The Russian Revolution Reconsidered
Between world wars and a crippling civil war, the Russian Revolution fought to change history.
Of the numerous books and articles published on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, S. A. Smith’s book Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928 stands out as one of the most comprehensive and informative treatises of that period. In this ambitious volume, Smith, a major historian of Russia, sets out to explain how the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, inspired by a radical democratic and egalitarian spirit, degenerated into the Stalinist totalitarian regime.
His book presents a panoramic and in-depth view of Russia’s epoch-making events in the years 1890-1928. It is a rich historical survey encompassing the older literature and the latest scholarly research based on the historical archives made available in the post-Soviet period. As the historian Ronald Grigor Suny pointed out, Smith “wrestled the events and personalities, policies and mass politics of the year 1890s to 1928 into a coherent and compelling story of the entrance of ordinary people onto the stage of history and the brutal, violent descent of Russia into dictatorship.” In light of the book’s vast material, this article will focus on the issues and events most widely discussed in political debates.
Background to the 1917 Revolutions
Starting with the Russian empire’s social and economic structure immediately prior to 1917, particularly its class system, Smith describes an industrializing society with the majority (80 percent) of the population constituted by peasants still carrying the memory of their serfdom and bitter about the exploitative conditions of their emancipation in 1861 by Emperor Alexander II, mostly their being forced to pay, and to pay above market value, for the land they received.
He also describes a growing working class in urban Russia, and emphasizes their being highly concentrated in giant factories, a factor that greatly facilitated the forging of class militancy and solidarity. He also mentions the porous relationship between these two classes, mostly from the peasantry moving into the working class in the big city factories, particularly during World War I, as an important factor in the development of revolutionary consciousness in Russia.
Smith also provides an up-to-date account of the 1905 Revolution, when these classes entered history playing a central role in that uprising. This upheaval was triggered by the tsarist bloody repression of a workers’ march in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of 1905. The workers were petitioning the tsar with demands, couched in submissive language but radical in content, that included the freedom to form unions, the right to strike and the eight-hour workday, and an end to land redemption payments. Reflecting their already high level of politicization, they were also demanding freedom of speech, press, and association, and the separation of church and state.
The massacre of the workers led to a general strike in the city that then spread throughout the empire followed by a huge wave of peasant rebellions in the spring of the same year. It is in the course of this upheaval that the soviets — councils of workers that directly elected their leaders to represent them at the city level soviet executive committee — emerged as the expression of the workers self-organization. These soviets spread from Saint Petersburg to some fifty cities where beyond leading strikes, setting up militias, and printing newspapers, they controlled and ran the railways and postal services. The uprising was crushed a year later.
Smith attributes that defeat to the lack of a unified national leadership that could have coordinated the insurgency, and to the concessions granted by the tsar — namely, civil rights, a legislative assembly or “duma” based on a broad but unequal franchise, and a legislative upper chamber — that divided the insurgent camp between the advocates of political reform from those who were trying to move towards a more radical social revolution. He also points out that in spite of significant unrest in the army ranks, the tsar was still able to retain the army’s loyalty and effectively repress the revolutionaries.
From World War, to Revolution, to Civil War
This is the period — 1914-1920 — that is the strongest part of Smith’s volume. He provides a comprehensive analysis of the disaster that Russia’s participation in World War I inflicted on the Russian people, and how this set the stage for the two 1917 revolutions — first the political revolution, and then the social revolution led by the Bolsheviks. The war, writes Smith, had brought labor insurgency to a halt as patriotism spread everywhere. But then soldiers began to complain about their desperate conditions at the front, and the concomitant incidence of death. Smith presents estimates of 1.89 million combat-related deaths, and 2.25 million if one includes deaths in captivity and those resulting from disease and accidents.
But what brought about the end of tsarism, Smith writes, was not so much the low morale among the armed forces at the front, but the growing discontent at home. Later on in the book, however, he writes that “ the soldiers returning from the front were a key conduit through which radical political ideas passed into the countryside,” suggesting that low morale at the front might have played a bigger role than he allows in triggering the revolution by having politicized the peasant soldiers in the front lines. Be it as it may, the war badly tarnished the tsar’s reputation and few Russians continued to see him as the divinely appointed “little father” of his people.
Smith attributes the growing discontent at home mostly to the economic collapse of the economy that, among other things, had wiped out the wage increases that the workers had obtained at the beginning of the war. He shows how the labor militancy that had collapsed at the beginning of the war surged back in 1915, with 1,928 strikes, and especially in 1916, with 2,417 strikes involving 1,558,400 workers. In January to February 1917, there were 718 strikes involving 548,300 workers. Most of those strikes, he notes, were for economic reasons. But he also notes that a quarter of the strikes in 1916 also involved political demands showing a significant degree of politicization of the working class.
On March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar) a new revolution broke out in Russia. Unlike the Revolution of 1905, tsarism fell in 1917 and it did so in less than twelve days. Several versions of a provisional government, initially led by the conservative Kadets (Constitutional Democrats) and then by the reformist Socialist Revolutionary (SR) and Menshevik parties implemented what undoubtedly was a political revolution that carried out substantial democratic reforms, including an amnesty for political prisoners, the abolition of the Okhrana, the much hated tsarist secret political police, the repeal of the death penalty, the end of discriminatory legislation against religious and ethnic minorities, and freedom of the press and association.
Significantly, the new government did nothing about the two uppermost issues behind the revolutionary upheaval: land reform and Russia’s withdrawal from the war. They also avoided confronting the escalating conflict between the bosses and their employees whose increasingly radical demands were going beyond established trade-union issues aiming instead to a larger control of the production process itself.
That situation led to the re-emergence of the soviets. As in 1905, they began to function as alternative centers of government thus setting off a dynamics of dual power that became more entrenched as the number of soviets multiplied all over Russia. Smith cites 700 in the spring of 2017, and 1,429 by October of 1917, with the increasing participation of workers, peasants, and soldiers. So, of the 1429 soviets instituted in October, 706 included workers’ and soldiers’ elected deputies; 235 included workers’ soldiers’, and peasant deputies; 455 included peasant deputies and 33 soldier deputies only.
Along with the economic deterioration created by the ongoing war, the growth of the soviets and of their governmental role set off an unprecedented level of radicalization of the working class, facilitated by the weakness of the radical right, which turned out to be less effective than in 1905. Smith writes of the large number of women workers, including domestic servants, restaurant, and laundry workers who, against the prevailing cultural and social conventions, joined unions and struck just like male workers. While nationalism grew in importance among the non-Russian peoples in 1917, Smith adds, “the greater salience of class identity at this time was never in doubt,” one political consequence of which was the huge popularity of socialism.
However, the single most important event sealing the fate of the provisional government — at the time led by Kerensky, a former SR — was its inability to resist on its own the right-wing military coup that General Kornilov attempted in late August. It was only the decisive armed intervention of the soviets and of the Bolshevik party itself that defeated the coup. “Kornilov’s rebellion,” concludes Smith, “seemed to confirm that the stark choice facing Russia was between Soviet power and military dictatorship.” “All power to the Soviets” became the popular slogan of the day.
Taking advantage of that conjuncture, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, called for a revolutionary seizure of power. At the time of the 1917 political revolution, it was the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks that had the majority support of the soviets; the Bolsheviks had come out as a clear minority in the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets celebrated in June 1917: Out of the 822 delegates only 105 were Bolsheviks compared with 285 Socialist Revolutionaries, 248 Mensheviks, and 32 Menshevik Internationalists.
This changed with the Kornilov rebellion, when support for the Bosheviks increased significantly on account of their decisive intervention against it. This is what led Lenin to conclude that the time was ripe to seize power. In spite of internal opposition — Kamenev and Zinoviev, two major Bolshevik leaders, publicly objected to the seizure of power, a move which infuriated Lenin, who unsuccessfully demanded that they be thrown out of the party’s Central Committee — the Central Committee approved Lenin’s proposal but without setting a date for its execution. It was events that set the date.
On the night of October 23-24 the government shut down the Bolshevik press. In response, the Military Revolutionary Committee led by Trotsky seized power two days later, on the evening of the 25th when they took over the Winter Place, the headquarters of the Provisional Government, and arrested the members of the Provisional Government. Immediately afterwards, the Second Congress of Soviets was opened and ratified the Bolsheviks’ seizure with the support of 300 Bolsheviks out of the 650 to 670 deputies, plus 80 to 85 Left SR deputies present. On November 17 (Old Calendar) the Bolsheviks and Left SRs formed a coalition government.
The former brief description of the events leading to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution are fairly well established; Smith enriches the account of those events and then delves into many of the controversies around them, presenting a comprehensive review of those controversies, sometimes along with his own conclusions. One of those debates involves the accusation commonly hurled at the Bolshevik Revolution that it was a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government.
Conceding that the seizure of power had elements of a coup, Smith stresses that the call to seize power had been publicly circulated and talked about for some time, thereby eliminating one important element of what defines a coup — secrecy — and that the provisional government was not a democratically elected government.
Another element not mentioned by him is that a coup also involves an action taken by a small group representing itself, or at most the Army in cahoots with a minority group, such as Pinochet’s army coup in 1973 in cahoots with the Chilean upper classes. The Bolshevik seizure of power, however, took place with the support of a growing and radicalized mass movement of workers and peasants and confirmed by a majority vote in the Second Congress of Soviets celebrated shortly after. The Bolshevik Revolution was not a coup; it was an uprising.
Yet, Smith seems to wish that the Bolshevik 1917 revolution could have been avoided. He argues, for example, that the Russian participation in World War I could have been stopped by the moderate socialists (Mensheviks and SRs) of the Petrograd Soviet. If they had taken power in March 1917, when they still had a majority of the soviets, he avers, they could have promoted a peace policy and directly negotiated with the Allied governments instead of aiming at the mobilization of the international socialist movement. Even a suspension of hostilities directly agreed upon with the Allied governments, he writes, would have allowed for progress in addressing the problems of land tenure and the economic crisis, and for a quick convocation of a Constituent Assembly.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that politicians, reformist ones in particular because they are committed to their ideology, can act against their own political training, experience and, as Max Weber would put it, “material and ideal interests.” These liberals and moderate social democrats were bound by the politics of their moderate base who were opposed to revolution, and by an ideology that, as Smith himself recognizes later on, was opposed to their seizing power themselves, because true to their perspective “they believed that the ‘bourgeoisie’ was destined to rule and they chose to acquiesce in the Allied demand for an offensive in June, despite knowledge of the intense popular desire for release from a punishing and futile war.”
He is critical of the turn to revolution in the middle of a war. Citing Kautsky, he writes that a “revolution which arises from war is a sign of the weakness of the revolutionary class” aside from the sacrifice, moral and intellectual degradation that was brings with it. This normative criticism is, however, wishful thinking.
The historical record shows that wars often discredit and weaken the ruling classes, particularly those of the losing country, opening the possibility of revolution — as in the case of the Russian disaster of World War I that helped to bring about the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the Russian military defeat by the Japanese that propitiated the 1905 Revolution; and the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war that produced the 1871 Paris Commune — or of profound political change — as the defeat of the Argentinian dictatorship in the Malvinas (Falklands) War in 1982 played a decisive role in the overthrow of perhaps the bloodiest Latin American military junta.
Similarly, World War II led to the growth of worldwide popular expectations and unrest that fostered the anticolonial revolutions of the postwar period. This, however, it is not to be taken as support for war because it may facilitate revolution; in fact, the Bolsheviks were among the most militant opponents of World War I.
Revolutions, such as the Russian, come from a crisis inherent to the social system itself. Smith seems to accept economic crisis as inherent to that system; but not war. If he regarded war as an inherent part of system crises, it would have been much harder for him to normatively criticize a revolution for having been born from war. Moreover, while Smith described at length the suffering of the Russian people during the war, he did not draw the conclusion that revolutions are usually extreme events responding to extreme conditions and crises. Most of all, revolutionaries do not get to choose the often disastrous conditions under which revolutions occur.
The Bolsheviks in Power
Smith’s book documents how, after strong resistance to their uprising, such as in Moscow, the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies were able to consolidate power and support. True to their promises, they immediately proceeded to introduce key changes, like legalizing the workers’ control of production, which in fact had already taken place on the ground unfettered by the dual power dynamics that developed during the provisional government.
Similarly, they granted rights of usufruct to the peasants who to a considerable extent had already taken over the land. In addition they abolished the death penalty at the front and established the election of army officers, abolished all social estates and ranks, established the right of self-determination for the empire’s non-Russian peoples, nationalized the banks, instituted civil marriage, reformed the alphabet, and cancelled foreign debts. Soon after, they introduced a wide range of women’s and gay rights as well as the right of abortion. The successful Bolshevik insurrection, Smith writes, encouraged a widespread radicalization of the working class and the peasantry, which along with the new government’s initiatives led to the expansion of soviets and Bolshevik influence beyond the big centers of revolutionary power.
The revolutionary government also turned to the issue of ending Russia’s participation in the war, and to the election of representatives to the Constituent Assembly to draw a constitution, which had long been promised since the fall of the tsar and which had been postponed by the provisional government.
Elections for the Constituent Assembly finally started in late November 1917 continuing into December of that year. According to Smith, the returns for seventy-five out of the eighty-one electoral districts of Russia showed a total of 48.4 million valid votes cast, of which the SRs obtained 39.5 percent, the Bolsheviks 22.5 percent, the Kadets 4.5 percent and the Mensheviks 3.2 percent. Of all, the SRs came out as the big winners, especially in the rural areas where their vote was concentrated. (Among the non-Russian peoples, over seven million voted for non-Russian socialist parties, including two-thirds of the population of the Ukraine who voted for Ukrainian SRs, Ukranian nationalists, or Ukrainian Social Democrats.)
The elections turned out to be moot, however. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik-Left SR government, never to be reconvened, when the SR-dominated Assembly refused to endorse the principle of Soviet power. The government argued that the Assembly did not truly represent the actual forces participating in it because the SR slates for the Assembly had been presented before the split of the SRs into the SR party and the Left SRs (the allied of the Bolsheviks in government), which meant that the latter party had not been represented in the election ballot.
Smith claims that in five of the six electoral districts where the Left SRs had run on their own separate ticket, they hadn’t done well either, by which he seems to imply that they did not have that much support. However, the election results in those few districts could have also been a consequence of the Left SR candidacies having been able to get themselves on the ballot prematurely before the reality of the split had sunk in the minds of their supporters in those districts.
Regarding Russia’s withdrawal from the war, as early as October-November 1917, the revolutionary government opened negotiations with Germany to extricate Russia from the war by calling for a peace without indemnities or annexations, and for self-determination of the nations of the Russian empire. It then proceeded to publish the secret treaties made by the Allies to demonstrate the imperialist character of the war. Germany responded offering very harsh terms in exchange for ending hostilities.
The revolutionary government split over this issue: Lenin argued for immediate acceptance of those terms in light of Russia’s inability to resist them; a Left Communist faction led by Bukharin and supported by the Left SRs argued against capitulation and for continuing an unconventional, revolutionary war to spread the revolution to Germany. Trotsky argued for his “center” position of “No Peace, No War,” which essentially involved demobilizing the Russian army without signing any treaty with Germany. (It is worth noting that this struggle inside the Bolshevik Party was publicly aired and included factional literature that was widely distributed to the public, an important fact pointing to the pluralism of the Bolshevik Party before the Civil War — obviously in strong contrast to the clampdown that was to come shortly after that war and for the rest of Soviet history — that Smith does not mention.)
The German terms for peace became even more draconian as their successful offensive continued. The losses incurred by Russia in that offensive combined with the worsening economic situation of the country left the revolutionary government with no option but to adopt Lenin’s proposal. On March 3 of 1918, it signed the peace treaty with Germany at Brest Litovsk. The terms of the treaty were disastrous for Russia: in exchange for peace, Russia lost the Baltic provinces, a large part of Belorussia, and the whole of the Ukraine. At one blow Russia lost one-third of its agriculture and railways, almost all of its oil and cotton production, and three-quarters of its coal and iron.
As a result of the government’s decision to capitulate to the German peace terms, the Left SRs left the government, leaving the Bolsheviks as the only party in power. Soon after, it began to lose in the soviet elections taking place throughout the country, the political backlash that resulted from a food crisis in the spring of 1918 and, more broadly, from the continuously deteriorating economic situation in the country. Smith illustrates this with the example of Iaroslavl, an important textile town, where a partial reelection of the soviet of workers’ deputies in late April gave Mensheviks forty-seven, and Bolsheviks and Left SRs, thirteen deputies. The Bolshevik government responded by dissolving the soviet and arresting Mensheviks in that town, thus provoking strikes and the subsequent imposition of martial law there. It then began to follow the same policy everywhere, shutting down soviets it regarded as having fallen under the control of allegedly “hostile” forces.
This is what for Smith marks the beginning of the end of what had originally been a democratic revolution. The revolutionary government had become a one-party state and began to eliminate the multiparty competition in the soviets.
This epoch-making event — the political effects of which were never to be reversed — has been seized on to support radically different interpretations of the revolution ranging from the Cold War totalitarian school that depicted it as confirming the undemocratic character of Bolshevism from its very beginning to the Stalinist conception that “socialism” and the one-party state were inseparable. Instead, as I argued in Before Stalinism, mainstream Bolshevism converted the necessities imposed by the harsh civil war into virtue in part due to objective circumstances and in part due to some strains of mainstream Bolshevik ideology that became hegemonic in response to these circumstances.
The Civil War
The onset of the civil war, in May 1918, furthered that downward spiral, sealing the fate of the revolution. Claiming emergency powers on account of the hostilities, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party declared the party as the head of soviet power and stated that “decrees and measures of soviet power emanate from our party.” This was followed by the expulsion, on June 14 of that year, by the Bolshevik leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs from the soviets allegedly for using slander, conspiracy, and armed insurrection to destabilize the government, but in reality for fear of being overthrown. This furthered the loss of democracy in the new Soviet regime.
In response to the desperate economic situation created by the civil war, the Bolshevik government adopted the policy of “War Communism” to confront the increasingly difficult task of feeding towns and cities, and to keep industry functioning. Smith characterizes it as involving an extremely centralized system of administration of the whole economy; the nationalization of most industry, the monopolization of grain and other agricultural products by the state, a partial ban on private trade, the rationing of key consumer articles, and the militarization of labor. This meant the end of workers control of production and a dramatic reduction of peasant autonomy, another two pillars of what had defined soviet democracy.
It is true, as defenders of the Bolshevik government have argued for a very long time, that the need to feed the cities and supply the front, rather than political ideology, were the objective structural causes for the adoption of these War Communism policies. But it is also true, as Smith shows that most, if not all, of the Bolshevik leadership saw these policies as representing the welcome arrival of communism.
This was the case, for example, with Nikolai Bukharin, who sang the praises and became the foremost theoretical exponent of War Communism in his The Economics of the Transition Period, a treatise of “the process of the transformation of capitalist society into communist society.” Lenin shared at least some of Bukharin’s sentiments when he said in 1919, “Now the organization of the proletariat’s communist activities, and the entire policy of the Communists has fully acquired a final, stable form; and I am convinced that we stand on the right road.”
Smith hits the right note when he points out that “structural constraints, contingencies and unintended consequences all served to shape the policies that constituted War Communism,” and adds, tellingly, that “policy choices were not unilaterally ‘imposed’ by objective circumstances: they were defined by the dominant conceptions and inherent dispositions of the [Bolsheviks], sometimes as manners of explicit choice, sometimes as unconscious reflexes.” In this instance, Smith’s good judgment bridges the gap between the tendency of some leftists to see historical development as solely the product of objective circumstances to which some other leftists have responded with a no less one-sided emphasis on political ideas and the political will as shapers of history.
And Smith has a very critical view of those Bolshevik conceptions and dispositions, particularly Lenin’s, whom he paints with extremely broad strokes, in a rather crude manner, as obsessed with “ideological purity, his belief in his own ideological rectitude, his unwillingness to compromise, and [his] authoritarian habits of thought and action,” as if his politics would have always been the same, unchanging, regarding every issue. Lenin clearly changed his mind when he advocated the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1921 (see below) which included his support for cooperatives as building blocks for socialism. Lenin also radically changed his mind about Stalin, who he came to regard in 1922 as a “real and true ‘nationalist-socialist’ and even a vulgar great Russian bully.”
And he links Lenin’s thought to the Russian revolutionary tradition that he sees as authoritarian, citing writers like Chernyshevskii, Nechaev, and Tkachëv without talking about the differences among them, and between them and Lenin. Surprisingly, he ignores Lenin’s long-standing links to the politics and traditions of classical European social democracy, especially Karl Kautsky, an issue that has been recently debated at great length by the historian Lars T. Lih and his critics.
Towards the Bolshevik party as a whole, he has a more nuanced approach. Allowing for change, he writes that in 1917, it had become “a very different animal from the tightly knit conspiratorial party conceived by Lenin in 1903” as workers, soldiers, and sailors flooded into it because they saw the Bolsheviks as “the most implacable defenders of the interests of the common people.” He also acknowledges that for a period of time the Bolshevik Party allowed for pluralism, and points out that “Marxism-Leninism was a bundle of very diverse ideas and values,” which included “the coexistence of different understandings of socialism.” All of this, however, had come to an end by the early twenties, as the party became increasingly monolithic and scuttled basic mechanisms of democracy.
But independently of the supposed rigid theoretical background and predispositions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, War Communism, as I argue in my Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, crystallized a political culture that sanctioned, not as a necessary and temporary response to war conditions but as revolutionary virtue, the suppression of multi-party soviets, the Red Terror (see below), in addition to other measures introduced then like the serious restriction of union democracy and independence, and the suppression of political and legal freedoms and of socialist opposition.
The Bolshevik government’s War Communism further diminished the support of the workers and peasants, leaving the government even more isolated. The peasantry in particular experienced one of the bloodiest aspects of that policy with the forcible confiscation of their grain carried out under governmental orders by “food detachments” of townsmen sent into the countryside. The detachments’ seizure of the so-called surplus grain often included part of the peasants’ meager diet, or grain stored to be used as seed for the next season. In an effort to extract more food from the countryside, the government, based on imaginary and unfounded class divisions in the countryside, created committees of “poor peasants” (kombedy) to distribute grain and manufactured consumer goods, and to cooperate in seizing the surplus food from the kulaks (rich peasants).
In return, the poor peasant committees were to receive a share of the grain and other requisitioned goods, an arrangement that structurally invited the numerous abuses that took place. Smith cites a study of more than eight hundred village-level kombedy in Tambov showing that one-third of their members had never engaged in farming, a finding consistent with the significant number of criminals and bandits that joined the kombedy, a predictable development given their informal and arbitrary methods of operation. Not surprisingly, these committees elicited the hatred of the great majority of the rural population.
By the autumn of 1920, signs of starvation began to appear in the Volga region, and in 1921 a severe drought ruined the harvest, bringing mass starvation to millions, mainly in the Volga provinces and the southern Urals. Perhaps anticipating this new crisis, in February 1920 Trotsky proposed that requisitioning be replaced with a tax in kind to stimulate the peasants to sow more grain, but this proposal was rejected by the party leadership.
The civil War ended in 1920, with the victory of the Red Army over the Whites, representing the interests of the old elites, supported by various foreign powers like Britain and the United States. Smith describes them as mostly Russian nationalists aiming at the restoration of a strong state, the “Russia One and Indivisible,” the ideological hegemony of the Orthodox Church, and the suppression of the “anarchy” brought about by the class conflict that inspired the hated revolutionary masses. Bolshevism for them was a “German-Jewish” conspiracy imposed on the Russian people and the term “Jew” (zhid) was equivalent to “Communist.”
Smith presents an excellent analysis of why the Red Army prevailed. First, he argues, it was a larger army than the Whites’. By the autumn of 1920, it had over five million recruits. Although the performance of its soldiers was uneven, Trotsky’s employment of military specialists who had been in the tsarist army cancelled whatever advantage the Whites had in expertise and experience. Smith also points out that the Reds were better at promoting talented young people, which allowed them to reduce the proportion of the hired military specialists in the officer corps from three-quarters in 1918 to a little over a third in 1921.
Moreover, while the Cossack cavalry fighting on the side of the Whites were of top quality, they were never comfortable fighting beyond their home regions. In addition, the Bolshevik forces were better organized and had a more unified leadership than the Whites, and had a more compact, integrated territory as their base of operations. Smith also notes that although foreign military intervention in support of the Whites on the part of France, Britain, and the United States was substantial, it was never on the scale that the Whites expected and needed. This was due, Smith avers, to the fact that the Allied governments had to contend at home with a population tired of war as well as with left-wing opposition, and therefore would not dedicate to the civil war the people and material resources that the Whites needed.
Moreover, Smith writes, from a social and political point of view, the Whites could never erase from the minds of the peasantry that they were allies of the landlords and as much as the peasants hated the Red food requisitions, they still saw the Reds as the lesser evil. Similarly, the non-Russian nationalities saw the Reds too as being more favorable to their national demands than the Whites.
Yet, the Red victory in the Civil War was attained at a very big cost. Discontent was rife among the peasants as well as among the workers who, as detailed by Smith, had also suffered major losses in their standard of living. This discontent led, on one hand, to the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, and on the other hand, to the Bolshevik government’s adoption, around the same time, of its New Economic Policy (NEP) aimed at appeasing that discontent.
The Kronstadt Rebellion
As Smith relates it, on February 27 and 28 1921, the sailors of Kronstadt, a fortified city and naval base located on an island in the Gulf of Finland some twenty miles west of Petrograd, disturbed by the repression of a general strike that had recently broken out in Petrograd, took arms against the government.
Upon taking over the naval base, the rebels presented the government with a series of demands involving primarily the end of War Communism, especially in the economic front, and for the return of freely elected soviets open to the competition of all left parties. They also called for the freedom of speech, press, and association, the abolition of the Cheka and all privileges for the Communists, and the dismantling of the one-party state. In fact, approximately two thirds of the Communist Party members at the base supported the rebellion.
For some time, the prevailing politics in Kronstadt could be characterized as revolutionary ultra-left. As discussed in my Before Stalinism, the Bolsheviks had never been a majority in Kronstadt during the era of multiparty soviets, not even in January 1918, when they reached the highest vote of 46 percent. The politics of the rebel sailors reflected this general trend. Thus, they certainly supported the October Revolution and their demands never called for the overthrow of the Soviet government. Neither did they ever invoke the slogan “soviets without communists” that Trotsky attributed to them.
Responding with what Smith characterizes as an intransigence stemming “not from confidence but from fear” the Bolshevik government crushed the rebellion, imposing the death sentence on 2,103 prisoners — although only several hundred were actually shot — and prison sentences on 6,459 rebels, of whom 1,464 were released soon after. In addition, some seven hundred Soviet troops were killed in the clash and 2,500 were injured. Smith notes that the government’s inflexible and harsh response is all the more striking given the fact that it was about to abandon War Communism, one of the more important demands of the rebels, to replace it with the New Economic Policy (NEP).
The New Economic Policy
Lenin called the NEP a “retreat” from War Communism. It was an attempt to pacify the population by increasing production and the availability of food and basic manufactured consumer goods. This was to be attained by allowing the peasantry to engage in private trade (subject to a tax in kind), thereby replacing the confiscations of War Communism, and to promote production and distribution of goods through concessions to domestic and foreign capitalists and urban private traders.
The “retreat” was accompanied by a policy of cultural liberalization permitting a substantial degree of artistic and creative freedom. Yet this liberalization in the artistic realm was accompanied by more political restrictions moving the widespread but still somewhat tentative repression of the civil war years towards the complete systematic repression of opposition parties in peacetime.
For Smith the NEP achieved many of its goals. He shows in detail how the agricultural and industrial economies improved under its impact. He argues that this managed to pacify the peasantry. On the working class, however, Smith concludes that the NEP had a complex impact: it improved the workers’ standard of living; but as state enterprises were given a fair degree of autonomy (and allowed to retain their profits), and as managerial power was restored, the notion of workers’ control was eliminated ending in the dustbin of history. At the same time, as Smith shows, union bargaining rights — including the right to strike — were restored, with strikes reaching their peak in 1922, with 431 stoppages involving 197,215 strikers.
However, the economic impact of the NEP was more complicated than Smith allows. One of its major problems involved the so-called scissors crisis whereby the peasants lacked adequate access to factory goods because of their high price relative to the price of agricultural products, which limited their own economic improvement, and in turn affected the workers’ access to food as the peasants reduced the delivery of food to the cities.
Surprisingly, Smith pays little attention to this issue. But for many people on the left, this crisis was an indication of what they saw as the exhaustion of the NEP as a model of economic growth.
Smith argues that while it is true that the NEP was deeply contradictory because of the opposition between state planning and market competition, the system worked and had not reached its terminal stage when the Stalinist regime ended it in 1928, although it could not sustain Stalin’s push for an extraordinary rate of industrialization.
It is important to note that in the late twenties the Communist Party was considering alternatives to what turned out to be Stalin’s model. There was Bukharin’s Communist “right,” which proposed slower economic growth and accommodation to the peasantry and Trotsky’s “left” that argued for a faster degree of industrialization and economic growth. In the last analysis these alternatives were two different versions of a revised New Economic Policy, and were in fact closer to each other than to the monstrous course followed by the supposed “center” led by Stalin with the super-exploitation of the working class and the millions of people who died as a result of the forced collectivization of the peasantry, which included the deliberate fostering of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932 and 1933.
While the peculiarities of the Russian Revolution will not be repeated, we can still discern patterns of development that might be helpful in understanding other revolutionary transitions. Thus, for example, we may tentatively conclude on the basis of the Russian NEP experience that any radical socialist transformation occurring in a country where the lion’s share of agricultural, industrial, and service production and distribution is not conducted by large, industrialized capitalist firms, will inevitably need, if that socialism is going to be democratic and humane, some version of a NEP to accommodate the possibilities and needs of large number of small producers, particularly individuals and families. This is because, as Frederick Engels pointed out in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, it is only on the basis of socialized production that full socialist appropriation, democratic control, and planning can be built.
On Revolutionary Repression
One of the most debated issues concerning the aftermath of the October Revolution — apart from the Stalinist dictatorship and the historical process that led up to it — was the repression that accompanied it. In many ways, it is this violent repression that, for many, informs the overall assessment of the revolution.
The principal organ of revolutionary repression in Russia was the Cheka. According to Smith, towards the end of 1917, the government set it up as an emergency commission to liquidate counterrevolution and sabotage. Many Bolshevik leaders criticized the Cheka as an institution out of control, particularly during the civil war. Leaders of city and provincial soviets often denounced it as a dominating body that was contemptuous of their authority. Every attempt to curb the Cheka failed. Lenin directly intervened in particular cases and criticized its abuses and stupidities, but he refused to support any institutional control over its operations.
Although clearly critical of Cheka abuses, Smith striving for a sense of proportion, notes that it is not obvious that the Russia of the 1920s that came out of the civil war was any more violent than its tsarist imperial predecessor with its colonial conquests, police repression, counter-insurgency, its sponsoring of anti-Jewish pogroms, floggings of prisoners, beatings in the workplace, besides the socially ingrained violence involving left- and right-wing terrorism, punishment inflicted within peasant communities on those who violated their norms, widespread child abuse, and wife beating. And he points out that all of the civil war protagonists practiced extreme violence.
In this context he describes the savagery inflicted by the peasants on soviet and party officials like the peasant attack in Penza, in March 1920, on Shuvaev, the local commissar, whose nose, ears, and head they cut off in succession one after the other. And he also describes how the Bolsheviks retaliated ruthlessly, taking hostages and shooting leaders, noting that “the peasants were calmed with the help of the lash.”
In light of the inevitability of violence in a revolution, particularly a social revolution, and of the horrendous crimes that have been committed in its name, it is important to examine which forms of revolutionary repression are compatible with a socialism from below that is democratic and humanistic.
An example would be the collective punishment that the Bolshevik regime often practiced — as in the suppression of the “Green” rebellions in the Tambov region in 1920-21 that led to the death of numerous peasants. This collective punishment involved the deliberate punitive measures taken by the government against people it knew were not involved in any counterrevolutionary activity but who belonged to certain suspect ethnic, regional, and class groupings like peasants. This practice had very serious consequences, not least making it far more difficult for the government to politically win over those major sectors of the population.
The same can be said about the Red Terror, instituted by Lenin in places such as Petrograd, as a response to the assassination of major Bolshevik leaders. It was aimed at people based on who they were rather than what they had actually done, as in the case of many people of bourgeois background who were actually collaborating with the Bolshevik government. As historian Alexander Rabinowitch reports in his book The Bolsheviks in Power, the Red Terror’s indiscriminate policies were opposed by a substantial part of the local Bolshevik leadership of Petrograd.
The collective punishment approach of the Bolshevik government, at least when applied to the peasantry, was based in part on a gross distortion of Marxist class analysis, that changed the Marxist notion of the hegemony and centrality of the working class, which Marx assumed would become the great majority of the population, into the very different notion of what could be called working-class sovereignty.
The concept of the centrality and hegemony refer to the historically unique nature of the modern working class, which has the potential for the revolutionary collective action essential to a socialism from below, and puts this class in the position of playing the leading role in the inevitable class alliances with other oppressed classes and groups, which are to be expected in authentic mass revolutionary movements such as the October Revolution. The working class played the leading role in that revolution, but it would not have succeeded without an alliance with the peasantry, and its indispensable participation and support.
The concept of working-class sovereignty refers to the politically different notion that only the interests of the working class narrowly conceived, particularly when workers constitute a small part of the population as in the case of the Russia of the 1920s, count in assessing the appropriate revolutionary strategy and tactics, downplaying the necessity of class alliances among the oppressed.
The distinction between working-class hegemony and sovereignty becomes particularly relevant in the context of the dramatic reduction of the Russian working class caused by the civil war. Smith shows that during that time over a million workers fled the towns for the villages, several hundred thousand left to join the Red Army, and tens of thousands took up administrative positions in the soviet, trade unions, and party organs. Thus, between 1917 and 1920 the number of factory and mine workers was reduced by 70 percent from 3.6 million to 1.5 million. This situation put in doubt the very existence of a working class and working-class rule.
Some Marxists have argued that that justified the Communist Party suppression of all other political parties so that they could stay in power to supposedly save the working-class revolution. However, the Communists could have also gotten out of their political isolation by adopting a new orientation to the peasantry. They did so in the economic realm with their New Economic Policy (NEP); but politically the government entrenched itself and instead of trying to win over the peasantry they limited themselves to pacify and coexist with the latter. Rather than democratizing its rule, the government consolidated its political one-party dictatorship.
The sovereign approach to the role of the working class in the Russian Revolution helps to explain the peasant disenfranchisement that the Bolshevik leadership carried out early in the revolutionary process. Article 25 of the 1918 Soviet Constitution established the number of delegates to the All-Russian Soviet Congress at one to each 25,000 voters for the urban soviets and one to each 125,000 inhabitants for the provincial (guberniia) soviet congresses. (Other classes and groups, such as employers, rentiers, private traders, monks, and priests and officers and agents of the former police, were totally disenfranchised.) Lenin’s legitimation of disenfranchisement even when he explained that it was not a necessary or defining element of the dictatorship of the proletariat, opened the door to a qualitatively worse application of the practice. After he died, an increasing number of peasants were denied outright the right to vote.
Smith shows the progression of this exclusionary process up to and including Stalin’s rule. Thus, whereas in 1926, 1.04 million people had been deprived of the vote, by 1929, this figure had risen to 3.7 million. Among rural dwellers the proportion of the disenfranchised more than doubled in that period, rising from 1.4 percent in 1924 to 3.5 percent in 1929. Furthermore, after 1928, the government excluded the disenfranchised from receiving rations, and instead of drafting them for military service as all male “toilers” aged nineteen to forty were required to serve, they were made to enroll in the home guard and pay a large exemption tax.
Smith also notes that the decision-making process to determine who was and who was not enfranchised was very arbitrary. He writes of local (Stalinized) soviets that disenfranchised middle and even poor peasants for hiring nurses or workers during harvest time, which supposedly turned them into “exploiters.” Religious affiliation often led a peasant to be labeled a “kulak” (rich peasant) and be disenfranchised.
Other considerations regarding whether a certain kind of violence is compatible with socialism is the fact that not all forms of violence are “neutral” in the sense that they could be legitimately used by any side. In the British peace movement of the early sixties, in which I was active when I was a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), some groups on the British left defended the right of the Soviet Union to possess nuclear weapons to countervail the atomic power of the United States.
Their leftist opponents pointed out that, besides the fact that the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state, nuclear weapons by their very nature could not distinguish between workers and capitalists, oppressors and oppressed, and would indiscriminately wipe out everybody. A similar argument applies, for example, to the use of napalm, Agent Orange, and the strategic hamlets that US imperialism used in Vietnam: they are not “neutral” in their class and human content and thus cannot be part of an emancipatory struggle.
Reforms, Reformists, and Revolutionaries
Focused on the October Revolution’s eventual denouement into the Stalinist nightmare, Smith fails to take stock of the significance of this event as the first successful socialist revolution led by a politically organized working class. Yet he recognizes that the Bolshevik revolution made important contributions to social progress in their commitment to, for example, affirmative action for ethnic minorities, and their efforts to liberate women from patriarchy, anticipating the demands of the movements of the sixties.
He sees this revolution as having raised fundamental questions regarding the reconciliation of justice, equality, and freedom even though he thinks that Bolshevik answers were flawed. In today’s world, he writes, where everything conspires for people to accept things as they are, the Bolshevik Revolution upholds the idea that the world can be organized in a more just and rational fashion. For all their many faults, he goes on, “the Bolsheviks were fired by outrage at the exploitation that lay at the heart of capitalism and at the raging nationalism that led Europe into the carnage of the First World War.” Millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors of Stalinism, “embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality and freedom.”
Finally, many might conclude that because a socialist revolution is not likely to be on the political agenda in the short and medium terms, the epoch-making events discussed in these pages are irrelevant to US politics. However, revolutionary politics is not only or even primarily about the seizure of power, but fundamentally a method to guide political behavior in both revolutionary and non-revolutionary situations, with the object of preparing the Left, working class, popular movements to successfully seize the opportunities offered by social crises whenever these might occur.
Thus, revolutionaries fight for reforms in a different way than reformists fight for reforms. The principal difference between these two approaches lies on the revolutionary insistence that the political and organizational independence of the working class and popular movements must be maintained at all costs. Thus, for example, even in the most successful strikes, it is critical that workers retain the freedom to fight future battles.
This entails, for example, an outright opposition to the now common very long contracts, labor-management committees to improve productivity and discipline the workforce, let alone worker representation in board of directors. In other words, revolutionaries should oppose anything that encourages workers to assume responsibilities without real power, let alone workers adopting the idea that this is “our company,” or that “we are all in this together.”
As part of this method, there is a memory that registers victories and defeats, right and wrong turns. As Smith described it, the Russian Revolution ended up not only in defeat but as a monstrous disaster. It is up to us to learn and remember why, incorporating it into our political vision and future struggles.