The lat­est re­views and in­ter­views

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,

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - says JP O’Mal­ley

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.”

Photo by Ann Ro­nan Pic­tures/Print Col­lec­tor/Getty Im­ages)

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

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