Before the political counter-revolution of Stalinism, the leadership under Lenin and Trotsky did not act from their own interests as first priority. Principles guided their actions, above all to take the workers’ struggle forward on a world scale. They admitted when they were forced to retreat or compromise.
Stalinism, on the other hand, used the conditions from the years of civil war and mass starvation to build an entirely new political system. Stalinist society was described as a perfect ideal, a dream world. Dictatorship was introduced, not only in the Soviet Union, but in all the ‘communist’ parties internationally. This continued even when the economies of the Stalinist countries were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s. The living debates and traditions of the Bolshevik party had been terminated in the 1920s and 1930s.
Stalinism in words kept a connection to the revolution, Marx and Lenin, and turned them into religious icons because this helped strengthen these regimes. The bureaucracy wanted to take the credit for the revolution, which in itself is proof of its attractive power. The end result, however, was to discredit the very concepts of Marxism and ‘Leninism’ in the minds of workers and oppressed people globally. ‘Leninism’ became the slogan of a parasitic dictatorship.
In the book, Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, Trotsky explained in detail how Stalin’s policies were the opposite to Lenin’s: on culture, the family, agriculture, industry, democratic and national rights, etc. On all international issues, Stalinism broke with the programme and methods of Lenin, above all the need for the independence of the working class: in the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, the struggle against fascism in Germany, the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, and in all other decisive struggles. Today’s anti-Lenin commentators, by stressing that revolutionary struggle is ‘unrealistic’, thereby end up in Stalin’s camp against Lenin and Trotsky.
The revolution in February 1917 overthrew the tsar’s dictatorial regime. The provisional government which replaced the tsar, however, continued the policies which had led to revolution in the first place. The horrors of the first world war continued, the land question remained unsolved, national oppression was actually stepped up, hunger in the cities worsened, there were no elections and huge repression was directed against workers and poor peasants. These developments, hardly mentioned by bourgeois historians, laid the basis for the Bolsheviks’ mass support and for the October revolution.
While Rumsfeld and Co rely on mere slogans, books like The Black Book of Communism are an attempt to give a factual and historical justification to Rumsfeld’s slander. Nicolas Werth, who wrote the chapter on the Bolsheviks, attempts to virtually avoid the politics of the autumn of 1917. He briefly skirts over the decrees on peace and land agreed at the second Soviet congress, the meeting which elected the new government led by Lenin.
It was this meeting which adopted the policies demanded by the poor since February, and which they themselves had already started to implement – a drastic redistribution of land. It was the Bolsheviks who actually implemented the slogan of the Social Revolutionary party, ‘land to the toiler’ – land to the 100 million peasants and landless. (The Social Revolutionaries had wide support among the peasantry, but split along class lines in 1917. Its left wing joined the Soviet government – before attempting to overthrow it in 1918.) Thirty thousand rich landowners, hated by all layers of the peasantry, lost their land without compensation.
The decree of the Bolshevik government on peace was a decision of world historic proportions, longed for by millions of soldiers and their families for more than three years. This effect of the Russian revolution and the subsequent German revolution a year later, in ending the first world war (in November 1918), is completely buried by the slander campaigns against Lenin and the revolution.
Werth, in The Black Book, writes that the Bolsheviks “seemed” to appeal to non-Russian peoples to liberate themselves. In fact, the government declared all people equal and sovereign, advocated the right to self-determination for all peoples, including the right to form their own states, and the abolition of all national and religious privileges.
The decisions to abolish the death penalty in the army and to ban racism, which show the real intentions of the workers’ regime, are nowhere mentioned in The Black Book. The same goes for Soviet Russia being the first country to legalise the right to abortion and divorce. Entirely new, too, was the right for workers’ organisations and ordinary people to use printing presses, making freedom of the press more than empty words. The fact that criticism could be raised on the streets is verified by many eyewitness reports. The reformist Mensheviks and the anarchists operated in total freedom and could, for example, organise mass demonstrations at the funerals of Georgi Plekhanov and Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (in 1918 and 1921) respectively.
At the third Soviet congress, the first after October 1917, the Bolshevik majority increased further. The new executive committee elected at this congress included 160 Bolsheviks and 125 Left Social Revolutionaries. But there were also representatives of six other parties, among them two Menshevik leaders. Soviet democracy was spreading to every region and village, where workers and poor peasants established new organs of power, local soviets, which overthrew the old rulers. Soviet rule meant that some smaller privileged groups in society did not have the right to vote: those who hired others for profit or lived off the work of others, monks and priests, plus criminals. This can be compared with most European countries where, at that time, the majority of workers and all women lacked trade union rights and the right to vote.
Lenin explained the historic importance of the revolution: “The Soviet government is the first in the world (or strictly speaking, the second, because the Paris Commune  began to do the same thing) to enlist the people, specifically the exploited people, in the work of administration. The working people are barred from participation in bourgeois parliaments (they never decide important questions under bourgeois democracy, which are decided by the stock exchange and the banks) by thousands of obstacles, and the workers know and feel, see and realise perfectly well that the bourgeois parliaments are institutions alien to them, instruments for the oppression of the workers by the bourgeoisie, institutions of a hostile class, of the exploiting minority”.
Lenin noted that a victory for the working class “in at least one of the advanced countries” would change the role of the Russian revolution: “Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the ‘Soviet’ and the socialist sense)”. (Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, 1920)
The enemies of the Russian revolution, on the other hand, acted according to the motto that against the Bolsheviks all methods were permissible, noted Victor Serge in his book, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930). First they hoped that the military would crush the new government directly after October. When that failed, they instigated uprisings and sabotage, while re-arming a counter-revolutionary ‘White’ army.
The oppressed nationalities – the Baltic countries, Finland, Ukraine, etc – had been under direct rule from the provisional government set up in February 1917. Given the possibility of national self-determination after October, the national bourgeoisie distinguished itself, not by the wish for independence, but by inviting imperialist troops to attack the revolutionary government. In Ukraine, the German army expressed its gratitude by banning the very ‘radan’ (parliament) which had invited it. National rights were not guaranteed in Ukraine until Soviet power under the Bolsheviks had prevailed.
The Swedish anti-Lenin author, Staffan Skott, unintentionally proves the liberating effect of the revolution, and how this was later crushed by Stalin: “Under the tsar, the Ukrainian and Belorussian languages had not been allowed. After the revolution, the independent culture in both countries developed quickly, with literature, theatre, newspapers and art. Stalin, however, did not want ‘independence’ to go too far and become real independence. After the 1930s there was not much left of Ukrainian and Belorussian literature – almost all authors had been shot or sent to prison camps to die”.
After October, “people from the left-wing of the Social Revolutionaries” were the only ones cooperating with the Bolsheviks, Werth writes in The Black Book, to create an impression of Bolshevik isolation. But he has to admit that, at the end of 1917, there was no serious opposition able to challenge the government. The weakness of the counter-revolutionary violence, at that stage, also gives a true picture of the intentions of the Bolsheviks. If Lenin’s aim was to start a civil war – which The Black Book and others claim – why then did the civil war not start until the second half of 1918?
In the first half of 1918, a total of 22 individuals were executed by the ‘Red’ side – less than in Texas under governor George W Bush. Peaceful politics still dominated. There were lively debates in the soviets between Bolsheviks and other political currents.
However, the officer caste and the bourgeoisie in Russia and internationally were determined to act militarily. The civil war in Finland in the spring of 1918, where the White side won at the cost of 30,000 workers and poor peasants killed, was a dress rehearsal for what would happen in Russia. With the aim of invading and defeating the Russian revolution, a new alliance was quickly formed by the two imperialist blocs which had been at war with each other for three years (15 million died in the first world war). British war propaganda against Germany totally ignored the German invasion of Russia in the spring of 1918.
It was Churchill who in 1919 coined the expression ‘the anti-Soviet crusade of 14 nations’. By then the Soviet government was surrounded by the White generals, Pyotr Krasnov and Anton Denikin, in the South, the German army in the West, and Czech forces in the East.
Most of the invasion took place in 1918. British troops arrived in the port of Murmansk, North-West Russia, in June. Two months later, British and French forces took control of Arkhangelsk, with the US joining them later. The US, with 8,000 troops, and Japan with 72,000, invaded Vladivostok in the Far-East in August. German and Turkish forces occupied Georgia, later under British control. Georgia became the base for General Denikin’s army. Among others involved were Romania, a legion of Czech former prisoners of war, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries.
On 30 August 1918, the Bolshevik leader, Moisei Uritsky, was murdered, and Lenin was seriously wounded in an attempt on his life. Two months earlier, the right wing of the Social Revolutionaries had killed another Bolshevik, V Volodarsky, press commissar for the Petrograd soviet. The increasing blood lust of the opposition parties was again proved in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Bolsheviks lost their majority in the Baku soviet, where Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries welcomed British troops to ‘establish democracy’. Contrary to the mythology, the Bolshevik leaders peacefully resigned – but were then arrested and executed on the order of the British general, W Thompson. The realities of civil war triumphed over the preparedness of the Bolsheviks to offer other parties the possibility to win a majority within the working class.
The ‘red terror’ proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in September 1918 had nothing in common with what today is called terrorism. The ‘red terror’ was public, agreed by the Soviet power, and directed against those who had declared war against the government and the soviets. It was in defence of the revolution and the liberation of the oppressed, against imperialist exploitation of colonies and slaves.
The examples of Finland and Baku had shown to what lengths the ‘White terror’, the counter-revolutionary generals, were prepared to go. Even Werth in The Black Book is obliged to refer to the mood in the White camp. ‘Down with the Jews and the commissars’, was one of the slogans used against Lenin and Grigori Zinoviev, a prominent Bolshevik (eventually framed in one of Stalin’s show trials and executed in 1936). The brutality of the civil war in Ukraine can only be explained by the anti-semitism of the counter-revolution. The White soldiers were fighting under slogans such as, ‘Ukraine to the Ukrainians, without Bolsheviks or Jews’, ‘Death to the Jewish scum’. The Red Army smashed Cossack uprisings which were linked to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak’s forces. The Black Book claims the Cossacks were especially persecuted, but their intentions were clear and uncompromising: ‘We Cossacks… are against the communists, the communes (collective farming) and the Jews’. Werth estimates that 150,000 people were killed in the anti-semitic pogroms conducted by Denikin’s troops in 1919.
In Russia in 1917 and the following years there was no possibility of a ‘third road’ between Soviet power and a reactionary military-police dictatorship. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, in particular, put the issue to the test. Already during the first world war, major parts of the Menshevik leadership had capitulated and joined the chauvinist or patriotic camp, supporting tsarist Russia in the imperialist war. When the soviets dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the two parties entered into negotiations with French and British representatives. In cooperation with the bourgeois Cadet party (Constitutional Democrats) they established a new constituent assembly in Samara, South-West Russia, in June 1918, under Czech protection. This assembly dissolved the soviets in the region. Massacres were conducted against Bolsheviks. Even the newspapers of the assembly itself referred to “an epidemic of lynchings”.
The final argument from the anti-Lenin, anti-revolutionary campaign is that ‘communism’ has killed more than 85 million people – the arch anti-communist, RJ Rummel, says 110 million. But even an examination of the figures given in The Black Book counters the claim that Stalinism and the regime of Lenin were one and the same. Stephane Courtois claims that 20 million of the ‘victims of communism’ were killed in the Soviet Union. For the period 1918-23, however, the number of victims is said to be ‘hundreds of thousands’. That figure from the civil war can be compared, for example, to the 600,000 killed by the US bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s, or the two million killed as a result of the military coup in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Black Book places responsibility for all victims of the civil war in Russia, including the 150,000 murdered in the pogroms organised by the White army, on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. According to Serge, 6,000 were executed by the Soviet authorities in the second half of 1918, as civil war raged, less than the number of dead in one single day at the battle of Verdun in the first world war.
From the period up to Lenin’s death, Courtois also counts five million dead as a result of starvation in 1922. The Russian communists and their supporters internationally showed how this catastrophe was a result of the economic embargo and conscious starvation policy of the Western powers from 1919 onwards. Exports to and imports from Russia were in practice zero. Sweden was among those countries blockading Soviet Russia.
Even the ‘body-counting’, anti-Lenin academics end up recording that most of the deaths “caused by communism” listed in The Black Book on Communism took place under Stalin or subsequent Stalinist regimes. That, however, does not change the position of Courtois or other anti-communists. They do not warn against Stalinism, but against “the desire to change the world in the name of an ideal”.
The Red Army prevailed in the civil war because of the mass support for the social revolution, both in Russia and abroad. It was the threat of revolution at home which forced the imperialist powers to withdraw from Russia. Within six months of the launch of the Communist International in 1918, one million members had joined. Half of them lived in countries and regions previously ruled by the Russian tsar. The new communist parties internationally, however, did not have the experience of the Bolsheviks, who built the party through two decades of struggles – the revolution in 1905, the mass support of the Bolsheviks in 1913-14, etc. The defeats of the revolutions in the rest of Europe – above all in Germany – laid the basis for Stalinism. Now it is time for a new generation of socialists to learn the real lessons of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in preparation for impending world-shaking events.