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The Russian Revolution
By Brendan Clifford
If Trotsky was to succeed Lenin, he would have had to take Lenin’s party in hand, operate through its structures, and direct its action in the social and political condition of things brought about by Lenin’s Revolution and the isolation of that Revolution from Europe brought about by Pilsudski. He would have had to become a Party man handling the bureaucratic apparatus by which it was moved. The proletarian mass could not be brought to exercise its dictatorship in the conduct of the State by orations.
The mass cannot move in political administration as a mass. Furthermore the proletarian mass of the kind supposed by pre-Leninist Marxism—the proletarian mass of advanced capitalism—did not exist in Russia. The class-conscious proletariat that was to exercise a purposeful government by its dictatorship, one that would oversee the fading away of the state, did not exist. It would have to be created. And, since nobody proposed that the Revolution should be aborted and the creation of an industrial proletariat should be handed over to Capitalism, the only way of getting it was for the State to create it.
This is what Lenin proposed to do. When thought about from a German vantage point, it was a shocking thing to propose. Kautsky, the perfect model of a Marxist, was duly shocked. And Trotsky, for all that he had defended State Terrorism against Kautsky, shared too many of Kautsky’s assumptions to be comfortable with it. But the transition from Lenin to Stalin enabled him to misapply to Stalin the shocking thing that the Revolution was committed to.
Lenin had an acute insight into the nature of the proletariat. Long before 1917 he said that Socialism was an “alien intrusion” into the life of the working class. If that was so, then Socialism would not come about through the socialist party taking instruction from the working class and acting for it on the instructions it was given.
Karl Kautsky, who probed the way forward for the German Social Democracy, envisaged Socialism being born fairly effortlessly out of Capitalism as it existed in the Bismarckian German State. He published a book before the War about how things might go on the day after the revolution.
James Connolly took a somewhat similar view as Kautsky of the social character of Germany. But he was more definite than Kautsky, possibly because he was looking at the condition of the working class in Germany from the vantage point of the social conditions in Britain. When Britain declared war on Germany, he supported Germany on both anti-Imperialist and Socialist grounds. He published articles on working class arrangements in Germany in The Workers’ Republic in 1915-16. (I collected some of them in a pamphlet: Connolly And German Socialism.) And he supported the German War Socialists—which Kautsky did not.
In August 1914 Connolly published an article in praise of Karl Liebknecht when it was rumoured that Liebknecht had been executed for opposition to the German war effort, but then he never mentioned him again. When the working class did not act internationally to make war impossible, but supported their own states in the War, Connolly accepted that as being the reality of things, aligned himself within it, and held that the cause of Socialism would be best served by German victory.
He never mentioned Liebknecht again. And he took no heed of the British propaganda which described the German State as a reactionary Autocracy. Liebknecht, however, adopted the British view of the German State, and sought to expose in the German Parliament the assistance being given by the Government to the Irish Republicans.
Then, in November 1918, when the German State fragmented under pressure of four and a quarter years of defensive warfare, the Kaiser, who had been declared outlaw by the Entente, abdicated and left the country and a Social Democratic Government was formed and the state was declared to be a Republic, Liebknecht launched his campaign to overthrow the State and carry out a Socialist Revolution.
Under the circumstances, such a campaign could do more than generate disorder. When the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia a year earlier, it was in the circumstances of a social revolution that was already in progress: the peasants were seizing the land from the landlords. But there was no spontaneous social revolution in progress in Germany. There was no obvious revolution that could just happen. Germany was far too socialist in composition for there to be a socialist revolution against the status quo. What was needed was defensive political action in support of the status quo. The revolutionary arena was very narrowly political. What was needed was the formation of a conservative national front against the predatory action of the Entente Power which was transforming the Armistice into an Unconditional Surrender.
Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg’s rebellion prevented that development on the Left at the very start, and therefore, as it was a necessary development, it was brought about by the Right in the course of the next fourteen years.
An easy birth of Socialism out of Capitalism might have happened in Germany, where the Social Democracy constituted an immense region of German society that had been living a life of its own for a generation. It might be said that an accident prevented it. But history is full of accidents.
John Lloyd held a kind of Menshevik view for a while, because it was in the atmosphere. But Menshevism had in fact broken more radically with the Populist source of things than Bolshevism had. It lived in a systematically idealised enclave of Marxism, comprehensively disengaged from Russian social reality.
“We can see the germs of the new society forming in the heart of capitalist society. The growing workers’ organisations are no longer content merely to struggle against the misdeeds of the resent regime, they are changing the very foundations of this regime, socializing to an ever greater degree production and commerce, creating the new culture, a new social mentality which Marx’s profound observation that the revolution is nothing more than the birth of a new society which has grown to maturity in the heart of the old is as vested in the case of the proletarian revolution as in any other…” (Quoted from Tsereteli: A Democrat In The Russian Revolution by W.H. Roobol, 1976).
If that was how things were, the Revolution would have happened in Germany.
But Lenin took it, from very early on, that the Socialist Party would, in the complexity of the actual world, have to act as a directing force on the working class, rather than its representative. That was the ground of Trotsky’s strong condemnation of him before 1917. And, after 1917, it was no great leap for Lenin to undertake that his Party should become the creator of the working class whose interests it would represent, and would itself determine what those interests were and communicate them to the emerging class.
Trotsky appeared to be entirely unaware in 1923-4 that he had been acting on those shocking assumptions for six years. It only struck him when Lenin died and he was faced with the prospect of taking over the leadership of the Party himself, or doing so jointly with Stalin. But in Stalin the essentials of Leninism stood out too starkly to be tolerable.
Stalin had not been a revolutionary in 1917. Much was made of that fact in 1924, and also in our little group in the early sixties. I saw it as being entirely to Stalin’s credit that, when he was the senior Bolshevik in Petrograd in March 1917, he had directed the Party into a parliamentary opposition role. It meant that he had given the matter some realistic thought and was not moved by a mere revolutionist reflex. And it meant that, when Lenin returned and persuaded him to support his revolutionary scheme, he had a serious sense of what it involved.
Stalin was the working class in the Bolshevik leadership of aristocratic and bourgeois intellectuals. He was part of the class that it was the purpose of the Revolution to make into the ruling class, and he applied himself in a practical way to enabling that to be done.
He had little experience of Europe in terms of time spent there. Others had extensive experience. But his experience was different in kind. What one experiences depends on where one is placed. He was not placed in the intellectual/artistic stratosphere, looking down on the social bulk that would make the European revolution if there was to be a European revolution. And his expectation of a European revolution was considerably less than that of his intellectual colleagues in the Bolshevik leadership. He was assessing possibilities within his own medium of existence while they were hopefully looking down on a mass that existed for them chiefly as an ideal, and yearning for a miraculous escape from the Russian isolation into which they had been led—or had led themselves.
(Stalin, as far as I recall, had been particularly doubtful about the invasion of Poland.)
Russia was where the Revolution actually was, and either Russia could be organised to undertake industrialisation without a capitalist class, and with a working class that was being created in the course of industrialisation and was willingly acting in place of a capitalist class, or it was all empty idealism.
Why not reverse the historical order of economic base and political/cultural superstructure?, Lenin asked. And I don’t know that anyone in the Bolshevik leadership told him that that was out of order.
The industrial proletariat was a product of capitalist development—of capitalist class exploitation. Through capitalist exploitation and regimentation a proletariat was created which became conscious of itself as a class. It was a necessary class in capitalist society. As the capitalist form of economy became universal, the proletariat became the major social class. Artisans were proletarianised. Skilled trades ceased to have independent standing. All was proletarianised. Increasingly the proletariat included all that was necessary for modern social existence and, at a certain point, it would shrug off the capitalist class as a redundant parasitic form.
I don’t know that Marx himself ever tried to envisage just how the proletariat would become “the gravedigger of capitalism”. There was a New Left variety of Marxism knocking around in the 1960s which preached a mystified dialectic that held that the proletariat, because it was nothing, would at some moment be transformed into everything, and that the nothingness should therefore be preserved to keep it ready for the moment of its transfiguration. That struck me as gibberish.
I could only see Capital being shrugged off through diversification of the proletariat such that, while still living on wages, it came to include all the skills that were necessary to the functioning of society. And that was closest to being the case in Germany then (because the “superstructure” set by Bismarck prevented the degradation of the proletariat, such as happened in Britain), and was farthest from being the case in Russia, whose economic form was substantially pre-capitalist.
The development on which Russia was set by Lenin was industrialisation by means of a class-conscious proletariat that was being created by the force and culture of the revolutionary State. That State was, in a sense, the product of the advanced Capitalism of Europe, which it was intent on overthrowing, but the class-conscious proletariat in Russia was to spring fully-formed into being from its hands. It was not a class that had formed itself through experience as the exploited class of Capitalism, but was formed from the start as a class that had overthrown Capitalism. And yet its business was to do, in large part, what had been done elsewhere by Capitalism. And the first item of business was “the primitive accumulation of capital” to enable a rapid take-off into industrialisation.
The industrialisation of Russia was undertaken while Europe was suffering the economic, political and spiritual disruption of the Great War and was turning to Fascism in order to restore itself, and while Britain was warding off Fascism only by suspending the operation of party-politics by class-collaboration in a different form. Russia therefore loomed large in the consciousness of Europe. And it was either looked to admiringly as showing what Socialism could do, or was denounced for degrading the idea of Socialism by setting it to do what should have been left to Capitalism to do.
Culture was given priority in Russia. A good thing! But it was not the culture of Bohemian drop-outs. It was not Hampstead culture. It was not the delightful culture of the residue of the ruling class. (“History shows that the final ambition of the leisure class is to be charming.”) It was neither sceptical nor sexually libertine.
Russia had no use for Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. What it had a use for was Mary Barton. Nevertheless it should have had Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, because that was C u l t u r e. (Did we have James Joyce? Ulysses did not come to hand in Slieve Luacra in the mid-fifties, though I was able to find it in a dirty bookshop in London in the late fifties. And, when it was later thrust upon us, we found that we did not want it!)
Soviet authors were “the engineers of human souls”, according to Stalin. Book culture produces cultured people. (Didn’t Milton say much the same thing.) But the culture required for the realisation of Lenin’s project in Russia was not the culture required by the wealthy middle class of late Capitalism that had taken power in Britain in the Great War in a Millenarian spirit, traumatised itself, and made a mess of Europe in the Versailles settlement.
Hampstead had no use for How The Steel Was Tempered, except as a subject for ridicule. (What did Hampstead know about steel?) On the other hand, the purposeful ruling proletariat that was being shaped in Russia had no use for that delightful aristocratic/bourgeois idyll, All Passion Spent. (I don’t recall if it was ridiculed by Zhdanov.)
Soviet industrialisation was not the work of Zombies, or terrorised individuals working at the point of a gun. It couldn’t have been. It was the work of culturally engineered human souls acting within a cultural milieu that was appropriate to the task. The effectiveness of that Soviet culture as compared with the British culture of the inter-War generation was put to the test when Britain declared war on Germany for a second time, lost it for lack of a will to fight, succeeded in directing Germany eastwards, and was saved as a World Power by the Soviet destruction of German power.
While the survival of Imperial Britain depended on Russia, Britain abased itself before the Soviet culture which it despised. State direction combined with a herd instinct of survival made Britain a carrier of Soviet culture for a few years. (But after survival Britain found it was no longer viable as an independent Power. It found itself dependent both culturally and economically on the United States. Anyone who knows what the English mind, or soul, was in 1950 must know that it is something very different now, and that the difference did not grow out of itself but was engineered by the superior American culture, the culture of Hollywood. It is only for Anglophile circles in Ireland that England retains the Roman constancy boasted of by Gladstone and retains the status of “an ever fixéd star”.
This article first appeared in the April 2018 edition of Irish Political Review.
The group which in the early 1960s attempted to formulate a socialist position that would enable Irish politics and history to be dealt with coherently was made up of members from the Communist Party of Great Britain who disagreed with its stifling of realistic discussion of Irish affairs, and also to some extent with its view of the Soviet Union following Khrushchev’s condemnation in 1956 of what had been done in the Stalin period; and discontented Republicans who had played some part in the 1956 invasion of the North, had concluded that Republicanism needed a revolutionary social position, had gone to London in search of one through the Connolly Association which was regularly denounced as communist by Irish Bishops but discovered that it was a dependency of the CPGB and therefore stifled discussion of what they were looking for, had turned to the Trotskyist organisations (of which there were three) which were then beginning to make their presence felt; and Pat Murphy, to whom Liam Daltun turned for assistance in forming an organisation; and myself, who was brought along by Pat. And then Tom Skelly found out about the Group and came along to it.
Tom was the only member who had engaged in actual social revolt. He had led a kind of peasants’ revolt in County Longford around the time of the First Coalition Government. It was from Tom that some of us heard of Praties and Point: family meals of potatoes, in which the fork would be pointed at a bit of bacon in the rafters. It was still well known in Slieve Luacra, however, where there were still pieces of bacon hanging from the ceiling.
I found it difficult to grasp the possibility of a peasants’ revolt in Ireland in my lifetime. I grew up in a property-owning democracy in North-West Cork. There was no class of landlords that could be rebelled against. I knew that there had been a landlord aristocracy in my grandmother’s time, but it had been abolished before my mother’s time, leaving not a trace behind. The region was peasant only in the sense that it was not urban. But there could be no doubt that Tom Skelly was telling the truth. I later discovered that the Home Rule Party had sabotaged the anti-landlord movement in the first decade of the century, and that it was only in County Cork that the concession made to its demands was thoroughly implemented. This was due to the activity of Canon Sheehan, the classic Irish novelist, and D.D. Sheehan, the land reformer, along with William O’Brien. The land movement in North West Cork was a Land and Labour Movement. This was D.D. Sheehan’s project. Small-scale land ownership was accompanied by a network of publicly-built Labourers’ Cottages, each with an acre of land, which covered the countryside.
This is not irrelevant to consideration of Russia in the 1920s. Land & Labour was a kind of realisation of the Narodnik ideal, and Narodism was the source of most things in Russia after the Emancipation of 1861.
My interest in Russia did not begin with Communism or Revolution. It began with the 19th century Russian literature that I came across in the Narodnik democracy in Slieve Luacra.
In the Parish of Boherbue, until I was in my early teens, there was no Public Library. There was no library of any kind. And there was no bookshop. And yet there was no shortage of books. There were books all around the place.
Then a Parish Hall was built voluntary labour—a Parish Hall, but certainly not a church Hall—and I mixed some concrete for it with a shovel. It included snooker rooms, a Badminton Court, and, amongst other things, provision for a library.
Books were not purchased for it. They were brought in by people who had them, and they came from the Townlands (i.e., the countryside) rather than the village. And one day I glanced at a battered copy of Dostoevsky’s White Nights, and was lured into 19th century Russia. Two other things that struck my particularly then were plays by Tolstoy: The Power Of Darkness and The Fruits Of Enlightenment. And there was an account somewhere by Dostoevsky about the pain experienced b emancipated peasants when they were required to sit on juries and pass judgment on fellow human beings in the cause of civilisation.
From the time I looked at White Nights English literature had little appeal for me. In the course of time I got a Russian grammar and a number of Russian poems got into my head. I could still repeat one of them, Vnimaya Oozhacam Voini, by the Populist Nekrasov. It is certainly sentimental and could not exist in English.
Dostoevsky peasants had to suffer the pain of passing judgment on fellow humans who did things that were human and that anyone might have done. this was necessary because what they were emancipated into in 1861 was Capitalism. They had not anticipated that that was what Emancipation meant. They resisted it. Their ideal was their pre-Emancipation life with a few improvements. And the self-sufficient peasant Commune became the ideal of the Intelligentsia. This was not in conflict with Tsarism. The Tsar, the Little Father of all, should be its protector. If the Tsar was to be abolished, the vaguely envisaged alteration was not the bourgeois-democratic State of Capitalism, but the Commune without a State.
There was no bourgeois ideal in progressive Russian literature of the 19th century. There was no George Elliot. The bourgeois life, as observed in the West, was rather held in contempt. Progress looked backwards—as English Socialism did for a while before it was taken in hand by Liberalism.
What the Emancipation Decree of 1861 did was break up the familiar socially organic relationships and establish the framework for capitalist development. The nobles had not been the independent owners of great landed estates until then, and the peasants had not been their individual contractual tenants. All had lived together in a Tsarist cultural web that might be seen as having something in common with the Catholic ideal of the Mystical Body—but Orthodoxy had much more going for it in this regard than Roman Christianity.
There was of course a bourgeois development within Tsarism: St. Petersburg. Tsar Peter the Great had travelled anonymously in the West, observed how Capitalism worked and apprenticed himself to it. (There is a German opera bout him: Tsar Und Zimmermann, Tsar and Carpenter.) When he returned home to rule Russia, he ordered nobles to go and build a city on the Gulf of Finland and practise living the enlightened bourgeois life in it. A long time later the Emancipation was decreed and it was expected of the nobility in their new role that they should make an effort, wherever they lived, to live the enlightened life. Tolstoy’s play, The Fruits Of Enlightenment, is a mockery of it. It shows a group of peasants coming to a Big House to transact a piece of commercial business with their landlord under the new relationship. Some cultural event is going on in the house and they are told to wait in the kitchen until the landlord is free to deal with them. And so, through the gossip of the servants, they begin to see what goes on in the Enlightened life.
What was going on in the vigorous intellectual life of Russia during the two generations following the Emancipation was no cultural preparation for the triumph of Capitalism. It was a search for a way of preventing it. Thee was Populism (Narodism), Commune anarchism, and Socialist Revolutionaries.
I seem to recall that Marx was tempted by this Russian Populism into thinking that the Capitalism, of which he was so painstakingly working out all the financial devices, might be by-passed, but was shepherded away from that thought by Engels.
Much of Lenin’s early writing had to do with refuting Populism by showing that Capitalism was developing in Russia and could not be by-passed. But then, having given primacy to proletarian class development and proletarian revolution, he devised the strategy of overthrowing the Tsarist/capitalist state by a form of proletarian revolutionary action that could enlist the support of the peasantry, and then by means of proletarian state power open up a line of development for the peasantry that was not capitalist, and thus by-pass Capitalism after all.
Another tangent: Regularly in the Irish [neé Cork] Examiner there appear articles by two members of the former Communist Party of Great Britain: John Lloyd and Geoffrey Roberts. Roberts is a History Professor in Cork University and writes on military affairs, but not on Irish military affairs. He is very much against Irish military affairs. And he did not contribute at all to the wide-ranging discussion published in the Cork Evening Echo on the centenary of the Great War. Having come from the British nationalist strand of the CPGB, he was a useful addition to the revisionist re-orientation of Cork University with which Dermot Keogh has been prominently associated. He suggested in commemoration of the Kilmichael Ambush that the names of the Auxiliaries who were killed there while engaged in the business of enforcing British military rule against the elected Government should be listed along with the IRA Volunteers who supported the elected Government.
John Lloyd, Scottish upper class in background, was briefly a member of BICO. He joined along with Professor Bill Warren of the School of Oriental and African Studies, who came from the Glasgow Gorbals. Bill had come to disagree strongly with the CPGB view of Imperialism and was attracted by the position being developed by the B&ICO. He exerted an influence of moral ascendancy over Lloyd. When Bill died, Lloyd was like a fish out of water in BICO and he soon left. He was for a while Editor of the New Statesman. He was also a Financial Times journalist, and he greatly approved of Yeltsin’s artillery bombardment of the Parliament building. Parliament was trying to make itself the centre of a form of Constitutional government, but it was nationalist in spirit. (What else could Constitutional government be?) Yeltsin’s ruling by decree was seen as being more in accordance with the spirit of Progress, at least while there was work of destruction that needed doing.
John Lloyd held a kind of Menshevik view for a while, because it was in the atmosphere. But Menshevism had in fact broken more radically with the Populist source of things than Bolshevism had. It lived in a systematically-idealised enclave of Marxism, comprehensively disengaged from Russian social reality. [NB: This paragraph somehow found its way, out of place, into last month’s instalment.]
The Menshevik ideal was of a bourgeois democracy in which Socialism would blossom. During its brief period in Office it showed no aptitude for bringing about that condition of things. And, when it was ousted and the Bolshevik regime consolidated itself, there was no coherent Menshevik opinion on how what it saw as Constitutionalism might be restored—on how Constitutionalism as ideal might be made in Constitutionalism as fact. (Where Constitutionalism is fact it is not idealism that sustains it.)
While Lloyd was in BICO he seemed to believe in something called Leninist democracy. It was the CP fashion of the time. I ridiculed it as something of which no trace could be found in actual history. Some years later I heard him on the radio declaring that Lenin was the greatest criminal of the 20th century. And he issued a statement that he had found out about the Russian Gulags, and was overcome with grief at the thought that he had been associated with them, however tenuously, through his political affiliations, and had broken down and wept.
He had clearly not been influenced at all by his period of BICO membership. He must have been inoculated against it by the fantasy life of the Communist Party.
He was Editor of a couple of issues of a magazine called Problems of Communism that we published, and he proposed that ‘Communism’ be dropped and replaced with ‘Marxism’. (Marxism was respectable. Hardly anything else was allowed a voice at that time in vast regions of British academic life.)
There was a debate on the proposal. I suggested that, if there had to be a choice between Communism and Marxism, it was Marxism that should be dropped. After all, Communism preceded Marxism. Marx joined the Communist Party.
As to the Gulags: Lloyd must have been made immune to knowledge of them in the CPGB, and the immunity must have held good during his time in BICO.
The idea of “Leninist democracy” was much in vogue in CPGB and some Trotskyist circles in the 1970s-80s. I ridiculed it. When Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich appeared, I treated it as escapist fiction. But, when The Gulag Archipelago began to appear, I saw that Dostoevsky had re-surfaced in Russia and history had resumed. But Lloyd was soon denouncing Solzhenitsyn as an obscurantist reactionary.
That put Lloyd back with the classical liberal ideology which was the ground on which Marxism was constructed. But of course he didn’t see it. The different pieces of thought—the slogans—don’t connect up with him. I only ever had one real discussion with him. It was about the military collapse of France and Britain in May 1940. A Fascist Fifth Column in France had opened the front to the Germans, he said. I had been searching high and low for some trace of this Fifth Column, but it just was not there. And I could not see that anything beyond the actual engagement of the military forces in place—Britain and France having had eight months after their declaration of war to put their forces in place for the prosecution of the war which they had declared—and the conduct of those forces in battle, when Germany eventually responded to the declarations of war on it, sufficiently accounted for the outcome.
But, no, it was the Fifth Column in France. That was the British story. It was the British story in 1940, told in all media, high and low. It even appeared in an Agatha Christie detective story, in 1940, and in a Tommy Trinder film. And it has been the British Story ever since. That is one of the great strengths of the British national mind: it forms ideas appropriate to its interests, regardless of facts, and treasures them as fixed points of orientation in a world that is otherwise in flux. In Dublin, by contrast, ideas are mere sparkles in the flux, dying in the process of being born. Elizabeth Bowen noted this in her wartime spy reports to Churchill:
“The stereotyped, or completely conditioned, mind seemed to me rarer in Dublin than in London. (There is also a great deal of bigotry, but this seems to be individual, not mass.) Public opinion in Dublin is almost dangerously fluid. It is, at the same time, less homogeneous than in any English city I have known”. (Notes On Eire, 2008 Aubane edn. p15).
My fixed idea about Russia came from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—possibly because I got something worthwhile from both of them that was relevant to the life of Slieve Luacra. And particularly the Dostoevsky who would sulk in the cellar, rather than participate in Chernyshevsky’s vision of life lived transparently in a crystal palace.
Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? follows on in a certain way from Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? When Lenin’s political structure began to crumble—about seventy years after the ousted Mensheviks had thought it was crumbling—I wondered if a Dostoevskian spirit could have survived the intense modernising of three generations, so that it could see the whole development from the vantage point of a Populism that had been obliged to submit to Progress for a while. When the first volume of Gulag appeared, I saw that that spirit had survived, and was intellectually strong.
Systematic description of society in terms of classes which perform economic functions in market economy began with Smith and Ricardo and was most precisely set out by Ricardo. Rent on land, Interest on money, Profit on enterprise constituted society. And each function was carried out by a social class which lived by it. English literature of the 19th century is largely about the interplay of the social bearers of these economic functions, with Wages appearing on the margin and making its way to the centre.
It was in England that the market broke free of all organised social constraint and realised itself as Capitalism, and Capitalism became society. Marx joined the Communist Party and wrote a book about Capitalism to show that it was based on an antagonism that would destroy it. But then he spent the rest of his life working out the economic devices by which it kept itself functional, while keeping an eye open for signs of a rebellious spirit that offered hope of destroying it. He wrote a pamphlet in praise of the Paris Commune, which was only a flash in the pan. (It was an act of rebellion against making a settlement of the War that France had launched on Prussia, with popular approval, and which it had lost. The war accelerated the formation of a German State, which it had been its aim to prevent, and French refusal to make a settlement when it could no longer engage in regular warfare, and the call to the French populace to rise up in military action, led to the German occupation of Paris. That war is usually presented in British history as a Prussian assault on France. Eventually the German Occupation found a French government with which it could end the war that had been declared on it, and it withdrew. The Third Republic was established in France and it put down the Commune with mass slaughter.
The Commune, in rebellion against the State on patriotic grounds, made its own emergency arrangements but I don’t know what it had to offer towards the project of constructing a Communist state. I don’t recall that Lenin gave it much attention. But he gave considerable attention to the French Revolution, and to how Robespierre might have averted his fall on Thermidor by enacting his own ‘Thermidor’.
I suppose the idea of a Communist State is a contradiction in terms. Lenin’s book in 1917, The State And Revolution, suggested that the withering away of the Communist State would begin almost as soon as it was established. The capitalists had to be subordinated by an act of state, and the intervention by the landlords, supported by Britain and France, had to be dealt with. But then, according to the course of events projected by State & Revolution, the withering away of the State would begin.
In fact, what happened at the end of the emergency measures connected with the Civil War, was a crisis in the relationship between the small Communist State and the mass of the peasants who had been made owners of private property by it.
A closely observing Menshevik, Milyukov, in exile in the USA, wrote at that point (1921) that the Bolshevik deviation from Marxist orthodoxy, (which in the circumstances of the time had become a kind of bourgeois orthodoxy), had run its course, made its contribution to the development of Russia, and was burnt out:
“It was necessary for the cycle of events in Russia to come to a close before its meaning could become patent and a criterion be found by which events could be judged in their unity and completion. It think this is now the case with both the ‘White’ and the ‘Red’ movements in Russia. The former ran its course with the loss of the last patch of anti-Bolshevik territory in the Crimea; the latter with the Great Russian famine. General Wrangel’s defeat manifested the degeneration of the ‘White’ movement. The famine of 1921 demonstrated Russia’s exhaustion under the Bolshevik rule. Whatever happens in time to come, these two phenomena will mark the turning point in the Russian Revolution” (Paul Miliukov: Russia: Today & Tomorrow. New York, 1922).
In Miliukov’s view there was a necessary revolutionary process in which things like Bolshevism would come and go, contributing something along the way. The purpose was to construct the population into a political substance which lived its life in connection with the State. For centuries under the Tsar there was no interconnected national society in Russia, just a lot of particular things, with most of the people living in particular arrangements of natural anarchy. And the Bolsheviks had their part to play in bringing all the bits and pieces into cohesive social existence:
“It is important… to discriminate between the passing and the lasting substance of the Russian Revolution… While the destructive aspect of the Revolution is of necessity presented in detail in this book, I wish that the constructive processes of the Revolution should not be overlooked. We are witnessing the birth of the Russian democracy, in the midst of the rains of the past which will never return. One must not be impatient with the great and complicated revolutionary process which in other countries took decades, if not centuries, for its completion”. (vii).
“On the face of it the Bolshevist revolution of November 7 seemed to be too much Utopian to be able to succeed… Should it really happen, would it not be equivalent to refutation of Marx’s doctrine? …
“We shall see… that the Bolsheviks knew all these arguments perfectly well. But we shall also see that they never intended to introduce communism in Russia. The November revolution was to be a revolution not for Russia’s sake, but for the sake of the world revolution. Russia was the means, not an aim in herself” (p25).
When the Tsarist State collapsed in March 1917 the Bolshevik leaders came back from around the world: Geneva, Paris, London, New York. They were internationalist revolutionaries, knowing little about Russian realities. When they seized power their great ambition—
“was to beat the record of the Paris Commune… However, the reality defeated all forecasts. the ‘communist’ revolution of November 1917 proved a much greater success than the national revolution of March. The last of the four governments of the national Revolution was overthrown after eight months’ duration. The Bolshevist government has now lasted four years” (p25).
The returned Bolsheviks found out enough about Russian realities to be able to continue the “stream of revolutionary transformation”.
How did the Bolshevik regime last so long?
“…three pillars have supported the Bolshevist structure for such a long time. There are… their highly centralised system of administration, numbering quite an army of officials, controlled by the Communist Party; in the second place their Red Army; and in the third place, their secret police and espionage system, which is effectively in the hands of the Communists. Of the two aims… —preparing for communism and keeping in power—the former was gradually removed to a second place, while the latter evolved into a system of self-defence of the small minority against their own people—a system which has never been surpassed by any tyranny at any time in the world’s history” (p70).
Has Miliukov forgotten on page 70 what he said in the Preface? That after four years of Bolshevism he as “witnessing the birth of Russian democracy”? I don’t think so. Some of the Mensheviks became hard-headed in their understanding of the world after it was too late to be of any use to them.
The national revolution of March was a democratic revolution of the people against the Tsarist autocracy, according to the ideologues. In fact it was neither national nor a revolution. The established State collapsed, taking everybody by surprise. An active nation on which a routine of democratic government might be based had no more existence in 1917 than in 1916. The Provisional Government did not do anything much during its eight months. It waited for the results of the Election it had called. During the following four years Bolshevik actions created a democracy, in the sense of an interconnected populace that was active in the affairs of the State.
The State was not in any sense a delegate of the populace. The populace was active under the direction of the State. But a populace that could act under the direction of the State was an altogether new condition of things in Russia, as Miliukov acknowledged.
Of course the regime did not fall in 1921. There was no Russian Thermidor—except the one that was organised by the regime itself to ensure its own continuation.
It was in this development, in Lenin’s hands, that Marxism approached closest to the status of being Political Science.
In general terms politics can never be reduced to the regularity of a science, unless the waywardness inherent in human existence is eradicated. But, in particular circumstances, something like a scientific understanding sometimes seems to exist. It requires a combination of analytical detachment and wilful engagement. These are rarely found together. The English Revolution, Cromwell’s pseudo-republic, had no understanding of itself. It was closely observed by Clarendon with a considerable degree of detached understanding as he bided his time in France, with his King in tow, waiting on the opportunity to intervene. But Lenin displayed this power of analytical understanding in the midst of the revolution in which he was thoroughly engaged, and in 1921 he redirected the revolution so as to make it encompass the bourgeois revolution, which had been skipped over, and allowed it sufficient scope under the dictatorship of the proletariat to deliver economic substance while being kept blind politically.
And so the four years, that Miliukov in 1921 took, reasonably enough, to be the whole course of the Bolshevik Revolution, proved to be no more than a preliminary phase.
C O R R E C T I O N
A number of readers have written to point out that, in the March article on the Russian Revolution, I attributed Milyukov to the Menshevik Party in the Provisional Government and that he was in fact in the Cadet Party. So I did. Milyukov was the only member of the Provisional Government who had a range of publications in English at that time. Dan published a survey of the Revolution a generation later. It was the only other substantial work by somebody who had been in the Provisional Government that was available in English and it too regarded the Bolshevik regime as having laid the foundations for democracy in Russia. I suppose that is why I assumed that both were Mensheviks. And also because I could never summon up an interest in the differences between members of the Provisional Government.
This article first appeared in the April 2018 edition of Irish Political Review.
A number of readers have pointed out that in last month’s article I described Milyukov as a Menshevik when he was in fact a Cadet.
I’m afraid I never took much heed of the different groups that made up the Provisional Government between February and October 1917. The essential characteristic of that Government is that it did not govern, and it was overthrown by the Bolshevik Party because it had the will to govern.
Back in the sixties, when I did most of my reading about 1917, little heed was taken either by the Trotskyist organisations or the Communist Party of either the Cadets or the SRs (Social Revolutionaries). I knew, in a kind of way, that Kerensky was an SR. The only name I could have associated with the Cadets was Struve. Virtually nothing of his was available in English, and the little I picked up about him was that he began as a Marxist and became a bourgeois. Only the Mensheviks seemed to have any relevance to the political medium in which the ICO was hatched.
Some Trotskyists were uneasily aware of a problematic relationship with Menshevism. They felt that it was obligatory to be Leninist. Everybody was Leninist, including the Master of Balliol College, Oxford. But I could not understand how Tony Cliff of the International Socialists (who was by far the most interesting of the Trotskyists intellectually) was able to maintain a veneer of Leninism over a solid foundation of sound Menshevism.
Cliff’s analytical description of Russia in 1917 suggested that what was on the cards was the accomplishment of a bourgeois revolution in substance to fill out the nominal bourgeois revolution that happened with the collapse of the Tsarist State in February. But he never said anything like that while I had any kind of connection with him. He remained a dogmatic Leninist in defiance of the facts which he was establishing. And he held that Stalin betrayed the revolution which at the same time he argued was unachievable.
(Cliff’s lieutenant at the time was John Palmer, a journalist on the Financial Times. Palmer hovered around the verge of our group for a while. His connection with it was by way of Gerry Lawless. Lawless had published a single issue of a commercially-produced (Irish emigre) newspaper, funded, I imagine, by Cliff’s ‘International Socialism’ organisation. Palmer had an article in it entitled Parabellum Patriot. It was about Sean Treacy who helped to start the War of Independence, and was Palmer’s uncle.)
The very strange thing about the bourgeois revolution in Russia as anticipated by Marxists, but not only by Marxists, was that it was understood that it would be a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, and that it was theoretically possible for it to be by-passed in substance. And, insofar as the Cadets figured at all in our discussions, it was as an actual bourgeois party that had somehow got involved in the bourgeois revolution.
I knew nothing about it, nor did Pat Murphy. Nor did we pretend to know. We were there amongst people with very strong opinions, but conflicting opinions, and our business to see if sufficient agreement could be brought about to enable something to be done.
The Cadets, the Constitutional Democrats, the actual bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolution, supposing that is what they were, were off the agenda. And I retained the fixed idea that they were not worth bothering about. But, after I had stopped doing anything concentrated about Russia, I came across bits of Milyukov that were very much worth bothering about—and the last thing I would have assumed him to be was a Cadet.
He remarks somewhere that, while he could agree with the characterisation of the February Revolution as “bourgeois”, it was not capitalist or landlord. It was bourgeois in the sense that it was conducted by intellectuals.
This may make little sense in Irish terms. There is no intelligentsia in Ireland. There are only careerist academics on the make in the rat-race. Contemporary Ireland may be capitalist but it is hardly bourgeois.
In France there is an intelligentsia. In Germany there used to be an intelligentsia and it shaped the world of art and thought to a very considerable extent. In Russia there was over a long period an autonomous intelligentsia which did remarkable things. And power fell to that intelligentsia in February 1917. Or the power of State collapsed, leaving it to these parties of the intelligentsia to make a new power structure—if they could.
Tsarism fell because the Army lost confidence in the ability of the Tsar to give effective direction to the War into which he had launched it, and it looked to the Duma to take over and do it more effectively. The Duma was a Parliament that had existed since the 1905 Revolution as a powerless adviser of the Tsar.
The Grand Duke, the heir to the throne, thought of continuing the function of monarchy in conjunction with the Duma but was given to understand that this would not be tolerated. He stood aside. The Duma became sovereign with Prince Lvov as Prime Minister.
Prince Lvov was an aristocrat of very ancient lineage; a sentimental Tolstoyan who idealised the peasantry; and the organiser of a national (i.e. state-wide) federation of Zemstvos. The Zemstvo was an elected local government body established in the 1860s, after the Emancipation subverted traditional authority. I don’t know how the Zemstvos functioned in their various territories, but it was to the national federation of Zemstvos that one would look for the influence of a national civil society in 1917 as the substratum for a bourgeois state. But there doesn’t seem to have been any such civil society element asserting itself in the revolutionary situation.
The function of the Federation seems to have been to support the Army at war, first the Japanese War and then the war on Germany, by providing hospital services, canteen facilities, and even supply of ammunition.
Prince Lvov, though he may have been a sentimentalist at heart, was born to command. His head knew what needed to be done in the anarchy that followed the subversion of Tsarism by the Army in the hope that the Duma would construct a political order that would be more effective in supporting the war. The Dual Power of Duma and Soviets needed to be broken. The Provisional Government needed to govern, and in order to do this it needed to curb the Soviet movement—a development in the 1905 Revolution that resurfaced in February 1917. The Soviets (occupational associations) did not have the purpose of forming themselves into the State, but they were an obstacle to the formation of an effective order of state by the Duma.
It appears that Lvov saw what needed to be done but that, either it was the kind of thing he was unwilling to undertake, or he saw that it was the kind of thing that it was appropriate for a man of the people—rather than a patriarch—to undertake. Anyhow, he handed the task over to Kerensky, the Socialist Revolutionary. And Kerensky, after a while, enlisted the Mensheviks.
Whether Kerensky understood the task and bungled it, or whether he never comprehended the task but was driven towards it by circumstances but always resisted it even while approaching it, I don’t know.
Anyhow, he did not do what was required for the establishment of a political order that would prosecute the War more effectively, the Soviet movement continued to spread, and the Bolsheviks took power through the Soviets on a policy of ending the War and giving the land to the peasants—who were already taking it. And, when a Constituent Assembly, returned by state-wide elections organised by the Provisional Government, met early in 1918, there was a functional Bolshevik State in the active centres of power.
The Bolshevik State refused to give way. The Provisional Government, after a year of existence, was still so far from being a State that it could not seriously contest the issue. And, if the Bolsheviks had stood down and let things start again with the Constituent Assembly, it is likely that there would have been Civil War anyway.
British Liberalism had surrendered a few months earlier: a victim of a War which it had launched and which had found out its inadequacies. It gave way to a regime not only of Tories but, worse still, Unionists! A regime fronted by a Liberal opportunist driven by frantic energy and unlimited ambition: Lloyd George.
But there was continuity in the British State, because there existed, beneath the form of things, the substance of the ruling class that had directed affairs in the medium of a formal monarchy for two centuries. And, if historical comparisons conducive to political sense are to be made, the relevant British comparison with Russia is not 1917 but 1641.
The issue in 1641 was pure Parliamentary government in pursuit of an ideal. It split the reform movement of the time. The purists won. They defeated the Royalists in a Civil War. A period of parliamentary government followed. It failed. The Monarchy was restored without resistance. Then, in the course of a couple of generations, a ruling class of gentry/aristocracy took over, preserved the form of monarchy, and established what is called the Government of the King in Parliament, with the Prime Minister exercising the Royal Prerogative.
If England persists in representing itself as the model which the world must follow—and it still does, with disastrous effect—then let us at least know what England is politically, and how it came to be a democracy.
The Bolshevik coup is said to have aborted the development of a liberal democratic state in Russia. But was what Bolshevism made impossible ever a realistic possibility? The experience of many other revolutions since then suggests not.
Popular revolutions everywhere have resulted in what England describes as dictatorships—except that, when they are friendly to Britain, they are not so described. Is it at all probable that this is due to the coincidence that men of an evil disposition happen to gain influence always and use the influence to pervert the normal course of events in order to gain enormous power and wealth for themselves?
It appears that around the midsummer of 1917 in Russia the project of a collective dictatorship was thought about. It was not attempted, probably because it was incompatible with the idealism of the situation, Liberal and Marxist, that was fed by the popular turmoil. But, if it had been attempted and had succeeded and the parties of the Provisional Government had discarded their Constitutional illusions and had combined into a functional oligarchy, would that not have been somewhat similar to what was brought about in England after Parliamentary Government was tried and failed in the 1650s? What was the ruling class that commanded the situation from the Restoration in 1660 to the Reform Act in 1832—and indeed long after the Reform Act—but a collective dictatorship?
Democratic elements were gradually introduced into the oligarchic British State only after it was established so securely as a State that its overthrow by democratic agitations was hardly even a fantasy, and after it had established itself as an exploitative world Empire that drew the produce of the world to England by direct action, and the ideology of Imperialism had taken root in the mass mind of England. It was only around 1890 that the political elite of the British State began to see general democratisation as a practical proposition.
There was nothing in the English mode of democratisation that gives support for the view that Russia would probably have become a liberal democracy in 1918 if Lenin had not dispersed the Constituent Assembly.
Fedor Dan was an intransigent Menshevik opponent of Bolshevism from long before 1917. He opposed the Bolshevik coup in 1917 and maintained an internal opposition to Bolshevism until he was exiled in 1922. Then, before he died in 1947, he wrote a survey of The Origins of Bolshevism of which an English translation was published in 1964. In this he describes the Bolshevik development, not as a deviation from a norm that Russia should have complied with, but as being a normal development under the circumstances of capitalism in Russia, much as Milyukov did in the extract I included last month.
He began by comparing the Russian and American states as political developments spreading over Continents:
“Nevertheless Russian evolution took a course completely different from that of the United States, although Russia, even more than America, constitutes a whole continent with inexhaustible reserves of all kinds of raw materials for industry…
“It is not the place here to linger over the conditions that governed the destiny of America. It is a fact that during the half-century that passed between the abolition of slavery and the 1914-18 World War, American industry went through a process of gigantic development. In many respects American capitalism outdistanced |European capitalism. The organiser and leader of American capitalist economy—the rapidly growing bourgeoisie—actually became the ruling class in its own country. A firm, spacious and secure edifice of democracy was created on a firm capitalist foundation.
“During those 50 years the tempestuous evolution of Russia, interrupted by revolutionary explosions, took place quite differently…
“To a high degree its capitalism was imported… Its bourgeoisie never achieved the role of the ruling class—either in the sense of ruling the State or in the sense of influencing the masses of the people politically or intellectually. The ‘Great Reforms’ were not crowned by a democratic constitution, as had been expected by their ardent sponsors, while the State Duma wrenched forth by the 1905 revolution was very quickly reduced to the role of a mock-parliament, scarcely masking the untouched autocracy.
“But political democracy on a capitalist foundation proved to be equally decrepit and unviable in the 1917 revolution engendered by the First World War. In the course of some seven or eight months it perished—together with Russian capitalism and the Russian bourgeoisie. Only in the framework of Socialism—and a dictatorial Socialism at that—could the task be set, and partially even realised of ‘overtaking and passing’ the advanced capitalist countries with respect to industry. In contradistinction to America, the ‘americanisation’ of Russia is being realised not in a capitalist but in a Socialist form. And there can be no doubt that if, as seems indicated, one of the consequences of the anti-Fascist victory proves to be the strengthening of political democracy, then in Russia, in any case, democracy can only be erected on a Socialist and not a capitalist foundation.
“The causes of the unviability of bourgeois democracy in Russia are contained, in the final analysis, in the historically belated entry of Russia on the path of capitalist evolution. This belatedness placed a stamp of singularity on the whole socio-economic, cultural and political development of the country…
“My work is not a history of the struggle for democracy in Russia, but a history of the Russian democratic idea…
“I hope to enable the reader to understand ‘Bolshevism’ not as an accidental phenomenon that was summoned to life by a quite exceptional concatenation of circumstances and that interrupted the liberation struggle, which had been going on for decades, of the Russian intelligentsia, working-class and people as a whole, but, on the contrary, as a political product of that struggle and an historically inevitable stage on the road to its consummation. For this reason any polemical intention is quite alien to this book” (p2-3).
“The profound peculiarity of Russian democratic thought lies in this, that from its inception it never for a moment idealized capitalism and was not drawn to it… The nascent Russian bourgeoisie not only was in no way a hero for the Russian democracy that was seeing the light simultaneously with it, but, on the contrary, instantly became for it an object of hostility…” (p10).
And so there was the bourgeois revolution of 1917 in which the bourgeoisie were held in contempt as a “reactionary” element. The bourgeois revolution was merely a stepping-stone on the way to Socialism in the view of the democratic parties. But how that step could be taken democratically remained as unclear in practice in 1917 as it had been in theory for a dozen years before 1917:
“The antithesis between Democracy and Socialism, the struggle for whose resolution runs through the history of the Russian revolutionary thought like a red thread, remained unresolved by the 1917 revolution too…” (p408).
The issue was resolved by direct action by the Bolsheviks, and then—
“just as throughout the civil war, so in the years of initial instability and subsequent gradual consolidation when the Soviet regime, shot through by ‘crises’, the political profile of the regime and forces contending with each other played a minimal role in the peasant’s attitude towards them. The peasantry, or individual strata of it (the ‘kulaks’, the ‘medium peasants’, the ‘paupers’) defined its attitude towards them exclusively from the point of view of its own struggle—in the beginning for land, then for its free use of the products of the land. The ‘Constituent Assembly Front’ organised by the SRs not only condemned itself to defeat in advance, but did a good deal to discredit the very idea of political democracy in its ‘European’ form in the eyes of the broad masses of the peasantry. This came about just because, having made this idea their banner, the S.R.s went over to the side of the anti-Bolshevik barricade where there were grouped primarily the leading forces of the so-called ‘White’ movement, that is, forces in which the peasants rightly saw defenders of the old landed proprietors and the champions of a reversal of the total reapportionment that had just been carried out.
“In Russian conditions circumstances so fell out that the ‘kolkhoz’ [collective farm] system, which definitively shattered the narrow framework of individual peasant farming, also shattered the limited intellectual and political horizon of the peasantry… For the first time it made tangible… the uninterrupted link between its own economic destiny and the destiny of the state. It was only in the school of the Soviets… that for the first time the peasantry began to learn the ‘state’ approach to the problems of its own socio-economic way of life too. There, in the Soviets, even after the levelling off of the electoral rights of all citizens proclaimed by the ‘Stalin’ constitution of 1936, remnants of the privileged classes liquidated by the Soviet revolution were scarcely represented. The monopolists were in fact the ‘toilers’—the workers and peasants together with the Soviet bureaucracy and the trade union intelligentsia, who, however, were serving by now not private but state interests. That is why in spite of the ‘single candidacy’ of Soviet elections and of the ‘one-party’ regulation of Soviet policy, Soviet ‘parliamentarianism’ has proved to be far from a ‘fiction’ but an extremely real factor in the ‘democratization’ of the Soviet regime” (p468-9).
All of this was democratisation in the sense of the creation of a demos—an interconnected national political body. And it is only when such a national body politic exists that the rivalry of political parties for the control of Government in a stable state structure can be carried on.
Iraq in 1990 was in the process of being democratised in this basic sense—of being formed into a national body politic—when the Western Imperialist democracies declared that it was subject to a Tyranny or Despotism or Dictatorship and decided to overthrow the ‘regime’. When the ‘regime’ was overthrown, a wild murderous anarchy set in, and multi-party elections were held in the disrupted body-politic. These elections could do no more than reflect the anarchy to which society had been reduced by invasion. A British Minister, Hillary Benn, commented: “We gave them their freedom, and it was up to them what they did with it”.
What multi-party Iraq did, in the condition of being a disrupted body-politic, was make war on itself. What the Russia of the Stalin Constitution did was defeat Nazi Germany after Germany had defeated Poland, France and Britain had withdrawn from the war in Europe after having launched it.
What Dan says about the onset of the World War is entirely free of the fantasy evasions of Trotskyism, and of much more than Trotskyism:
“‘Munich’ was not merely a political compromise with Hitler. In Munich the governments of Great Britain and France sanctioned his destruction of Czechoslovakia and its de facto occupation. After the fusion with Austria, with the closeness to the Nazi Government of Germany not only of the governments of Hungary and Rumania, but also of the ‘Colonels’ government of Poland, which had taken part in the divisions of Czechoslovakia and had previously refused to give the Red Army the right to pass through Polish territory in case of a war with Fascist Germany, this meant the definitive military-strategic exposure of the Western border of the Soviet Union, the annihilation of the last obstacle to an invasion of its borders by the Hitler armies…” (p430).
And the Soviet/German Pact was a holding operation in response to Munich.
The contrast between Russian conduct in the two World Wars is very great. In 1914 Tsarist Russia was ready for war. It had war aims—very ambitious, expansionist, aims—to which Britain had encouraged it. It was ready to spring, and its sprang. Its mobilisation in July set things in motion. It went on the offensive, advanced, was stopped, and began to break down.
Stalin wrote somewhere in praise of defensive tactics of the kind often employed by Britain. He had no war aims—no reason for going to war. German Intelligence reported that what they encountered was a defensive deployment of a kind that might be adapted for offence. There were Russian reverses in the early stage of the German invasion but the defensive line was never broken. The German advance was held, and it was then that the Russian steamroller went into motion—causing Britain to scramble back on the Continent after years of delay. And there was no rebellion. The newly-created Russian demos held firm throughout the War.
Dan makes reference to articles on Bolshevism by Martov that sound interesting, but I could find no trace of them in English. Martov, who was Dan’s brother-in-law, was the oracle of Menshevism. He had combined with Lenin to give Marxist Social Democracy a coherent voice in a magazine called Iskra.
The Menshevik/Bolshevik split was a political parting of the ways between Martov and Lenin. Martov wanted to educate the working class to act politically for itself. Lenin could not see the workers, as non-owners of property, cohering as a class politically. His strategy was that working-class action in politics was practically possible only under the hegemony of a scientific socialist party.
Dan suggests that the establishment of socialist economy after the Bolshevik revolution, was assisted by the stratum of Menshevik-educated workers that took part in it. I think that probably was the case. But there is hardly anything of Menshevism available in English translation. Why should there be? Why should the bourgeois world which they failed in 1917 be interested in them? They were committed to a bourgeois-democratic transition to socialism. The bourgeoisie was happy with that as a thing that would never happen. But Menshevism failed—and then its effects were absorbed into the melting pot of the Revolution. Why should bourgeois England bother with them? The wonder is that Dan’s book was translated and published.
The translation is, however, introduced with an uneasy Preface by Professor Leonard Shapiro, rejecting the idea that only Bolshevism met the requirements of the condition of Russia in 1917. What if, he says, the others had not done what they did, and had instead done something closer to what the Bolsheviks did?
“The victory of Bolshevism was perhaps only ‘inevitable’ in the sense that, assuming all the actors in the drama, including the Mensheviks, behaved as they did, it became possible… for Lenin to achieve his object of overthrowing the democratic regime which came into being in February… The Mensheviks could after all, have followed the advice of Plekhanov… and have made it more possible for the Provisional Government to establish a stable regime, which could have taken Russia out of the war without ensuring collapse. The Provisional Government, in turn, could have shown more foresight in realizing the importance of ending the war, establishing its own legitimacy and disarming the Bolsheviks and their private army—and so on and so forth. There is nothing ‘inevitable’ in history except the fact that human beings behave in a manner which accords with their traditions, habits and preconceived prejudices…”
Is that not just another way of saying that if the Provisional Government, which was something less than a regime, had acted authoritatively, and made itself a regime by doing what it left for the Bolsheviks to do, there would probably have been no Bolshevik Revolution?
But could the Provisional Government, which owed its existence to the Army, and was committed to the War, have ended the War in defiance of the Army?
Dan, who was present in the situation, took account, with hindsight, of the substantial things in the course of events which provided sufficient reason for the way things went. Shapiro seeks refuge in things that the Provisional Government might have contemplated but did not do.
Long ago, in Belfast Central Library, I came across the Memoirs of Baron Wrangel, entitled From Serfdom To Bolshevism. I am not certain that he was the famous Whiteguard General. The book gives no information about him, and a biography of the Whiteguard General makes no reference to this book. Anyhow, the following piece, which I copied out, sums up the way the Army saw its Provisional Government:
“The curtain has fallen upon ‘the absolutism of the Romanovs’. It was to be followed by a stupid force: ‘Eunuchs in power’, and that by a closing tragedy, ‘King Israel’, a drama approved by the Governments of Germany, Britain, Italy and Bulgaria…
“The Provisional Government consisted of Messrs. Kerensky, Miliukov… but there is no point in mentioning their names. These men, these emasculated wretches, rather, are not as interesting as the Europeans believe them to be. I have seen more than one of their kind in the East; at the first glance you would never suspect them of being the kind of creatures they are. It is only when you can see them at close quarters that you can see that they are entirely lacking in virility and that they are incredibly flabby creatures absolutely destitute of will power; that they are good for nothing and not even competent to look after the ladies of the seraglio… Just as in Russia the ‘Soviet of Workmen and Soldiers’ settled everything… [Wrangel was in the Crimea.] The wretched creatures were therefore merely ornamental objects who did more harm than good. They were harmful because they brought everything into confusion and chaos and let things take their course.
“But I must say a few words about the Grand Eunuch, Kerensky. For some months he was the favourite clown, the principal actor in the force, the star buffoon who got the publicity. He played every part: Minister of Justice, tribune, darling child, young premier, grand old man, Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the armies…
“Fortunately the Bolsheviks cleared out the eunuchs shortly afterwards and rid us of that verminous crowd. That was the one good action they did; though it is true that afterwards they extracted heavy payment for that service…” (From Serfdom To Bolshevism, English edition 1927).
That was the bourgeois revolution without a bourgeoisie—a bourgeois revolution conducted by the intelligentsia—as seen from the viewpoint of the Army, which is, after all, the basic institution of a state.
The Army brought down the Tsar in the hope of getting a Parliamentary Government that would provide it with the means of fighting the War more effectively. The Parliament was implicated with the Soviet movement right from the start through the person of Kerensky. A Soviet was an association of people in the same occupation which decided how things should be done in that occupation.
One of the first acts of the Parliament was to democratise the Army by recognising the associations of its various layers as being authoritative. But an Army is necessarily hierarchical. The Army of the most democratic democracy must be hierarchical in order to be functional. The Parliament subverted hierarchical subordination in an Army at war, and exhorted the officers to establish effective control by means of tact and wisdom.
The Bolsheviks brushed aside the Provisional Government, ended the Tsarist War to which the bourgeois democracy had dedicated itself, and constructed an Army which took on and defeated all-comers.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 edition of Irish Political Review.