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The Russian Revolution


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Initially, this division ran conveniently between Right and Left, pitting the moderate  liberalism of the Provisional  Government against the socialisms of the Soviet. The Government would organize elections and a constituent assembly, establish the rule of law, and generally implement the “bourgeois revolution”;  the  Soviet  would  handle  practical  administration  and  secure the strongest benefits for the working class in the parliamentary system now to be created. The two would march separately in the same direction.

Popular  hopes,  however,  outpaced  the  limited  goals  the  Soviet’s  early leadership  set  for  the  revolution.  The  peasantry  needed  immediate  land reform; workers wanted a say in the economy. Workers also expected so- viets  to  be  institutionalized  in  the  constitution,  in  a  way  hard  to  square with  a  parliamentary  system.  More  important,  the  “national  defensism” advocated by the Soviet Executive was out of step with the people’s mood. On the factory floor, in the streets, and among the soldiers, attitudes were cut and dried: end the war and bring the armies home.

Social  polarization  rapidly  exploded  the  political  framework  of  bour- geois revolution. Instead of responding to pressure from below, the Soviet’s leaders  entrenched  behind  avowedly  moderate  goals.  After  the  Miliukov crisis  in  April  1917,  leading  socialists  joined  the  coalition  to  broaden  its base, only to suffer the inevitable burden of its failures.3  In theory, the Left’s new  portfolios—ministries  of  labor,  agriculture,  food  supply,  posts  and telegraphs, justice, and war—gave ample scope for revolutionary initiative. But the new incumbents were hamstrung by limited readings of the revo- lution’s  potential,  while  even  modest  reforms  remained  blocked.  Just  as popular  opinion  turned  against  the  Provisional  Government,  therefore, moderate socialists became inveigled into defending its policies, disastrously compromising their popular credentials. Herein lay the true key to the April crisis, the unresolved “problem of dual authority, social polarization, and the revolution’s future goals and direction.”4

April–October  1917  was  a  story  of  escalating  contradictions. Popular expectations  outgrew  the  government’s  intentions  on  every  front;  and  as Russian society mobilized, the government’s capacity dwindled. By simply seizing the lands, peasants indicted its dissembling over land reform. When the government failed to bring peace, it lost the loyalty of the troops. The June  military  offensive  was  a  disaster.  Morale collapsed. Popular demon- strations followed on 18 June, with massive disorders on 3–5 July, the July

Days.  The  Kornilov  rising  of  25–28  August, a  counterrevolutionary coup by  the  recently  appointed  commander-in-chief,  was defeated by working- class resistance, with a resurgence of popular revolutionary hopes and fur- ther damage to government. Most of all, amid general economic collapse, the honeymoon of workers and employers expired. Organized workers in- creasingly  assumed  practical  control  through  factory  committees  and  the Soviet’s coordination. On all three fronts—land, army, and industry—pres- sure for resolving dual power in favor of the Soviet reached a crescendo. Following the April crisis, the group consistently urging that resolution was the Bolsheviks. Immediately after February, the Bolsheviks had joined other socialists in loose coalition around the Soviet. But with Lenin’s return from exile on 3 April, this abruptly changed. Next day, he read his “April Theses” to a mixed socialist audience and urged for the first time pushing the revolution into a socialist stage: “The peculiarity of the current moment in  Russia  consists  in  the  transition  from  the  first  stage  of  the  revolution, which  gave  power  to  the  bourgeoisie  as  a  result  of  the  insufficient  con- sciousness  and  organization  of  the  proletariat,  to  its  second  stage,  which should give the power into the hands of the proletariat and poorest strata of the peasantry.” The present regime would never end the war, implement reform, and restore economic life. Anew state was needed: “Not a parlia- mentary  republic—a  return  to  that  from  the  Soviet  of  Workers’ Deputies would  be  a  step  backward—but  a  republic  of  Soviets  of  Workers’,  Poor Peasants’,  and  Peasants’  Deputies  throughout  the  country,  growing  from below  upwards.”  The  economy  would  be  reorganized  by  nationalizing land,  converting large estates into model farms, creating a single national bank,  and  taking  production  and  distribution  into  soviet  control.  This would  ignite  revolutions  in  the  advanced  capitalist  countries  of  western Europe.  Bolsheviks  should  campaign  for  this  among  the  workers  until  a Soviet majority was secured. An insurrection to seize power could then be


Lenin’s audience listened in disbelief. On 8 April, the party’s Petrograd committee rejected his Theses by 13 votes to 2, with one abstention. It was only  after  intensive  persuasion  that  majorities  swung  around:  first  in  the Bolshevik  Petrograd  City  Conference  (14–22  April)  and  then  in  the  All- Russian Party Conference immediately following. Debates centered on dual power. For Lenin, this could only be transitional, inherently conflict ridden. Victory of one authority over another was unavoidable: “There cannot be two powers in the state.”6   The Bolsheviks should effect transfer of sover- eignty  to  the  Soviet,  which  could  then  supervise  the  revolution’s  second stage. But for Lenin’s opponents, this was adventurist. The bourgeois rev- olution had not run its course. Russia was not ripe for immediate transition to  socialism.  The  Soviet  could  exercise  “the  most  watchful  control” over the Provisional Government but certainly not overthrow it. The debate was settled decisively in Lenin’s favor. Henceforth, the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” sharply divided Bolsheviks from the other Left.

By June–July, popular frustration was turning into class anger. The July Days  provided  frenetic  impetus:  the  first  real  crackdown  against  popular militancy also loosened upper-class inhibitions, exciting popular fears of a counterrevolution—an   anxiety   soon   vindicated   by   Kornilov’s  abortive coup.  The  economy  deteriorated  to  nearly  systemic collapse. Workers ex- perienced  this  as  inflation-driven  pressure  on  real  wages,  factory  shut- downs, shortages, and government ineffectuality—which they increasingly attributed to “bourgeois” interests. Over the summer, economic crises be- came linked in the popular imagination to capitalist “sabotage.” Employ- ers’ impatience with revolutionary militancy gave grist to this mill. Ano- torious statement to the Trade and Industrial Society on 3 August by  the leading  Moscow  financier  and  industrialist  Pavel  Riabushinskii  brought class enmity to a head: “It will take the bony hand of hunger and national destitution to grasp at the throat of these false friends of the people, these members of various committees and soviets, before they will come to their senses.”7

For  socialists  advocating  national  unity,  social  polarization  had  disas- trous  effects. But as the  only  group untainted  by  the Provisional Govern- ment’s drift, the Bolsheviks rode it into power. When the First All-Russian Congress  of  Soviets  convened  in  early  June,  Bolsheviks  were  still  weaker than Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (105 delegates, as against 248 and  245,  in  a  total  of  822).  But  June–July  worked  compellingly  in  their favor. Kornilov’s defeat was the final increment of radicalization. The Pe- trograd and Moscow Soviets voted the Bolshevik program, their executives passing  quickly  under  Bolshevik  control.  The  party’s  membership  con- firmed  this ascent: in  February, it numbered only 2,000 in Petrograd and

600 in Moscow, but by October the figures were 60,000 and 70,000, in a national  total  of  350,000.8   With  the  government  paralyzed, the other so- cialists compromised, the masses keyed for action, and the Soviet apparatus firmly  under Bolshevik control, the seizure of power, on the night of 24–

25 October 1917, proved relatively simple. MENSHEVISM  IN  1917:  REVOLUTION BY  THE  BOOK

Russian events exercised decisive influence on the Left elsewhere, stamping its image of what a socialist revolution should be, positively or negatively. One  view  saw  the  pathology  of  backwardness.  Tsarism  suffered  beneath the contradictions of modernization and collapsed from the added strains of war. In the resulting chaos, power fell to the group ruthless enough to impose its will. In anti-Communist versions, centralism became the logical expression  of  Bolshevik  ideology,  with  Lenin  as  villain-in-chief.  It  de- scended from the Jacobin dictatorship via the insurrectionary vanguardism of  nineteenth-century  conspiratorial  traditions.  That  lineage,  severed  by

Western social democracy, had a second life under Russian conditions. The key  to  Bolshevik  success,  accordingly,  was  the  model  of  the  tightly  disci- plined party of professional revolutionaries Lenin presented in What Is to Be  Done  (1902),  allowing  manipulation  of  the  masses  via  superior orga- nization.9   Russian  backwardness  plus Bolshevik centralism fundamentally distinguished the situation from the West.10

In  certain  respects,  Russian  circumstances  followed  the  West.  Despite the unaltered repressiveness of tsarist rule, in 1914 “social patriotism” was certainly not missing from the Russian scene. Plekhanov called for national defense: unless German militarism was stopped, European freedoms would be extinguished, retarding socialism’s chances by decades. This entailed all the compromises of right-wing socialists in Britain, France, and Germany, made  all  the  nastier  by  imperial  Russia’s  reactionary  character.  It  placed Plekhanov and his cothinkers against the very movement they had worked to  create.  Plekhanov  embraced  this  contradiction  with  shocking  enthusi- asm:  “If  I  were  not  old  and  sick  I  would  join  the  army.  To  bayonet  our German comrades would give me great pleasure.”11

The real test of the civil truce in imperial Russia would be the openings toward trade union recognition and parliamentary reform promised by the war. Early on, there was reason to hope.12  Two-thirds of the Duma joined a group from the State Council in the Progressive Bloc, which in late August

1914  gave  the  tsar  a  program  of  national  unity.  This  requested  minimal liberalizing  of  the  cabinet:  clemency  for  political  and  religious  offenders; relaxing  of  police  measures;  Jewish  emancipation;  concessions  to  Poles, Ukrainians, and Finns; equality of rights for peasants; geographical exten- sion and legal strengthening of the zemstvos. This would ground imperial government in what existed of Russian civil society, in a rudimentary step towards  social  consensus.  The  Petrograd  War  Industries  Committee  also had limited representation for labor: 10 workers out of 150 members, in- directly elected from factories of over 500 workers. This created the usual dilemmas  of  participation  for  the  Left,  compounded  by  the  continued  il- legality of trade unions, the vehicles of corporatism in the West. The Bol- sheviks boycotted. The Mensheviks, in contrast, were divided: the proboy- cott Secretariat in Exile was opposed by sections in Petrograd.

Unattainable  under  tsarism,  democracy  to  strengthen  working-class rights was the Menshevik goal for the revolution. The February Revolution conformed  exactly  to  Menshevik  theory:  tsarism  collapsing  from  its  own immobility, via rising popular pressure and upper-class exasperation. “So- ciety”—public  institutions,  bureaucratic  and  capitalist  modernizers,  the forces of the Progressive Bloc—had invited the tsar to broaden the autoc- racy’s base; he refused; so prewar polarization of state and society resumed. Political revolution became essential to free the way for modernizing. For Mensheviks,  this  would  liberate  the  potential  for  capitalism,  with  all  the liberal reforms—constitutional, legal, social, economic—connoting capital- ism’s rise in the West. The Left would be the democratic watchdog in this

bourgeois revolution. It could not, in the minds of most Mensheviks, push forward to socialism.

This Menshevik reading was perfectly consistent with the Second Inter- national’s  main  traditions  and  indeed  mirrored  reactions  to  the  February Revolution  in  the  social  democratic  parties  of  northern  Europe.  Second International Marxism reflected powerfully deterministic readings of capi- talist accumulation  and  crisis, after all: capitalism would experience esca- lating  structural  crises  via  its  own  laws  of  development,  reaching  a  final moment  of  revolutionary  collapse. This encouraged social democrats into both fatalism and certainty. Their parties sought maximum democracy in the  existing  system,  for  both  short-term  reforms  and  the  best  positioning when capitalism fell. Like the evolutionist determinism, this parliamentary model implied a peaceful transition to socialism, not barricade revolutions like 1789 or 1848. The pre-1914 tradition stressed building the movement by national organization. Where capitalist societies acquired parliamentary and local government institutions, parties should use them for legal prop- aganda and practical work.

This  was  the  politics  Mensheviks  pursued.  If  the  1917  revolution was a  bourgeois  revolution,  then  a  broadly  based  legal  labor  movement  was needed,  with  political  and  trade  union  arms,  and  the  social  and  cultural resources to carry labor’s cause through the ensuing capitalist transforma- tions. Because of Russia’s backwardness, and the bourgeoisie’s pusillanim- ity,  the  working  class  would  be  thrust  to  the  fore.  But  it  could  not  force things prematurely toward socialism. This Menshevik view required what Kautsky called “masterly limitation”—an activist politics, even leadership of revolutionary coalitions, but observing the limits history imposed: “To how  great  an  extent  socialism  can  be  introduced  must  depend  upon  the degree of ripeness which the country has reached. . . . [A ] backward coun- try  can  never  become  a  pioneer  in  the  development  of  socialist  form.”13

The  Left  should  facilitate  conditions  for  socialist  possibilities  to  ripen— uprooting  backwardness  and  traditionalism,  while  preparing  the  ground for capitalism. When Russian capitalism had matured, perhaps several gen- erations later, the working class could seize its inheritance.

Principled  and  realistic  as  an  assessment  of  Russia’s  existing  develop- mental  resources,  this  strategy  remained  doctrinaire,  abysmally  fitted  for the popular mobilization of 1917. The one, Menshevik sense of responsi- bility  before  History,  militated  directly  against  the  other,  Menshevik  re- sponsiveness  to  popular  radicalism.  Mensheviks  found  themselves  con- stantly trying to hold popular hopes back, within the bourgeois revolution’s normative limits. This applied par excellence to the Soviet. In theory, dual power allowed socialists both to pursue immediate working-class interests and to toughen the bourgeoisie’s resolution, but without overstepping the revolution’s structural limits. But in practice, the working-class movement could never confine itself to a watchdog role. It was drawn ineluctably into

ever greater responsibility for the government per se, not least because lib- eral failures were so dire.

This trapped Mensheviks into a debilitating logic of incorporation. Na- tional defensism was a disastrous policy, because the masses were demand- ing  peace.  The  economy  ensnared  Mensheviks  in  the  same  way.  In  the factories,  city  administrations,  and  economy  at  large,  working-class lead- erships  in  the  soviets,  unions,  and  factory  committees  were  drawn  ever further into managing the chaos. In 1917, strengthening the working class under capitalism meant taking responsibility for capitalism’s problems, and this carried working-class hopes past the limits Mensheviks set for the rev- olution.  The  way  out  was  a  countervailing  logic  of  popular  democratic leadership,  where  the  Left  took  full  responsibility  by  ditching the liberals and forming an exclusively socialist government. But this was the leap most Mensheviks  would  never  make.  It  was  the  soviets  and  factory councils— an emergent infrastructure of working-class self-administration—that were assuming  the  tasks  of  social  organization  and  economic  management  in

1917. Willy-nilly, the Mensheviks acknowledged this by accepting respon- sibility  for  government  between  April  and  October.  But  they  never  drew the further conclusions. They continued substituting for the social force— the liberal bourgeoisie—they believed the rightful bearer of the revolution.14


For Bolshevism in 1917, social polarization was the key. This was a dual process:  the  autocracy’s  political  isolation  was  increasingly  overburdened by a deepening social gap inside the antitsarist camp between “privileged” and  “unprivileged,”  the  “propertied”  and  the  “people.”  Even  as  political society  coalesced  into  an  antitsarist  opposition,  the  working  class  pulled away  from  the  privileged  sectors  into  generalized  confrontation  with  re- spectable  society.  Moreover,  the  new  militancy’s  “workerist”  mentalities threatened to maroon moderate socialists on the wrong pole of this devel- oping  confrontation.  This  made  1912–14  very  different from the buildup to the 1905 revolution, when a broad front of the intelligentsia embracing liberals, Marxists, and Populists alike had spoken for the people. By 1914, working-class militancy disordered the simplicity of that earlier antitsarist confrontation.15

Initially, workers seemed open to cooperation, in an exchange of reform for productivity, ratified by a 10 March accord introducing the eight-hour day,   factory   committees,   and   the   Central   Conciliation   Board,   drawn equally  from  Petrograd  employers  and  the  Soviet.  Strikes  slowed,  while workers focused  on the political arena and other forms of protest. Ritual

“cartings-out” from the workplace, petitions, demonstrations, and attacks on unpopular officials were aimed more at rectifying abuses and affirming

community values than at stopping production or questioning managerial prerogatives.16  It was the failure to end the war that prevented this modus vivendi, and by extension the politics of coalition, from stabilizing. Bitterly frustrated antiwar feelings undermined the prospects, not least through the mass  presence  of  a  vocal  and  discontented  soldiery,  numbering  a  quarter of a million in Petrograd alone.

In April–October 1917, a graduated radicalization occurred in the scale, forms,  and  content  of  working-class  unrest.  The  July  Days  marked  the transition from the politics of revolutionary unity to a more class-divided discourse,  in  which  the  government’s  priorities  lurched  toward  law  and order,  while  employers  and  workers  resumed  their  mutual  suspicions.  In the Trade-Industrialist conference of 3 August, its president Riabushinskii denounced the socialists in the government as “a pack of charlatans” hin- dering  the  politics  of  bourgeois  stabilization;  and  by  October,  after  the Kornilov fiasco, amidst ever-worsening economic disintegration, and with the  Petrograd  and  Moscow  Soviets  now  under  militant  control,  workers responded in kind. In September–October they struck in vast numbers with far  more  violence,  arresting  and  abusing  managers  and  owners,  blocking the  movement  of  materials  and  goods,  forming  Red  Guards,  and  seizing factories. Street actions over food shortages escalated.17  The politics of so- cial polarization had resumed.

Bolshevism rose to power by organizing this popular radicalization. Bol- shevik  success is often reduced to superior organization—in the model of the  disciplined,  monolithic,  highly  centralist  party  of  professional revolu- tionaries  ascribed  to  Lenin’s  What  Is  to  Be  Done?  of  1902. Yet from the moment of Lenin’s return to Petrograd, Bolshevik strategy evolved through disagreements,  whether  around  Lenin’s  April  Theses,  in  the  confusion  of the July Days, or in Lev Kamenev’s and Grigory Zinoviev’s opposition to the  seizure  of  power.18   This  atmosphere  of  debate  belies the stereotypical image of the vanguard party. In any case, the conditions of political life in these months, the activist volatility of the masses, and the flooding of the Petrograd party by tens of thousands of workers and soldiers unaware of the  esoteric  debates  of  1902–14  about  organization, rendered the fantasy of a ruthlessly disciplined cadre party absurd. The Bolsheviks’ success de- rived from their consistent nonparticipation in the government, which gave them  access  to  the  revolutionary  counterlegitimacy  of  the  Soviet.  Unlike their  rivals,  for  whom  popular  turbulence  threatened  the  revolution’s or- derly progress, they wanted to drive the popular movement forward.

Lenin’s belief that workers would displace the bourgeoisie as the revo- lution’s leading force came from the idea of “combined and uneven devel- opment.” Acrushingly backward society, Russia entered a Europe already dominated  by  advanced  capitalist  economies.  This  gave  Russia  access  to foreign capital, new technologies, and the latest managerial expertise, cap- italist  industry’s  most  modern  characteristics.  But  they  were  grafted  onto the  worst  aspects  of  backwardness,  from  a  reactionary  political structure

to  a  hopelessly  underdeveloped  civil  society  and  a  vast  peasant  majority. Because Russian capitalism developed from state intervention and foreign capital,  rather  than  “organically”  from  indigenous  enterprise,  Russia’s bourgeoisie  remained  weak.  In  contrast,  because  of  its  physical  and  eco- nomic concentration, the Russian proletariat was exceptionally strong. This enhanced  working-class  cohesion,  boosted  class  consciousness,  and  gave workers central political importance.

So  far,  little  separated  this  from  Menshevism.  Two  factors  allowed Lenin—and Trotsky, the argument’s earlier pioneer—to claim that workers themselves  could  seize  power.  First,  the dynamics of working-class mobi- lization  left the  revolutionary  party  no  choice; workers would always de- mand socialist measures, and any party seeking to hold them back would be swept aside. Second, the global process of uneven and combined devel- opment delivered the material conditions for this course. As Trotsky said:

it is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically back- ward  country  sooner  than  in  an  advanced  country.”19   The  surrounding backwardness of Russian society and the bourgeoisie’s political weakness, plus  Moscow’s  and  Petrograd’s  disproportionate  primacy  as  political, ad- ministrative,  and  cultural  capitals  where  workers  were  also concentrated, gave the working class a political capacity beyond its numbers. Thus, “the numbers, the concentration, the culture, and the political importance of the industrial  proletariat determined  its leading role. This was the theory of

permanent revolution.”20

Yet, however “advanced” in itself, the working class was still a minority in an overwhelmingly peasant country. For Lenin, revolution in the coun- tryside complemented workers’ mobilization in the towns. This meant not only commitment to land reform but also to its immediate implementation, which  neither  the  Mensheviks  nor  Socialist  Revolutionaries  (SRs)  could accept. This was the worst failure of the non-Bolshevik Left. Under a decree of  21  April  1917,  land  committees  were  preparing  agrarian  reform,  but government  intransigently  deferred  action. Bolsheviks demanded transfer- ing the land immediately to the peasants, without compensation, and with- out waiting for the Constituent Assembly. Lenin’s commitment to the poor peasant,  formulated  after  1905,  was  prominently  displayed  in  the  April Theses. It was voiced consistently during 1917. In late August, he took the

“model  decree”  of  the  SRs  (compiled  from  242  demands  from  the  All- Russian Peasants’ Congress in May) and stitched it to the Bolsheviks’ an- ticapitalist program. He endorsed peasant land seizures, and the Bolshevik government’s first two acts on 26 October—the decree on peace, the decree on land—were a ringing validation of the previous nine months’ frustrated peasant aspirations.21

This propeasant orientation shouldn’t be overstated. Bolshevism had no members  beyond  the  towns.  It  had  no  practical,  visible  presence  in  the countryside. Lenin’s own thinking on agrarian policy went through many turns, before and during 1917. However positive Bolshevik attitudes to the

peasantry were during the revolution, the later 1920s were a different story. Yet in 1917 itself, their record was singular. They alone took the peasants seriously.22   Even  more,  Lenin  grasped  the  dynamics  of  radicalism  in  the countryside. In this, the Bolsheviks sharply departed from the socialist tra- dition.  Second  International  socialists  rarely  troubled themselves with the peasantry.  Even  when  social  democrats  were supported by  the peasantry, as in Menshevik Georgia in 1905–21, they misrecognized this sociology.23

Given this blind spot, Lenin’s opening of Bolshevik politics to the agrarian question was crucial for the party’s popular legitimacy in 1917.

Bolsheviks  also  grasped  the  importance  of  soviets. Despite his critique of  workers’  spontaneity  in  What  Is  to  Be  Done?  Lenin  saw  immediately the Soviet’s significance in October 1905: on their own initiative, workers had fashioned a new revolutionary democracy. The soviet became the pri- mary  arena  for  revolutionaries  to  intervene,  and  Lenin’s  slogan  of  “All Power to the Soviets” identified Bolshevik strategy. Whatever Lenin’s per- sonal sincerity, it was in the soviets—and the factory councils, where Bol- sheviks  won  their  earliest  elections  in  1917—that  Bolshevism  secured  its democratic credentials. Crucially, the Petrograd Soviet’s newly created Mil- itary Revolutionary Committee also organized the seizure of power in Oc- tober, rather than the Bolsheviks acting in their own name. Soviet democ- racy provided the legitimacy that carried the Bolsheviks into power.

Less  appealing  was  Lenin’s  belief  in  splitting—his  drive  for  polemical clarification, brutally distancing his rivals. Accentuating differences typified his modus operandi, both in the original Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903 and  the  intense  politicking  of  1907–14.24   It  also  described  Zimmerwald, where he aimed to split the Second International and create an alternative revolutionary center. It was a well-honed strategy by 1917, stressing non- cooperation with Mensheviks and SRs from the start, freeing Bolshevism’s revolutionary mandate in October from the government fiascos of the pre- vious six months. This was also Lenin’s willingness to exercise power given the chance, his absolute determination to seize the revolutionary moment. In contrast, Mensheviks made almost a virtue out of hesitancy. They held their imagination back, tethered to the limits of the bourgeois revolution. But when Tseretelli famously insisted at the All-Russian Soviet Congress in June  1917  that  no  party  was  willing  to  say:  “Give  the  power  into  our hands, go away, we will take your place,” Lenin defiantly contradicted him from  the  hall.25   This  was  a  powerful  unity  of  conviction  and  action,  the certainty that revolution could be made to happen. It made the Bolshevik Party’s  accelerating  popular  momentum  in  July–October  a  magnet  for all the revolution’s frustrated activism.

In  Bolshevik  internationalism,  pragmatism  met  conviction.  Lenin’s  in- ternationalist  imperative  came  from  his  analysis  of  capitalism  in  its  mo- nopoly and imperialist phase—his belief that capitalism exhausted its pro- gressive  potential  by  needing  to  expand  on  a  world  scale,  with  resulting exploitation of the underdeveloped world and sharpening of contradictions

in the metropolis. National liberation movements in underdeveloped coun- tries  would  upset  the  process  of  imperialist  accumulation, he argued, un- dermine prosperity in the capitalist economies, and trigger renewed popular militancy. Capitalist concentration had meanwhile brought the productive forces to their fullest potential, leaving the economy’s commanding heights ripe  for  socialization.  Finally,  the  war  and  the  great  powers’  intensified competition  had  accentuated  all  these  conditions,  with  explosive  conse- quences for any power that was defeated. As Lenin said, “the war has given an  impetus  to  history  which  is  now  moving  with  the  speed  of  a  locomo- tive.”26   As  “the  weakest  link  in  the  imperialist  chain,”  tsarist Russia was especially  vulnerable  to  the  destabilizing  effects,  particularly  as  imperial society buckled under the war’s strain.

This internationalist perspective functioned in a particular way. It coun- tered Menshevik belief that Russian backwardness precluded the building of  socialism.  Such  objections  had  long  pedigrees  among  socialists,  and when Lenin’s April Theses proposed moving directly to socialist revolution many  Bolsheviks  also  balked.  Socialism  could  not  be  built  from  scarcity, only  from material abundance, once capitalism had released the forces of progress: “Whence will arise the sun of the socialist revolution? I think that with  all  existing  conditions,  with  our  standard  of  living,  the  initiation  of the  socialist  revolution  does  not  belong  to  us.  We  have  not  the  strength, nor the objective conditions, for it.”27

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky disputed this as such. Indeed, Trotsky added a further dimension: “the real obstacle to the implementation of a socialist program . . . would  not  be  economic  so  much—that is, the backwardness of the technical and productive structures of the country—as political: the isolation  of  the  working  class  and  the  inevitable  rupture  with  its peasant and  petty-bourgeois  allies.”28   But  here,  internationalism  supplied  a  solu- tion, via sympathetic revolution in the West. Problems would disappear in the larger context of a federated socialist Europe: the more advanced econ- omies  delivered  the  missing  developmental  resources,  compensating  the proletariat’s Russian isolation with the international solidarity of broader- based workers’ states to the west. This was vitally enabling for the Bolshe- viks: if seizing power was to be justified before the court of history, revo- lution  in  the  West  had  to  occur.  Lenin  and  Trotsky  entered  the  October Revolution  with  this  explicit  realization.  Otherwise,  Menshevik taunts of adventurism were much harder to dispel.

These, then,  were the main ingredients of Bolshevik success: a sharper grasp  of  specifically  Russian  conditions,  embracing  precocity  as  well  as backwardness;  advocacy  for  the  peasantry;  the  Soviet’s  institutional  cen- trality;  activist  demarcation  against  the  other  Left  parties;  and  a  global analysis of the overall European situation, bringing confidence in the pros- pects of sympathetic revolution in the West. Other factors were important too, including the personalities of Lenin and Trotsky. But it was above all the  combination  of  relentless  activism  and  remarkable  clarity  of  perspec-

tive,  under  conditions  of  soaring  popular  radicalism  and  extreme  social polarization, that brought the Bolsheviks to power.


After  the  October  Revolution,  political  concentration  was  rapid  and  ex- treme.  Once  the  Bolsheviks  seized  power,  their  relations  with  other  left groupings became crucial. The Mensheviks and SRs seceded from the Sec- ond  All-Russian  Soviet  Congress  on  25  October.  They  formed  the  All- Russian  Committee  for  the  Salvation  of  the  Country  and  the Revolution, preparing  a  rising  to  join  the  expected  attack  on  the  capital  by  General Petr Krasnov and his Cossacks. Krasnov was easily beaten on 29–30 Oc- tober, but this gave the Bolsheviks grounds to sever talks and tighten dis- cipline  in  their  own  ranks.  The  Left  SRs  now  broke  decisively  with  their party, refused to join the walkout of 25 October, endorsed the Bolshevik seizure of power, and on 15 November joined the Bolsheviks in coalition. Conflicts hinged on the issue of legitimacy and the revolution’s funda- mental  definition,  “bourgeois-democratic” or “proletarian-socialist,” now centering  on  the  soviets.  The  Bolshevik  rising  was  deliberately  timed  for the  opening  of  the  Second  All-Russian  Congress  of  Soviets,  and  once  the original soviet leaders had gone, nothing could stop popular militancy flow- ing  through  this  framework.  As  the  Bolsheviks  desired,  political  choices were being polarized. On one side was the formal legitimacy conferred by the  imminent  Constituent  Assembly  and  the  parliamentary  system  advo- cated  by  the  Provisional  Government;  on  the  other  was  the  new  revolu- tionary legitimacy of the soviets. In ostentatiously leaving the Soviet Con- gress,  the Mensheviks and Right SRs left no doubt where their allegiance lay.  This  destroyed  all  chances  for  giving  the  new  regime  a  nonpartisan socialist  basis.  The  Bolshevik  rising  commanded  powerful  support,  espe- cially  with  militants  in  the  army  and  factories.  But,  equally,  there  were strong  unity  sentiments  for  a  coalition  of  all  socialists,  providing  it  was antibourgeois. This was the potential the Mensheviks and Right SRs fatally squandered. As the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov later conceded, “we com- pletely  untied  the  Bolsheviks’  hands,  making  them  masters  of  the  entire

situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.”29

Thus  the  Constituent  Assembly  was  already  delegitimized  even  before the elections of 12 November 1917. In those elections, returns were good for the SRs—410 seats out of 707, as against the Bolsheviks’ 175. But the Bolsheviks’ other rivals were erased. Bolsheviks carried the towns, with 36 percent of the vote in provincial capitals, as against 23 percent for Kadets, the  sole  surviving  bourgeois  party,  and  14  percent  for  SRs.  The  political alignment, with urban allegiances concentrated around Bolsheviks and Ka- dets, now directly registered the social polarization. While SRs held some

ground, it was paltry compared with the summer, and the Mensheviks were completely wiped out.30

As the Left’s dominant party in the cities, the Bolsheviks throve on the still  evolving  urban  radicalization.  The  gap  between  Bolshevik  leadership in  the  soviets  and  their  weaker  standing  in  the  Constituent Assembly left them undismayed. When the Assembly convened on 5 January 1918, they corrected the imbalance by dissolving it. This was consistent with the slo- gan  “All  Power  to  the  Soviets”  and  the  logic  of  urban  popular  loyalties. To legitimize the closing of the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks called not  only  a  third  All-Russian  Congress  of  Soviets  (after  those in  June and October 1917) but also an All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, for mid-January 1918. The founding document was its “Declaration of Rights of  the  Toiling  and  Exploited  Peoples,”  drafted  on  3  January,  adopted by the  All-Russian  Soviet  Congress  on  15  January, and  inscribed in the new Constitution  in  July.  The  worker-peasant  axis  was  central  here,  but  the self-presentation  of  the  Bolsheviks  themselves—the  revolutionary  e´lan  of Bolshevik political culture—was unambiguously proletarian. Adapting this self-understanding to the needs of a worker-peasant alliance became a cru- cial issue in the further course of the revolution.

Other  problems  were  looming.  How  to  institutionalize  the  direct  de- mocracy  of  the  Soviets  and  factory  committees  was one. Pluralism—how to deal with organized opposition—was another. The question of nation- alities, flagged in the Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited Peoples,  was  still  another.  Each  goes  to  the  heart  of  the  relationship  of socialism and democracy. The salient theme was the turn from parliamen- tary  to  soviet  democracy,  a  decisive  break,  whose  only  forerunner  in  the social  democratic  tradition  of  the  first  two  Internationals  was  the  Paris Commune. To the previous ideal of the democratically elected parliamen- tary majority, Bolshevism counterposed the ominous-sounding formula of the   dictatorship   of   the   proletariat.   Something   important   had   clearly changed.  The  All-Russian  Soviet  Congress  greeted  the  suppression  of  the Constituent Assembly by singing the Marseillaise (the anthem of the French Revolution)  as  well  as  the  Internationale  (the  anthem  of  the  workers’ in- ternational), so that the transition from the epoch of the bourgeois to that of the proletarian revolution would be marked.31

r ussian   extremes   created  chances for the Left that weren’t available elsewhere in Europe.   Some   wartime  circumstances  were generic—notably, the labor movement’s incor- poration via patriotism, bringing gains for lead- ers but hardships for the rank and file. But in other ways, Russian circumstances were least like the others, because the thinness of civil so- ciety  left  Russia  exceptionally  vulnerable  to generalized breakdown, which the West’s more developed  institutional  resources  forestalled. This  left  a  vacuum  during  1917,  which  the highly mobilized working class of Moscow and Petrograd acted to fill. Seizing such chances re- quired   a   revolutionary   imagination,   which Lenin,  Trotsky,  and  the  Bolsheviks  supplied. Bolshevism broke the mold of the socialist tradition,   jolting   European   Marxists   from their  fatalism.  Socialism  was  no  longer  the necessary exit from inevitable capitalist crisis; instead, revolutions could now be made. Not simply  the  objective  result  of  history’s  laws, they  required  a  creative political act. For the radicals   of   European   socialist   parties,   for working-class  militants  of  1917–18,  and  for many  younger  intellectuals  fresh  to  the  Left, the  Russian  Revolution  enlarged  a  sense  of political possibility. It created a new horizon. It  incited  a  general  sense  of  movement  and opportunity,  of  pushing  on  the  frontiers  of political  imagination.  For  Antonio  Gramsci, Lenin  was  “the  master  of  life,  the  stirrer  of consciences, the awakener of sleeping souls.” The Bolsheviks had made “man the dominant factor  in  history,  not  raw  economic  facts— men  in  societies,  men  in  relation  to  one  an- other, reaching agreements with one another, developing through these contacts a collecti

social will.” Russian backwardness was no problem: “The revolutionaries themselves  will  create  the  conditions  needed  for  the  total  achievement  of their goal.” Revolution was the crucible of opportunity.1

Briefly—varying across Europe, but concentrated in 1917–20—the po- litical imagination was unleashed. And before the revolutionary tide ebbed, much  had  changed.  Working-class  revolution  did  not  succeed  elsewhere, and  some  national  movements  experienced  crushing  defeat.  Most  move- ments  became  bitterly  split  between  surviving  socialist  parties  and  new Communist  ones.  There  were  also  limits  to  the  new  politics.  Postrevolu- tionary constitutions were still conceived in parliamentary terms. The new revolutionaries neglected building the coalitions so crucial to the practical survival of revolutionary regimes, given the social, religious and ethnic het- erogeneity of all European countries. Even where most ambitious, as in the Ordine  nuovo  group  around  Gramsci,  their  cultural  politics  rarely  tran- scended  traditional  class-political  frameworks,  which  downgraded the in- terests of women and other vital questions.2

Yet, when the imagination was recalled from the frontier to more pro- saic tasks by the uneven stabilization of 1921–23, the landscape was fun- damentally transformed. In much of Mediterranean and eastern Europe— in Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain—stabilization took authoritarian forms, leaving  strong  radical  movements  of  town  and  country  defeated  and  un- derground.  But  in  the  prewar  central  and  north  European  “social  demo- cratic  core,”  comprising  Austria,  Germany,  Czechoslovakia,  Switzerland, and Scandinavia, together with France, the Low Countries and Britain, the Left  was  far  stronger  than  before.  While  in  some  cases  improvement fol- lowed the collapse of old imperial regimes amidst revolutionary turbulence and in all others there were large-scale popular pressures, this was no spe- cifically socialist advance. Instead it brought a strengthening of parliamen- tary  democracy,  an  expansion  of  workers’  rights  under  the  law,  further union  recognition,  the  growth  of  civil  liberties,  and  the  beginnings  of  a welfare state. The enhancement of the public sphere—in parliamentarian, publicistic, and cultural terms—was also a big gain, especially in countries where public freedoms were cramped and harassed before.

To judge the revolutionary years 1917–23 we have to bring this whole picture  into  view,  assessing  the  limits  as  well  as  the  strengths  of  the  new politics, precisely what had and had not been achieved. This means assess- ing  the  reformist as  well as the  revolutionary chances—the slow, uneven, and reversible gains of the Left, not just the dramatic bursts of willed rev- olutionary action.

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