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The Rise and Fall of the Russian Revolution

Mitchell Abidor
October 30, 2017


From the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: October by China Miéville, Verso, 2017, 343 pages; The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali. Verso, 2017, 371 pages; Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale, Metropolitan Books, 2017, 354 pages.

AT FIRST GLANCE, the notion of a science fiction author writing a volume on the Bolshevik Revolution, as is the case with China Miéville’s October, might seem bizarre. How can a non-historian properly deal with, say, key issues like the role of railroads within the overall development of capitalism in tsarist Russia, or the nature of Russian Marxism?

Miéville eschews deep historical analysis and political theorizing, and the result is an absolutely thrilling, dizzying account of the thrilling, dizzying year that was 1917 — a year that first saw in February an uprising that overthrew the tsar, and then in October the establishing of the world’s first avowedly socialist state.

Who better, really, than a science fiction writer to recount so improbable a tale? That a small party with virtually its entire leadership in exile, dedicated to an idea that based the future on a class, the proletariat, that was most distinctly not the largest in Russia, could establish a proletarian dictatorship by year’s end is truly the stuff of fiction — science fiction.

Although the Russian reality would soon turn dystopian, its hopes in 1917 were still of a utopia, and Miéville provides as reasonable and enjoyable an account of the road to the October Revolution as one can hope to find in this centennial year. Though October is unquestionably pro-Bolshevik, and imbued with Miéville’s own politics (he has long been a Trotskyist militant in both the U.K. and the U.S.), he is not blind to the failings and contradictions of the revolutionary leadership.

We see events unfolding spontaneously, the miseries of life and the disasters of World War I leading the people to revolt, unbidden by any political party. Attacks on the Church and the tsar were not an artificial excretion of the struggle: the popular sentimentality regarding Church and tsar in today’s Russia, and the demonizing of the Bolsheviks for their role in dethroning both, conveniently ignores how quickly and angrily the common folk acted on their own in 1917 against the sources and symbols of their suffering.

The tsar was already deposed before the arrival of Lenin in his famous sealed train at the Finland Station in Petrograd in April, and the Bolsheviks were deeply involved in the governing process without their leader’s presence. From the moment of Lenin’s arrival, however, events shifted. Miéville makes it clear that Lenin’s word was not gospel within his party, and that at various points between April and October they would even be withheld from the membership or censored in party publications by other leaders who didn’t share his opinions. Miéville also demonstrates that Lenin’s line did not always move in one direction: He was on the far left when he arrived, issuing his stubborn go-it-alone call to revolution in the April Theses, but at other times he could be conciliatory and view coalition with other socialists as a possibility — and then quickly turn about again.

October is not a theoretical volume, and that is all to the good: Miéville recounts the events and something of the background behind the positions of the various parties, and that is all. This is not Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (still used today by political zombies as a guide to action). Miéville is content with simply laying out the events in this specific revolutionary process.

In doing so, neither holding Bolshevik means of organizing as models nor treating the party’s actions after their temporary political setback in July 1917 as a rulebook, Miéville’s book teaches us far more than many detailed, scholarly volumes. He accurately portrays the Bolsheviks as a strong and growing force in urban Russia in 1917, not as some tiny sect that somehow snuck into the Winter Palace and pulled off a coup.

Most importantly, perhaps, we learn about the foolhardiness of those Marxist groups who for much of the 20th century held up 1917 as the shining path to socialism. True, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious, but it was a result of a set of circumstances so unique that it was arrogance on their part, and blindness on the part of foreign Communists, that led militants and leaders to quote Lenin as a gospel of insight and action.

IT IS CRITICAL not to ignore the specifically Russian experience of World War I and how it mobilized soldiers and sailors in support of the revolution, even before the arrival of Lenin. Mutinies and desertions were a small-scale affair in France, and in Germany only made a difference at the very end of the war. But in June 1917 there were 170,000 deserters from the Russian army, and in July revolutionary Petrograd could boast of hosting 50,000 of them! The widespread choice made by Russian soldiers to mutiny, revolt, and hijack weapons destined for the front and use them to defend Petrograd is unequalled anywhere, before or since. Nothing the Bolsheviks did or proposed would have made the least bit of difference without the backing of the soldiery. The disaster of World War I was an absolute precondition to the revolution.

Despite Bolshevik hopes, however, none of this would be duplicated in other countries — as the Spartacists would learn in Germany in 1919 and 1923, when soldiers and paramilitaries, inspired not by revolutionary ardor but reactionary rage, drowned worker revolts in blood.

Similarly, the existence of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, the soviets, occurred spontaneously in 1905 and reappeared in 1917. Again, for a certain wing of the revolutionary left, the advocacy of workers’ councils became an article of faith, faith that by sheer will what spontaneously arose could become the basis for a new revolution. Certainly the soviets did make limited appearances in later years, in Italy and Spain, but if there’s one thing Miéville’s book makes clear, it is how huge and omnipresent the soviets were in Russia. As Miéville reports, in March 1917, at an all-Russian congress of soviets, the “479 delegates represented 138 local soviets, seven armies, thirteen rear units, and twenty-six front units” — and these would only multiply as the months wore on until they covered virtually every corner of Russia. The appearance of such councils in a few working-class strongholds in Italy (like FIAT in Turin) in 1919-1920 was in no way comparable to the Russia phenomenon, nor was there any sign that they would become the basis for a new society. Again, a central element of the Russian Revolution was unreplicated because unreplicable.

The list of unique features of the Russian Revolution is almost endless, but perhaps the greatest uniqueness of the Russian Revolution was the presence of Lenin. To put it simply: no Lenin, no October. He was the political genius who maneuvered the Bolshevik ship around the shoals menacing it, and who, unlike the hapless Zinoviev and Kamenev who led the party in his absence, never wavered from achieving the goal of power and socialism. Other books that have appeared in time for the centennial make this abundantly clear — including Catherine Merridale’s absorbing and sensible account of the sealed train that took Lenin home from exile, Lenin on the Train — and Tariq Ali’s blindly and tiresomely Leninist The Dilemmas of Lenin.

It’s no accident that the greatest history of socialism, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, has the entire history of socialism culminating in Lenin’s arrival in Russia. But there’s an irony in this: If Lenin was the indispensable player, does this not lead us to fall back on the far-from-radical “great man” theory of history of Thomas Carlyle? A great man, be he Frederick the Great or Napoleon, is a salvific figure who imposes himself on events, and can’t be squared with the masses working out their own destiny within history. If it required one such clear-eyed man to lead the masses, can we say, with Marx and Engels, in their 1879 letter to the leaders of German social democracy, that “the emancipation of the working class will be the work of the working class itself”?

Engels famously wrote that if we want to see what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like, “Look at the Paris Commune. That is the dictatorship of the proletariat.” But if the Paris Commune — which had no single leader but had factions, elections, and democracy and was the spontaneous result of the Parisian workers seizing power and setting up their own state — was the model envisioned by Marx and Engels, what are we to make of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who stand at antipodes to that great liberating struggle of 1871?

LET US END this brief overview with another absurdity of left-wing organizing post-October 1917: the canonization of Lenin and his works, which are quoted endlessly as the fount of all revolutionary knowledge and activity. Here, too, Miéville’s book should serve as a corrective, or rather — since only small handfuls of the devoted continue to burn candles before their busts of Saint Ilyich — as a reminder of why it was always a foolhardy thing.

As noted above, Lenin returned from his exile ignorant of the reality on the ground but certain of his theories, and issued the April Theses, which put forth an ultra-revolutionary line, repudiating any support for the Provisional Government, and calling for fraternization of soldiers at the front, for placing a single national bank under soviet control, and for the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, just as starting measures. Decried by other parties and debated but ultimately accepted by the Bolsheviks, the Theses are much loved by the Marxist left.

But when revolutionary activity failed in July, Lenin chastised those in the party who wanted to continue their activity along these lines — and then, in another volte-face, again called for a hardening of the party’s goals. In short, Lenin acted not as a theoretician but as a practical political leader, attempting to read the political winds and to adjust Bolshevik activity in keeping with them. He was always inclined toward the most radical choices, but trimmed his sails when necessary.

He would repeat this once he was in power, implementing the harsh measures of War Communism and then softening them with the New Economic Policy. Which Lenin are we to quote? His collected works resemble the Talmud, tactically defending everything and its opposite.

Strategically, Lenin was unwavering, but revolutions succeed on their tactics or not at all. Communists, in their obsequiousness before the USSR, confused the two, and the results were human catastrophes and unending failure for three quarters of a century, with not a single European Communist Party achieving success on its own.

Indeed, did the Russian Communists achieve success? Or was their victory a pyrrhic one?

Lenin and his comrades never expected the USSR to be the only workers’ state, and the premise of their victory was that it would open the way to proletarian states all over Europe. They regularly proclaimed, as Miéville and Tariq Ali both recount, that they could truly carry out their tasks only as part of an international revolution. But Lenin and Trotsky seriously misread the possibilities and mistook their unique situation as an exemplar. The result was Stalin’s shift to a line of “socialism in one country,” a shift, as Miéville writes, “born of despair, as any prospects for international revolution recede. But if it is utopian to hope that support is around the corner, how much more so is it to wager on the impossible — autarchic socialism.”

The results are too well known to require elaboration. The most important of them, aside from the deaths of millions and the physical annihilation of Lenin’s party in the purges, was the disgracing of socialism.

The Russian Revolution quickly sank into decrepitude, and even in Lenin’s lifetime only a small cadre continued to believe in its ideals. As Miéville reminds us, horrible signs of degeneration in the form of gruesome crime waves appeared even in the midst of the year 1917.

But Tariq Ali, in his The Dilemmas of Lenin, shamelessly exonerates Lenin for the failings of the infant Soviet state, saying that “[w]hile he accepted his share of responsibility while recognizing the role of material causes in setting the party on this path, he was shaken by how far along it the party had gone and concerned with the subjective factor, namely the party and the leadership.” This is particularly rich: The man who established a dictatorial, anti-democratic system in his own party, who imposed changes in line once in power, who went to war with the anarchists of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine, who crushed the uprising of the revolutionary sailors of Kronstadt, whose founding of the Third International led to the subjugating of foreign revolutionaries to Bolshevik dicta, is presented by Ali as the man “shaken by” and trying to forestall the horrors to come.

IN THE END, the Bolshevik Revolution poses the question of whether it is worth succeeding at revolution at the cost of making a mockery of everything for which you stand. If the stated aim was workers’ power, when you can no longer be sure of the support of the workers and have to replace soviet democracy with party rule, is it worth it? Can the socialism such a system produces really be called socialism at all? When you treat your own people as a potential enemy, will they not become the enemy of all you stand for, even if you stand for a doctrine that claims to speak in their name?

I discussed this matter with some French friends, a couple that spent decades as Trotskyist militants. I suggested it would have been better had the Bolsheviks been defeated in October 1917 while the revolution developed among a multiplicity of parties. They thought that the existence of the Soviet state until 1920, or perhaps 1921, before the nightmare of Kronstadt and the Soviet crushing of a true workers’ revolt, would have been fine. In reality, however, the Soviet Union lived for seventy-five years, progressively sapped of its revolutionary energy while sapping the revolutionary left around the world of any possibility of success.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.