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Most revolutions throughout history have tended to result in a regime that follows being more brutal and savage than what came before. Thanks to Lenin, the Russian revolution was no exception,
AS we creep ever closer to the 100th year anniversary of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, celebration seems like an inappropriate phrase to use.
But taking refuge in the words of the 19th century Russian writer and thinker, Alexander Herzen — known as the father of Russian socialism, and who died in 1870, almost five decades before the Russian Revolution actually happened — may not be a bad place to start.
“We are slaves because we are unable to free ourselves,” Herzen once observed. It appears the political theorist was speaking about humanity in the abstract, rather than about just Russians.
Herzen viewed life as a unique and sacred experience that should be valued in the present moment.
If history turned out differently, Herzen and the Bolsheviks’ ideas may not have seemed worlds apart. Marxism — certainly in the 19th century European tradition, as espoused by Marx and Engles — always rejected terror as an instrument of revolution.
But Vladimir Lenin, the main leader and figurehead of the Bolshevik revolution, took Marx and Engels ideas, and twisted them: creating an ideology that Marx himself would not have recognised.
Leninism never disguised the fact that a centrally controlled party would maintain power by whatever means it had to. Paradoxically, it strove for egalitarianism, but pushed a totalitarian ethos to drive its agenda: Using political terror, a one-party state, a secret police, coercion, and all encompassing ideology that Lenin called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Between October 1917 and February 1922, for example, 280,000 people were killed in Russia, either by the Cheka (the secret police) or the Internal Security Troops. In the concluding chapter of Russia In
Revolution: 1890 to 1928, historian Steve Smith explains — quoting fellow Russian historian Martin Malia— that the Soviet Union’s entire development was driven by the millenarian vision of total transformation of man and society.
Most revolutions throughout history have tended to result in a regime that follows being more brutal and savage than what came before.
At least initially. Think of the reign of terror in France in the time of Robespierre, just after the French Revolution.
Or closer to home, the theocratic-likeBishop’s-Republic that ruled with an iron fist in Ireland, following independence from Britain in 1922.
The 1917 October grab for power was no exception. It failed to live up to the utopian ideals the Bolsheviks set themselves. Namely, setting the working class free from the imperialist chains of capitalism.
Peasants and workers never became masters of their own destiny. Nor did the all powerful state — seen through a Marxist dialectical prism — eventually wither away.
If anything, it got stronger after the Russian Revolution. Ironically, it must be pointed out, under the slogan of peace, land, and bread: where living standards dropped, the economy imploded, and mass violence became a normal function of everyday life.
It would take several decades for living standards to rise again in the Soviet Union.
From 1921onwards the revolution had already come full circle. A new autocracy had been imposed on Russia.
It resembled the old Tsarist regime: dictatorial, violent, and having utter contempt for the ordinary Russian citizen.
This is pretty much the conclusion that Smith comes to at the end of this well researched, extremely balanced, nicely nuanced, and very readable book that is not without fault however.
The October Revolution challenged the notion that there is something natural about social hierarchy.
It predicted a socialist revolution that would connect the world over, and eventually orchestrate a complete collapse of the capitalist system.
As Smith reminds us here, where Lenin perhaps misjudged the political climate of his day was in thinking that Germany would succumb, after Russia, to a socialist revolution.
The revolution in Russia, and in the eastern bloc following the Second World War,
and then further afield, did bring about massive social and political change.
But whether those changes were good or bad depends really on how much you value human freedom.The old Russian empire— which was autocratic and violent too— was replaced by a federation of Soviet Socialist Republics.
But as Smith reminds us here, when Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin took the reigns at the helm of the revolutionary steering wheel, the Soviet Union began to engage in all the things it initially opposed: small-minded nationalism; nationbuilding; huge labour productivity; censorship; suppression of intellectual freedom and thought; and a paternalistic narrative of a nation that treated its subjects like small infants, where the ruler knew best.
Any idea, or person, that threatened this totalitarian ideology was likely to be brutally murdered or imprisoned for life.
Smith gives the reader a good grounding here in the years leading up to 1917 itself.
He goes all the way back to 1894, when Nicholas II ascended the throne; takes us through the tumultuous and bloody events of the 1905 revolution, and the subsequent evolution of soviets all over Russia, which, in turn, put relations between church and state under further strain.
He then documents Lenin’s secret return through Finland to Russia — via a sealed train — after being absent for 17 years; and then guides us through the seizure of power from the more moderate Provisional government in February 1917; to the changeover of power that October, from the more hardline Bolsheviks.
We are then brought through the numerous events of the Civil War from 1918 to 1921; and then, lastly, we get a number of finely tuned explanations about Bolshevik concepts, such as war communism, New Economic Policy, and the First Five-Year Plan.
The narrative concludes around the time of Stalin’s Great Break in 1928: where a violent acceleration of collectivized agriculture propelled the Soviet Union into a new historical epoch.
Crucially, Stalin at this moment consciously turned his back on the initial ideas of the October Revolution. Not without irony, this was the moment the Soviet Union began the road towards becoming an industrial and military world superpower, which challenged US global hegemony.
Real change began here. But not the brotherhood of man comradeship, or utopian world that Lenin, Trotsky and other committed socialists had dreamed of earlier.
Smith attempts to re-tell the narrative of the October Revolution by always keeping some sense of bal- ance in his argument. I’m not so sure if this is really possible though. Consequently, the book lacks a firm bite, or sense of purpose. Fence sitting will only get you so far when you’re discussing mass terror, revolution, and murder by numbers.
Other popular British Soviet historians, such as Robert Service and Orlando Figes, for example, have been unapologetically critical in their work of Lenin and his bloodthirsty disciples.
Smith is certainly critical of the Bolsheviks throughout the entire narrative. But in his final analysis, and elsewhere, he keeps reminding the reader that we should not forget the Bolsheviks had good intentions to begin with, before all hell broke loose.
To use a strange analogy, this is a bit like saying the paedophile priest had the young boy’s best interests at heart, when he went to visit him alone at the hospital late at night.
Smith then plays a little loose with historical facts in order to make his argument appear more convincing. His analysis on Lenin I found hard to agree with. Almost all historians agree that Lenin was an exceptional figure, who changed the course of human history in the 20th century. But many point out that he was an odd-ballbookworm-control- freak, with psychopathic tendencies.
Smith claims that Lenin was modest and capable of deep emo- tional attachment.
This differs widely from Robert Service’s view— who has spent almost two decades researching the man’s personality. He claims that Lenin was obsessive, and an able suppressor of outward emotion: even on hearing the news of the death of his own brother.
Moreover, while Smith certainly covers the Bolsheviks’ seizure of Church lands and their anti-clerical stance, he does not go into the same level of detail as other historians do. He might have included, for example, Lenin’s secret plans in 1922 to exterminate all of the Russian clergy. This was confirmed in a memo he wrote in 1922—which was only released to the Russian public in 1990— where he said: “the more members of the reactionary bourgeoise and clergy we manage to shoot the better.”
In concluding on how we might best think of marking the occasion of 1917, the words of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt give us a sober perspective: free from soppy, myopic sentimentality, and nostalgia for a left that simply never existed.
In her 1951 classic text, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote that: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion, fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
Lenin addressing a crowd in Red Square, Moscow the day after the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where the Bolshevik-dominated Soviet government was established, with Lenin as chairman.
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 SA Smith Oxford University Press, €28.99