The Russian Revolution Revisited

Against the Current, No. 161, November/December 2012

Loren Goldner

The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect
Interventions in Russian and Soviet History
By John Eric Marot
Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume 37, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2012,
273 pages, $136 hardcover.

THIS IS A very important book, one of the very few books published since 1991 on the “Russian question” that will compel people (this reviewer included) long wedded to different characterizations of the post-1917 or post-1929 Soviet regime to think through their commitments.

Those people most set for a rethink are those (not including this reviewer) committed to variants of “orthodox Trotskyism.” John Marot upends many views long held to be commonplace. Among the most important are Marx’s and Lenin’s respective assertions (Marx ca. 1880, Lenin in his 1899 Development of Capitalism in Russia), that Tsarist Russia was irreversibly capitalist.

Marot, to the contrary, argues that Russia up to 1917 was feudal, and thereafter, up to Stalin’s 1929 assault on the peasantry, a petty-producer economy with a household agriculture (where 85% of the population was employed) working not for a market but for private domestic consumption.

Assessments to the contrary, holding that the Russian countryside was capitalist already in Marx’s lifetime, were put forth in the latter’s correspondence with the Populists. Initially, based on a long study of Russian agriculture, Marx had concluded that the Russian peasant commune (or mir, or obschina) was alive and well, even mentioning it in the 1882 preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto as the possible point of departure for a direct transition to communism.

Shortly thereafter, Marx reversed himself, and said it was too late: capitalism had triumphed in the Russian countryside, and Russia was condemned, like all capitalist countries before it, to the bloody road of capitalist accumulation. As he had written in the famous letter to Vera Zasulich “If Russia follows the path that it took after 1861(1), it will miss the greatest chance to leap over all the fatal alternatives of the capitalist regime that history has ever offered to a people. Like all other countries, it will have to submit to the inexorable laws of that system.”

For Marot, however, the state-dominated agricultural exports starting in the 1880s did not make the Russian countryside capitalist either, as they were based on taxation-in-kind of the peasantry and designed to pay for imports of military hardware and industrial goods. He denies the capitalist character of the industrial sector under the Tsarist regime, seeing it rather as a kind of command economy aimed above all at military procurement.

Lenin’s The Origins of Capitalism in Russia is also wrong-headed, according to Marot, similarly missing the domestic/household character of peasant production, and conjuring up a stratification of peasants from kulaks to poor peasants which, in Marot’s view, was a myth that missed the deeper unity among all strata of peasants in their commitment to the peasant way of life.

Roots of Counter-revolution

For Marot, what changed in the countryside after 1917 was the liquidation of the manorial estates of the landlords, when the peasants finally got all the land, and embarked (after the Civil War and the famines, and until Stalin’s collectivizations) on a sort of golden age of the Russian peasantry.

Marot also thinks that all 1920s factions of the Bolshevik Party — the Trotskyist left, the Bukharinist right, and the Stalinist “center”— failed to understand this household, non-market driven nature of peasant production in the Russian countryside, and that hence all 1920s industrialization policies based on that misunderstanding were doomed to fail. Somewhat like Amadeo Bordiga, but in a very different way, Marot sees the Stalinist counter-revolution coming not from the party-class relationship in urban industry but from the post-1929 forced collectivization of agriculture.

The politically-charged conclusion of Marot, with contemporary implications for the considerable number of remaining Trotskyists, is that Trotsky facilitated the triumph of Stalin by his wrong-headed view that the “main danger” of “capitalist restoration” was the Bukharinist right, thereby situating the most dangerous counter-revolutionary of all, Stalin, in a mythical “center.”

Most powerfully, Marot shows how the great majority of the Trotskyist “left opposition” signed on to Stalin’s program in the late ’20s. (A number of people of productivist inclinations still profess that kind of Preobrazhensky-Deutscherite “critical support” for Stalinism.)

Finally, he shows how Trotsky himself, though he never capitulated politically, only started really talking about “workers’ democracy” in The Revolution Betrayed (1936) and how his orientation was always top-heavy, oriented to factional struggle within the party, and not to the ongoing “anti-Stalinist” activity of the working class under the NEP [post-1921 New Economic Policy following the Civil War — ed.]

Marot, for the record, holds the “bureaucratic collectivist” analysis of the Stalinist phenomenon, a stance which moreover seems to flow from his argument that Russia was not capitalist either before or after 1917. My problem with Marot’s book (and I will not be discussing the latter chapters on Bogdanov) is in his silence about the events leading up to 1921 in which the soviets and workers’ councils — the heart of any meaningful workers’ democracy — were destroyed.

Anton Ciliga’s remarkable book The Russian Enigma(2) echoes Marot’s view of Trotsky’s excessive focus on the intra-party faction fights, to the neglect of the ferment in the working class itself during the 1920s.

Ciliga shows how, in the Siberian concentration camp where he was held from 1930 to 1932, the Trotskyist prisoners had exactly that same attitude; they had their bags packed, expecting to be recalled to Moscow any day when the factional tide shifted, and they treated all the other political prisoners — anarchists, SRs, Mensheviks — with the same arrogance they had shown them when in power. They, too, were solely oriented to what was happening “at the top” and utterly detached from any resistance from below.

Ciliga points out how the workers in Petrograd were angered when Trotsky’s autobiography My Life appeared in 1930 and they found the same intra-party preoccupations there, to the neglect of the broader working class.

Marot writes about the general Bolshevik agreement among all three factions during the NEP on the need to preserve the worker-peasant alliance and to promote a “democratic,” non-coercive solution to the peasant question. This factional situation was thrown into disarray in 1927-28 by two successive bad harvests, which gave Stalin his opportunity. He destroyed the Bukharinist “right” with the help of the Trotskyist capitulationists, who missed their last chance, which would have been an alliance with Bukharin against Stalin.

These people, amounting to most of the key figures in the left opposition except for Trotsky himself, argued that Stalin was implementing much of the left program. With their false sense of where the “restorationist danger” lay, they paid a very high price when Stalin turned on them as well.

But one must ask: what exactly was “democratic” about a country where, after 1921, there was no legal opposition, and not even factions allowed in the ruling party itself? Marot doesn’t openly quarrel with recent works by writers such as Simon Pirani  that the soviets and workers’ councils were dead by 1921; he merely does not take up the question.

If there was any democracy — a debate about policy with real power to back it up — to speak of in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, it was exercised by a numerically tiny group of people holding fragile state power above a sea of 150 million workers and above all peasants with no direct influence in their debates.

The Tragedy of 1918-1921

I have no quarrel (see Marot’s critique, in Chapter 3, of the apolitical or anti-political new social historians) with Marot’s argument that the October Revolution was not a coup d’etat, or (in Chapter 4) that party organization, not some amorphous social movement,  was central in influencing the social debate between February and October 1917, or finally with Marot’s critique of the (at best) ahistorical Social Democratic and Menshevik argument that the Bolsheviks should not have seized power, predicated as their strategy was on the indispensable revolution in the western heartland of capitalism.

As Rosa Luxemburg tirelessly pointed out in the last months of her life, the German Social Democrats did everything in their power to prevent the international extension of the revolution and guaranteed that the Russian Revolution would be strangled in isolation.

I am not so sanguine, however, about Marot’s denial of “Russian particularism” relative to the world ferment from 1917-1921. Russia was, after all, the system’s “weak link” if there ever was one, as theorized in the Marx-Trotsky concept of permanent revolution (German in 1848, Russia in 1917).

There is first of all the question, posed ever since then, of why the revolutionary left currents in the West (with the exception of the Dutch council communists),did not establish political organizations independent of Social Democracy well before 1914; one thinks first of all of Rosa Luxemburg. (Typical Trotskyist carping on this point quietly ignores the fact that Lenin supported Kautsky right up to August 1914, whereas Luxemburg had seen through him by 1911.)

There is the question of Luxemburg’s, and Trotsky’s (Our Tasks, Report of the Siberian Delegation) critiques of Lenin before 1905. Lenin’s role was undoubtedly brilliant at Zimmerwald [the 1915 conference of the antiwar left — ed.] and in the [1917] April Theses. But what about after the seizure of power? What about the testimonies of figures such as Victor Serge or Max Eastman? What of Lenin’s refusal to allow working-class factions after the Civil War, as demanded by the impeccably Bolshevik Workers’ Group or the Democratic Centralists?

What of the anti-working class repression starting in 1918, detailed by historians such as Nicholas Werth, not to mention the experiences in 1920-21 detailed by the anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman? What of Eastman’s description of the military and police presence surrounding the site of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, something like the police crowd control in Giuliani’s New York, where no ordinary worker or peasant could come near the premises?

What of the treatment of Makhno [leader of a Ukrainian independence army — ed.] after his forces helped the Red Army defeat the Whites? What of the arrogance of the Bolshevik delegation to the Kronstadt sailors in March 1921, that tipped the Kronstadt soviet, which was prepared to negotiate, into open revolt against the regime? What of the frantic carrot-and-stick tactics of the party to quell the February-March strikes in Petrograd just before the Kronstadt uprising, of which Kronstadt can be seen as an extension?

What of the party’s inability to use Red Army units in Petrograd, deemed unreliable, against Kronstadt, and machine guns established in the rear of the charge across the ice to shoot deserters? What of Lenin’s speech to the 10th Party Congress (March 1921) in which he said “the Russian proletariat has ceased to exist” and Shliapnikov [Workers Opposition leader — ed.] shouted from the floor, “So you exercise a dictatorship in the name of a class which no longer exists!”

When Did the Revolution Fail?

I therefore question Marot’s attempt downplay the events of 1917-1921 and to focus on those after 1927-1928 in pinpointing the counter-revolution. There is no question that there is a “qualitatative leap” after the latter date. But wasn’t the Bolshevik regime that emerged from the Civil War, and presided over the NEP, at the very least a police state?

We might recall Lenin’s and Dzerzhin­sky’s special inquiry into the excesses of the Cheka: they were horrified. Or the Cheka officer, interviewed by Victor Serge after he had ordered the shooting of anarchists who had already been amnestied: “Lenin and Trotsky can indulge in all the sentimentalism they want — my job is to eradicate counter-revolution!”

There remains the question of Soviet foreign policy. The 1917 strategy of the Bolsheviks was unquestionably: foment world revolution to save soviet power. Yet there is hardly a foreign policy decision after 1917 that remains uncontroversial, in terms of when the Soviet regime itself started acting like a nation-state with national interests to defend, at the expense of the world revolution.

Historical analysis has not yet given adequate attention to Trotsky’s secret memo of 1920 to Lenin, Zinoviev et al: “All information on the situation in Khiva, in Persia, in Bukhara and in Afghanistan confirm the fact that a Soviet revolution in these countries is going to cause us major difficulties at the present time…Until the situation in the West is stabilized and until our industries and transport systems have improved, a Soviet expansion in the east could prove to be no less dangerous than a war in the West…a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England.

“From this I conclude that: 1) in the east we should devote ourselves to political and educational work…and at the same time advise all possible caution in actions calculated to require our military support, or which might require it; 2) we have to continue by all possible channels at our disposal to arrive at an understanding with England about the east.”(3)

Is it wrong to see in the March 1921 conjuncture, of Kronstadt, the defeat of the March Action [a disastrous attempt at a Communist uprising — ed.] in Germany, the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement, and the NEP as the end of the revolutionary phase, on a world scale?

To conclude: I must say in all fairness that to dwell excessively on the domestic and international dimensions of Soviet power from 1917 to 1921 is to divert attention from the real focus of Marot’s book and to criticize him for not treating subjects he did not intend  to write about.

Marot’s singular contribution is, as stated at the outset, to have reposed the whole question of Russian and then Soviet agriculture in a new way, and to have demonstrated in detail how the Trotskyist left opposition fell on its face in its preference for Stalin over Bukharin, a preference that still colors the political judgment of “orthodox Trotskyism” where it persists to this day.


  1. The year of the tepid, but much-trumpeted Tsarist land reform.
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  2. Ciliga’s book appeared in French in 1939 under the title Dans le pays du grand mensonge; the English translation appeared in 1979.
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  3. From Jan M. Meijer (org.), The Trotsky Papers, 1917-1922, 2 vols., London, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1964, 1971, vol. II, page 209. See also my article “Socialism in One Country” Before Stalin, and the Origins of Reactionary “Anti-Imperialism”: The Case of Turkey, 1917-1925” (2009) at
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November/December 2012, ATC 161


  1. Loren Goldner review is thoughtful, although it has a number of problems. The first is his claim of the alleged ‘Preobrazhensky-Deutscherite “critical support” for Stalinism’. This old canard has been propagated by ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism since the 1940s, originating as far as I am aware with James P. Cannon.
    I would argue the contrary position. It is perforce Deutscher’s work, particularly his trilogy on Trotsky, that brings out the contradictions and almost impossible choices that the besieged Revolution and its central actors faced. It was Deutscher’s continuation of the Luxemburgist legacy that gave him these insights. Unfortunately,Goldner repeats this platitude, among others, without examining where they come from.

    On another note: all kinds of unsavory characters are invariably attracted to successful revolutions and that does not rule out the fact that many of the Bolshevik traditions were problematic. The suppression of Kronstadt, the conflict with the anarchists–not all a one way conflict, as the attempt on Lenin’s life by Fanny Kaplan and the assassination of Uritsky demonstrate, is all grist for the mill for historians and activists in rethinking and reexamining the legacy of the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless, it’s best to maintain historical distance when analysing the Russian Revolution.
    My questions for Loren Goldner are: given the contradictory traditions that the Bolsheviks emerged from, what else could they have done and what relevance does the Russian Revolution holds for us today?

  2. The thing I find so insufferable about Loren Goldner is his rather narcissistic attempt to counterpoise his own purism to the purism of the Leninist sects, as if the solution to our problems is a correct understanding of class relations in the Russian countryside at the end of the 19th century rather than how to move forward in 2013. What sterile pettifoggery.

  3. Loren Goldner responds:

    Reading John Ebel’s questions about my review, I’m reminded of the story Victor Serge tells in his Memoirs. Lenin and Trotsky (in 1920? 21?) had decreed amnesty for a number of imprisoned anarchists. During the night before the amnesty took effect, the Cheka shot them all. When Serge asked the Cheka officer in charge why he had done that, the officer replied: “Lenin and Trotsky can engage in all the sentimentalism they want; my job is to root out counter-revolution”. I believe that this incident better captures the face of Bolshevik power by 1920-21, as it was experienced by the great majority of Russian workers and peasants, than whatever we can read in the writings of the tiny Bolshevik elite about what they were doing or not doing (and those writings are often chilling enough, such as Trotsky’s advocacy of the militarization of labor).

    As for Deutscher: he may well have been inspired by Rosa Luxemburg in his 3 volume biography of Trotsky, but this was not so clear in his earlier (1949) near-apologetic biography of Stalin, nor in his later (post-1956) belief that Khrushchev was going to restore soviet democracy. I don’t think the Fourth International (pace Ebel) had to invent much there.

    As for Preobrazhensky…: It’s hard to reply meaningfully to Comrade Ebel in a brief space, except by quoting Marot saying what I say in the review: “…Trotsky thought the ‘centrist’ Stalin could never industrialize the country based on state-ownership of the means of production; the very policy advocated by the ‘Left’ Opposition. But Stalin systematically destroyed Trotsky’s analysis…Stalin did exactly what Trotsky had said the irresolute Stalin, that ‘gray blur’, could not be expected to do…Stalin’s stunning, practical refutation of Trotsky’s sociology politically devastated Trotsky’s followers…Eventually the overwhelming majority threw up their hands, convinced that ‘Stalin’s policies of collectivization and speedy industrialization were socialist policies’…” (Marot, pp. 98-99) This quote is from Marot’s Ch. 2, which details how much of the left opposition in the late 1920’s did not “capitulate” to Stalin, but RALLIED to him.

    I’m frankly a bit taken aback by this wounded tone of people who still in this day and age view the world situation of the 1920’s through the lenses of “Lenin and Trotsky”. By the spring of 1921, after Kronstadt, the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement, the defeat of the March Action in Germany, and the implementation of the NEP, the Soviet state, whatever the avowed ideology of its leaders, was acting on its interests as a nation-state and not in the interests of the world proletariat. (For a graphic illustration of this, see my article on Turkey at detailing how in March 1921 the Bolsheviks concluded a commercial agreement with the Turkish nationalist Attaturk, a mere two motnhs after the collective murder of the entire central committee of the Turkish CP, in January 1921)

    Thus when John Ebel asks “what should the Bolsheviks have done?”, this strikes me today as an anachronistic question. Given who the Bolsheviks were, and what they had been through by 1921, it’s hard to imagine them responding any differently than they did, particularly if they were so “wrong”, as Marot shows, about the real situation of the peasantry, in 1921 or thereafter. We recall Miasnikov, of impeccable Bolshevik credentials and with years in Tsarist prisons (cf. ), forming the Workers Group and asking Lenin to restore soviet democracy for working class parties and tendencies in 1921. No way, said Lenin, (and Miasnikov was hardly the only one); Lenin was comradely enough to offer him an exit visa. Others advocating the same thing were not so lucky.

    Simon Pirani in his book The Russian Revolution In Retreat 1920-1924
    ( shows the Bolsheviks as being as cut off from the working class as Marot shows them to be cut off from the peasants. Pirani shows that the Kronstadt rebels, the Petrograd strikers of Feb-Mar 1921, and similar currents in Moscow all had the same basic demand: now that the civil war is over, restore soviet democracy.

    So the real question is not “What should the Bolsheviks have done?” but rather “what should the world working class movement have done with the Bolsheviks?” Given the real, desperate conditions of 1921, I wonder if the restoration of soviet power would have really salvaged the revolution (which was already in retreat globally as well) , but I don’t doubt that it would have made possible real opposition to the consolidation of the new bureaucratic ruling class and above all would have bequeathed to the world movement something better, even in defeat, than what it got, namely a half century or more of Stalinism, from whose impact we are still recovering. Trotsky’s “my party right or wrong” attitude right up to his final defeat in 1927 (e.g. his behavior in the Eastman affair, going along with the suppression of Lenin’s testament and denying its existence) hardly helped, to put it mildly. In The Russian Enigma (1979 reprint of 1938 original) Ante Ciliga’s portrait of the Trotskyists through the 20’s and into the 30’s, even in the Siberian camps, captures as well how focused they were on factional struggles at the top and oblivious to the mass opposition to bureaucratic rule, such as there was. (one key chapter of Ciliga’s book is on line at )

    It is late in the day and high time to recognize, as most people in the Lenin- Trotsky tradition do not, that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a dual revolution: proletarian in the cities, land to the peasants in the countryside, who made up 85% of the population. The former only survived the civil war, however battered, due to the support of the latter. But the destruction of pre-capitalist agrarian property is the task of the bourgeois revolution. This stands in contrast to the anticipated, purely proletarian revolution in the West, where the working class stood alone, and where the peasants already had land in the key countries. The post-1921 export of this dual revolution as a universal model for revolution generally was one further step toward the disfiguring of the world revolutionary movement by the Third International, a lesson never drawn by the abortive Fourth International and its heirs, for which Stalin constituted a “center” between the Trotskyist “Left” and the Bukharinist “right”. John Marot’s book blows up this understanding of the Russian factional situation of the 1920’s. It is quite hard to imagine how the triumph of the Bukharinist “right” would have done a fraction of the damage to the world movement that the triumph of the Stalinist “center” actually did, unfathomable damage from which we are still recovering.

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