The belief that dictatorship of some kind is the inevitable outcome of any attempt at radical change is one of the main barriers to people's engagement with socialist ideas today.

Survey after survey shows that a large chunk of the population is dissatisfied with their lives and with the kind of society in which we live. Year in, year out, capitalism wreaks destruction on an ever greater scale – economic crisis, war, the devastation of the environment, the daily grind of exploitation and oppression. It's not surprising that, in one form or other, the shadow of apocalypse hangs heavily over the contemporary psychological and cultural landscape.

Of course, there exists a growing minority of people who are beginning to seek out something different. The events of the past year, of revolutions toppling dictators in the Middle East, of mass-strikes and protests against austerity in Europe, the Occupy movement and so on, have shown that change is possible, and that it's up to ordinary people, to students, workers and the oppressed, to make it. But we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't admit that there's a long way to go.

As Marx put it "the traditions of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living". The nightmare we are suffering through today is one in which the horrors of the 20th century, of two world wars, of the industrial scale genocide carried out by the Nazis, and, importantly of the mass-slaughter committed by the likes of Stalin and Mao in the name of "socialism" feature prominently.

So it's no wonder that when confronted with people who proclaim themselves to be Marxists, who celebrate the Russian revolution, and who passionately believe in the benefits of reorganising society along socialist lines, even otherwise quite left-wing and progressive individuals are apt to be a bit suspicious. All the ideas that are propagated in schools, in the mainstream media and so on are designed to kick-in at this point: that however well-intentioned at the start, revolutions always end in dictatorships, that socialism is good in theory but doesn't work in practice, that human nature is just plain bad and we really need a system like capitalism to keep us from tearing each other apart with our bare hands, and on and on it goes.

The idea that the horrors of Stalinism were the inevitable outcome of the Russian revolution is one of the foundation stones on which the rest of it all sits. If people are to break out from the straight-jacket of thinking that "things might be awful under capitalism, but there's not really any alternative", then we really have to provide another explanation for what happened.


The true history of the Russian revolution

So what is the answer? For a start, it's important to understand exactly what the Russian revolution was and what it was not. In the mainstream account, the Bolsheviks tend to be portrayed as the main actors, either misguidedly leading the masses to what they thought would be liberation, or cunningly manipulating them into granting Lenin, Trotsky and others the dictatorial powers of which they had always secretly dreamed.

Neither of these versions of events is anywhere near the truth. The revolution was in no way an invention of the Bolsheviks. This is obvious in the case of the February revolution that overthrew the Tsar. The Bolsheviks were caught off-guard by these events, the trigger for which was protests by women workers demanding bread. But even in the case of the October revolution which overthrew the pro-capitalist Provisional Government and transferred power to the Soviets (workers' councils), events in which the Bolsheviks clearly played a significant role, it wasn't as if they were somehow pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

The role of the party in organising the working-class for the conquest of power was crucial, but in playing this role the Bolsheviks were largely just responding to the mood on the streets. As Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik opponent of the Bolsheviks and witness to the revolution, admitted, "to talk about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the Bolsheviks were followed by the overwhelming majority of the people... was clearly an absurdity."

Further, the revolution made real gains for workers. For a brief, and difficult, period, the Russian workers' and peasants exercised direct democratic control over their society through the Soviets, which comprised elected representatives from workplaces and army barracks across the country. And despite the difficulties, the Soviet government was able to bring about a significant transformation of Russian society. They withdrew Russia from the bloodbath of the First World War, offered self-determination to the nationalities previously oppressed under the Tsarist Empire, and began a reconstitution of everyday social relations through the provision of socialised child-care facilities, abortion on demand, the liberalisation of divorce laws and so on.

Such measures were the first steps on the road to a fully fledged socialist society. And what made them possible wasn't the ideas in the heads of the Bolsheviks, but the powerful upsurge of organisation and activity of the Russian working-class. As Lenin put it, "the creative initiative of the masses is the fundamental factor of the new society. Socialism is not the result of decrees from above... Living, constructive socialism is the work of the popular masses themselves."


The defeat of the revolution

The question then, is where did it all go wrong? Why is it that barely a decade later a figure like Stalin had come to the helm, presiding over a regime which Trotsky himself described as "a single clot of all monstrosities of the historical state, its most malicious caricature and disgusting grimace"?

It is here that ideas of an original-sin of humanity, of something in human nature that makes us incapable of maintaining a society of true equality, justice and democracy, come to the fore. One may well accept that the Bolsheviks themselves weren't, as the right-wing account has it, secretly plotting totalitarianism all along, but it's more difficult to shake the notion that they were somehow corrupted by power, and that this is the destiny of all those who would seek to follow in their footsteps.

The truth is, however, that the ultimate defeat of the revolution has little to do with the Bolsheviks at all. Debate about this or that policy of Lenin or the Bolsheviks in the period following the revolution is really a bit of a sideshow to the much more significant fact that the Russian working-class was simply unable to hold onto power.

There are two main reasons why this was the case. The first was the weakening of the working-class that occurred in the brutal civil war that followed the revolution. Supported by approximately 200,000 troops from 14 different countries, the defeated Russian ruling-class formed a "white army" that launched an all out attack on the revolution. White Guard leader General Kornilov vowed that victory would be achieved, even if they had, in his words, "to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-fourths of all Russians".

The whites didn't win the war. But they decimated the Russian working class, and they contributed to the further devastation of the Russian economy. Industrial production fell to one-fifth of pre-war levels. The population of Petrograd, which was the powerhouse of the revolution, fell from 2.4 million to 574,000 as workers were lost to the front or returned to the countryside to survive. The Soviets still existed when the war was finally over in 1921, but, owing to the exhausted state of the working class, they had become a mere shadow of the force they were in 1917.

The second reason for the failure of the Russian working class to hang onto power lay in their isolation. Russia was an economically backwards country. Workers made up only slightly more than 10 percent of the population in 1917. A massive 80 percent were peasants.

It was always going to be impossible for socialism to be created through the efforts of the Russian working class alone. They simply didn't have the necessary weight in society, and the productive potential of Russian industry wasn't sufficient to enable the kind of abundance that Marx and Engels saw as a prerequisite for a truly socialist economy to function.

This doesn't mean, as some have argued, that the Russian revolution was somehow premature. As the events of 2011 reaffirmed, capitalism is a global system and the struggles of the working class in one country can't be seen as separate from those occurring elsewhere. Seen as part of a socialist movement that spanned the whole of Europe, the Russian workers appeared as the vanguard in a much broader struggle. Leading Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky never saw the revolution in any other way. They recognised that the Russian workers couldn't hold onto power alone. Just four months after the revolution of 1917 Lenin said that "the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish".

A revolution in a more advanced, western European country like Germany would have broken Russia's isolation and given a massive boost to its devastated economy. This, in turn, could have rejuvenated the Soviets as the main instruments of working class power.

For a period it seemed like revolution in western Europe was very much on the agenda. The ruling-classes were put to fright, with the (conservative) British Prime Minister Lloyd George commenting that "the whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution... The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other."

Unfortunately it wasn't to be. The German revolution was defeated in October 1923, signalling the end of the Russians' hopes for a way out of their desperate situation. The Bolsheviks were not to blame for this outcome. Indeed, it was the lack of an organisation like the Bolsheviks in other European countries that was the prime reason for the defeat of the revolutionary wave.


Stalin's rise to power

It was expected that the counter-revolution would come from outside, via intervention from capitalist nations, or from the wealthy layer of the peasantry. But the final defeat of socialism in Russia ultimately came at the hands of the bureaucracy that formed itself around the figure of Joseph Stalin.

This bureaucracy, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, consisted largely of people who had little or no involvement in the events of 1917, but who had been drawn into the Party in the aftermath of the revolution when it was clear that the Communists were the new power on the block. Following Lenin's death in 1924, it was this emerging bureaucratic layer that formed the basis for Stalin's rise to power. Under the banner of 'socialism in one country', Stalin rallied this layer to the idea of consolidating their role as the self-appointed inheritors of the Soviet regime.

That this development was in no way an inevitable outcome of the revolution is made clear by the viciousness of Stalin's attack on the gains made by the working class. The main leaders of the revolution, including a majority of those who comprised the Bolshevik central committee in 1917, were killed or exiled. The vibrancy of political discussion, of art and culture that had permeated the working class during the revolution was suppressed, and the brief but profound transformation in social relations was completely wound back.

The kind of cold, calculated planning, and the use of methods of extreme repression and violence that characterised these attacks wouldn't have been necessary if Stalin's rise was somehow pre-ordained through the logic of the revolution itself.

In sum, the rise of Stalin and the totalitarian state over which he presided were neither the inevitable outcome of the revolution, nor, as Stalin proclaimed, the practical realisation of the ideals of socialism as set out by Marx and Engels and embodied in the lives of millions of socialist workers who followed in their footsteps. That Stalin wished to claim the legacy of socialism for himself was a reflection of the strength of these ideas amongst the Russian workers. It is no different to when contemporary politicians such as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard claim to stand for "working families" or John Howard for "the battlers". Such claims are based purely on a political calculation of the kind of rhetoric that can be used to justify their true agenda.


State capitalism in Russia

But if Russia under Stalin wasn't actually socialist, what was it? In reality, Russia under Stalin (and the various other "communist" leaders who followed him) was much closer to, say, the current regime in China, than it was to any kind of genuine socialism. In both cases you have a powerful, centralised bureaucracy presiding over a society in which the basic relations of exploitation that characterise capitalism remain unchanged.

The most comprehensive analysis of the nature of Russian society under Stalin has been provided by Tony Cliff, whose 1955 book "State Capitalism in Russia" built on Trotsky's earlier critiques to show how the Stalinist state basically acted as a collective capitalist – competing with other capitalist countries for predominance in the world market. It was, in this sense, a state capitalist society, using the same brutal methods in the pursuit of development that had previously been employed by the capitalists of the established world powers like England, France, Germany and the United States.

The wealth and power of the ruling-classes of these countries emerged, as Marx put it, "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt". Consider the ravages of slavery, of child labour and the viciousness of competing colonialisms that laid waste to the people and resources of vast swathes of the globe.

The difference is, that in the case of state capitalist regimes like that of Stalin in Russia and Mao in China, the process of development was concentrated into a much shorter space of time. Instead of a slave-trade that spanned centuries, you had the gulag archipelago, instead of colonialism, you had the subjugation of the peasantry and the new Soviet military expansionism. Far from being a realisation of the ideals of socialism, what Stalinism represented was a return to the most brutal elements of capitalism. Nothing, in other words, even vaguely worth fighting for.

What is worth fighting for is the kind of world towards which the Russian workers took the first small steps in the period immediately following the revolution of 1917. A society in which the capabilities of humanity are harnessed in pursuit of a better life for all, and not just, as is the case today, in pursuit of another billion or two in the coffers of the rich. Based on this and other examples of the struggles of working people within capitalism, we can confidently step out into the open and proclaim that, indeed, another world is possible and that, to paraphrase Marx, in fighting for such a world "we have nothing to lose but our chains."

source: Socialist Alternative