Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


The Russian Revolution

Vladimir Brovkin
Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918–1922
Princeton University Press, Princeton 1994, pp. 455

Sheila Fitzpatrick
The Russian Revolution
Oxford University Press, Oxford 1994, pp. 199, £7.99

Gennady Shkliarevsky
Labor in the Russian Revolution: Factory Committees and Trade Unions 1917–1918
St Martin’s Press, New York 1993, pp. 282

THE OPENING of the Soviet archives from the late 1980s and the interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the closing of an historical epoch have not only resulted in an upsurge of publications on the Soviet Union and encouraged many authors to produce new editions of existing works, but have provoked a resurgence of the literary battle between the conservative ‘Sovietologists’, who see Bolshevism as intrinsically totalitarian and little more than a conspiracy, and the liberal and left wing ‘revisionist’ historians, who take a more objective view. Vladimir Brovkin and Gennady Shkliarevsky are members of the former school, whilst Sheila Fitzpatrick was recently referred to as ‘the doyenne’ of the latter. It is clear that having been on the receiving end over the last couple of decades of the revisionists’ criticisms, the conservatives see the opening of the Soviet archives as an ideal opportunity to wreak their revenge upon the liberals and leftists, and both Brovkin and Shkliarevsky openly admit that this is their intention. Fitzpatrick’s book is an updated version of her popular outline from 1982 of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Stalinist regime, and draws upon newly-available material, including documents from the archives and Molotov’s memoirs.

Shkliarevsky’s book investigates the relationship between the factory committees and trade unions in Russia from the February Revolution until the early days of the Civil War in mid-1918. He describes the development of the factory committees as their attitude towards the Provisional Government hardened, through their rapid rise as an increasingly politicised and pro-Bolshevik movement, to their fate in the aftermath of the October Revolution, when they were incorporated into the trade unions.

There is, however, more to this book than just that, and it appears that one of its primary purposes is to put the radical Bolsheviks, and especially Lenin, in a bad light. Shkliarevsky denies that Lenin was a self-serving power-seeker, but he does think that his support for workers’ control was a disingenuous means of winning the support of militant workers for his ultimate aim of a one-party dictatorship, and that he only supported the factory committees to undermine the trade union leaders, who were mainly Mensheviks or moderate Bolsheviks who were in favour of a pluralist Socialist government, in order to assist his quest for state power. Once the Soviet government was in place, the Mensheviks marginalised, and the moderate Bolsheviks faced with a governmental fait accompli, Lenin then rapidly subordinated the factory committees to the unions.

Whilst Shkliarevsky’s descriptions of Lenin’s manoeuvres are not inaccurate, like other conservative historians, he prefers to leave old prejudices unchallenged. It just will not do today to bang on about Lenin’s hostility to workers’ spontaneous activity, and to hark back to What Is To Be Done?, as if that book represented the be-all and end-all of Lenin’s strategic, tactical and theoretical approach to the working class. A look at Lenin’s writings during the period of revolution shows that he was adamant that the local initiatives of the working class had to be combined with centralised economic direction. And whilst Shkliarevsky presents Lenin as an inveterate centraliser, he seems to think that Lenin’s support for local working class initiative was an endorsement of parochialism and indiscipline, whereas in fact Lenin was always insistent on the need to improve labour discipline. What underlines Lenin’s political manoeuvring was not merely the outflanking of political opponents, but the concrete needs of Soviet society. Whereas in 1917 he showed great confidence in the capabilities of the masses, by early 1918 he was beginning to recognise the problems that the low level of popular culture was causing, and, whilst never repudiating his desire to draw the masses into the running of society, he tended to seek solutions in administrative, centrally determined measures.

As for the factory committees themselves, Shkliarevsky is faced with the problem of why they let themselves be subsumed into the Bolshevik political monopoly, and, indeed, helped to defend the Soviet regime in the industrial sphere by bureaucratic means when many workers became disenchanted with the Bolsheviks. Unlike many commentators, particularly those on the left, Shkliarevsky does not consider the factory committees to have been a democratic force; indeed, he sees them and the trade unions as major factors behind the establishment of the Bolsheviks’ political monopoly. Shkliarevsky turns to the concept pioneered by Max Weber and Robert Michels that labour activists have a specific agenda that does not necessarily coincide with the interests of those whom they claim to represent. The problem with Weber and Michels is that they were too categorical and over-deterministic, and saw the rise of labour activists over their constituency as an automatic, ineluctable process. Things are complicated here by the fact that Shkliarevsky fails to explain just what the separate interests of labour activists are, either in the abstract sense or in the specific conditions of Russia in 1917.

What Shkliarevsky is actually addressing is the problem of the exercising of power by labour movement institutions, something which was not only specific to Russia in 1917, but will confront any genuine Socialist regime when it assumes power. After the October Revolution, the organisations that had been set up to defend the working class against the autocracy and the capitalists, were now also organs of the state and industrial management, and were obliged to balance their original rôles as workers’ organisations with their new concerns, which went beyond the immediate interests of the working class. Under the rapidly deteriorating conditions with which they were confronted, it is hardly surprising that the relationship between the leadership of the labour organisations at all levels and the working class became problematic. If a revolutionary party is unable to form a relationship with the workers, or if it becomes separated from them, it will usually either loosen up to the point where it more or less dissolves itself, or it will tighten up and ossify. In opposition, this does not cause much harm (Gerry Healy’s victims apart) other than to make revolutionary politics look somewhat bizarre. In power, however, this process can have profound consequences.

Brovkin’s book looks at these consequences. Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War is a lengthy compendium of Bolshevik misdeeds, with a walk-on part for the Whiteguards. Using a wide array of non-Bolshevik publications, exposures of excesses in the Soviet press, and recently-opened archival material, he presents a depressing list of ballot-rigging, suppression of workers’ strikes and peasant unrest, harassment of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and of ‘educated society’ in general, lying, cheating and so on by this bunch, who did not constitute a real political party at all, but were ‘a loosely organised radical revolutionary party of intellectuals claiming to speak for workers in 1917’, and ‘a military-industrial mobilisation agency in control of the state apparatus’ by 1919 (p. 414).

As the Civil War had been raging for some months by the time his account commences, Brovkin is not, I suppose, obliged to cover theoretically the establishment of the Soviet regime, but all in all there is very little theoretical discussion in this book. Allusions and inferences there are, however, aplenty to bolster the conservatives’ case that the Bolsheviks were inherently totalitarian from the start, and he maintains a constant attack on those who think otherwise.

For all that, Brovkin’s book is worth reading. More than other writers on the early years of the Soviet regime, he shows the tremendous extent of the rural opposition to the Soviet regime, which by early 1921 was close to bringing it down. He shows how dubious characters attached themselves to the Soviet administration in rural areas, one of whom was fond of declaring ‘I am your Tsar and God! Pray for me and bow to me!’ (p. 137), and were no more than gangsters; and how unreliable the largely peasant Red Army was in dealing with peasant uprisings (desertions probably amounted to 3.7 million men), with many refusing to fight, and many actually joining the insurgents. Brovkin also shows that the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Left SRs, who became to some degree reconciled, were heavily involved in the peasant movement. If the political statements of the SRs were typically amorphous, those of the Mensheviks were highly detailed, and Brovkin shows how their popularity grew during the Civil War amongst what was left of the working class, as they called for an end to repressive measures, especially grain requisitioning, for the resumption of democratic elections to the soviets, and for free trade unions, and supported the workers’ activities against the Soviet authorities.

Whilst Brovkin naturally considers that the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian political culture was rooted in their ‘underground past’, which made inevitable their use of ‘conspiratorial and terrorist methods to settle scores with their rivals or opponents’ once in power (p. 269), he correctly emphasises the effect of the Civil War in inculcating a militaristic attitude amongst them: ‘Obedience, discipline and submission became positive virtues, rather than spontaneity, initiative and challenging authority.’ (p. 414) But this is hardly original. Trotsky himself later emphasised this very factor (Stalin, pp. 384–5), as does, indeed, Fitzpatrick in her book under review here (p. 71). Furthermore, whilst it is certainly true that the Bolsheviks’ administrative and coercive measures of the Civil War strongly influenced the manner in which the bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union occurred later on, he avoids the awkward fact that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of those methods, not least Trotsky, soon came around to demanding the democratisation of the regime, and it is no surprise that he draws the weary conclusion that ‘it is irrelevant ... whether Trotsky rather than Stalin stood at the helm’ (p. 421).

In the end, Brovkin has nothing kind to say about anyone. The Bolsheviks were, of course, beyond the pale. The Whites may have been led by upstanding patriots, but they were uncoordinated, unable to work with anti-Bolshevik liberals and leftists, and their troops were a drunken pogrom mob. The Kadets (who barely get a look-in here) either mumbled complaints at the White generals or descended into anti-Semitism. The Mensheviks were naive in their hopes that the workers could wield power. There is also a strong sense of elitism. For Brovkin, the Bolsheviks’ food requisition squads were like the peasants’ land seizures, an excuse for ‘an unbridled Russian free-for-all’ (p. 418). His apparent sympathy for workers’ demands during the Civil War clashes with his assertion that during and immediately after the October Revolution ‘the victory of labour over capital ... amounted to freedom from work’ (p. 10). This dismissal of the various actors makes sense in the light of a line in his conclusion where he says that Russia ‘was not ready for democratic parliamentary statehood’ (p. 420). He ties, as it were, a Gordian knot. Not only were the Bolsheviks hopeless utopians, so were the Cadets, Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who all saw a parliamentary regime as the next stage of Russian development.

Conservative commentators see the Bolsheviks as uniquely violent and repressive. Yet Brovkin’s almost throwaway line opens up a crucial question. The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was greatly facilitated by the inability of the Tsarist regime and the Provisional Government to deal with the problems that the First World War imposed upon Russia; the crisis of which they took advantage was not of their making. Had the Bolsheviks failed, any incoming administration would have been confronted by mass working class unrest, a peasantry determined to seize the land and overturn the landowning class, a deepening economic crisis, increasing calls for autonomy or independence by non-Russians, the loss of major industrial and agricultural areas, worsening food supplies to the urban centres, the collapse of the army, and the world war. Many of the features of War Communism were not peculiar to Bolshevism. Capitalist governments have directed labour, statified trade and manufacturing, requisitioned food, and used coercion (although many Bolsheviks deluded themselves that these measures represented a move into a new society, and their insistence upon them after their necessity had passed made things worse). None of the problems facing a non-Bolshevik government could have been dealt with through the organs of parliamentary democracy and political consensus, and it would inevitably have been obliged to resort to coercion, or have faced collapse. It is a shame that Brovkin did not devote any space to the possible consequences of the collapse of the Soviet regime, as he shows that this was by no means an impossibility.

Finally, we come to Fitzpatrick’s book. Popular introductions like this inevitably suffer from the problem of covering a series of momentous events and complex processes in a small space, and the book tends towards superficiality. However, although there are limits to what a relatively short introduction to the subject can include, Fitzpatrick glosses over some important factors in a sentence or two, and ignores others. The main problem is that for all her intended concentration upon both change and continuity, she overlooks the vital significance of both the fundamental changes in Lenin’s thinking during the First World War, and Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’.

Without Lenin’s ability to transcend to a considerable degree the Second International’s formalistic and paternalistic concept of Socialism, and to recognise the active rôle of the working class in a revolution, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have attempted to establish a Soviet regime in 1917, or would have been able to interact with the working class in such a way as to make such a regime a possibility. That is why Lenin’s positive endorsement of the rise of workers’ control in 1917 stood in contrast with his rather suspicious initial response to the soviets in 1905, and also why he was able to write such a novel work as State and Revolution. In a rather hackneyed manner, Fitzpatrick repeatedly describes the October Revolution as a ‘coup’ (pp. 63–66, 68, 72) apparently unconnected with the tremendous increase of support for the Bolsheviks amongst the workers, and the growing desire for a government based on the soviets. She sees the Bolsheviks’ championing of workers’ control as a mere ruse to gain support, and she counterposes workers’ control to centralised economic direction as irreconcilable opposites, seemingly oblivious to Lenin’s calls for them to be combined in order that the basis of economic planning could be established.

Similarly, little is said about the problems that the Bolsheviks encountered in their exercise of state power after the October Revolution – how the disintegration of the proletariat led to their substituting themselves for that class and effectively rising above it; how Lenin continually called for the involvement of the working class in the running of society, yet was reluctant to enact policies that would facilitate this lest the relaxation of the party’s hold over society led to social disintegration; and how the Bolsheviks often engaged in practices which guaranteed their rule in the short term, but which undermined the basis of a Socialist society in the long run. The implication is that a Bolshevik dictatorship over the working class was a logical and inescapable product of Bolshevism.

The rise of the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ is seen as a practical response to the isolation of the Soviet republic, and not as a major revision of Marxism which had profound consequences for both the Soviet Union and the Communist movement. When in 1917 the Bolsheviks implicitly adopted Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, it meant that they accepted that the Russian proletariat was obliged to seize power, but that the resulting regime could only survive if successful proletarian revolutions occurred in more advanced countries. Bolshevism was essentially a holding operation, a desperate quest to hold onto power in the anticipation of proletarian revolutions in Western Europe. Once the link between the October Revolution and a European revolution was broken, then the tendency towards the universalisation of the Russian experience within the Communist movement was solidified, and if Socialism could be built within one country, then the entire experience of the Soviet Union was valid in and of itself, and all preceding and succeeding Soviet practice was effectively validated as a model – indeed, the universal model – for the transition to Socialism. Rather than being considered as emergency measures intended to enable the Soviet regime to survive in temporary isolation in a backward country, the undemocratic features of the Soviet regime became an essential and permanent part of the domestic system, and the great intensification and expansion of these practices under Stalin was accompanied by a slavish imitation of them within the Communist International. The theory also laid the basis for the rise of Great Russian chauvinism within the Soviet Communist Party, and for the transformation of the Communist International into a wing of Soviet diplomacy.

Fitzpatrick considers that the industrialisation and collectivisation drive of the First Five Year Plan represented the culmination of the October Revolution. But it is not sufficient for her to say that the Soviet Union evolved in a different manner from that which the Bolsheviks had foreseen or desired in 1917. The real question is whether Stalin’s ‘revolution’ of 1929–33 constituted a step towards Communism in the sense that Marx employed the term – did it produce a society that could utilise labour more efficiently than capitalism, develop the forces of production in a qualitatively superior manner, and thus enable a truly classless society to emerge? Was the Soviet Union historically viable as a socio-economic formation? Now that the whole edifice has collapsed, the answer can only be in the negative. Rather than representing the culmination of the October Revolution, the First Five Year Plan saw the transformation of the Soviet bureaucracy into a self-conscious ruling elite, standing not only objectively above the Soviet working class, but subjectively as well, and rapidly becoming virulently hostile to proletarian revolutions in the capitalist world. Notwithstanding the eradication of capitalism in the Soviet Union during this period, the First Five Year Plan represented the extinction of the Soviet Union as a revolutionary factor.

Unlike the conservatives, who never miss the opportunity of mentioning the revisionists for the specific purpose of shooting them down, Fitzpatrick attempts a more balanced approach. This, however, merely makes the conservatives appear stronger in their assault, as they have no qualms about promoting their ideologically committed stance. It is as if she is a little embarrassed about promoting her views. As it is, we have seen that Fitzpatrick makes concessions to the conservatives, and some of her general statements – such as her description of revolutionaries as ‘zealots’, ‘utopians’ and ‘violent, suspicious and destructive’, and that by their very nature, revolutions are bound ‘to end in disillusionment and disappointment’ (p. 8) – verge on clichés more reminiscent of them rather than of an objective observer.

For many years, the vast majority of studies of Bolshevism, the October Revolution and the rise of Stalinism consisted of either Western demonology or Soviet hagiography, neither of which were particularly enlightening, and good literature was in short supply. The last couple of decades has seen a considerable turn for the better, as the revisionist school started to look more objectively at the social background of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, and showed that the Bolsheviks did enjoy a strong political base in 1917. But most of their accounts have been narrowly focused monographs, and they have not produced a satisfactory substantial overall account of the Bolshevik experience. Having said that, the Marxist left hasn’t produced one, either. Any takers?

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011