John Boyd on the Russian Revolution
The collapse of the Soviet Union led many
long-time Marxists in Canada – and especially those who were associated
with the Communist Party of Canada – to rethink views they had held for
a lifetime. Several have written essays or given talks on the event that
led to the birth of the worldwide Communist movement – the Russian
In coming months, the Socialist History Project
hopes to publish some of the contributions to this important discussion.
We are very pleased to begin with a talk presented by John Boyd at the
Marxism Conference in Toronto on May 13, 2007, at a session on “Is the
Russian Revolution of 1917 Relevant Today?”
John Boyd was a leader of the Communist Party of
Canada and its related organizations from 1930. For many years he was
editor of the party’s newspaper, Canadian Tribune. He left the Party in
1968 in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. His
A Noble Cause Betrayed, But Hope Lives On, is also available on this
In granting permission for this talk to be posted
here, John Boyd wrote:
“While the talk expresses my views on the
topic, it by no means includes all of them. Since I was talking to
left-wingers, most of whom are firm advocates and supporters of
socialism, I emphasized the negative aspects of the Soviet regime
and said little about the many positive things that were done, most
of which, as I mentioned, were achieved in spite of Stalin and his
associates (the history of the Soviet participation in World War 2
being but one example). Besides, I only had 20 minutes I wanted to
include some of the points I thought were important. So, as I said,
it does not include all my views on the Russian Revolution and its
Some Thoughts on the
Russian Revolution of 1917
by John Boyd
The October Revolution took place ninety years
ago. Since I was born four years before, for my generation the
revolution and its aftermath were very much a part of our world. For
today’s younger generations, however, it’s ancient history, like the
French or the American revolutions.
Each of those revolutions had a profound impact
and influence on subsequent history. Each had lofty goals, which were
achieved to a degree, but subsequently were eroded or lost.
Regrettably, that was also true of the Russian
Revolution. It, too, had a phenomenal impact. Indeed, it determined much
of what happened in the past century. Its mission was even more
profound: not only to end the tsarist regime but to get rid of the
capitalist system and eventually establish socialism.
And it did introduce many elements of
socialism: it provided free universal education and health care,
nationalized the economy, made phenomenal advances in science and
technology, and, to a limited degree, encouraged the flowering of the
arts and national cultures.
Over the years, it recorded many achievements –
some of them heroic achievements – in all these areas. As such, it was
for a time a beacon of hope for millions throughout the world.
These achievements, however, were outweighed by
major flaws: the utter lack of democracy, the suppression of national
freedoms, bureaucratic control of people’s lives, corruption and
state-directed crimes. All of which, in the end, contributed to the
Can the Russian Revolution, then, serve as a
model for future generations – those who will eventually challenge
capitalism and seek a more egalitarian and more just society? Hardly.
For one thing, the world has changed drastically in the past ninety
years. Capitalism, although it is still based on greed and exploitation,
has become global and more sophisticated in the way it operates. The
working class too has changed from what it was 90 years ago and even 50
The only way it can serve as a model is if future
generations learn from the errors that were made during that revolution
and after – why it failed to carry out its original goals.
Some say the revolution was in the wrong place,
at the wrong time. They point to the fact that in their writings, Marx
and Engels did not try to present a blueprint for how the new society
they envisioned would or should be established, what form it would or
should take. They did imply that it would likely be in a country or
countries with advanced economies, when suitable conditions would exist
for an effective transfer to a socialist system. Instead, it took place
in a country with one of the more backward economies.
While that is true, in the end it is an
irrelevant premise. Historic events and circumstances led to the
revolution. Tsarist Russia was in a major crisis and Lenin and the
Bolsheviks took advantage of the situation, seized the moment and took
How it was done and what followed
is at issue. In my view, the revolution contained innate fatal flaws
from its very beginning.
Through most of the Communist Party’s history,
its leaders everywhere, Lenin perhaps more than any of them, fulminated
against revisionism of Marxism, both inside and outside the party. Yet
one of the biggest revisionists was Lenin himself.
Lenin was unquestionably a brilliant man, one of
the great minds of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he had an ego to
match. He did not suffer dissenters graciously. There were many
instances when he used his personality and his stubbornness to get his
way. Which is true, of course, of many great leaders in history.
It was Lenin, not Marx, who first advanced the
theory and practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat. His
followers, however, did not see this as revisionism; we were told that
Lenin "adapted Marx to the era of imperialism."
At no point in their works did Marx and Engels
advance or advocate the dictatorship of the proletariat. Although he was
not the first to do so, Marx did describe capitalists as the new "ruling
class," to which he contrasted a possible new "proletarian ruling
In an article discussing the failed Paris Commune
in 1871, Marx saw it as a "dictatorship of the proletariat" in contrast
to that of the "dictatorship of the big industrialists." He used the
terms "government" and "dictatorship" without much distinction and
somewhat off handedly. At that stage of the immaturity of "democracy" or
"universal suffrage," there was little concern about whether those who
"dictated" or "governed" had received their power by "democratic" means.
It is worth noting that the term democracy
appears neither in the Declaration of Human Rights in France nor in the
U.S. Constitution of 1787. While dictators have been with us from the
earliest history, dictatorship as a term for a form of rule came into
vogue with Mussolini and then Franco, Hitler, Stalin and others.
Dictatorship of the proletariat could perhaps be
one way of defining true democracy, since in a democracy a full and
genuine application of the right to vote would mean that the "have nots,"
who constitute the majority of society, would be dominant instead of the
"haves," who are in the minority but use their money and lobbyists to
get their way. That is likely how Marx saw it, the one time he used the
In Lenin’s application of it, however, it wasn’t
a dictatorship of the proletariat but a dictatorship of the party. And
not even of the party but of the elite of the party: an elite that for
25 years – from 1928 to 1953 – did Stalin’s bidding and for 12 of those
years, when the Politburo did not meet even once, left all decisions
solely to him.
In my view, this was one of the major flaws, if
not the major flaw, of the Soviet regime. Socialism should see an
extension of democracy, yet the Soviet regime did not even recognize or
uphold the democratic rights that had already been won elsewhere prior
to 1917 – in the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France, in the
Magna Carta and habeas corpus law in England and in the American
Declaration of Independence
It was a dictatorship of the party. But what kind
of party? A party founded in 1903, in the illegal conditions of tsarist
Russia, which therefore required a top down, almost military type of
structure, with a chain of command and strict discipline.
In some respects, the party’s structure and
method of operation could be likened to that of the Catholic Church,
with its top down authority, its Pope and Vatican, its denial of
dissent, and branding and ex-communicating as heretics anyone straying
from the official dogma.
And that original structure continued even after
the Bolshevik party had consolidated its power. One could understand
retaining it during the early days of imperialist intervention and the
civil war but it continued long after, indeed to the very end.
There was no right of dissent, not even within
the party, let alone outside it. Yes, there was a mechanism called
democratic centralism but it was known more for its breach than for its
For a while, after the civil war, a member of a
party branch in a factory or on a collective farm, whether he was the
worker or the manager, did have a right to criticize or express a
difference of opinion, but that ended after Stalin took full control of
From then on the party chairman of the factory or
of the collective farm was the head honcho. His word or opinion was the
law. He shielded himself from critics by surrounding himself with
cronies and sycophants who would denounce all dissenters. And that was
the pattern with district, regional and republican party leaders all the
way to the top. Indeed, that is how Stalin managed to ward off all
challenges to his leadership.
As for dissent outside the party, that was
stifled from the very beginning. The period leading up to the revolution
saw people’s soviets (councils) organized throughout Russia – worker and
soldier soviets in the cities and peasant soviets in some of the rural
areas. These included delegates from the social-democrats (both
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), the constitutional democrats, the narodniks,
the anarchists and many other parties and groups. In the capital,
Petrograd, they met in a national Congress of Soviets, which brought
together all the anti-tsarist forces. Indeed, one of the slogans the
Bolsheviks advanced in their appeal to these forces in 1917, was "All
Power to the Soviets!" But after they took power, the emphasis was
solely on the party.
Not only those who opposed the Bolsheviks were
eventually done away with. Hundreds, indeed thousands, of members and
supporters of the party, men and women who were active participants in
the October Revolution were eventually done away with. At one point this
included every single one of the delegates to the 10th Congress of the
Bolshevik party. And by the time of Stalin’s death all the others.
It was a dictatorship of one party. And only one
party. Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin on this question. She was
against one-party rule and argued for a pluralistic form of government
but her views were declared revisionist and rejected. As were virtually
all views that opposed Lenin’s.
All the parties that took part in the revolution
but did not agree with the Bolsheviks were proscribed and their members
eventually declared to be enemies of the revolution and persecuted.
That persecution was carried to the to the
ultimate extreme by Stalin, with the tragic results we all know. But it
was also extended to the Communist parties in all countries. It got to
the point where social-democrats were called social-fascists and
social-democracy denounced as "worse than the class enemy." This policy
saw its most tragic results in Hitler Germany in the early 1930s, when
the Communists and Social Democrats could have stopped Hitler had they
acted unitedly, as Leon Trotsky had urged them to do. They did not, of
course, with the catastrophic events that ensued.
That policy left a legacy of a chronically
fragmented left. What characterized the parties, groups and trends on
the Left throughout the past century was not efforts at united action
against capitalism but confrontation, differentiation and disagreement,
with each party or group believing and proclaiming it alone had the
correct policy or program. And that situation has prevailed to this day.
The forces on the right, even when they had major differences among
themselves, always managed to unite against the left. The same cannot be
said of the left.
The emphasis on the proletarian dictatorship at
times led the Communist Party leaders to another extreme – a kind of
working-class elitism and an anti-intellectualism. A rejection or
denigration of people who came from the middle class, people involved in
small businesses, academics and intellectuals. This was true both in the
Soviet Union and in Communist Parties in other countries and was
especially prevalent in the 1930s, although it persisted in many ways
through the period of the Soviet regime. The Canadian party was among
the most guilty in this respect, as one of its leaders once admitted.
The irony is that most of the individuals who led the Russian Revolution
were academics and intellectuals.
After Lenin died, Stalin concocted the concept of
Marxism-Leninism, as if both were synonymous, and he, of course, was the
disciple of both. For over six decades, Lenin was virtually sanctified.
Nobody dared criticize or question any of his policies. Every editorial
in Pravda or Izvestia began with a quote from Lenin and then contained
two or three or more before it concluded. As did most articles and
speeches. And quotes were found to back up whatever point the author
wanted to make
In the 1960s, after the computers came into use,
the party’s central committee had hundreds of Lenin’s quotes arranged
alphabetically, chronologically and by topic, so that they could be
readily available. When I lived in Prague for two years one of the jokes
circulating among the Russians asked: "What is the definition of
creative writing?’ The answer: "The distance from one Lenin quote to
Another major flaw in the Soviet regime was the
way the different nationalities and races and religions were treated.
When they took power, the Bolsheviks inherited
the vast tsarist empire, considered by many at the time to be a
"prison-house of nations."
Understandably, the new regime had to defend and
preserve this vast territory, and not allow the imperialist powers to
dismantle it, as they tried to do in its early years. But in the years
that followed there was a great opportunity for the Communist Party to
show how socialism deals with people of different races and
nationalities. Regrettably, they did not.
Before he died, Lenin warned that there were two
major weaknesses or shortcomings facing the party: Russian chauvinism
and bourgeois nationalism, and of the two, he said, Russian chauvinism
was the more dangerous. He was certainly prescient in that. For a few
years after the civil war there was a brief flourishing of language and
culture, and some degree of national autonomy, in most of the republics,
but that all ended about 1928, when Stalin really took charge The
problem was that it was largely Russian chauvinists who were most often
in charge. With disastrous consequences.
Understandably, Russian had to be the working
language in many areas, but it was carried to extremes. For example, did
you know that in all the decades that Soviet republic of Ukraine
existed, Ukrainian was never declared the official language of the
country? This was true also of the Belarus republic. This policy
continued through all the years and after the war was extended to the
so-called democratic republics. For example, in Czechoslovakia, Poland,
Hungary and Bulgaria, the Russian language had to be taught from Grade 3
or 4 and parents of secondary school students who wanted to study
English, French or German rather than advanced Russian, were suspect.
Imagine what a fine example the Soviet Union
could have been to other nations, especially those in the colonial world
that existed at the time, had the Party followed a different policy in
its dealings with the peoples in its republics.
Another policy that merits scrutiny is how the
Soviet Party leaders after the revolution related to the other Communist
When the Third International was formed in 1919,
understandably the Russian leaders – Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin
and others – played an important part in it. This did not necessarily
make them experts on policies for the movement in other countries. Yet
they sought to be such.
From the very beginning there was an attitude of
hegemony and domination. And they sought to impose their structure and
their policies on all the other Communist parties. The Comintern’s 21
points to which every party had to adhere is but one example. Moreover,
the Comintern kept very close watch and control on what each party was
doing. And woe to the party that did not accept that control.
This domination and direction continued even
after Stalin abolished the Comintern and was no longer on the scene. And
it was done not only via the party structure but with the help of the
secret police and intelligence services, the GPU, the NKVD and the KGB.
Especially in the post-war socialist countries: Poland, East Germany,
Hungary, Bulgaria and for a time Yugoslavia and Romania. One only has to
recall the Rajk trial in Hungary and the Slansky trial in
Czechoslovakia. And, of course, the later events in both those
Incidentally, not many of you know it perhaps,
but a few years ago, the Putin government sold all the Comintern files
and those that relate to the Canadian Communist Party were bought by
the National Archives in Ottawa. I’ve been told by some of those who
have had a chance to see them that they bear out the facts I have cited
and much more.
Seven decades after the October Revolution, the
Soviet regime finally disintegrated. Regrettably, because of its many
flaws and errors – and the capitalist media’s success in exploiting them
– the name and concept of socialism has been unjustly and unfairly
besmirched and denigrated for millions throughout the world for a long
time to come.
But the need for socialism has never been greater
or more urgent. Marx and Engels’ analysis of capitalism and the nature
of the class struggle still holds true As does their prescient thesis
that capitalism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.
Today, more people than ever throughout the world
are turned off by capitalism. Because of this, of one thing I am
certain: before too long, coming generations will challenge the rule of
capitalism and will seek to replace it with a more equitable, more just
society, the kind of society Marx and Engels envisaged. It won’t be in
the way that some of us older advocates thought it would be done but one
hopes that, thanks in part to the lessons learned after 1917, they will
The vision that inspired the revolutionaries in
1917 and the goals millions of Soviet people worked and fought for in
the decades that followed – often in spite of their leaders –
will be attained one day. Not in my lifetime, maybe not even in yours,
but for sure – and sooner rather than later – by those who come after