The Cuban Revolution began in 1917 with the October Revolution in Russia. During the first imperialist World War, the Russian working class, together with the poor peasantry, did not only overthrow the Czarist monarchy but also broke the power of the propertied classes. Led by the revolutionary workers’ party known as the Bolsheviks, the workers’ and peasants’ councils carried out a land reform without any compensation to the former owners and nationalized the industry under workers’ control.
This was an incredibly dynamic, living movement. Policies were discussed heatedly in the councils (called “Soviets”) and also in the Bolshevik Party committees. Unity in action was based on freedom of discussion and democratic decision-making.
In a long and bloody civil war, the working class of Russia defended its revolution – always in the hope of relief in the form of socialist revolutions in other countries. But the needed help did not come: the German revolution was betrayed by the Social Democrats and drowned in blood, and the Soviet republic in Hungary was crushed.
The isolation of the Soviet Union had drastic results. The bureaucracy of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state freed itself more and more from any kind of democratic control. This development signified a political counterrevolution which excluded the working class and its councils from power. The USSR became not a workers’ state in transition to socialism, but a degenerate workers’ state in which this transition was blocked by the bureaucracy.
The reactionary regime built up by the bureaucracy under Stalin has been described as a special form of Bonapartism. Bonapartism refers to a state apparatus balancing precariously between classes when no class is strong enough to impose its exclusive rule. In this way, the state appears to rise above the struggling classes and massively expands its repressive apparatus in order to discipline the working masses.
An important leader of the opposition to Stalinism, Leon Trotsky, referred to Stalin’s regime as “Soviet (it would be more correct to say, anti-Soviet) Bonapartism”, as the Soviet bureaucracy was balancing between the working class, the peasants and world imperialism. Trotsky’s analogy to bourgeois Bonapartism referred not to the “classic” Bonapartism of Louis Bonaparte which emerges in periods of capitalist crisis (for example the Schleicher government in the Weimar Republic in Germany or the Pidulski dictatorship in Poland). Rather, it referred to the young, offensive Bonapartism of the period of the bourgeoisie’s rise, i.e. under Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Napoleonic regime emerged from the reaction within the French Revolution, and fought on the one hand against the interests of the urban poor and the democratic petty bourgeoisie, but on the other hand against the remnants of feudalism. Napoleon’s regime, while abolishing the political institutions of the revolution, had to defend its gains in terms of bourgeois property relations – it even expanded these gains throughout Europe on the tips of bayonets.
In a similar way, the Stalinist bureaucracy was forced to defend the gains of the October Revolution, above all the nationalization of the means of production. However, it defended them in the interests of a parasitic bureaucratic caste, not of the international working class.
The political counterrevolution of Stalinism was the seed for a social counterrevolution (i.e. the restoration of capitalism) which came some 60 years later. Within the bureaucratic caste there was always a strong tendency towards restoration. Gorbachev’s reforms undermined the planned economy and Yeltsin’s regime swept it away. In this way, capitalism could harvest the crop of Stalinist reaction.
11. Leon Trotsky: “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism”.