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Vol. 74/No. 44      November 22, 2010

1917: First example of
workers taking power
(feature article)
November 7 marks the 93rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution. (October 25 according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at that time.) On this occasion we’re printing excerpts from two speeches by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the communist movement in the United States who fought to defend the revolution’s internationalist and proletarian course advanced by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Cannon was expelled from the Communist Party in the United States in 1928, along with other veteran leaders who opposed the growing Stalinization of the party and international movement. He was a founding leader of the Communist League of America in 1929, which evolved into the Socialist Workers Party in 1938.

The first talk was given in 1923 on the fifth year of the Russian Revolution. At the time Cannon had just returned from an eight-month stay in the Soviet Union. The second is from a talk marking the revolution’s 25th anniversary in November 1942. Both appear in Speeches for Socialism, published by Pathfinder. Copyright © 1969 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


Eyewitness account in 1923

The story of Soviet Russia for the first four years after the revolution was a story of desperate struggle against tremendous odds. The fight of the Russian workers did not end with their victory over the bourgeoisie within Russia. The capitalist class of the entire world came to the aid of Russian capitalism.

The workers’ republic was blockaded and shut off from the world. Counterrevolutionary plots and uprisings inside of Russia were financed and directed from the outside. Mercenary invading armies, backed by world capital, attacked Soviet Russia on all sides. On top of all this came the terrible famine which threatened to deal the final blow.

In those four years Soviet Russia indeed went “through the shadows.” But now, after five years of the revolution, we can tell a brighter story. In 1922 Soviet Russia began to emerge from the shadows and started on the upward track. The long and devastating civil war was at an end and the counterrevolution stamped out. The great famine was conquered. The last of the invading foreign armies—except the Japanese in the Far East—had been driven from Russian soil; and the workers’ government, freed from the terrible strain and necessity of war, was enabled for the first time to turn its efforts and energies to the great constructive task of building a new Russia on the ruins of the old… .

I attended the Fifth All-Russian Trade Union Congress. It is analogous to the national convention of the American Federation of Labor, but it was quite a different-looking delegation than the sleek, fat, overdressed “men of labor” who meet once a year under the chairmanship of [Samuel] Gompers. There were more than a thousand delegates present at this congress; and I saw only one man who appeared to be overweight.

The congress was held in the Moscow Labor Temple, which in the old days was the Nobles’ Club. It is a gorgeous place, with marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and gold-leaf decorations. One could imagine that the “Nobles” had many a good time there in the “good old days.” But, in the words of the comic-strip artist, “Them days is over.” The workers are the ruling class today, and they have taken all the best places for their own purposes.

I saw something at that congress that never yet happened in America. [Gregory] Zinoviev and [Aleksey] Rykov came to the congress to make a report on behalf of the government. I thought how natural it was, in a country ruled by the workers, for the government to report to the trade unions. It is just as natural as it is in America for the government to report to the Chamber of Commerce. The same principle applies. Governments have the habit of reporting to those whom they really represent. The old proverb says, “Tell me whose bread you eat, and I’ll tell you whose song you sing.”

The Soviet government is a labor government and it makes no secret of the fact that it is partial to the working class. It doesn’t pretend to be fair or neutral. They frankly call the government a dictatorship. “It’s just like your own government in America,” they told me, “only it is a dictatorship of a different class… .”

Referring to the fact that wages of the Russian workers had been increased 100 percent during the past year, keeping even pace with the increased production, Zinoviev laid before the congress the program of the Communist Party on the question of wages and production. He said the two must go forward together, hand in hand.

“Every country in the world,” he said, “outside of Russia, has built up its industrial system at the price of an impoverished and exploited working class. The capitalist countries have built a marvelous industrial system; they have erected great structures of steel and stone and cement; they have piled up wealth that staggers calculation. And alongside of all this they have a hungry and impoverished working class which made it all. For all their toil and accomplishments the workers have reaped a harvest of poverty and misery.”

“Russia,” he said, “must not go that way. We are a working-class nation and we must not forget that the interest of the workers must be our first concern, always. We will strain all energies to increase production, but here at the beginning let us lay down an iron rule for our future guidance: that every improvement in industry must bring a corresponding improvement in the living standards of the workers in the industry. We want to build a big industry and we want to build it quickly. But we also want to build a bigger and better human race.”


25th anniversary of Russian Revolution

Marx and Engels lifted the conception of socialism from utopia to science. The Russian Revolution developed scientific socialism from theory into action, and proved several things that before had been abstract generalizations and predictions. The Russian Revolution proved in action that certain things were true beyond all further doubt. The first of these things proved by the revolution was that it is possible for the workers to take power. It is possible for the workers to forge out of their ranks a party that is capable of leading the struggle to victory. And the workers in all countries will everlastingly remember that. Nothing can erase from history that example. Victory of the proletariat is possible—the Russian Revolution in action, in blood and fire, proved that it is so.

We all know that the authentic leaders of the revolution, Lenin, Trotsky, conceived of it not as an end in itself but as a first step, the first stage, in the world revolution that alone could complete what had been started in the Soviet Union. The conditions objectively were already mature in 1917-1919 for such a world revolution, beginning in Europe. What was lacking was the leadership, the party, without which the workers cannot succeed. The leadership of the old party, the social democrats, who had betrayed the workers under the test of war, supported the bourgeoisie in their counterrevolutionary fight against the workers in the period following the war. The young and hastily organized Communist parties, which had been formed in European countries in response to the example of the Russian Revolution, were as yet too weak and too young, too inexperienced, for their historic task.

Thus the revolution, which objectively had every possibility of succeeding on the whole continent of Europe, failed in the postwar years. The workers today have to pay for that failure, and for the consequent isolation of the Soviet Union, with another and even more terrible world war… .

The [Russian] revolution survived, but not without terrible cost. On the basis of the hunger and the scarcity and the backwardness and the isolation arose the reactionary, privileged bureaucracy, personified by Stalin. The crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy are known to everyone present here. They debased the theory which had guided the revolution. They destroyed the party that had made the revolution. They destroyed the soviets and the trade unions as self-acting organisms of the workers. They assassinated a whole generation of the leaders of the revolution. They beheaded the Red Army, and they capped their series of unprecedented crimes against the people by the assassination of the most authentic representative of the revolution—Comrade Trotsky.

But they haven’t, in spite of all that, been able to kill the revolution. There was something there that proved itself to be stronger than all the imperialist powers of the world in the early days, something stronger than the corroding and degenerating bureaucracy… .

The Russian Revolution is in the greatest peril today. We do not delude ourselves about that. We do not deceive ourselves or others with any false optimism about the danger confronting the Soviet Union. We see the situation as it really is. We know that the fate of the Soviet Union hangs in the balance, that it depends now, more than ever, on the world revolution of the proletariat and the colonial masses. But we have faith in the world revolution, and because of that, we retain our hope in the ultimate regeneration of the Soviet Union. We keep undimmed our faith that the world revolution will release humanity from this terrible vise of the war and open up a new stage of progress on the way to the communist future.  
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