Book review: Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution by Tony Brenton

THIS year marks the centenary of the most important event in 20 century global history: the Russian revolutions of 1917.

Book review: Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution by Tony Brenton

The February 1917 Revolution ended the rule of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia since 1613.

The fall of the Romanovs paved the way for the October Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power as democratic forces failed to stabilise Russia and society became radicalised.

The October Revolution changed the world.

In October 1917 Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks controlled one city, Petrograd (now St Petersburg), and even then only just.

By 1922 they ruled most of the former Tsarist Empire, had created the USSR and controlled one-sixth of the world’s landmass. Less than 30 years after this, the Soviet Union was a global superpower.

Tsarist Russia’s failure in World War I was the main cause of both the February and October revolutions.

Tsarism was always going to fail the test of modern warfare in World War I. The tsarist system was economically backward and unable to compete with its rivals.

Russia lost to Britain and France in the Crimean War in the 1850s, and to Japan in 1905. Failure in Crimea and the Far East led to changes in Russia that stirred revolutionary movements from the 1860s onwards, and to the 1905 revolution, which Tsarism had barely managed to survive.

The scale of tsarism’s failure in World War I was much greater than its losses in the 1850s or 1905. Military failure destroyed the Russian army, the mainstay of the tsarist system.

Popular discontent with dreadful living conditions and ethnic unrest in that empire made the collapse of tsarism and the rise of revolutionary forces unavoidable.

For the Soviets, and their sympathisers, the revolution was a necessary and inevitable outcome of historical development. It was brought to fruition by the genius of Lenin and pointed the world towards a better future. In the West, many historians have argued that while the revolution may not have created a better society in Russia it was impossible for Russia to avoid revolutionary turmoil.

Tony Brenton accepts that the collapse of tsarism was unavoidable. However, Brenton and many of his contributors argue that what followed Tsarism’s collapse was anything but inevitable.

Tsarism’s demise did not have to be followed by the collapse of the weak democracy that existed between the February and October revolutions, or by Bolshevik rule.

This assertion is based on a lot of ‘what if this had happened rather than this’ history. This kind of counterfactual history can be fun to read, but it is seldom persuasive.

Counterfactual history claims to restore a sense of contingency to history, to show what may be the result of chance. If some chance occurrence had not happened, history would be different.

We’d need counterfactual history if standard history did not recognise contingency. However, it does.

Most contemporary historians of the Russia recognise that the Bolshevik path to victory in 1917 could have been derailed several times and that they were lucky to survive the first few years of their rule.

If the contingency of historical outcomes is something that is already recognised by standard historical accounts what does counterfactual history add?

The answer is speculation. As Richard J Evans has said, counterfactual histories take one event out of the historical stream, argue that if it had not happened things would have been different, and then imagine a totally different set of outcomes.

Ironically, this can make counterfactual history more deterministic than ‘standard’ historical narratives.

For the counterfactual historian everything that actually has happened is the result not of many causes but of the one thing that they decide to change, or the one person or group that they remove or add to history.

Some of the contributors to Brenton’s volume avoid this regrettable tendency of counterfactual history.

Simon Dixon’s chapter on what might have happened if the reformist tsarist minister Pytor Stolypin had not been assassinated in 1911 sensibly concludes that his death made little difference.

Stolypin was ‘politically dead’ even before he was physically killed. A few more years of life in office for Stolypin would not have saved tsarism.

Similarly, Richard Sakwa’s discussion of whether there were more palatable alternatives to Stalinism within Bolshevism recognises that whatever emerged after Lenin was not going to be democratic. The different currents within Bolshevism were all variants of Leninism, which was inherently undemocratic.

Other contributors are much less cautious, however. Sean McMeekin, Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes argue that the October Revolution could have been avoided if Lenin had been prevented from going to Russia, if General Lev Kornilov had been allowed to suppress Lenin and the Bolsheviks before October, or if Lenin had been arrested on his way to the meeting that launched the October seizure of power.

Martin Sixsmith argues that if there had been no attempt on Lenin’s life in 1918, or if his would-be assassin Fanny Kaplan had been successful, there would have been either a much weaker Red Terror, or the Soviet regime would have collapsed altogether.

Brenton himself argues that earlier elections to the Constituent Assembly, which was supposed to replace the temporary government that came to power after the February revolution, would have headed the revolution off and given democracy a chance of surviving.

These counterfactual speculations are not convincing.

McMeekin, Pipes and Figes make the revolution all about Lenin’s presence, organisational abilities and radicalism.

Ironically, what they produce is a mirror reflection of Soviet historical hagiography that placed Lenin at the centre of the revolution as its organising ‘genius’. No Lenin, no revolution.

The revolution was about much more than Lenin, however.

The February revolution unleashed the deep divisions in Russian society and radicalised them. These divisions created ‘popular revolutions’ centred on soldiers’ and factory committees, worker’s militias and national independence movements, and unleashed class war in the countryside as peasants seized land they saw as rightfully theirs.

These ‘popular revolutions’ destroyed the Russian state and any possibility of a non-violent compromise ending the turmoil that wracked Russia. It is hard to see how the Constituent Assembly could have controlled them whenever it was elected.

The popular revolutions undermined the social and economic order that the Constituent Assembly was supposed to represent. They destroyed it violently and this violence overlapped with, and fuelled the Bolshevik ‘Red’ and the anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ terrors, as much as any assassination attempt on Lenin.

The Bolsheviks worked with and co-opted popular revolutions, and also repressed them, to seize power.

As they did this they rebuilt the state and began to face up to the tasks of transforming the economy.

Why the Bolsheviks managed to do this rather than some other political force is what non-counterfactual historians explain.

This has always involved taking into account the accidents that produced Bolshevik success as well as factors like World War I that propelled Russia towards revolution.

This means we already recognise there was nothing inevitable in what happened in Russia after February 1917.

The revolution and the building of the Soviet system proceeded erratically, with false starts, moments of progress and of regression. Explaining this is always going to more important than speculation.

We can learn from what did happen, not from what didn’t.

Neil Robinson is professor of politics, University of Limerick

Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution

Tony Brenton

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