Books for Bolsheviks

October 17, 2017

If you've been hesitating on your centenary reading about the Russian Revolution of 1917 because you don't know where to begin, wait no longer. Todd Chretien, the editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution, a newly published collection of firsthand accounts of 1917, provides a readers' guide to some of the most important books to mark the 100th anniversary of the revolution.

"THE HISTORY of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

Leon Trotsky always did know how to set the right tone. Nothing squeamish or apologetic about that sentence from the opening chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution.

Revolution isn't a feeling or a fad. For Marxists, revolution means millions of ordinary workers busting their way into politics, breaking up the old way of doing things and taking power into their own hands, on the road to expropriating the ill-gotten gains of their masters.

Millions of people today are convinced that we must fight for reforms--even socialistic reforms--against capitalism's grotesque distortions of humanity and the existential threat the free market poses to a livable planet. But the notion of socialist revolution--what Marx called the self-emancipation of the working class--seems either a utopia (perhaps unattainable, perhaps even dangerous) or simply too fuzzy to visualize in any meaningful sense.

Workers in the streets of Petrograd to demand an end to the war during the February Revolution
Workers in the streets of Petrograd to demand an end to the war during the February Revolution (Wikimedia Commons)

After all, it's been 100 years since Russian Revolution of 1917, so why should anyone care beyond the curiosity of marking a centenary?

I can give you my answer, but if you want to figure out your own, you'll have to put in a little work. Fortunately, Haymarket Books has delivered the raw materials that you can, by applying your own labor power, transform into surplus knowledge that will fuel your resistance to Trump Inc. for years to come.

Of course, Haymarket has not cornered the market on 1917. China Miéville's October and Tariq Ali's Dilemmas of Lenin from the publisher Verso are brilliant additions to the canon on the Russian Revolution. And there are standards galore from that canon--like John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World and Louise Bryant's Six Months in Red Russia that deserve to be read and reread.

However, Haymarket's catalogue, new and old, offers a wide range of required reading that I want to concentrate on here.

LET'S BEGIN with a few classics from Trotsky. His account of a defeated uprising 12 years before 1917 in the book 1905 drives home the point that the revolution in Russia didn't sneak up on anyone. It was decades in the making, and all thinking people expected a showdown between the Tsar and the people, in one way or another, in the not-too-distant future.

Written from his experience as a 26-year-old participant, Trotsky's recounting of the Great Dress Rehearsal--as 1905 came to be known--demonstrates Marx's dictum that only in a practical movement, in a revolution, can masses of people be won over to socialist consciousness.

If one element of that consciousness is the recognition that the rulers of society will stop at nothing to keep their power, that lesson will be proven in blood. The trick is learning that lesson, preserving the main part of your forces, and living to fight for a different outcome in the next round.

Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution is about 1917, and it remains not only the single most compelling and insightful work on the revolution, but also stands as a masterpiece of literature.

And more than that, it is a full of practical wisdom, without which you can no more understand social revolution than you might play guitar without studying scales or hit a baseball without distinguishing between a fastball and a curve. As with all things in life, politics requires teachers, and Trotsky is near the top of the list in that profession:

Between the moment when an attempt to summon an insurrection must inevitably prove premature and lead to a revolutionary miscarriage, and the moment when a favorable situation must be considered hopelessly missed, there exists a certain period--it may be measured in weeks, and sometimes in a few months--in the course of which an insurrection may be carried out with more or less chance of success.

Sage advice from an old pro. Of course, you have to get 744 pages in for this gem, so I wasn't joking when I said there's some work involved in Haymarket's offerings.

If Trotsky's magnum opus seems daunting, you might consider starting with his Lessons of October, published originally in 1924.

In this no-holds-barred polemic, Trotsky examines 1917 as a series of decisive moments in which different currents within the Bolshevik Party fought over strategy and tactics. In Trotsky's view, the revolution owed its victory to Lenin's wing of the party defeating a wing led by Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, who would eventually become the counterrevolutionary gravedigger of the revolution.

Though ostensibly written as a postmortem of the recently defeated German Revolution and its leaders' failure to correctly apply 1917's lessons, it was the opening shot in what would soon develop into a life-and-death battle with the growing Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. It's a thrilling ride, even if you have to watch out for some of the corners Trotsky cuts to get to the finish line.

ONE BIG reason all this matters so much is that once the working class took power and changed society's priorities from profit for the few to justice for the many, it opened the door to placing the full power of the economy and the state in the service of eradicating oppression.

Cathy Porter's comprehensive Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography gives us a glimpse into the life and work of one of the revolution's leading advocates, organizers and theorists for women's liberation.

Her ideas carried an enormous amount of weight in radical circles while she was a dissident and exiled revolutionary before 1917, but they carried even more after she became the Bolshevik Commissar for Social Welfare after the October revolution. Although crimped by Russia's poverty, Kollontai's groundbreaking initiatives to attack the social and economic roots of gender inequality should raise our sights about what full equality really means.

For a deeper dive into the personalities and nitty-gritty of the daily experience of the revolution, Nadezhda Krupskaya's Reminiscences of Lenin and Kevin Murphy's Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory provide a view from different vantage points.

Krupskaya--Lenin's partner, confidant and Bolshevik comrade--relays anecdotes and experiences from years of underground and exile organizing through to the heady days of taking power. Murphy's brilliant book paints a detailed picture of the ebb and flow of organization and consciousness among some of Russia's most militant workers, laying to rest any notion that the proletariat was a pawn in someone else's game.

And as of today, Haymarket has another contender in the ring, at least in e-book format: Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution, edited by yours truly! The book collects accounts from participants and firsthand observers to tell the story of 1917 from the level of the streets.

A WHOLE series of controversial questions arise from the role played by the Bolshevik Party during the Russian Revolution.

Conservative and liberal historians alike write off the party as a maniacal group of conspirators who always aimed to impose their will over society in opposition to any notion or practice of democracy. But Haymarket's offerings present a radically different picture, explaining how, over the course of 10 years, the Bolshevik Party emerged as a party for, by and of the working class.

Neil Harding's Lenin's Political Thought trashes the Bolsheviks-as-enemies-of-democracy school of thought, proving beyond doubt that Lenin, like Marx before him, believed that the fight against oppression in all its forms and for democratic rights lay at the heart of the struggle for socialism.

Tony Cliff's pioneering multivolume biography of Lenin argues that Marxist principles mean next to nothing if they are not harnessed to an activist organization.

And Paul Le Blanc's Lenin and the Revolutionary Party explains how the party combined a genuinely revolutionary political program with a keen sense for how to involve broad layers of workers in concrete fights for limited reforms in the short term. Rather than these elements being counterposed or understood as opposites, the Bolsheviks showed how--following Rosa Luxemburg's formulation--Marxists fight for reforms as a means to preparing for revolution.

Finally, Alexander Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks Come to Power demonstrates how years of organizing trained the party's activists to withstand repression during the course of 1917 without panicking or losing their heads--literally and figuratively.

While Harding, Cliff and Le Blanc may differ in their emphases on certain points, they generally share a common political understanding of the innovative features that allowed the Bolsheviks to play a uniquely successful role in confronting their portion of European capital.

Although sharing in an appreciation for the Bolshevik's commitment to democracy and principled fight for working-class power--especially in his demolition of decades of slander heaped on Lenin's 1902 book What Is To Be Done--Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered differs from these authors in suggesting that Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not, in fact, develop any significantly novel forms of politics or organization, but merely faithfully applied lessons inherited from their Western European comrades in Germany, France and elsewhere in the decades before the revolution.

The debates around such questions have continued for all 100 years since 1917, but they have also enriched our understanding of the revolution and raised a series of fascinating discussions that are directly relevant to questions facing socialists today.

SADLY, NO celebration of 1917 would be complete without an accounting for what went wrong, and Haymarket doesn't duck the tough questions.

Despite very difficult conditions, the early years of the revolution were full of freedom and a flowering of democracy for the working class. Bureaucracy might have been a problem, acknowledged by leading Bolsheviks like Lenin, but it wasn't in power, as Lenin's Moscow by Albert Rosmer makes plain.

Franco-Russian anarchist Victor Serge joined the Bolsheviks during the course of the revolution and left us with two inspiring and brutal narratives of the early period of workers' power.

If his Year One of the Russian Revolution showed the promise of turning society on its head with glimpses of what a truly grassroots system might look like, Revolution in Danger forces us to confront the heroism and sacrifice, as well as the exhaustion and bitterness, of a working class and poor peasantry left to confront the combined powers of global capital in a series of devastating civil wars and imperialist invasions.

The revolution survived, but the conditions were created for the counterrevolution to come to power and reverse the gains of 1917--though the new tyranny led by Joseph Stalin perversely continued to describe itself as socialist.

Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism collects punchy essays by revolutionary socialist authors who analyze just how 1917 was ground down into the counterrevolutionary regime masquerading as socialism that George Orwell captured in Animal Farm.

This short book also outlines the fierce arguments raging for and against the Bolsheviks by friend and foe alike in the midst of the revolution and in the decades after. As Anthony Arnove puts it, "Stalinism represented a fundamental break from the Bolshevik tradition. In fact, Stalin had to drown the Bolshevik Party of 1917 in blood in order to consolidate his power and the victory of the bureaucracy."

For more than 90 out of the last 100 years, history has mostly been written by the victors--the Stalinists in the case of Russia and the capitalist ruling class in the West--but not only them.

What better way to honor the revolution's real traditions than to hit the books--so we can hit the streets prepared to achieve a better outcome when our turn comes around.

Further Reading

From the archives