Aspects of the first workers' state

By Sam Marcy (June 16, 1994)
With the 1917 October socialist revolution in Russia, for the first time in human history the oppressed classes, the workers and the peasants, were able to crush the old exploiting and oppressing state and establish a new state dedicated to advancing the interests of all the oppressed.

Of course, the 1871 Paris Commune had really been the first occasion, at least in modern times, that the oppressed classes took destiny into their own hands. For several months, the workers of Paris were able to retain it against the most barbarous repression by the ruling classes.

But that was too short a period of time to say what a workers' state would look like, once it was firmly established.

To build a new state foundation in the midst of a war against it represented a truly Herculean task. Yet, in spite of the fact that it went down to a heroic defeat, the Paris Commune did show that the workers can take over and manage a state, abolishing nearly all the old evils of statecraft.

Paris Commune became a model

The Paris Commune was truly a workers' state. Its only fault was its short existence. Hardly any preparation had been made in advance for the seizure of power, after which the Commune was faced with the overwhelming might of the repressive forces of capitalist France.

Notwithstanding its defeat, and notwithstanding the rudimentary aspect of the new state and the enormous difficulties it faced, the Paris Commune has remained an exemplary model for all victorious revolutions that followed.

Not only the Russian Revolution, but the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions all recognized and accepted the experiences of the Paris Commune as the foundation for the new revolutionary states to be developed.

Lenin's greatest theoretical works, particularly State and Revolution, were almost wholly based on the experiences of the Paris Commune. That one great experiment, in only one city, became exemplary for the worldwide working class and the oppressed.

The Bolsheviks in Russia laid the foundations for the new Soviet state on the basis of the experiences in Paris. For the Commune contained all the truly democratic aspects of a workers' state and at the same time maintained a military defense of that state built wholly on the shoulders of the workers themselves.

Anyone who studies the early history of the Soviet Union and endeavors to assimilate the political and theoretical basis on which the new state was built must first go over the lessons of the Paris Commune. These are to be found in the great tributes paid to it by Marx and Engels, especially the speeches made by Karl Marx both during and immediately after the Commune.

Early soviet spirit of rebellion

The early history of the Soviet Union breathes the spirit of rebellion against the old oppressing classes. At the same time, it laid the foundation for a thoroughgoing revolutionary restructuring of society based upon the elimination of the old exploiting and oppressing classes. It is here that the early model of the Soviet state comes into play. The ownership of the means of production was solidly placed in the hands of the workers' state.

The support that the new workers' state in Russia gained worldwide was also a first in human history. Nowhere and at no time have the oppressed classes moved to demonstrate their sympathy and support as they did for the Russian Revolution.

This was in sharp contrast to the venomous hatred of all the oppressing, ruling classes the world over. It is therefore no wonder that these ruling classes did not content themselves with mere propaganda against the new workers' state, but began to organize outright military intervention.

These ruling classes had just emerged from a worldwide bloodbath. They appeared weakened and debilitated. Nevertheless, they opened a military struggle for the overthrow of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In this they enlisted the active support of not only the belligerents in the First World War but also of the United States. The U.S. had barely participated in the war, serving mostly as a reservoir of industrial, agricultural and military supplies to the Allies. But it eagerly joined them in the struggle against the new workers' state.

Yet the new workers' state was able to survive and compel the imperialist armies to withdraw. In the long view of history, it seems nothing short of a miracle.

Such was the power that the October socialist revolution unleashed.

Why the defeat?

Why, then, did it go down to defeat?

If all of this had happened just a few years after the Russian Revolution, one could have attributed it to the physical exhaustion of the working class, faced with the unprecedented task of rebuilding a vast country without any help from abroad.

But that is not how it happened.

No new society can be built except with what was bequeathed to it by the old order. While accepting all the advantages, the Russian Revolution was also forced to inherit more than its proper share of the evils of the old society.

Let's take bureaucracy. Is bureaucracy the main cause of the Soviet Union's downfall or collapse?

Hardly. All previous societies, with the exception of primary communism, were compelled to inherit a bureaucracy or develop one of their own. Bureaucracy does not exist suspended in mid-air. It must have a social or class foundation.

Capitalist society was not the first form in which bureaucracy prevailed as a prominent characteristic of state power. The feudal lords also had their bureaucracy. The priesthood and the rest of the clerical bureaucracy served the so-called religious states.

Bureaucracy existed in the ancient slave states of Rome and Greece. But that was not what brought them down. It was the decay of the class system of slavery that did it.

Nowhere in the world is bureaucracy attacked more often than in the U.S. It comes in second only to politicians. Both are servants of the ruling class, but that is not what they are attacked for. They are attacked for infractions of the rules of conduct set by the ruling class in its own interests.

Bureaucracy and the Soviet state

Bureaucracy was not an invention of the Soviet state but was inherited from earlier states. It had faithfully served the ruling classes of earlier times. So why was it not possible for it to faithfully serve the new workers' state?

The new workers' state could not be built on a wholly new foundation. It was saddled with certain legacies left over from the old state. The new state abolished the ownership of the means of production by the former ruling classes. But in order to run the new state, the party was forced to bring back many elements from the old bureaucracy.

The simple fact of lack of experience by the working class dictated this move. But was the bureaucracy the basis for the ultimate decay and disintegration of the new state?

Hardly. That must be laid at the door of the imperialist ruling class itself.

Marxists learned from the Paris Commune how to distribute the wealth created by the workers--how to develop the resources of the workers' state and the method of compensation for the workers. But the lessons of the Paris Commune did not indicate how the system of production would operate in a world dominated by commodity production.

Had the Paris Commune been the only state in the world, it could have operated on a socialist basis. But it was merely an island in a vast sea of the capitalist mode of production.

The new workers' state in the Soviet Union was virtually in the same boat. It was changing what had to be changed, but within the same capitalist world. It could not survive unless it broke out of its isolation by breaking the military, economic and diplomatic blockade.

Effect of WW II

Did the succeeding decades qualitatively change the economic and social situation of the isolated workers' state?

No, they did not. The Second World War exacerbated all the negative features of the workers' state and compelled it to retreat on almost all social issues to effect a military victory. But after victory, it proved internally incapable of retrieving the earlier progressive features, which were the staples of the socialist system.

In order to retain the anti-fascist alliance with the imperialist Allies and give the appearance of complete solidarity against the Hitlerite regime, the Soviet Union gave way somewhat on what would ordinarily be considered domestic issues--the struggle against bourgeois elements. Soviet propaganda during the war was so calculated to please the imperialists that it gave the impression the entire socialist perspective had been abandoned.

Following the victory of the Red Army, one might have expected a thoroughgoing return to the programmatic features of the early socialist republic. The time seemed right to come back to the promises of the socialist revolution. This did not happen.

It should be noted, however, that the workers did make wage gains during the Khrushchev period. What amounted to a minimum wage was raised to higher ground.

It is often felt that during Khrushchev's administration everything went to the right because of his generally revisionist program. This was not so. He raised the lowest wages and ensured greater economic benefits for the workers.

His talk about goulash communism was calculated to answer leftist critics, who said he was moving away from communist principles. His answer was that goulash communism--more emphasis on food and shelter for the workers--was more important than any of what he would call dogmatic approaches which did not materially enhance the condition of the workers but, as he saw it, acted as a retardant to socialism.

Khrushchev's keynote always was that socialist society was based on plenty, not on scarcity.

Even though the wages of the lowest were rising in this period, those who decided on the distribution of the wealth created by the workers never left themselves out. Their level improved at an even faster rate. Inequality grew by leaps and bounds and was soon sanctified by law.

Unable to restore the old revolutionary socialist norms for distribution and also for production, the system was rapidly careening back to capitalist forms of distribution and production.

What eventually resulted was a hybrid phenomenon that permitted neither a sure road to socialism nor a swift retreat to capitalism.

So many innovations were made to suit the particular period or the particular social group in power that it became impossible to have a coherent, cohesive force capable of dealing with the new coalition of imperialist forces. The resulting situation was both social and economic gridlock.

In the background, moreover, always stood the specter of imperialist military assault. A huge part of the workers' product had to be devoted to defending the USSR against such a possibility.

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