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The Russian Revolution: A Twentieth Century Enigma

Al Richardson

This article was written to mark the eightieth anniversary of the October Revolution, and was first published in the Sri Lankan magazine the Lanka Guardian. We are grateful to the Lanka Guardian and its editor Dayan Jayatilleka for permission to reproduce it here.

THE LAPSE of eighty years since the October Revolution should allow us some pause for reflection, an opportunity to go over some ideas about it. It is true that less than a century is a pitifully short time span against which to measure the significance of world events, which can only be done in the long run. But if we follow this logic too far we will never be able to talk about anything important at all. In the long run, as the wise say, we’re all dead.

It has to be said from the start that a reassessment is urgently called for, now that the fate of the revolution has been decided in its country of origin, at least for the time being. Our main task here is a methodological problem, and does not, in fact, result from the discovery of fresh factual data. For in spite of the claims of those who wish to build a reputation on sensationalism,1 in striking contrast with the Stalin era the release of new archival materials hardly alters the main lines of our picture of the Soviet Union under Lenin in any dramatic way. The only two examples that spring immediately to mind are the revelation that it was Andrei Vyshinsky as district chairman who processed Kerensky’s order for the arrest of Lenin in 1917, which explains the hold Stalin had over him at the time of the Moscow Trials,2 and the publication of Lenin’s speech to the Ninth Congress on 22 September 1920 showing the extent of his strategic planning for the spread of the revolution in Europe.3 It can now be affirmed from this that the attack on Lvov, which led to defeat in the Polish War by opening up a gap in the Russian line, was not due to any desire on the part of Stalin to emulate Tukhachevsky,4 but to Lenin’s strategic aims for the revolution at the time.

It is not the discovery of such data that calls for a new discussion, but the shock produced throughout the world by the collapse of the regime itself. We can only look at the past through the eyes of the present, for history is the intellectual form in which societies decide for themselves the meaning of their own past. Not surprisingly, the fall of the Soviet Union has led to demoralisation and bewilderment among Marxists and other supporters of the socialist cause, and jubilation in the enemy camp. But neither history nor the class struggle has ended, in the realm of ideas any more than anywhere else. The conflict of ideas has been joined with renewed vigour, and history is its main battleground. Since there is always some advantage to be gained in a survey of the terrain, this little sketch will therefore concentrate upon ways of interpreting the revolution in its new context.

One idea steadily gaining ground among establishment historians is that the Bolshevik Revolution cut short Russia’s democratic development, forcing it to make a bloody detour at enormous cost for two generations. This is, of course, no new idea, but a very old one, rising again from the grave to haunt the living.

Needless to relate, no new facts have been produced to make it any more convincing than Kerensky was able to do in his Crucifixion of Liberty. In fact, an examination of the national and international context of the revolution rules it firmly out of court. For a start off, the Provisional Government was no government based on liberal democratic principles. It was simply a committee of the ex-Tsarist Duma, which was not elected by universal suffrage but by class voting. This was no parliament, but a medieval estates system, which shows just how backward Russia was, since it took a failed workers’ revolution in 1905 for it even to come into existence. As Max Shachtman once cut short Kerensky’s argument: "Who elected you, comrade?"

It is fairly obvious also that its successor, the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, could never have set up a government capable of running the country, and would not have lasted. To make a liberal democracy work, there must be liberal democratic parties. Russia had none, for the simple reason that the autocracy itself had prevented their growth by monopolising the apparatus of state for so long. By September 1917 the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) had proved that they were neither constitutionalists nor democrats, since they supported the Kornilov coup, an attempt to set up a military dictatorship. In this they were joined by Savinkov, who had been head of the terrorist organisation of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). The rapidity with which the other parties that had supported the Constituent Assembly surrendered their authority to the governments of the White Guard generals afterwards shows clearly what they would have done with the power if the Bolsheviks had not dispersed them.

A proper examination of the international context also shows that the choice for Russia in 1917 was between the Bolsheviks and a military dictator, and that Western-European-style bourgeois democracy was not an option at all. What seems to have been forgotten is that it was not one ancient empire that fell during that decade, but five, and not one of them was followed by a liberal democracy. The first to go was the Manchu Dynasty in China in the "Double Tenth" revolution of 1911, which to begin with produced Yuan Shikai, then the warlords, and finally Chiang Kaishek – all of them military dictators of varying degrees of unpleasantness. The Ottoman Empire was succeeded almost immediately by the regime of Kemal Atatürk. The Habsburg Empire was followed sooner or later by one-man dictatorships in all the successor states except Czechoslovakia, whether aristocratic (Hungary), royal (Yugoslavia), military (Poland) or clerical (Austria). After the fourteen troubled years of the Weimar Republic, Hohenzollern Germany produced the worst nightmare of all, Adolf Hitler.

We are even in a position to be able to guess at the character of the regime that would have followed in Russia, had not the Bolsheviks seized power. One of Trotsky’s more perceptive remarks is that Russia spans both Russia and Asia, in a social as well as a geographical sense. Her western lands bordered on Versailles Poland, where after 1926 Pilsudski held sway, and her eastern on China, whose ruler was Chiang Kaishek. Whichever White Guard general emerged successfully from the Civil War, he would have set up a regime midway in ferocity between these two, hardly a pleasant prospect to contemplate.

It is, moreover, questionable as to whether the Bolsheviks "seized" power in the first place. Barely a dozen were killed. Rather they picked it up from the gutter. The Provisional Government had always been an unstable balancing act, relying on the support of the Petrograd Soviet on the one side and the ex-Tsarist establishment on the other. By October 1917, it had lost the support of both, hung in mid-air, and was about to fall anyway. The Mensheviks and SRs had lost their majority in the Soviet to the Bolsheviks, and the part played by the Cadets and the military in the Kornilov coup showed that the Provisional Government had lost the support of the establishment as well. It was bound to be overthrown from either the left or the right. It was the right that made the first move, and its failure made the victory of the left a certainty. Revolutionaries do not have the luxury of coming to power at times of their own choosing, and must seize the power when it is there for the taking.

If we therefore dispense with the childish idea that it is possible to change the course of history by a conspiratorial coup, where does this leave our understanding of the state that was set up? What is its place in history? Why did it develop as it did, and fall as it did? I do not propose to answer the first question in the formalistic way in which it is generally debated: whether this state was socialist, a workers’ state, state capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism, or whatever.5 All of these answers have a certain amount of validity, but taken together they remind us of the story of the blind men examining the elephant. What is obvious is that this state was set up in 1917 by a workers’ party enjoying the support of the majority of the working class and resting on its institutions. But the working class hardly amounted to 10 per cent of the population in the first place, and by 1921 the production figures show that Russia no longer had a working class. When it was recreated by a terroristic state after 1927 it no longer had its own institutions, still less control of the government. It is a pointless exercise to argue exactly how this state should be defined at any one point in its evolution down to its collapse. Anomalous state formations have lasted for centuries in history, let alone decades. For this state form was obviously unstable, a crisis state with a life span of not even a century. Far more important is to establish the direction of the process. By the end of the Civil War, Russia was an ex-workers’ state, but it has collapsed into a purely bourgeois state only in the last decade.

It is far more fruitful to examine how the ruling political and managerial strata, who owed their positions in society purely to their relationship with the state, managed to convert authority into ownership, to move from being a governing caste to being a ruling class. The political establishment divided – all the old stuff about Communism, Marxism and Leninism had to be junked, along with the personnel responsible for it. This meant an end of all the ideological apparatus of the Communist Party, meaningless as it had been for a considerable time. But that part of the state devoted to purely administrative functions remained, and fused with the technocracy and the factory managers to form a new elite.

Again, we are on familiar ground historically. No ruling class is ever produced out of nothing. New classes coming into power are generally made up of a fusion between fragments of previous elites and classes newly produced. A section of the English aristocracy, for example, contributed to the new bourgeois order by investing in trade from a very early date. The state as such was hardly in existence before religious and civil offices became hereditary in Sumeria and ancient Egypt, and they could be both bought and sold along with the incomes attached to them. History has many examples of how what had previously been elites and castes developed into classes.

Explaining how this situation came about does not, of course, explain the place and function of this regime in history. That can only be done by examining what it did and how it developed. Now the immediate task of the state set up in 1917 in its own geographical area was to develop the economy, expand industry and generalise wage labour, normally defined as the historic functions of a bourgeois class. This is what the state did, in effect, with the five year plans. But since Russia had no entrepreneurial class, the state substituted for one.

The history of the USSR can thus be defined as the fulfilment of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the absence of a bourgeoisie. Can we accept this formulation, while continuing to deny that the regime was capitalist? I believe we can. The world is full of examples of regimes, generally military dictatorships, that undertake these same functions of capitalist modernisation in the absence of a real capitalist class. Once economic development has reached a certain stage, and such a class has been created, it is then in a position to inherit its rightful state functions as well. It could be said that what happened in the USSR is a mirror image of this process, in a state that destroyed its embryonic bourgeoisie in a workers’ revolution. But, in fact, the truth is the other way round. The present military dictatorships are mirror images of the Soviet Union in the bourgeois world, for the USSR was the first state to undertake this process.

It might be argued that this analogy is invalid, since these military regimes that substitute themselves for an as yet undeveloped bourgeoisie have no other logical path of development, implicit or intended. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was created as an integral part of the world socialist revolution, an entirely different project. But since the expectations of this revolution did not materialise in the post-war period, was not this new state placed in precisely the same historical position as the others? Engels had some important points to make about this type of historical conundrum a century and a half ago:

"The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.... What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination."6

So far we have dealt with questions that are easily answered, however inadequately. But the main question posed by the Russian Revolution remains unanswered. It is clear from Lenin’s Imperialism that the Bolshevik seizure of power was based upon the assumption that we are living in an epoch of wars and revolutions, in conditions that are not only ripe, as Trotsky said, but rotten ripe. The world revolution of the working class, so eagerly and so imminently expected in 1918, has not taken place. Eighty years later the state set up by Lenin’s revolution no longer exists. Now Marx always said that a social system does not depart from the stage of history until it has exhausted all its creative potential. Does this mean that the Bolshevik Revolution was premature, and that this explains the peculiarities of its evolution and its anomalous state form? The future progress of the class struggle alone can supply the answer.


1. Richard Pipes, The Unknown Lenin, 1996. Cf the remarks by Paul Flewers in Revolutionary History, Vol.6 No.4, 1997, pp.266-8.

2. Arkady Vaksberg, The Prosecutor and the Prey, 1990, pp.24-5.

3. In spite of Pipes’ claims to the contrary, this speech was first published in English in my book In Defence of the Russian Revolution, 1995, pp.134-58, in a translation by Brian Pearce that is markedly superior to his. See the remarks of B.J. Williams in The Slavonic Review, 1997, pp.559-61.

4. This charge was first made by Trotsky in My Life in 1930 (1960 edition, p.458) and was thereafter repeated by several writers, such as Souvarine (Stalin, 1939, p.247) and Deutscher (Stalin, p.221; The Prophet Armed, 1954, p.466).

5. It would be a digression from the themes dealt with here for me to state my own preference in these debates. Those who are interested can find it in the preface to In Defence of the Russian Revolution, pp.i-xvi.

6. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 1926, p.135.