The Duel: Should we regret the Bolshevik Revolution?

Two contributors battle it out


Should we regret the Bolshevik Revolution? free polls

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One hundred years ago this spring, there were remarkable events in Russia. But when I was young it was the October Revolution that I was taught about—how it had ushered in the world’s first worker’s state, and constituted the greatest moment in world history. It had, I knew, brought down one of the great tyrannies: the backward, dictatorial regime of the Romanov tsars. That the tsar had abdicated in February, months before the Bolshevik Revolution, passed me by. Like most people I believed Russia had gone from the tsars to the Bolsheviks in one jump. I therefore missed the other possibility: that of a democratic Russia.

It was not the tsar that was driven out by force, but the provisional government composed of social democrats, some conservatives and some social revolutionaries. This conflicted government continued to prosecute a war with Germany that had become impossible for the Russian people. But had they managed to hold on another year they would have been victors not victims.

What Russia got instead was a coup d’etat by the Bolsheviks. This was followed by Russia’s first free and open elections and a formal proclamation of all kinds of human rights. But when the elections resulted in a defeat for the Bolsheviks—they received 24 per cent of the vote—Lenin dissolved the Constituent Assembly and began banning opposition newspapers and—within a year—all opposition parties. By February 1918 Lenin was justifying extra-judicial executions of opponents and extolling the need for “the very cruellest revolutionary terror.”

The means had dictated the ends. Lenin and his revolution destroyed the chances for democracy in Russia and rendered Stalinism almost inevitable. They built a road that led to one bloody cul-de-sac after another. There is much to regret.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for the Times and author of "Party Animals: my Family and Other Communists," now in paperback

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It’s questionable if any form of democracy was possible in Russia by late 1917. But the question cannot be answered while ignoring the soviets as you do. The first democratic institution to emerge from the February Revolution was the Petrograd Soviet. The model of democracy it proposed was socialist self-government entirely different from the liberal, property-based democracy of the provisional government.

The elected workers drove out tyrannical managers and took over factories. They took control of the army, transport and communications. By October, two-thirds of large enterprises had soviets running them. They administered food supply, education and law and order. In the army, organised insurrection was afoot. Peasants drove out land captains, township elders and police, and set up democratic township committees.

When Lenin proposed soviet power in April 1917, he was in a minority in his own party, let alone the country. What mainstreamed the idea was the war, which killed 3.3m Russians and saw anti-semitic purges, and the collapse of the economy. Mass protests by soldiers in the summer, demanding soviet power, accelerated the process. The appointment of the reactionary General Kornilov to crush the Petrograd Soviet and enforce military discipline demonstrated that even liberal democracy was not safe with the provisional government.

By October, there was barely a functioning state apparatus. Facing collapse, the call for “All Power to the Soviets” won majority support in the soviets. The Bolsheviks’ attempt to create a soviet democracy was a bold leap into the future, in a backward, wrecked economy. They acted quickly to end the war, institute workers’ control, and reform land ownership, but they needed the revolution to spread to Europe. It didn’t. Within a year, amid counter-revolution and international intervention, the new state was engulfed in civil war, and the bases of terror and authoritarianism were being laid. That failure should be mourned, but the attempt should not.

Richard Seymour is the author of "Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics," and a founding editor of Salvage Magazine

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Let’s talk about the soviets that existed before the October Revolution and that theoretically became the governing powers in the new state. They were made up of delegates from factories and regiments (people elsewhere had little representation) and were initially exciting, chaotic and disputatious.

The question, as ever, was how they were elected, who was elected and what powers they had. When Lenin decreed “All Power to the Soviets” he didn’t mean “let a thousand flowers bloom.” The Leninist declension was that the working class led the nation, the proletariat led the working class, the Party led the proletariat, and Lenin and his associates led the Party. And so, not even gradually, the soviets were purged of non-Bolsheviks, through arrests and intimidation. As early as 4th November 1917 the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom)—decreed for itself the right to pass legislation without prior or even subsequent approval from the Soviet. And guess who led Sovnarkom.

Authoritarianism was in the Leninist DNA. And so was an utter contempt for compromise, even with other socialists. Civil war was embraced as a catalyst for revolutionary change. Hence your hero, Trotsky, in June 1918: “Long live civil war! Civil war in the name of direct and ruthless struggle against counter-revolution!”

Other socialists had regarded the October Revolution as premature at best and advocated co-operation. Lenin repudiated them and their warnings. But they were right. To predicate the rapid and utter transformation of a vast society on revolutions happening in other countries, revolutions which never really had a chance, was obdurate folly.

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We can talk about the Constituent Assembly properly, now that the soviets have been acknowledged. The two major parties in both the soviets and the Assembly were the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (SRs). The SRs soon split between left and right factions over support for the war and the redistribution of land. But the list system on which they had been elected to the Assembly unfairly favoured the exhausted Right SRs.

The Bolsheviks and Left SRs agreed that soviet democracy had to be recognised as supreme. The Assembly was shut down after rejecting this position. Nonetheless, the coalition government formed between Bolsheviks and Left SRs represented the popular majority.

The argument that the Bolsheviks then crushed opposition parties out of some genetic authoritarianism is familiar enough. But it is Cold War dogma, not scholarship. The most important party conflict arose from the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. This huge democratic assembly met in March 1918, and ratified the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, ending the war. The Left SRs, who were present, were opposed. They responded with a policy of terror, and killed the German ambassador, hoping to sabotage the peace. Shouldn’t the Bolsheviks have stopped them?

Likewise, Trotsky’s exhortation about the Civil War, stripped of context here, came amid counter-revolutionary terror and famine. Why leave out such important details? After all, context wouldn’t preclude a critique of Bolshevik actions. Is it possible that a nuanced reading would undermine the simplistic demonology, blaming everything on the implacable authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks?

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Ah yes. Context. The thing we deny our enemies and lavish on our friends. I grew up with historical context: context about the Hitler-Stalin pact, context about the Hungarian Revolution. They’d run out of context by the time they got to Czechoslovakia. To quote someone on his own more recent departure from a Leninist organisation, “master dialecticians, they can defend any barbarity to their own satisfaction. They’re still telling themselves, no doubt, that all this stuff… is a pack of lies dreamed up to hurt the party.”

That was you leaving the sect-like Socialist Workers Party in 2013, when it faced no civil war, no murderous enemies. And yes my argument is indeed that the Bolshevism created by Lenin was structurally an authoritarian and sectarian project.

Martin Ivanovich La- cis was a courageous and disciplined Latvian Bolshevik who, a few months after the Revolution, found himself in Ukraine working for the secret police founded by Lenin—the Cheka. Following Lenin’s analysis, he explained his approach to winnowing out enemies of the Revolution. “The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate.”

You will, if you are honest, recognise the logic at work here. It eventually caught up with La- cis—Stalin had him shot in 1938.

I don’t believe the Bolshevik Revolution was the only great change possible. In itself and in its long aftermath, it divided the socialist movement and crippled the capacity of the left to make alliances in the face of fascism. Because of it, for nearly a century, many wonderful and brave people were derailed onto tracks that led into the arid exile of Trotskyism or a state of blustering apologism for the indefensible. Or both.

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It is beyond my verbal powers to explain why the comparison of Stalinist murderers with backward, patriarchal British Trotskyism, is wildly off the mark. But I can see a logical progression in moving from “contextualising” the invasion of Hungary (3,000 deaths) to cheerleading the invasion of Iraq (up to a million deaths). Still, even you agree that context and evidence matters. As you wrote about Iraq: “Those weapons had better be there somewhere.” We all make mistakes.

Let me mention some weapons that did exist. In Ukraine and southern Russia in April 1918, there began a campaign of mass destruction. At least 100,000 Jews were butchered by “White” forces and Ukrainian nationalists. Cossacks took power in the south-east and killed tens of thousands. Thus began the White Terror. You’re right that soviet power was not the “only great change” possible: the material forces of the pogrom-state were armed and ready for power.

After the attempted assassination of Lenin in August 1918, “Red Terror” began. The Cheka, over 1918-19, arrested just over 128,000 people, of whom 42 per cent were released, most of the rest tried and imprisoned, and just over 10,000 were executed. There is no need to justify everything the Cheka did or, in La- cis’s case, said. Even many Bolsheviks worried it was out of control. But soviet rule was worth defending against the White Army, with violence. The tragedy is that it was killed by the effort. By the end of the civil war, the self-ruling population was decimated. The party-state, the fusion of Bolsheviks with Tsarist bureaucrats, emerged in the ruins.

This defeat didn’t stop other radical attempts at self-government: cordones in Chile (1970), shorahs in Iran (1978), even workers councils in Hungary (1956) and, later, Poland (1980). As liberal democracy proves weak and crisis-ridden in the face of far right challengers, we could do worse than take Walter Benjamin’s “tiger’s leap into the past,” and recover this valuable tradition.