Brian Pearce 1993

Review: Robert Service (ed.), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution


Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no 4, 1993.


Robert Service (ed), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution, MacMillan, Basingstoke, 1992, pp 199, 14.99/40.00

Recent years have seen a great deal of research, both in Russia and abroad, on what has come to be called ‘the social history of the Russian Revolution’ or ‘the Russian Revolution’s history from below rather than from above’. Scholars’ attention has switched from the high politics of the period to what was going on at the grass roots, in factories and on farms. Finding out about this has called for much painstaking work, some of this in fields hitherto unploughed, and has resulted in some valuable contributions to our understanding of the momentous events of 1917 and after.

Robert Service, who is producing a political biography of Lenin, two volumes of which have already appeared, chaired in 1987 a series of seminars at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University of London, at which a group of specialists sought to review and summarise this new material, and the present book is based on their papers. A great deal of information has been fitted into a small space, but there is an index which will greatly help the reader whose interest is focused on a particular aspect of the subject, whilst the references in the notes at the end of each chapter guide him or her to the sources, whether books or articles, relevant to the given interest.

Each chapter is devoted to what has now been learnt about a certain social group. Service himself writes on the industrial workers; Maureen Perrie, an authority on the Socialist Revolutionary Party, writes on the peasantry; Evan Mawdslay, author of a book on the Baltic Fleet, writes on the soldiers and sailors; John Channon, who is well informed on the world of agriculture and agrarian relations, writes about the landowners; Christopher Read, who has written on Russian culture in the revolutionary years, deals with the intelligentsia; Howard White, a specialist on the Provisional Government of 1917, examines the urban middle classes; and Stephen Jones, who has illuminated the history of Menshevism in Georgia, covers the non-Russian nationalities. An introduction is supplied by Service, and an epilogue by Edward Acton, whose Russia in the Longman’s series ‘The Present and the Past’ came out in 1986.

As the editor points out, the subjects covered do not exhaust all the strata of Russian society, since some of these have not been studied much up to now. For example, there is no chapter on the clergy, nor one on house servants, although the latter were about as numerous as the factory workers. And, as he further notes, there is a need for more research on mass organisations such as the trade unions, especially outside Petrograd and Moscow.

A number of points of general interest emerge from all the chapters. For example, it is now clear that when the peasants took over uncultivated gentry land, this did not result, as some had hoped, in increasing the supply of food for the army and the towns, since the new occupiers used their land mainly to increase their own consumption. Also, it was the peasants who were already better off who got the lion’s share of the new land, because they alone had the equipment and draught animals needed to work large areas.

The emphasis of Jones’ chapter on the nationalities is on the low level of ‘national consciousness’ and the infrequency of demands for outright independence that existed among many of them before the Revolution:

It was only during the Civil War, when the Bolshevik fight for survival led to military actions on non-Russian territory, with all that it entailed in terms of food supply requisitioning and the various abuses by soldiers, that a distinctly anti-Bolshevik nationalism animated large sections of the non-Russian population.

Jones also points out that nationalism enjoyed its strongest appeal where it was combined with radical reform programmes, so that the traditional Soviet counterposing of proletarian internationalism to bourgeois nationalism can be misleading. Conflict between non-Russian nationalities, and the question of ‘the minorities within the minorities’, played an important part in developments, especially in Caucasia; the author refers us to the writings of Suny, Hovannisian, Swietochowski and others which can help our understanding of current events, too, in that region.

White’s subject is one on which relatively little work has been done up to now, on either side of the frontier, and there are still dark areas where the political activity of the urban middle classes is concerned. For example:

The Soviet historians’ account of the Kornilov affair is by now complex and sophisticated, with room for different emphases on the role of Kerensky in particular; but there is still a great lack of hard evidence. It is clear that Putilov’s Society for Economic Recovery was a big-business propaganda fund, and that there were links with... Kornilov, but much of the Soviet case rests upon equating sympathy with conspiracy.

In general, it appears that Russian big business in 1917 had achieved little in the direction of solidarity, with strong differences of outlook separating the Moscow from the Petrograd industrialists.

Professional people were still much influenced by the ‘intelligentsia’ tradition, so that the Cadet Party, which many of them supported, tried, as William G Rosenberg has shown, to ‘keep a certain distance from commercial and industrial circles’. All this, as far as it goes, is significant for an understanding of the relative weakness of the counter-revolutionary forces in Russia. But as White says:

It is to be hoped that more research will be undertaken into this unfashionable region of the social spectrum, both to understand the collapse of pre-revolutionary society, and to understand its successor.

Because of the unimposing role played by the bourgeoisie proper, Read notes, the cultural intelligentsia found itself being treated as ‘a kind of surrogate bourgeoisie’:

If class struggle had to be prosecuted, and the real class enemies — capitalists, bankers, landowners and so on — were on the run, then the intelligentsia were the best the militants could find in their place. Something of this dogged relations between the non-intelligentsia party left and the educated classes throughout the 1920s.

Of particular interest in relation to the debate on how ‘Lenin’s Russia’ became ‘Stalin’s Russia’ are the developments in 1920-22, when:

The party-state apparatus began to dominate areas previously outside its control. In intellectual life, the central party bodies gained the upper hand over Proletkult and Narkompros. Gosizdat (the state publishing house) dominated book production, the censorship (Glavlit) was founded, university autonomy was brought to an end, and potentially troublesome and ideologically ‘unsound’ intellectuals were forcibly expelled.

Mawdslay draws some of his material from Allan K Wildman’s great two-volume work The End of the Imperial Russian Army, quoting some of its most notable conclusions, for example: ‘... the myth of the aristocratic army officer should not be accepted. The old army was largely destroyed in 1915; its junior officers were killed and replaced by wartime subalterns who were often educated peasants.’

From his own study of the navy, Mawdslay observes that it was otherwise at sea, as ‘the difference between the typical naval officer and the typical army officer, especially at the junior commander level, was probably greater than between the enlisted sailor and the enlisted soldier’ — though that difference, too, was considerable.

For the background to the Kronstadt mutiny, the following is noteworthy:

The sailors continued to believe in the possibility of a democratised navy, even after the Bolsheviks began to move in the opposite direction... There was a progression from mass democracy to committee control, to centrally-nominated commissars, all in the space of a few months, and this mirrored developments in Russia as a whole.

Channon on the landowners traces the efforts made by the ‘landed class’ during 1917 to win support among those peasants (the ‘separators’) who had taken advantage of Stolypin’s reforms to remove their land from the village commune, and were now threatened by the striving of the mass of the peasantry to restore the old order in this respect. (The map printed at the beginning of the book, which shows the provinces and regions of European Russia, is useful in enabling the reader to appreciate the different geographical incidence of the social and political developments referred to in this and other chapters.) The landed class seems to have shown far more spirit and readiness to organise in defence of their interests than was shown by the urban bourgeoisie, and ‘Russian landowners did not accept that their destiny was, in Trotsky’s words, to be confined to the dustbin of history’.

The editor, in his own contribution, summarising the work of Stephen Smith, David Mandel and Diane Koenker on the proletariat of Petrograd and Moscow, declares that ‘the idea that workers were “dark masses,” inactive in the making of their own history, has to be dropped’, although, at the same time, there is evidence that when workers voted for Bolsheviks they were ‘voting for “Soviet power” rather than a Bolshevik-dominated system’. Wisely, he warns that ‘a dichotomy between the history from above tradition and the history from below tradition is to be avoided: the Bolshevik Central Committee simultaneously manipulated and yet also reflected working-class opinion’.

The epilogue devotes substantial space to the resistance to the far-reaching conclusions drawn by some from the new material which has been put up by JLH Keep and the late Leonard Schapiro, and to discussion of the rejoicing (mistaken, Acton thinks) among ‘libertarians’ at these conclusions. A cult of the factory committees of late 1917 and early 1918 as embodiments of the anarchist ideal is incompatible with the facts:

The factory committees themselves turn out to have exerted strong pressure for discipline and intervention from above... [and] as the economic crisis deepened, they found themselves increasingly at odds with their own constituents.

The Bolsheviks’ honeymoon with their proletarian bride was soon over.