Hope in the revolution

March 28, 2017

Paul Le Blanc, a veteran socialist and author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and the forthcoming Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History, spoke last month in London at Houseman's Bookshop as part of the launch for the new book October 1917: Workers in Power--a collection of classic and new essays defending the legitimacy of the October Revolution. In his talk, Le Blanc looks at the writings of several U.S. eyewitnesses to the revolution, including socialist journalist John Reed, and considers the relevance of their experiences today.

AN ARDUOUS voyage in 1917 brought four close friends, idealistic young journalists from the United States, to the shores of Russia. In the midst of an immensely destructive World War, the centuries-old tyranny of monarchist autocracy had been overthrown. The revolutionary process was continuing, and the four wanted to understand what was going on.

The revolution began with International Women's Day rallies on March 8 (February 23, according to the old Tsarist calendar). And they "got out of hand." They sparked momentous insurgencies among the common working people of Petrograd, with the military's rank-and-file refusing to repress the people's uprising and instead joining it. Masses of workers and soldiers (the latter mostly peasants in uniform) organized a growing and increasingly substantial network of democratic councils--the Russian word is soviets--to coordinate their efforts.

In addition to liberty (freedom of speech and organization, equal rights for all, the right of workers to form trade unions, and so on), they demanded peace and bread, also calling for land to the country's impoverished peasant majority.

John Reed
John Reed

In the wake of the monarchy's sudden collapse, conservative, liberal and moderate socialist politicians scurried to form a Provisional Government that would contain the revolutionary process and consider how "best" to address the demands for peace, bread, land.

The most militant faction of the Russian socialist movement--the Bolsheviks (meaning the "majority-ites") led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin--insisted that peace, bread and land would only be achieved by overthrowing the Provisional Government and giving all political power to the soviets. This, they believed, would spark a world process of workers' revolutions that would end war and imperialism, overturning all tyrannies, and bringing a transition from capitalism to socialism.

After several months of intensive activity and experience, the Bolsheviks and their allies won majorities in the soviets and went on to make the second revolution of 1917--a popularly supported insurrection on November 7 (October 25, according to the old calendar).

One of the eyewitnesses, John Reed, cabled the news back to the United States:

The rank and file of the Workmen's, Soldiers' and Peasants' Councils are in control, with Lenin and Trotsky leading. Their program is to give the land to the peasants, to socialize natural resources and industry and for an armistice and democratic peace conference...No one is with the Bolsheviki except the proletariat, but that is solidly with them. All the bourgeoisie and appendages are relentlessly hostile...

THE FIRST of the four friends to get their books out (in October 1918) were Louise Bryant and Bessie Beatty. The freshness of their astute observations and vibrant impressions continue to reward readers 10 decades later.

With Six Months in Red Russia, Louise Bryant is visibly wrestling toward an understanding of the vast and complex swirl of experience. "I who saw the dawn of a new world can only present my fragmentary and scattered evidence to you with a good deal of awe," she tells us. "I feel as one who went forth to gather pebbles and found pearls."

Reaching for generalization, she writes: "The great war could not leave an unchanged world in its wake--certain movements of society were bound to be pushed forward, others retarded...Socialism is here, whether we like it or not--just as woman suffrage is here, and it spreads with the years. In Russia the socialist state is an accomplished fact."

Her friend Bessie Beatty in The Red Heart of Russia writes, "Revolution is the blind protest of the mass against their own ignorant state. It is as important to Time as the first awkward struggle of the amoeba. It is man in the act of making himself."

Obviously still trying to comprehend what she had seen, she muses: "Time will give to the World War, the political revolution, and the social revolution their true values. We cannot do it. We are too close to the facts to see the truth." But she immediately adds: "To have failed to see the hope in the Russian Revolution is to be a blind man looking at the sun rise."

The last of the books to appear (in 1921), Albert Rhys Williams' Through the Russian Revolution, reaches for the interplay of cause and effect, objective and subjective factors:

It was not the revolutionists who made the Russian Revolution...For a century gifted men and women of Russia had been agitated over the cruel oppression of the people. So they became agitators...But the people did not rise...Then came the supreme agitator--Hunger. Hunger, rising out of economic collapse and war, goaded the sluggish masses into action. Moving out against the old worm-eaten structure they brought it down...

The revolutionists, however, had their part. They did not make the Revolution. But they made the Revolution a success. By their efforts they had prepared a body of men and women with minds trained to see facts, with a program to fit the facts and with fighting energy to drive it thru.

The "middle" book--appearing on January 1919--was the one destined to become the classic eyewitness account, John Reed's magnificent Ten Days That Shook the World. A fierce partisan of the Bolsheviks, he quickly joined the world Communist movement that the Bolsheviks established in the same year that his book was published.

But no one of any political persuasion can disagree with this generalization: "No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance."

IN MORE than one sense, these friends continue to reach out to us. Of course, they offer their own lived experience and eyewitness impressions of what happened in one of the great events in human history. But also, while they and all who they knew have long since died, the patterns and dynamics and urgent issues of their own time have in multiple ways continued down through history, to our own time.

The experience, ideas and urgent questions they are wrestling with continue to have resonance and relevance for many of us today, and this will most likely be the case for others tomorrow.

Rex Wade--at the beginning of our own century--has summed up complexities of the Russian Revolution in a manner that deserves to be quoted at length:

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a series of concurrent and overlapping revolutions: the popular revolt against the old regime; the workers' revolution against the hardships of the old industrial and social order; the revolt of the soldiers against the old system of military service and then against the war itself [i.e., against the First World War]; the peasants' revolution for land and for control of their own lives; the striving of middle class elements for civil rights and a constitutional parliamentary system; the revolution of the non-Russian nationalities for rights and self-determination; the revolt of most of the population against the war and its seemingly endless slaughter.

People also struggled over differing cultural visions, over women's rights, between nationalities, for domination within ethnic or religious groups and among and within political parties, and for fulfillment of a multitude of aspirations large and small. These various revolutions and group struggles played out within the general context of political realignments and instability, growing social anarchy, economic collapse, and ongoing world war. They contributed to both the revolution's vitality and the sense of chaos that so often overwhelmed people in 1917.

The revolution of 1917 propelled Russia with blinding speed through liberal, moderate socialist and then radical socialist phases, at the end bringing to power the extreme left wing of Russian, even European, politics. An equally sweeping social revolution accompanied the rapid political movement. And all this occurred within a remarkably compressed time period--less than a year.

THIS POSES multiple questions that deserve attention. By considering these historical questions, we are also touching on the kinds of issues we must wrestle with in our own struggles of today and tomorrow. To narrow this to only a few issues:

1. Given simply the occupational complexity of class and the multiple facets of consciousness related to this, what were the consciousness and the underlying social reality involved in what Wade refers to as "the workers' revolution against the hardships of the old industrial and social order"?

2. What was the interplay of ethnic/national oppression, gender oppression, and class oppression (what some today might refer to as "intersectionality") in the social reality of 1917 Russia?

3. What was the understanding (or what were the different, perhaps divergent, understandings) of such "intersectionality" among the Bolsheviks, and how did this play out, or fail to play out, practically?

The key category for Russian Marxists was, of course, the working class--for practical no less than theoretical reasons. In an early study, Joseph Freeman observes: "The growth of the working class continued so rapidly that between 1897 and 1913 the number of wage-earners in census industries increased 70 percent and in the domestic-craft industries 50 percent."

Rex Wade emphasizes that:

central to the history of the revolution, key players in all stages of its development were the urban, especially industrial workers...The revolution began as a demonstration of industrial workers and they never relinquished their leading role in both political and social revolution in 1917. They represented a potent force for further revolutionary upheaval if their aspirations were not met--as they almost certainly would not be, at least not in full.

The complex nature of the working class and of working-class consciousness has already been suggested. An aspect of this involves occupational differences--typographical workers were often seen as being more moderate, mine workers were often seen as being more militant, skilled workers (such as metal workers) were often seen as more politically advanced than unskilled workers (such as textile workers), the consciousness and mentality of many workers was permeated by earlier experiences in and continuing ties with the peasant village, workers fresh from the countryside were often scorned by seasoned city-dwellers, gaps sometimes tended to open between younger and older generations of workers, and so on.

Wade tells us that "while their own economic, working and personal conditions were their most pressing concern, broader political issues also animated the workers." A thick organizational network--involving trade unions, factory committees, local and district soviets, cultural and self-help groups of various kinds, workers' militia groups, etc.--all were means through which workers sought "to use their newfound freedom and power to obtain a better life for themselves and their families."

He notes that these and other developments "had the effect not only of solidifying working-class identity, but also of broadening the circle of those who identified themselves as workers."

Previously unorganized elements outside of the factories--cab drivers, laundry workers, bathhouse workers, restaurant waiters, bakers, barbers, retail clerks, lower-level white collar workers such as office clerks and elementary school teachers--all now identified themselves as part of the working class, organized unions and sent representatives to the soviets.

THE QUESTION of who is or is not part of the working class, and who self-identifies as a worker, was complex in more than one way. The basic Marxist distinction--a proletarian is someone who sells labor-power to an employer in order to make a living--might, depending on context, be seen as subordinate to whether one has an education (and can be defined in some sense as part of the intelligentsia), and whether one works on a factory floor or someplace more "refined."

Leopold Haimson discusses the example of pharmacy workers during the 1905 revolutionary upsurge, who formed a union--as employees in various workplaces were doing--but then were faced with the issue of whether they, as pharmacists' assistants, should self-identify as "workers" (which would place them with predominantly working-class socialists of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) or as "intelligentsia" (which would place them with professional groups in the "bourgeois liberal" Union of Unions).

Between 1905 and 1917, he notes, various working-class strata "were alternatively drawn to (or indeed torn between) the representations of being class-conscious proletarians" or something other than that, which would have implications for political allegiances.

There was also the matter of how class and class-consciousness intersected with ethnicity or nationality and with gender.

The vast empire of Tsarist Russia had been infamous as "a prison-house of nations," and what came to be known as Great Russian chauvinism combined with the ruling elite's ongoing efforts to squeeze wealth out of subject people's. Ethnic and national divisions in such a situation have the capacity to cut across class in multiple ways, with prejudices and "blind spots" and resentments (not to mention linguistic and other cultural differences) dividing workers and having complex impacts on class-consciousness and class struggle.

Serious mistakes by activists can be made, and were made, in such situations--but also new insights can develop and important corrections can lead to new opportunities. There is much to be learned (and more to be discovered, by scholars no less than activists) about what happened in the revolutionary struggle leading up to 1917, about the role of ethnic and national struggles within the overthrow of Russia's old order, and about the subsequent policies of the new revolutionary regime.

No less complex, and sometimes similarly explosive, was "the woman question." One aspect of the complexity is "intersectionality"--it is problematical to deal with gender abstracted from multiple other identities: is one in a rural or urban context, is one an aristocrat, a peasant, a bourgeois, an "intellectual" white-collar worker, a factory worker, part of one ethnic community or another, and so on.

As with the "national question," there were Marxists--including among the Bolsheviks--who were inclined to take a reductionist and sectarian stand: the future socialist revolution carried out by the working class would bring an end to all bad things, including the oppression of women (or of subjugated nationalities and ethnic groups), and separate struggles against such oppression could divide workers and divert them from the class struggle and the primary task of overthrowing capitalism.

This logic could also be convenient for not creating discomfort among male (or Russian-majority) workers and comrades, and keeping women (or other oppressed groups) "in their place."

Despite such debilitating conservatism, even critical historians generally agree that the Bolsheviks were far more engaged in organizing for women's liberation than other groups on the left, and that Lenin was in advance of many of his comrades in supporting this work. A cautiousness and even prudishness prevented him from endorsing some of the more radical perspectives advanced by Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand.

The fact remains that the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party from the start, following the examples of Marx, Engels, and August Bebel, had, as Barbara Evans Clements puts it, "a good record on women's issues" (the right to vote; equal civil, educational and employment rights; special needs of women in the workplace, including maternity leave and day care for their children) and, "publicly renouncing the sexism that was standard among European politicians in the early 20th century,..allowed its female members to achieve considerable prominence and personal freedom."

It is essential, in understanding the workers' and peasants' uprising of 1917, and of the Bolshevik role, that we not see "worker" and "peasant" and "Bolshevik" as meaning male. This essential and obvious fact shaped much of what happened.

While the Bolsheviks, as Marxists, "stressed the oppression of class over gender, they also recognized that women suffered a double oppression which they believed had its basis in peasant patriarchy as well as in capitalism," Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyer point out. "In addition, the Bolsheviks were forced to pay attention to the woman question, not only by the circumstances of greatly increased numbers of women entering the labor force, especially during the First World War, but also under pressure from some of the female members of their own party."

I WANT to conclude these comments by turning my attention--fleetingly--to the important question of what went wrong. I won't be able to do justice to that here, but the fact that it must be addressed was indicated when Albert Rhys Williams felt compelled to write these words in his 1921 account of the Russian Revolution:

"Repressions, tyranny, violence," cry the enemies. "They have abolished free speech, free press, free assembly. They have imposed drastic military conscription and compulsory labor. They have been incompetent in government, inefficient in industry. They have subordinated the Soviets to the Communist Party. They have lowered their Communist ideals, changed and shifted their program and compromised with the capitalists."

Some of these charges are exaggerated. Many can be explained. But they cannot all be explained away. Friends of the Soviet grieve over them. Their enemies have summoned the world to shudder and protest against them....

Williams added the significant observation: "While abroad hatred against the Bolsheviks as the new 'enemies of civilization' mounted from day to day, these selfsame Bolsheviks were straining to rescue civilization in Russia from total collapse."

Nonetheless, a foretaste of what would become the tragedy of Communism can be found in what Williams had to say. Yet this in no way obliterates the triumph of October 1917, which he and his friends also described, when insurgent masses of men and women made a working-class revolution that shook the world.

This is what we seek to honor with this new book--by providing a resource which insurgent activists can draw from in the struggles of today and tomorrow.

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