Book Review—Russia: From Revolution to Counterrevolution

Brad Forrest

Russia: From Revolution to Counterrevolution
By Ted Grant

It has now been more than twenty years of unfettered capitalism around the globe since the downfall of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The working class of the world has put up with unprecedented exploitation and oppression at the hand of global capital and we now can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that capitalism is, as Lenin once said, “Horror without end.”

Now that global capitalism has proved itself incapable of offering a semblance of hope to the vast majority of the world’s workers, alternatives are being eagerly sought. This search requires a look into the past, to see what has already been attempted, and to learn the lessons of these failed attempts.

This is why Ted Grant’s book, Russia: From Revolution to Counterrevolution, must be enthusiastically recommended to the labor movement and labor’s allies. In a highly accessible one volume survey Ted Grant follows the evolution of the revolution, the democratic origins, the rise of Stalinism and growth of the bureaucracy to the crisis of bureaucratic dictatorship and the final move by the elite to take the Soviet Union back to capitalism.

Ted Grant bases his monumental work on the solid theoretical foundations laid down by the great revolutionist and fighter against Stalinism, Leon Trotsky, who, in his books The Revolution Betrayed and In Defense of Marxism, analyzed in detail the growth of the anti-revolutionary activities of the Soviet bureaucracy that crystallized around Stalin.

Grant’s book starts off with an analysis of the barbaric capitalist counter-revolution that has befallen the Russian people after the Soviet Bureaucracy steered mass protests into capitalist restoration. Living standards have been utterly destroyed. Life expectancy has decreased for both men and women. Unemployment is gnawing at the bowels of society. Homelessness is spreading in an unstoppable wave. Consumption of vodka has shot straight up. The ex-communist bureaucrats, not being content with destroying the workers’ state, have turned themselves into billionaires through the process of privatizing the formerly publicly owned economy.

Grant vividly shows us a society that is moving horrifically in a backward direction. Whereas the Soviet Union had many problems — though especially nepotism, corruption, red tape and provocative inequality — it was in principle, dedicated to the basic living standards of the workers.  Under Soviet Russia there existed not one millionaire, but with the re-emergence of capitalism we have dozens of Russian billionaires, plus tens of millions newly impoverished workers.

A publicly owned planned economy is not yet socialism — as Stalin and Mao claimed — but it’s an essential economic prerequisite. The Soviet planned economy took an economically backward country and transformed it into the second most powerful country on Earth, with many scientists, doctors and educators, and the ability to put the first satellite in space with Sputnik. Prices were extremely stable with cheap food and apartments for the workers. Unemployment was reduced to the extreme. Women were given equal rights and childcare centers were provided so that women were not confined to household drudgery.

As Grant explains, the capitalists of the West systematically tried to blacken the image of the world’s first workers’ state, not because of the Stalinist dictatorship but because of these very real gains for the workers sketched out above. The strategists of capitalism, on the other hand, supported every vicious dictatorship all across the world during the Cold War as long as the dictators were professed anti-communists, i.e., pro-capitalism.

There are two vicious myths peddled by “academic” pro-capitalist historians that just won’t go away, and that Ted Grant exposes at the outset of the book. The first myth centers on the supposedly unpopular character of the Bolshevik revolution in October of 1917. For many academic attackers of Leninism, the October uprising was an act carried out by a minority behind the backs of the majority. This accusation has no foundation whatsoever. How could a giant country become enslaved by a tiny unpopular party like the Bolsheviks in the midst of an ongoing revolutionary tide?

What the academics are really observing is the minority of the revolutionary workers leading an extremely popular uprising. The Bolsheviks were a leading part of the revolutionary struggle, and it required the approval of the masses for them to assume power. The Bolshevik revolution was almost bloodless because of the popularity of the act.

The second myth centers on the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly that met after the October Revolution. If the Constituent Assembly would have continued there would have existed a situation of dual power in Russia, where direct democracy was practiced in the Soviets, while the Constituent Assembly resembled a western democratic institution.

After the Bolsheviks won the majority in the Soviets, all the anti-revolutionaries rallied around the slogan, “All power to the Constituent Assembly.” The Soviets were superior to the Constituent Assembly in that they more directly engaged with and were respected by the working class. If this weren’t the case, how is it that nobody was prepared to defend the Constituent Assembly? Grant masterfully disposes of the lies of the enemies of the revolution.

Ted Grant meticulously follows the contradictory evolution of the Soviet Union since the October Revolution. Immediately, the young regime faced an invasion by twenty one armies of foreign intervention in an attempt to return the power of the Russian landowners and capitalists. The so-called western “democracies” actively backed casehardened reactionaries in order to overthrow the revolution. These western backed “white guard” Russian counterrevolutionaries are the real reason that the civil war was prolonged and painful, not because of any “bloodthirstiness” on the part of the Bolsheviks. Grant uses the analogy of the French Revolution where the Jacobins were forced to extreme measures to save that capitalist revolution.

The most important part of Grant’s book deals with the Marxist theory of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Everyone is well aware of the crimes of Stalin and the bureaucracy he represented; but only by understanding the Marxist view of the transitional regime can one understand how Stalinism was able to triumph over the revolutionaries that he had butchered during his infamous purges.

Marx explained that the state is an instrument in the hands of the dominant economic class for maintenance and regulation of the socioeconomic system against enemies both within — competing classes — and without. The working class must smash the capitalist state and replace it with an apparatus of their own based on workers’ councils.

As the workers’ state moves closer to socialism by developing the economy and fighting inequality, the state begins to die away, since the basis for its existence is disappearing. A huge bureaucratic state is necessary for the few capitalists to hold the down the many workers, but the state loses its original function once it serves the many against the few. Such is the general Marxist understanding of the transition period. Ted Grant does a fantastic job taking us through such complex territory, and shows why Stalin’s “socialism” could not have achieved this feat.

The Stalinist dictatorship was not a failure of Marxist theory, but came about due to much more powerful material factors. As Grant makes clear, the dictatorship was ultimately the result of a lack of the means of subsistence — food, clothing, shelter, etc. — due to the under-developed economy the Bolsheviks inherited from Tsarism. Until the Russian Revolution, all socialists thought that the first wave of socialist revolution would begin in the advanced capitalist countries, where a quick transition to socialism would be possible. But World War I broke the capitalist chain at its weakest link, under-developed Russia.

As the Bolsheviks well knew, Russia did not have the productive capacity for advancing toward socialism within their country. In fact, no one country had this ability: socialism could only be achieved by combining the world’s resources — as capitalism does — on a planned basis.

Thus, after the revolution the Bolshevik’s original plan was to hold out until help came from the economically developed West — it was specifically hoped that the German workers would win their revolution and aid the Russians, combining their economic power.

The growth of Stalinism was brought about by the country’s economic under-development and isolation after a whole series of revolutions failed: Germany in 1923, China in 1927, and the British General Strike of 1926. Through these crushing defeats the Soviet working class became more exhausted and the bureaucracy became more entrenched.

In the early years of the Soviets while Lenin was alive, there were already bureaucratic distortions, but elections to the workers’ councils and the democratic centralist traditions of the party were adhered to. The regime came under increasing strain as the Bolsheviks waited for help from the West. They were forced to take extreme measures against armed rebellions by the other parties like the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Finally, due to the precariousness of the revolution, factions were forbidden. These repressions were not part of Bolshevik theory but undertaken out of the necessity of surviving a foreign-backed civil war.

The eventual triumph of Stalin’s bureaucracy came in the late thirties with the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution. The heroic Spanish workers rose up against General Francisco Franco’s fascists in the late thirties. But Stalin was more interested in winning the confidence of the western powers like France and the United States than he was in helping the Spanish Revolution. Instead of using Lenin’s revolutionary strategy, Stalin helped initiate the “popular front” tactic in Spain — creating coalition governments of liberal capitalist parties and workers parties. This was a rehash of the discredited Menshevik two stage theory that under-developed countries needed to make a capitalist revolution first, and that the communists should support the liberals in doing this, keeping their own demands in check. This theory, refuted by the Russian Revolution itself, nevertheless helped push the Spanish Revolution into the arms of the fascists.

It should be noted that anarchists and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification did not mobilize the masses against the popular front and thereby became accomplices of the Stalinist wreckers. The Spanish Revolution had every chance of success, but the workers were betrayed by their leaderships. It was the specter of a successful revolution in Spain that terrified the Stalinist bureaucracy: a successful revolution would have undermined Russian dominance over the International Communist movement, and therefore dominance in Russia itself.

It was at this time that the Stalinist bureaucracy engaged in the infamous Show Trials of the late thirties that killed the surviving leaders of the Russian Revolution. Having betrayed the Russian Revolution and committed his initial crimes, Stalin was compelled to undertake even greater crimes to cover his tracks. Stalinism and Bolshevism are diametrically opposed. The violence against the old Bolsheviks is testimony to this. It is a great merit of Ted Grant’s book that he takes us through the dialectical movement and interaction of all these developments without losing sight of the working class interests.

As Grant explains in the book, the Stalinist reaction took place from about 1924 and was basically in place by the outbreak of World War II. Grant goes on to define Stalinism as a species of “Proletarian Bonapartism,” that is, a military and police dictatorship on the basis of a planned economy.  This dictatorship was fully in place after the Show Trials of the thirties.

Despite the dictatorship, the planned economy worked wonders, increasing the gross domestic product, (monetary value of goods and services) many times over, and moreover, way faster than the capitalist countries. At bottom what defines a regime is its economic base. The superstructure — democracy, dictatorship, oligarchy, etc. — can be any number of things due to the balance of class forces, but the determining element is the economic base. A planned economy corresponds to the basic needs of the working class, versus a market economy that caters towards the capitalists. Therefore, the task confronting the workers of the Soviet Union was a political revolution against Stalinism to reintroduce workers’ democracy as in the times of Lenin and Trotsky. Some commentators have tried to say that the Stalinist regime was a non-class or inter-class system of exploitation. Grant painstakingly refutes these ideas.

After World War II, the Stalinist bureaucracy was able to cling to power for another couple of decades. But the decisive element in determining progress, the economic development, began to slow down due to bureaucratic strangulation, not to mention the larger global economic slowdown. The Stalinists veered from one economic policy to another, but never repudiated the fundamental error of the theory of “socialism in one country.” All else flows from this and it is this crude, anti-Marxist theory that was ultimately to be the undoing of the Soviet Union.

The October Revolution of 1917 was one of the greatest events in human history. A planned economy displayed its vitality in the language of cement, oil and electricity, and showed the workers of the world that there is an alternative to capitalist barbarism. The labor movement must absorb the crucial lessons of the Russian Revolution to chart a course for the future. Ted Grant’s work on the Soviet question should clear the air of all confusion and lead us past the mistakes of the past and into a truly human future based on a planned economy and social solidarity and without bureaucratic parasites. Ted Grant has furnished an outstanding one-volume history of the seminal event of the twentieth century.