Trials of the Russian Revolution

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

Dick J. Reavis

The Dilemmas of Lenin:
Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution
By Tariq Ali
Verso, New York, London, 373 pages, $27, cloth.

The Russian Revolution:
When Workers Took Power
By Paul Vernadsky
Phoenix Press, London, 374 pages. $14 paperback.

The Russian Revolution:
A New History
By Sean McMeekin
Basic Books, New York, 445 pages, $30 cloth.

Russia in Revolution:
An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928
By S.A. Smith
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 455 pages, $35 cloth.

THE STORY OF the Bolshevik revolution is important because it is the myth of origin for Marxist-Leninist groups, and for many others, an example of almost everything that can possibly to go wrong beneath the banner of socialism. This year, the centennial of that Revolution, has brought a basketful of books aimed at readers on both sides of that divide.
The books differ, first of all, in their periodization. The happiest of them, The Dilemmas of Lenin and The Russian Revolution: When Workers Took Power, concentrate on 1917-1918, when revolutionary democrats ousted a czar and established a temporizing Provisional Government whose overthrow the Bolsheviks organized within months.

The February and October revolutions implemented clearly socialist, sometimes even utopian programs. These included:

• Workers’ control of factories

• The election of military officers

• Abolition of rents & the death penalty

• Equal pay and suffrage for women

• The 8-hour day

• Free medical care for workers

• Cultural autonomy for non-Russian peoples

• Affirmative action on the basis of class and nationality

The Dilemmas of Lenin, by the Pakistani-British leftist Tariq Ali, is the most readable of the Revolution books. But it is composed in true myth-of-origin style, from the view of St. Petersburg and Moscow, i.e. from the Revolution’s Garden of Eden — before Eve took the proverbial bite of the apple. But it is so sunny-sider that it fails to mention the 1921 rebellion by the sailors at Kronstadt, the garrison that had stood in the vanguard of both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

In my view, Ali’s most pregnant paragraph is one that points to the importance of the period he addresses only in passing:

“The Bolsheviks seized power with a minority of the country behind them: they had a ‘strategic majority’ (Lenin) because the Russian working class served as an overwhelming force in the main towns during October. The peasantry, ten times more numerous than the proletariat, were neutral or benevolent. But when the civil war got underway, the Soviet regime rapidly lost most of the goodwill it had enjoyed among the peasant masses because of the ravages of the war itself, the grip of the Entente blockade and the inexorable necessities of food procurement; compulsory grain deliveries were born, not with collectivization, but with War Communism. Trotsky expressed the truth with brutal honesty when he later said, ‘We plundered all Russia to conquer the Whites.’ The result was expectable. Henceforth, the revolution fought for its existence in a countryside largely hostile to it.”

Ali’s demographic claims are credible. Census figures from the Soviet governments show that out of a total 1926 population of 165 million, about 10 million were workers, both blue-collar and white, while peasants numbered more than 120 million.

Most of the rural population was partisan to the faction-ridden, somewhat loose and populist, sometimes pro-war Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR). By late 1918 a variety of factors — including the German occupation of Ukraine — precipitated a bread shortage in the cities. Units of Bolsheviks marched into the countryside to requisition stores of surplus grain and in many areas the peasants resisted, village by village, commune by commune.

The tillers owned, not their parcels of land — those belonged to their communes — but their produce, which they sold on the “free” market. That arrangement had the blessing of the SRs. But the Bolsheviks, until they adopted the SR program in October 1917, had advocated nationalization of the land and its collectivization with the benefit of agricultural machinery and wage labor.

The Bolsheviks never really embraced the SR program, and sadly planters, tractors and combines weren’t at hand. The result, at least until the mid-twenties, was that Leninists could not christen a democracy in the usual, one-citizen-one-vote sense of the term. The Socialist Revolutionaries would have won and thrown them out.

To add to the tumult, by early 1919 a dozen armies of reactionary Russian and foreign powers, including troops from Japan and the United States, had invaded Soviet territory.
For more than two years, factories could not get raw materials and cities were short of fuel and food because rail transportation was imperiled. City folk burned furniture for firewood, consumed bread that was adulterated with milled hay — and left town for the countryside.

Typhus and cholera broke out, and urban Russia fell into ruin.  “War Communism,” as the period is sometimes called, brought about elements of social retrogression as well. One-man management returned to industrial enterprises, political parties were suppressed, and the death penalty was revived.

A Workers’ Revolution

The Russian Revolution: When Workers Took Power is more comprehensive than Dilemmas in its reporting, though it is drawn from English-language sources alone. Its most useful feature may be the timetable it presents of the year 1917.

Took Power is actually two books, the first of which traces the Bolsheviks’ rise to majority status among workers and soldiers between the February revolution, which installed the Provisional Government, and the Leninist October seizure of power.  The value of that section is that it lays to rest any doubts about the legitimacy of the Revolution, by strictly working-class standards in any case.

The second book between the covers of Took Power is ordered by selected issues — war, the national question, women’s liberation — more than chronology. Like its first section, and unlike Ali’s book, it is more of a listing than a work of story-telling,  and also omits a chapter on agrarian reform.

The book’s virtue is that in its review of issues it reaches beyond 1917, and in a short chapter entitled “Stalin’s counter-revolution,” tries to assess the denouement of the 1917 revolt.

Here, however, it is handicapped by its purpose. When Workers Took Power is published by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a British Trotskyist organization. But most readers, unversed in the intricacies of Communist historical disputes, will get lost in its polemics and passing references to minor figures.

The book’s bottom line is that “After 1928 the description of Russia as a degenerated worker state is undoubtedly incoherent.” By that, I think author Paul Vernadsky means to say that when Stalin consolidated his power, he strangled the socialist project.

Attack from the Right

The most thorough of this year’s books are The Russian Revolution: A New History and Russia in Revolution. Both are penned by scholars of Russian archives and both trace the Revolution’s development until 1928. They tell a story of progress turned back by peasant recalcitrance, civil war and the capitalist restorations of the New Economic Policy, 1921-28.

But A New History is neither new nor trustworthy. Bard College professor Sean McMeekin may not think so, but his work is chiefly a condensation of the charges leveled in the similarly named The Russian Revolution, a 1991 doorstop by the Polish-born scholar Richard Pipes. McMeekin, however, surpasses his predecessor in defaming the Bolsheviks, with passages like this:

“Contrary to the common belief, expounded in most history books, that the famous Bolshevik-Menshevik split of July 1903 occurred because Lenin’s advocacy of a professional cadre of elites (sometimes called vanguardism), outlined in his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, was opposed by Mensheviks who wanted mass worker participation in the party, the real fireworks at the Brussels Congress surrounded the Jewish question. Party organization was not even discussed until the fourteenth plenary session. Lenin’s main goal in Brussels was to defeat the Bund — that is, Jewish — autonomy inside the party. His winning argument was that Jews were not really a nation, as they shared neither a common language nor a common national territory. [Julius] Martov, the founder of the Bund, took great umbrage at this, and walked out in protest to form the new Menshevik (minority) faction. He was followed by nearly all Jewish Socialists, including, notably, Lev Bronstein (Trotsky), a young intellectual from Kherson, in southern Ukraine, who had studied at a German school in cosmopolitan Odessa, which helped prime him for the appeal of European Marxism. With Lenin all but mirroring the arguments of Russian anti-Semites, it is not hard to see why Martov, Trotsky and other Jewish leaders joined the opposition.”

But the facts tell a much different story. Neither Trotsky nor Martov was a delegate from the Bund; neither inveighed against its exclusion or walked out of the Conference when its five Bundist delegates did.

On this point the factions that later divided between Bolshevik and Menshevik factions were united in rejecting the Bund’s demand for a monopoly franchise in organizing Jewish workers.

McMeekin stretches the reader’s credulity again when re-telling the story of Lenin’s April 1917 return to Russia from exile by a “sealed train” through Germany during wartime between the two countries. When Workers Took Power does us the favor of pointing out that not only Lenin and a handful of Bolsheviks, but also Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, were on that same train, and others, including Menshevik Martov, “followed via the same route.”

McMeekin does not even allude to these facts. Instead he amplifies an accusation by Pipes: that not only did Lenin return to Russia with the Kaiser’s help, but that he also financed the Revolution with German marks. He alleges that most of the Red Guards, a civilian militia, “were, in effect, hired Bolshevik mercenaries.” Furthermore, he argues that the Bolsheviks purchased a St. Petersburg printing plant with German subsidies and, with counterfeit ten-ruble notes imported from Germany, even paid protestors to carry picket signs. His argument makes as much sense and has as much documentary backing as the claim that George Soros paid the demonstrators who protested Donald Trump’s inauguration.

By time of Lenin’s return, his take on World War I had already discredited the pro-war parties of the Second (Socialist) International  and was winning soldiers in the trenches — from all countries — to the idea of an immediate cessation of hostilities.

His contention was that workers and peasants had no stake in the war, which he characterized as an imperialist contest for colonial power. That being the case — as most historians today agree that it was — the Bolsheviks were hardly to blame for taking money wherever it lay.

Revolution in Retrospect

The most thorough and even-handed of the centennial books, in my opinion, is S.A. Smith’s Russia and Revolution: An Empire in Crisis.

Like the McMeekin volume, it is not a list of dry facts but a work that presents events within a dramatic structure, however tragic that structure may be. Like McMeekin, Smith’s handling of the period winds up emphasizing not the seizure of power, which was relatively swift and bloodless, but the long decade that followed.

The chief difference between the two books is that while McMeekin’s argument is anti-communist, most of Smith’s is matter-of-factish. In its concluding chapters, it turns more sympathetic, perhaps because though by 1926 the Soviet Union had largely emerged from its woes, it was facing worse: Stalin consolidated his power in 1928. The Party that he headed soon sent troops against the peasants and police against its critics again.

Though neither he nor the other authors track the zillions of sly and brutal gambits Stalin used to undo revolutionary ambitions and illusions, Smith at least dethrones Uncle Joe in a way that I’m sure will please fellow authors. He says that Foundations of Leninism, Stalin’s masterwork, was plagiarized. If that charge holds up, we can look forward to a crop of freshly-researched anti-Stalin books in 2028.

Smith gives the fullest explanation of the difficulties and cleverness of the peasantry. He points out, for example, that Tsar Nicholas imposed Prohibition at the start of WWI and the Bolsheviks didn’t lift the ban until 1925. One of the means by which the peasants avoided grain requisitioning was by converting their produce into moonshine, more easily stored and concealed than bulky bushels of wheat.

While Bolshevism was generally unpopular with the peasants — only two percent of schoolchildren in 1926 said that they wanted to be Communists when they grew up — Smith also points out that without peasant seizures of big private landholdings, the February and October revolutions would have endured only a few weeks.

In retrospect, the most successful 20th century revolutions in the name of socialism were in peasant-based countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba. Their experiences transfer only with difficulty to the industrialized world, in which workers are a majority.

It’s therefore likely that revolutionaries from those countries whose peasantry has withered will continue to study what happened in 1917. Or they’ll do so at least until another working-class movement takes power in an industrialized country.

Our most difficult task in the meantime, I believe, will be disposing of the assumption, epidemic among liberals and “progressives,” that Leninism must always and everywhere lead to tyranny.

November-December 2017, ATC 191