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Colin Barker

When forces defied theory

(November 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 92, November 1986, pp. 30–31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Russia 1905–07: Revolution as a Moment of Truth
Teodor Shanin
Macmillan £9.95

EVERY GREAT revolution changes the map of the world. For it always contains much that is new. The 1905–7 revolution was more than a rehearsal for 1917: that metaphor suggests merely practicing a given role. 1905–7 occasioned enormous revisions in Marxist theory and practice.

Why? Because the 1905–7 experience did not conform to the evolutionist theory of stages into which Marxism had become perverted. Real social forces refused to play the parts allotted to them by theory. The workers invented the Soviet, a form of proletarian rule in a backward country. The bourgeoisie refused to play a progressive role. The peasantry demonstrated enormous independent revolutionary capacity. Russia turned out less capitalist than all the Marxists had supposed, and more ripe for socialism too!

This is Shanin’s subject-matter. He is less interesting on the workers than on the peasantry. But never mind: his two large chapters on peasant movements, organisation and consciousness in revolutionary Russia are brilliant and thrilling. Shanin helped me understand, as never before, why Lenin, almost alone among the Bolsheviks, wanted to participate in the Duma alongside the peasant delegates, and why he fundamentally revised the Bolshevik agrarian programme.

The latter part of the book asks, who learned what from 1905–7? Some, including Mensheviks, Kadets, nobility, learning nothing, proved irrelevant. Others learned, and transformed their practice. One such was the brutal Stolypin, the Tsar’s minister, whose programme for reconstruction of Russia from above was defeated by the conservative stupidity of the very forces he tried to save.

Among the revolutionaries, two figures are especially important: Trotsky, whose experience led him to formulate the theory of permanent revolution; and of course Lenin, who reshaped the whole Bolshevik strategy and whose re-learning was more complex and deeper than Trotsky’s. (Another was Luxemburg, with her brilliant account of the mass strike, but Shanin misses her.)

There are several things to quarrel with in this book – a touch of soft Maoism, insufficient consideration of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development. But overall this book is rich, bold, controversial and properly committed. I enjoyed it.

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