Thinking Bolsheviks

October Song:

Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917–1924

In his powerful Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge reflected with disappointment on the attitudes of his fellow communists who in the summer of 1921 came from abroad to participate in the Third Congress of the Communist International. This was a moment full of dazzling contradictions. Against all odds, the revolutionary state had managed to sustain itself in the face of the brutal onslaught of internal counterrevolution, external military intervention, economic blockade, and the scourges of hunger and plagues that had washed from

one end of the country to the other, killing millions in their wake. In those circumstances, the ending of the war and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that relaxed strict state control, rationing of consumer goods, and forced requisitioning of food from the peasantry could be seen as major steps forward for the young Soviet state. However, by 1921 the enormous costs of these victories, in terms of human lives, but also in terms    of socialist principles abandoned on the field of battle, were painfully clear. This bitter duality in the situation was what led Serge to his strong words about his West European and American comrades:

The foreign delegates showed no interest in the tragedy of Kronstadt and, except for a few, deliberately closed their minds to any understanding of it. They sat in commission to condemn the Workers’ Opposition; this they did with enthusiasm, without giving it a hearing. They considered NEP, amenably enough, to be (as one of the French delegates put it to me) “an inspired turn to the Right” that had saved the Revolution. It was hardly inspiration to yield to a famine after the situation had become quite insupportable. But the majesty of the Russian Revolution disarmed its supporters of all critical sense; they seemed to believe that approval of it entailed the abdication of the right to think.1

Paul Le Blanc’s October Song is a great book, because without ever ceding its position of sympathy for the Revolution and the people who made it, it forcefully reclaims this right. In the process, it breaks with much of the habitual defensiveness with which some writers of the radical left even today approach any criticism of the early Soviet experience.

Le Blanc covers the Russian Revolution up to 1924. He gives an insightful overview of the debates on the causes for revolution in pre–1917 developments and the reasons for the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. The bulk of the book, however, is reserved for discussing the harsh struggles, difficult retreats, moments of partial recovery, rays of hope, and glimmers of alternative futures in the period from the spring of 1918 to 1924. The contrast between the two periods is captured in the distinction made in the subtitle between “Bolshevik Triumph” and “Communist Tragedy.”

This terminological device might be slightly artificial. The name Communist Party of Russia (Bolsheviks) was adopted at the March 1918 Party Congress. At that time, the humiliating peace of Brest-Litovsk, in which the Bolshevik government ceded the Baltic States and Ukraine to Germany, and the breakdown of the coalition government of the Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries signaled that the honeymoon of the October Revolution had ended. Despite the symbolism of that moment, however, Le Blanc also makes it clear that the authoritarian changes in party culture and politics taking place in this period were incremental, with the qualitative and irreparable break from prerevolutionary Bolshevik traditions only occurring at a much later stage. Nevertheless, the change between the revolutionary optimism of 1917 and the grim struggles that followed was indeed dramatic. In 1917, the Bolsheviks emerged as the leading voice of a popular revolution of as yet unrivaled depth and unparalleled success.2 Only months later, the regime that the revolution had inaugurated was already on a collision course with important parts of its mass base, leading to what Le Blanc without reservations describes as “the erosion of soviet democracy,” even before the civil war was well under way.3

The change looks even more dramatic when looked at from the countryside, where there is more justification to make a hard distinction between the Bolsheviks of 1917 and the Communists of the civil war period. Undoubtedly pushed by starvation in the towns, but also egged on by an essential misunderstanding of class relations in the countryside at the heart of their analysis, the regime promised to wage war on the “village bourgeoisie.” This category soon came to include sections of the middle peasantry, to end up applying to anyone who did not want to give up their essential means of livelihood without a fight. Citing Le Blanc’s account of the resulting disaster at some length gives an impression of the brutal honesty with which he approaches the regime’s policies throughout the book:

The Bolsheviks had been popular among the peasants in late 1917 because they supported the peasants taking the land. But the mood changed. “We are Bolsheviks, but not Communists,” peasants were reported as saying. “We are for the Bolsheviks because they drove out the landowners, but we are not for the Communists because they are against individual holdings.” Bolshevik-turned-Communist policy as it unfolded in 1918 generated hundreds of desperate uprisings among the peasantry, at various moments, throughout Russia. It has been estimated that between 1918 and 1921, peasant rebels killed at least 100,000 people, “mostly civilian Soviet functionaries, Communists, and other representatives of authority.” . . . Such rebellions were suppressed by the Red Army and the Cheka [the secret service—PB] that inflicted much higher casualties upon the recalcitrant peasantry. . . . It is estimated that as many as a million rebels perished on the battlefield, through executions and through deaths in prisons and concentration camps, and undoubtedly there were additional casualties on the Communist side in the fighting. The famine of 1920–21—flowing from traumas of the First World War and the Red-White conflict, but also from the effects of Communist conflicts with the peasantry—swept away millions more.

October Song is a work of synthesis that tries to come to terms with this process. Readers should not expect an easy introduction to the history of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Rather, the book presents us with a set of arguments and reflections by a seasoned activist-scholar who has grappled for a long time with the experience and writing on these events of a century ago. In places, Le Blanc spends some time in describing key events and debates, such as the October insurrection, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, and the turn to the NEP in 1921. More often, however, he only sketches the major developments at the political level in broad strokes, to home in on small facts that can illuminate the changes in everyday life, on the reflections of an eyewitness or an outsider, or on specific debates between rightand left-wing historians.

That does not mean that Le Blanc’s style is inaccessible. As in his important “activist” biography of Lenin, Le Blanc patiently explains the shape of contemporary events and debates, without any of the jargon or the pretentions to present “the right line” that many works in the genre suffer from.4

But it does mean that Le Blanc’s reflections can best be read as an addition to, and a dialogue with, famous earlier accounts of the period. Of those, the ones that Le Blanc most explicitly draws on are Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, E. H. Carr’s monumental fourteen-volume work on the history of the Soviet Union, and the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s political biography of Trotsky. He also extensively uses the work of modern social historians: Alexander Rabinowitch on the October Revolution in Petrograd, Arno Mayer on the civil war and the terror, Simon Pirani and Kevin Murphy on working-class politics in the first half of the 1920s, as well as many others. Finally, the book is interspersed with eyewitness accounts that help to bring out the terrible tensions and dilemmas of the period. We might forgive the author for his slight preference for eyewitnesses from the United States. Plenty of others are included for good measure.

Roughly chronologically ordered, chapters highlight specific themes appropriate to the moment they discuss: the economic collapse that directly followed the revolution and its consequences for workers’ democracy; the international context of war and revolution and how it determined the course of the Russian civil war; the Red Terror and suppression of internal oppositions, including those that were socialist, anarchist, or even Communist; the fraught relationship of the Communists to the Russian peasantry who formed the large majority of the population; freedom and repression under the NEP; and the nature of the regime in the interregnum between the end of the civil war and the rise to power of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The end of the book moves onto a somewhat more philosophical plane, asking questions about the inevitability (or otherwise) of ultimate defeat, and about the nature of workers’ democracy. Taking 1924 as the end point means that Le Blanc’s narrative stops at the doorstep of the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. This was the time of Lenin’s death, the defeat of Trotsky’s 1923 opposition, and the so-called “Lenin levy” in which under the guidance of the bureaucracy the party was swamped with thousands of new members who joined the party of power. Many of the elements of Stalin’s victory were already present. Nonetheless, Le Blanc firmly argues that this was also a time in which alternative futures were still on the table.

All the old crap

Where did it all go wrong? Of course, Le Blanc fully rejects the ultimately reactionary notions that it all went wrong with a little pamphlet written by Lenin in 1902, with the secret lust for power of the revolutionary leaders, or with the basic mistake to ever want to change the world in the first place. Neither does he accept the idea promoted by the moderate socialist opponents of the Bolsheviks that the “democratic” February revolution was hijacked in the name of a misguided and adventurist experiment. In his basic premises, Le Blanc stays within the broad confines of what once was proudly described by its adherents as “Trotskyism,” which can be summarized in roughly the following way: A transition to socialism can only take place on the basis of developed capitalism, for only capitalist development provides the material conditions (a state of plenty) and the social forces (a large, well-organized and conscious working-class) to make the leap “from the kingdom of necessity into the realm of freedom.” However, for specific reasons that had to do with the internal contradictions in Russian society ultimately produced by its relation to the international capitalist system (explained by the theory of “combined and uneven development”), Russia was the first country to experience a successful socialist revolution. This brought to power a tiny working class in a predominantly peasant society. Left on its own, such a socialist project could not survive. The reason for making the leap was that the Russian Revolution would provide the clarion call for revolutions in more “advanced” capitalist countries. When those failed, Russia was bound to follow the course that Marx already in the nineteenth century had predicted for socialist revolutions that would come too early: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means all the old crap will revive.”5

No one writing on the basis of those broad assumptions would deny that with the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept across Europe between 1918 and 1923, some form of degeneration and ultimate collapse of the Russian Revolution became inevitable. The alternative would be to accept Stalinism’s most banal and self-serving “innovation” of Marxism, the “theory” of socialism in one country. What was not inevitable, however, was the form that this collapse would take, or the lessons drawn from it by the leading participants at the time of its occurrence.

Here is where in my opinion of the real contribution of Le Blanc’s account comes in. As clearly defined as the Trotskyist tradition is in its approach to the ultimate causes of the Russian Revolution’s  defeat, it seems  to me to leave open a very wide spectrum of approaches towards the period leading up to it. At their best, writers within this tradition have coupled a basic endorsement of the revolution and its right to defend itself during the civil war to sensitivity for the problems, mistakes, and even great crimes that this defense entailed. They have sought to explain not only the material causes behind the vicious struggle, but also the deep sense of confusion, sometimes to the point of political degeneration, that this produced among the participants, including the leaders of the Bolsheviks.6 They have granted the process in which the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became a “dictatorship for the (decimated and demoralized) proletariat,” and then a “dictatorship over the proletariat in its name.” At their worst, authors have interpreted the dire circumstances in which the revolutionary regime found itself as sufficient explanation for all of its actions. No opposition could ever be right in criticizing those in power before Trotsky joined the fray in 1923. Of course, the Reds committed crimes during the civil war, but always because of individual failures, never as the result of a systematic misreading of the situation. The biggest mistake this apologetic version allows for lies not in anything the Bolsheviks did, but in “turning necessity into virtue.” This formulation, drawn from Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks written at the very beginning of the civil war, seems to me to be especially pernicious. It has enough of a critical ring to make its way into some of the very best and most measured defenses of the October Revolution, but in the end it leaves nothing there to learn. Pure necessity drove all the choices of the Communists. If only they had talked about them differently.

Le Blanc does not deny that the force of necessity determined the Communists’ choices—the dire material circumstances, a civil war forced upon them, the mistakes and betrayals that were not their own but were committed by their socialist adversaries willing to side with reaction. But he adds to this a valuable analysis of what he calls the “theoretical blind spots within the Bolshevik movement.” Three of those he follows throughout the course of the book.

The first is described by him as “an insufficient theorization and comprehension of the dynamics and requirements of democracy,” leading to “naïve assumptions” about the ability to sustain mass involvement in revolutionary decision making, and an underestimation of the dangers involved in banning genuine socialist opposition movements. This might seem blasphemous to some. Le Blanc himself describes the pre–1917 Bolsheviks as a movement that was deeply involved in the struggle for democracy, and Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, State and Revolution is hailed as an important restatement of Marx’s notions of revolutionary democracy. Unfortunately, State and Revolution provided very few concrete recipes for how to deal with the post–1917 situation.

The second blind spot, alluded to earlier in this review, concerned the peasantry. The over-optimism of the Bolsheviks about the extent of development of Russian agriculture and the possibilities to “bring the class struggle to the countryside” gravely exacerbated the conflicts between the new regime and the peasantry. It also sowed the seeds for the later enthusiasm with which many Bolsheviks (including initially Trotsky) accepted Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization as “a move to the left.” The third blind spot Le Blanc identifies was a lack of awareness of the nature of bureaucracy and the danger that the bureaucracy itself would become a source of reaction. The fatal nature of this mistake again becomes most visible in light of Stalin’s ultimate victory, but there is a strong element of continuity from the civil war years.

Each of these blind spots could be the source of extensive debate. Le Blanc introduces them with much nuance and acknowledges the existence of many different tendencies within the Bolshevik Party and among the wider revolutionary left, including the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries.

Other blind spots could be added that are alluded to in the book but not deeply explored, such as a tendency to think about revolutionary violence and revolutionary warfare in rather romantic terms derived more from the French Revolution of the eighteenth century than the realities of World War I Europe from which the Russian Revolution emerged. Also, Le Blanc admits to a tendency to seek the blind spots on a highly theoretical plane, rather than looking at their practical implications. A further deepening of our understanding could be gained from combining intellectual history with detailed social history of local and national Bolshevik policies.

Furthermore, much remains to be explained about the origins of those blind spots. To what extent did the Bolsheviks inherit these weaknesses from an uncritical adaptation of ideas widely present in international social democracy? How important to their development were the uniquely desperate circumstances in which the Bolsheviks found themselves? For a rethinking of the lessons provided by the defeat of the Russian Revolution, such questions are crucial. As China Miéville concludes in his own thoughtful and sympathetic account of the Revolution, “those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography—and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.”7 Understanding the material forces that reigned against the first prolonged socialist experiment is one element, but it is certainly not enough. In circumstances that presented them with only bad choices, the blind spots of Bolshevism that Le Blanc describes help us to understand why, too often, the regime chose the worst.

Doing justice to fighters long past

Can we do justice to the political insights, revolutionary intransigence, and bravery of the Bolshevik attempt without becoming the “unthinking” followers that Serge criticized? Rosa Luxemburg had the temerity of remaining independent even at the time of the Bolsheviks’ greatest success. Although her critique remained unpublished until later, this attitude was not at all uncommon among the radical socialists of 1918. It seems no coincidence to me that Le Blanc maintains a highly positive tone towards Luxemburg’s text, despite disagreements with part of her analysis and prescriptions. Neither is it coincidental that he ends his book with a long quotation from Luxemburg, in which despite all her criticisms she gives generous moral praise to “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends” for having dared. With almost as much time separating the socialist and radical left today from the experience of the Russian Revolution as separated the Bolsheviks from the French Revolution, this seems to be a good time to go beyond the mere “defense” of the legacy, and think deeply about its moral, historical, and practical implications for our own age.

This is by no means an easy task, and clear-cut answers are often hard to give. An excursion into fiction—though not too far from the realities captured in October Song—can help to make clear what is at stake. There is a passage towards the end of Aleksandr Tarasov-Rodionov’s gut-wrenching civil war novel Chocolate. The hero of the novel, Zudin, awaits his eventual execution. Zudin has been a model officer of the Cheka, self-sacrificing, thoroughly unsympathetic and ruthless in his devotion to the cause. He has defended the revolution with the sword of terror in a city on the verge of capture by the Whites. When a party committee puts him on trial, however, it is not for the vengeful mass execution of a hundred random prisoners that he ordered as “collective punishment” for a relatively minor conspiracy by local Socialist Revolutionaries; it is for accidentally accepting a piece of chocolate. According to his old party comrades sitting in judgment, the already restless masses could interpret the chocolate as proof of Communist corruption, and Zudin has to die for the sake of restoring the image of the party while the enemy is advancing.

Zudin shrank. Of what was he thinking? His mind was a blank. A pathetic smile of perplexity and hopelessness flickered over his pale face. All his sensations came entirely from his subconscious, and it was thus that he seemed to remember that, for a long time, he had walked, confident and sure of himself, along a hard, difficult path, and that suddenly he had slipped, falling unexpectedly into the very midst of a gigantic waterfall. Now he was flying irrevocably with it into a dark abyss, deafened by the chaos and roar of the incomprehensible natural forces, not even attempting to reach for the sharp jags of the cliffs that lacerated him as they flashed by, because the very impressions of them rose to his consciousness too late, after he had already passed them. Now he was thinking of nothing. He sensed complete helplessness, terror, a faint memory of the acute consciousness that had been left behind somewhere above him, and of death that was flying to meet him somewhere below.8

Le Blanc’s October Song acknowledges the heights and difficulties of the path traversed by the Bolsheviks, but he does not try to hide the depths of the fall. Its most redeeming quality is that it is written in a way that combines what I view as three essential elements of a radical approach to history. It is absolute in its solidarity with those who fought against oppression and injustice, even if they made enormous, sometimes monstrous mistakes. It uses the benefit of hindsight to deepen our understanding for the weight of conditions and circumstances that held them back or caused them to fail, without denying them their essential humaneness by treating them as powerless instruments of fate. And it shows an attitude of rebellion even against our own side, boldly proclaiming that future struggles do not have to slavishly copy past experiences but can and should surpass them.

  1. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review Books, 2012), 160.
  2. Anti-communist historians of course have always denied this, claiming that Lenin and his elitist band hijacked a democratic revolution that when left to its original course should have led to some form of capitalist liberal democracy. Serious social history, however, by and large confirms the popular mass base of the Bolsheviks at least among the Russian working class, and the army at the time of the October Revolution, as Le Blanc amply illustrates.
  3. In his own recently published synthesis, Ronald Grigor Suny summarizes the conclusions of the last half century of historical research in a similar way: “The Bolsheviks prevailed not because they were superior manipulators or cynical opportunists, but because their policies as formulated by Lenin in April and shaped by the events of the following months placed them at the head of a genuinely popular movement.” Immediately following this, he adds: “Sadly for those who had overthrown autocracy and turned to the Bolsheviks to end the war and alleviate hunger, that solution based on a government by soviets evolved inexorably through a ferocious civil war into a new and unforeseen authoritarianism.” Ronald Grigor Suny, Red Flag Unfurled: History, Historians and the Russian Revolution (London and New York: Verso 2017), 213.
  4. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).
  5. As a complement to this prophetic insight, one can take Engels’s comments on the fate of a revolutionary leader in such conditions (ignoring that he only discusses men): “The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply . . . He necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practiced, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination.” Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, chapter 6, peasant-war-germany/ch06.htm#6.1.
  6. Isaac Deutscher’s grappling with Trotsky’s authoritarianism at the time of the “militarization of labor” debates is a good example of the latter. So, on a very different plane, is Nigel Harris’s forgotten sketch of Lenin’s disorientation at the end of the civil war, “Marxism: Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism,” International Socialism Journal (Autumn 1966), marxism.htm.
  7. China Miéville, October (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 317.
  8. Alexander Tarasov-Rodionov, Chocolate (Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion Press, 1973), 187–188.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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