Lenin’s Petrograd

Issue: 117
Posted: 18 December 07

Ken Olende

Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power (Indiana University, 2007), £17.99

Alexander Rabinowitch details the October Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, and how power was won and held over the period until the celebrations of the revolution’s first anniversary. The narrow focus on Petrograd is both a strength and a weakness. It allows a detailed examination of all aspects of organisation in the soviet, the Bolshevik Party and other organisations. However, about halfway through the period the government moved to Moscow, which means the latter part of the book is less taken up with decisions of national importance.

Rabinowitch has previously written about the Bolshevik Party in the run-up to insurrection in Prelude to Revolution (1968) and earlier events following the February Revolution in The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976). In the preface to this volume he explains that the third book was drafted in the 1980s, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and access to the archives which that allowed led to a complete rewrite and a long delay.

He adds that where the first volumes showed how the Bolshevik Party was “open, relatively democratic and decentralised”, he felt this volume must explain how the party and the state became centralised and oppressive. This frequently makes the book infuriating. For the most part he sides with the cautious line of Lev Kamenev in arguments on the Bolshevik central committee—against the “recklessness” of Lenin (and occasionally Leon Trotsky).

Rabinowitch is a good enough writer not to let this distort other people’s ability to make their own minds up about the documents to which he refers. There is nothing here likely to significantly change the opinion of anyone who had previously supported Lenin.

For people who already know something of how the events unfolded, what makes the book valuable is the wealth of detail about discussions and debates on issues vital or trivial. It is worth quoting an example at some length to get a flavour. This is a report of a crucial meeting of the Petrograd trade union council in early November 1917:

“Close to 200 Petrograd trade unionists participated. Lenin gave the main address, ‘On the Current Moment’, after which members of the council jumped on him for focusing the brunt of his attack on the Mensheviks and SRs [the social revolutionaries] rather than on the Kadets. An unidentified Menshevik-Internationalist insisted that the repressive politics of Lenin and Trotsky were a sign of weakness rather than strength, and of obsequiousness toward the masses, and that ‘a party which placed impossible challenges before the proletariat was not its friend’. Judging from the protocol of this meeting, nobody spoke out in Lenin’s defence. Yet at its close, a Leninist resolution endorsing the existing government as ‘a true reflection of the interests of the vast majority of the population’ was adopted by a vote of 112 to 33.”

The author’s narrative tends to present Lenin as a driven, impractical figure putting his personal vision ahead of day to day compromises, though this is not a necessary interpretation of the documents presented.

An example from the discussion on food requisitioning gives a flavour. Lenin said in March 1919 that Bolsheviks had made “terrible errors” in relating to the peasantry, “because of the inexperience of our workers, [and] the complexity of the problem.” Rabinowitch asks, “But why was the problem so complex, one wonders? And who more than Lenin was responsible for the terrible errors?” This is typical of comments that make it hard to recommend the book to a general reader who does not already know something about the events.

Rabinowitch’s gloss is that the October insurrection was unnecessary as a broad coalition of socialists was forming around the Petrograd Soviet, which was coming to undermine the Provisional Government. The soviet could have expanded into a new government around the newly called Constituent Assembly. By forcing through the insurrection the Bolsheviks (or more specifically Lenin and Trotsky) jeopardised the future of the revolution and isolated themselves from what would have been a broader multi-party socialist government.

As with many arguments Rabinowitch puts forward, this follows the detail of minutes and documents, but leaves out the dynamic of events. Lenin, however, was analysing and acting on events as they occurred when he insisted that the need to take power was urgent and that the opportunity would not last indefinitely.

Because of arguments like this, I would recommend reading The Bolsheviks in Power in conjunction with other works. One of the most useful is Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution, written by a participant and originally published in 1930 during high Stalinism. Serge’s work is much stronger on both the external threats and the excitement, as well as celebrating the level of democracy and participation in Russia just after the revolution.

Also invaluable is Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, which takes a far more sympathetic look at Lenin’s political decisions throughout his political life, including the specific arguments in the period covered by The Bolsheviks in Power. Particularly relevant here is the section “The Coming of the Monolithic State”, which goes over much of the same ground.

With the same provisos about political conclusions, the book goes on to fascinating discussions on how the soviets came to run local government institutions, how the policy of getting out of the war was pursued, the Bolsheviks’ split with the Left Social Revolutionaries (who had initially taken part in the revolutionary government) and the “red terror” against feared counter-revolutionaries.

There is an in-depth analysis of the negotiations with the German high command at Brest Litovsk to end Russia’s participation in the First World War. Ironically Lenin was seen as being on the right of the party now, as he insisted on signing a peace treaty at a time when most Bolsheviks demanded no compromise with imperialism. Rabinowitch reports of the Petrograd Bolsheviks’ conference in early 1918, “Discarding as irrelevant Lenin’s warning that ‘the cream of the Petrograd proletariat would be sacrificed in a struggle against the Germans’, the conference adopted a sharply worded resolution censuring the central committee.”

All this detail makes the volume extremely useful for a specialist audience. Arguably it complements Trotsky’s definitive History of the Russian Revolution, which emphasises the role of the masses, while sometimes lacking in detail on the role of the party. For readers who don’t know the story already, John Reed’s journalistic eye-witness account, Ten Days that Shook the World, is also well worth reading and comparing to the presentation of various incidents in this book.