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One Hundred Years, One Hundred Messages

Uritskii’s funeral

Uritskii’s funeral, 1 September 1918. Zinoviev is standing second from right. Molotov is fourth from right wearing a raincoat. State Museum of the Political History of Russia, St. Petersburg. (The Bolsheviks in Power, p. 328)

Tamás Krausz is a professor of history at Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences in Budapest, and the author of Reconstructing Lenin (Monthly Review Press, 2015).

Translated from the Hungarian by Bálint Bethlenfalvy.

On the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the most popular “interpretation” of the upheaval of October 1917 portrays it as a coup or putsch—an idea that holds sway virtually throughout Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, from the mainstream media to U.S. history books. Even in Russia itself, the criminalization of the history of the revolution, the absolutism of the dominant narrative of violence and terror, has become commonplace. The new power elite and bourgeoisie of the post-1989 regimes are terrified even of the memory of the revolution. A vast establishment is dedicated to this manipulation, under the banner of “remembrance policy,” with the aid of whole battalions of historians.

The Fall of Tsarism: Regime Change

The systemic crisis that shattered the Russian monarchy and traditional Russian society in 1917 did not break out suddenly. The liberals and the Marxists—Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Milyukov, Vasily Klyuchevsky and Mikhail Pokrovsky, V. I. Lenin and Peter Struve, Leon Trotsky and David Ryazanov—had been engaged for years in a heated debate about the relationship between the crisis of the autocratic regime and the “specificity of Russian historical development.” In 1905 this “specificity” surged to the surface. That year, the proletariat, though few in numbers and concentrated in the cities, and the tens of millions of landless peasants, with their land-occupation movements, let the world know that the fate of the Tsarist autocracy depended on them. Neither the brutal terror, nor the Tsarist “constitution,” nor even the unfinished agrarian reforms of Pyotr Stolypin could alleviate the internal contradictions and social tensions of the autocratic regime, instead only aggravating them further.

In the early twentieth century, Russian social democrats described the “concentration” of structurally and ideologically conflicting modern and pre-modern social forms, under the rule of an increasingly “overbearing” capitalism, as the fundamental fact of Russia’s modern historical development. This multi-sectored, semi-peripheral development represented a sort of transition between European-American core capitalism and the “pre-modern” colonized world. In this regard, with a hierarchically structured world economy, Russia at once depended on a core of foreign capital, and was at the same time itself a special form of colonizer, in terms of Lenin’s concept of “internal colonization.” The modern form of capitalism gradually reduced the pre-capitalist forms to a function within its own system, extracting unprecedented profits from the reproduction process and the accumulation of capital within the “semi-peripheral” region—to the delight of capital at home and abroad, and to the bitter sorrow of most of the population. The autocracy could only contain the rebellion of this largely illiterate, cheap labor force through brutality. This social mass, the modern industrial proletariat of Russia, grew in the period preceding the First World War to ten million.1

In the Tsarist monarchy, the third estate did not come into being of its own volition. Indeed, even by the early years of the twentieth century, Russia lacked an economically and politically independent, democratic bourgeoisie in the Western European mode. Recognizing this, most of the Russian revolutionary social democrats, and the Bolsheviks in particular, concluded that without a powerful middle class, there could be no civic democracy in the Western, liberal sense. Therefore, the socialist workers’ movement sought to complete the “integration” of the “pre-modern” movement of the landless peasantry (a worker-peasant alliance, or smichka), which had been piloted successfully in the Workers’ Revolution of 1905, through the “integration” of the Revolution and Civil War of 1917. By contrast, most Mensheviks advocated cooperation with the liberal bourgeoisie and the All Russian Constituent Assembly rather than with the “conservative peasantry.” This conflict had become apparent early on, in the way Plekhanov and Lenin became political opponents.

The progress of globalization, which the Russian and international workers’ movement called “imperialism” and “colonization,” signified far more than the economic and political advance of capital and the great powers. The development of capital took on new forms, wars eroded the framework of empires, national and popular movements arose, and new nation-states with their own new internal contradictions took shape. Neither the tsar, the bureaucrats, nor the Okhrana understood the reality and gravity of these problems, much less had a solution. After the collapse of the 1905 Revolution, development turned toward the “modernization of autocracy,” the so-called “Prussian path” to capitalism. These circumstances revived the debate about the prospects for a powerful, independent bourgeoisie. Even some social democrats were lured by this mirage of liberal progress.

The Revolutionary Legacy

Even in the face of repression, the nineteenth century’s share in the revolutionary legacy only expanded in both intellectual and social terms—first with the populist Narodniki, and then with the advance of Marxism.2 Inside the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the intelligentsia set the terms and goals of the nascent labor movement—as required by the socio-historical specificities. As Eric Hobsbawm noted long ago, the influence of intellectuals in the labor movement increased as one moved from Western to Eastern Europe. Accordingly, the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary tradition became a direct part of the actual practice of the revolution, helping to orient its actions and ambitions. The documents of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, in 1903, reflect the key features of that tradition: the rejection of bureaucratic compromise, and dedication to the ultimate goals of revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally socialism, defined as the eradication of social and economic inequalities.

Historiography has long established that Russian social democracy and the revolutionary movement were the offspring primarily of Russian Jacobinism (Tkachovism), Bakuninism (anarchism), Narodnikism, the Narodnaya Volya, and the so-called revolutionary democrats, such as Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Dobrolyubov, and N. G. Chernyshevsky. This legacy was present to different degrees within the various revolutionary movements. Marxism arrived relatively late, only taking root among social democrats, under the leadership of the “forefather” Plekhanov, at the beginning of the century. This legacy was chiefly inspired by the Enlightenment and French socialism, as well as German social democracy, integrated on a foundation of Karl Marx and Marxism.

The possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia had been foretold by Marx himself, in a famous 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich. Even before the revolution of 1905, Lenin recognized that the epicenter of revolutionary development had moved to Russia. Based on Marx, Lenin envisioned a Russian Revolution as the flashpoint for a pan-European revolution. Even Marx, in the Zasulich letters, wrote that if the Russian Revolution were not left to stand alone, the Western labor movement would be freed of the fetters of the capitalist order, so the success of the Russian Revolution and socialism would be ensured—in part by the communal traditions of the peasantry. If it did remain alone, however, a Russian Revolution, in terms of its original communist goals, would be doomed to failure.

In their foreword to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Frederick Engels saw the correspondence between the local and the universal revolution in their singular unity. They grasped the significance of the Russian village community and the chance of a Russian Revolution from the country’s distinct development and relation to the core: “Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West? The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”3

Qualities Particular to the Revolution

This is where Lenin took up the Marxian line of thought. For the Russian Revolution did not come to pass along the lines Marx and Engels had proposed. By the turn of the twentieth century, Plekhanov and Lenin agreed that the village community had been irredeemably “compromised” by capitalism. At the same time, the West offered no model for the Russian revolutionary movement to follow.

Lenin’s revolutionary alternative of “civilizational breakthrough” found its final conceptual and theoretical form during the First World War. He drew up the law of capitalist “unequal development” in the period of imperialism. In this context he called Russia “the weak link in the chain of imperialism,” making it the best and easiest place to disrupt the global capitalist order. He believed the real “victims” of international competition and capital accumulation—above all, the laboring masses of the semi-periphery—would form the foundation of the anti-capitalist “proletarian resistance,” and could build an alliance with “democratic, national independence movements” fighting colonization. Though Lenin exaggerated the anti-capitalist potential of the anticolonial movements, he recognized their variety in historical and class terms. The criterion of his judgment was whether these movements oriented themselves toward the “Middle Ages” or the “modern period.” Breaking with western Eurocentrism, and even with mainstream views on the left, he looked for possibilities of a global resistance. However, the revolutionary crisis was instead finally accelerated by the World War—recalling in some ways the Russo-Japanese War, which was “to blame” for the outbreak of the 1905 revolution.

The exhaustion of tsarist reforms strengthened the position of revolutionary movements, but the imperialist world war, with its senseless destruction and apocalyptic violence, did even more to bolster the radical cause. The First World War was thus the immediate “precursor” to the revolution. Rather than a simple food shortage, what began to unfold in 1916 was a complete breakdown of the system of production. Just after the February Revolution, a whole series of production plants shut down amid the crisis. “The decrease in production and the mass closure of plants,” one scholar has written, “occurred right after February. Even private capital did not set too great store by the new, Provisional Government, though in terms of class it ‘belonged’ absolutely to them. This fatal lack of faith was manifested unequivocally in the mass closure of private companies.… By October, industrial production had fallen by 40 percent compared to the previous year, 1916.”4 So neither the chaos, nor the violence, nor the disease, nor the famine resulted from the revolution, but were rather the consequences of the world war and the collapse of the tsarist regime. Some companies slashed workers’ wages to half of pre-war levels. Early on, the October Revolution, like revolutions in general, had nothing to be proud of in terms of organizing production. Despite all the efforts of the “changing Soviet regime,” the declining production, famine, and unemployment remained rampant in the years after 1917. The pillaging of food stocks was common, and many city-dwellers were driven to the countryside by the looting. Though restive, most Russian laborers and peasants nevertheless accepted these sacrifices, bolstered by the alliance of “conservative” peasant anti-capitalists and the modern (semi-)proletarian anti-capitalists.

Lenin the Putschist?

In the days of the February Revolution, which swept away the tsarist autocracy, the Bolsheviks hardly figured in public opinion, appearing instead as merely one minor sect among the many newly free movements and parties formed after the February upheaval. In addition, many of the party’s few thousand members were in exile or emigration. The dissolution of the army, however, played into the Bolsheviks’ hands, since they were the only party to demand an immediate end to the war, unconditional peace, and “the unification of the world proletariat” against capitalism.

Across Europe, the destruction unleashed by world war seemed to signal the final limits of capital accumulation, and to confront humanity with a spontaneous choice. The “answer” given by the Russian Bolsheviks was developed through years of methodical, ardent, self-sacrificing revolutionary organization. In the wake of the February Revolution, they were truly the first to understand that though they were not the ones making history, or the revolution, they were instead at the helm of a rapidly growing, instinctive popular movement. It is no accident that out of a party of a few thousand “professional revolutionaries,” by October 1917 the Bolsheviks had become a people’s party of three hundred thousand. Other movements did not even seriously aim for a proletarian revolution, and in this sense the Bolsheviks faced little competition within the revolutionary camp. The divided and heterogeneous Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), with a membership of over half a million in the summer of 1917, did not present a clear plan, which may have helped to drive the angry masses toward revolution. The SR prime minister of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, was neither willing nor able to withdraw from the war or to initiate land redistribution.

Well before the October Revolution, Lenin had looked to the Paris Commune as a possible and natural “precursor” to the Russian socialist revolution.5 Studying the workings of the bourgeois state, Lenin concluded that in Russia, mass poverty and deprivation made practical implementation of the legal possibilities offered by liberal democracy impossible. Not only did the poor not have the means to “buy up” democracy, but “the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that ‘they cannot be bothered with democracy,’ ‘cannot be bothered with politics’; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.”6 Lenin came to consider the liquidation of the “state-parasite” as a political prerequisite for the “economic liberation of labor.” In fact, the notions of state and liberty were interpreted as diametrically opposing concepts—a contradiction that only the revolution could resolve. Here too, Lenin cited Marx, who proposed that in building socialism the notion of state be expunged and replaced by the notion of community.7 Lenin noted:

Certainly no one opposed to the advice of Engels and Marx will be found among the Bolsheviks. The only difficulty that may perhaps arise will be in regard to the term. In German there are two words meaning “community,” of which Engels used the one which does not denote a single community, but their totality, a system of communities. In Russian there is no such word, and we may have to choose the French word “commune,” although this also has its drawbacks.8

In the end, Lenin preferred the French word, which finally entered the language as communa. It was first mentioned perhaps in a note from November 14, 1917, which Lenin made at the meeting of the party committee of Petrograd.

The creation of this socialist “community” must be considered the substance and goal of the revolution. So the revolution was a simultaneously economic, social, and political act of the wage laborers. How, then, could it be considered a putsch? Indeed, a genuine revolution and a putsch are mutually exclusive ideas, since the latter signals a battle for power between factions within the ruling class.

The armed revolt, terror, and violence cannot be abstracted from the actual process, as a part of the whole. Lenin had spent decades criticizing the Decembrists, the Russian Jacobinists, and the terrorists for their isolated “actionism,” emphasizing that such “elitist” forms of armed revolt based on conspiracy alone were doomed to failure. In the period preceding the February Revolution, Lenin devoted his theoretical and organizational efforts to surveying the social effects of the world war and mapping its possible consequences. The initial fruit of these labors was the classic Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution which included the decisive historical lesson “confirmed by every great revolution,” and soon to be repeated by the Russian Revolution and Civil War: as the logic of the class war would dictate, the revolution, the civil war of the revolution must fight the organized military forces seeking to restore the old order. Since the world war had inflamed class conflicts to their limit, it was impossible to end this “reactionary and criminal war of the slave-owners” with the mere pacifist slogan of disarmament—and so an anti-imperialist national war could turn into a civil war.9 The whole of Lenin’s analysis makes it amply clear that any form of putsch to substitute for the uprising of the revolutionary masses would never stand a chance of success, since a putsch was in the end no more than a tool to “settle” conflicts within the ruling class. Lenin was well versed in European history, and especially the history of revolutions. Representatives of the historiographic “putsch theory” conveniently ignore the fact that the “putschist element” is a frequent concomitant of revolutions, which nearly always bring violence, as quite spectacularly documented by the bourgeois revolutions of the Netherlands, England, France, and elsewhere—not to mention the fact that ending slavery in the United States required the bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century. It cannot be forgotten that the violence of a revolution depends—along with other factors—upon the counterrevolutionary resistance’s level of violence.

On January 9, 1917, the anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Lenin, still in exile, gave a lecture at the Zurich People’s House for a meeting of labor youth, in which he underscored the importance of the popular nature of the first Russian Revolution, the mass strike, the general strike, and the self-organization of people. “The word ‘striker,'” Lenin said, “acquired an entirely new meaning among the peasants: it signified a rebel, a revolutionary, a term previously expressed by the word ‘student.’ But the ‘student’ belonged to the middle class, to the ‘learned,’ to the ‘gentry,’ and was therefore alien to the people. The ‘striker,’ on the other hand, was of the people.” Lenin drew attention to the unification of the movements of the urban mass strikers and the rural peasants as a significant revolutionary innovation, one that had even shaken the last bastion of tsarism, the army.10

The specious interpretation of the revolution as a putsch is a rather shopworn article in the marketplace of political ideas. The outlines of the idea appeared as early as 1905, when Lenin corrected the famous sociologist Max Weber on the “putschist” interpretation of the armed workers’ uprising in Moscow:

Even in the freest, even in the republican countries of Western Europe, the bourgeoisie manages very well to combine its hypocritical phrases about “Russian atrocities” with the most shameless financial transactions, particularly with financial support of tsarism and imperialist exploitation of Russia through export of capital, etc.… The bourgeoisie likes to describe the Moscow uprising as something artificial, and to treat it with ridicule. For instance, in German so-called “scientific” literature, Herr Professor Max Weber, in his lengthy survey of Russia’s political development, refers to the Moscow uprising as a “putsch.” “The Lenin group,” says this “highly learned” Herr Professor, “and a section of the Socialist-Revolutionaries had long prepared for this senseless uprising.”11

In sharp contrast, Rosa Luxemburg noted the significance of the energetic, conscious, and concentrated activity of the popular masses in the 1905 revolution, emphasizing the importance of the general strike and the soviets for world history. Indeed, if the revolution is not misleadingly framed as an overnight upheaval, its popular, mass character is apparent even in its preparation, in the many millions of people organizing themselves, who were later ready to follow the Bolsheviks even through the period of Civil War. Without this mass movement, they would have hardly stood a chance of defeating the White counterrevolution—supported financially and militarily by the West—not to mention the international imperialist intervention against Soviet Russia.

Bad historians are presentists, who do not look upon the present as an outcome of the past, but project it back upon the past. Trotsky even in his own time emphasized that revolutions “are not made to order,” however hard historians may try to prove the opposite after the fact. Revolutionary events depend on the one hand on the rapid radicalization of the masses and their parties, and on the other a multitude of large and small decisions by the organized groups in power. Lenin and the Bolsheviks—having learned from the mass movements—labored away, through multiple internal struggles, to reach a position that allowed them to take the helm of the revolutionary uprising at a historically decisive moment, even as the old tsarist order, and within it the bourgeois power structure (the Duma), crumbled under the pressure of continuing war and mass privation. So the real question is not whether the revolution could have been averted: a resolute “no” is the only answer. The question is instead: what form, what direction was given to the popular movements, and by which political force? In this sense, no one could have predicted the timing of the revolution, including Lenin, although he became its leading figure. Even at the end of 1916, he was unsure whether he would ever witness it: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution,” he wrote.12 The revolution was thus in no sense “made to order,” but in hindsight the Bolsheviks can, in the long run, be said to have prepared themselves best for the task of shaping its intellectual, political, and tactical trajectory.

When, after the February Revolution, Lenin confronted his Bolshevik comrades to develop their strategy, announcing that socialist revolution was truly on the agenda, the colossal role of the individual in history became clear to see.13 The task was “merely” to recognize that such a chance to rise comes only once in a century.

Two circumstances have decisive bearing in regard to this issue: by autumn 1917 the Bolsheviks held a majority in virtually every soviet. The other circumstance, expressly formulated by Lenin, stands on his conviction that “insurgence is art,” and that history only rarely allows its completion. It is no coincidence that Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party in August 1917, because he believed it to be the only group able to lead, to conduct this mission at the helm of the revolutionary masses. But it is important to remember that nothing was then evident or obvious. It took many years for it to become clear that the civic revolution was only an episode in the process of the Russian Revolution. For civic democracy is impossible without a democratic bourgeoisie; there is no way around it.

The Insurgents

The epic sweep of those days that carried millions of people along can be seen from several angles. The Western European press of the time had no idea what was going on. Painting nightmarish visions of rioting drunken sailors and marauders thirsty for revenge descending on the rich, the November 10 issue of the Paris Journal de Débats reported the “rampage of the defeatists, the traitorous cosmopolites,” who “do not represent the public opinion prevalent in the country,” and call for a repetition of the Kornilov putsch, but on “even grander scale.” However, the Times of London gave a more objective overview on November 19, citing the restoration of public order, the reinstitution of tram traffic in Petersburg, and the merry crowds attending the movies and theatres: “If food supplies are sufficient, the city will remain calm. Food stocks are enough for 10 days. Crime has virtually stopped under the oversight of the radicals.” John Reed’s account—in his magnificent Ten Days that Shook the World—does not continue in the spirit of the bourgeois papers, but evokes the mood of the revolutionary masses, becoming, in its reflection of that radical fervor, a kind of folk artwork, a primary historical source.

By October, 20 million people had organized in the soviets, but even earlier, in the summer of 1917, the soviets had a membership of 9–10 million people. The revolution was driven by the social self-organization of these millions of tortured people disillusioned by the war—especially in the workers’, armed, and peasant soviets, military and revolutionary committees, factory and plant committees, the professional and armed self-defense organizations. All were loosely structured for peoples’ mobilization, production, land distribution, and wielding of power, and all accomplished through a great deal of spontaneity and invention. The land decree accepted at the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets was also such an original product. It simultaneously expressed the desire of the peasants for land, and for social equality. The land was delivered to the peasants by way of an initial nationalization, so that it could not be bought and sold, and thus was removed from the sphere of market conditions and capital accumulation: “the land belongs to those who work it.” How far removed this seems from the War Communist policy of compulsory requisitioning of grain. And yet it was closer than it appeared.

These “spirits of communism” swept aside the institutions of the old ruling class at breakneck speed. In the feverish days of revolution, it seemed to the masses as if a communal society free of exploitation was within reach: “the final hour of private capital has struck” (Marx). Using a foreign word, the revolutionaries called the society of the future “socialist.” These people’s organizations had grown simultaneously out of the most modern and the most archaic conditions. Especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow, there were a few social groups within the industrial proletariat schooled in the theory and practice of social democracy, but who still preserved the traditions of the village community: “half worker, half peasant.” Trotsky even discerned Lenin’s peasant roots, though his mother and father were of the intelligentsia.

The distinct political and social features of the proletarian, military, and peasant revolutions were matched by their divergent aims and means. The most populous stratum of the “revolutionary camp” was the Obshchina peasantry, more firmly rooted in the past, a “conservative” revolutionary element seeking land redistribution, drawing on a tradition of anti-capitalist values. Another section of the revolution was the army, who were either peasants, or of peasant descent, but nevertheless peculiarly “traveled,” a mass of soldiers in arms and yet awaiting disarmament, whose interests were again formulated and represented most effectively by Lenin and the Bolsheviks—albeit in their own “anti-patriotic” way. In this sense, the revolution was a sort of return to tradition, and it is no coincidence that so many movements could make it their own and defend it on the fronts of the Civil War. These social layers of the revolution were filled by the spirit of Pugachovshina, the overwhelming spirit of anarchic rebellion, fused with the organizational tactics and symbols of the modern European labor movement.14 But the revolution also created its own culture. The Russian intelligentsia and a part of the cultured middle class took the side of the revolution, or was caught up in it, until the hardships entailed by the Civil War drove them to the side of the ruling classes, finally leading to the migration of hundreds of thousands to Western Europe and beyond.

The anti-capitalist insurgent masses coming to self-consciousness and driving the Soviet revolution forward were not “sensitized” to the liberal democratic alternative, the world of the bourgeois republic, which was alien to them. They did not really understand the concepts or conventions of bourgeois democracy, or the regulatory system of the market economy, though the idea of a constituent assembly did have a certain popularity in public opinion. The immediate concerns of workers and peasants were instead of a social nature, as expressed by the era’s slogans (“land, bread, freedom,” “down with the capitalist ministers, all power to the soviets!” and more).

The Dictatorship of the White Guard

The history of the international revolutions, whether in 1848–49 or in 1917–21, always includes the history of international counterrevolution. It seemed at first that the Russian Revolution won an easy victory: the centuries-old structure of autocracy fell like a house of cards in February 1917, and insurgents occupied the Winter Palace without firing a shot. Yet the social classes supporting the autocracy did everything in their power to salvage what remained. The revolution faced two simultaneous trials in this regard. One was the officers’ counterrevolution, the military dictatorships led by generals, aiming to save the ruling classes. The putschist General Kornilov (followed by generals Denikin, Yudenich, Kolchak, and Wrangel, all successors worthy of his fame) initiated these efforts in August 1917. But the ease of the Bolshevik takeover in October revealed the weakness of the Russian “military counterrevolution,” the disintegration of the army, and the number of soldiers joining the forces of the revolution.15 It was only with the intervention of the Western great powers that counterrevolution could make a comeback. Britain, France, the United States, and others supported those counterrevolutionary armed forces capable of being organized financially and militarily. The great powers did not set out on their military adventure in Soviet Russia primarily on ideological grounds, but rather for strategic influence, raw material deposits, and to “recover” earlier capital investments, as well as to continue the bloodbath in the hopes of reapportioning a splintered Russia. In this struggle their best allies could only be the military officers’ dictatorships, despite the White generals’ desire to reinstate a form of the old regime under the chauvinist banner of a “single and united Russia,” founded on monarchist traditions.

The Civil War was nowhere in sight when on March 9, 1918, the British landed in the county of Murmansk, followed by French, U.S., and Canadian troops in the city of Archangelsk that summer. On April 5, the Japanese invasion of Vladivostok began in the far east, with the Americans arriving a little later, while the British sought to seize the oilfields of Baku in August 1918—not to mention the Germans, who occupied virtually the whole of Ukraine in March. The entry of the Turks beyond the Caucasus, and then the ravages of the Czechoslovak counterrevolutionary corps on Russian soil, organized by the Entente, clearly signaled from May 1918 on that crucial territories of Soviet Russia had come under foreign military control, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the Caucasus to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In 1920, western Ukraine and western Belorussia fell into Polish hands after Pilsudski’s attack—mainly supported by France. Organized by the international labor movement, the Hands off Soviet Russia movement swept across Europe, and tens of thousands of prisoners of war in Russia, from an array of nationalities, remained in the country and took up arms to support the revolution.

Both the revolution and counterrevolution relied on international support—though the revolution overcame the various dictatorships of the generals relying almost wholly on its own strength. Only a centralized power backed by the broadest possible people’s resistance could have fought and won a Civil War raging across the immense Russian territories. The revolution’s mass appeal is well demonstrated by the fact that 44 percent of the Red Army command were former officers of the Tsar’s army. And even despite the attic-clearing measures of war communism, the more poverty-stricken strata of the peasantry found their way into the Red Army, though many had joined the Whites first, but the Tsarist generals could not outdo Soviet power when it came to the land issue. (The character of Grigor Melekhov in Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don symbolizes this historically decisive development magnificently.)

The counterrevolution’s other line of attack was to reorganize the Constituent Assembly, to rein in the socialist revolution and restore the framework of private ownership. However, the barricade of a revolution usually only has two sides. This was especially true in Russia after 1917. The SR-dominated Constituent Assembly chose a different path, continuing down the road of bourgeois legitimacy. That the assembly lasted all of one day speaks volumes about its prospects (on January 6, 1918, the guard of the Tauride Palace dissolved the assembly on the orders of the Bolsheviks). The situation arising after the February Revolution, in which the so-called dual power of the bourgeois provisional government and the Soviets fought it out, was taken to a new level in the struggle by October 1917. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, officially decreed by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, showed that the revolutionary regime did not recognize any power above it: “The revolutionary proletariat does not hand over power to the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie.” The leading forces of Russian liberalism ended up in the camp of the White counterrevolution, a consequence of the specificities of Russian historical development.

Events in the Siberian Urals and the Far East were the clearest indicators that if the Bolsheviks did not disperse the disorganized and weak forces of the Constituent Assembly, Admiral Kolchak—who “incidentally” liquidated the remains of the Assembly more radically than the Bolsheviks, by physically eradicating it—would have done so. The power structure established in Soviet Russia proved able to defeat even the most fearsome dictatorship of the generals. Power came to be concentrated in the hands of the Soviet command, organized also along martial lines as demanded by military needs, to secure victory on the fronts in the Civil War.

Of course, all of this contradicted the long-term goals of the revolution outlined by Lenin in September 1917, in his State and Revolution. But the contradiction was encapsulated already in the fact that in the interest of carrying the political class struggle through to its end, the Bolsheviks were unwilling to join a coalition government with the socialist and social democratic parties, which balked at their anti-capitalist program. The military regime of the counterrevolution had a great impact on all of society, including the revolutionaries themselves, who strived in turn to build a regime that could withstand—armed and organized—enemies outside and within. This set of demands and the inherited historical background formed the soil from which the later authoritarian Soviet government could easily sprout, though in the early 1920s it was a far cry from the conditions established by Joseph Stalin’s personality cult and dictatorship.

The question arises: why did the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party not crumble by the middle months of 1918? Contemporary dogmatists attribute the party’s success to violence and coercion, the Red Terror. Yet even Milyukov himself never made such an argument, rather emphasizing that the rule of the Bolsheviks was secured not so much by their strength, but by the weakness of their enemies.16 Leftist opponents of the Bolsheviks (Mensheviks, SRs, anarchists), meanwhile, often contend that the Russian workers and other groups were not drawn simply to Pugachovshchina, but also to authoritarianism, and note the disorganization in their ranks, the inadequacy of their class consciousness and culture. But even if the Mensheviks, SRs, and anarchists could see their own weaknesses as well, and many did (including Julius Martov and Fyodor Dan), by this means they only took a position “elevated over history,” with their bourgeois democratic republic, rather than making a realistic historical choice. Yet they were themselves quite aware that such a republic did not have the popular backing it needed to survive.

The Bolshevik Party worked aggressively to make up for this lack of support. It set about organizing the state and production amid political chaos and social disintegration. In a final accounting, the revolution diverged from its own pattern of grassroots self-organization due to the numerous historical, political, economic, and psychological reasons outlined above, and not to any subjective mistake.

State Socialism versus Self-governing Socialism

Labor gradually gained control of factories in the large cities from spring 1917 on. Workers’ control represented a serious threat to profits at capitalist firms, and factory owners were often unwilling even to pay the negotiated wages—as shown by the events at Kharkov and Yekaterinburg.17 This situation first led to the flight of capital and then nationalization of private companies after October. The latter did not necessarily mean state control, however, and new organizational forms of labor control still existed in many areas: the workers’ council or the factory-plant committee exercised direct control based on ownership rights, though with dwindling authority. Social and community self-governance persisted longest in those fields that politics and state power took longer to reach, mainly agricultural production. The producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives, associations whose members ensured the sustenance of their own communities, and which Lenin called “islands of socialism,” would not survive the Stalinist turn of the late 1920s. It could be argued that after the victory of the October Revolution, in stark contrast to the goals set out in Lenin’s State and Revolution, it was not the state, but Soviet self-governance that soon began to wither away.18 The Civil War and famine, the gravitational pull of the power apparatus, and the epidemic all practically eliminated the driving force of the planned “transition” to socialism: the Russian working class, the “proletarian-socialist component” of the revolution. In effect, the Soviet state supported self-government as long as it did not hinder military efforts or the unification of economic resources.

The given historical conditions plunged the Bolsheviks into a situation that not a single revolutionary could have planned for. The praxis of “socialism in one country” continued for seven decades as an experiment with the “new socialist civilization”—through various phases, forms, and features quite specific to it. How to classify the system that collapsed in 1989–91 is of course a matter of debate.19 Even in State and Revolution, Lenin had engaged in polemics on the conceptual confusion of capitalism and “state socialism,” writing that “capitalism…must be emphasized because the erroneous bourgeois reformist assertion that monopoly capitalism or state-monopoly capitalism is no longer capitalism, but can now be called ‘state socialism’ and so on, is very common.”20 So far removed were the Bolsheviks then from the Stalinist introduction of “state socialism,” that it would not have occurred to them in a nightmare.

Later, following the Civil War, Lenin modified his position, arguing that a “number of transitional periods” were required in Russia until one based on a multi-sector mixed economy would mark a new “social formation”—socialism, the lowest rung of communism, which could not yet be introduced, he conceded, “for we are illiterate.”21

What Remains of the Revolution?

By the end of the 1920s, it became apparent to wider circles of society that the socialist October Revolution had “frozen.”22 This was documented in various literary forms, perhaps most vividly in Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs. The Soviet revolution “was tamed,” or “grew wild,” “became distorted,” or simply “transformed” into either a “revolution of modernization” or a “bureaucratic counterrevolution.” Then as now, the array of formulations and expressions stood for diverging convictions, theories, and concepts. Perhaps it was Nikolay Ustryalov, Kolchak’s propaganda chief, who first eulogized Lenin as the hero of the Russian “revolution of modernization,” adding him to the “pantheon of Russian national heroes” for, as he put it, flying Russia from the Middle Ages to the modern epoch. Hence Lenin simultaneously embodies Peter the Great and Napoleon, Mirabeau and Danton, Pugachov and Robespierre.23 For all this adulation, however, Ustryalov omits the key legacy of Lenin and the October Revolution, something historically completely original: a socialist aspect. In this he presaged the typical historian or ideologue of our times, who deals with the goals of Red October by sweeping them all into the domain of utopia—in the best case—or worse, appends Nazism to its catalogue of sins. The most significant and enduring evidence of the continued historical existence of the “socialist aspect” is Soviet humanist culture, which never broke its link to the revolution. This aspect was especially important to the international left, because these were the grounds on which it based its critique of the distorted structures of Soviet development, of the gulags, of bureaucratic authoritarianism.

Across the world, the Russian Revolution brought the desires, especially of the lower social classes, out of the realm of utopia and into reality: the elimination of illiteracy, unemployment, and extreme social inequalities; the introduction of free education and health care; the liberation of women from the world of medieval repression, and more. As if overnight, millions of people felt emboldened to believe that they could build a more humane society, without oppression, governed by social self-organization and unbound from wage labor.

These fundamental humanist values of the revolution—social liberty, social equality, an economy founded on community—still capture the imagination. The October Revolution as an experience of history, remembered as a methodology for the transformation of the world into a community, has persisted far beyond the failed experiment of state socialism itself. In terms of its global effects, the October Revolution gave decisive encouragement to national liberation movements and the larger struggle against colonialism—whose real outcomes were ushered in by victory in the Second World War.

None of this should distract from the great dilemmas of what came after the revolution, which Lenin—paraphrasing Klyuchevsky—put as follows: even Peter the Great used barbaric means to sweep away barbaric conditions. This is perhaps the question left to posterity: is it possible to sweep barbaric conditions out by means that are not barbaric? I have no answer. Yet I am convinced that in structural terms, the objective conditions for new revolutions are continuously present in several regions of the global system—though in different forms and stages of maturity. This is the light in which it is worth looking back on those world-historical events of 1917, on their hundredth anniversary.


  1. M. I. Voyeikov, “Materialnie i sotsialno-ekonomicheskie predposilki Russkoy revolyutsii,” in A. A. Sorokin, ed., Oktyabr 1917: vizovi dlia XXI veka (Moscow: Lenand, 2008), 62–90.
  2. This subject interested historians in the United States as well, during the Cold War. Among the first books on the subject was Leopold Haimson, The Russian Marxists (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955). One of the first notable works on the subject by an émigré was by a leading Menshevik, Fyodor Dan, Proiskhozhdenie bolshevizma (New York, 1946).
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 426.
  4. D. O. Churakov, “Revolutsia i sotsialno-ekonomicheskoe polozhenie rabochih (konyets 1917–1918)”, in Sorokin, ed., Oktyabr 1917, 213.
  5. For more on this, see Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), chapter 5.
  6. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 465.
  7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 25, 440–41.
  8. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 25, 440–41, 490–91.
  9. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 77.
  10. See Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” in Collected Works, vol. 23, 243–47, 250–52.
  11. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, 250–51.
  12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, 253.
  13. In his lecture of January 1917, quoted above, Lenin said: “Undoubtedly, this coming revolution can only be a proletarian revolution, and in an even more profound sense of the word: a proletarian, socialist revolution also in its content. This coming revolution will show to an even greater degree, on the one hand, that only stern battles, only civil wars, can free humanity from the yoke of capital, and, on the other hand, that only class-conscious proletarians can and will give leadership to the vast majority of the exploited” (Collected Works, vol. 23, 252–53).
  14. V. Buldakov’s volume Krasnaya smuta: Piroda i posledstvii revolyutsionnogo nasiliya (Moscow: Presidentskiy tsentr B. N. Yeltsina, Rossiyskaya politicheskaya entsiklopediya, 2010) instead describes all of this within the explanatory framework of “elitism.”
  15. The history of the Russian counterrevolution is probably contained in the work of G. Z. Joffe.
  16. See also P. N. Milyukov, Rossiya na perelome: Bolshevistsky period russkoy revolyutsii (Paris, 1927).
  17. V. I. Lenin, letter of November 1917 to Shlyapnikov and Dzerzhinsky.
  18. On the fate of self-governing organizations, see Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008).
  19. See, Tamás Krausz and Péter Szigeti, eds., Államszocializmus (Budapest: Eszmélet Alapítvány, 2004).
  20. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 25, 447.
  21. “This cultural revolution would now suffice to make our country a completely socialist country; but it presents immense difficulties of a purely cultural (for we are illiterate) and material character (for to be cultured we must achieve a certain development of the material means of production, we must have a certain material base).” Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 467–75.
  22. Trotsky described this “freeze” with the concept of the “Stalinist thermidor,” which in the long run brought a new form into existence, state socialism.
  23. Nikolai Ustryalov, Natsional-Bolshevizm (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003), 372–76.
2017, Volume 69, Issue 03 (July-August 2017)
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