Seeing all the faces of the Russian Revolution

July 20, 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, reviews a worthwhile contribution to a spate of new books timed to coincide with the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

ONCE UPON a time, the small but vibrant Russian working class, in partnership with a vast, impoverished peasantry and war-weary soldiers, rose up against a viciously tyrannical monarchy. Overthrowing the Tsar of the Russian Empire, they continued to surge forward, and an inept Provisional Government was swept aside in the name of socialist revolution. This second revolution was led by a left-wing socialist faction known as the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Power was supposed to end up in the hands of the laboring majority's democratic councils (the soviets), although amid foreign invasions and a brutalizing civil war, a dictatorship of the Bolsheviks (renamed the Russian Communist Party) emerged instead. After Lenin's untimely death, Joseph Stalin fought his way to power, modernizing the former Russian Empire while--still waving the red flag of revolution--he consolidated an extreme authoritarian order.

In this 100th anniversary year of the Russian Revolution of 1917, there has been a surge of books to explain what happened.

Factory workers in Petrograd pose for a photograph after an organizing meeting
Factory workers in Petrograd pose for a photograph after an organizing meeting (Viktor Bulla)

Among works of high quality from the revolutionary left, first out of the gate was the introductory collection edited by Fred Leplat and Alex de Jonge, October 1917: Workers in Power, followed closely by China Miéville's October, Neil Faulkner's A People's History of the Russian Revolution, and Tariq Ali's Lenin's Dilemma, with other valuable contributions pushing forward as one month follows the next.[1]

There are also accumulating contributions by established academics, definitely not Bolshevik partisans, reaching for an objective account and scholarly evaluation of what happened. Steven A. Smith has written one of the best of these: Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928.

Smith, currently at Oxford University, was part of an insurgency of young social historians from the late 1960s through the 1980s that powerfully impacted on the common understanding of the Russian Revolution--challenging the dominant anti-Communist narrative of the Cold War era.

Smith's Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories was a celebration of "history from below," seeing 1917 as a heroic uprising of the workers and the oppressed. It was among the best of the contributions that added layers of exciting new research and an ocean of meaty footnotes to the story told in John Reed's old classic Ten Days That Shook the World.

Yet with the passage of time, the collapse of Communism and the conservative/neoliberal resurgence (as well as further research and reflection), Smith and others in that cohort shifted away from the earlier enthusiasm. The tone became more reserved, more critical--which is certainly the case with this new volume.

RUSSIA IN Revolution is a remarkably rich and clearly written synthesis that takes into consideration multiple strands of research. It combines economic history, intellectual history, political-institutional history, diplomatic history, military history, cultural history--without losing the attentiveness to the lives and struggles of the laboring majorities, workers and peasants, always so distinctive in the contributions of Smith and his once-young "social history" colleagues. There is much that can be learned here by any serious-minded reader.

Especially for so complex and contentious a topic, this can hardly be the "final word"--it is a reflection of the current state of scholarly understanding (and of Smith's understanding) about the meaning of what happened leading up to the 1917 revolution and about what happened in its wake. For someone more inclined to embrace the Bolshevik triumph than is Smith, assuming such a person aspires to be true to Marx (who intoned: "doubt everything"), this honestly written work is an especially valuable contribution.

Naturally, the honesty of a scholar by no means guarantees accuracy--and one can find, here and there, the mistakes that inevitably creep into any serious work that covers so much ground (for example, citing the year of the Paris Commune as 1870 instead of 1871).

There is also the matter of how one organizes one's material when there is so much material to present. Sometimes, there can be a blunting of interrelationships and interplay between one set of issues put forward in one chapter with those set forward in another chapter.

To record the diminishing democracy in the early Bolshevik regime in one chapter, and to record the horrific circumstances besetting the embattled Soviet Republic in a different chapter, can--for example--cut across one's understanding of the dynamically evolving history, even if one finally draws the diverse threads together, as Smith does, in a nicely drawn concluding chapter.

Complex, contradictory currents and countercurrents must certainly be revealed in any serious exploration of such broad swathes of historical and social reality as reflected in Smith's study. A writer can assert that the glass is half full--and yet this can be overshadowed, in the next breath, by a stress on the other half of the story: emptiness.

The reader's perceptions are more than once tilted in a negative direction in this narrative simply by Smith's decision to start with positive accomplishments that are then offset by negative limitations. Someone inclined to make the case for Bolshevism would naturally reverse the order--a negative limitation being offset by the positive accomplishment.

But one senses that Smith does not intend in any way to distort the picture. He is vibrantly alert to the "mixed" nature of reality.

He usefully gives a sense of controversies among historians over various aspects of the institutional dynamics of the Tsarist system and of growing industrial capitalism, over the lived experience of the impoverished peasant majority (and the extent of their impoverishment), over the variety of orientations within the growing working class and labor movement, over the nature and depth of the crises impacting on all of this.

Essential points are illustrated with bits of data, brief quotes, an occasional anecdote, an apt generalization--sometimes with tastes of conflicting evidence to highlight a complexity or controversy. Some of the ways of understanding the Bolshevik Revolution, its sources and outcomes, are still in play and have yet to be settled--a fact the attentive reader will grasp from what the author presents.

Unfortunately, less attentive readers may assume that the succinct summarizations tell us all we need to know. But we don't know all that we need to--some judgments can only be tentative, more work needs to be done, as Smith himself would surely emphasize.

SMITH IS at his best as a social historian, and he expertly traces the shape and experience of, and the decisive activity within, the working class and peasantry, and how these connected with the popular insurgencies of 1917. He provides essential statistics and a vibrant sense of the internal diversity within each of these substantial social classes.

There is considerable nuance in his account. For example, he emphasizes that long-term trends suggest that the overall quality of life of workers and peasants was not getting worse but, in fact, improving.

What the long-term improvement looked like, however, in the actual experience of the masses of people involved: a) dramatic variation depending on specific occupation or geographical location; b) continuing injustice and oppression at the heart of the lives of the majority of people; and c) dramatic fluctuations flowing from a variety of factors (policy shifts in the government's modernization efforts, famines imposed by shifts in the weather, ups and downs in the global capitalist economy, the explosion of imperialist war, and so on).

Smith goes on to connect all of this to the developing consciousness (class consciousness, revolutionary consciousness) and the consequent self-activity of insurgent masses.

Needless to say, all of "the masses" neither think the same way nor do the same things, a fact that Smith also conveys. Nor in any insurgency or revolution, including this one, do all of the people or even a majority of the people take action.

Certain broad layers, connected with and supported by majorities, do sometimes play such a vanguard role--active in factory committees or peasant communes or red militias and other formations. These, in turn, are influenced (sometimes decisively) by ideologically and organizationally cohesive groups capable of providing the analysis, plan of action and practical skills that are essential for any successful insurgency.

Smith recognizes this and gives attention to such matters. In some of what he has to say, there seem to me to be weaknesses--but there are also valuable insights. Both can have implications, not simply for how we understand what happened a hundred years back, but also for how those of us engaged in the struggle for a better world might understand how we can make things happen in our own time.

THE REVOLUTIONARY opposition to the Tsarist system can be largely summed up with the letters KD, SR, SD.

The first, Constitutional Democrats (Kadets--pro-capitalist liberals), true to form, compromised themselves terribly, over and over and over. The Socialist Revolutionaries (populist-socialists) focused on the peasant majority and utilized individual terrorism to inspire resistance.

The openly Marxist Social Democrats (dedicated to building a working-class movement) divided into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, largely over whether to ally with pro-capitalist liberals against Tsarism, or to build an uncompromising worker-peasant alliance, as Lenin insisted.

One finds in this account strikingly clear expression of the author's very mixed feelings regarding Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The Bolshevik leader, we are told, had "contempt for liberalism and democracy (and indeed for socialists who valued those things)." This is certainly true of Lenin's attitude toward liberalism, with its essential acceptance of capitalism and its willingness to promote compromised and distorted variants of "democracy." But it is hardly the case, despite Smith's assertion to the contrary, that Lenin's Menshevik rivals in the socialist movement were "more committed to democracy" or that Lenin cultivated "authoritarian habits of thought and action."

This is contradicted by Lenin's own writings (for example, those gathered in the 2008 anthology Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of V.I. Lenin), as well as observations from intimates, such as Nadezhda Krupskaya, and an array of knowledgeable scholars: Pierre Broué, E. H. Carr, Tony Cliff, Isaac Deutscher, C.L.R. James, Tamás Krausz, Moshe Lewin, Marcel Liebman, Lars Lih, Ernest Mandel, August Nimtz, Alan Shandro, Robert C. Tucker.

Pretty much ignoring all of this, Smith (in unfortunate conformity to what Lars Lih once castigated as "the textbook version") informs his readers that "the Bolshevik ethos had always been characterized by ruthlessness, determination, authoritarianism, and class hatred"--which is no more true of Lenin than of Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky (pre-1910), Rosa Luxemburg, or Lenin's Menshevik rivals.

It is interesting that Smith also partially breaks free from this "textbook version." He repeats the standard misrepresentation (demolished by Lars Lih's massive Lenin Rediscovered) in a passing reference to "the tightly knit conspiratorial party conceived by Lenin in 1903."

Immediately following the misrepresentation comes his assertion that the Bolshevik party of 1917 was qualitatively different from this: "Alongside cadres who had endured years of hardship, tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, and sailors flooded into the party after February, knowing little of Marx but seeing in the Bolsheviks the most implacable defenders of the interests of the common people."

IN MORE than one passage, Smith impresses us with the Bolsheviks' effectiveness in winning a mass following in 1917: "Arguably, far more important in winning the party popular support in 1917 was not so much its organizational discipline, or even its ideological unity, but its ability to talk a language that ordinary people understood, and to rearticulate in terms of class struggle and socialism their very urgent and desperate concerns."

The Bolshevik Central Committee in the wake of the 1917 revolution, we are told, "was dominated by an oligarchy consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin and Bukharin"--which meant that Lenin was obviously "tolerant" of (and shared leadership with) an array of strong personalities whom Smith himself demonstrates had sharply disagreed with Lenin at various points.

He accurately notes that in this leadership team (not actually an "oligarchy" in the literal sense), "Lenin was first among equals." He attributes this not to "ruthlessness" or "authoritarianism," but rather to that fact that Lenin "enjoyed towering moral authority and it was his extraordinary talent as a political leader, in particular his ability to balance intransigence with compromise, that held the oligarchy together."

In his concluding chapter, as he sums up his understanding of what happened, Smith offers remarkable assessments of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 that are worth quoting at length. First Lenin:

Upon his return to Russia in April 1917, after a decade-long absence, Lenin's brilliant political instincts, in particularly his deep distrust of Russian liberals and his passionate belief that the [First World] War signaled a global crisis of capitalism, helped him size up the various political forces in a trenchant and perspicacious fashion. Against the leaders of his own party, he insisted that there must be implacable opposition to the imperialist war and to the new government of "capitalists and landowners." He recognized the deep unpopularity of the war and the likelihood that the masses would turn against the Provisional Government once its inability or unwillingness to tackle their grievances became apparent.

This is matched by Smith's re-emphasizing that "the Bolshevik party proved effective not because of its disciplined character, but because its activists, armed with slogans and a newspaper, campaigned relentlessly in the soviets, factory committees, trade unions, and soldiers' committees." He elaborates:

The vision that the Bolsheviks upheld in October was one of a socialist society rooted in soviet power, workers' control, abolition of the standing army, and far-reaching democratic rights, leading in the longer term to an international workers' revolution, the complete abolition of capitalism, and the reduction of the powers of the state to ones of simple administration.

More than this, there was "its promise to abolish inequality and exploitation, its rejection of the war as imperialist, its belief in the equality of people regardless of class, race, or gender, its promise to dismantle the bureaucratic state and place power in the hands of local soviets."

YET THE profoundly democratic vision of the Bolshevik Revolution was quickly compromised. Or as Smith observes, "the exigencies of fighting a bitter civil war and of coping with an unprecedented collapse of social and economic life quickly sobered up the new Soviet government. Rival socialist parties, civil liberties, and the abolition of the death penalty were early casualties of Bolshevik determination to hold on to power."

Tragically, "the idea of the working class as the agent of socialist revolution gave way gradually to the idea of the party and the Red Army as guarantors of the workers' state." This seems a rebuttal, however, of his earlier expressed notion that Lenin and the Bolsheviks started off as authoritarians contemptuous of democracy.

Instead, it was after 1917 that "this culture of authoritarianism soon made itself felt" within the Bolshevik party.

He quotes the 1920 complaint by the knowledgeable veteran Bolshevik M.S. Olminskii that--rather than understanding authoritarian measures as dictated by the emergency of war--"many of our comrades understand the destruction of all democracy as the last word in communism, as real communism." The emergency involved a combination of multination military intervention and economic blockade with massive aid to counterrevolutionary military forces inside Russia, all dedicated to crushing the revolution.

Smith points out that "as the civil war intensified, what began mainly as pragmatic restriction on the opposition parties [including Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and anarchists] hardened into a principled rejection of the right of 'petty-bourgeois' parties to exist at all." He traces "the dramatic fall in representation of the opposition parties in the soviets: from 14.2 percent in 1918 to 0.2 percent in 1920, to their total disappearance by 1922."

This and accompanying developments constituted a disastrous defeat for the vibrant soviet democracy that Lenin and his comrades had called for, and that millions of "ordinary Russians" reached for in 1917.

Smith throws into uncompromising relief the extremely authoritarian policies and rationalization that Lenin advanced amid the chaos and violence of the crises of 1918-1921. "In other words," he writes, "Lenin must bear considerable responsibility for the institutions and culture that allowed Stalin to come to power."

At the same time, however, he argues "we can be confident" that--after Lenin's death--Stalin's rivals Trotsky and Bukharin "would not have unleashed anything like the violent collectivization or Great Terror that soon ensued" after Stalin took power.

"If continuities between Leninism and Stalinism were real," he asserts, "the 'revolution from above' [that Stalin initiated at the end of the 1920s] also introduced real dis-continuity, wreaking havoc upon Soviet society. In bringing about what he called the 'Great Break,' Stalin believed he was advancing the cause of socialism, yet whether Lenin would have recognized the regime he brought into being as socialist is very doubtful."

IN FACT, as Russia in Revolution documents, Lenin led a dramatic shift away from the regimentation and repression of the "war communism" which had alienated a majority of the workers and peasants during the civil war years.

Despite this alienation from the Bolshevik regime, Smith indicates, when push came to shove a majority of the people preferred the regime to the even more violent and vicious forces of counter-revolution (which is why the Reds could win the civil war against the Whites). But this hardly provided a durable basis for the revolutionary government--which is why Lenin and his comrades sought to revive the economic and social and cultural life of the country with a New Economic Policy (NEP).

The Bolsheviks understood that the democracy, abundance and freedom at the heart of the socialist vision could not be realized in a single backward "oasis" within the global capitalist economy. This is why they established the Communist International that could generate revolutions in order to bring more countries--especially advanced industrial countries--into the socialist orbit.

In the meantime, under NEP, there was to be a "mixed economy" that blended socialist-inspired nationalized enterprises and broad social welfare programs with a significant amount of capitalist small enterprise and market relations. This got the economy going again--despite serious contradictions--and generated improved living conditions and growing satisfaction (and supportiveness to the regime) among peasants and workers alike.

While the Communist Party's political monopoly was kept in place, the NEP years (1921-1928) saw the growth of significant opportunities to express critical and diverse opinions. The power and dominance of the Communist Party, which sometimes moved in repressive directions (that some prominent Communists initiated and others opposed), did not obliterate a meaningful degree of intellectual freedom.

"A paradox of NEP was that the 'retreat' forced on the Bolsheviks by civil war devastation and economic backwardness and the apparent turn towards pragmatic gradualism was compensated for by bold imaginings and anticipations of the communist future," Smith points out.

There was a diverse and flourishing artistic avant-garde "which had emerged around 1908, [and] was driven by a desire to destroy old aesthetic norms and convinced that art had the power to transform 'life,' which it identified with the utopian possibilities opened up by the Revolution."

Lenin himself preferred the old aesthetic norms--yet what Smith dubs his "intolerance of 'absurd and perverted' avant-garde art" was counterbalanced by Lenin's unwavering support for Anatoly Lunacharsky in the influential position of Commissar of Enlightenment, and Lunacharsky, in turn, unwaveringly "defended the principle of creative freedom for different approaches, including the avant-garde."

In stark contrast, "Stalin presided over the consolidation of economic and social hierarchies, the reconfiguration of patriarchal authority, the resurgence of a certain Russian chauvinism, the rejection of artistic experimentation in favor of a stifling conformism, the snuffing out of virtually all progressive experiments in social welfare and new ways of living of the 1920s," not to mention "the personal dictatorship, the unrestrained use of force, the cult of power, paranoia about encirclement and internal wreckers, and spiraling of terror across an entire society."

Such realities "served to underline the difference between Stalinism and Leninism," with Stalin's reversion to deep cultural and political traditions from earlier Russian history that the Bolsheviks had been seeking to overcome.

Surveying the Stalinist tragedy, Smith concludes:

Yet we shall not understand the Russian Revolution unless we see that for all their many faults, the Bolsheviks were fired by outrage at the exploitation that lay at the heart of capitalism and at the raging nationalism that had led Europe into the carnage of the First World War. Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear, and despair that motivated it: the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society. That is why millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.

He also comments: "In the future the ambition of [the 1917 Revolution's] challenge to capitalism may once again inspire." Indeed.


1. Those coming to my attention include one from the British Socialist Workers Party's publishing house, Dave Sherry's Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed, another from Workers' Liberty, Paul Vernadsky's The Russian Revolution: When Workers Took Power, and (from Australia) Lenin's Interventionist Marxism by the late Tom Freeman. My own somewhat more ambitious contribution, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917-1924, can also be added to the list.

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