In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus faces a perverse choice between letting six of his crew be eaten alive by a hideous monster or chancing the wreck of his boat and the loss of his entire crew in a whirlpool created by another monster. Though written thousands of years earlier, it serves as an apt allegory of the experience of the Russian Communists after the 1917 October Revolution. Steering between the White counterrevolution and famine, foreign intervention, and political schisms, the Russian Communists fought valiantly but in conditions that required constant retreat and sacrifice. The brutality of the times is usually laid at the feet of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Victor Serge’s masterful Year One of the Russian Revolution chronicles the first year of their attempt to build and stabilize the new Soviet republic and provides a sympathetic, but not sanitized, accounting.
Written between 1928 and 1930, much of it while he was still in the Soviet Union, Serge unambiguously sides with the Bolshevik Party (which changed its name to the Communist Party in 1918) in its project, and unlike apologists for the later crimes of Stalin, does not shy away from the less inspiring and harsh realities of
Bolshevik policy. Only by seeing the situation in its totality is it possible to grapple with, and understand, the policies of the Bolshevik government. It is a period utterly unlike our own but worth close study.
Serge’s book ranks with Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution for its ability to depict complex situations and provide theoretical insights into the inner workings of classes, parties, and armies in motion. Serge’s book has a longer historical sweep, including a short summary at the beginning of Russia’s revolutionary movement up to 1917, the period of the revolution itself, and the first year of Soviet power, which takes up most of the book. Drawing on hundreds of works of history, memoirs, and the press, the more than a hundred pages of footnotes alone are worth reading for the parade of colorful biographies of otherwise unknown Bolsheviks and socialists they contain.
Under the slogans “Bread, peace, and land,” and “All power to the soviets,” the Bolshevik Party led an insurrection in October 1917 overthrowing the bourgeois provisional government that had assumed power when the tsar fell the previous February. The party’s perspective was that in backward Russia, the “weak link” of international capitalism, the task of building socialism could begin but not be completed or survive without the revolution spreading to more capitalistically advanced neighboring countries, particularly Germany. Compromising or abandoning power in Russia would serve a significant blow to the advance of world revolution, so all efforts were bent toward survival of the fledgling state. The cost of surviving, however, was incredibly high. Though beautifully written and full of piercing insights, Year One’s recounting of the human toll of the post-October civil war that ravaged Russia is sobering.
Basic survival for the young Soviet state required strategic vision, self-sacrifice, and an unbending will. Serge, himself an anarchist his entire adult life before moving to Russia in 1918, depicts those characteristics as the lifeblood of the Bolshevik Party. The revolutionary party is the embodiment of seeing both the ultimate aim and the immediate action. In the economically devastated conditions of civil war Russia, the scientific detachment and discipline that allowed the Bolsheviks to navigate the changing moods of revolutionary Russian politics became something much more severe:
In a word, they must see reality, grasp possibility, and conceive the action which will be the link between the real and the possible. In doing so, the only vantage-point they can ever adopt is that of the proletariat’s own higher interests. Their whole thinking has to be that of the proletariat, with the advantage of scientific discipline. Proletarian class-consciousness attains its highest expression in the leaders of the organized vanguard of the working class. As personalities, they are great only in the measure that they incarnate the masses. In this sense only they are giants—anonymous giants. In voicing the consciousness of the mass they display a virtue which, for the proletariat, is sheer necessity: a terrible impersonality.
After taking power, the Bolsheviks faced innumerable counterrevolutionary threats. The “terrible impersonality” of the party was tested again and again, and as in 1917, the success of the party depended on an internal culture that was rife with debate. Serge pointedly includes debates in which lower ranking party members challenge Lenin’s positions openly, even placing him in the minority at key times. While readers will be largely aware of the eventual erosion and then destruction of this culture, that outcome was still largely in the party’s future.
The October revolution came in a context in which World War I had already ravaged Russia. Sabotage, foreign intervention, civil war, and blockade unfolded against this backdrop. Famine became widespread as grain production fell to less than half of prewar levels. Industrial production collapsed—for example, coal and oil fell to about one-third of prewar production, and steel fell to less than 5 percent. Industrial shortages compounded the crisis in transport, as the railways could not get the repairs or fuel necessary, adding a crisis of distribution that worsened the famine. The collapse of industrial production meant the closure of factories and a sizeable evacuation of the cities—which had devastating effects for the politics of working-class power.
If the crisis of production were the only challenge thrown down to the Bolsheviks, it would have been substantial. However, the new state was wracked by overlapping assaults and conflicts: Germany, its armies still intact, immediately threatened invasion and the Soviet government had no army, the old one having collapsed; hostile states declared independence in the Don, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, and the Volga; a legion of Czechoslovak soldiers returning home on the Trans-Siberian railway took up arms against the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918. Remnants of the tsar’s court and military, within and outside Russia, and with international backing, formed counterrevolutionary White armies to attack the new republic, at one stage of the conflict reducing Soviet-controlled territory to the old borders of the Principality of Moscow.
The class war was transformed into a military contest; but quelling the internal threats had to come before any open conflict with neighboring armies. Because the new government had torn apart the old bureaucracies and hierarchies, they were building from scratch in many instances. Stiff resistance and outright sabotage came from all quarters of the skilled layer of urban technocrats and military personnel.
The inevitability of civil war didn’t mean the new state was in any rush to engage in a major conflict. Negotiating peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk was necessary to buy time for the new republic to get organized. Controversially, Lenin pushed for immediate peace under harsh German terms. Trotsky’s “neither war nor peace” position supported delaying open war and served the Soviet Republic’s need for stability at the same time it allowed the nascent German revolution time to mature. Within the Soviet, a vocal minority of Left Communists and Left Socialist Revolutionaries maintained opposition to peace, wanting instead to wage a revolutionary war to spark revolution in Europe. Lenin argued that refusing to sign meant, given the strength of the German army and the collapse of the army in Russia, certain defeat:
If we really believed that the German revolution was likely to break out after the collapse of the negotiations, we ought to sacrifice ourselves, since the German revolution is superior to our own. But it has not even begun yet. We have to hold on until the general Socialist revolution, and we can only do this by concluding peace.
Dissent within the Communist Party did not diminish with the signing of the peace; the Left Bolsheviks led by old cadre Bukharin, Radek, and Preobrazhensky fought what they saw as a “Right deviation” on the part of Lenin and the majority of the party leadership. They continued to criticize the willingness to negotiate with imperial powers, as well as what they saw as too slow a pace of nationalization, and a creeping dominance of petty-bourgeois elements. They threatened withdrawal from the party’s Central Committee, raising the specter of a split. Lenin, while steadfast in rejecting their thesis, reminded his comrades that being elected to the Central Committee “did not mean that all its members had to have the same opinions.” It was only natural, he argued, in a country dominated by petty-bourgeois producers (which was only compounded by sharing out large landholdings to poor peasants in the revolution) that the pace of nationalization and economic transformation to socialism would be slower than in European economies. Ironically, despite maintaining a theoretical majority within the leadership of the party, Lenin’s majority was forced to enact some of the Left’s proposals, such as increased nationalization, purely from the pressure of the civil war. The result was more chaos in the economy as the inexperienced new government—already stretched beyond its capabilities—was forced to try to administer large enterprises. But Serge rightly points out that the intensity of the debate was a testament to the internal culture of the party:
Suppose the party had signed the “infamous peace” of Brest-Litovsk without reacting painfully, had accepted the suspension of the revolutionary offensive in total unanimity, without any repercussions in its membership, and in a crisis as grave as this, had been quite devoid of ideological struggles, with all that these imply in the way of restless critical thinking, passion, and the search for new solutions—would such a party have been alive and healthy, truly capable of confronting its huge responsibilities?
The conclusion of peace with Germany hardly meant a period of calm. It wasn’t even a period of peace. The reactionary forces that wished to turn back the clock of the revolution, either to restore tsarism or establish a military dictatorship, known as the Whites, scored a major victory in Finland in the late winter and early spring of 1918. Destroying the radical democracy established in January, they established the pattern all White victories would follow:
The victors massacred the vanquished. It has been known since antiquity that class wars are the most frightful. There are no more bloody or atrocious victories than those won by the propertied classes. Since the bloodbath inflicted on the Paris Commune by the French bourgeoisie, the world had seen nothing to compare in horror with what took place in Finland . . .
This fact permits us to draw an important theoretical deduction on the nature of the White terror, which has been confirmed since by the experience of Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, etc. The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, the violence of class hatred or any other psychological factor. The psychosis of civil war plays a purely secondary role. The terror is in reality the result of a calculation and a historical necessity. The victorious propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can only ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to enfeeble it for tens of years afterwards. And since the class in question is far more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims must be very great.
The casualties in Finland numbered between 10 and 20,000; while the Whites never made an exact count of casualties, they did record the number interned in concentration camps: 70,000.
The alliance at the heart of the October Revolution had been between the peasantry and the working class, expressed in the Soviet organs as a bloc between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and expressed by the Bolshevik slogans, “Bread, peace, and land.” With the basic demand of redistribution of land met—large landholdings were broken up and distributed to the poor peasants, creating millions of newly independent producers—tensions came to the fore. “Once the bourgeois revolution carried out by the rural masses had run its course,” writes Serge, “the contradiction between these aims and the aims of the Socialist revolution made itself felt with increasing cruelty. The ideologues of the petty-bourgeoisie, torn by contradictory interests and sentiments, split from the party of the proletariat, not without much inner turmoil. It is the moment chosen by influences from abroad to intensify their pressure.”
Following the peace with Germany in March, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SR)—who had split with their party and joined the Soviet government—left the executive body of the Soviet in July of 1918. Denouncing Bolshevik policy, particularly the treaty with Germany, they broke with the Bolsheviks and declared war on the government during the Fifth Soviet Congress. Using their positions within the government to leverage their attack, they initiated a brief but doomed uprising in Moscow. The central point of disagreement was upon which section of the peasantry Soviet policy should rest: the poorest peasants, or the middle peasants? Because of famine conditions, free trade in grain was banned and government requisitioning reduced all peasants to the condition of subsistence (which, it’s worth noting, while harsh, still kept their caloric intake above that of workers in the cities).
In July 1918, the peasantry, which had from July the previous year up till January and February supported the Bolsheviks as instruments for the expropriation of the landlords, had now as a whole become hostile to them. On the key question of the trade in grain, peasant interests allied the middle peasants with the kulaks. The Left S-R party, whose leading circles were made up of sincere Socialist intellectuals, had by now lost its social base. Between the intentions of its leaders and the aspirations of the class which lent it strength, the gap was widening. All that could issue now was some kind of adventure. In such situations all that remains for revolutionary idealists is to try their luck for the last time, to fall and break their necks.
Similar tensions were developing with the other Russian socialists. Believing Russia unready for socialism, the moderate socialists stood against the Soviet system in the name of “democracy.” The Menshevik Party in November declared its intention to fight the Communists who incited the workers to attempt socialism “prematurely,” in order to create a Russia where capitalism could take its natural course—this despite the grotesque reprisals against insurgents, their families, towns, and Jewish villages across Russia. (White forces were known to incite pogroms against Jews who played no role in the resistance.) In the winter of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionaries attempted to convene the Constituent Assembly (a bourgeois parliament) as a counterweight to the Soviets, and later attempted to establish mini-parliamentary states under the wing of foreign occupation. Failing to accomplish this, the SR National Council declared at their party conference in May their support for “the immediate liquidation of the Bolshevik government” and its replacement by one that “could permit, for purely strategic purposes, the entry of Allied troops onto Russian territory.”
The dominant form of political radicalism before the era of Marxism in Russia was populism with a liberal dose of terrorism. The Socialist Revolutionaries were the direct descendants of this current and very ably applied their terrorist skills against the government. The escapades of the SRs, and one leader in particular, Boris Savinkov, provide enough intrigue to fill volumes of spy thrillers. He alone was part of three anti-Bolshevik counterrevolutionary adventures, as well as having a hand in multiple assassination plots.
Both Left and Right SRs engaged in terrorism against Soviet leaders. Attempts on Lenin and Trotsky failed (although Lenin was shot in the neck), but a Left SR plot to assassinate Count Mirbach, who had negotiated for the Germans at Brest-Litovsk, succeeded. Right SRs assassinated V. Volodarsky, one of the Communist Party’s best-known street orators in Petrograd; later the SRs would murder the captain of Petrograd’s secret police, or Cheka, on the same day Lenin was shot.
It’s worth noting that the success of the Left SR attempts came in part because as members of the Soviet government for the first seven months of 1918, they held appointments to the Soviet secret police, which granted them access to secure locations, like Count Mirbach’s lodgings where they shot him. But this period was also one in which the political mood was still very lax—Lenin did not even have a bodyguard and was shot while leaving a public meeting.
The myth that the Bolsheviks came into power fully militarized, intending to rule in a single-party state falls apart reading Serge’s account of the Bolshevik’s relationship to the other socialists, and the Left SRs in particular. He also points out repeatedly their naïveté in dealing with counterrevolutionaries, preferring to arrest and release them, rather than imprison or execute them. They learned this lesson the hard way, and instituted the Red Terror in the summer of 1918 in response to the rise of coordinated, military challenges to Soviet power. Serge writes scoldingly of how in the initial weeks after taking power, the Bolsheviks let go counterrevolutionaries who took up arms against them based on assurances that they would not do it again. “Foolish clemency!,” he writes. “These very Junkers, these officers, these students, these socialists of counter-revolution, dispersed themselves throughout the length and breadth of Russia, and there organized the civil war. The revolution was to meet them again, at Yaroslavl, on the Don, at Kazan, in the Crimea, in Siberia and in every conspiracy nearer home.”
Serge recounts multiple examples of the socialists in the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties in Finland, Samara, the Ukraine, and Moscow acting either under the illusion that bourgeois democracy was actually possible at the height of a class war, or quite openly as allies of White reaction (some of whom clamored for a restoration of the monarchy).
Point for point, the experience of the Ukraine, where the democratic parties of the middle classes could do nothing except open the path for black reaction, is repeated in Siberia. Such, indeed, is the inevitable function of these parties in civil wars, since the peculiarity of the petty-bourgeoisie is to have no politics of its own. It is always situated between two dictatorships—that of the proletariat, or that of reaction; its destiny is to prepare the latter, up to a certain point, and then to submit to it.
The small, embattled working class, with the Communist Party as their standard bearers, now stood alone within a sea of hostile class forces. The weakness of the working class played a decisive role in the chaos that issued forth following the revolution. Serge makes clear that it was not the objective strength of the Russian workers that brought about the revolution, but the weakness of its bourgeoisie. Always a numerical minority, the working class’s social weight collapsed during the course of the ensuing years. Already in 1918 the cities were emptied by both the voluntary departure of the best ranks of the revolutionaries into the Red Army, as well as the desperate fleeing to the country of those escaping famine. The Communist Party, increasingly unable to give the class political coherence by distilling its best thinking and organization from within, gave the class shape largely by coercion from without. This process was stretched over years, but begins quite clearly in 1918, for no other reason than necessity.
It was June 1918 before the Red Army was at a rudimentary level of functioning. Russia had suffered large territorial losses from incursions by Czechoslovakian troops in Siberia, and claims of “independence” from imperial-backed “democrats” in the south and west. Resistance to White advance was widespread but before June ineffective, as disorganized partisan units and guerrilla bands could not resist larger, better disciplined armies backed by the Western powers. Serge’s account of the first engagement of the new army with Trotsky at its head (drawn largely from a female partisan’s memoirs) is both inspiring and gut wrenching. Welding exhausted, poorly trained forces together into a more or less disciplined force able to withstand assault at a critical juncture, the Red Army turned the tide and reclaimed the southern reaches of the Republic.
Little by little, faith in victory, against an enemy who had been enormously superior in numbers, arms and organization, began to crystallize: we could capture Kazan again! Fresh troops were arriving; a small airfield was laid down, though the aircraft at its disposal numbered only a squadron. The enemy began to realize that a force was being assembled at Sviazhsk that might soon prove formidable. The White attacks were regularly beaten back.
This anecdote also describes the first instance of the Red Army executing its own members for breaking in the face of enemy advance.
The Petrograd partisans, who had perhaps imagined that their status as volunteers from the capital would give them some indulgence, were sternly dealt with by a military tribunal: several dozen of them were sent to their deaths.
No army on active service has ever avoided measures of such rigor: war has always forced men to stand between the bullets of the enemy and the bullets of their comrades if ever through faint-heartedness they become the enemy’s allies. The collective’s instinct for self-preservation needs this iron law in order to vanquish the individual’s identical instinct. And so these actions require no comment. At the very most we are bound to emphasize once again the nature of the conditions in which the discipline of the Red Army was forged.
Serge underlines again and again the “terrible impersonality” of the Bolsheviks in power, but makes an undeniable case that this wasn’t cruelty or disregard for life: the terms were dictated by the stakes of the civil war. If anything, the Bolsheviks were overly optimistic: in the first several months of the new Republic they threw themselves into every breach, be it military, diplomatic, or technical. It is all too easy to over-romanticize the self-sacrifice and draw from this period the lesson that what is missing in today’s radical movement is a willingness to throw ourselves without reservation into the machinery of the system and disrupt it no matter what the conditions or the cost. In fact, this was the attitude of the Left Communists who rejected Brest-Litovsk:
The statement of doctrine was: No compromise! The revolution must not manoeuver, nor retreat, nor agree to compromises. The only tactic it must apply was that of maximum intransigence. Better perish than live at the cost of a compromise! This was the basic doctrine of Left Communism, and one must give it the credit of a healthy reaction against opportunist tendencies.
Serge’s account is unique for sympathizing with the left critics of Communist policy while still defending the necessity of the decisions made by the majority of the party. While most commentators saw the Left’s ideas as “petty bourgeois distortion,” Serge saw how the tendency had roots in the party’s long history of struggle:
Doubtless, too, the sentiments of wounded pride, outraged patriotism and heroic sacrifice (the “Death before Dishonor” school) are much more congenial to the mentality of the middle classes, and particularly of the intellectuals, than to the realistic, utilitarian, dialectical and deeply revolutionary spirit of the proletariat. But it is, as I see it, no longer deniable that this Left-wing tendency also represented something else: a reaction against the danger of opportunism . . . However, up till the time of Lenin, all the points at which men had opted to “manoeuver” in the name of revolution had been occasions for them to fall straight into opportunism. We must also remember another essential fact. Never before had there been a successful proletarian revolution. Some of the best revolutionaries now became inclined to continue the tradition of heroic proletarian defeats, by means of a sacrifice whose fruitfulness for the future deeply and understandably impressed them. It was, however, one of Lenin’s great merits to have insisted that this tradition must be broken with.
The drama and heroism of the Bolsheviks was less a product of personalities (though personality is a factor), and more a result of the precarious balance internationally that followed the world war. Governments fell, workers revolted, borders were redrawn. The lack of a Bolshevik-style revolutionary cadre in each country saved capitalism. In the penultimate chapter on the German Revolution, Serge describes the murder of two of the greatest heroes of that generation in a premature rising in Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who lacked neither leadership ability, nor daring, nor intellect. What they lacked were replacements: the legions of what Serge describes as “anonymous giants” that existed throughout Russia.
In Serge’s “Postface,” written in 1947, the author takes stock of the degeneration of the revolution and points to what he sees as critical errors that allowed bureaucratization to advance unnecessarily, particularly the Cheka’s lack of public trials and the imperious handling of the Kronstadt rebellion, which led to thousands of deaths. Here I believe he takes a too-linear view of the fate of Soviet society. While Serge is absolutely correct in renouncing the arrogant and suspicious reaction to the Krondstadt sailor’s demands and pointing out the brutal tragedy that resulted, very soon after the Soviet state had made a number of retreats and changes in an attempt to normalize society.
The Cheka was disbanded in 1922; its functions were transferred to the State Political Directorate, or GPU, which lacked the powers and size of its predecessor. Prisons were emptied to a low of 12,000 prisoners as the threat of military attack and sabotage diminished. The New Economic Policy established free trade in agriculture to soothe the explosive friction between the peasants and the Soviets.
Serge is right to point out the substitutionism of the party for the class and the habits of brutality that accrued during the civil war. But it is wrong to dismiss the possibility of a working-class revival—if there had been a successful revolution in Germany or elsewhere—which could have produced new leadership in concert with the ongoing opposition movements within the Communist Party after 1921.
Despite these critiques, Serge never abandons his conviction that the Bolsheviks were sincerely committed to the self-emancipation of Russia’s oppressed and exploited classes:
The Bolsheviks took power because, in the process of natural selection that took place among the revolutionary parties, they showed themselves the most adept at expressing in a coherent, far-sighted and determined manner the aspirations of the mobilized masses. They held on to power and won the civil war because, in the last analysis, and despite many hesitations and conflicts, the masses supported them from the Baltic to the Pacific. . . . Thus until the end of the civil war, in 1920–21, the Russian Revolution took on the aspect of an immense popular movement, to which the Bolsheviks provided a brain and nervous system in the form of leaders and cadres.
This is not the common-sense view of the the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. To this day history is held hostage to the lies and distortions heaped upon it by both Stalin’s justifications of his crimes, and the West’s need to demonize revolutions. As Serge’s “Postface” argues in the immediate aftermath of World War II:
It is entirely natural that the falsification of history should now be the order of the day. Among the inexact sciences, history is the one that threatens the most interests, both material and psychological. Myths, errors, tendentious interpretations swarm about the Russian Revolution, although the facts are easily available. Obviously it is simpler and more attractive to talk and write without informing oneself first.
It is imperative that the new Left incubating today not fall prey to the facile path of remaining ignorant of history’s only successful workers’ revolution. An understanding of the conditions and forces that took the revolution from the heights of human liberation to the horrors of totalitarianism is essential if we are not to become either dismissive of the revolution’s achievements or apologists for its degeneration.
Year One of the Russian Revolution is a rich chronicle of that period that moved from the direct and forcible entry of the masses into running society, to that moment, through no fault of the revolutionaries themselves, when the Communist Party began to be “hung in mid-air” (in Lenin’s words), with no working class to drive society forward. Every decision carried the fate not just of Russia’s population, but of the aspirations of workers worldwide. In turn thrilling, terrifying, and inspiring, Year One is a must-read for anyone seriously engaged in changing the world.