From the June 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard
Before 1914 Socialism had a definite meaning, understood by all who claimed to be Socialist. It meant the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution. This was accepted by the Social Democratic Parties that were developing in different parts of the world, most of whom gave allegiance to Marxism.
In these parties there were writers who made first class theoretical contributions to Marxism. Writers such as Plechanov, Kautsky, Labriola, Lafargue, Bauer, Boudin, Luxemburg, and many others. All of these people were in the Second International along with Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks. In fact, in those days, Lenin had a great respect for Plechanov, from whom he had learnt much, and he described Kautsky as one of the best theoreticians in the Socialist movement.
Where, however, they all came to grief was on the question of reformism. In theory they were sound, but on the practical side they were weak. Whilst advocating and writing about Socialism they also felt it incumbent upon them to take steps to try and ameliorate the conditions of the workers by having a lengthy platform of reforms. They also looked upon state ownership as a stepping stone to Socialism. This attitude attracted to the ranks of the Social Democratic Parties large numbers of people who were only interested in particular reforms, and had no real understanding of the class division in society or the Socialist objective. They gave lip service to the ideas without understanding them, or even being interested in them.
Had this been all that had happened, it might have been possible to rescue something out of the confusion, and spread sound Socialist understanding, after the 1914-1918 war. Particularly as workers everywhere, feeling that they had been betrayed, were in a ferment of discontent. But the Bolsheviks, by corruption, distortion, betrayal and mud slinging, destroyed this possibility, setting out by lies, trickery and distortion to politically, and sometimes physically, destroy all the parties and individuals who were not prepared to be abject tools of the Bolshevik dictatorship.
In the first flush of Bolshevik victory radical parties all over the world acclaimed the victory and gave them generous support, even where they had doubts on some of the methods adopted. The German Social Democratic Party, when threatened, sent to Russia the writings of Marx and Engels and other archives for safe-keeping, believing that Russia was now a budding free Socialist state where writings and documents would be safe from interference. How wrong they were!
It soon became evident that Russia was not embarked upon even a democratic society. The secret police and the concentration camp were on the way.
The mass of the Russian people knew nothing about Socialism; most of them could not even read. The peasants, who formed the bulk of the population, wanted land, and all wanted peace and bread. It was on the basis of the peace, bread and land programme that the Bolsheviks were enabled to seize power.
Treachery and Terrorism
Once in power the Bolsheviks established what they misnamed the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In fact, it was nothing of the kind. It was not even the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party (which again they misnamed the Communist Party), but the dictatorship of a small inner group with Lenin as the guiding star. They established a system of treachery and terrorism, first against opposing elements and eventually internally against those who would not abjectly submit to the dictates of the inner circle. In the end this led to members of the inner circle trying to destroy each other. It reproduced the position in the French Revolution when one group ate another until finally Napoleon was left at the top. First Trotsky, then Kamenev, Zinoviev and Radek fell victims to the terrorism they had built up. Fortunately for him, Lenin died before he could become a victim of the system in which he was the leading actor.
Money was lavished, in spite of Russian penury, to influence elements abroad to give abject submission to the dictates of the small group of Russian dictators. Unscrupulous adventurers, with no interest whatever in Socialism, were sent abroad armed with large sums of money, for the purpose of disrupting and destroying radical movements in other countries, and building up groups that acted as foreign agents of the Russian dictatorship. The old secret police of Czarism was copied in the building up of the OGPU, which infiltrated everywhere and set friends and families against each other. Finally, all freedom of expression was killed as no one dare voice any criticism of the despotism for fear of prison, the concentration camp or execution.
In attacking all who would not give unquestioning submission to their changing tactics and ruthless suppressions, the Russian dictators twisted Marxism into its opposite. State Capitalism, which the supporters of the Second International had only looked upon as a stepping stone to Socialism, was established in Russia and declared to be Socialism—thus giving the enemies of Socialism a much desired weapon.
The Third International, which the Russian dictatorship set up for the purpose of disorganising radical parties in the West, was abandoned as soon as its aim had been accomplished
Now, in the effort to build up Socialist parties, one supreme task has been added to the rest; the need to unveil the falsity of Russian propaganda and take the name of Socialism out of the mud in which the Russian leaders and their henchmen have immersed it. And still today the supporters of the Russian dictatorship everywhere carry out the intriguing, tortuous and hypocritical policy of their mentors.
The Bolsheviks have certainly put the clock back and, in the name of Socialism, have built up one of the most ruthless Capitalist states that have ever existed. Even the forms of democracy that exist in the Western world cannot be found there.
Evidence for the duplicity and ruthless-ness of the inner Bolshevik clique in the early days is given in profusion in Angelica Balabanoff's My Life as a Rebel. She went to Russia as to the shrine of Socialism, and she became the first secretary of the Third International; but later left Russia disillusioned and broken-hearted, severing her connection with the Russian group after what she had witnessed.
Critics, enemies, and anyone who displeased the inner circle or influential members of the bureaucracy were sent to concentration camps, mostly in Siberia, where they were ill-fed, ill-clothed, and overworked in the bitter cold. Thousands died, and many more became physical wrecks. The story is a horrible one of cold-hearted ruthlessness.
Claiming that the end justified the means, however perfidious, the Russian Autocracy are now firmly establishing a typical Capitalist state, armed with the most terrible means of human destruction and threatening, whilst their alleged end has disappeared into obscurity in face of diplomatic and blackmailing manoeuvres for better trading opportunities. But they have done more damage to the movement for Socialism than even the most ruthless avowed Capitalist states. The latter proclaimed their antagonism to Socialism and could be met in the light, whereas the Russian dictatorship claims to be sponsors of Socialism and works in the dark.
Hard as the road to Socialism always was, the Russians have made it harder, and have destroyed, or driven to despair, many genuine fighters for the workers' freedom from Capitalism, even if some of these have been mistaken in their methods.
The lesson to be drawn from the Russian experience is the impossibility of a small group of leaders, with a mass of blind supporters, ushering in anything other than some form of dictatorship; certainly not Socialism, The supreme need of the workers is an understanding of Socialism, what it is and what it implies, and organising together for the sole purpose of achieving it. Finally, that Socialism is an international system which cannot be achieved in one country alone, but requires the understanding and harmonious co-operation of all the workers of the world.