Power to the Soviets

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

David Cohen

The Story of the Russian Revolution
By China Miéville
Verso Books, 2017, 384 pages, $26.95 hardcover.

“The first purpose of the book is to tell the story for readers who don’t necessarily know anything about the Russian Revolution, who want to know what happened when, the stakes, the rhythms, the events. This is not a history of the Russian Revolution for leftists, but for everyone; it is, though, a history of the Russian Revolution for everyone by a leftist.” — China Miéville interview with Eric Blanc, http://bit.ly/2wI6qZP.

CHINA MIÉVILLE, THE award-winning science fiction/speculative fiction writer, accurately describes his history of the Russian Revolution “for everyone.” This is a well-paced, detailed but readily readable account of the Russian Revolution, including some pre-history dating back to the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703.

While parts of it flow with the spirit of John Reed’s classic Ten Days that Shook the World, it is written with the view that we are looking back 100 years, and therefore must read this history realizing that we know how it turns out.

Why should we, 100 years later, care about the Russian Revolution?

“This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours. If its sentences are still unfinished, it is up to us to finish them.” (3)

It is primarily a history of the events in St. Petersburg, the center of the revolution, so some important people never really turn up. Front and center are Lenin, Trotsky, Martov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and leaders of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).

This history starts with the founding of St. Petersburg and quickly covers the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) in 1898. We are introduced to Vladimir Ulyanov, who becomes known as Lenin, and his friend Yuli Tsederbaum, soon to be known as Julius Martov. Lenin will, in 1903, become the leader of one faction of the RSDWP, known as the Bolsheviks, and Martov the leader of the other faction, the Mensheviks.

Miéville describes their differences: “What fundamentally underlies the membership dispute — in winding, mediated fashion, and far from clearly, even to Lenin — are divergent approaches to political consciousness, to campaigning, to working class composition and agency, ultimately to history and to Russian capitalism itself.”

We are introduced to other players on the scene, including Tsar Nicholas II, and the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The SRs saw the peasantry as the leading revolutionary class in Russia, as opposed to the RSDWP who, as Marxists, saw the Russian working class as the leading force toward socialism.

Month by Month

The book is organized by chapters, focusing on the events of each of the months preceding the revolution of October 1917. Each chapter not only recounts the events that occurred during that month, often times with great vignettes of what ordinary people saw and did, but also what was happening in each camp of actors — the Tsar and his supporters, the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, workers, peasants and army personnel.

Miéville also tries to give an idea of what each group’s analysis of the situation was at a given point in history. Thus in February

“Krupskaya and Lenin mouldered in their Swiss exile. In a speech to a young audience in the Zurich People’s House, Lenin remained bullish that revolution in Russia could be a detonater, ‘the prologue to the coming European revolution;’ that despite its ‘present grave-like stillness’ the continent was ‘pregnant with revolution.’ ‘We of the older generation,’ he added melancholically, “may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming — European socialist revolution.” (40)

By the end of February hundreds of thousands of Russian workers, sick of the war and repression, are on strike, locked out by employers, marching in the streets demanding bread to eat and an end to war and the monarchy.

They are marching on the center of power in Petrograd, where 12,000 army troops are protecting the capital.

“What of the implacable Cossacks? Slavic speakers from, particularly the Don region of Ukraine and Russia itself…. Living symbols of Russia, and traditional agents of Tsarist repression: their whips and sabers had splattered a lot of blood on the snow, twelve years before….

“On Nevsky Prospect, a crowd of strikers came to a standoff with mounted Cossacks, their lances glinting in the sun. A fearful hesitation. For a long moment something was poised in the icy air. Abruptly the officers wheeled and rode away, leaving the demonstrators cheering in astonished delight.” (43, 44)

Let us look at how Miéville handles the month of April. The stage is set at the end of March, Lenin and other revolutionaries, six Bundists, three followers of Trotsky, and 19 Bolsheviks are traveling by train from Zurich to St. Petersburg.

The All Russian Council of Soviets is meeting, with “479 delegates from 138 local soviets, seven armies, 13 rear units and 26 front units.” (105) Much of the discussion is on the relationship of the Soviets to the Provisional Government.

The Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli, recently returned from Siberian exile, is a main force at the conference.

“For the Mensheviks, it was at the soviet conference that Tsereteli made his mark, coordinating discussions, instilling a new professionalism, solidifying the positions of postol’ku-poskol’ku (support for the Provisional Government as long as its policies were ‘consistent with the interests of the people’) and a muscular revolutionary defencism. Until the peoples of other countries, he declared, overthrew their own governments or compelled them to change tack,’the Russian Revolution should fight against the foreign enemy with the same courage which it showed against the internal forces.’ For the Bosheviks Kamenev instead put forth a version of the party’s internationalist insistence not on the defence of the nation, but on the necessary export of the revolution, transforming the Russian experience into a ‘prologue for the uprising of the peoples of all warring countries.’”

The Bolsheviks’ position was defeated by a vote of 57 to 325. However, “On relations between the Soviet and the Provisional Government the official Soviet position, moved by the Menshevik Steklov, insisted so sternly on vigilant oversight that a satisfied Kamenev withdrew the alternative Bolshevik position.”

The hard right, the Black Hun­dreds and others “skulked and schemed behind closed doors.” St. Petersburg had “lurched leftward, repositioning radicals as moderates and moderates as right-wingers. In those days everyone was or proclaimed themself, a socialist. No one wanted to be bourgeois.”

April brings the return of Lenin and others from years of exile.”For now, though, as April began, not even the far left had unanimously declared itself an enemy of the Provisional Government. That was to come, with the train from Finland.”

This sentence is one way that Miéville points out what he thinks may have been faults of Lenin, Trotsky and others who were the hard left. It is subtle, not an absolutist criticism, pointing out when there were moments in the revolution where Lenin’s hard leftism could cause problems, then and in the future.  The term “hard” is undefined but was used by Lenin after the 1903 split when he referred to the “Bolsheviks” as hard revolutionaries and the “Mensheviks” as soft revolutionaries.

Lenin’s April Theses

Even before returning to Russia, Lenin had begun writing a series of articles in the form of letters to the Bolsheviks in Russia explaining his analysis of the situation. When he returned he was ready to fight for his position.

It had been the last day of the All-Russian Conference of Soviets. There the Bolshevik caucus has unanimously approved their leadership’s policy of “vigilant control” over the Provisional Government and had broadly accepted Stalin and Kamenev’s opposition to “disorganizing activities” at the front. The next day unity talks between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were due to start.

Such was the mood that Lenin interrupted.  What Lenin demanded was continual revolution. He scorned talk of ”watchfulness.” He denounced the Soviet’s “revolutionary defencism” as an instrument of the bourgeoisie. He raged at the lack of Bolshevik ”discipline.” His comrades listened in stricken silence. (110)

Lenin’s seminal document of the revolution, the April Theses, consisted of 10 points. He rejected “limited support” for the Provisional Government, and “revolutionary defencism.” He demanded confiscation of landlord estates and nationalization of land, a single bank under Soviet control, and abolition of the police, army and bureaucracy.

This he presented at the Bolshevik-Menshevik unity conference. Miéville says his presentation “unleashed bedlam.” Mensheviks denounced him as abandoning Marxism and embracing anarchism. The Socialist Revolutionaries denounced him. The Bolsheviks’ Petrograd Committee endorsed the April Theses, contrary to some stories, but rejected a motion to do so without reserving the right to criticize them. Much criticism immediately followed.

What were the main points of contention? Kamenev wrote a rebuttal to Lenin called “Our Disagreements.” “Lenin’s general scheme appears to us unacceptable,” he wrote, “inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

What Kind of Revolution?

Most Russian Marxists firmly believed that society passed through stages of development, feudalism, capitalism with a bourgeois democracy, socialism and then communism. Viewing Russia as essentially a feudal country until the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917, they envisioned a long period of capitalism (with strong rights for workers and peasants) under bourgeois democracy in which the country would develop and break with its feudal customs.

There would then be a socialist revolution in a country no longer the most backward in Europe. If the developed nations in Europe had socialist revolutions, then backward Russia could join them sooner and benefit from their advanced state of cultural and political development.

This conception of stages in the revolution affected politics. Should the workers and peasants ally themselves with the progressive bourgeois to create bourgeois democracy? Should workers and peasants hold governmental power in a bourgeois democracy?

Very few Marxists believed in skipping stages, except maybe Trotsky who had theorized after the 1905 Revolution that perhaps in backward countries intermediate stages could be skipped because they could borrow or copy from advanced countries.

In Russia where the bourgeoisie was weak, it might have to be the working class that completes the bourgeois revolution, and by doing that it would propel itself forward to the creation of socialism. But it could only do this with “the direct state support of the European proletariat.”

To most Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1905, this theory was just an eccentricity of Trotsky. Miéville further presents Lenin’s position. “Lenin was clear that it was not ‘our immediate task to introduce socialism,’ prior to a European socialist revolution, but to place power in the hands of working people rather than to pursue political class collaboration as advocated by the Mensheviks.”

Lenin continued to advocate his position, which found support from newly returning exiles and young radicals. “Ten days after Lenin’s return, the First Petrograd City Conference of the Bolsheviks convened. There Lenin developed his argument, insisting that the Provisional Government could not be ‘simply overthrown’, that it was necessary first to win the majority in the Soviet.” This resolution passed, 33 votes to 6, with 2 abstentions.

Discontent and Upheavals

The month of April was not just a month of debating political theories. Miéville recounts the massive demonstrations of workers that took place throughout the month, demonstrations of wives of soldiers, strikes in different factories, a meeting of the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress and the actions around the “Milukov Note.”

On April 18th the Provisional Govern­ment had sent a cable to its allies in World War 1, describing their goals of “Revolutionary Defencism.” Milyukov, the PG Foreign Minister and a rightwing member of the Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) Party, amended the cable with the permission of the cabinet of the Provisional Government (PG), that Russia would remain in the war and continue to fight for the “high ideals” of the allies.

When this became public knowledge on April 19th, demonstrations broke out denouncing Milyukov and the PG. There were moves by military regiments to threaten the PG, which the Soviet condemned. Lenin continued to stress that now was not the time to forcibly overthrow the PG.

At the end of April was the seventh congress of the RSDWP. “There, Lenin added his new ‘right’ critique of the left to his left critique of the Bolshevik right. The April Days, he said should not have been a battle. Rather they were an opportunity for “a peaceful reconnaissance of our enemy’s forces” — that enemy being the PG.

In a 20-page chapter, Miéville packs in descriptive accounts of popular action in the streets, the rapidly changing political scene, the reactions of the various players in the Provisional Government, the Soviet and various political parties. In concise fashion he summarizes and explains the meaning of the debates within the socialist movement in Russia at the time.

As Miéville documents the events that accelerate toward what becomes the October Revolution, the overthrow of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks with some support from left Mensheviks and SRs, I believe a theme develops.

Miéville recounts the growing split between the various revolutionary socialists, with Lenin welcoming and pushing for the Bolsheviks to act alone. This is not done in a polemical way, but by drawing attention to both the actions and theory of the various organizations.

In his Epilogue Miéville tries to tackle what he knows will be demanded of him, the big question: Was the October Revolution and the building of socialism in Russia doomed from the begining, and who was at fault?

Although these are unanswerable questions, often asked by people who religiously hope that human society is like water, always breaking to a boil at 212 degrees, Miéville paints the broad picture.

He quickly charts the immediate scene after the October Revolution, the demands for unity by different socialist groups, harsh denunciations of other socialist groups by Lenin and Trotsky, then offers of a joint socialist government by the Bolsheviks and the stunning rejection of the offer by the Left Mensheviks and left SRs.

In Miéville’s eyes these were opportunities lost that may have charted a better course than what happened.

The civil war rears up, with the Allied Nations supporting the counterrevolutionary armies. For three years the country is ravished by this war, with the “white” armies of counterrevolution committing countless atrocities and massive anti-Jewish pogroms.

The war has its negative effect on the Bolsheviks also — corporal punishment returned in the army, intolerance of any dissent, forced requisitioning of supplies from the peasantry, “war communism” returning many practices that were loathed under the Tsar. All are emergency measures. “But without question a moral and political rot is setting in.”

After the civil war Russia is in ruins, the working class is almost non-existent and the Bolsheviks have no clear plan on how to advance. The New Economic Program is instituted to replace the excesses of war communism. In this attempt to revive the economy, some foreign investment is allowed, small businesses grow up, private ownership of industry (under strict controls of the government) is allowed. This helps to revive the economy but comes with its own baggage of corruption and individual wealth.

Lenin’s final protests against entrenched bureaucracy and, corruption go unanswered. Lenin’s request to remove Stalin from power is ignored by Bukharin, Trotsky and others, a mistake they will pay for with their lives. “We know where this is going: purges; gulags; starvation; mass murder.”

Miéville’s summation is that nothing was written in stone:  There were many paths open, or train tracks as he refers to them. We don’t know which could have led to a better outcome, but it is up to us to learn from the past.

The Russian Revolution gave workers around the world hope that we could try to build a better future. For us, it is not a path but an inspiration and a lesson that indeed, “If its sentences are still unfinished, it is up to us to finish them.”

November-December 2017, ATC 191

1 comment

  1. The Bolshevik-led overthrow of the Provisional Government was necessary. The Provisional Government was not going to end Russia’s involvement in the war, put land in the hands of the peasantry, restore and develop the economy, or defend the democratic gains of the February revolution. The alternative to its overthrow by the left was a vicious counter-revolution.


    Those Marxists – Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike – who opposed the overthrow arguing that an attempt to drive toward socialism, especially in the absence of revolutions in W Europe, would fail and the Bolsheviks would be forced to become more and more dictatorial in order to survive and push their program forward were correct.

    The revolution was necessary. The revolution could not succeed. To me, this is the central conundrum for those of us on the left who identify with the October revolution but abhor the loss of civil and political freedoms, secret police, summary executions, gulags, famine and show trials that came in its wake.

    It’s not enough for us to say the October Revolution could have progressed along different tracks than the ones it actually did. We have to identify where the switch points were. Where, in its early months and years, could the revolution have moved from the track it was on to a different one?

    Possible switch points would probably include:

    Missed opportunities for a government broader than the Bolsheviks. Immediately after the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the 2nd Congress of Soviets unanimously passed a resolution (introduced by I. Martov, the leader of the left faction of the Mensheviks) calling for a government of Soviet parties, that is, a broad socialist government. The Mensheviks and Right SRs refused to participate and walked out. (Martov walked out later that night, but returned.) A few days later, the railway workers union (Vikzhel) brokered negotiations of socialist parties with the goal of forming a broad socialist government, “from the Popular Socialists to the Bolsheviks”. These talks pointedly did not include bourgeois parties. The Bolshevik negotiators, led by Kamenev, reached an agreement in principle with the other parties. This time, it was the Bolshevik Central Committee that refused.

    The forcible disbanding of the Constituent Assembly. Not only did this eliminate the body that workers’ and peasants’ parties had demanded for years, that might have produced a broader government, the divide between the Bolsheviks and other socialists was deepened when Red Guards fired on and killed demonstrators – including workers – defending the Assembly.

    The military suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion.

    NEP – what if a political opening had accompanied the economic opening? In fact, the opposite happened. The Bolsheviks and the government ratcheted up the repression of opposition currents and groups.

    These are some of the major switch points. There were other points along the way where different decisions about freedom of speech, the press and assembly; the legitimacy of opposition parties in the Soviets; national self-determination; the reintroduction of the death penalty and other measures bearing upon civil and political rights might have helped put the revolution onto a different track.

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