Steve Smith, professor of history at Oxford University has published what is likely to be one of the most widely read books on the Russian revolution this centenary year — Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928.
The book is impeccably referenced and in places, informative. Smith has all the credentials to produce a great history. His book Red Petrograd (1983) was a pioneer “history from below”, examining the factory committees and workers’ control during 1917-18. He also wrote The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2002), along with other valuable works. Yet Russia in Revolution is an evasive and disappointing work. It is a classic example of “on the one hand/on the other hand” history, attempting to straddle various disputed interpretations, but ending with an almighty fudge.
This does no justice to the 1917 revolution, which was principally about class politics, or more tersely, about taking sides. For or against the war? For or against the factory committees? Land to the peasants or land remaining with the landlords? National self-determination or national oppression? Who rules: the soviets or the reactionaries? No room for sitting on the fence. On the national question, Smith accepts that Russians made up only 44% of the population and yet dominated the tsarist state. He acknowledges that in the 1880s Ukrainian was banned in schools and other official institutions. Yet he states that “historians are no longer inclined to see the tsarist empire as a ‘prison house of nations’… They tend instead to emphasise modes of accommodation with non-Russians, as well as modes of repression”.
This simply masks the real national oppression that fuelled the Russian revolution. Smith describes the “Years of Reaction” (1907-14) i.e. of harsh tsarist repression, yet states that “historians today are more likely to emphasise the positive developments of this period, usually summed up as a strengthening of ‘civil society’”.
Russia was apparently “moving away” from revolution in that period after 1905, it’s more evolutionary path obstructed by the outbreak of the First World War. Again this understates the oppressive nature of tsarist autocracy. Smith disparages Lenin repeatedly throughout the book. Lenin apparently believed that “workers’ struggles by themselves could not make a revolution” — despite his countless writings on working class self-emancipation. Lenin was allegedly intolerant of opponents, exaggerated the degree of class differentiation among the peasantry, “obsessed with ideological purity” and “slow” to recognise the potential of the soviets. How such a socialist could lead a workers’ party, never mind the majority of the Russian working class to power is never explained.
The central question about 1917 is whether the October insurrection was a coup or a genuine workers’ revolution. Smith’s contribution to this seminal historical debate concludes that “the seizure of power is often presented as a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government. It certainly had the elements of a coup, but it was a coup very much advertised, and the government it overthrew had not been democratically elected”. This is not objectivity: it is evading the main question. Smith becomes more scathing against the Bolshevik workers’ government just as the big capitalist powers and their domestic Russian allies waged civil war against them. Apparently, “from the first” Lenin was prepared to establish a “one-party dictatorship”.
The key responsibility for the creation of a one-party dictatorship “lay with the Bolsheviks”, yet he admits “the opposition bear a measure of responsibility for their own fate”. So the Bolsheviks are blamed for one party government, despite having ruled with the Left SRs for three months, stopped the war as both had promised and then condemned for carrying on alone in the absence of any other credible workers’ parties to govern with. Smith dismisses the whole revolution from the start.
He claims that before Lenin’s death, “socialist revolution had been redefined as the party-state mobilising the country’s human and material resources to overcome economic social, and cultural backwardness as rapidly as possible”. No such redefinition was made before the Stalinists took over. The Bolsheviks promised that the revolution would elevate working people to the status of a ruling class, but “this never came about”. This simply doesn’t stack up against the plethora of resolutions carried by the factories committees in favour of “all power to the soviets” in 1917, which Smith so eloquently documented earlier in his career.
The other great historical controversy concerns whether Leninism led to Stalinism. Smith states that “it is beyond question that there was much in Leninist theory and practice that adumbrated Stalinism”. Yet he backtracks, arguing that “if continuities between Leninism and Stalinism were real, the ‘revolution from above’ also introduced real dis-continuity, wreaking havoc upon soviet society”.
Smith does not prove the continuity thesis — he simply asserts it “beyond question”. He makes no effort to explain the differences between authentic, democratic, working class Leninist politics and the totalitarian political economy of Stalinism. In reality a river of blood separates Leninism from Stalinism, as the list of old Bolsheviks which Stalin sent to the gallows or the gulag so graphically illustrates. Just in case the reader is still confused about where he stands, Smith finishes with a flourish. He states: “The Russian revolution of 1917 ended in tyranny. Yet it raised fundamental questions about how justice, equality and freedom can be reconciled which have not gone away. Its answers were flawed, but it opened up certain progressive possibilities that the dismal record of Stalinism and Maoism should not blind us to.”
Progressive, yet reactionary. Forward, yet backwards. Democracy, yet dictatorship. How far a great historian has fallen if this is the best they can do after a lifetime studying the greatest working class revolution so far carried out in human history. Don’t bother with this book. It is no guide to the history of the Russian revolution, nor of any use in today’s class struggles.