The first year of soviet power

The Bolsheviks in Power:

The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd

The author of the most important academic study of the 1917 Russian Revolution has now written the most serious archival study of the early revolutionary regime. Some twenty years in the making, The Bolsheviks in Power is the logical successor of Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power.

This review can hardly do justice to the scope and detail of this groundbreaking work. From the early, turbulent days of soviet rule, to the sharp divisions over the Brest peace with Germany, to the Red Terror of 1918, Rabinowitch leaves no stone unturned in unearthing all relevant sources and painting a vivid canvas of a revolution almost invariably on the brink.

Rabinowitch’s riveting account of the debates on peace with Germany or revolutionary war shows how close the new regime was to total collapse. With the armed forces disintegrating, Lenin argued that the revolutionary regime had no choice but to sign an unfavorable peace treaty, conceding vast territory to the Germans. But Lenin was in the minority, arguing against the tub-thumping rhetoric of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (LSRs) and within the Bolsheviks, forces that called for revolutionary war. Rabinowitch rightly concludes that “there are few better examples of Lenin’s legendary tenacity and strength of will than his fierce determination to overcome his opponents at this critical juncture in the history of Bolshevism and the Russian revolution.”

The Bolsheviks in Power also continues a major theme of Rabinowitch’s work on 1917—the rich and lively democratic discussion and practice within the Bolsheviks throughout 1918 on every major political development. For example, not only did the Bolshevik advocates of revolutionary war have the right to take their own stance in the soviets—the councils of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies—they also produced their own newspaper. This depiction of Bolshevik democracy is, of course, completely at odds with the textbook characterization of a rigid, bureaucratic machine following the dictates of its central committee with Lenin firmly at the helm.

Rabinowitch also superbly documents the counterrevolutionary activities in Petrograd and subsequent Red Terror. According to Rabinowitch, the Petrograd Bolshevik terror was rooted in the city organization’s radicalism and “genuine anxiety about losing out, at a time of extreme organizational weakness, to the domestic counterrevolution supported by Allied agents.” These were no imagined or exaggerated threats, as the early autumn 1918 “Blood for Blood” strategy followed the assassination of Uritsky and the attempted assassination of Lenin. Moreover, this was class terror as expressed in “the impatience of a segment of Petrograd workers to settle scores with their perceived enemies.”

Rabinowitch adds a significant new chapter to the history of early Soviet rule: the Northern Commune which ruled the Petrograd Oblast well into 1918. In the face of famine, factory closings, and foreign invasion, the Commune and district soviets—not the Bolshevik party—organized food distribution, housing, pubic health, schooling, and policing of working-class communities. With Bolshevik ranks decimated by recruitment into the Red Army and food-procurement detachments, soviet power survived, according to Rabinowitch, “in no small part due to their mutual collaboration between Petrograd Bolsheviks and Left SRs.”

What happened to this Bolshevik and Left SR alliance? Unfortunately, Rabinowitch concedes far too much ground to his liberal academic colleagues who have made careers out of trying to invent alternatives to soviet power. This usually entails a makeover of the violently anti-soviet activities of the Mensheviks and SRs, and conspicuous omission of Western-sponsored efforts to drown the revolution in blood. Rabinowitch, however, includes a wealth of material on the SR and Menshevik anti-soviet machinations and also shows how the British embassy operated as a hornets nest for counterrevolutionary intrigue with clear intentions to install a “military dictatorship,” although he omits references to similar U.S. efforts (as detailed in David Fonglesong’s America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism).

Much of the subtext of The Bolsheviks in Power is dedicated to explaining the failure of a “broad socialist alliance” versus the eventual outcome of a “Bolshevik dictatorship.” Rabinowitch is far too honest a historian to engage in the usual selective splicing of events. Indeed, he provides more than enough proof to show that, despite his claims to the contrary, such an alliance was doomed for a very simple reason: the Mensheviks and Right SRs had no interests in soviet power, and Left SRs were only interested in soviet power as long as they got their way.

Rabinowitch concedes that the Menshevik and Right SRs considered “the very idea of a dictatorship of proletariat and poorer peasantry” an “abomination,” and that in October 1917 they joined forces with officers, Cossack warlords, and the Kadets (a party of bourgeois democrats) in an attempt to overthrow the soviet regime. This obvious class divide was central to the thinking of Lenin and Trotsky but was often blurred by Rabinowitch’s heroes: the “moderate” Bolsheviks and Left SRs. The result is that the persistent SR and Menshevik class contempt for popular rule is not adequately emphasized when Rabinowitch analyzes such events as the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, the Menshevik machinations in the Assembly of Delegates from Petrograd Factories, and the Red Terror.

Rabinowitch repeatedly laments that the Bolshevik moderates, such as Larin, ­Riazanov, and Kamenev, who advocated compromise with other moderate socialists, lost out to the Leninists. In Moscow, Bolshevik moderate leaders such as Victor Nogin tried to broker just such a compromise with catastrophic results. John Reed describes the “jeers and shouts” from Moscow working-class members that greeted Nogin in a Moscow Bolshevik general meeting after the strategy of appeasement resulted in the deaths of some 500 workers.

The Bolsheviks and Left SRs combined to easily win the Constituent Assembly elections in November 1917. Yet because the electoral lists of the SRs were drafted before their political split, they unduly favored the Right SRs who then attempted to use the convening of the assembly in January as a rallying event to challenge soviet power. Rabinowitch admits that Lenin’s strategy was that if the assembly did not acknowledge the legitimacy of soviet rule, then it would simply be shut down—“Let them just go home”—and that its dispersal met with no popular outcry.

Yet Rabinowitch argues that the closing of the Constituent Assembly “ended the hopes of Russian liberals and moderate socialists that the 1917 revolution” would lead to a “democratic political system on the Western model.” He also chastises the Bolsheviks for not rescinding “their ban on demonstrations in the vicinity of the Tauride Palace” in support of the Constituent Assembly. According to Rabinowitch, this was an overwhelmingly upper-class demonstration, and the Red Guards considered themselves responsible for “defending Soviet power from the enemies grouped around the Constituent Assembly bent on restoring the injustices of the past.” This accurate perception of the anti-soviet demonstration helps explain why, after repeated warnings not to march to the Tauride Palace, a few guards opened fire on the demonstration without orders, leaving some twenty dead—hardly the legendary massacre as depicted in the annals of anti-communism.

But it is Rabinowitch’s glowing depiction of the Left SRs that is most awkward, and even includes a claim that “the heart of Left SR credo included the hegemony of democratic, revolutionary soviets.” The Bolshevik-LSR alliance broke down over the Brest peace treaty. The Fourth All-Russian Congress of Soviets that met in mid-March 1918 was one of the few popularly elected assemblies in world history to decide a society’s participation in war. The Congress was dominated by the Bolsheviks with 814 of 1,172 delegates and ratified the Brest Treaty. As Rabinowitch notes, only fourteen Bolshevik delegates had their credentials challenged, and neither “during the congress nor after did the Left SRs or Left Communists question the congress’s legitimacy.”

What was the Left SR response? They acted with utter contempt toward the overwhelming popular mandate for peace. A few weeks after the Fourth Congress, Rabinowitch shows that the Second the All-Russian Left SR Party Congress authorized the use of terror against foreign “imperialist” leaders in order to undermine Brest. In July, LSR bombers, on orders from their central committee, killed the German ambassador Mirbach in an attempt to undermine the peace.

Victor Serge asks the obvious question not posed by Rabinowitch: Just whom were the Left SRs representing with their bombing of Mirbach and propaganda for “revolutionary war”? Certainly not the peasantry, who were fleeing the front en masse and who had effectively “imposed the peace” in the first place. Nor was there much working-class or soldier support after March 1918 for revolutionary war. Rabinowitch himself details the “major grassroots shift in favor of ratification” and admits that the bombing was an “impetuous act,” though without acknowledging that terror, rather than working-class power, remained the real LSR credo.

Despite Rabinowitch’s clumsy attempt to retrospectively patch together an alliance of “moderate” socialists, The Bolsheviks in Power will surely be the standard academic text on early rule of the soviets, replacing the fictional accounts by Cold War historians. For socialists interested in understanding the Russian Revolution, this is a book that deserves to be studied and not merely read. 

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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