Paul Foot

Saints and devils

(February 1992)

From Reviews, Socialist Review, No.150, February 1992. p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Russian Revolution 1899-1919
Richard Pipes
Collins Harvill £20

The Russian Revolution, Professor Pipes tells us in his very first sentence, was ‘arguably the most important event of the century’. He then spends 845 pages proving that it was nothing of the kind. Indeed, after that first flourish, he can hardly bring himself to call it a revolution at all. It was instead, he insists, a coup d’etat, led by a bunch of psychopaths and fanatics, whose consequence has brought nothing but pain and despair to the people of the world.

‘The historian’s problem,’ the professor’s introduction goes on, ‘is that the Russian Revolution being part of our own time, is difficult to deal with dispassionately.’ He does not, however, err on the side of objectivity. On the subject of Russia, socialism and communism he has all the neutrality of a man who served as an adviser on Russia and Eastern Europe in the US President’s own National Security Council. As he freely admits, one of his contemporary heroes is the ultra right wing free enterprise fanatic Milton Friedman.

Curiously for a man who makes his living and his reputation among intellectuals, Professor Pipes nurses a deep contempt for what he calls the ‘intelligentsia’. A good deal of the trouble in Russia which culminated in the revolution (whoops, sorry, coup d’etat), he argues, can be traced back to this intelligentsia which, he discloses, is a Russian word. The crux of his argument runs like this:

‘A life ruled by reason is a life ruled by intellectuals: it is not surprising, therefore, that intellectuals want to change the world in accord with the requirement of “rationality”. A market economy, with its wasteful competition and swings between overproduction and shortage, is not “rational” and hence it does not find favour with intellectuals.’

It is hard to understand why the professor puts the words rational and rationality in inverted commas. It is quite clear from his book that he is highly suspicious of people who argue by way of reason. He finds irrationality far more reliable. He is disgusted, for instance, by the ‘preoccupation ... with legislation as a device for human betterment’. That to him is silly liberal nonsense, which explains why liberals so often ‘throw their lot in with revolutionaries’. Thus his psychotic hatred for the Russian revolutionaries extends to pretty well everyone to the left of General Kornilov.

The Russian Revolution was indeed arguably the most important event of the century – for one reason only: that for the first time since the French Revolution the working masses became active participants in their own political destiny. Professor Pipes duly devotes pretty well his entire book to proving that this was not the case.

This requires a great deal of misquotation and misunderstanding. For instance, after quoting Lenin’s view that the working class will not spontaneously take the path to revolution, but will only do so if led by a revolutionary party. Pipes caricatures it as follows:

‘Unless the workers were led by a socialist party external to it and independent of it, they would betray their class interests. Only non-workers – that is, the intelligentsia – knew what these interests were.’

That is the precise opposite of Lenin’s view that only a party built as an integral part of the working class could possible ever lead it anywhere, let alone to revolution.

Pipes crude error infects his whole book. One of the most extraordinary aspects of what happened in Russia in 1917 was the way in which the new Soviets switched their allegiance from Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to Bolsheviks during the summer and autumn. The shift was so dramatic that Professor Pipes cannot bring himself to publish the figures. He does disclose that in June, at the First Congress of Soviets, the Social Revolutionaries had 285 delegates, the Mensheviks 248 and the Bolsheviks a mere 105. He does not disclose that at the next Congress – in October – the Social Revolutionaries had 160 delegates, the Mensheviks 72 and the Bolsheviks 390. The Bolshevik Party, the nasty, fanatical caucus of Professor Pipes’s imagination, had become the majority party inside the working class. As such, it had fulfilled what for Lenin was an unalterable precondition for a working class revolution.

Because he refuses to accept the deep penetration of revolutionary ideas and enthusiasms in the Russian working class at the time, Pipes cannot help us at all on how the revolution was sustained against all the odds. He allows into his record not a single word of the huge literature of enthusiasm about the revolution: the motor of its survival in its early years.

Professor Pipes ignores Lenin’s central passion – his view that the exploited people of the world could run it better than their exploiters – and so he can conclude predictably that ‘Stalin’s course had been charted by Lenin’. The evidence is mostly the other way however. Lenin’s view, as Pipes concedes, was that ‘unless the revolution spread to other countries, it was doomed’. Stalin’s regime was based on pursuing ‘socialism in one country’, often to the point of destroying revolutionary movements in other countries.

As the book bulldozes on, Pipes’s hatred for the Russian revolutionaries becomes more hysterical. At times he cannot contain his rage at their impertinence:

‘That such rank amateurs would undertake to turn upside down the fifth-largest economy in the world, subjecting it to innovations never attempted anywhere even on a small scale, says something of the judgement of the people who in October 1917 seized power in Russia.’

Pipes the professional on the other hand can write this: ‘One can credit the Bolsheviks with having invented terror.’

The Bolsheviks invented terror! Pause for a moment’s reflection. Indeed, turn back to page 81 of Pipes’s own book where you can read this:

‘In 1903, one third of the infantry and two-thirds of the cavalry stationed in European Russia engaged in repressive action.’

Some might conclude from that that the forces of the Tsar, not to mention the Black Hundreds of later years, were engaging in terror. They would be wrong, according to Professor Pipes, for terror was invented by the Bolsheviks.

The blurb for the book makes the horrifying prediction that it will ‘stand as the definitive history’ of the Russian Revolution. Nothing could be less deserved. I still recall my fury thirty years ago when reading Bertram Wolfe’s exposé of the Stalin School for Rewriting History in his Three Who Made A Revolution. Here was Orwell’s Ministry of Truth writ large. There was, it seemed clear, no stronger argument against Stalin’s Russia than its invention of its own history.

Professor Pipes’s book rewrites history the other way round. While Stalin lionised and mummified Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries. Pipes has turned them into devils. The result of both is that the Russian Revolution is either patronised or abused into something entirely unrecognisable from what it was.


Last updated on 27.11.2004