Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
The Road to Revolution
THIS is a detailed history of the Bolshevik party from its earliest beginnings up to the October Revolution, written by a leading member of the Socialist Appeal group. It will be a welcome addition to any Marxist’s bookshelf because, as Alan Woods himself points out: ‘With a few honourable exceptions, such as the work done by the French Marxist historians Pierre Broué and Marcel Liebman, it is impossible to find a history of the Bolshevik Party worth the trouble of reading.’ (p. 16) One could add that Broué’s Le Parti Bolchevique covers a longer time-span and so doesn’t deal in the same depth with the period of the party’s formation.
As a record of the events, this is a very authoritative book, which has obviously been meticulously researched. It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that it took the author 30 years to collect the material. He uses primary sources such as Trotsky’s Sochineniya (works in Russian), minutes of central committee meetings, and eyewitness reports. As Woods points out, ‘the old Stalinist histories are virtually worthless as sources’ (p. 24).
But it doesn’t serve only an academic purpose – in Woods’s own words: ‘The history of Bolshevism provides us with a model of how this [socialism] can be achieved.’ (p. 13) It is also full of anecdotes – some of them very amusing, others deeply moving – that help bring the early revolutionary movement to life. Here we learn of the creativity and bravery required in order to deceive the police of the Tsarist regime: the letters and pamphlets written in invisible ink in prison, the newspapers produced abroad and smuggled into the country, and so on.
The development of the Bolshevik party was not, of course, a question of a gradual rise in numbers and influence, but of an intense political and ideological struggle within the Marxist movement. One of the best examples of this is the long fight between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions inside the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party until the final split in 1913; but the other important polemical battles are all here – with the Legal Marxists led by Struve, the Revisionists led by Bernstein, and the Economists in the second half of 1890s. Woods has the merit of being able to see the issues in perspective, pointing out, for example, that ‘Plekhanov’s formulations … had played a progressive rôle in the struggle against Narodnism, but were out of place in the new stage of the class struggle in Russia’. (p. 132)
But although Woods gives an absorbing and even-handed account of all the discussions, he is not so clear when it comes to explaining the evolution of Lenin’s thinking. In this book, theory takes second place to gripping narrative.
The book is an orthodox Trotskyist view of the history of the Bolshevik party, in that it defends the centrality of the vanguard Leninist party for the future socialist revolution. For example, Woods criticises Orlando Figes’ anti-Bolshevik history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, which describes the seizure of power by Bolsheviks as a ‘conspiracy, a coup, a drunken rampage’ (p. 22).
However, Woods is not uncritical of Lenin. He devotes a chapter to What Is To Be Done?, in which he says that ‘whilst correctly polemicising against the Economists’ slavish worship of “spontaneity”, Lenin allowed himself to fall into the error of exaggerating a correct idea and turning it into its opposite’(p. 121). Woods describes Lenin’s view that socialist consciousness has to be brought to the working class from outside as ‘one sided and erroneous’, citing Chartism, the Paris Commune and the soviets in 1905 as examples of the working class spontaneously exceeding trade union consciousness.
The book’s highest achievement is the way it charts the relationship between the RSDLP/Bolshevik party and the mood of the working class, both in times of reaction and times of an upsurge in the class struggle. Woods highlights the ability of Lenin to analyse the objective situation and develop tactics that enabled the party to reach the working class.
Whatever the reader thinks about the author’s defence of the classic model of a Leninist party, it would be unfair not to recognise the authority of this book. The history of the Bolshevik party contains valuable lessons for today’s struggle for socialism, and Alan Woods has performed a service by making this history accessible to a new generation of militants.
Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011