The historians and the Bolsheviks

Submitted by AWL on 13 February, 2019 - 10:53 Author: Colin Foster
civil war

On Tsarism, the bourgeois liberals under Tsarism, the Provisional Government in 1917, the Whites in the Civil War, and even the Mensheviks and the SRs, what Figes has to say is pretty much what the Bolsheviks said of them. Thus, for example: “Trotsky described Martov as the ‘Hamlet of Democratic Socialism’ – and this is just about the sum of it… [His qualities] made him soft and indecisive when just the opposite was required”.

The Mensheviks, Figes notes, “had practically ceased to exist in Petrograd by the end of September [1917]: the last all-city party conference was unable to meet for lack of a quorum… “Blind by their own commitment to the state, which made them defend the coalition principle at all costs, they ceased to act or think like revolutionaries and dismissed the workers’ growing radicalism and support for the Bolsheviks as a manifestation of their ‘ignorance’ and ‘immaturity’…

”About Kerensky he is more scornful than anyone else I’ve read. Kerensky actively fomented a personality cult around himself, equating himself with Napoleon. He would visit the front dressed in the finest uniforms, and “even wore his right arm in a sling, although there was no record that the arm had ever been hurt…”

Figes does not even have much more than scorn for the Constituent Assembly dispersed under the influence of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs in January 1918. When Figes wants a pithy summing up of something or someone – as of Martov, above – it is usually Trotsky he turns to for the telling phrase. Yet Figes is vehemently hostile to Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. Discussing the civil war, he makes equations of them with Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War as frequent as they are nonsensical. He especially hates Lenin. His first major reference to Lenin [p.129] is a claim that: “During the famine of 1891 he opposed the idea of humanitarian relief on the grounds that the famine would force millions of destitute peasants to flee to the cities and join the ranks of the proletariat: this would bring the revolution one step closer… In this contempt for the living conditions of the common people were the roots of the authoritarianism to which the revolution had such a tragic propensity…”

Figes cites no source. The story comes from one Vodovozov, later a Trudovik, writing 34 years later, in 1925. It was put into wider circulation by the biography of Lenin by the Menshevik David Shub. Bertram Wolfe criticised Shub, citing a discussion of Vodovozov’s story by Trotsky in his book The Young Lenin. Shub offered no reply other than that he considered Vodovozov “one of the outstanding Russian publicists, who devoted his life to the struggle for freedom and humanism” [Russian Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1950), pp. 74-76]. Trotsky comments:

“Vodovozov’s reminiscences on the subject represent not so much Ulyanov’s [Lenin’s] views as their distorted reflection in the minds of liberals and Populists. The idea that the ruination and decimation of the peasants could promote the industrialisation of the country is too absurd in itself…

“The Marxists [not just Lenin, who then was not yet politically active, but edging through his studies from populism towards Marxism] of course opposed not aid to the starving, but the illusion that a sea of need could be emptied with the teaspoon of philanthropy…

“Even the old moralist of the revolution, Lavrov, proclaimed in print: ‘Yes, the only “good cause” we can possibly embrace is not the philanthropic but the revolutionary cause’…

“When famine recurred seven years later, there were immeasurably fewer political illusions… A very moderate liberal journal wrote… that [the officially permitted relief operations were] a ‘pitiful measure’, whereas ‘general measures’ were needed…”

Figes goes on to claim that in his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Lenin wrote: “Socialist consciousness cannot exist among the workers. This can be introduced only from without” (p.152). Figes then refers back to this claimed assertion by Lenin as an explanation for Lenin’s actions in the civil war. In general he believes: “In everything he did, Lenin’s ultimate purpose was the pursuit of power. [Personal power, presumably]. Power for him was not a means – it was the end in itself” (p.504). The simplest facts of Lenin’s life make nonsense of that claim.

As a man with outstanding academic qualifications from a relatively well-off background, he could easily have sought “power” through rising through official society. Tsarist repression was not so vindictive as to bar careers to people with radical pasts. Lev Tikhomirov, the former leader of the terrorist Narodnaya Volya, recanted in 1888, in a big book entitled Why I Ceased To Be A Revolutionary, and within a year had a comfortable and influential position as editor of a right-wing paper.

Maybe Lenin was unconfident of Tsarism’s stability? But why then, among all the opposition parties, join Russian Social Democracy, and then the Bolshevik Party? One thing that marked off those parties from almost all opposition parties in history, paradoxically, was their belief that it was impossible for them to come to power! At most they aspired to a temporary minority place in a temporary “provisional revolutionary government” in the revolution they strove for. More, so they believed until 1917, was impossible.

In What Is To Be Done? Lenin did not write what Figes claims. He wrote that in the absence of vigorous political intervention “from without” (i.e. by already-organised socialist activists), and in the presence of the vast array of bourgeois ideological influences in capitalist society, workers’ trade union struggles would lead only to “trade-unionist” consciousness and not to socialist consciousness. He admonished the socialist activists not to treat the workers like infants, to be talked to only on narrow economic issues. The workers were fully capable of absorbing and developing the most advanced socialist ideas, but could not do so unless those ideas were presented to them energetically and vividly.

Later [p.550] Figes claims: “After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk [March 1918] there was no real prospect of the revolution spreading to the West. Lenin was quite adamant about this” – when? where? in fact Lenin said the exact opposite! – “To all intents and purposes, the ‘permanent revolution’ had come to an end, and from this point on, in Lenin’s famous phrase” – in fact Stalin’s, not Lenin’s! – “the aim of the regime would be limited to the consolidation of Socialism in One Country”.

If we were to grant all Figes’ demonisation of Lenin, we would face a mystery. Why did the Bolsheviks back him? Figes is candid enough to write: “It was more than the dominance of Lenin’s personality that ensured the victory of his ideas in the party. The Bolshevik rank and file were not simply Lenin’s puppets… The idea that the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was a monolithic organisation tightly controlled by Lenin is a myth… “In fact the party was quite undisciplined; it had many different factions… If in the end [Lenin] always got his way [in fact he didn’t], this was due not just to his domination of the party but also to his many political skills, including persuasion…” [p.393].

The nearest that Figes comes to reconciling these strands is the thesis that the Bolsheviks were mostly “peasant sons, literate young men… who had left the village to work in industry or to join the army before 1917, and who in the process came to reject the ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ ways of the old peasant Russia” (p.813), and that this made them believe in the mission of a city-based bureaucracy, including themselves, to impose progress on the Russian countryside. When Figes comes to 1917, he makes a great deal of the flurry of drunkenness and vandalism which followed the workers’ seizure of power in October. “The Bolshevik insurrection was not so much the culmination of a social revolution… more the result of the degeneration of the urban revolution, and in particular of the workers’ movement, as an organised and constructive force, with vandalism, crime, generalised violence and drunken looting as the main expressions…” [p.495].

He is scarcely warmer about the February revolution. Dismissing the claims of the liberals, Mensheviks, and SRs, he points out that those events too were accompanied by much violence, looting and disorder. Presenting the story “warts and all”? Maybe. Figes explicitly rejects the idea that Russia could instead have progressed by quiet liberal reform. But the book, excellently written and full of vivid snippets of fact as it is, is curiously uncertain in tone, sometimes furiously denouncing the Bolsheviks, sometimes seeming ruefully to admit that for all their shortcomings they represented a heroic force of progress. Figes’ chief source of indictments of the Bolsheviks is, of course, the brutalities of civil war.

The Bolsheviks never claimed not to have been authoritarian, ruthless, and brutal in the civil war, and the bulk of Figes’ account is not very different from that given by the Bolshevik-friendly historian Jean-Jacques Marie in La Guerre Civile Russe. Figes offers occasional extra “atrocity stories”. Given the way Figes describes Lenin’s ideas, I give little credit to those “extras”. But even, incongruously, while comparing the Red Army to Franco’s fascist army in the Spanish Civil War, Figes recognises that the Reds won the civil war primarily because of politics. Both Reds and Whites started with no army to hand – except the Czech Legion in the hands of the Whites – and had to build one. The war was decided by the ability of each side to “tap mass support or at least exploit mass opposition to the enemy”.

Figes himself gives a telling example. Late in 1920, the White army in the south, under Wrangel, decided that to win they had to try to “make a leftist policy with rightist hands”, as Wrangel himself put it. They evolved a land-reform programme. But then they went to the villages with that programme in the form of a thick pamphlet, full of bureaucratic limitations to the land reform, trying to sell that pamphlet for 100 roubles. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were distributing the short, clear Decree on Land adopted by the Soviet government soon after October 1917 in millions of free leaflets. Leaflets and speeches won the civil war as much as guns did. The reading book used to teach Red soldiers how to read, and later in primary schools, started with the line: “We are not slaves, slaves we are not!”

The figures whom Figes treats with most sympathy are the liberal aristocrat Prince Lvov, who became the head of the first Provisional Government in 1917, and the talented Tsarist general Brusilov. As Figes himself records, Brusilov joined the Red Army in 1920, and continued to serve the Bolshevik regime as Chief Inspector of Cavalry until he retired in 1924. He died in 1926, his coffin carried with full Red Army honours to a Russian Orthodox monastery (Brusilov had remained pious throughout). Lvov went into exile but ended up half-endorsing the Bolsheviks. “The people and the power are, as usual, two different things. But Russia more than ever before belongs to the people… The people supports Soviet power. That does not mean that they are happy with it. But at the same time as they feel their oppression they also see that their own type of people are entering into the apparatus, and this makes them feel that the regime is ‘their own’.”

Figes himself, after eight hundred pages frequently equating Lenin not only with Stalin but also with Hitler and Franco, remarks that: “there were fundamental differences between Lenin’s regime and that of Stalin” (p.807). Does Figes subconsciously feel the same admiration that Bolshevism compelled from old Brusilov and Lvov? If so, he does not openly admit it. His conclusions are so philistine as to make Martov seem a hero of revolutionary decisiveness. “The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering – perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity’s historic striving for social justice and comradeship…

“The experiment went horribly wrong, not so much because of the malice of its leaders, most of whom had started out with the highest ideals” – this is what Figes says in his final pages, though in earlier pages he has freely equated Lenin, even early in his political activity, with Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, and Stalin! – “but because their ideals were themselves impossible… [for reasons] more to do with principles than contingencies.

“The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings...”

Workers, in our struggle to become equal and make our lives better, can overthrow the “big” states which help keep us unequal and set against each other. We can make our own state to help us against the revenge of the old states. That is what the workers of the Tsarist Empire, led by the Bolsheviks, did. The remnants and inertia of the old order eventually overwhelmed them, and suborned some of them. But the “ideals” will win in the end.

Unlike Orlando Figes, Robert Service notices Lenin stating in 1920: “We’ve always emphasised that a thing such a socialist revolution in a single country can’t be completed”. “Lenin’s zeal for spreading the October Revolution was undiminished… The prospects for an isolated Russia were pathetic”. Service also knows – from his own unsympathetic but far from worthless book, The Bolshevik Party In Revolution, 1917-1923 – that “the Bolshevik party was not [a] well-oiled machine of command… Organisationally the party was as anarchic as any other contemporary political party. It was also equally subject to the vagaries of the post and telegraph services…”

He gives, for example, a much more plausible account of Lenin in the July days of 1917 than does Figes. Service: “Out on to the balcony he went, and told the crowd to stay calm. He asserted that the anti-governmental demonstration should above all be peaceful. This did not go down well… But his judgement held sway “Figes: “When [Lenin] was finally persuaded to make an appearance on the balcony, [he] gave an ambiguous speech, lasting no more than a few seconds… He did not even make it clear if he wanted the crowd to continue the demonstration… Perhaps Lenin lost his nerve…”

Service rejects Figes’s ludicrous claim that when Lenin was expelled from Kazan University in 1887 because of a small student demonstration, “this effectively ended Lenin’s chance of making a successful career for himself within the existing social order, and it is reasonable to suppose that much of his hatred for that order stemmed for this experience of rejection”. (Actually, Lenin secured permission to complete his legal studies as an external student, qualified, and practised law, before he became an active revolutionary. But, in any case, the idea that someone devotes their whole life to overthrowing the state just because of a student mishap…) Service gives an account of What Is To Be Done? which, though flimsy and uncomprehending, at least steers away from the myth that the pamphlet is a blueprint for authoritarian rule.

Service’s Lenin is, in short, less of a caricature demon than Figes’s. In some respects his book gives genuine information. We learn, for example, that Lenin’s health was collapsing as early as early 1920 – “the headaches, the insomnia and the heart attacks continued to give him trouble”.

“By mid-1921… his health, which had never been wonderful, was in drastic decline. He could no longer put in a full day’s work. The chronic headaches and insomnia had got worse, and he had suffered a series of ‘small’ heart attacks… he was seriously ill”.

We should analyse the Bolsheviks’ deeds and misdeeds in 1921, even if anti-Bolsheviks often do that with immense sneering at the Bolsheviks’ supposed incomprehension of the democratic principle that the critics can champion so well from their armchairs. We should also bear in mind that theirs was a government not only beset by economic collapse, famine, and mass peasant rebellion, but also run by people exhausted and with their nerves mangled by three years of strain such as we cannot imagine. It was not just that Lenin was desperately ill long before his stroke in May 1922. Trotsky was much diminished in vitality, and invalid much of the time, from the end of the civil war to about 1926. Other leading Bolsheviks must have felt the same strain.

But Service never looks at the Bolsheviks’ actions in the civil war and 1921 as those of revolutionaries desperately trying to maintain their revolutionary bridgehead until the workers in the West can make their own revolutions. Of revolutionaries concerned that if they slacken, weaken, and fall, then the result will be not only the massacre of themselves and vast numbers of class-conscious workers in the former Tsarist Empire, but the collapse and disintegration of the revolutionary possibilities brewing in the West. His method is to work backwards from every ill-tempered and exasperated comment made by Lenin in times of extremity, and the shortage of recorded comments by Lenin that he regretted the brutalities of the civil war (whom, one wonders, should Lenin have asked to record such comments in order to convince Service eighty years later that he “really cared”?).

From those things, Service works backwards to a general claim that “the Leninists” believed that they had “irrefutable knowledge of the world – past, present and future” and therefore could and should use any methods to impose their ideas on the population. “Lenin eliminated concern for ethics”. Service completes the chain with the old story about Lenin’s supposed welcome for the famine of 1891. Service’s case in brief, is that Lenin was a tense, imperious, highly-strung, short-tempered, selfconfident, arrogant character, and to deduce his alleged amoral, authoritarian politics directly from that.

To be sure, all accounts other than Stalinist hagiography suggest that Lenin was anything but an easy-going character. But Service seems to be brainwashed by the prevailing culture which would have us consider all political choices in function of the supposed personal qualities of prominent people. He seems unable to understand that politics have autonomy from personality. The leadership of a revolutionary party cannot be exercised effectively by anyone other than people with strong and forceful, even peremptory characters; but to condemn it on those grounds is no more than to sit on the sidelines of history wringing one’s hands. “Oh, if only history were made by gentle, easy-going people!”

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