Debating the Russian Revolution and its relevance

The Russian Revolution of 1917, one of the most momentous developments in modern history, has naturally been a flashpoint of controversy. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that it involved masses of “ordinary” laboring people doing something so extraordinary—overturning oppressive rulers, pushing aside their exploiters, and trying to create something new—a society of the free and the equal. It is to be expected that when people seek to make sense of such a story, sparks will fly.

Lars Lih and Eric Blanc are outstanding historians who have made important contributions to the study of revolutionary Russia. They have been making waves recently by calling into question a longstanding understanding of how the Russian Revolution came to be made. Their challenge has stirred some excitement in relatively small but important currents among scholars and socialist activists. Some are very much inclined, with varying degrees of seriousness and giddiness, to embrace the new interpretation. Some are unsure and are trying to sort it all out. And some absolutely reject it, with varying degrees of indignation.1

I have become a participant in the dispute, occupying a somewhat midway position while rejecting key aspects of the Lih-Blanc reinterpretation of events. Rather than simply repeating my critique of these friends, which can easily be read elsewhere, I will offer some additional thoughts that I am hopeful will help move the discussion forward.

First, however, I want to make a comment about the nature and importance of such debates, and then reflect on the question of the extent to which this particular kind of debate is relevant (or perhaps not relevant) for serious political activists of today and tomorrow. This is taken up in a discussion (and a rather subdued debate in its own right) that can be found in a recent issue of the socialist magazine Jacobin.2

The nature and importance of such debates

Sometimes such debates are jazzed up by the creative egos of scholars who want to make waves and break new ground—and this can be good in knocking down old interpretative ruts, stirring our thinking, and bringing greater clarity to our understanding of the past. Sometimes, of course, the primary purpose and mode of functioning of such a scholar may collide with actually thinking clearly about the past. A new interpretation is not always a better interpretation, although even when it’s not better it may help to enrich the older (and better) interpretation. Which means that while one should always look to engage with a new interpretation, and to reconsider an old interpretation, this should always be done with a critical mind.

Sometimes debates about historical matters resonate with what people are wrestling with today and hoping for tomorrow—and then they become a bigger deal, assuming a political significance with more punch and edge than would be the case with normal historiographical controversies. One or another interpretation can be utilized to justify (or nudge people toward) a particular course of action, a specific political approach. Nowhere has this been truer than in scholarship on, and reflections about, the Russian Revolution.

Examples of historical interpretations being utilized to advance a political agenda have, in the case of the October Revolution, been there from the very beginning. Conflicting narratives of global liberation and of a barbaric assault on civilization can be found in the immediate aftermath of 1917. The later phenomena of Stalinism and Cold War anticommunism, however, combined to project the mass revolutionary upsurge of workers and peasants through the grotesquely distorting lens of authoritarian elitism, a convergence making it almost impossible to understand what actually happened in revolutionary Russia.

Sometimes it has, on the other hand, proved possible—regardless of one’s distinctive political orientation—to provide informative and valuable accounts that find genuine appreciation across the political spectrum. John Reed’s magnificent eyewitness reportage Ten Days That Shook the World, published in 1919, is almost universally acknowledged as an outstanding starting point in providing an understanding of what happened. Reed described a dynamic interaction of dedicated revolutionary activists with a mass upsurge of exploited workers and oppressed peasants:

Not by compromise with the propertied classes, or with the other political leaders; not by conciliating the old Government mechanism, did the Bolsheviki conquer the power. Nor by the organized violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection, it must have failed. The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterward, in the smoke of the falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new.3

Reed’s classic can still elicit, almost a century later, a remarkably appreciative evaluation from neoconservative luminary Condoleezza Rice: “Ten Days That Shook the World captures the excitement of that moment.” Noting that Reed “made no secret of his Bolshevik sympathies,” she concluded that “he nevertheless provided a riveting and vivid—if not impartial—account of the most pivotal phase of the revolution, as viewed from the ground.”4

Similar comments can be made regarding the work of journalists and eyewitnesses who conscientiously sought to get the story right even though they themselves entered on a trajectory that would push in a conservative direction far removed from the enthusiasms of the Bolshevik revolution. This is the case, for example, of Isaac Don Levine, William Henry Chamberlin, and Max Eastman—none of whom were inclined to retract or denigrate informative and valuable accounts they had offered of Russia’s early revolutionary experience.5

Isaac Deutscher’s praise for Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as “a lasting literary-historical monument to 1917” has been matched by the praise of Carl Marzani, an intellectual-activist who, despite years of immersion in a Stalinist milieu, praised it as an outstanding “sample of Marxist writing and methodology.” More recently, Ian Thatcher—a decidedly non-Trotskyist scholar—has concurred: “Trotsky’s summary of the factors he had highlighted to account for 1917 still forms the research agenda.” He adds that “measured against The History of the Russian Revolution most ‘modern’ research does not seem so modern after all. . . . It is essential reading.”6

Yet another example can be found in E. H. Carr’s fourteen volume History of Soviet Russia. While Deutscher saw Carr’s absence of Marxist sensibilities as yielding a flawed, top-down, above-the-battle approach to the realities of revolutionary Russia, he saw Carr’s work as “a great and enduring landmark in historical writing devoted to the Bolshevik revolution.”7

Often, if one’s distinctive political orientation bends toward revolutionary Marxism, the way one understands October 1917 naturally influences notions of “what is to be done” in the present and the future. But this can go both ways. One’s inclinations around specific strategies, tactics, and organizing projects in the here and now can shape the way one interprets various aspects of the history of the Russian Revolution. Sometimes this can contribute to fruitful insights into what happened in history. Sometimes it can also contribute to serious distortions. Sometimes—as in the case (in somewhat different ways) of Lih and Blanc—we can, in my opinion, find both.

The importance of October 1917 for activists of today and tomorrow

Given the relatively small numbers involved in this debate, especially around what seems like the long-ago historical minutia under discussion, some may regard this as a tempest in a teapot.

Indeed, in the Fall 2017 issue of Jacobin, Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani admonish: “It’s 2017. Time to stop worrying about the questions of 1917.” They seem particularly incensed over what they perceive as loutish attacks on the reformist variant of socialism by latter-day adherents of the Bolshevik revolution, writing that “the sharpest way to pillory a lefty is to call her a reformist.” They elaborate:

Whether or not twentieth-century communism was fated to fail, we now live in a new era. The question of socialism in the twentieth century was unavoidably the Russian Revolution. Today, it is a question which interests professional historians and the far left. The world’s working classes have moved on. And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters—it makes you stink.8

It is not clear what is actually meant by saying “the world’s working classes have moved on.” Does the working class of 1917 still exist? Have a majority of workers in our world of 2017 actually pondered (or even developed an awareness of) the “questions of 1917” and concluded that they are now passé? Surely, reality is more complex than this. For that matter, does a comparison of revolutionary socialists with vampire hunters make sense, except as a set-up for the churlish conclusion that such people stink? Neither the clarity of our thinking nor the quality of our debate is enhanced by this method.

Without the insults, a similar notion seems to be echoed in the comment by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara that although the Bolsheviks themselves can be forgiven for being unsuccessful in their efforts to change the world, “what is less forgivable is that a model built from errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, came to dominate a left living in an unrecognizable world.” An obsession with “the lessons of October” has become an impediment, he suggests, to moving forward and being effective in our own time.9

Yet many around Jacobin—along with many radicalizing activists (not to mention long-radical activists)—are still wrestling with the question of the relevance of 1917. Sunkara himself, in his lengthy and thoughtful effort to assess the triumph and tragedy of the Russian Revolution, makes exactly the right point:

For a century, socialists have looked back at the October Revolution—sometimes with rose-tinctured glasses, sometimes to play at simplistic counterfactuals. But sometimes with good reason. Exploitation and inequality were still alive and well amid plenty. Even knowing how their story ended, we can learn from those who dared to fight for something better.10

In a challenging insert in the same issue of Jacobin, Vivek Chibber highlights the fact that “it’s easy to come to the conclusion, as most progressives do today, that the next left has to reject the Leninist party model. The problem with that view is that no other model has come anywhere as close to being politically effective.” It is worth being attentive to how he explains this: “All the putative alternatives coming out of the Left since the 1960s—the multi-tendency organizations, the horizontalists, the anarchists and their affinity groups, the movement of movements, etc. have been able to mobilize for a time, but they have had little success in sustaining real material gains.” Chibber goes on to explain that “it’s hard to imagine a way for the Left to organize itself as a real force without some variant of the structure the early socialists hit upon—a mass cadre-based party with a centralized leadership and internal coherence.”11

This brings to mind what Jean-Paul Sartre once said of Marxism, that we have not gone beyond the circumstances that engendered it: in our case, a globalizing capitalism animated by a voraciously creative/destructive dynamic, creating possibilities of meaningful community and freedom while generating and deepening oppression and exploitation in innumerable ways, proletarianizing (and re-proletarianizing in new ways, over and over again) laboring majorities throughout the world. This combined with the essential dynamics of how social struggles and social movements actually work.12

In contrast to more recent and truly inspiring efforts that seemed to promise liberating breakthroughs (the anti-apartheid revolution in South Africa, the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico, the “pink tide” in Latin America, Syriza in Greece, the Brazilian Workers Party, etc.), what Rosa Luxemburg emphasized a hundred years ago remains true: “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world,” placing on the agenda “the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism,” advancing “mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world.”13

There is no question that we must approach what happened in 1917 with critical minds. We have seen too many sterile efforts at romanticizing and mechanistically applying the “lessons of October.” It is essential to absorb the lessons in a manner relevant to the quite different contexts of our own times (in the manner of Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci). Foremost among these differences is the decisive missing piece: an international working-class movement animated with a socialist consciousness. Our task in each of our countries is to help forge such a reality once again. We are nowhere near a historical equivalent of Russia’s October Revolution, and our “October” will most likely occur in a different month and in a different manner, within dramatically different circumstances.

If we actually hope to be effective in the struggles of our own time, it makes little sense to insist that we ignore pre-2017 realities. Ignorance of the past is not a useful tool for understanding our own world or for changing it. What C. Wright Mills said of Marx is worth keeping in mind: “To study his work today and then come back to our own concerns is to increase our chances of confronting them with useful ideas and solutions.”14 The same is true regarding the work of the Bolsheviks.

Returning to the debate at hand

The disputants in the debate around the Lih-Blanc interpretation seem to share considerable common ground. All agree that the Russian revolutions of 1917 involved an upsurge of Russia’s workers and peasants, coordinated by their own democratic councils (soviets). The insurgents swept away the absolute monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II in February/March, and in October/November swept away the Provisional Government of liberal, conservative, and moderate-socialist politicians. The intention of the October Revolution, it is agreed, was to make the soviets of workers and peasants the government of revolutionary Russia. What’s more, those engaged in the debate agree that the Bolsheviks led by Lenin were a decisive element in this second revolutionary overturn.

It has long been asserted that the Bolshevik leaders on the ground in Russia, including Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, were overly inclined to adapt to more moderate elements in the socialist camp from February through April. Adhering to earlier Bolshevik conceptualizations, they saw Russia’s revolution as “bourgeois-democratic” rather than proletarian-socialist. Lenin’s April arrival from exile generated an internal dispute culminating in a party-wide acceptance of Lenin’s new belief that a socialist revolution was indeed on the agenda. After being “rearmed” with this perspective, the Bolsheviks moved forward to win the insurgent masses to giving “All Power to the Soviets.” Or so the story has been told for many years.

Lih and Blanc, although there are some significant differences between the two, unite in insisting that what actually happened was quite different. They argue that the earlier Bolshevik orientation—regarding Russia’s revolution being bourgeois-democratic, not socialist—remained the perspective guiding the Bolsheviks throughout 1917. It was perfectly adequate for making the October Revolution. Almost no one—not even Lenin, according to Lih—really conceived of it as a socialist revolution in 1917. To the extent that Lenin was inclined to “rearm the party,” he was wrong (which, given that he was a human being, was sometimes the case) and unsuccessful. The conception of the October Revolution as socialist actually developed during the post-1917 period of civil war and “war communism,” and it was used to characterize 1917 only after the fact. The whole notion that Lenin had to rearm the Bolshevik party, according to Blanc and Lih, is a myth that was developed by Trotsky, who was also, as a human being, sometimes wrong. He advanced the notion for polemical purposes in his 1924 dispute with Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, and Joseph Stalin—though it was later taken up by Stalin, once they had broken with him, to discredit Kamenev and Zinoviev. (Zinoviev figures in because later in 1917 he joined with Kamenev to oppose plans to initiate the October Revolution.)

A subsidiary point that has popped up in the ensuing discussion is that it is actually un-Marxist to insist, as Trotsky did in his “Lenin rearms the party” narrative, that a single individual, even Lenin, could make a decisive difference in whether or not the October Revolution would actually occur. Even without Lenin, according to this argument, the Bolsheviks would certainly have carried out their 1917 revolution.

My recent contribution to this debate15 offered several elements for consideration:

  • I offered a close textual analysis of what Lenin was saying in 1905 and what he was saying in 1916-17, demonstrating—despite a certain essential continuity (particularly in regard to working-class hegemony and the necessity of a worker peasant alliance)—a shift in his thinking about the nature of the Russian Revolution.
  • I also offered a critique of the Lih-Blanc tendency toward an across-the-board dismissal of the recollections of witnesses and participants.
  • I then provided a politically diverse array of eyewitnesses and participants whose accounts corroborate the account of Lenin debating with some of his comrades (including prominent figures in the Bolshevik party) and winning a majority to his view—what has been referred to as Lenin rearming the party—which culminated in the October Revolution.
  • I also made a distinction, which existed in the analyses of Lenin and his cothinkers, between making a socialist revolution in Russia and the possibility of actually establishing socialism in post-1917 Russia. In doing this, I approvingly cited a comment from Eric Blanc: “October can be justifiably described as a socialist revolution in so far as it established a proletarian-led state power that asserted workers’ control over the economy and that actively promoted the international overthrow of capitalism.” This happens to dovetail with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution: (1) a consistent struggle for democratic revolution in Russia would result in political power going to the working class and its peasant allies, (2) leading to a transitional period (including multiple democratic and social reforms within the framework of workers’ power and a mixed economy), (3) which could culminate in socialism only through the spread of socialist revolutions in an increasing number of countries, creating the possibility for a global economic shift from capitalism to socialism. (A detailed exploration of this is a focal point of my recent study October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917–1924.)16

In what follows I want to offer several additional considerations, having to do with what the insurgent workers in 1917 Russia thought they were doing in making the October Revolution, the question of the role of the individual in history, and—linked to that—a way of understanding the question of Lenin and the revolutionary party. On this last question, it seems to me, both Lih and Blanc have made particularly helpful contributions in the course of this debate.

The socialist revolution of 1917

Last November there was an email discussion involving several of us who—representing different perspectives—have been engaged with this debate. One participant admonished that an unnamed someone (perhaps he was thinking of me) might envision that “the workers marched to the barricades shouting ‘we want a socialist revolution.’” The accuser followed this up with the comment: “I can point to David Mandel’s work, among others, to affirm that they didn’t.”17 

David Mandel is a mutual friend whose two volumes—The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime and The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power—long out of print, will soon be republished by the Brill Historical Materialism series. It is among the outstanding works of social history on the Petrograd working class in 1917, and the challenge naturally sent me scurrying to Mandel’s second volume. I discovered that accuser’s point was not backed up. Needless to say, there is nothing recorded in Mandel regarding shouts from the workers that “we want a democratic revolution, not a socialist revolution.” Nor was the accuser implying that there would be. Nonetheless, a meander through the pages of The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power yields something more complex than what the accuser contended. Here are some of my findings.

  • A general assembly of factory workers proclaims: “We see perfectly well that the capitalist factory owners, having grown insolent, are trying to tear from the workers whatever they can at every opportunity. . . . We are not frightened by the coming battle that is drawing near and we firmly believe that we will emerge from it victorious. Long live power in the hands of the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies!”18
  • Another workers’ meeting proclaims: “We . . . declare that the government . . . is a government of bourgeois-landowner dictatorship and civil war and is conducting a policy of betrayal and deception of the people. . . . We declare that all to the last man will fight for the power of the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants deputies, for only in this lie peace, land and freedom.”19
  • At another workers’ meeting a delegate favoring the insurrection argues: “We can no longer say that we are in some sort of indefinite period. Our task: to find a line along which we can go with unfurled banners. . . . We are holding a course towards a socialist revolution.”20
  • There is a quotation from the memoir of a Putilov worker: “During the reading of the declaration [at his workplace], I knew that to show our resolve to struggle for a communist society, we, the armed workers, would do anything. We were high spirited then and madly bold.”21
  • An assembly of printers, in a resolution denouncing their moderate leadership, proclaims: “At a moment when the people are destroying the rotten roots of the capitalist system and giving power to the true representatives . . . if in the future our aid is required by the Revolutionary Committee, we are always ready to give it.”22

Such quotes suggest to me what I already believed—that it is not fruitful to counterpose the struggles for genuine democracy and for socialism, and that they were seen (by many of Russia’s militant class-conscious workers in 1917) as more or less adding up to the same thing.

This seems consistent with what has been reported on what happened next. Left-wing journalist Albert Rhys Williams, present at the second session of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the day after the overthrow of the Provisional Government, reports that Lenin said to the assembled delegates: “Comrades, we shall now take up the formation of a socialist state.”23 His friend John Reed, also present, reported a slightly different wording: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The reaction of the delegates was neither shock nor confusion, but rather an “overwhelming human roar” of approval. Several days later, speaking in the name of the new Soviet regime, Lenin emphasized:

Comrades, workers, soldiers, peasants and all working people! Take all power into the hands of your Soviets. Be watchful and guard like the apple of your eye your land, grain, factories, equipment, products, transport—all that from now onwards will be entirely your property, public property. Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism—a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the most civilized countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation.24

I want to repeat here what I emphasized earlier in this article. Lenin, Trotsky, and other prominent Bolsheviks were explicit in their insistence that the immediate establishment of a socialist economy was not possible in the newly established Soviet Republic. This is a point which I also emphasized in my earlier contribution to the debate: A workers and peasants alliance would bring about soviet power, in which working-class political power would, in ongoing partnership with the peasantry, predominate; this would open up a transitional period in which democratic and socialist policies would push against the capitalist framework of what would necessarily be a form of mixed economy; the socialist resolution to this contradictory reality would become possible only with the anticipated expansion of socialist revolution throughout the world, especially in the industrially advanced nations.

In this sense, indeed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks as a whole, and masses of insurgent workers in October, very definitely viewed what they were doing as making a socialist revolution in 1917. 

The individual in history: Lenin and the revolutionary party

There are different ways of understanding and applying what we refer to as Marxism. It can be vulgar or sophisticated, mechanistic or dialectical, deterministic or open. This has come into play regarding the question of the role of the individual in history. This has been an issue in which a number of greater and lesser figures associated with the Marxist tradition have offered differing opinions: George Plekhanov, Leon Trotsky, Sidney Hook, Isaac Deutscher, George Novack, among others.25

The question we are focusing on here involves whether even without Lenin (and his allegedly decisive action of “rearming the party”) would the Bolsheviks have carried out the October revolution. And this involves the question of the role of the individual in history.

We can begin our discussion with Novack’s workman-like summaries before turning to the specifics of Lenin and the revolutionary party. Novack’s book Polemics in Marxist Philosophy notes the traditional Marxist understanding that “even the most intelligent individuals with the most correct ideas and strategies are necessarily subordinated to the historical tides of their time and to the prevailing relations of class forces.” In Understanding History he offers the same idea with different terminology, referring to “the reciprocal action between objective and subjective factors in the historical process.” He notes that “historical materialism unequivocally gives primacy . . . to such objective factors as the level of productive forces and the state of class relations in the making of history.”26 Restricting ourselves simply to these Marxist generalizations, we could say that Lenin (with his “rearming” obsession) could hardly have been a decisive factor in making the October revolution. In fact, a question can be raised (consistent, for example, with some anarchist analyses) as to whether the Bolshevik party—a subjective factor compared to the weighty objective factors of economics and struggles of social classes—could be a decisive factor in the making of the October revolution.

We should note, however, that Novack does not restrict himself to the generalizations about the primacy of objective factors. Specifically, he asserts: “But there is more to the matter than this.”27 Serious historians of the Russian Revolution (which most definitely includes Lih and Blanc) would be very much inclined to agree that, for example, without the Bolshevik party there would not have been an October revolution. And in the alphabet of revolution, whoever says “A” (if they are consistent and serious) must also say “B.” As serious historians of the Russian Revolution would agree, and as I document in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Lenin was a decisive factor in the Bolshevik party. But this must be understood in a certain way if one is not to garble the historical realities. And here Lih and Blanc, despite what strikes me as the dubious trail they have been blazing, make important contributions to our understanding of what actually happened.

Both of these comrades have performed an invaluable service to scholars as well as activists in giving a clear and vibrant sense of the Bolshevik party not as a collection of yes-men and yes-women following the Great Leader Lenin, but rather as a democratic collective of revolutionaries with varying strengths and weaknesses. There are significant mistakes we can find, along with unfortunate limitations and weaknesses, as we focus on each and every Bolshevik. This includes Lenin and Trotsky—who despite their brilliance and profound strengths, were no less human than their comrades and therefore were not capable of getting everything right all the time. Sometimes those with whom they disagreed were in the right. Genuine revolutions cannot be made, and genuine socialism cannot be achieved, by masses of people following Condescending Saviors.

One of Lenin’s great strengths was to recognize this reality, which is why he was committed to the development of the kind of revolutionary party that he helped to build. Both Lih and Blanc get this too, and they are therefore quite prepared to see (and to look for) moments when Lenin may have gotten something wrong, as against the comrades he was disagreeing with. Lih has given serious and respectful attention to two of Lenin’s comrades who are all too often dismissed by many—Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev. Blanc understands that the Russian working class and rank-and-file comrades associated with Lenin and with the October revolution were not simply following orders or hanging on to all that Lenin said and wrote. Nor was everything he said and wrote clearly understood. Blanc advances the conceptualization of a “ballpark Bolshevism” that gives a more realistic sense of what was happening in 1917.28

Related to this is their insistence on continuity between Bolshevik perspectives of 1905 and 1917. Lenin and his comrades, as a democratic-revolutionary collective, developed a very particular Marxist understanding of the revolutionary struggle that was not shared by other organized currents on the Russian socialist movement—involving proletarian hegemony and a worker-peasant alliance as essential in making a democratic revolution to overthrow tsarism. Lih and Blanc correctly argue that this remained central to Lenin and all of his Bolshevik comrades throughout 1917—a common ground and continuity that in my opinion enabled a majority of his comrades to respond positively to what Lenin was arguing in April.

All of this dovetails with my own understanding of the revolutionary party that Lenin helped to build and lead, which I have attempted to convey in my own work over the years. In elaborating on this and connecting it to the issues at hand, I want to take what might seem to some an odd personal detour.

My understanding of Lenin and his party was not simply a product of my own engagement with the historical source material cited in the bibliography of Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.29 It was also very much a product of my own immersive experience in the Trotskyist movement, specifically in the Socialist Workers Party of the United States (SWP), and in particular the mentorship of George Breitman, as well as Frank Lovell and other veteran cadres of American Trotskyism. The book was written at Breitman’s urging, beginning in the early-to-mid 1980s, during a struggle against the destruction of the SWP by a leadership clique that was advancing what proved to be a disastrous trajectory.

When Breitman was able to read the full draft of the initial manuscript, he referred to it as “exceptionally good” and as generating not only “admiration and enthusiasm” but also a “euphoric feeling”—except for my failure to deal adequately with post-1917 developments (something I have sought to address in more recent writings). But Breitman himself, and his ongoing example and work as well as his feedback on the manuscript, had been a decisive influence on my own understanding of what I was writing about—it could be said that in a sense he was responding to a very positive reflection of his own variant of Leninism.30

Of course, Breitman wasn’t alone—he was part of, and shaped by, a revolutionary collectivity (in its composition diverse in more than one way) that had over the years included a number of remarkable individuals.  These had included not only James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, but also the working-class militants who had led such struggles as those of the Minneapolis Teamsters, as well as such diverse figures as Ernest Rice McKinney and C. L. R. James, Antoinette Konikow, Joseph Hansen, Raya Dunayevskaya, Harry Braverman, and more.31

What may seem like a personal tangent connects with the central issue of the individual’s role in history, and Lenin’s role in the October revolution, in more than one way. To highlight this, I want to refer to a contemporary who was also profoundly influenced by the US Trotskyist tradition. John Riddell’s motivation in providing the richness of the revolutionary past to new generations of activists has borne fruit with the remarkable multivolume documentary work related to the first four congresses of the Communist International.32 Riddell and I do not agree on all matters, and may have a different take on aspects of the specific debate referenced in this article. But in recent correspondence, he offered ideas relevant to the issues at hand. “A lot has been written over the last century to stress the gulf between Lenin and the rest of his party,” he commented. “This seems to me to miss the fact that the entire purpose of Lenin’s work was to build the party as a collectivity.” In Riddell’s opinion, “we can best understand Lenin by studying his interaction with his movement and especially his leadership layer.”33

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Bolshevik party or its equivalent would have been built if Lenin had not existed. But for Lenin, as Riddell insisted in his communication to me, “the function of a central political figure in a revolutionary party” means working “not as a ‘leader’ but as the organizer of a leadership team.” Referring to his own political biography, he added: “This idea had quite an impact on me, because it was absent from the movement in Canada when I joined it. But I could see how it flowed through the history of the SWP, finding expression in Dobbs’s Teamster books, Cannon’s writings on the 1920s and 1930s, and beyond. I believe this was transmitted to the SWP’s founders from Trotsky and even earlier from Lenin himself.” Riddell then uses this to contextualize a way of understanding the debated issues:

I believe Lenin’s story can be interpreted in these terms. The great debates of April and October 1917 were a process of consensus building in which everyone, including Lenin, modified their views. Their outcome revealed the importance of Lenin’s organizing work in the leadership and the price that was played when he was forcibly absent from the stage. And the impact of his premature death recalls a statement by Cannon, I think, that when a central leader is abruptly torn out of a party, it leaves a wound that will not heal.34

I am in basic agreement with how Riddell characterizes what was happening in the debates and the process among the Bolsheviks from April through October. It is an understanding that comes through the prism of what he and I absorbed while among the amazing intergenerational cohort of American Trotskyists in that precious moment of time that is now passed.


Conclusions to be drawn here are related to but go beyond the debate on historical questions, having to do with the practicalities of what is to be done by activists today and tomorrow.

First, we must be guided by an understanding of what exists and what does not exist as we attempt to understand what is possible for revolutionaries to do. The wisdom of historical materialism tells us that we are bound by “objective factors as the level of productive forces and the state of class relations.” We do not live in the Russia of 1905 or 1917. Our own “level of productive forces and state of class relations” are, in more ways than one, qualitatively different than those faced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. To pretend otherwise—as all the contributors to Jacobin would rightly insist, regardless of differences among them—is grounds for receiving one of the worst sentences that can be imposed upon a revolutionary: not to be taken seriously.

Second, as has been suggested by an accumulating amount of evidence in our own time, it is not the case that the “level of productive forces and state of class relations” are in all ways qualitatively different from those faced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

  • Despite amazing changes in technology and culture, capitalism continues to exist and continues to exact an incredibly damaging and destructive toll on our lives and on our planet, nor has there been an actual discrediting of the notion that humanity would be better served by the rational utilization of our economy based on social ownership and democratic control.
  • Despite multiple and seemingly chaotic political shifts and fluctuations, nonsocialist alternatives have seemed incapable of providing solutions to the crises of our time—whether they be anarchist, or any variety of religious fundamentalism, or populism of the left or of the right, or procapitalist libertarianism, or procapitalist social-liberalism (replete with worthy and unworthy nongovernmental organizations).
  • Despite the disastrous collapse of the once-powerful organized labor movement throughout most of the world, and despite its increasingly evident occupational and cultural diversity, with contradictory impacts on its class-consciousness, the working class of the world is larger than it has ever been, and continues to have the potential power (and the potentially realizable self-interest) to bring about fundamental change in this state of affairs.
  • Despite the powerful and good-faith efforts of many activists and movements on more than one continent over more than a century, it has not proved to be the case that the social-democratic reformism of Eduard Bernstein is more on-target than the revolutionary socialist orientation of Rosa Luxemburg. (While it can be argued, as well, that good-faith efforts on the part of revolutionary socialists have failed to bring lasting victories, there have been a number of works—composed within the political-theoretical framework of revolutionary socialism—offering instructive explanations of why this is so, suggesting guidelines for continued struggle.)35

Third, if it is the case that revolutionary Marxism continues to be a useful tool for understanding and changing the world, and that some variant of revolutionary socialism continues to offer hope for the future, we are faced with the question of how to be effective in advancing such an agenda. People will need to work together to figure such things out, to test their answers through practical activity, and to struggle—and help others to join the struggle—for a better world. This poses the question of organization, and as Vivek Chibber has noted, “It’s hard to imagine a way for the Left to organize itself as a real force without some variant of the structure the early socialists hit upon—a mass cadre-based party with a centralized leadership and internal coherence.” Which suggests it may be useful, after all, to give attention to what might be learned from revolutionaries of the past.

  1. John Riddell, “The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate,” Marxist Essays and Commentary (blog), October 12, 2017,
  2. See Bhaskar Sunkara, ed. “The Red Century.” Special issue, Jacobin 27 (Fall 2017).
  3. John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (New York: International Publishers, 1926), 292.
  4. Condoleezza Rice, “Condoleezza Rice on the 10 Days Still Shaking the World,” New York Times Book Review, October 17, 2017,
  5. On Levine, see: Isaac Don Levine, The Russian Revolution (New York: Harper and Brothers,1917); Isaac Don Levine, The Man Lenin (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1924); Isaac Don Levine, Eyewitness to History: Memoirs and Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent for Half a Century (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1973); also see Eugene H. Methvin, “Isaac Don Levine: Herald of a Free Russia,” Modern Age (Spring 1995): 241–249. On Chamberlin, see: William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987); William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia, A Living Record and a History (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1930); The Confessions of an Individualist (New York: Macmillan Co., 1940); also see David C. Engerman, “Modernization from the Other Shore: American Observers and the Cost of Soviet Economic Development,” American Historical Review 105, no. 2 (April 2000): 383–416. On Eastman, see: Max Eastman, Love and Revolution, My Journey Through an Epoch (New York: Random House, 1964).
  6. Isaac Deutscher, “Mr. E. H. Carr as Historian of the Bolshevik Regime,” Russia in Transition (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 203; Carl Marzani, The Education of a Reluctant Radical, Book 2: Growing Up American (New York: Topical Books, 1993), 198; Ian D. Thatcher, Trotsky (London: Routledge, 2003), 187.
  7. Deutscher, Russia in Transition, 219.
  8. Adaner Usmani, “The New Communists,” Jacobin, Fall 2017.
  9. Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Few Who Won,” Jacobin, Fall 2017, 32.
  10. Sunkara, “The Few Who Won.”
  11. Vivek Chibber, “The Twentieth Century Left Socialists Plenty of Lessons. Will We Heed Them?” Insert in Jacobin, Fall 2017.
  12. Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 30.
  13. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution.”
  14. C. Wright Mills, The Marxists (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1962).
  15. Paul Le Blanc, “Re-Arming the Party: Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolution of 1917,” Marxist Essays and Commentary, (blog by John Riddell), October 21, 2017,
  16. Eric Blanc, “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?” Marxist Essays and Commentary, (blog by John Riddell), October 13, 2017, Paul Le Blanc, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917–1924 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
  17. “Musings on the Character of the Revolution,” email in possession of author, October 30, 2017.
  18. David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 286.
  19. Mandel, 291.
  20. Mandel, 302.
  21. Mandel, 306.
  22. Mandel, 319.
  23. Albert Rhys Williams, Journey Into Revolution, Petrograd, 1917–1918 (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969), 125.
  24. Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, 126, 364.
  25. George Plekhanov, The Role of the Individual in History (New York: International Publishers, 19); Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 238-239; Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (New York: John Day Co., 1933), 164–172; Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky: 1929-1940 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 240–251; George Novack, “From Lenin to Castro, The Role of the Individual in History Making,” Understanding History: Marxist Essays (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 71–81. See also John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (London: Routledge, 1998), 279–283.
  26. George Novack, “Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism,” Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York: Monad Press, 1978), 281; Novack, Understanding History, 72.
  27. Novack, Understanding History, 72. The interplay between “subjective” and “objective” factors (and the notion that the one can sometimes transform into the other) is usefully highlighted in Georg Lukács, A Defense of “History and Class Consciousness”: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2000).
  28. Lih’s work on Kamenev and Zinoviev is highlighted in Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 189–190. Blanc’s “ballpark Bolshevism” conceptualization can be found in Blanc, “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”
  29. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).
  30. George Breitman, letters dated February 21, 1986 and February 27, 1986, in author’s possession. Also see Anthony Marcus, ed., Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution: The Writings of George Breitman (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005). My efforts to address Breitman’s concerns regarding the post-1917 realities can be found in Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) and in October Song.
  31. See George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald, Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).
  32. Riddell has edited the following volumes: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Documents: 1907–1916, The Preparatory Years, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984); The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, Documents 1918-1919, Preparing the Founding Congress (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986); Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress March 1919 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987); Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, 2 volumes (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991); To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993); To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of Communist International, 1921 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016); and Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).
  33. John Riddell, email in author’s possession, December 1, 2017.
  34. Riddell, email.  On Trotsky’s efforts to convey to his comrades (including those in the United States) the essentials of the Leninist organizational approach, see Paul Le Blanc, Dianne Feeley, and Thomas Twiss, Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).
  35. More on this can be found in Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), and Paul Le Blanc, Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience: Explorations in Communism and Radicalism in the Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2006), as well as October Song.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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