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The Western Left and the Russian Revolution

Postcard depicting heroes of the October revolution in Petrograd

Postcard depicting heroes of the October revolution in Petrograd. Top row: L. D. Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, A. V. Lunacharskii, M. A. Spiridonova; bottom row: A. M. Kollontai, F. F. Ras- kolnikov, L. B. Kamenev, and G. I. Zinoviev. Lockhart Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University. (p. 75)

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fool’s Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press, 2002) and Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (CounterPunch, 2015).

V. I. Lenin predicted that revolution in Russia would trigger communist revolution in Germany, which would spread from there throughout the Western industrialized world. This was the Bolshevik leader’s major error of appreciation. In reality, the Bolshevik Revolution marked the start of a century of counterrevolution in the West. Lenin and his fellow Russian exiles imagined revolution as a way of incorporating Russia into the advanced, but henceforth, socialist West. Instead, Russia was alienated as never before. A revolution intended to bring an era of world peace ushered in a period of bitter conflict and war.

Isolated in a backward nation, Bolshevik leaders held onto power by repressive measures that largely defined the Soviet Union in the eyes of the West, blacking out any recognition of the revolution’s positive achievements.

Since the moment the Bolsheviks took power, the revolution’s true meaning and legacy have been misunderstood on all sides. Theoretically, in Marxist terms, the proletariat, motivated by its objective material interests, would create a fundamental social reorganization, leading to a classless society. The classic model was the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the nobility. This comparison was wishful thinking, if only because the so-called bourgeoisie throughout civilized history had always been a partner in the ruling class. Despite the momentary success of the soviets (councils), power was never seized by the proletariat, but by intellectuals acting in its name, mobilizing the working class to achieve rapid industrialization. The extensive appropriations and debt defaults involved in creating a national economy enraged Western capitalists and shareholders, but their implacable hostility was linked also to the fear generated by communist ideology, which was far from descriptive of the Soviet reality. The ideological superstructure is a vastly greater political motivating factor than the conscious self-interest of capitalists, but as a matter of fact, there were always capitalists who did business with the Soviet Union, quite oblivious to the taboos propagated by the political superstructure. Capitalism is a system, not an ideology. It can live with various ideologies.

Portrayed in the West as a sort of hell on earth, the image of Communist Russia served for a century to idealize the capitalist West, excuse its faults, and provide a pretext for its crimes of aggression. A persistent aspect of this counterrevolution was the identification of “freedom” with capitalism.

For a century, the counterrevolution has arguably been the most determining ideological factor in Western politics, even as it has shifted drastically from one form to another. A century after the Russian Revolution, the victory of the counterrevolution is complete. But Western powers still need their inherited antithesis, in changing form, as self-justification. Quite varying forms of counterrevolutionary ideology can be enumerated.

Conservative Reaction

Simple conservative reaction, nostalgic for the prerevolutionary past, such as predominated in the opposition to the French Revolution, was relatively insignificant in a period when the established order had been shaken to the core by the slaughter of the First World War. In Russia itself, it was defeated in the Civil War. The influence of the conservative aristocratic emigration was mitigated by fatalism and lingering Russian patriotism, and had less political impact in the West than that of disappointed revolutionaries, whose anger over a confiscated future had more resonance than tsarist nostalgia.

In the West, the Catholic Church played a significant role in the conservative counterrevolution, and was the leading ideological force behind Francisco Franco and António de Oliveira Salazar. The Spanish Civil War was the sole occasion where the Soviet Union actively intervened against the counterrevolution in the West. It is significant that this intervention took place in defense of an existing government—that is, with a respect for the status quo that remains characteristic of Moscow foreign policy to this day.

In the United States, reaction against the Bolshevik Revolution represented a continuation of violent repression of worker struggles in the late nineteenth century, which had taken on a nationalist coloration with the persecution of socialists during the First World War—many of them of German origin, stigmatized as “agents of the Kaiser.” In his war message, President Woodrow Wilson specifically cast suspicion on the loyalty of the “millions of men and women of German birth” living in the United States. Socialist leader Eugene Debs, though not German, was sentenced to ten years in prison for opposing U.S. participation in the war.

In the subsequent Red Scare, the Palmer raids targeted Russian and other recent immigrants. The second anniversary of the revolution on November 7, 1919, was the occasion for violent raids against the Union of Russian Workers. In a nation with such a large proportion of immigrant labor, the reaction readily identified communists as “agents of a foreign power.” Social radicalism could be denounced as a threat to a vague “Americanism,” a notion that the repression helped to forge. The fact that Bolsheviks actually took state power in a great nation and thereupon founded the Third International and pledged to carry out revolution everywhere, inevitably led hostile governments to condemn communism as a form of “treason” on behalf of a foreign power.

In Europe, the conservative reaction was rooted in older traditions, with very contrasting attitudes, including a bourgeoisie and a working class both largely conscious of their respective interests, as well as a certain anti-bourgeois aristocratic attitude capable of mixed feelings toward liberal bourgeois domination.

In the United States, anti-communism helped to define and strengthen “Americanism” as a negative nationalism, supported by Christian fear of “atheistic communism,” with its supposed origins in European depravity. These ideas held over even into the depressed 1930s, when the Communist Party USA enjoyed significant influence in the labor movement and the struggle for black rights. This narrow nationalism has helped keep class consciousness in the United States a nearly exclusive upper-class trait.

Fascism: The Counter-mobilization of the Masses

The catastrophe of the Great War plunged leading European conservative thinkers—exemplified by Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valéry, and Oswald Spengler—into a deep pessimism toward the future of Western civilization. The counterrevolution in Europe was in part a reaction to this pessimistic fatalism by resolute imposition of a collective strong will.

Contrary to the uncomplicated repression of “alien communism” in the United States in the name of “traditional values,” fascism was a genuine counterrevolution, a new “religion,” according to one of its founders, Benito Mussolini. But fascism was most directly opposed to Bolshevism, because both were militant mass movements led by dogmatic single parties.

The fascist reaction can be seen as an effort to counter the decline of the West by mobilizing the masses to reinvigorate a capitalism that war had brought into greater symbiosis with the state. While Bolshevism mobilized the masses to build an industrial society practically from scratch, fascism set out to save capitalism from its own weaknesses. The fear of expropriation incited capitalists to accept fascism, as it seemed to promise efficient capitalist development without class conflict.

For Mussolini, violence was not only utilitarian but philosophical as well, a necessary display of vigor. The use of violence, especially of organized militias, to repress opponents is a fundamental element of fascism. Today, the term “fascist” is thrown around freely as an all-purpose invective. But it is not applicable without these two elements: an ideological appeal to mass mobilization, and the use of violence for political ends. It is scarcely appropriate in today’s ultra-individualistic society, where the only “mass” to be found is in mass media and its rule by image.

While Italian fascism was largely theatrical, the German National Socialist version of fascism focused seriously on destroying Bolshevism, the Soviet Union, and the Jews, identified as responsible for all Germany’s ills. Here too, capitalism was fostered, but submitted to state control. Thanks to the success of the Nazi blitzkrieg against Western nations, the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union eventually forced the liberal Western propaganda campaign into a temporary truce with the Communist enemy, as the West was obliged to ally with the Red Army in self-defense. Ironically, this interlude led to a new phase of hostility after the war, under the rubric of “totalitarianism,” which equated Joseph Stalin with Adolf Hitler and communism with fascism, leading to an even more virulent anti-communism than before.

Trotskyism and the Permanent Counterrevolution

In the West, Trotskyism has played a major ideological role, especially in France and, in different forms, in the United States. The influence of Trotskyism is paradoxical in many ways. The main contradiction is that the followers of Leon Trotsky, the champion of “permanent revolution,” ended up being considered less dangerous by Western governments than the Stalinists, whom Trotsky condemned for abandoning world revolution in favor of “socialism in one country.” In retrospect, one may say that both Stalin and Trotsky were wrong as to what was possible, but Stalin was, in his brutal way, the more realistic of the two. Despite their relative ideological conservatism, the Stalinist parties of the Third International had more success abroad than their Trotskyist rivals, both in promoting national liberation struggles in the third world and in winning social benefits in the West.

With their doctrine of permanent revolution, Trotskyist groups eagerly supported third world revolutions, despite their links to the “failed” Russian Revolution, until they too “failed.” Most Trotskyist groups have fallen victim to the sectarian self-righteousness that has contributed to transforming large sections of the current Western left into powerless moralizers.

The “Failed Revolution” Narrative

A century later, it is still hard to view the Russian Revolution outside the ideological framework of either its champions or its adversaries. The fact that the revolution did not prove to be the first step toward the establishment of a true socialist society, founded on freedom and equality, does not mean that it was “betrayed.” Rather, history had its own dynamic, one that undermined the revolution’s aims and ideals. The failure to live up to ideal expectations simply means that the revolution turned out to be something else, which indeed had socialist aspects, but was neither communism nor “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Russian Revolution was led by intellectuals all the way, and the transformation they carried out was primarily an industrial one, which led to extraordinary advances in public education and science, but had the corresponding faults of ideological rigidity and bureaucracy. In a predominantly peasant country, modernization was forced by repression, and the reigning dogmatism tended to attribute incompetence to deliberate sabotage—just as enemies of the revolution attributed incompetence to evil intent. The leadership’s paranoid tendencies were aggravated by the unremitting hostility of Western governments, contributing to what Jean Bricmont calls “the barricade effect”: the tendency to become still more defensive, closed, and suspicious, as well as repressive of internal dissent, identified with the foreign enemy.1

It has become dogma to denigrate Western Communists (“Stalinists”) for their blind faith in the Soviet revolution. They are widely dismissed as useful idiots who helped uphold a tyrannical system of oppression. But both its enthusiastic admirers and its mortal enemies distorted the truth of the Russian Revolution. The errors of interpretation of its enemies do not encounter the same condemnation as those of its ardent supporters.

Fear in the West was exacerbated by misapprehension of the notion of “world revolution” in terms of military conquest. The facts indicated the exact opposite. The first international steps of the Bolshevik regime were to give up territory in their haste to make peace. The Bolsheviks never planned to export revolution by force. Rather, at first, they nursed the expectation that the West would come to them, thanks to the revolutionary action of the Western working classes. Western leaders and intellectuals preferred to interpret revolutionary rhetoric as the harbinger of physical attack, by violent subversion or even invasion. This confusion was exacerbated by illusions on all sides. In the United States, much was made of the expression “overthrow of the government by force and violence”—which never had the remotest relevance to reality.

The revolution took place in a vast, economically backward nation emerging from a lost war. The Bolshevik Revolution was a major social experiment in a country that needed one. Mass education, social welfare measures, and advancement of women were accomplishments that should be appreciated even by today’s uncertain standards. A realistic observer, such as Bertrand Russell, could distinguish the positive from the negative, and offer constructive criticism. But the West split between uncritical devotees (an isolated minority) and official demonization of Bolshevism as inherently evil and, moreover, a military and ideological threat to the West.2

If it could not provide a model for Western socialism, the Soviet Union did indeed serve as a model for third world countries, especially in East Asia. For intellectuals like Ho Chi Minh, the search for the secret of Western power led ultimately to Marxism and the Soviet Union. And indeed, in Vietnam, communism represented at once a form of Westernization and a recovery of the nation’s independence—something the West was unable to grasp.

Regarding a reunited Vietnam, as with the Soviet Union, enthusiasts who had become perfectionists turned into adversaries of the revolution when it failed to meet their expectations. Later, under the banner of “human rights,” they transferred this hostility not only to Vietnam, but toward all third world governments that had emerged from liberation struggles, often with Communist support or aspirations.

Especially in France, the critical stance toward “the Revolution that failed” has never ceased to appeal to intellectuals for whom it preserved their ideals from the hard test of reality. It continues to nourish sectarian condemnation of rival leftists and notably of “dictators” denounced by the United States, at times leading to unnatural de facto alliance between former revolutionaries and U.S. military aggression.

The Trotskyist stance, criticizing the revolution for not being revolutionary enough, provided a radical leftist basis for the human rights ideology that has become a quasi-religion in the West. This ultra-left attitude contributed to the drastic reversal of positions within the left following the end of the Vietnamese liberation struggle, which had been enthusiastically supported by left forces throughout the world, notably in the West.

The French public relations campaign in support of Vietnamese “boat people” marks the start of this transition. The exemplary struggle was that of Vietnam, which had become the ideal. Moreover, the victory of Hanoi led to “re-education” rather than the massive bloodbath predicted by Western imperialists. It was the plight of the “boat people” that initiated the Western “disappointment” with Vietnam. In France, a significant number of May ’68 “revolutionaries” re-educated themselves as they pursued successful careers in the media and academia, spreading their disillusionment toward the revolutions they had once celebrated.

One ironic effect of the Trotskyist critique has not been to promote the permanent revolution, but rather to advocate the permanent counterrevolution, in one form or another. By far the strangest example of this metamorphosis is provided by a small but extraordinarily influential American cohort of prewar Trotskyists whose hostility toward Stalinism reached fever pitch in reaction to mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, after their revolutionary ideal had shifted to Israel. After successfully campaigning to press the United States to punish the USSR for restricting educated Jewish emigration to Israel, these activists transformed themselves into the “neoconservatives” who today dominate U.S. foreign policy. All that remains of their Trotskyism is devotion to the idea of “permanent revolution”—the permanent revolution of neoliberalism under the banner of human rights. In short, the permanent counterrevolution.

Human Rights against Revolution

After its defeat in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with China, the United States engaged in a major ideological shift. In the early 1970s, the United States used the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to redefine its enemy. Under the cover of détente with Moscow, this East-West conference agreed on measures supposedly designed to promote lasting peace. The Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975, endorsed the inviolability of frontiers, territorial integrity of states, and non-intervention in internal affairs of other states (measures designed to reassure Moscow, still fearful of German revanchism). However, that last principle was subtly challenged by Washington’s new cherished “value”: respect for human rights. While seemingly affirming the status quo, this initiated a new phase of indirect U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other nations, no longer in the name of anti-communism, but rather as defense of human rights. In 1978, the Helsinki Watch group was founded to monitor human rights in Soviet bloc countries. Ten years later, Helsinki Watch evolved into Human Rights Watch, whose watchfulness continues to focus on countries where the United States is likely to favor regime change.

This was a major reversal. From now on, instead of accusing Moscow of sponsoring “subversion” of Western democracies, the United States itself instead turned to subversion of governments accused of “violating human rights.” In practice, NATO intervention in Yugoslavia twenty years later proved that the “human rights” principle could be and was used to destroy territorial integrity of existing states.

Social Democracy: The Dependent Rival

The relationship between Soviet Communism and Western social democracy is particularly contradictory. In the postwar period of Western recovery and prosperity, social democrats had cause for great satisfaction at the improvement of workers’ conditions, for which they took most of the credit. It was commonplace among European social democrats to wish for the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave a bad reputation to “socialism.” Without the Soviet Union, they maintained, the march toward real socialism in the West could accelerate and triumph.

Precisely the opposite occurred. The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to the erosion of Western social democracy and the triumph, material and ideological, of the ruthless reign of finance capitalism and its partner, militarism. It is clear in retrospect that, favored by the boom of postwar reconstruction, Europe’s triumphant social democracy was also a minor element in the counterrevolution, in that it served to draw the working class away from more revolutionary parties inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Counterrevolution Survives the Revolution

Meanwhile, on the pretext of “defense” against an imaginary “Communist threat,” the U.S. economic substructure and ideological superstructure were totally subject to the demands of a ubiquitous military-industrial complex. The specter of Communism allowed U.S. financial capitalism to feed indefinitely off the government-insured profits of a gluttonous arms industry. This capitalist counterrevolution grew into such an independent monstrosity that it no longer needed its original enemy. It can be used to redesign the Middle East, on the grounds of fighting terrorism, or to destroy whole countries on the pretext of the “responsibility to protect.” Identifying “violations of human rights” as the enemy is a more versatile ploy than anticommunism, applicable almost anywhere, with the help of complacent mass media ready to arouse public indignation over the latest timely outrage.

The cause of human rights has been central in morally disarming the left and turning its attention from the struggle for economic equality to individual freedoms. It goes without saying that any social revolution will violate the established “rights” of the dominant classes, and thus human rights is a permanently counterrevolutionary doctrine.

At present we are in a phase where the counterrevolution is heavily armed against a revolution that can scarcely be said to exist. The irony of the human rights doctrine is particularly evident in the anti-Russian propaganda of recent years. The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a revival of traditional conservatism in Russia, including respect for religion and “family values.” The United States counterrevolution has thus gone full circle. The “enemy” today is what “anti-communism” claimed to defend yesterday.

Today one can say that the revolution has been defeated, but the counterrevolution has gone insane. It is reduced to a will to destroy any possible eventual adversary, inventing moral pretexts as it goes along. It has become institutionalized paranoia, a mortal danger to human civilization.


  1. Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007).
  2. Bertrand Russell,The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, third ed. (Nottingham, UK: Spokesman, 1995).
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