considers a disastrous error) is instructive. They were first described as responses to an emergency situation. The policy immediately following October was a sort of “state capitalism” with workers’ control; no one dreamt at that time of a leap into socialism for Russia.

During the Civil War, however, these measures came to be elevated into principle: they became the essence of socialism, or at least of the speedy transition to socialism, even though such a view was at odds with all previous Bolshevik thinking. Finally, after the Civil War, War Communism was re-evaluated again as a set of emergency measures, which had sometimes been carried to excess.

This was not mere opportunism. The views of broad strata of the party underwent this evolution. The Soviet economist L. Kritsman, in a remarkable book on War Communism written soon after the Civil War,(1) tried to explain the conditions that gave rise to this, to say the least, utopian shift in thinking.

Lenin, of all the actors of the Russian Revolution, should not be cited without reference to the specific context in which his words were spoken or written. He was above all a political leader, a fighter, and when he wrote, his writings, even the theoretical ones, were fundamentally polemical. They cannot be fully appreciated without a clear understanding of who the object of the polemic was and what the “objective conditions” were.

There are shockingly authoritarian passages in Lenin’s writings of the Civil War and New Economic Policy periods. But why are these more characteristic of Lenin than his writings of 1917 orof 1912-14, the democratic passages of which were also presented as principle,

More broadly, how does one decide what constitutes “mainstream Bolshevik” ideology or politics? The author clearly shows that there were many different currents, including extremely libertarian ones, within the Bolshevik party—and even within Lenin himself, depending on the period. To conclude that the authoritarian tendencies represent—or are the result of—”mainstream Bolshevism” because the regime became authoritarian is tautological.

Curiously, the author himself cites a passage from Victor Serge that provides an appropriate conclusion to this review:

“It is often said that the “germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.” Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs—a mass of other germs—and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which theautopsy reveals in the corpse—and which he may have carried with him since birth—is this very sensible?”


  1. L Kritsman, Gerokhahskli period vdlkoi russkoi revolyutsi4 Moscow, n.d. [1924?].
    back to text

March-April 1992, ATC 37

  • Robert anolf says:

    The story of Masha, whose political coming of age gradually brings her to a key organizational role in the epochal anti-government protests of 2011 and 2012, shows how a new generation of activists tried nonetheless to shore up democracy—and was brutally suppressed by Putin’s regime for its troubles. Born in “Orwell’s year” of 1984, Masha embarks on a rebellion against the corruption and stagnation of the Putin era, leading her to organize one of the most notorious recent protests, on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. The police ultimately charge her with “inciting a riot.” (She is later amnestied.) During this same period, Zhanna watches as her father and others choose the path of principled opposition to Putin and his KGB aristocracy and end up paying for it, in some cases with their lives. One of the low points in Gessen’s book comes in February 2015, when Zhanna’s father, Boris Nemtsov, is shot dead on a bridge
    And Happy New Year!

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