A review of Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Berghahn Books, 2005), £45; and Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: the Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (Pluto Press, 2004), £12.99
A book on the history of Russia which begins by asserting that ‘the Marxists got it right. Leon Trotsky and Tony Cliff provided the theoretical groundwork for much of my understanding of the Russian Revolution while Victor Serge acted as the “conscience” of the revolution by giving it such an inspirational and principled voice’ is bound to be of interest to readers of this journal. And this is a book to beg, steal or borrow, for it is in a sense the missing volume in the analysis of how state capitalism developed out of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
Revolution and Counterrevolution explores the lives of workers in Moscow’s largest metalworking factory – the Guzhon factory, which became the Hammer and Sickle works – in the years between 1900 and 1932. It marks a double first in writing on the Russian Revolution. It breaks the implicit taboo that has seemed to prevent historians tracing the experience of these workers across both the rise and fall of the revolution, and it is based on the most intensive research in the Moscow archives.
Chapter one describes the emergence of an organised working class in the Guzhon works, the heady days of 1905, the repression after the defeat, and the pre-war radicalism that followed the massacre of workers on the Lena Goldfields in 1912. This marked the start of an upturn bringing large-scale industrial conflict back to Russian factories on the eve of the First World War. Chapter two tells the story of the 4,000 Guzhon workers involved in the revolution, complementing the city-wide accounts of Petrograd and Moscow that were written by Western historians in the 1980s. In 1917 factory committees were created in the works, workers won the eight-hour day, management was forced back and the level of class consciousness rose to new heights.
‘In the Marxist sense of a working class conscious of its collective strength, 1917 marked the zenith of proletarian power in the 20th century,’ writes Murphy. It is at this point that his analysis strikes out on its own to establish ‘how…a movement based on egalitarianism and freedom transformed into a system based on exploitation and repression’.
The argument that the Russian Revolution degenerated from the high point of 1917 under the blows of foreign intervention and civil war will be familiar to readers. But what kind of country was Russia between this point and Stalin’s consolidation of power? Although Trotsky discredited the concept by stretching it to cover the era after 1928, the idea of a degenerating workers’ state captures an important part of the reality. Lenin used a slightly different formulation describing Russia as a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations in a peasant country. Those of us who have written about this have often been so fixated on the degeneration aspect that we have neglected to analyse enough the extent to which, despite the poverty and penury, there were positive gains and evidence of a still vibrant, if more attenuated, culture below.
Here Murphy makes three important contributions. Firstly, he rejects the legend of the Civil War – that Bolshevik labour policy at this time anticipated Stalinism through ‘its iron discipline and brutal terror’. The extreme collapse during the Civil War affected the Hammer and Sickle works just as badly as other factories, but he finds no evidence in the archives to support ‘grossly inflated estimates about early state repression, concentration camps and coercion’. The Civil War unravelled the working class and so undercut class consciousness in favour of ‘a desperate and apolitical individualism in the factory’. In 1921 the factory nominally had 1,412 workers with conditions so bad that they were producing only 4 percent of the pre-war output. Yet these remaining workers ‘were almost completely unfazed by a state that had virtually ceased to exist’. This was very different then from what came later.
Secondly, whatever the deficiencies of Russia in the NEP period, and they were many, Murphy argues that early on there was a positive attempt to narrow the gap between the revolution and its base that had resulted from the Civil War. In the early 1920s workers had real material grievances in a situation of great difficulties, but they articulated them within the context of a regime with which they had an ‘uneasy compromise’ and felt some identity. Certainly they went on strike, they held boisterous mass meetings, but they also joined the party for positive reasons and saw factory committees and trade unions as vehicles for the expression of their grievances. This led to the creation of a system of arbitration for disputes that came to involve 6 million workers and which gave real weight to workers’ interests:
‘The early Soviet participatory institutions differed markedly from those of both the Tsarist and Stalinist eras. It was workers’ trust and involvement in workplace institutions that gave the factory regime an essential degree of legitimacy.’
Thirdly, Murphy shows how this was undercut in the second half of the 1920s and how Stalin was able to rise to power on this increasing separation of the state from the workers. This partly reflected the pressures forcing the state towards industrialisation, but it also reflected the changing position of workers, traced by Murphy in the case of the Hammer and Sickle works.
Although the power of the workers to resist the bureaucratic degeneration towards counterrevolution was weakening, Murphy supports the argument of Michael Reiman in his The Birth of Stalinism that there was something of a crisis in the factories in late 1927. It appeared briefly that there might be a surge in support for the opposition to the leadership. But this was overcome and after 1928 any independent working class expression was increasingly suppressed. In the Hammer and Sickle works a minority of workers were co-opted but most were forcibly squeezed by the state to help provide the resources for industrialisation. ‘Management coercion rested on social pressures by a milieu of hardened state loyalists to bully other workers and utilised control over food as its most effective weapon to discipline the workforce.’ So far from Stalinism having popular mandate, it was based on repression beneath which there was ‘simmering but fractured discontent’ among the workers of the Hammer and Sickle factory.
Murphy’s book will not be popular in academic circles. Each of the arguments he presents involves a challenge to the orthodoxy which stresses the continuity between 1917 and Stalinism. It will be less popular still because it is based on such serious research: ‘Fifteen years after the doors of the archives swung open, not a single source-driven study has supported either of the contending arguments – that the workers were either terrorised by the early Soviet state or impressed with Stalinism.’
But if his book is disliked because it stands out against the mixture of eclecticism and confusion that passes for wisdom in the study of Russian history these days then so much the better. The pettiness of the academic world sometimes seems to know no bounds and the pressures to conform are great. We should be grateful that Kevin Murphy has had the courage to write a book which ends so confidently with the argument that ‘Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were correct… The history of the Russian Revolution is the history of class struggle.’
During the 1970s and 1980s a ‘social history school’ of writers challenged both official Soviet histories of the Russian Revolution which regarded the Bolsheviks as the architects of the revolution, and the US Cold War historians who were hostile to the revolution and the Bolsheviks. The social historians’ work concentrated on showing that 1917 was not a coup, nor the action of a blind mob, but was based on a genuine mass movement led by workers who were increasingly politically conscious of their own actions.
First published in 1976, The Bolsheviks Come to Power is one of the best of these histories. Now republished, it offers a new readership an involving and convincing account of the revolution which has at its heart the self-activity of workers and soldiers, led by a responsive and flexible Bolshevik Party that bears no resemblance to the rigid, disciplined faction of right wing myth.
Rabinowitch’s history traces the ‘development of the revolution from below’. He uses minutes of meetings of local and city-wide soviets, the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks, resolutions and newspapers, to carefully assemble a compelling account of the complex and fluid relationship between the Bolsheviks and Petrograd’s workers and soldiers throughout the course of 1917. In the process he decisively demolishes the idea of the revolution as a highly organised coup forcibly imposed on the population.
Rabinowitch begins with the July Days in Petrograd, with the Bolshevik retreat from a premature challenge for power and the ensuing repression against the left. He examines the attempted right wing coup in August, the steady draining away of support for the Provisional Government that followed, and the rise of Bolshevik support in the Petrograd Soviet which preceded the October revolution.
Rabinowitch emphasises the impact of the First World War on driving the revolution forward in February, and in continuing to push soldiers to the left as the government’s continuation of the war alienated the army. He reveals the extent of this radicalisation – despite the July accusation that Lenin was a German agent most soldiers sided with the Bolsheviks because they were opposed to the death penalty at the front which Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, had reinstituted. By the time of the October insurrection, Kerensky was unable to mobilise any troops from the rear or the front in defence of his government against the forces of the Bolshevik-led soviet.
The increasing polarisation between the right wing forces of the Provisional Government and the revolutionary forces of the soviets from February to October is rigorously drawn out. The government installed by the February revolution had given in to right wing forces that threatened the revolution, and increasingly the strong impulse to unity that held the masses of workers and soldiers to the government became focused instead on the creation of a revolutionary soviet.
Rabinowitch traces how these tensions within dual power in Petrograd were played out, and demonstrates the necessity of the October insurrection to prevent another counter-revolutionary attempt.
Many social history accounts, in stressing the independent action of workers and soldiers, dilute the important role that the Bolshevik Party and the individuals in it played. Rabinowitch shows that, while October was clearly no coup or conspiracy, the Bolshevik role was central, and was intimately related to the independent action of the masses. The relationship between the party and the workers and soldiers in the soviets, trade unions and, indeed, the other socialist parties, was a dynamic and sensitive one. The Bolsheviks were not imposing their desires onto the ‘masses’, but were part of the collective shaping of a concrete strategy for the realisation of collective desires. The February demand for ‘bread, peace and land’ became more radical as workers and soldiers found their hopes for reform from the Provisional Government frustrated. They found their desires expressed in the Bolshevik slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets’.
Rabinowitch attributes the Bolsheviks’ success to the intense debate within the party and to the strength of democratic centralism – the leadership was often corrected by the membership in the workplaces and local soviets, and indeed was often itself divided. In explaining the Bolsheviks’ growth and influence, Rabinowitch emphasises ‘the party’s internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character’.
He also points to the growth of the party as contributing to its flexible and accessible nature – the thousands of new members who joined the party in 1917 were ‘by no means without influence, so that to a significant degree the party was now responsive and open to the masses’.
There are weaknesses with The Bolsheviks Come to Power: Rabinowitch’s narrow focus means he spends little time on wider events and processes, which makes some prior knowledge of the revolution and its context essential. He constrains his account to events and social changes in Petrograd with no reference to the rest of Russia or the international context, which can be frustrating. His approach ‘from below’ provides much less sense of the view of bourgeois forces at the time. However, within these limitations, the cumulative power of the evidence Rabinowitch uses is thorough and convincing without being dry – the atmosphere in Petrograd is vividly transmitted and the sense of dynamism and development in people’s actions and ideas comes through very well. There is even a map with all the key buildings marked enabling the reader to follow the revolution through the streets.
At a time when histories of the revolution are dominated by a new ‘revisionism’ – like Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, both of which cloak their return to traditional, hostile accounts of the revolution in more liberal and populist language – this book is a reminder of the strengths of social history writing at its best.
The collapse of Stalinism disoriented many on the left, in some cases leading to dramatic political reversals. Consequently today there is little resistance to the revisionist picture of the revolution. This, and the renewed importance of debates over the nature of leadership within the movement against capitalism and war, in which interpretations of the Russian Revolution are crucial, make the re-publication of this classic book timely and very welcome.