1917 was a revolution, not a coup

Submitted by Matthew on 4 October, 2017 - 11:43 Author: Paul Hampton

The British Trotskyist group Socialist Resistance has published a book, October 1917 — Workers in Power (Merlin 2016), which defends the key decisions of the Bolsheviks, while making some reasonable criticisms of the regime created after the civil war. The collection of essays is useful in many respects, but feels somewhat stale and has a number of notable gaps.

A centre-piece of the book is Ernest Mandel’s essay, October 1917: Coup d’etat or social revolution? Mandel, who died in 1995, did a good job explaining why the Bolsheviks had won majority support among workers (and indeed wide sections of the army and the peasantry), and hence why October 1917 was a socialist revolution, not a coup.

The strongest sections of the essay concern the civil war and its aftermath. Mandel was right to emphasis the terrible objective circumstances the Bolshevik government faced, when very quickly the working class was reduced to less than half, if not a third, of its size compared to 1917. He also exposed the barbarism of the White Terror, where Bolsheviks were hung from telegraph poles, machine gunned in freight cars, suffered beatings, beheadings, disembowelling and other tortures. Some Bolsheviks were buried up to their necks and trampled by horses, pulled apart by driven horses, or burnt alive. The civil war was bitter and it shaped the aftermath.

Mandel was also astute on the differences between the Bolshevik red terror and the savagery of their opponents. The Bolsheviks did organise the Cheka to combat counter-revolution and after the actual and attempted assassinations of the Bolshevik leadership, did use extreme force against their opponents. But there was restraint.

Lenin supported Kamenev’s proposal in 1921 to limit the competence of the Cheka to questions of espionage, political crimes, the protection of railways and food stores. Vardin, director of Cheka, even proposed legalising all opposition parties in 1921 (this was not carried out).

Mandel was particularly candid about the mistakes of the Bolsheviks. He underlined the error of banning factions within the ruling Communist party in 1921, although he acknowledged that tendency platforms or slates were not barred. He argued that the most serious mistakes was “the banning of the soviet parties at the very moment that the revolutionary government had definitively won the civil war of 1918-20”, because without real multi-partyism, in practice soviets cannot be genuinely democratic. However it was the absence of credible workers’ parties to work within the soviets that was at the root of Russia’s government crisis.

Mandel is highly critical of the passivity of the Mensheviks. He points to an interesting counter-factual: if the Mensheviks had led the Russian revolution to the end it would have finished like events in Germany where the SPD refused to take power. Its leaders promoted class collaboration between the government and the trade union bureaucracy, supported a coalition government with the bourgeoisie, liquidated the workers’ councils, made a secret agreement with imperial armed forces and repressed the communist left. The alternative to the Bolsheviks was immediate defeat.

Overall, Mandel adopted the stance between fatalism — objective conditions and the “balance of power” determine practically everything, and voluntarism — the view that all options are available if only the leadership has the will. He called this “parametric determinism”: the course of events is neither totally predetermined nor totally undetermined. The possible outcome of the revolution oscillates within predetermined limits. This is the right Marxist stance, as it allows for wide debate about strategy and tactics.

Rosa Luxemburg supported the Bolsheviks in October 1917, arguing that their actions were the “salvation” of Russian revolution and the “honour of international socialism”, because the Bolsheviks dared to carry out their programme and lead the workers to power. One of Lenin’s favourite phrases was taken from Napoleon: “We’ll start fighting, then we’ll see”. This is revolutionary, interventionist politics, which the AWL strongly advocates.

Ernest Mandel’s essay and François Vercammen’s piece in the book on “the stages of the revolution” were both published in English as part of the “Notebooks for Study and Research” series promoted by Socialist Resistance and its Fourth International co-thinkers in 1992. The following year David Mandel had a similar article on workers’ control in the same series, heavily based on the excellent books he wrote in the early 1980s. David Mandel’s main article is an expanded version of a chapter published in another book on workers’ control in 2011. Although his discussion of the factory committees is fascinating, little new ground is broken. This contributes to the impression that the book is rather stale.
Since the collapse of Stalinism much more has emerged about the Russian revolution. Yet the book does not explore many of those discoveries. While the articles are certainly worth publishing in English, Socialist Resistance have little to say that is new.

Further, there is remarkably little about the role of women, the national question or the Communist International in this collection. These are huge areas of interest, where the Russian revolution added enormously to the socialist arsenal. These are also matters that are highly relevant to today’s politics and current class struggles.
The gap is unfortunate, since it would have helped define the extent to which the current politics of Socialist Resistance rests on the foundations of this classical Marxist tradition.

The book also has an up to date and readable literature review by Paul Le Blanc.

Le Blanc discusses some essential books on Russian revolution. He surveys journalistic accounts from the time in English, as well as Trotsky’s History and later academic histories of the Russian revolution.The works of Robert Tucker, Stephen Cohen and Moshe Lewin stand out among those. Menshevik-influenced historians such as Leopold Haimson, Israel Geltzer and Alexander Rabinowitch have added significant if critical voices to the record. Paul Avrich’s work on the anarchists is also useful.

Le Blanc rightly praises the social historians who have provided much bottom up empirical richness to English-language accounts of key aspects of the revolution. The works of Ronald Suny, Victoria Bonnell, Diane Kroeker, Rex Wade, William Rosenberg, Steve Smith and others from this school of thought certainly repay reading.

Le Blanc is also clear about the books that should be read with extreme caution. Stalin’s Short Course is the worst. But the Cold War contributions of Bertrand Wolfe, Alfred Meyer, Martin Malia and Richard Pipes, to name just a few, misinterpret the major socialist actors and denigrate the whole revolution. They rightly carry a socialist health warning.
Le Blanc takes a critical look at some recent contributions. Lars Lih’s Lenin biography and his Lenin Rediscovered on the pamphlet, What is to be done?, are exceptionally valuable contributions, showing that the Bolsheviks did not build a Stalinist “party of a new type”.

Lih has also helped clarify other important debates, such as the 1912 split in the RSDLP and whether it signalled the final transformation of the Bolshevik faction into a separate party. Le Blanc is right that Lih’s work on permanent revolution and on the strategy of 1917 — where Lih sides with Kamenev and Stalin against Lenin and Trotsky — is not convincing and damaging politically for a Marxist interpretation of 1917.

Several other works merit careful reading. Ralph Carter Elwood’s Non-Geometric Lenin has drawn attention to important aspects of the Bolshevik underground, as does his biography of Inessa Armand. Barbara Evans Clement, Katy Turton, Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar have produced some terrific books on Bolshevik women. August Nimtz’s books on Lenin’s electoral strategy have drawn the Bolsheviks’ parliamentary work into sharp relief. Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie’s Makers of the Russian Revolution contains fascinating self-portraits of leading Bolsheviks written the 1920s.

Le Blanc’s own writings are also valuable, bridging the divide between academia and socialist activism.