The Bolsheviks’ efforts to change the world remain relevant in our own time of popular disaffection with establishment politics and brutalist economics, says Geoffrey Roberts
PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation is the political heir to the upheavals of the November, 1917 Bolshevik revolution. But Putin is no revolutionary. As a former communist, he remembers with affection the idealistic creed of Soviet communism, but his socially conservative regime is not celebrating this year’s 100th anniversary of the revolution. These days, nothing causes more anxiety in the Kremlin than the prospect of a regime-changing revolution.
Putin is viewed by some commentators as a radical, seeking to overturn the western-dominated global order. But his foreign-policy ambitions are modest compared with those of his Bolshevik predecessors, who sought nothing less than to spread communism and the Soviet system worldwide. Putin is more pragmatist than ideologue, driven by the desire to secure the Russian Federation’s borders, to guarantee friendly neighbours, and to win recognition for Russia as a world-class political player.
When the Bolsheviks seized power, a century ago, Leon Trotsky — organiser of their insurrection in the Russian capital of Petrograd — denounced their political opponents and told them to “go where you belong, into the dustbin of history”.
Seventy years later, the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and set in motion the chain of events that imploded the Soviet system.
But has the Russian Revolution been consigned to the dustbin of history? The answer seemed clearer a quarter of a century ago, on the 75th anniversary of the revolution. Then, the Soviet communist system had recently collapsed and the multinational state, ruled by the Bolsheviks for more than 70 years, had disintegrated. Communism, the Soviet system, and the ideology of Marxism-Leninism were thoroughly discredited. Freedom and capitalism were on the march, not only in Russia, but throughout the world. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the global triumph of capitalist liberal democracies represented ‘the end of history’ gained widespread credibility.
Going back to the 50th anniversary of the revolution, a very different picture presented itself. In 1967, the Polish-born Marxist, Isaac Deutscher, pointed out that the Russian Revolution had lasted longer than any other modern revolution. The Bolsheviks were still in power and their socialist system persisted: “What we have before us is a huge, throbbing piece of objective historic reality, an organic growth of man’s social experience, a vast widening of the horizons of our age.” Even those who didn’t share Deutscher’s leftist politics had to admit the jury was out on whether socialism or capitalism would prove the superior system. In the 1960s, one-third of the world was under communism and it remained popular in many capitalist countries. In 1967, the USSR continued to lead the United States in the space race, although the Americans were first to land on the moon, two years later.
The situation faced by the Soviet Union on the 25th anniversary of the revolution — in the middle of the Second World War — was different again. Most of European Russia was under Nazi occupation. Leningrad was blockaded and German armies were encamped just 100 miles from the gates of the capital, Moscow, while Stalingrad was barely holding out against the besieging German armies. Millions of Soviet soldiers had lost their lives, following Hitler’s invasion in 1941.
The late-November 1942, successful Soviet counter-offensive, at Stalingrad, marked Hitler’s failure to conquer Bolshevik Russia, to destroy the communist system, and to exterminate all Soviet Jews.
So the young revolutionary power that was the Soviet Union emerged from the war victorious, its military triumph celebrated as a vindication of its socialist system and beliefs. This outcome was a personal triumph for Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, too, since his wartime leadership was admired throughout the allied world, not least by US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, and British prime minister, Winston Churchill.
In 1946, British historian, E.H. Carr, published a book called The Soviet Impact on the Western World. Carr argued that the future of the world was Soviet, in the sense that the underlying ideas of the Russian Revolution — human equality, social responsibility, popular empowerment, and participatory democracy — had become embedded across the globe.
As times change, so, too, do people’s views of the past. And, when combined, these shifts in perspective can greatly enrich our understanding of the past and help us to transcend more immediate anxieties. Views of the Russian revolution, as of 75 years ago, 50 years ago, and 25 years ago, all contribute to our present-day historical understanding of how this momentous event continues to impact on world history.
The Soviet regime collapsed because it could no longer compete economically with western capitalism. But communism had triumphs, as well as failures. In our era of growing inequality, when the world’s billionaires hold six trillion dollars of wealth, the egalitarianism of the Soviet model may have something to commend it.
From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power, questions were raised about the legitimacy of their revolution. Subsequently, much of the debate has been politically driven, often taking the form of alternative or counter-factual history.
Those who dislike the Bolsheviks imagine an alternative future for Russia: its timely evolution into a liberal democratic state. For such historians, the key issue is whether the radicalism of the Bolshevik Revolution could have been averted by moderate politicians.
Historians more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks focus not on what the communists did to Russia, but on what the rest of the world did to them. Open hostility, not least from western capitalist states, who tried to topple the regime, shaped a highly repressive, one-party state founded by an authoritarian, socialist regime.
In March, 1917 a soldiers’ mutiny and popular revolt in Petrograd precipitated the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II, thus bringing to an end the 300-year autocratic Romanov dynasty. Tsarism was replaced by a Provisional Government (PG), tasked to run the country until elections to a Constituent Assembly. Six months later, the PG was deposed by the Bolsheviks, who established a Soviet government. Elections to the Constituent Assembly were held, but the assembly — which contained an anti-Bolshevik majority — was shut down by the Bolsheviks. The latter insisted that the Soviets — councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers, in which they held a majority — would rule Russia.
Crucial to events was the devastation being caused by World War I. But was the war a a catalyst for revolution or did it delay it? Some historians argue that after the failed 1905 Revolution, in Russia, further upheavals were inevitable, but that popular radicalism was, for a time, subsumed by patriotic mobilisation, after the outbreak of war in 1914.
While renewed revolutionary turmoil in Russia was, in any event, highly likely, the Bolsheviks were the anti-war party in 1917. This stance secured them the support of rank-and-file soldiers and sailors, as well as of urban workers, and was crucial to the Bolshevik takeover.
The Bolshevik perspective, in 1917, was that World War I was leading to revolution, not only in Russia, but throughout the world, and it was this promise of world revolution that tempted the Bolsheviks to risk a seizure of power. After the Tsar’s fall, the Bolsheviks experienced a huge growth in popular support, as party membership jumped from 20,000 to 200,000. By the time they staged their coup, the Bolsheviks had won majority support in urban Russia. But Russia was overwhelmingly rural. Radicalised peasants mainly supported the Socialist Revolutionary party, which gained 38% of the vote in the Constituent Assembly elections, compared to the Bolsheviks’ 25%.
The Bolsheviks shut down the Constituent Assembly, based on their belief that they could best represent the interests of all oppressed classes, including those who had not voted for them. Bolshevik power in Russia was believed to be part of an incipient world revolution, so at stake was the future of all humanity, not only Russia, and the Bolsheviks were determined to fulfil their destiny as leaders of a global revolution.
Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik party into opposition against the Provisional Government (PG) and demanded all power to the people’s Soviets. Lenin insisted the Bolsheviks stage an insurrection against the PG, because he feared that a counter-revolutionary coup could collapse the revolutionary wave surging across Europe. There would have been a revolutionary crisis in Russia after the collapse of Tsarism, but, without Lenin, not the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Bolshevik victory in the civil war that followed the revolution changed world history. During the civil war, the Bolsheviks were besieged by counter-revolutionary forces supported by great powers, such as Britain, France, Japan, and the United States. Again, Lenin’s determined leadership made all the difference. He kept the Bolsheviks united, when their opponents remained divided, while his ruthless conduct of the civil war resulted in the first of many waves of Red Terror in Russia.
But the Bolsheviks were utopians and idealists whose radical project was to create socialism as a higher form of civilisation than capitalism. They sought to replace the market economy with collective economic control. They believed that human nature could be transformed and the selfishness and individualism engendered by capitalism replaced by altruism and fraternity. They identified themselves as internationalists. They thought their Marxist ideology was an omnipotent, all-encompassing science by which to understand history and transform the world.
However, the Bolsheviks soon discovered their utopian ideals were impracticable. After the civil war, Lenin, instead, adopted a New Economic Policy. It mixed capitalist and socialist components.
But the Bolsheviks kept returning to their utopian goals. When Stalin launched his modernisation revolution, at the end of the 1920s, the aim was not alone to industrialise and urbanise Russia, but to create new socialist men and women — dedicated communists, motivated by a higher form of human consciousness.
During Stalin’s rule, the Soviet Union was a regime of terror, violence, and mass repression. Millions of people were killed. But Stalin was an intellectual and an idealist, prepared to use violence to impose his will and achieve his utopian goals.
After Stalin’s death, in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, relaxed the repression, relaunched the Soviet project, and proclaimed that the USSR would overtake the United States economically within 20 years. There was a renewed enthusiasm for communism, including on the part of a young law student in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev. Khrushchev fell from power in 1964, but a good deal of idealism persisted even during the so- called “years of stagnation”, in the 1970s and 1980s, when Leonid Brezhnev was Soviet leader.
Gorbachev, the USSR’s last leader, was nothing if not an idealist. He wanted to revitalise the Soviet system through the empowerment, participation, and involvement of citizens in economic and political life. Such had been the ostensible ambition of all Soviet leaders. But Gorbachev was different — he was prepared to risk a loss of political control to transform Soviet society. Transform it he did, but not in the way he expected.
No other event in the 20th century changed the course of world history or had such radical ramifications as the Russian Revolution. Those historical consequences are still being played out. Consider the contemporary importance of communist China, still ruled by a political party that was a child of the Russian Revolution and whose congress, last month, reaffirmed its socialist ideology with ‘Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’.
In 1972, communist China’s first prime minister, Zhou Enlai, was famously misunderstood as saying it was too early to assess the impact of the French Revolution, when he was actually referring to the May-June, 1968 students’ protests in France, not to the 1789 storming of the Bastille. But the impact of the French Revolution, as the harbinger of universal human rights, is well-established, and the same is true of the significance of the Russian Revolution. The 1917 revolution was a far more radical break with the status quo than occurred in France. Although the Bolshevik revolution failed to live up to its emancipatory promise, its effects remain profound and enduring.
The Russian Revolution, and the social experiment it spawned, will never be repeated.
But the Bolsheviks’ efforts to change the world — their hopes, the triumphs, the tragedies — remain relevant in our own time of popular disaffection with establishment politics and brutalist economics.
Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at UCC
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