Few except the most conservative deny the emancipatory grandeur of mass action in the October 1917 Russian revolution. Common, however, is the claim that there was too much “party” in the revolution — the Bolsheviks were too organised, too ruthless, too pushy, and that led to Stalinism. This article seeks to refute that claim.
October 1917 is often described as a “Bolshevik coup”, suggesting that the Bolsheviks took advantage of momentary excitement and disorder to seize an existing machine of power. In fact, in the weeks after 25 October 1917, the Bolshevik (and then Bolshevik/ Left SR coalition) government elected by the Soviet (Workers’ Council) congress had essentially no means to implement its policies other than the power and cogency of its political agitation. It inherited no functioning state machine.
The police force had been broken up by the February revolution. The army was in collapse, and on 12 February 1918 the Soviet government officially decreed its total demobilisation. Most government officials at first refused to cooperate. The new People’s Commissars had to scrabble just to find an office, a table, some chairs, some ready cash. The Red Army was officially inaugurated on 20 February, but at first it could be built into an actual army only by persuasion and agitation. In the early weeks, many people saw the revolutionary regime as a flaky experiment, unlikely to endure.
Sympathisers hesitated to support the new regime, since to do so was to increase the risk of suffering reprisals if, or when, conservative inertia overwhelmed the revolutionary experiment. Over the first months, the regime won active support, in good part by demonstrating that it had the will and courage to hold on and build a functioning administration out of nothing. After 25 October, the revolutionaries busied themselves with a very rapid flurry of decrees. They also drafted and adopted a Soviet constitution at high speed (by July 1918). They knew the revolutionary regime’s decrees, at first, had virtually no force other than as instruments of political agitation.
The priority was to agitate, to mobilise people to build up a new machinery of government. They were also agitating for an audience abroad – in the Western countries whose revolutionisation they considered vital to any hope of survival for the Russian revolution – and for the future. They put down markers for workers’ democracy. The early Bolshevik government very rarely described itself as socialist. It described itself as a “soviet” power, as “workers’ and peasants’ power”, or justified its decrees in terms of “democracy”.
The Bolsheviks knew that Marx had criticised the Paris Commune for its lack of revolutionary ruthlessness, and that the Jacobin Republic of 1793-4 had only been able to maintain itself, even briefly, by the Terror. So they knew already – though they could not yet have envisaged the full horrors of the civil war – that after putting down their markers they would prove unable to live up to some of them. The Bolshevik party had a strong collective will built on fierce democratic debate, individual commitment, individual courage. Without that, the October revolution would not have happened. The moment would have been missed. Right-wingers would eventually have made a real coup.
Contrary to myth, the Bolsheviks had no highly centralised party machine. The central “machine” consisted essentially of party secretary Yakov Sverdlov, carrying the “files” in his pockets and in his head, and half a dozen assistants, operating in a country with poor communications. The Bolshevik party was a powerful revolutionary factor because of the force of its ideas and its revolutionary will, not because of any special strength of its organisational machine. The Bolshevik party did not impose a centralised structure of its own on the new state. On the contrary. The Bolshevik party acquired a strong centralised machine only as a by-product of its effects to construct a new state centralised enough to fight the civil war which developed from early 1918. Dangerously, and ultimately tragically, the centralisation of the Bolshevik party was “nested” inside the centralism of the state machine, rather than standing beside it.
The tragedy of the civil war could have been diminished if the Bolshevik party in October 1917 had been more stereotypically “Bolshevik” – ruthless, organisationally tight, capable of having its own centralised machine apart from and alongside any state centralism. There was at first much wavering. Many of the best-known Bolshevik leaders resigned from their positions soon after the revolution in protest at the Bolshevik majority’s refusal to accept the Mensheviks’ and SRs’ conditions for a coalition government (namely, the Bolsheviks to have only a minority in the government, and that minority to exclude Lenin and Trotsky). Lunacharsky, the Bolsheviks’ best-known mass orator in 1917 after Trotsky, resigned because he had heard (inaccurate) reports that the Bolsheviks in Moscow, fighting to take power there, had damaged St Basil’s Cathedral.
Those waverings cannot but have encouraged those who hoped to overthrow the new Soviet power by force. The first attempt at armed overthrow of the Soviet government was set in motion on 31 October, by General Krasnov, leading a body of cossacks. It was defeated by typical Bolshevik audacity: two activists smuggling themselves into the cossack barracks at 3am and arguing with the soldiers for five hours until they persuaded them to stay neutral and wait and see. Bolsheviks arrested Krasnov, but released him on his word of honour. The freed Krasnov immediately headed for the south in order to mobilise a counter-revolutionary army there!
It would be as foolish to mock the Bolsheviks’ “softness” in late 1917 as it would be to recoil in horror from their “hardness” in 1921. In neither era could the Bolsheviks jump over the head of history. Tsarist Russia did not give them the possibility of organising a party that could be “ideally” efficient, centralised, and ruthless, or “ideally” liberal and easy-going. The Czech Legion was a body of some 35,000 to 40,000 troops from the former Austro-Hungarian Imperial army who had been taken prisoner by the Tsar’s army. It regained freedom of operation in the ferment of revolution, and decided to throw its lot in with the Whites, starting the civil war in earnest. In the conditions of 1917-8, when there was no consolidated state machine at all, that small splinter was the most formidable military force in the country. The Red Army was built, and the civil war was won, only by repeated episodes of daring comparable to that of the Bolsheviks who won over Krasnov’s cossacks.
As the Red Army acquired military clout and structure, the Bolsheviks used it ruthlessly. But right through to the peasant revolts in 1922, agitation, by voice, leaflets, and pamphlets, was primary. The Bolsheviks won the civil war, fundamentally, by that agitation being successful. The advantages of pre-established force were on the side of the Whites, effectively starting the civil war. War communism and the Red Terror were inaugurated following the Left SRs’ assassination of the German ambassador (designed to provoke renewed war with Germany) and abortive insurrection of July 1918; the assassination by Right SRs of the Bolsheviks Volodarsky (June 1918) and Uritsky (August 1918), and their attempt to assassinate Lenin on 30 August 1918. As Trotsky put it: “It was in those tragic days that something snapped in the heart of the Revolution”. Significantly for those who think that the inauguration of the Cheka was already dictatorship in embryo, the assassination of the German ambassador was carried out by Left SRs who were also leading figures in the Cheka.
Despite withdrawing from the government in March 1918, in protest against the Brest-Litovsk peace, the Left SRs still had a very large role in the Cheka. War communism and the Red Terror were emergency measures by a government which had just seen even those who had previously been its closest allies attempt an armed uprising against it, and try to tip the country into a new disastrous war with Germany. There were examples of Terror before August 1918, many “from below”. The historian Jean-Jacques Marie reports a massacre of five thousand officers by rank and file soldiers in two incidents in January 1918, which was neither decreed nor agitated for by the Bolsheviks.
Before the Revolution, not only were Russian landlords violent. Under the peasant village elders’ own justice, horse thieves could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles. Part of the mission of the revolution was to end that culture of violence. But first the revolution had to happen, and consolidate itself if only for a short while. It had to do that with people as they were. The Red Terror was partly designed to control and restrain the terror “from below” (there was something of the same with the Terror in the French Revolution, which also started “from below”), and was partly motivated by the fact that, where persuasion could not work – and it couldn’t always – and where you needed to terrify the enemy – and in war you do – mild measures could not work with a population accustomed over generations to such high levels of violence. economic The economic policy of war communism consisted essentially of feeding the cities and the army by requisitions from the peasantry.
Not-too-different policies were adopted by the Whites and the Green (anarchist) armies, and the Bolsheviks sought to limit the adverse effects by a “party maximum” banning any Bolshevik from getting a bigger wage than a skilled worker. Many follies were committed under war communism; there was much misguided making virtue out of necessity during it (though it should be borne in mind that many of those inventing those “virtues” will have seen them as flowering – soon – with the extension of the revolution to the West, rather than being self-sufficient). Trotsky called in early 1920 for a shift towards more market-based policies, such as eventually came in early 1921 as “NEP”.
It can even been argued that those policies could and should have been adopted instead of “war communism” right from the start in 1918. But the Bolsheviks did not know in advance how long and destructive the civil war would be, or how much it would empty out the workers’ councils and breed habits of command, and did know that failing to feed the cities and the armies would lead to cataclysmic counter-revolution. In Finland, according to Victor Serge, the triumph of the conservatives in the civil war of January-May 1918 led to the slaughter of a quarter of the whole working class (which was not, of course, a majority of the population). One can argue that if the Bolsheviks had let the counter-revolution happen earlier and more “easily” than it happened with Stalin, then the ensuing fascism would have been milder than Stalin’s regime. But how could they calculate on that basis, in advance?
The remarkable thing about the stories of the Bolsheviks manipulating or delaying soviet votes in 1918, for example, is how high the standards were which they had set themselves, and which they felt they had to infringe on. For governments in all-consuming war, war which threatens the very existence of the polity, to allow elections at all is rare.
The British government in World War 2 ranks high, historically, in relative wartime democracy because it allowed debates in Parliament and a fair degree of press freedom. Yet it pretty much suppressed popular votes – there were no general elections between 1935 and 1945, or by-elections contested by the big parties. Britain was never invaded, and most of the time at no immediate risk of being invaded. The Bolsheviks face critical scrutiny — rightly — but because, fighting a war in much more desperate circumstances, they sometimes they postponed elections, not for ten years, not for three years, not even for the eight months for which the unelected Provisional Government postponed Constituent Assembly elections – but for a few weeks or months, and because they used ambiguities in election procedure to their advantage.
Some argue that civil war measures may have been necessary, but the sins of the Bolsheviks show in their failure to re-enlarge democracy after early 1921. If Martov’s Mensheviks had been re-legalised in November 1918, and pro-Soviet SRs re-legalised in February 1919, surely all “soviet” parties could easily have been re-legalised in 1921? Jean-Jacques Marie’s book on the civil war is titled The Russian civil war, 1917-22. Not 1921. Large-scale armed conflict continued after the defeat of the main organised counter-revolutionary armies in early 1921. There were very large anti-Bolshevik peasant uprisings in mid-1921. Meanwhile the country was exhausted, and ravaged by drought, famine, and disease.
The Bolsheviks knew that in the French revolution, Thermidor, the overthrow of the radical Jacobins, had been triggered, paradoxically, by the great French victory at Fleurus (26 June 1794). The Fleurus victory produced a desire for relaxation, a backlash against the rigours of the revolutionary regime. Thermidor was followed within a few months, in a gradual and smooth but speedy slide, by a full-scale White Terror, the definitive expulsion of the sans-culottes from serious political influence, and the formal replacement of the revolutionary 1793 constitution by a new, conservative template.
The Bolsheviks knew that a Thermidor in Russia would disperse and dissipate the new revolutionary parties in the West, removing any possibility of early revolution in the West. So they emphasised closing ranks, keeping the party solid against the threat posed to it by the large surviving corps of Tsarist officials, the exhaustion and eventually revolution-weariness of the mass of workers and peasants. War The Bolsheviks in 1921 faced a far greater mass exhaustion than the Jacobins in 1793. Fourteen million dead since 1914! Four and a half million dead in the civil war! Seven million abandoned children! Industrial production collapsed!
Lenin’s health had been fatally undermined by the strain of 1917-21. Trotsky was ill for many of the following years. “A political reaction set in after the prodigious strain of the Revolution and the Civil War”, wrote Trotsky in Stalin. The Bolsheviks, harassed, exhausted, were nevertheless determined to keep the revolutionary possibilities open.
In August 1921, Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik oppositionist Gavril Miasnikov: “We have many maladies. Mistakes… have greatly aggravated the maladies springing from our situation… Want and calamity abound… They have been terribly intensified by the famine of 1921.
“It will cost us a supreme effort to extricate ourselves, but we will get out... Revive the Soviets; secure the co-operation of non-Party people; let non-Party people verify the work of Party members: this is absolutely right. No end of work there, and it has hardly been started”.
The Bolsheviks ran into tragic but difficult-to-avoid conflicts like Kronstadt. The failure of the Bolshevik emissary Kuzmin to win over the Kronstadters in February 1921 – while in dozens of centres across the years 1917-21, Bolshevik agitators had won over vacillating or rebelling fighters holding strategic points – was to do with an exasperated, impatient tone, the result of years of civil war pressure and habituation. The pressures of 1921 also drove the Bolsheviks into avoidably damaging acts, notably the invasion of Georgia in February 1921.
Trotsky, with hindsight, argued that the peace deal between Menshevik Georgia and Bolshevik Russia could not have held for very long anyway. But he offered no sustained argument for why. In any case, as he himself cogently argued, the “premature” invasion had enormous damaging effects. Trotsky in his later years pointedly refrained from positively defending the 1921 ban on factions in the Bolshevik party and on non-Bolshevik parties. In fact, those bans did not stop a deadly faction (or “party”) growing up within the Bolshevik party, around its Secretariat, a faction that merged with the old ex-Tsarist officialdom. As Trotsky wrote: “The three years of Civil War laid an indelible impress on the Soviet government itself by virtue of the fact that very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders… Stalin, like many others…”
There proved to be “not enough” party, rather than “too much”. The Bolshevik party was bit-by-bit crushed between the stones of officialdom and mass disillusion. For future revolutions we need more Bolsheviks, not fewer
• Adapted from a longer article here