SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

Retelling the Russian revolution

Among the key lessons of 1917 is that the working class needs a mass party with a clear understanding of class society and a socialist programme, as well as the necessary organisational skill and determination, in order to take power. Unfortunately, as PAUL CALLANAN explains, even books written from a left-wing viewpoint often miss this central point.

The 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution last year inspired a number of documentaries, books and articles. Unfortunately, they were mainly dedicated to trashing its memory and attempting to put young people and workers off looking at the real lessons of the world’s first successful workers’ revolution. In that sense, China Miéville’s book was a timely addition. October is an attempt to convey the hope and potential unleashed by the revolution, and the author sets out his aims: "It is, rather, a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms, because here it is precisely as a story that I have tried to tell it".

The book is engagingly written, if florid at times, and gives a very good outline of the events and the characters involved. It takes in the broad sweep of the events from the February revolution right up to October. However, it is precisely because Miéville claims to be looking from a sympathetic perspective that we must pay special attention to his book’s shortcomings. The October revolution represents the only time in history that workers took and held state power, so the events of 1917 provide a case study for new generations of socialists and fighters in how to take on the bosses and win.

It is in the interpretation of those events and the debates that took place at the time that Miéville’s Achilles heel is to be found. Above all, he dismisses the disputes between Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, and other prominent Bolsheviks throughout 1917 as a ‘myth’ dreamed up by Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the revolution.

Miéville comments on Lenin’s famous letters written at the very beginning of the revolution while he was in exile in Switzerland: "The later myth of the bombshell ‘Letters from Afar’ seems to have been born out of a combination of misunderstanding of the Pravda edits and rather tendentious retellings – by Trotsky, among others – in the context of in-party jostling for position. Yet while this particular conflict was largely a retrospective fiction, it undeniably gained in plausibility due to the way Lenin’s formulations, including in his intemperate polemics, evinced an uncompromising tendency, a distinguishing political logic that would, in fact, be key to other real disputes within the party. Not ineluctable by any means, but chafing against Bolshevik moderation and coalition. The ‘Letters from Afar’ were thus ‘continuity’ Bolshevism, and yet contained seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position. One that would become clearer with Lenin’s return".

All the way through, Miéville plays down the very real differences that existed. The key questions being debated within the Bolshevik Party in 1917 were around the character of the revolution, and what role the working class would play. These issues are always of vital importance within the labour movement. In a revolutionary situation they become a matter of life and death.

The permanent revolution

Russia in 1917 was still a largely feudal country, ruled over by the authoritarian Tsar Nicholas II. Most of the population were extremely poor peasants working in the service of landowners. The Russian capitalist class was small, bound to the tsarist state, and in hock to western imperialism. Meanwhile, the latest production techniques were being introduced in the major industrial centres, drawing in workers in their hundreds of thousands, creating a powerful working class at breakneck speed.

It was this dynamic combination that led Trotsky to formulate his theory of the permanent revolution in 1905/06 when he analysed the first Russian revolution. He realised that the economic power and collective strength of the working class, though numerically small, meant that it would take the lead in any revolutionary movements. The vast peasantry was a potentially powerful force but lacked economic and political cohesion, and the capitalist class was too weak to play the role it had in the 17th century English revolution or in 18th century France.

Furthermore, even though the initial tasks of the revolution could be seen as ‘bourgeois’ – unifying the nation state, land reform, modernising the economy, introducing a parliamentary system – the working class would not stop there. Once they held power in their hands, they would be compelled to implement socialist measures, including linking up with revolutionary movements internationally.

This perspective was proven to be correct when the working class moved into action in February 1917 and removed the tsar. The working class had set up the soviets, councils of directly elected delegates from the factories and the army – another innovation from 1905. This was in opposition to the capitalist Provisional Government led initially by Prince Lvov and later by Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky. Lenin and Trotsky recognised the soviets as potential organs of working-class state power.

It was only through taking power that the working class could bring an end to Russia’s involvement in the imperialist first world war, satisfy their own demands for bread, and the peasants’ demands for land. The parties of the Provisional Government that Lenin took aim at in his Letters from Afar – the Kadets (constitutional monarchists), peasant-based Social Revolutionaries (SRs), and right-wing socialist Mensheviks – stood opposed to this. For them, the process would stop at the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

The SRs and Mensheviks, who sought compromise with the capitalist class, formed the majority of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in February. Because the Mensheviks – who claimed to be Marxists – viewed it as a bourgeois revolution, they expected a period of capitalist development before there could be any possibility of socialism. As a result, they held back the working class and backed the continuation of the war, rationalising it by claiming it would now be fought to protect the revolution and Russia’s new-born democracy.

Bolshevik leaders’ incorrect line

Leading Bolsheviks in Petrograd during February and March took a similar line to that of the Mensheviks. They included Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin who, when they arrived in the Russian capital from exile in Siberia on 12 March, took the editorial reins of the Bolsheviks’ main newspaper Pravda. On 15 March, Pravda announced: "Our slogan is not the empty cry ‘down with the war!’ which means the disorganisation of the revolutionary army and of the army that is becoming ever more revolutionary. Our slogan is, bring pressure to bear on the Provisional Government so as to compel it, without fail, openly and before the eyes of world democracy, and attempt to induce all the warring countries to initiate immediate negotiations to end the world war. Till then let everyone remain at his post".

Lenin was clear in his opposition to this ‘revolutionary defencist’ position. He denounced anyone who claimed to be a Marxist putting forward the continuation of the war on ‘democratic’ or ‘revolutionary’ grounds. They were committing the worst crime of all by providing the capitalists and imperialism with a revolutionary gloss. It was an attempt to deceive the working class: "He who says that the workers must support the new government in the interests of the struggle against tsarist reaction… is a traitor to the workers, a traitor to the cause of the proletariat, to the cause of peace and freedom". (The First Stage of the First Revolution, Letters from Afar)

Instead, Lenin stressed the leading role of the working class. He also explained that they could not stop at overthrowing the tsar. The task was not simply to put pressure on the Provisional Government to conclude an armistice, as the coalitionists in the Bolshevik Party wanted. Rather, it was to expose the capitalist government for what it really was. Then to replace it with the rule of the working class: "Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the [prominent Mensheviks] Potresovs, Gvozdvovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday. Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced by bourgeois politicians, teach them no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, their own weapons". (The First Stage of the First Revolution)

As recounted by Trotsky, Lenin came out against the line taken by Pravda. In his April Theses, which Lenin presented to the Bolshevik Central Committee on his return to Russia, he laid out a programme for working-class revolution. It was not just a call to action. It was also issued as a corrective to the mistaken line taken by the Bolshevik leadership in Russia during the first period of the revolution. Trotsky wrote: "It goes without saying that the proclamation issued by the conciliators on March 14, which had met with so many compliments from Pravda, was characterised by Lenin only as ‘notorious’ and ‘muddled’. It is the height of hypocrisy to summon other nations to break with their bankers while simultaneously forming a coalition government with the bankers of one’s own country". (Lessons of October, Chapter 3, 1924)

Fundamental differences

Miéville, while acknowledging that the differences between Lenin and other Bolsheviks were real, attempts to down play their significance: "The wrangles were mostly over tactical issues, such as Lenin’s suggestion that they change the name of the party, or his new political emphasis on the soviets rather than the more traditional propagandist stress on convening the Constituent Assembly. A particular point at issue was that Lenin adamantly opposed, as almost distasteful, making ‘impermissible’, illusion-breeding ‘demands’ on the Provisional Government".

Miéville does not see that the disagreements stemmed from a fundamental difference in method, and over the character of the Russian revolution. Yet he contradicts his own argument when he quotes what he calls the ‘concerns’ raised by Grigory Zinoviev, who shared Kamenev and Stalin’s position: "At first the board of Pravda were hesitant to reproduce the Theses, but Lenin insisted, and they were published on 7 April – swiftly followed by Kamenev’s ‘Our Disagreements’, distancing the Bolsheviks from Lenin’s ‘personal opinions’. ‘Lenin’s general scheme appears to us unacceptable’, he wrote, ‘inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution’."

How can anyone claim that these were mere tactical ‘wrangles’? The positions put by Lenin and the coalitionist tendencies within the Bolshevik leaders were worlds apart. Lenin had realised that the old Marxist formulations were behind the times. Even in exile, he was more in tune with developments in Russia than the Kamenevs, Zinovievs and Stalins. This is seen in the impact the outcome of the debate had on the events of 1917 and beyond. As Trotsky was to say later, had Kamenev won the Bolsheviks to his position, the effect would have been to "accept the role of an opposition in a bourgeois parliament".

It is a major mistake to underestimate the historical significance of these debates. In the April Theses, Lenin effectively endorsed Trotsky’s permanent revolution and, when Trotsky arrived back in Russia in May 1917, the two were in complete unison. Moreover, these were far from accidental episodes. In October, Kamenev and Zinoviev would oppose the seizure of power for similar, conservative reasons. Not only that, they leaked the planned takeover to the press, endangering the insurrection itself.

Was a left coalition possible?

Tellingly, at the back of the book, Miéville reels off an extensive list of writers and books he found "useful and/or helpful" in his research. It reflects a wide range of writers and political outlooks. Disappointingly, Trotsky only features once – and Lenin does not feature at all! This suggests that the author had little interest in reading what the two principal leaders had to say about events during or in the years after the revolution. Miéville’s approach is not to study in a systematic way the debates that took place and their impact on events. He cherry picks the sources and information that conform to his own political outlook.

Miéville’s attempt to transpose this mistaken political approach back through time and onto the Russian revolution is most graphic in the epilogue. Here, he briefly takes up the aftermath of the October revolution and the degeneration of the Soviet state. The invasion of Russia by 21 imperialist armies in aid of the counter-revolutionary ‘White’ forces, and the failure of other revolutions, in particular in Germany, are correctly cited as factors that gave rise to the top-down Stalinist regime. However, Miéville also seems to give equal weight to the ‘failure’ of the socialist parties to form a coalition government after October.

For this, Lenin and Trotsky – due to their "hard-line on the question" – are among those he points the finger of blame at: "Nothing is given. But had the internationalists of other groups remained within the second congress [of the soviets], Lenin and Trotsky’s intransigence and scepticism about coalition might have been undercut, given how many other Bolsheviks, at all levels of the party, were advocates of coalition. A less monolithic and embattled government might have been the outcome".

In taking this line, Miéville makes exactly the sort of "crude, ahistorical, ignorant, bad-faith and opportunist attacks on October" he claims he is trying to counter. In fact, Miéville is looking at it the wrong way round. The second All-Russia Congress of Soviets began on 25 October, just as power had been taken by the workers and soldiers led by the Bolsheviks. The Congress delegates, directly elected by millions of workers, soldiers and peasants, overwhelmingly backed the transfer of power, and elected a new 25-member presidium, including 14 Bolsheviks along with Left SRs and left-wing Menshevik Internationalists. It was at this point that the Right SRs and Mensheviks walked out.

The only way of maintaining a coalition of all the socialist groups would have been to accede to the demand of the Mensheviks and Right SRs to hand power over to the Constituent Assembly, elections for which were due in mid-November. Originally, it was meant to draw up a constitution but had been completely overtaken by events. Not only that. The out-of-date ballot papers did not reflect the split between the pro-Soviet Left SRs and the Right SRs. This meant that the Right-SRs were over represented when it convened in January 1918 – for one day only.

To take this path would have been to reverse the October revolution, as Lenin argued: "The interests of this revolution stand higher than the formal rights of the Constituent Assembly… Every direct or indirect attempt to consider the question of the Constituent Assembly from a formal, legal point of view, within the framework of ordinary bourgeois democracy and disregarding the class struggle and civil war, would be a betrayal of the proletariat’s cause, and the adoption of the bourgeois standpoint". (Theses on the Constituent Assembly, Pravda, 13 December 1917)

In December 1917, the Left SRs did go into coalition with the Bolsheviks. It was short lived, however. In March 1918, making good on their promise to take Russia out of the war, the Bolsheviks signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey). The Left SRs denounced the harsh terms of the deal and walked out of the government. Subsequently, they took up arms against it, including involvement in August 1918 in an assassination attempt on Lenin in which he was shot three times and seriously wounded. During the course of the civil war, the Mensheviks and Right SRs sided with the reactionary White armies.

The Bolsheviks were the only party with the ideas and programme around which the working class could organise to defeat the capitalists and landlords. Is Miéville seriously suggesting that history would have turned out better had the Bolsheviks sacrificed all of that to form a coalition with those who were out to destroy the revolution?

1917 and today

These are not matters of mere historical interest or hair-splitting over debates held by ‘dead Russians’ a century ago, as is often portrayed. They are still as relevant as ever. Capitalism today is a system of intractable crisis. Working-class and young people across the world are finding that it cannot meet even the most basic needs. The gap between the rich and poor is becoming a gaping chasm. New movements and parties are being born to give voice to the opposition to austerity and the capitalist system as a whole. Debates around programme, the role of the working class, and reform or revolution will take centre stage.

In Britain, we see the beginnings of this process with the movement around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s left-wing leadership of the Labour Party. Their anti-austerity programme, while limited, has unleashed great hope and confidence among large layers of people, particularly young people, that an alternative is possible.

Yet the Labour Party is still two parties in one: a left wing around the leadership and the hundreds of thousands of people who support them; and the Blairite wing, representatives of capitalism, in control of the parliamentary party and most Labour councils. While some on the left maintain that ‘unity’ has broken out between these two wings, in reality, the right wing is only biding its time before attempting to remove Corbyn again. The interests of the working class are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. The task for socialists and anti-austerity fighters is to campaign both inside and outside of Labour for a genuine independent party of the working class.

As the new struggles develop, there is an increasing interest in studying the Russian revolution for a guide to action. Unfortunately, October by China Miéville will be of limited use. It is part of a growing trend that attempts to recast the Bolshevik Party as a debating society whose disagreements and arguments were of little importance. The lessons of the October revolution are distorted in order to justify the mistaken approach of attempting to build a movement that faces both ways: on the one hand, trying to satisfy the desire of the working class and the poor to see an end to austerity; on the other, trying to mollify the capitalists and reassure them that their interests will not be threatened.

While there will never be an exact repeat of 1917, workers and youth will build revolutionary movements to challenge the capitalist system in the future. What made the Russian revolution was an independent working-class leadership organised by a far-sighted revolutionary party based on a Marxist programme and ideas. The building of such a party is the vital task for all those fighting for a socialist world today.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page