How far was the Russian Revolution made by the Bolsheviks?

Issue: 156

Steve Smith

A review of Dave Sherry, Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed (Bookmarks, 2017), £12.99.

At a time when it looks as if capitalism can’t—and shouldn’t—survive through the 21st century, it’s timely to remind a new generation of activists that the 20th century witnessed a massive challenge to capitalism in the shape of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Dave Sherry has written a rousing account of the revolution that will serve that new generation well. He rightly insists that “out of the bloodbath of the First World War, it [the Revolution] opened up the prospect of a better world. Its message of international solidarity and working class self-emancipation sped round the globe” (p9). His account of the extraordinary events of 1917 is lucid and lively, and he provides some fine set-piece descriptions of the critical turning points, such as the July Days and the October insurrection. He is especially good in bringing to the fore the level of organisation and militancy of the working class. His ability to explain complex political issues is also commendable. He has read widely and chosen some excellent quotations to substantiate his points (although he doesn’t seem actually to have read Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy, since both references to it are quite misleading). His account is conventional, following closely that of Leon Trotsky’s towering history of the Russian Revolution, but there are original emphases throughout and some sharp observations. In particular, he emphasises the role played by women workers in a way that is novel, and he makes valuable comparisons between events in Russia and those without.

But Sherry’s book is far from being a “warts and all” account. He presents Lenin’s views as consistently correct, and a thoughtful newcomer might be left wondering about issues that are passed over quickly or in silence. (Why, for example, if Lenin was a principled rather than a tactical believer in soviet power did he present the Second Congress of Soviets with a government made up entirely of Bolsheviks?) Similarly, the working class is presented as solidly behind the Bolsheviks, so the same newcomer might wonder why so many workers supported the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (the latter, incidentally, were a working class as well as a peasant party) in spring 1917 and why some shifted back to the Mensheviks in spring 1918. These are just a couple of instances where I would have liked to see a more critical analysis and less cheerleading.

More fundamentally, Sherry gives a cogent account of the deeper causes of the February Revolution, yet like so many Marxist histories, his deviates from a materialist analysis of developments in 1917 towards one that places huge emphasis on human will and agency. Few would doubt that without Lenin there would not have been a seizure of power in October 1917, but the potentiality for revolution was not created by Lenin and the Bolshevik party, or even by the working class. Lenin’s great contribution was to appreciate that objective ­conditions—the carnage of war, the collapse of the Tsarist state and a devastating socio-economic breakdown that was causing massive popular suffering—had created the possibility for revolutionaries to seize the political initiative. Sherry fails to give full weight to these objective conditions, which, incidentally, sprang directly out of the First World War and only indirectly out of a crisis of the capitalist system.

One consequence is that in underplaying the specificity of the crisis in Russia, he exaggerates the extent to which Europe as a whole was on the verge of Bolshevik-style revolution. Certainly, levels of working class militancy were on an unprecedented scale. Yet in contrast to Russia, the Social Democratic government in Germany, backed (reluctantly) by the generals and by a powerful bourgeoisie, and unthreatened by an insurgent peasantry, was able ruthlessly to suppress the stirrings of social revolution. Three times the German communists struggled to seize power and each time they were crushed. Contrary to the standard account, this was not primarily a problem of poor leadership: it was about the depth of the social crisis and the relative balance of class forces. Incidentally, we shouldn’t assume that ruling class fears of Bolshevik revolution were necessarily proportionate to the actual threat posed by revolutionaries, as the “red scare” in the United States underlines.

I’m sure many readers of this journal will disagree with this analysis. My point is that to present the revolution as a “festival of the oppressed” is to make light of the fact that it emerged out of mass slaughter and a catastrophic deterioration in living standards and social security. Certainly, October opened up a wide range of opportunities for emancipation, especially of colonial peoples and of women. Yet, as a product of these baleful circumstances, it was also scarred by the effects of war and social collapse. Sherry brings out the positive legacies of October very well but ignores negative legacies, such as a conviction that the party could substitute for the working class; that one-party rule was compatible with socialist democracy; an intolerance of dissent, and contempt for law and human life. These were early features of the Bolshevik power that predate the rise of Stalin and that cannot simply be ascribed to a crippling civil war. Why, otherwise, was there no attempt to combat these phenomena after 1920? Dave Sherry claims that the “lessons” of October are as vital today as they were in 1917. If so, those fighting for a better world need to recognise that there are negative as well as positive lessons to be learned.

Steve Smith is the author of Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 (Oxford, 2017).