A worker’s guide to the 20th century: Part 2

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Part 2 of a five-part series
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

In the first installment of “A Worker’s Guide,” Peter Murray discussed the rise of the first workers state, the USSR, from the blood and chaos of World War I. In Part 2, Tamara Turner continues the story of the rebels and upstarts whom official history ignores, but whose hopes and heroism were key to planetary survival in this explosive century.

The triumph of the world’s first socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 may have seemed improbable, but the effort to build and sustain that revolution raised the odds to nearly impossible. To realize a socialist democracy, material and cultural conditions had to be lifted to an ambitious new level — in a country that was backward, isolated, and devastated by World War I and then by counterrevolution.

More than 70 percent of the population could not read. Soviet industry stood at one-fifth of its prewar capacity, food reserves were gone, and the railway system was destroyed. Famine forced people into the countryside searching for food. By 1921, the population of Moscow was cut in half, and that of Petrograd reduced by 67 percent. Typhoid and other epidemics raged.

The Soviets looked west for help, expecting that the horrors of the imperialist war would spark revolutions and the creation of sister workers states in Europe. These states could then provide the USSR with support, trade, and technological exchange. But, fatefully, these revolts did not immediately occur.

Seeking breathing space, V.I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks withdrew the Soviet republic from WWI, signing a separate peace with Germany in March of 1918.

Assault from without and within.

But by early summer, before the Soviets could begin to rebuild their shattered homeland, they were hit with counterrevolution by the “Whites,” a hodgepodge of Russian capitalists, liberals, and reactionaries, led by former Tsarist generals.

Abetting the Whites were troops from 21 foreign countries. Although still in the midst of WWI, the Allied Powers attacked the new republic on more than a dozen fronts — even joining with their enemy, Germany, to do so!

Appointed War Commissar, Leon Trotsky shaped the fragments of the Russian military into the Red Army, a fierce, disciplined model of effectiveness. After three years of brutal combat, the foreign armies and Whites were finally defeated. Beyond the massive war casualties, the civilian cost was nine million Russians dead from cold, starvation, and disease.

At last, the enormous task of reconstruction began. In 1921, the government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was designed to jump-start the economy by partially and temporarily reintroducing a capitalist-style open market. By 1926, industrial production was back to prewar levels and harvests had increased.

Meanwhile, however, the scarce supply of educated, skilled professionals meant that the new government was compelled to solicit the skills of former Tsarist administrators and technicians by rewarding them with extensive material privileges.

As early as 1920, Trotsky warned that the combination of external and internal problems facing the USSR, from capitalist aggression to dire shortages, was creating a fertile soil for the rise of a dangerous bureaucracy of entrenched, self-serving careerists. From 1922 on, despite serious illness, Lenin also railed against the insidious corruption taking hold.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, a Left Opposition led by Trotsky waged an open, principled fight against the usurpers of the revolution, led by arch-bureaucrat Joseph Stalin. But the Soviet people were too exhausted to rally yet again.

Stalin consolidated his domination of the party with a slander campaign against Trotsky and the pro-democracy faction, and connived to strip Trotsky of all government functions and the right to raise new debates. In 1927, the entire Left Opposition was expelled from the Communist Party. In 1929, Trotsky was exiled from the country.

That same year, Stalin wildly reversed economic course. Against the warnings of the Left Opposition, the NEP had stayed in place too long, giving rise to a class of rich peasants, the kulaks, who were hostile to the idea of socialism. Finally recognizing the danger, Stalin reacted by ordering a “fast track” collectivization for which the country was completely unprepared. In the ensuing havoc and repression, millions of people, mostly peasants, died of hunger or were killed.

Why theory matters.

An undertaking as profoundly serious as revolution requires both theory that correctly analyzes world conditions and a party that turns these general ideas into a consistent, effective program. At the heart of the struggle between Stalin and the Left Opposition was a basic conflict over the theory and program of the Communist Party.

In 1924, after Lenin’s death and the defeat of a revolt by German workers, Stalin first put forward his “theory” of “socialism in one country.” This was a complete reversal of Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution, described in his book of the same name, whose internationalist concepts were the guiding tenets of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

In The Third International After Lenin, Trotsky writes, “In our epoch, the epoch of imperialism, of world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its program by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies in its own country.” The meaning of permanent revolution is that in the global era, revolution can neither be contained nor indefinitely sustained inside national borders.

The Bolsheviks understood that they could not take on the entire capitalist world alone. Revolutionary states require cooperation and support so that their combined productive capacities can provide a level of economic development higher than that engendered by capitalism. This was impossible for the USSR to do on its own, and this is why it remained a state in transition between capitalism and socialism. It could not continue on to socialism without partners.

Stalin, on the other hand, found it convenient to declare that socialism could be developed within the bounds of a single country. His notion of “socialism in one country” subordinated international revolution to his shortsighted view of how to guarantee the survival of the USSR — and above all its privileged bureaucratic caste.

The triumph of the Russian proletariat in 1917 inspired a tidal wave of uprisings around the world, from full-scale attempts at revolution to bold general strikes.

In the pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism, Stalin sold out these insurrections, condemning them to bloody failure by using the control he had seized of the Third International (Comintern), founded by the Bolsheviks in 1919 to build socialist parties worldwide. He ordered union leaders to halt Britain’s 1926 General Strike. In 1927, he instructed the Chinese Communist Party to defer to the lead of capitalist General Chiang Kai-shek, who promptly massacred the communists and workers of Shanghai and Canton.

The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin over the ideologies of permanent revolution vs. socialism in one country show that in reality, theory is a matter of life and death.

Trotsky campaigned against Stalin in an outpouring of books (The Revolution Betrayed), articles, and letters that continued unabated after he was expelled from the USSR. He maintained the battle in exile, settling in Mexico in 1937, the only country to grant him asylum. Trotsky also wrote extensively on international affairs, the colonial world (e.g. China, India, Latin America), and fascism (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany).

Rise of fascism tests the Left.

Meanwhile, capitalism’s first world war had ruthlessly divided the globe into winners and losers.

In the U.S., production levels soared, and the Yankee ruling class attained world ascendancy. German capitalists, in contrast, were fettered by the burden of reparations payments and the demands of six million unemployed workers. But even for the victors, the heady times were short.

In 1929, a worldwide capitalist economic crisis emerged — a crisis not of scarcity but of overproduction. The Great Depression that began that year was inherent in the way capitalism operates, through anarchic cycles of boom and bust. When unplanned, manic production results in more goods than can be profitably sold, the results are mass unemployment and starvation in the midst of plenty.

In Germany, a horrific new answer to economic crisis, fascism, had been gaining ground. But despite the fast growth of the Nazi Party, the German Communist Party — on Comintern orders — refused to join with the Social Democrats to combat Hitler, and the fascists took power in 1933. Fascism provided the political means for the bourgeoisie to crush the demands of the suffering workers, and the ensuing war economy of German imperialism provided a short-term financial solution.

As Bolshevik leader Karl Radek wrote: “Fascism is the iron hoop with which the bourgeoisie hopes to hold together the splitting barrel of capitalism.”

In 1935, belatedly responding to the rise of the right, the Comintern decreed that communist parties join forces with “democratic” bourgeois groups in “popular fronts.” This was a renunciation of the united front tradition of the Bolsheviks.

In a united front, participants with political differences combine to fight a social evil on the basis of a workingclass program and leadership. The popular front, however, is a cross-class alliance based, explicitly or not, on a pro-capitalist program.

In 1936, workers in France seized their factories, and the people of Spain defended their new republic against fascists led by General Franco. But the French popular front government halted the strikes at home and adopted a nonintervention policy toward Spain. Later, Comintern “assistance” to Spain consisted of delivering faulty weapons and murdering the Trotskyists and radicals fighting for Spanish socialism.

For Trotsky, the role of Comintern policies in aiding and abetting the rise of fascism, and the lack of opposition within the Comintern to those policies, signaled that the Third International was non-reformable, a corpse. Before his assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940, Trotsky dedicated the last years of his life to the creation of the Fourth International, founded in 1938 and rapidly establishing itself in 40 countries.

Through the difficult years of World War II, the Fourth International advanced the tasks begun in 1917 by building authentically socialist parties internationally and unifying them. Deserted by the Third International, the revolutionary banner found a vigorous new standard-bearer, and the permanent revolution went forward.

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