From International Socialism 2:97, Winter 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Koba the Dread
Jonathan Cape 2002, £16.99
The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction
OUP 2002, £5.99
Russia: Class and Power 1917–2000
Bookmarks 2002, £12
I write at a time when there has been a rise in ‘anti-capitalist’ protests, motivated by revulsion at the staggering inequalities that characterise our world. As the 21st century dawns it seems safe to conclude that there will be elements in the Russian Revolution that continue to inspire, even as there are many that will stand as a dreadful warning. 
So concludes Steve Smith in his Very Short Introduction to the Russian Revolution. The importance of the Russian Revolution lies not only in grappling with one of the key events whose triumph and subsequent defeat helped shape the course of the 20th century but whose significance lies in the shaping of tomorrow. As anti-war protesters (and in their midst many anti-capitalist protesters) confront the latest build-up to war by US imperialism against Iraq, different interpretations of the events of 1917 claim our attention, either to spur us on to the potential for socialist revolution or in an attempt to inoculate us against it.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian Revolution is analysed by historians and others through the optic of their own views about the desirability or otherwise of socialist revolution. Representing the first accession to power by the working class in an entire country, interpretations of the course of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath were hotly debated both among socialists and between left and right until the collapse of ‘Communism’ in 1989. The British left, the Communist Party and sections of the Labour Party supported Stalinism uncritically until 1956. The USSR’s role in the Second World War, the seeming success of the Five Year Plans and the role of Communist Party militants in industry providing a militant focus of opposition to employers were enough to silence any disquiet about possible problems with the so called ‘socialist’ paradise. The use of Soviet tanks to crush the revolution in Hungary in 1956 led to the first real cracks in the edifice of support for Stalinism. Thousands of worker militants and many well known intellectuals left the Communist Party in disgust. The birth of an anti-Stalinist left, however, occurred over a decade later under the twin impact of opposition to US imperialism’s war in Vietnam and the crushing of the democracy movement in Czechoslovakia with Soviet tanks in August 1968.
For the first time in Britain Trotskyist groups were able to find a significant, if small, audience among workers and students for revolutionary socialism on an anti-Stalinist basis. The International Socialists (later the SWP), with its distinctive analysis of the USSR as a bureaucratic state capitalist formation, was one of those groups. This analysis started from the view that the expulsion of Trotsky and the triumph of Stalinism by 1928 represented a defeat for the tradition of the October Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party, and the re-emergence of class exploitation in the USSR. According to this analysis, the counter-revolution triumphed by leaving a society driven by military and economic competition with the West. Nothing short of a socialist revolution, led by the working class, would be able to transform this situation. The slogan ‘Neither Washington Nor Moscow’ summarised perfectly the views of many activists coming fresh to politics in 1968 who were not going to march against the war in Vietnam one day and condone Soviet tanks marching into Czechoslovakia the next.
Throughout this entire period there was a positive endorsement across the spectrum of the Communist Party and the Trotskyist left in the October Revolution of 1917. This was mirrored among much of academia. The debates were about the differences between Stalinism and Leninism. Trotskyist organisations cited the harsh realities of Stalinism to illustrate how it represented a departure from the tradition of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. Among Trotskyists there were fierce debates about the nature of the Soviet Union, on whether there was a working class in Russia as in the West, whether the working class needed to ‘emancipate itself’ again through a new socialist revolution or whether only a change in regime was required. Members of the International Socialists were renowned for arguing vociferously for a complete upheaval from the bottom up, on the grounds that the workers in the USSR were no more in control of their lives than workers in nationalised industries in Britain. The use that Stalin and other rulers made of ‘Communist’ ideas was to the same ideological purpose as the American ruling class arguing that the United States was based on democracy and equality.
The collapse of ‘Communism’ in 1989 was welcomed by the International Socialist current internationally as a positive step forward for the working class movement, even though the arguments about the Russian Revolution initially swung to the right. The ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union left the Communist Party and much of the Trotskyist left helpless in the face of right wing ideologues who argued that this proved conclusively that ‘revolutions always eat their children’, that ‘Stalinism and gulags’ are synonymous with ‘Leninism and Bolshevism’ and that society is best regulated by the hidden hand of the market. This journal, armed with the analysis of Stalinism as counter-revolution, continued to insist on the achievements of 1917, and the difference between Leninism and Stalinism, and to predict that the market would only increase the misery of the mass of the population in the former Soviet Union, leading to profound crisis and renewed revolt at some stage in the future.
The emergence of mass struggle from below against the rigours of globalisation is now forcing yet another reassessment of our history. Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread illustrates the arguments which came to dominate after 1989:
Seen in terms of freedom and freedom alone, October was not a political revolution riding on the back of a popular revolution (February). It was a counter-revolution. The ‘unrest’ of 1921 – in the armed forces (mutiny at Kronstadt and elsewhere), in the post Civil War remains of the proletariat (strikes, demonstrations, riots) and in the countryside (peasant rebellion involving millions) – constituted a popular revolution far more thorough going than those of 1917 and 1905. The Bolsheviki, of course called this a counter-revolution, and bloodily suppressed it. Whereas, in fact, their revolution was the counter-revolution. That was the elephant – trumpeting, snorting, farting mammoth – in the Kremlin living room. Established on an abyss of untruth, Bolshevism was committed to its career of slapstick mendacity, attaining universal and ideal truthlessness under Stalin. 
This summarises two of the key right wing arguments: that the October Revolution in 1917, led by the Bolshevik Party, usurped the popular February revolution and that Leninism and Stalinism represent a seamless violent and undemocratic tradition with Leninism engendering Stalinism. Amis neatly sidesteps the whole issue of the civil war itself, who started it and the nature of violence within it.
Steve Smith refutes Amis’s view of the October Revolution:
The October seizure of power generated an exhilarating sense that a new world was in the offing where justice and equality would triumph over arbitrariness and exploitation, where the power of nature would be harnessed to ensure plenty for all. In the eyes of most workers and soldiers, as well as many peasants, a soviet government signalled land and freedom, the triumph of equality and justice, vengeance on the old privileged classes, and rule by the toilers. 
Mike Haynes, writing in Russia: Class and Power 1917–2000 quotes Martov, the leader of the Menshevik Party, which had initially been far more popular than the Bolshevik Party: ‘“Understand please,” he [Martov] said. “What we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising”.’ 
It is well documented from contemporary historical accounts that the working class supported the October Revolution. It is also clear that the Provisional Government, which was born out of the revolution in February, and which Amis and the right wing try to elevate to the status of a pure, peaceful parliamentary democracy, could only attempt to maintain itself in power by resort to old fashioned methods of ruling class violence: an attempted coup led by one General Kornilov. It was that same government, of course, which insisted on Russia continuing its role in the slaughter of the First World War, and which failed to grant any autonomy to the myriad of nations subjected to Russian rule.
The February revolution simultaneously gave birth to another form of power in Russian society – the soviets, or workers’ councils, which had first arisen in 1905. These councils were based on a form of direct democracy with delegates elected and subject to recall by workers. Between February and October two forms of decision making based on different classes existed side by side – the Soviets and the Provisional Government – with support growing for Soviet power and ebbing away from the Provisional Government. Mike Haynes explains:
When, on 24 October, Kerensky [leader of the Provisional Government] tried to use force to stop the slide, the Bolsheviks and their supporters were able to brush aside the authorities and seize control of Petrograd. It was virtually bloodless compared with February – perhaps 15 died. Support had simply drained from the Provisional Government. The next day, when the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets met, 505 of the 670 delegates voted for the resolution on ‘All power to the soviets’. Some 300 of them were Bolsheviks and 193 from the SRs,  but more than half were from the left of that party. 
The Mensheviks instantly walked out of the Congress. Mike Haynes writes:
When Martov left the Congress of Soviets, Nikolai Sukhanov, the Menshevik chronicler of the revolution, went with him ... ‘It was,’ said Sukhanov, ‘the greatest crime of 1917, which we never ceased to regret ... I was thunderstruck. Nothing like this had entered my head ... First of all, no one contested the legality of the congress. Secondly, it represented the most authentic worker-peasant democracy ... The Menshevik actions meant a formal break with the masses and with the revolution. And why? Because the congress had proclaimed a soviet regime in which the minute Menshevik-SR minority might not be given a place! ... The Bolsheviks, not long ago ... themselves constituted the same impotent minority as the Mensheviks and SRs now, but they did not and could not draw the conclusion that they had to leave the soviet’. 
Democracy does in fact mean accepting the right of the majority to decide, something which Amis and right wing historians seem loath to concede.
Far from the Bolshevik Party being anti-democratic and leading Amis’s ‘counter-revolution’, it was the actions of those who opposed the October Revolution which led to bloodshed and terror as the real forces of counter-revolution attempted to overthrow the new government. The civil war was started by those not prepared to abide by the popular will and was backed by the European powers involved in the First World War who all saw the new Soviet regime as a threat to their collective class interests.  Steve Smith quite rightly dates the start of the civil war from the Kornilov movement prior to October. He describes the counter-revolutionaries, or Whites, as follows:
The Whites stood for ‘Russia, One and Indivisible’, the restoration of state-mindedness, law and order, and the values of Orthodox Christianity ... Some such as General Wrangel of the Volunteer Army were committed monarchists, but most favoured some type of military dictatorship, possibly paving the way for a new Constituent Assembly ... What kept them united in the meantime was little more than detestation of the Bolsheviks and outrage at the ‘German-Jewish’ conspiracy inflicted on the Russian people. 
Mike Haynes gives an even more explicit picture of the Whites’ use of violence:
White pogroms killed 60,000–100,000 Jews. They were worst in the Ukraine. Proud of their handiwork, White forces took photographs. Some still survive. One, dated August 1919, shows Cossacks posing over a row of dead Jews wrapped in their prayer shawls. It evokes an instant association with later Nazi atrocities. Tens of thousands fled within Russia and beyond to other parts of Europe, the United States and Palestine. 
Far from acknowledging the anti-Semitism and violence of the Whites, Amis does not deal with the civil war. By equating the very real horror of Stalinist terror and purges with Leninism, he quite scandalously infers that the October Revolution should be likened to the horrors of Hitler.
A civil war necessarily involves the use of force on both sides and, as Haynes points out, Trotsky understood that all armies require the use of repression. Nevertheless, Haynes argues there was a difference between the two sides:
Unlike in the White armies, a constant campaign was kept up to reduce atrocities, and to raise the moral and political standard. It did not always work. But the aim was to make the Red Army an army of liberation, not conquest, and exemplary punishment was used to dissuade others from rape, murder and pillage. 
Although, in my view wrongly, Smith judges military questions to be decisive in the outcome of the civil war, he also identifies the question of land and the right of self determination of nations as crucial to the victory of the Red Army. The peasants knew the Whites would take the land and give it back to the landlords. The national minorities knew it would be a return to the yoke of Russian chauvinism they had experienced under the Tsars of Russia.  This bears out Haynes’s view on the difference between the violence of the Whites and the political aspirations which the Red Army represented and fought for.
Any serious historian of Russia who acknowledges the popular nature of the October Revolution needs to grapple with the fate of the revolution, the defeat of the main opposition currents to the rise of Stalin, and his eventual triumph. None of this appears to be of the slightest importance to Martin Amis, despite the fact that he is physically, if not politically, of the 1968 generation and was personally acquainted with members of the International Socialists. To ignore and then denigrate the Trotskyist opposition to Stalin and Stalinism, as Amis does, is to trivialise serious arguments about the possibilities of social change. This is partly because Amis sees Marxism as running counter to human nature:
Marxism was the product of the intellectual middle classes; Nazism was yellow, tabloidal, of the gutter. Marxism made wholly unrealistic demands on human nature; Nazism constituted a direct appeal to the reptile brain ... Ideology brings about a dangerous fusion: that of violence and righteousness-a savagery without stain. 
Such crude statements explain nothing at all about why things happen at certain times and not others. Human society is not one long Holocaust. Stalinist terror did not last forever. Horrific as these phenomena are, as are all those never mentioned by the Amises of this world,  explaining how they occur is crucial to anyone committed to preventing their recurrence and wishing to fight the horrors of today.
However, it is also clear that Amis does not know what to do about the fact that Trotsky opposed Stalin and lost his life in the process, as this does not fit with his view that Leninism and Stalinism are one. For those old enough to remember the venom with which Stalinists used to attack Trotskyists, the following passage by Amis has an eerie echo:
But Trotsky was never a contender for the leadership. In that struggle he was a mere poseur ... More basically, Trotsky was a murdering bastard and a fucking liar. And he did it with gusto. He was a nun killer. They all were. The only thing that can be entered on the other side of the ledger is that he paid a price that was very nearly commensurate. Death was visited on him and all his clan ... Murder came to almost everyone who had ever known him or talked to him or seen him up close; hundreds of thousands, millions of innocent people lost their lives for some connection to him and his name. So far as I am aware there is in Trotsky’s writing no reference to what this felt like. He seems to have accepted it – that he became a lightning rod for death. But then they were all charged up with the electricity of violence. 
Amis’s hatred for Trotsky is palpable. Part of me is tempted to argue that he must have inherited it from his father. However, I think such venom reveals his fear that Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin gives the lie to his contention that Leninism leads to Stalinism. Leninism in fact gave birth to Trotskyism. Stalinism is the antithesis of both. Trotskyism was an opposition which attempted to defend, in the most appalling circumstances, the principle of working class emancipation, workers’ councils and the creative inspiration of the October Revolution. Amis hates Trotsky precisely because it is via Trotsky that others of Amis’s generation found their way back to the real tradition of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party.
In truth, Amis’s book is so badly written that a lesser known writer would surely not have got it published. The only purpose of publishing Amis’s awful book can be to try to prevent another generation of activists from discovering that the October Revolution was a hugely popular event which ushered in a brief but joyous period of extraordinary hope and change.
Steve Smith’s and Mike Haynes’s books are obviously of a quite different order. Both are serious, well researched and interesting books, albeit serving different purposes and with different analyses. As the title of his book makes clear, Smith is writing an introduction to the history of the Russian Revolution. It is highly readable and well presented, with short chapters illustrated with useful maps, photos, posters, and excerpts from contemporary letters and reports. Smith clearly wants to refute the right wing arguments used by the likes of Amis. For example he writes:
If many of the features typical of Stalinism can be traced back to before 1928, the so called ‘Great Break’, instituted by the first Five Year Plan and forced collectivisation, was exactly that – a break in policy that unleashed devastating and wrenching change upon society. Living under Stalin was a very different experience from living under the NEP, and to deny any element of discontinuity is to fail imaginatively to appreciate the murderous nature of Stalinism. The institutions of rule may not have changed, but personal dictatorship, the unrestrained use of force, a stifling conformism, paranoia about encirclement and internal wreckers, the unleashing of terror used against a whole society, all meant that political life was qualititatively different from under Lenin. Of course, terror, forced labour, and show trials had their antecedents under Lenin, but quantity had become transformed into quality. In accelerating the economic modernisation of the Soviet Union, Stalin believed he was continuing the revolution. Yet he stamped out any residual emancipatory impulses, presiding over the consolidation of a leviathan state in which a ruling elite enjoyed power and privilege at the expense of the mass of people, and in which forms of patriarchy and Russian chauvinism were reconstituted. 
At the same time, Smith believes that Bolshevism was fatally flawed and Lenin was fundamentally responsible for laying the foundations which Stalin later built on. The central weakness in his book is that he falls back on the view that ideology, hence Bolshevism, is to blame. He cannot explain how Bolshevism inspired mass working class emancipation and democracy in October 1917, and then was used to justify Stalin’s smashing of that democratic breakthrough in 1928. The key lies in a theoretical framework which can link the changes in material circumstances which shaped the choices faced by those attempting to defend the revolution and the choices they made. This is precisely why Mike Haynes’s book is so important.
Mike Haynes’s project is both to reclaim the inspirational tradition of working class revolution in 1917, and to provide a coherent account of the forces which acted to isolate and break the revolutionary dynamic. The pressures of world capitalism, the weakness and isolation of the Russian working class by 1924, and the perceived renewed military threat from the West all go some way to explaining Stalin’s rise to power. He became the force who led the counter-revolution – destroying the physical existence and memory of those who had made the October Revolution. Mike Haynes’s task is to rescue not only the memory of working class emancipation, but also the legacy of the party which bore that tradition inscribed in its very being, the Bolshevik Party, the party of Lenin and not of Stalin. Not only has the Leninist tradition to be rescued from the convenient equation with Stalinism, but the forces which led to the breaking down of the revolution itself, to the retreat of both revolutionary party and class from their goals, have to be carefully explained.
As the First World War showed the slaughter which capitalism and the imperialist powers were capable of, the tiny working class of Russia took a historic gamble in seizing power, in the clear knowledge that they did not have the material resources with which to overcome their country’s backwardness. They consciously vested their hope in others – following their example. Their struggle for change was not broken because of anti-democratic tendencies inherent in Leninist party building, or in Stalin’s psychological makeup, Trotsky’s arrogance or other such explanations. The Russian Revolution was crushed because of the weight of Western imperialist forces bearing down on it, the economic and military competitive drive at the heart of world society and the weakness of a decimated working class which could hold out no longer. Russia’s isolation, ringed by powerful capitalist economies, explains the urgency of Trotsky’s insistence on international revolution as central to the revolution’s survival, but it simultaneously served to strengthen the arguments of his opponents that his was an impossible vision and that Russia was best to rely on its own resources.
Analysing the defeat of the Russian Revolution is one link in the chain of an argument developed crucially by Tony Cliff over 50 years ago that Russian society could only be understood as a bureaucratic capitalist state. Mike Haynes builds on that analysis to show how Russian society developed from the 1930s through to the collapse of Communism in 1989 and on to today. There is not the space in this review to do justice to that analysis. Perhaps, instead, I can recommend that readers of this journal buy both Steve Smith’s and Mike Haynes’s books for Christmas and leave Amis’s on the shelves to rot.
1. S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2002), p. 168.
2. M. Amis, Koba the Dread (Jonathan Cape 2002), p. 250.
3. S.A. Smith, op. cit., p. 40.
4. M. Haynes, Russia: Class and Power 1917–2000 (Bookmarks 2002), p. 33.
5. Social Revolutionaries, the party supported overwhelmingly by the peasantry, and which was split between the left and right.
6. M. Haynes, op. cit., p. 32.
7. Ibid., p. 34.
8. Fourteen countries in all which kept the Whites well supplied as well as supplying troops. See ibid, p. 48.
9. S.A. Smith, op. cit., p. 51.
10. M. Haynes, op. cit., p. 49.
11. Ibid., p. 49.
12. Ibid., p. 54.
13. M. Amis, op. cit., p. 86.
14. In his reply to Amis, Christopher Hitchens made the point that Amis seemed utterly blind to the violence of capitalist society. From the midwife of slavery attendant at its birth, through the horrors of colonial conquest and two world wars, not to speak of the armoury thrown at Afghanistan and now being lined up to hurl at Iraq, the capitalist system and its rulers have never thought twice about shedding blood. There are none so blind as those who do not want to see, Mr Amis.
15. M. Amis, op. cit., p. 252.
16. S.A. Smith, op. cit., p. 162.
Last updated on 24.6.2012