October revisited: John Eric Marot's 'October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect'

The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History
By John Eric Marot
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.
274 pages

Review by Doug Enaa Greene

January 3, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, leftists have expended a great deal of energy debating and analysing all aspects of the “Russian Question” -- vanguard party, Trotsky vs. Stalin, collectivisation, central planning … To this day, there are multiple parties and internationals, that constitute their dividing lines on the nature of the USSR -- “degenerated workers' state”, “state capitalist”, “bureaucratic collectivist”, and so forth. It seems that with nearly a century of debate on these questions that there would be little left to say on the “Russian Question”.

However, John Eric Marot's The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect, not only revisits many of the old questions, but does so in a provocative way that is sure to challenge many of the leftist verdicts, whether “orthodox” or “heterodox” Trotskyist, on these questions.
Marot's book is organised into nine essays, the first two discuss the oppositions of Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and the property relations of the Soviet peasantry during the 1920s. For many leftists, these chapters, comprising nearly half of the book, are sure to be the most interesting. Marot's contention is that a lot of the common sense on the left in regards to the peasantry and the Soviet countryside is wrong.

Marot, a former student of Robert Brenner, applies his mentor's theories to the Russian peasantry. Contrary to the contentions of Karl Marx in 1880s and Lenin's Development of Capitalism in Russia, that the Russian countryside was growing increasingly capitalist, Marot argues that while the peasants did sell their surplus on the market, there was no compulsion or incentive for them to engage in surplus accumulation. To the contrary, the social relations of the peasantry saw their first need as ensuring the needs of their households, then paying rent and purchasing other goods. Trading with the market was not an imperative for the peasantry, but they had to be induced to do so by forms of political coercion – by the tsarist taxes, which were used in foreign trade and to help industrialise. Thus, there was no internal logic for capitalism to develop in the Russian countryside in the same way that it did in England.

This meant that Lenin and the Bolsheviks' view of capitalism in Russia was flawed. They looked more at the development of productive forces (such as the development of modern industry in the cities) as opposed to relations of production (which were pre-capitalist and feudal in the country). According to Marot, Lenin and the Bolsheviks also made the fundamental mistake of seeing the primary contradiction among the peasantry as between rich and poor peasants as opposed to a contradiction between the state, represented by the landlords, and the peasants as a whole.
While the peasantry gained immensely from the Bolshevik Revolution, overthrowing the gentry and gaining control of the land, this did not lead them to develop in a capitalist direction (as the Bolsheviks assumed). Rather, the peasantry was no longer constrained by tsarist coercion and was able to develop its own non-capitalist mode of production that did not need to trade with either the towns or the foreign world.

Marot does a good job here of criticising Richard Day's main thesis in Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation (a book I have also found valuable in recasting the debates of the 1920s) that the use of foreign trade, advanced by Trotsky, was a viable option for the Soviet leadership in its effort to industrialise. Rather, as Marot proves, the revolution and the New Economic Policy severed Russia's links with the capitalist world; trade into the 1920s remained far below pre-war levels.

Attempts by the Soviet leadership to incorporate the peasantry into the economy were thus frustrated. For instance, the efforts by the Bolsheviks to close the “scissors” crisis – between high prices for industrial goods and low prices for agricultural ones – by lowering prices for goods from the towns only managed to aggravate the situation, leading to unequal exchange between the town and the country (to the benefit of the country). The peasants were able to sell their goods at higher prices which could not easily be absorbed by the urban economy. This developing crisis eventually led the Soviet leadership, under Stalin, to break with the NEP and the resistance of the peasant economy by collectivising the country and beginning the five-year plans.

The Left Opposition led by Trotsky, thus made a mischaracterisation of the peasantry as a nascent capitalist class. This meant that Trotsky was hostile to the line represented by Nikolai Bukharin, whom he believed to be representing the capitalist elements among the peasantry. This misunderstanding ultimately led Trotsky to reject any effort to form an alliance with Bukharin and the forces of Stalin that could have driven Stalin from power. Nor was Trotsky, as Marot discusses at length in chapter two, willing to mobilise workers and peasants outside of the party against the Soviet leadership. Bukharin wanted to ride out the crisis between town and county by holding back industrialisation and engaging in more careful planning.

It is an intriguing hypothesis and counter-factual that Marot proposes – a potential joining of forces between the Right and Left Oppositions against the Soviet leadership. There is some basis for this, for instance Trotsky's 1932 essay, the Soviet Economy in Danger, advocates a number of Bukharinist measures, such as a greater reliance on markets by a planned economy. When Bukharin proposed an alliance to Trotsky – through Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev – against Stalin, Trotsky remained open to it (see Deutscher's Prophet Unarmed, pp. 370-9). However, the followers of both Trotsky and Bukharin remained opposed to it and no alliance formed.

While Marot's hypothesis of a joining of Trotsky and Bukharin against Stalin has basis in fact, it is ultimately disproved by his own evidence.

For example, in the second chapter of Marot's book, which is a critical review of the last two volumes of Tony Cliff's Trotsky's biography, he shows how Trotsky and the Trotskyists responded to the development of the five-year plans and the collectivisation of agriculture. Until 1933, Trotsky remained a supporter of the “reform” of the CPSU and was unwilling to operate independently outside of its ranks. Rank-and-file Trotskyists who attempted to work with other opposition groups were condemned by Trotsky. And the Trotskyists, such as Radek and Preobrazhensky, saw the Soviet industrialisation program as something they could “critically support”, which caused them to go back to the CPSU. The Trotskyists also saw Stalin as moving left when he publicly attacked Bukharin and the Right Opposition – and they cheered on and supported Stalin in this endeavour. Thus, in the end, Trotsky's followers were caught in a bind – they acknowledged the vanguard role of the party, albeit one controlled more and more by the bureaucracy, but refused to break with it.

As Marot discusses, it was only in 1933 that Trotsky broke with the CPSU and the Comintern, calling not for reform, but for political revolution. This break was due more to Trotsky's view of the Comintern ultra-left fiasco in Germany that prevented the Communist Party forming a united front to fight the Nazis. It would only be in 1936, with the publication of the Revolution Betrayed, that Trotsky would be advocating the type of political line that Marot believed would allow him to forestalled Stalin. However, by then it was already too late.

The following four chapters are a long engagement by Marot with the new social historians who have written on the October Revolution. Here, Marot argues that the social historians have correctly demolished many of the old Cold War myths that the Bolsheviks manipulated the workers or carried out a coup. Rather, Russian workers were fully involved in the events of 1917 – from leading strikes, creating unions and fighting for Soviet power. What Marot does here, and I fully agree, is to say that the Bolsheviks were not foreign to the working-class movement, nor that workers were unconcerned with “high politics”, but that the Russian working class developed and learned throughout 1917, coming to the realisation that the Bolshevik program offered the best way to realise their aspirations.

As Marot says, the Bolsheviks won in 1917 because of their politics, they were “better able to comprehend and predict the course of the class struggle, to politically provide for it and in so far as provided for, to shape is evolution and guide it to a victorious denouement. Through political competition, workers developed their politics and reached a political consensus on the need to seize power” (p. 164). This ironically leads Marot to agree with anti-communist historians such as Richard Pipes, although for differing reasons, that without the Bolshevik Party there would have been no October Revolution.

The final four chapters of the book deal with Lenin and the Bolshevik theorist Alexander Bogdanov. Marot recasts the standard debate that Bogdanov’s and Lenin’s differences were over whether or not to support participation in the Duma. Nor were they divided over differences in philosophy (another common assumption). Rather, Bogdanov believed that workers were unable to escape from the domination of bourgeois ideology and culture without the intervention of socialist intellectuals. Bogdanov thus advocated establishing worker universities to educate the proletariat and make them fit for revolutionary action.

According to Marot, Lenin held similar ideas about the ability of workers to achieve socialist consciousness in What Is To Be Done? but after the 1905 Revolution, he changed his mind and came to believe that workers did not necessarily need to learn from intellectuals, but could come to socialist consciousness through their own experience and therefore take a leading role in the revolution. These chapters do a great deal to challenge other commonsense notions of Lenin and build upon Lars Lih's scholarship. While I found them to be interesting, I believe they have a narrower interest than the earlier chapters.

Although in the end I remain unconvinced that a realignment between Trotsky and Bukharin was on the table, I believe the evidence Marot provides throughout the book actually contradicts that, I still have to commend Marot's work. He has managed to recast the well-worn debates over the Soviet debates of the 1920s in a radically new way. The essays throughout the book are written in an engaging, thoughtful and partisan style in line with the best examples of Marxism.

[Doug Enaa Greene is a member of the Kasama Project and an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint, Green Left Weekly, Open Media Boston, Cultural Logic and Red Wedge magazine. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is the author of a fothcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books. For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE. ]