Review of The Russian Revolution: When the workers took power by Paul Vernadsky
The historian of the French Revolution, François Furet, wrote in 1995 wrote that that after the fall of the USSR, the October Revolution had ended its journey. Unlike the first French Republic, Soviet power, and Lenin, “left no heritage”.
Over 800 pages later the critic of the Jacobins concluded that while it was hard to “think” of another kind of society, democracy manufactured the need for a world beyond “Capital and the Bourgeoisie”. If the figure of the Bolshevik party had disappeared, the “idea of communism” could be reborn in new forms.(1)
Twenty-two years later, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, much debate on the left remains about how to assess the legacy of the Bolsheviks. Many reject Lenin’s party, arguing that movements for socialism or communism should seek novel constituencies, structures and objectives.
In contrast to these judgements, Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution by asserting, “The Russian revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in political history so far. It was the first occasion that working class people took political power and held it for a significant period.” He states, “In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils).” The lessons of the revolution remain relevant to working class politics today.(2)
Vernadsky tells the story of 1917, from the slaughter of the First World War, initial protests and strikes, to the February Revolution and October. The Bolshevik resurgence faced with a Kerensky-led government determined to continue the war, the July Days when the state was on the brink of a hard-right clampdown, to the dissolution of the elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and its replacement by Soviet Power.
Celebrating the Carnival of the Oppressed, the “creative transformations” unleashed by the workers “ruling their own state”, he outlines the progressive decrees issued by the new Soviet government, beginning with the delivery of the slogan: “all land to the peasants”.
“Without the RSDLP, the Russian Revolution would not have occurred.”(3) The Russian Revolution is not just a history of events. Vernadsky offers a valuable introduction to debates about this party, the Bolsheviks, much of which was stimulated by Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Other writers covered include Lenin enthusiast Paul le Blanc, and Tom Twiss’s measured account of Trotsky’s evolving, contradictory, views of the development of bureaucracy in the wake of revolution. There is a strong section on the Women’s Revolution, paying special attention to the “futuristic vision of Aleksandra Kollontai, as illuminated by studies of “Bolshevik feminists”.
Other areas in which members of Workers’ Liberty have contributed important debate figure in this context. Of particular interest are the critical sections on Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the chapter ‘War and the Myth of Defeatism’, inspired by Hal Draper’s studies. Unlike knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ the author cites Trotsky: “working-class policy on war is not “automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only he opposite sign…”4 One imagines that same quarters will reject the passages on nationalities, including the Jewish Question. In his conclusion Vernadsky is clear that “Israeli Jews are a nation and they should have the right to self determination today like any other nation.”5
Lih argued that the Bolsheviks were a lot more than, as the party leader Zinoviev put it in his lectures in 1923, a “hierarchical, closely knit organisation”, run from the top-down to enlighten the workers. It was not a “party of a new type”, but in the mould of democratic Marxist based organisations of the Second International, above all the German Social Democrats (SPD).
Although it had its own stamp by operating in autocratic conditions, Lenin was, in key works such as What is to be Done? “directly inspired” by the German “model”. In more detail Lenin’s strategy was designed to bring together the “purposive worker” and the social democratic worldview conveyed by practical-minded activists, by the “power of a genuinely sound explanation.” The Bolsheviks, if this account stands, were very far from political outriders, a messianic party-sect, but part of the mainstream of European socialism.(6)
Lih saw this as the basis for “fighting for democracy to the end” as a precondition for workers’ power, and socialism. For Lih this “old Bolshevik” stand guided Lenin right up to October and the overthrow of the Provisional government, “to carry out a thorough-going democratic transformation”. Vernadsky enters into the — lengthy — debate on this claim.
He states that Lenin’s assessment of the growth of the soviets and soldiers’ committees meant that his call for the overthrow of the Provisional government meant that Lenin took “steps towards permanent revolution”. That is, an acceleration of revolutionary “stages” towards, he contentiously asserts, a position where the victories of the Bolsheviks, “deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit.” It is undeniable that this prospect inspired millions inside and outside Russia, with the hope that socialism was on the agenda. For many of us that wish still burns.(7)
Yet, many unresolved issues remain to be discussed from this thought-provoking book. Two could be signalled; questions about the body that “led” the Russian working class, and the direction it began to take them in the aftermath of October.
If we accept the view that the Bolsheviks were a democratic party with open debate and a real base in the working class and popular masses, what kind of template had Lenin and his tendency adopted?
A critical description of the pre-1914 SPD “oligarchy” by Robert Michels developed themes already circulating on the left in Germany itself, and internationally by “revolutionary syndicalists” like the French writer George Sorel. In light of the monstrous oligarchy of Stalinist bureaucracy these limits inside Lenin’s “model” apparatus might inspire further reflection. Only Lenin’s most uncritical admirers would deny problems about the practices of “committee people”, however small in number they may have been initially, brought into the “smashed” state machine.(8)
The next is that even supporters do not argue that in power the Bolsheviks were always democratic. Many would also question as to how far they respected workers’ democracy they contrasted to “formal” Parliamentary pluralism. The well-documented cases of human rights abuses, which began with October, and were accelerated by the creation of the Cheka, cannot be explained away by “external conditions”, the civil war, and the need for Red Terror to stave off the very real threat of a far-right regime that would have drowned the revolution in blood.
The need for independent law, in however difficult circumstances, respect for the people’s rights, was denied during the dictatorship of the proletariat.
What kind of political instrument can introduce non-capitalist relations of production with these limits on democratic decision-making? Socialism was, and is, far from a self-evident thing. How can a transitional mode of production to communism be formed without free debate about what kind of economy, what kind of production, what social goals people are working towards?
Outlawing opposition papers, bourgeois, then all non-Bolshevik parties, ignoring the voices of “non-party” workers, stifled not just conflicting views but fostered the belief that those doing the outlawing knew better than anybody else.
It was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off. It was in the early 1920s that the acceptance of a military and political police entered into what would become the established doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the first, far from “temporary”, stage to socialism. This is a very negative lesson from the Russian revolution.9
1. Pages 8 and 809. Le passé d’une illusion. François Furet. Éditions Robert Laffont. 1995.
2. Pages 9 and 19. The Russian Revolution. When the workers took power. Paul Vernadsky.
3. Page 114. Paul Vernadsky Op cit.
4. Page 197. Paul Vernadsky Op cit
5. Page 346. Paul Vernadsky Op cit
6. Page 398. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Brill. 2005.
7. On Lih Pages 163-9. Next quote, Page 19. Paul Vernadsky Op cit. Political Parties. Robert Michels. Georges Sorel in 1902 had already written of the SPD’s “spirit of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in a New Church run like an huge civil service (“administration”) page 188. L’illusion du politique. Gorges Sorel et le debate intellectuel 1900. Schlmo Sand. La Découverte, 1984.
8. “La démocratie soviétique a été définitivement étouffée au moment de l'interdiction des partis soviétiques, après la guerre civile, et non pas lorsque l'alternative était soit capituler devant les Blancs, soit défendre la révolution par tous les moyens. Elle fut donc étouffée après la victoire, alors qu'aucune armée blanche n'était plus présente sur le territoire de la Russie des soviets. Ernest Mandel. Octobre 1917 : Coup d’Etat ou révolution sociale ? La légitimité de la révolution russe. Cahiers d’Etudes et de Recherches, n°17/18, 1992. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987.
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