The Russian Revolution of March, 1917, was a remarkable instance of the demand for a great political and a great social transformation coming simultaneously, the people as a whole being prepared in sentiment, though not in intelligence and education, for a complete change. It had long been clear that the emancipation of the serfs decreed by the Tsar Alexander II had not materially improved the condition of the agricultural population or given them that control over the land of their country which might have led to a peaceable and beneficial reconstruction in the course of the next forty or fifty years.
As it was, the liberation of the serfs, which was regarded in Western Europe, and even by some of the Russian reformers themselves, as a splendid step forward to economic freedom, proved to be one vast illusion. Serfs were only nominally benefited by their enfranchisement. They were actually made to pay heavily for the land they cultivated. Their social status became, therefore, in some respects, even worse than it had been before. Consequently a whole series of unorganised peasant revolts, of the type of the old risings of serfs and peasants in Western Europe, took place all over Russia, and these were regarded by the Tsar’s Government as criminal ingratitude for the gracious advantages accorded to them from above. Such spasmodic upheavals were suppressed with ruthless cruelty, and all who sympathised with the risings of the deluded peasants in town or country, whether they were avowed Socialists or merely opportunist reformers, were treated with the utmost rigour as enemies of a paternal government whose high-minded policy was being misrepresented and used by misguided revolutionaries as a pretext for upsetting all law and order.
So hopeless did the position become, owing to the bigotry and tyranny of the autocratic monarch and his officials, that capable and intelligent patriots and enthusiasts were compelled to form secret societies, and to resort to terrorism and assassination from below, as the only possible means of resisting effectively legalised torture and murder from above. The survivors of these devoted men and women, the majority of whom suffered death by hanging, or from prolonged incarceration, have been able to show, under better conditions, that only the most unendurable tyranny drove them to commit, or to connive at, deeds which they would have been the first to stigmatise as crimes, had only reasonable freedom of propaganda and education been allowed. It is even possible, as some have contended, that, had their methods of violence been carried out as fully as originally intended, they might have rendered impossible the systematic tyranny under which they groaned, and might thus have brought the land question, the question of all questions, to an earlier solution in Russia. Such hypothetical possibilities need not now be considered. Events followed their course, little affected by the “removal” of individuals, from the Tsar downwards.
Owing to increased taxation, payment of the land “indemnity,” official corruption and defective methods of cultivation, together with a lack of highroads or local roads, and a deficiency also of railroad communications, the peasants in rural Russia became poorer and poorer, while a relatively very much smaller proportion of the population was being developed into a genuine landless, propertyless proletariat, in the great cities, mostly in the employment of the State. So bad had the conditions of the emancipated serfs become that in the early years of the present century, just prior to the attempted revolution of 1905-1906, the ablest Russian authority on economics, A.A. Issaieff, ex-Professor of Political Economy at the University of St Petersburg, declared that it would require thousands of millions of roubles merely to put back Russian agriculture where it had been twenty years before. There had been. during that period, a steady and cumulative decline in Russian agricultural prosperity, although exports of agricultural produce to Western Europe had increased. Official Russian reports give evidence to the same effect. At the same time, the increase of the industrial workers in the cities provided a field for the propagation of Socialist doctrines, which in all countries have followed the establishment of the great factory industry, and the development of the wage-earning class attached thereto.
Thus, as time went on, the disaffection of the peasantry was intensified and the ill-feeling of the wage-earners in the cities grew apace. In both cases there were the soundest grounds for ill-feeling against the ruling minority, who used a section of the people, in the form of bureaucrats, police officers, spies and ignorant soldiery, to crush down all resistance on the part of the overwhelming majority of Russians. There were but two redeeming economic and social features in this day of ruthless repression: the growth of the democratic zemstvos and cooperative combinations, with the spread of the agrarian Socialism of the Social Revolutionaries in the rural districts, and the creation of groups of Marxian Social Democrats, educated in the full principles of scientific Socialism, among the workers of the towns. But both these attempts to organise for a definite Socialist advance, suited to the stage of civilisation at which the country as a whole and its various class and industrial sections had arrived, were regarded by Nicholas II and his reactionary advisers with equal hostility, and kept down as far as possible by every available means.
Throughout this long record of Tsarist tyranny and religious bigotry, varied by continuous persecutions and occasional pogroms of the Jews, the old Russia of the “natural economy,” in which nobles and peasants alike lived upon the produce of their own soil, and were clothed with their own village and domestic manufactures, was passing gradually into the exchange stage, in which production for the market and money control of commerce became the rule, and the old production for use faded. Not only were the towns and mining centres affected by this modification, but a silent revolution in rural life was brought about, drawing a proportion of the peasantry, as we have said, from the country into the larger agglomerations of population.
Simultaneously, also, the small industries carried on by the former serfs in their cottages throughout the weary months of winter, when no agricultural work could be done, fell into the hands of sweaters of the worst kind. The descriptions given in reports, by men who specially examined into the conditions of air, heat, cleanliness and artificial light, under which these small manual industries were conducted, and the prices paid to the toilers, alone justified social insurrection. In order to verify every detail of the horrible disclosures thus made, one of the investigators – a man of high academic distinction – devoted himself to work in these winter avocations for two successive years, in different parts of Russia.
That the peasants were compelled by excessive taxation, failing crops and debt to submit, summer and winter, to such slavish misery, in order merely to live, strengthened their longing to possess the land for themselves and their children, and was the main point of any revolution, so far as they were concerned. The generation of Russians from 1862 to 1898, when the Social-Democratic Party was founded by Plechanoff, and the Social Revolutionaries, with the zemstvos virtually behind them, were actively at work, constituted the direct preparatory period for the coming Russian upheaval. Their theoretic differences about the policy to be adopted, when the actual revolution came, were even then apparent. But the terrorist action of the Government forced the conservative rural population to make common cause with the extreme section of the wage-earning population of the towns. The terrorism of 1877 to 1890 revived. Thenceforward, as has been well said, Russian politics became a conflict between two terrorisms: the terrorism of absolute Tsardom above, the terrorism of organised revolution below. But the former was exerted against a whole nation: the latter was the protest against frightful tyranny by a few individuals. During the whole of this desperate struggle, in the early years of the twentieth century, events told, as all can now see, on the side of the people. While the peasants were still called upon to pay the yearly indemnity for the land, which ought to have been granted to them gratuitously; while their zemstvos and cooperative societies were more stringently dealt with than ever: while heavy taxation and official malversation rendered their lot more and more unendurable; while the still small but growing city proletariat was exposed to exploitation and maltreatment in every shape; while the educated classes were being driven to recognise that only by complete revolution could Russia hope to overcome the infinite mischief caused by tyrannous, corrupt and incapable mis-government – while all this was going on, the Japanese War, with the resulting humiliation of Russia’s military power, displayed to all Russians a lack of intelligence, honesty and statesmanlike qualities on the part of their rulers which shook popular confidence to its foundations.
The Government of the Tsar was proved to be as incompetent in military matters as it was cruel and inefficient in civil affairs. Every soldier and sailor who returned from the Far East, after the Peace of Portsmouth, told in country and town such tales of neglect of the common people in arms, of the brutality of officers, of the inferiority of the generals, and of wholesale malversation and even civil and military treachery by officials in high places, that the whole Empire was filled with indignation. Hence, as sometimes occurs in human affairs, anger at national humiliation abroad combined with economic, social and political causes at home to render revolution in some form certain within a few years. Moreover, the Tsarist terrorism, terrible as it was, had been temporarily beaten by the revolutionary terrorists in a series of successful assassinations from 1901 onwards, culminating in the “executions” of Plehve and the Archduke Sergius in 1904 and 1905. The agitation for constitutional government, but not as yet for the overthrow of Tsardom, took a definite shape, and demands arose, from an important Convention of representatives from all parts of Russia to form a Constitutional Ministry. These demands the Government did not accept, but the promoters of the Convention, which was called together by the heads of the zemstvos, were not arrested.
This was in November, 1904. In January, 1905, large bodies of working men, who certainly could not be called violent revolutionists, but were rather men who hoped to gain social advantage through direct appeal to the Tsar as the father of Russia, went out on strike. The strikers, under the leadership of the priest, Father Gapon, issued a proclamation containing a programme which, though moderate from the Socialist standpoint, was distinctly revolutionary of all conditions then existing in Russia. To advocate general freedom, ministerial responsibility to the people, free State education, abrogation of all indemnity payment on land, an eight-hour day, freedom of combination and right to strike against capitalists, and a minimum wage, with complete representation of the people, was certainly a political and labour programme that spelt the downfall of unlimited autocracy almost as completely as the full Socialist claims formulated later. Yet the bearers of this petition to the Tsar went forward to the palace of the Emperor himself, singing hymns in his honour and exhibiting loyalty of the most effusive kind to his person. Those who distrusted Father Gapon, and regarded him merely as an agent of the reactionary Tsarist coterie, did not know what to make of it. Could it be possible that the Tsar, a mild, easily influenced personage, had decided to abandon his bigoted advisers and take the sting out of revolution, by accepting constitutional demands and the limitation alike of autocratic and capitalist power?
The answer came as soon as the vast deputation arrived in front of the Winter Palace. A fusillade was opened upon the unarmed multitude by bodies of soldiers who had previously been concealed. Hundreds of the deputationists were killed and thousands wounded. This massacre, since known as “Bloody Sunday,” is now regarded as the beginning of the first and unsuccessful Russian Revolution. From one end of Russia strikes were begun, meetings were called, and all classes, regardless of economic and social differences, set to work to organise to put an end to a government which resorted to such monstrous methods of repression. Industrial wage-earners and peasants were for once agreed.
This was indeed the commencement of the political revolution. The first Duma, or Constituent Assembly, elected by the whole country did really represent the full amount of development to which Russia, with her 165,000,000 of peasants, the vast majority of whom were uneducated, had yet attained. It was not, of course, a Socialist Assembly, though Social Democrats and agrarian Socialists were well represented. But the majority of its members were opposed to any continuance of the arbitrary powers of the Tsar, and there was good reason to hope that, if all advanced parties made common cause to this end, a new political era would dawn for the nation in which the great social problems of the land and the city industries might be peacefully worked out.
This was the view of George Plechanoff, the brilliant founder and leader of the Marxist Social-Democratic Party. But it not the opinion of Lenin (or Ulianoff), the head of another section of the same party. Lenin, though a fanatical Marxist himself, and at this time a great admirer and friend of Plechanoff, bitterly opposed to any arrangement whatever with the educated classes and the bourgeoisie. This, according to him, would take all the fighting class spirit out of the real revolutionary force, the propertyless proletariat, who, though a small minority of the population, contained within themselves all the real knowledge and power necessary for a class-conscious revolution. The bourgeoisie were, in their nature, oppressors of the workers, the peasants were inevitably a great reactionary element, owing to their economic position, their lack of education and the restriction of their aspirations to the acquisition of land for themselves. Consequently, though it might not be possible for Russia to avoid passing through the capitalist stage of evolution, it was injurious to the whole revolutionary movement to begin by co-operating with their most direct enemies, who would eventually prove more dangerous to the cause than even Tsardom itself.
Plechanoff argued, on the contrary, that the first thing to be done was to rid Russia, as a nation, of despotic rule, and that those who were ready to strive honestly with the mass of the people for that purpose, whether they belonged to the bourgeoisie or the peasantry, were useful, and indeed indispensable, allies for all who were endeavouring to reach the same political goal. But, throughout this period, Lenin took up the extreme dogmatic, doctrinaire standpoint that all compromise was harmful and treacherous to their great ideal. This, in an empire such as Russia, was to play directly into the hands of reaction, ancl that was precisely the effect of Lenin’s policy at that juncture. It brought him into very strange company; for his most intimate friend and associate, in his assaults upon the Duma and the Plechanoff section of Social Democrats, was Malinovsky, afterwards proved to be a police spy and agent provocateur in the pay of the Government; although Lenin’s confidence, or pretended confidence, in this person was such that he not only supported him as a champion of his theories in the Duma, but went so far as to nominate him, later, as one of the delegates for Russia on the International Socialist Bureau. Before he could come up for election to that body, Malinovsky’s real character was discovered and exposed.
There can be no doubt that Lenin’s tactics at this period did immense harm to the general cause, and helped the Tsar’s Government to recover the reactionary dominance which had nearly slipped from their grasp. That Lenin knew Malinovsky was a Tsarist agent seems scarcely open to question. But it may well be that Lenin believed himself to be using Malinovsky against both Tsarism and Parliamentarism, while Malinovsky, the clever spy, undoubtedly was using him.
The whole matter is referred to here, because at this point of Lenin’s opposition – with the help of Trotsky, Zinovieff and others who afterwards co-operated with him in more serious circumstances – to Parliamentarism generally and Plechanoff s policy in particular, the real foundations of irreconcilable antagonism to all forms of co-operation with other parties, and the fanatical determination to seize power by a minority, were laid. The terms Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) in the Marxist Social-Democratic Party soon ceased to have any real significance in that sense, for the two sections changed places in regard to their relative numbers more than once. But “Bolshevik” came to mean that body of Russian Social Democrats who, regardless of all other considerations, were prepared at any moment to use all means to push extreme revolutionary methods to the front. In the first Russian Revolution, with its apparently successful establishment of the popularly elected Duma, they had no chance of grasping power for themselves. All they could do was to shake the belief of those whom they could influence, in any political electoral body whatever, and to widen the existing breach between the wage-earners of the towns and the peasantry. The the Bolsheviks then did so far as they could.
With the election of the first Duma, and the nominal acceptance by the Tsar of Constitutional Government, there was a general belief, not only in Russia itself but throughout Western Europe, that the Empire of the Tsar had entered upon a course of peaceful transformation which would be beneficial to the Russian people and the world at large. There could scarcely have been a greater delusion. It is not too much to say that, from the very commencement of Parliamentary discussions, the Duma, and the formation of a responsible Ministry, reaction began to gain ground. With the army still at his disposal, with the corrupt official class favourable to the autocracy which . them power to enrich themselves, with the powerful police organisation ready to act in accordance with the orders they were accustomed to receive from above, and with the Church entirely opposed to anything approaching to reasonable democracy, the Tsar proved to be stronger for evil, after the creation of the Duma, than he had been before. Moved thereto by his reactionary counsellors, he was able to refuse to recognise its authority.
This was not due to any weakness, or lack of initiative, on the part of the Duma and its members. They issued a programme which embodied in moderate language all the political and personal freedom for which they had been agitating in the constituencies, and demanded at the same time the surrender of the land to the peasants and the passage of measures of social legislation to protect the workers of the towns. This democratic and semi-Socialist policy was accepted by the Duma almost unanimously. The Tsar, emboldened by the now rallied and still unbroken forces of reaction, summarised above, and by the evidence of dissension, however small in amount, on the popular side, dissolved the first Duma, and from that time onwards until 1910 and 1911 the old forms of reaction were in full swing. Though the second, third and fourth Dumas were summoned, and thus constitutional forms, to which the Tsar had pledged himself, were not wholly discarded, moderate reformers as well as Socialists were imprisoned, driven into exile or executed,
Jews were persecuted and terrorised as before, and, to all appearance, the fine uprising following upon Bloody Sunday had been successfully crushed down.
Rarely had the natural tendencies of autocracy exhibited themselves in more detestable shape, and this at a time when the word “revolution” was on everyone’s lips, discouraged as reformers of every shade of opinion had been at the failure of their great effort. Ripe, too, as economic and social conditions were for complete change, especially in regard to political institutions, general liberties and the land, the education and organisation of the mass of the people were so defective that Tsardom, controlling the only existing administrative forces, and filled with the religious conception of the divine right of the monarch to dominate the country, had an enormous advantage. The bourgeoisie, unlike the Tiers État of the French Revolution, had little experience or training in great affairs. Though, therefore, the leaders of the people did their best, ignorance, apathy, lack of cohesion and the habit of obedience rendered their followers incapable of grasping the opportunity prepared for them by economic conditions, and rendered more obvious by the incapacity of the men at the head of the State to estimate the probabilities of the immediate future. Hence, during the years immediately succeeding the dissolution of the first Duma, it looked as if Russia were doomed to another long period of furious repression.
There was, indeed, a superficial similarity in these years with those which preceded the outbreak of the French Revolution. A weak, humane and possibly well-meaning monarch, cursed with a German instead of an Austrian consort. That consort wholly incapable of understanding or appreciating the people over whom she came to rule, and under the domination of priests, charlatans and traitors, who played upon her feelings for the country of her birth. This above. Below, a mass of toiling, ill-nourished semi-serfs. Around the Court a body of self-seeking and corrupt officials and nobility, who cared for no interest but their own. The resemblance to the position in France before 1789 was nevertheless only partial, and the difference already noted between the numbers and organisation of the French educated men of business and professional class, and the extent and experience of the Russians of the same class, alone rendered any comparison illusory. It is nevertheless true that, had Nicholas II thrown off the influence of his half-insane Tsaritsa and his bigoted men of God, and taken the advice of statesmen and members of his own family, who foresaw the course of events, he might, as Louis XVI could have done when Turgot’ and Malesherbes were in power, have quite possibly helped forward a peaceful and beneficial revolution. But the Tsar Nicholas had no high faculties of any kind.
Instead of coming forward as the leader and father of his people, he persisted in the policy of repression, even when the revival of the insurrectionary spirit, temporarily damped down, manifested itself afresh, from 1910 onwards, by political strikes of a threatening character and obviously revolutionary demonstrations all over Russia. Russia was, in fact, in a perpetual ferment, from the students and wage-earners of the towns to the peasantry, which the Government was quite unable to put down. More than one First of May Demonstration was a definite menace to the reactionary Tsardom, which imagined that the power to check progress was still at its command. The entire educated class sympathised with this renewal of the revolutionary movement suppressed a few years before. It was when this fresh movement was gaining ground, and all hoped that free Russia would ere long assert herself, in spite of attempts to keep her down, that the Great War began.
At first differences were sunk in a common national effort to defeat the common enemy; though even then the extreme Bolshevist section declaimed against any war, even for national defence, which might interfere with the class war at home. Not, however, until the earlier successes had been forgotten in a series of defeats, and the intrigues of the Tsaritsa with her friends, Sturmer and Protopopoff, supported by Rasputin, to surrender corruptly to Germany were generally known, did the people display any disposition to bring about a revolution so long as hostilities lasted. The manifest treachery of M. Sturmer, scathingly exposed by M. Mihliukoff in the Duma, and the obscene and pernicious influence exerted by Rasputin over the Empress becoming well known, there was a general preparation for an upheaval. But even the private execution of Rasputin did not awaken the Tsar’s Ministers to the dangers ahead. M. Sturmer, though ejected from the Ministry, was appointed to an important position in the Foreign Office, and the pro-German intrigues went on as before. The reactionists refused to pay attention to anything but their own sinister policy of surrender to the enemy, and thought of nothing less than granting liberties to the Russian people.
In all this Nicholas II supported his Ministers. Far from feeling their own lot in jeopardy, these same Ministers, when the army was seething with disaffection and disgust at the manner in which Russia’s tremendous exertions and wholesale sacrifices had been frittered away by treacherous generals, such as Suklominoff, worse administrators, and shameless corruption in every department, actually thought it good policy to foment a rising in the capital. They did this confident that its speedy suppression would confirm them in the exercise of supreme power, thus enabling them to make the immediate peace with Germany for which they had so long been plotting. But the scheme was mismanaged by M.M. Protopopoff and Sturmer’s own adherents, the troops and even the corps d’elite of the guards sided with the people; so that the Tsar and his Government found themselves, quite unexpectedly, face to face with a successful revolution that they themselves had provoked. The downfall of the Romanoff dynasty was decreed.
The amount of bloodshed, especially when compared with the result achieved, was very small in the capital; but in the country districts, so soon as the news of what had occurred in Petrograd spread into the provinces, the peasants carried out wholesale attacks upon the landowners in many districts, of which a full account has never reached Western Europe. But all this is a matter of general history. What is not so well understood is that, at the time of the Revolution of 17th March 1917, Russia was already desperately impoverished by the war, the army was in a condition of complete disintegration and indiscipline, the feeling among the workers in favour of peace at any price with Germany was growing, and nothing short of the revival of a great spirit of national energy and self-sacrifice could save the country from drifting into disruption and anarchy. The economic condition, bad before, had grown worse each day; for there is now no doubt that the reactionists had deliberately encouraged maladministration on the railways and in other departments, with the idea that a breakdown of transport and a consequent shortage of supplies would help them and baffle the revolutionists.
The terrible difficulties which this state of things entailed for those who might endeavour to bring order out of this chaos were not at first recognised. In Western Europe, the successful revolution was welcomed by all parties as the opening of a new and glorious period of free development for a great Em: crushed for centuries under a harmful despotism. But it soon apparent that the revolutionary leaders had undertaken: light task. The disaffection in the army alone, consisting almost entirely of peasants, many of whom were anxious to get 1: to their own villages, in order to get their share of the land in the first days of seizure and redistribution, was sufficient to tax the abilities of the ablest statesmen to the utmost, while the prob of dealing with the officials of the old regime, who still constituted the only general administrative force of the country, was by do means easy to solve. A hundred and eighty millions of people, nearly all in the seventeenth-century period of economic and social development, gauged by Western standards, and the great majority illiterate, could not be dealt with in accordance with Socialist principles barely applicable to an industrial society of the twentieth century.
Therefore it would not be reasonable to criticise harshly the Provisional Government, and more particularly Kerensky and his associates, because they failed to dominate an almost unmanageable situation. To re-establish military discipline in a disaffected army, and at the same time to give the whole of the soldiery the benefit of the latest principles of democracy, was an impossible task. Kerensky himself saw that he was undertaking a forlorn hope, when he accepted the leadership that was forced upon him by the consensus of public opinion. His signing of the Manifesto granting complete democratic rights to the rank and file of the army, at the same time that he proclaimed his intention to enforce an iron discipline, has been vigorously denounced as extreme weakness. But he had, as leader of the peasant Social Revolutionaries and Radical Socialists, declared for war at the start, and unless he had decided to act as dictator it is hard to see what he could have done in view of the universal democratic flood that was sweeping everything before it at this juncture.
Plechanoff, Alexinsky Aksentieff, and other Social Democrats had been at one with Kerensky and his friends in advocating the defence of Russia against Germany, and their Manifesto to this effect was one of the most important political documents published at this critical time. Yet, at the beginning, the Social Democrats had abstained from voting the War Credits. They were likewise ready to support the Provisional Government in all democratic, agrarian and Socialist measures, until the Constituent Assembly of all Russia should meet to establish a definite Government and to formulate a clear policy. In short, a revolution had been brought about, but those who were mainly responsible for its success had not thought out a clear policy for the intervening period between the downfall of the old system and the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, a dispute;between Kerensky and General Korniloff added to the troubles of the Provisional Government and weakened its position seriously. This weakness was further intensified by the failure of the Allies to declare in favour of any Government accepted by the Constituent Assembly.
But all these preliminary events fade into insignificance, and are indeed of little moment at the present time, in comparison with what followed.
The Bolsheviks, as already observed, had declared from the first against any participation on the part of Russia in the war against Germany. They had done their utmost, throughout the war, to breathe disaffection with the whole policy of resistance to German aggression into both soldiers and civilians. They carried on secret propaganda in this sense whenever and wherever they could. That, by so doing, they strengthened the traitors in the Russian General Staff and in the Ministry, and played the game of Germany against Russia and the Allies, is indisputable. They considered that it would be better for their party, for Socialism, for Russia and for the world at large, that the German armies should win than that Tsardom should be fortified by victory. This, at any rate, was perfectly clear and logical. It was not the view of the majority of the Marxist Social-Democratic Party, nor of the Social-Revolutionary Party of the peasants, nor of the general body of democratic Russians.
But those who are inclined to stigmatise the conduct of the Bolsheviks on this head as necessarily a betrayal of their country may be reminded that at the beginning of the Franco-German War of 1870-1871 there were not a few eminent Frenchmen, whose patriotism has never been questioned, who, while ready to defend France, nevertheless entertained the hope that Napoleon III might not win. To the Bolshevik leaders it was more important to overthrow the Tsar and his system than to defeat Germany. The temporary conquest by Germany of Russia might, they argued, be a blessing in disguise. Nor should it be forgotten that the Tsar’s ministers, for very different reasons from those which affected the Bolsheviks, were quite ready, nay eager, to make a separate peace with Germany on terms which amounted almost to unconditional surrender. Extremes met. The Revolution of 1917 at least delayed the peace of reaction, and gave the Allies time to prepare for the peace of Bolshevism and pro-Germanism. Thus the Bolshevik policy, as formulated on this head by Lenin and his comrades, was undoubtedly pro-German; but pro-German because, as they thought, German success might serve the cause of Marxism applied to Russia hi its most doctrinaire, premature and impossibilist shape.
When, however, in the midst of the desperately difficult circumstances arising out of the Revolution, which had brought about that very downfall of autocracy for which the Bolsheviks themselves proclaimed that they were striving hi their own Machiavellian anti-national way – when, at this the most critical moment, perhaps, in all the long history of Russia, Lenin and his companions were hurried from Switzerland to Russia, through Germany, in German carriages, provided with German money and in constant communication with the German Headquarters Staff, it still seems astounding that they were not arrested at the frontier and sent back whence they came. However honest they might be in their political and social convictions, it was well known, to the men temporarily in control of the Russian Government, that the Bolshevik leaders were utterly unscrupulous, and that they would stick at nothing, first, to arrange an immediate peace of surrender with Germany, and then to ensure their own accession to power. Nevertheless, they were given free entrance, and were allowed full rights of agitation, propaganda and combination. Even when their methods were proved to be entirely anarchical and subversive, and they were consequently arrested and imprisoned, they were promptly released to carry on their work.
As might have been expected, these weak and hesitating tactics gave the Bolsheviks, ere long, the opportunity they looked for: the people having been convinced meanwhile that the Provisional Government was afraid of its not numerous but determined and fanatical opponents. Thus it came about that, at Pctrograd itself, the Bolsheviks were able to carry out a successful coup d’etat, before the Constituent Assembly, where the Social Revolutionaries and the Marxist Mcnsheviks had a great majority, could set to work. This Constituent Assembly, elected by full popular suffrage, at first had the support of the Bolsheviks. But when they discovered that they were in a hopeless minority in the Assembly, and that the representatives of the peasants with their friends would be in complete control, they dissolved the “Constituent” by armed force. Armed force was also used to secure Bolshevik domination in several provincial cities; and in more than one instance peaceful political gatherings of elected and unarmed deputies were dispersed by volleys from machine guns and rifles. Throughout these beginnings of the Red Terror, the Allies stood entirely aside, refusing either to acknowledge the Constituent Assembly, or to help its supporters to help themselves.
At this time, when it was admitted by Lenin himself that the Bolsheviks had no greater following than 200,000 in the whole 180,000,000 people of then undivided Russia, this infinitesimal minority, having captured the machine of Government, declared the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat₋, though the Russian proletariat itself did not comprise more than at the outside ten per cent, of the population. Of that ten per cent, the Bolsheviks were one per cent. The Soviets, or local popular bodies representative of the interests of the mass of the voters, were not, as is sometimes assumed, the invention of the Bolsheviks at all, but were set on foot, in some cases before, and generally immediately after, the Revolution. The Bolsheviks have taken care to prevent, for the time being, any difficulty arising with these democratic bodies by appointing commissaries with dictatorial powers in each district. The same course, in a different form, has been pursued with the Co-operative Associations. These most useful distributive agencies, which had made great way among the people during the whole of the troublous period through which Russia had been passing, were placed under the direct control of the Bolshevist State. In fact, though the methods adopted by the Bolsheviks to get and maintain themselves in power were thoroughly anarchist, their administration was autocratic, cruel and butcherly to the last degree.
Of this little account is taken in politics. Atrocities committed by the successful, no matter how atrocious, are soon forgotten and forgiven by the mildest of humanitarians who have political, or commercial, advantages to gain by cultivatir.j shortness of memory in such matters. That the Bolsheviks gained their position and keep it by terrorism of the most ruthless kind, that they resorted to massacre and torture of their assumed domestic enemies, is quite beyond dispute. Their recent official instructions to extirpate the Cossack peasantry in the most thorough fashion is but another extension of their systematic scheme of immolation, not only of the bourgeoisie, but of democrats and Socialists who differ from the policy of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinovieff, Litvinoff and the rest. But, if they finally win, all this will be overlooked.
It is most unfortunate, however, that the Allied Governments, and the British Government in particular, after having declared that they would not interfere in the internal affairs of Russia, when the surrender to Germany at Brest-Litovsk had been consummated, should have enabled the Bolsheviks to pose as the defenders of their country against invasion by the troops of foreign nations. Their success against the Allied forces, as well as their victories over Russian armies, largely financed and munitioned by the Allies, strengthened their position enormously: the rather that the territories at first overrun by these domestic foes of the Bolsheviks were treated by the reactionaries in the wake of Generals Denikin, Yudenitch and Admiral Koltchak as if they had been returned to Tsarist rule.
Thus, within a few months, the small Bolshevik minority gripped control of Russian centralised authority, and, within two years and a half, had defeated their enemies in the field, and become almost undisputed masters of Russia. At any other time such a remarkable success would have been impossible. But ruinous war, a rapid revolution – not carried through by the Bolsheviks, be it observed – the breakdown of military discipline, the general impoverishment of the country, the strange weakness of the Provisional Government, and the fanatical determination of this extreme Marxist section, opposed to doubt and indecision on the part of the supporters of the “Constituent,” gave victory, for the time being, to those who knew their own minds and had no scruples, against those who hesitated and were afflicted with moral sense.
The first intention of Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders was to seize control, apply the principles of scientific Socialism to Russia, overawe the peasantry and their (to Lenin and Company) reactionary views about private ownership, skip several steps in the slow advance of social evolution, and thus impose their doctrinaire opinions, not only upon the Russian people but upon the workers of all the nations. It seems beyond question, from Lenin’s own utterances, that he believed, for example, whatever sort of peace was arranged with Germany made little or no difference, since the success of the Social Revolution in Russia upon the lines laid down would involve Germany, and thereafter the whole of Europe, in a similar revolution. It was above all to be a proletarian revolution, though the proletaires of Russia were few indeed compared to the peasantry, who were the chief obstacle to communistic reorganisation. The bourgeoisie and the intellectuals were to be destroyed, or reduced to impotence, since the workers would speedily be trained to perform all useful functions in the Communist Commonwealth.
This, of course, was not Marxism according to Marx, or, indeed, scientific Socialism in any sense, as all the ablest Marxists in the world, beginning with Plechanoff on the spot, at once pointed out. Permanent social revolution and communist reconstruction can only be successfully achieved when the bulk of the population in any given country understands, and is ready to accept, the new forms which have, consciously or unconsciously, developed in the old society. The marvellous transition effected by Japan in forty years from feudalism to capitalism, and the simultaneous growth of Socialism in that remarkable nation, have altered the opinion of most Marxists as to the rapidity with which, under favourable circumstances, great social modifications may be brought about. But the process of historic evolution, slow or fast, cannot be overleapt by the most relentless fanatic, least of all in an empire such as that of Russia.
Lenin was of this opinion, at the time when he was an active member of the combined Social-Democratic Party. Experience has, apparently, forced him to return to the same view. For Bolshevism in control has been unable to avoid resorting to capitalist organisation under the State in its most arbitrary shape; the idea that nationalisation of land – the most difficult problem of all – could be realised in a hurry, against the demand of many millions of peasants for private possession of their holdings, has been abandoned; the masters of Russia are eager to develop international trade and commerce on profiteering lines; and they have actually bargained for the payment of interest on old foreign loans, a project which, if actually carried out, must spell ruin to Russian agriculture. The Russian Communist Revolution, which was, and is still, according to its [?] leaders, to result in universal upheaval, has been itself driven [?] back upon the old economic and social methods, which can only be beneficially replaced by a sane development of Social Democracy, such as can be observed in Czecho-Slovakia and Sweden, and can most easily and peaceably attain its ultimate goal in Great Britain.
There has been a natural disposition, as already said, to compare the Russian Revolution, both before and after the Bolshevik coup at the end of 1917, to the great French Revolution; and a superficial resemblance is indisputable. But the differences are also very great. The most striking of all, perhaps, is the contrast between the characters and careers of the Russian and the French exiles. The latter consisted almost entirely of the old feudal nobility, whose greed, cruelty, incapacity and moral cowardice – “Nous etions des laches,” said one of them – had been largely responsible for the catastrophe. They were the men and women who gathered at Coblenz to help the invasion of France by German and Austrian armies, rejoicing in the hope of their victory over Frenchmen, and bewailing their defeats when the Republican forces were successful.
Russian exiles, on the contrary, are chiefly the men and women who, having spent the best years of their life in fighting Tsardom and stirring up the people to resist intolerable oppression, were at last able, at the price of long imprisonment, and sufferings, to realise the splendid triumph of 17th March 1917. They are noble patriots, whom Bolshevik despotism has in its turn banished. But, maltreated and lucky to escape with their lives, so far from welcoming the attack of the Allied troops upon Russia, they nearly all of them protested against this foreign intervention which, if successful, would have personally benefited them. The Bolsheviks have persecuted and frequently killed those heroes and heroines but for whose great services they never could have feloniously laid hands upon the Russian Republic. These victims of minority despotism still believe that the democracy of Russia will assert itself and realise their dreams of social emancipation from all forms of tyranny for their countrymen. One thing they did achieve, in spite of all that has occurred since: they rendered the return of the Romanoffs and the system they represented impossible.
As has been well said by a Russian Socialist , Russia has produced men of great genius and profound thinkers who have had much influence on the world at large; but none of them has affected the West so seriously as Lenin, who is perhaps not even a man of high intelligence. It is extremely difficult to understand how a vast population came to be dominated by a small and truculent minority of middle-class men, who utterly failed to carry out the programme of social reconstruction they meant to impose upon their countrymen, and who, to commence with, had no great reputation among the people. Only when we reflect upon the results of ages of similar tyranny by a minority in power, the absence of any large intelligent and administrative bourgeoisie, and upon the lack of cohesion among the vast, masses of illiterate peasants – only then do we begin to comprehend how the whole astounding phenomenon has been brought about.
But the character of the Bolshevist dictator, Lenin, who has played the part of a Communist Ivan the Terrible in the new pseudo-Marxist Tsardom, counted for much. It seems to be the general opinion of Russians who knew him well that Lenin has no great intellectual gifts, and that he attained to his dominant position by pure accident. Yet, being neither an orator, a powerful writer, a great organiser, nor a statesman, he secured pre-eminence over capable and jealous rivals, placed himself in absolute authority over a hundred millions of people, and gave an impetus to proletarian revolt throughout the civilised world. That is no small achievement. Granted that circumstances favoured him at home, and that the great and growing hatred of profiteering capitalism aided his influence abroad, there is more here by a great deal than merely an obstinate and ruthless mediocrity. If the times produced Lenin. Lenin has influenced his times. The day has gone by when Carlyle’s idea of the great man, taking hold of events and twining them to accord with his magnificent far-seeing policy, can be accepted. The vast movements of worldwide civilisation develop themselves under conditions which take much less account of the greatest individuals. But the individual here and there does count in human affairs, nevertheless, and it seems worth while to attempt to analyse the psychology of the Bolshevik dictator.
First and foremost, Lenin is quite unhuman and unethical in all his actions. Having made up his mind that, as his fellow-Russian, Bakunin, taught, existing society ought to be destroyed for the sake of humanity, the lives and sufferings of men and women do not count at all in his Juggernaut advance to the desired end of general destruction. The bourgeoisie must be physically as well as intellectually crushed, and all who support them must be put out of the way. This not only in Russia, where the members of the detested class were not numerous, but all over the world. The drones must be immolated with entomological completeness. Hence the Bakunist ethic: “Whatever helps to this end is moral: all that obstructs it is immoral.” And of the morality or immorality of any action, individual or collective, Lenin is the sole judge. He stands outside the present social system altogether. But this view of life, once accepted and carried out to its logical conclusion, gives the person imbued with it immense power. Facts may change his immediate course, but not his ultimate intention.
Next, Lenin has the most superb confidence in himself. He goes to work to set things right in accordance with certain misconceived theories. They go wrong, as it was inevitable they should. He is still the one man to put them right! That this necessitates the entire abandonment of his previous policy does not affect him in the least. There he is, and there he will remain, until such time as, having by other methods brought enough of mankind round to his opinion – a minority will serve him in the future as in the past – he will go on with his original programme quite regardless of outside opinion. Thus he consorts with police spies whom he knows to be police spies, and uses them, or is convinced he does use them. He becomes an agent of the German Government, and uses it, or is convinced he uses it. He employs the worst of the agents of the old Black Hundreds, and uses them to make away with his enemies. He accepts money where he can get it, when weak: he lays hands upon it, or prints it, when strong. Always the end justifies the means. But the end is a long time in coming, and the means have to be varied.
Then, Lenin is pecuniarily honest. He is neither luxurious, extravagant nor miserly. His fanaticism calls for money. Money must be had. But he lives penuriously himself, and has a contempt for those who do not. This, too, is no sham parsimony, no posing asceticism. It is part of the man who, in his strange way, has got bigger as his outlook became wider. Millions of money, like millions of men, are for him mere counters in the huge game he is playing for a stake that, unless all history and all economics are to be read backwards, he never can win. It is an astonishing personality and an amazing career.
Lastly, as I read his influence, Lenin possesses, like the scoundrel Rasputin – to whom I do not for a moment compare him – some inscrutable hypnotic power, which enables him to exercise his will both upon men of higher capacity and greater acquirements than himself, and upon artisans and peasants who are, in these respects, much his inferiors. Individuals and audiences are similarly affected, though they may be unable to recall much, if anything, of what he said. This power of influencing others has been attributed to the fact that Lenin is always playing upon the almost inexhaustible gamut of human hatreds. But that seems an insufficient explanation. Nor will terror or bribery give the clue to some of his personal conquests.
There are two aspects of Bolshevism which are well worth serious consideration from the point of view of the evolution of social revolution in the modern world. The first must present this effort of a handful – for 200,000 is not even a large handful as compared with 180,000,000 – of furious fanatics to endeavour to impose an altogether premature social system upon a vast empire as wholly harmful, foredoomed to failure and certain in the long run to help reaction. Such action is, in fact, quite in opposition to the theories of historic and economic development upon which the Bolshevik leaders claimed to proceed. The tyranny of a minority has never been accepted by educated and organised Social Democrats in any part of Europe as calculated to aid the development of the Co-operative Commonwealth or the establishment of a democratic Socialist Republic.
The crushing down of representative democratic political institutions (such as the Constituent Assembly) by force of arms has always been regarded by Socialists as injurious to genuine social progress, and likely to throw back the great conscious working-class movement for emancipation from slavery in all forms. That this untimely attempt in Russia, accompanied by the most fearful injustice and monstrous cruelty, has done much to hinder orderly transformation in other countries is already manifest. Had it not been for the fact that Social Democracy, in its true scientific shape, had already made immense progress outside Russia, the mischief done would have been far greater. In Russia itself only by a miracle can the Bolshevik despotism, which has intensified the economic chaos already existing, be productive of good. Agricultural countries as a rule revive rapidly from external or internal disturbance, though this rule was broken by the long drawn-out horrors of the Thirty Years’ War and the ruinous devastations of the Ottoman Turks in Asia and Europe. Yet unless the economic ineptitude of Bolshevism brings about its own speedy overthrow, more than a generation may elapse before Russia recovers from the pretended “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” imposed by a group of middle-class autocrats.
The second aspect of Bolshevism is that which has regard to its influence upon Europe and civilised countries generally. It cannot be disputed that the apparent success of the Bolshevik leaders, in grasping uncontrolled authority by main force, has encouraged many ignorant, ambitious or fanatical persons to imagine that a coup d’etat of the Bolshevik-Napoleonic description might enable them “to make twelve o’clock at eleven,” regardless of the real stage of economic development or the opinions of the majority of the population whom they desired to organise in a Socialist sense, and thus put them in the position of Lenin and Trotsky, in England, France, Germany or even the United States. This was clearly mischievous. So also was the sympathy and even pecuniary help given by the Bolshevik Government, so far as possible, to those who shared, or were thought to share, their views upon an immediate and simultaneous social revolution by violence in all civilised countries. This policy favoured direct action and was opposed to political and Parliamentary action, even where the people had the most complete voting power at their command, and could obtain control over the National Assembly in their respective nations. In short, it strengthened mere emotional upheaval against economic, reasoned and thoroughly organised social revolt. Thousands will not believe that Bolshevik dictatorship now means for the town workers strict industrial conscription, twelve hours’ work a day, for seven days in the week, under pain of death; that wholesale anarchy exists in the rural districts and in general transport; that there is no right of free speech, no free Press; and that there is no possibility of trade union combination resisting the fiats of the Bolshevik masters. Many thousands of wage-earners in Western Europe still credit none of these undoubted truths, though they have been published time after time in official Bolshevik manifestos and Bolshevik newspapers, the latter being the only journals allowed to exist.
Yet the Bolshevist control of Russia has taught the toilers of other countries what to avoid and what to strive for. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, as given expression to by an insignificant minority of middle-class doctrinaires amid a backward population, has proved inevitably unsuccessful and ruinous. Where, however, economic conditions are ripe for the transformation of a capitalist profiteering society into a Co-operative Commonwealth, in which the entire community joins in giving social service for the general production and distribution of wealth for the common use, there the greatest revolution of all time may peacefully solve the problem of class antagonism, to the infinite advantage of the whole people.
I have purposely refrained, in the text, from enlarging upon the methods of the Bolshevik Government in asserting its authority. But the following official decree gives a fair idea of its treatment of those peasants who, for any cause, resisted the dictatorship of a ridiculous minority of the population. The Cossack peasantry, it may be observed, have been settled on the land they cultivate for very many centuries:–
Late events on different fronts of the Cossack regions, our advance into the depths of the Cossack settlements, and the increasing resistance of the Cossack troops oblige us to give the workers of our Party indications as to the character of their work in building up and consolidating the Soviet power in the above regions.
Taking into consideration the experience of a year’s civil war with the Cossacks, it is necessary to acknowledge as the only way the most ruthless struggle with the whole of the well-to-do Cossack people by means of their wholesale extermination. Compromises and half-and-half measures are inadmissible, and therefore it is necessary –
(1) To institute a mass terror against the well-to-do Cossacks and peasants, exterminating them wholesale, and to institute a ruthless mass terror against those Cossacks in general who have any direct or indirect part in the struggle against the Soviet power.
(2) To confiscate their corn and force them to bring all spare stores to certain fixed points. This refers to corn and to all other agricultural produce.
(3) To take all measures for aiding poor immigrants, organising their immigration where possible.
(4) To put the immigrants on a footing with the Cossacks in the agrarian and in all other respects.
(5) To institute a general disarmament, shooting everyone who may be found in possession of arms after the date appointed for disarmament.
To issue arms to reliable men only.
To keep armed detachments in all Cossack settlements until complete order is established.
(8) All commissaries appointed to the several settlements are invited to exhibit a maximum degree of firmness and unwaveringly to fulfil the above instructions.
The Central Committee has passed a resolution for passing through the corresponding Soviet institutions an order to the Narcomzen (People’s Commissary for Agriculture) to elaborate with speed regulations for the mass transfer of the poor to the lands of the Cossacks.
The Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party.
Chief of the Chancellery of the Political Section of the Southern Front.
(Signed) Cheeniak, Secretary of the Political Section of the 8th Army.
The best books on Bolshevism have been published in the United States. They are Bolshevism and The Greatest Failure in All History, both by John Spargo (Harper Brothers, New York), also Sovietism, by English Walling, containing a very full collection of official Bolshevik documents. The case for the Bolshevik Dictatorship has been stated in England by Eden and Cedar Paul, Creative Revolution: a Study in Communist Ergatocrasy (Allen & Unwin, London), and in R.W. Postgate’s The Bolshevik Theory (Grant Richards Ltd., London).
Last updated on 7.7.2006