The Russian Revolution: tragedy or inspiration?

Issue: 155

James Eaden

A review of S A Smith, Russia in Revolution : An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 (Oxford University Press, 2017), £25, Neil Faulkner, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press/Left Book Club, 2017), £12.99 and Mark D Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 (Oxford University Press, 2017), £19.99

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has brought a revival of interest in the events of 1917. The London Evening Standard ran a piece in February of this year highlighting some of the cultural events on offer, from the Royal Academy exhibition “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932”, to a “Tipples of the Tsars” wine tasting event.1 The centenary has also seen the publication of a range of new books and new editions of existing texts. In addition to the three reviewed here, several other writers from a radical left standpoint have written books this year: Tariq Ali has published a new book on Lenin, and China Miéville and Dave Sherry have both written books on 1917.2 One of the blockbusters of the 80th anniversary in 1997, Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy, has been republished in a special anniversary edition with a new introduction to mark the event.3

However, Soviet studies as an area of academic study, research and publication has possibly passed its peak. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly rich decades; the opening up and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union gave a generation of historians access to archive material that had previously been restricted. This led to many publications drawing on detailed historical research which confirmed the popular depth and breadth of the revolutionary upheavals of 1917.4

Much of this scholarship challenged the dominant right-wing view, which saw 1917 primarily as a period of chaos and disruption out of which a Leninist conspiracy, aided by German backing, had seized power and then unleashed a reign of terror. Many of the “revisionist” historians of this period, although often not particularly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, affirmed that the revolution was genuinely popular. In detailed studies, which often looked beyond the unfolding of the key events of 1917 in St Petersburg and Moscow, authors looked at the role of particular groups in the revolution, such as factory workers and peasants on the land. They uncovered revolutionary developments in the non-Russian areas of an empire described by Karl Marx as a “prison-house of nations”. Here the social and economic demands of the revolution interplayed with demands for national liberation

However, these accounts were always challenged by interpretations that focused almost exclusively on the conspiratorial nature of the “October coup” and on the role of violent “red terror” in the consolidation of Bolshevik rule. The collapse of the Soviet Union, despite allowing scholars greater access to the historical archive, also fed into a generally delegitimising narrative about the role of the 1917 revolution and of revolutions in general. The writing of history cannot be separated from the general political mood prevailing at the time and reflected at the top of society. Just as the Cold War period produced highly partisan and ideological anti-soviet tracts and some robust defences of the revolution, the era of neoliberal dominance that followed it, and the triumphalist ideology of the “end of history”, challenged the whole idea of revolutionary change. The title of Figes’s A People’s Tragedy is telling; while avoiding the crudest Cold War view of the revolution, he nevertheless outlines a “tragic” process whereby, due to the backwardness of the Russian people, an initially liberal movement was hijacked in an authoritarian conspiracy led by Lenin.

All three of the texts reviewed here broadly share a positive view of the potential of the revolution and affirm the extraordinary outpouring and flowering of mass democratic political activity which developed as part of the revolutionary process. None of these authors make the mistake identified by Leon Trotsky in the introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution, of attempting to present themselves as purely neutral.5

Both Steve Smith and Mark Steinberg ponder in very general terms about the legacy of the revolution as a potential inspiration for a generation of people struggling for a better world today. Steinberg wonders whether, if we could “awaken from the dead the idealists of those days, they might recognise the spirit, values and hopes animating protests around the world today”.6 Smith concludes that the revolution “raised fundamental questions about how justice, equality and freedom can be reconciled, which have not gone away”. Despite arguing throughout that the impact of the revolution and the civil war that followed brought about calamity for the people of Russia, he argues that:

We shall not understand the Russian Revolution unless we see that for all their many faults, the Bolsheviks were fired by outrage at the exploitation that lay at the heart of capitalism and the raging nationalism that had led Europe into the carnage of the First World War. Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear and despair that motivated it: the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society.7

Neil Faulkner is more forthright in his defence of the revolution and of the actions that the Bolsheviks took to attempt to defend the revolution, although his coverage of the period of the Civil War, the subsequent degeneration of the revolution and the rise of Stalinism is brief. Audience is important. Steinberg is writing for “both students and lay readers”8 and Smith for the “reader coming new to the subject” but with “something of interest to say to my academic colleagues”.9 Faulkner, on the other hand, is writing, in his own words “for ­activists who want to change it [the world]”, and his book is none the worse for it.10 Faulker’s narrative account of the unfolding events of 1917, contained in four core chapters under the heading “The Tempest”, provides a clear account of the mass and popular nature of the revolutionary process and a detailed outline of the sharp arguments within the political leadership of the revolution, including the Bolshevik Party. Smith places the revolution of 1917 in a broader historical sweep stretching from 1890 to the consolidation of Stalin’s rise to power in 1928. In 400 pages of a book published to coincide with the centenary of the 1917 revolution, he devotes only 50 pages to the period from February to October.

Steinberg provides less of a narrative account than either Smith or Faulkner, and draws in particular on contemporary journalism of the period, which provides some fascinating insights into attitudes and experiences of the revolution. He also provides a number of portraits of protagonists. Some, like Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai, will be familiar to readers of this journal. Others are less well known. Steinberg introduces us to the Uzbek Muslim activist Mahmud Khoja Behbudi, the Ukrainian Social Democrat Volodymyr Vynnychenko and the Jewish writer Isaac Babel. This provides some fascinating insight into issues of nationality, religion and ethnic identity during the revolutionary period.11 Steinberg also gives a very useful and detailed bibliography of English language publications about the Russian Revolution which forms a good guide to anyone wanting to read further.

The roots of revolution in Russia are often put down to the backward nature of the country; indeed Trotsky starts his History of the Russian Revolution by describing “the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms, and low level of culture”.12 But as Trotsky goes on to argue, it was precisely the impact of modernisation and change, and in particular the process of “combined and uneven development” that helped to lay the basis for the developing crisis of the Tsarist state and the emergence of new social forces. Of particular importance was the newly emerging industrial working class, still a small minority of the overall population but concentrated into strategically important centres. But the rapid modernisation of society also brought change to peasant society—on the one hand the development of market-driven capitalist agriculture and on the other the strengthening of the traditional commune. A new middle class, both urban and rural, was being formed and the relationship between the Russian state and the non-Russian peoples, who by the 1890s made up a majority of the population, was changing; “As Russia’s extremely backward society underwent brisk economic, social and cultural change, new social and political forces were unleashed that eroded the social base of the autocracy”.13

Both Smith and Steinberg provide some rich illustration and detailed analysis of this process of social change and its impact on society. Smith’s much earlier Red Petrograd, a detailed study of the development of factory committees in Petrograd, showed the growth of workers’ organisation and the way in which the idea of “soviet power” developed organically from below.14 Here once again he focuses on the key role of urban workers. Were workers in the major Russian cities a distinct social class, or were they in effect peasants who had swapped the farm for the factory but who retained the key features of peasant culture? The answer is not clear cut. Workers in St Petersburg tended to be more distinctively proletarian. By 1910 60 percent of the workforce had been born in the city, whereas in the mining and textile centres of the Urals, “a more symbiotic relationship existed between field and factory”.15

Life in the city provided new attractions to many young workers. Semën Kanatchnikov, who had recently arrived in St Petersburg and who went on to become a Bolshevik, spent his wages on “a holiday outfit, a watch…a wide belt, grey trousers, a straw hat and some fancy shoes”.16 However, smart dress sense and developing class consciousness don’t necessarily contradict each other. Whatever the attractions of the bright lights of the city to young workers, the reality of life in overcrowded tenements and work in often appalling conditions with “little Tsars” as foremen, created sharp class antagonisms leading to high levels of worker militancy. Steinberg notes the widespread use of class-based language among workers to articulate and express their views; the term burzhui, a Russianised form of the term bourgeois, was ubiquitous.17

The 1905 revolution saw wave after wave of mass strikes and protests, the emergence, in the main industrial centres, of elected workers’ councils or soviets and the growing influence of revolutionary Marxist ideas within the working class. The success of the Bolsheviks in elections to the Duma, which operated under a very limited franchise in working class areas, is testament to this. Despite the severe crisis that befell revolutionary organisations in the years of reaction and “downturn” which followed the defeat of the 1905 revolution and the extreme repression of the Tsarist state, that influence was to prevail. Trotsky addresses the argument about leadership, spontaneity and the February Revolution and makes direct reference to the influence and legacy of revolutionary Marxist ideas among key groups of industrial workers. His famous formulation is instructive: “To the question, who led the February revolution? we can then answer definitely enough: conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”.18

Accounts of the revolution have traditionally focused on key events in St Petersburg and Moscow and some of the other key centres of state power and of the radicalised and revolutionary industrial working class. But the revolution convulsed the whole of Russia from peasant villages to the non-Russian nations of the Empire. Both Smith and Steinberg are particularly strong in this respect. Although Petrograd was the epicentre of the revolution, it would be mistaken simply to view events in the rest of the empire as an echo of those in the capital. In particular, once the Provisional Government was established it often lacked the capacity to consolidate its authority in large parts of the country. The concept of dual power neatly encapsulates the competing political expressions of the power of the state on the one hand, and the power of workers, soldiers and peasants on the other. But Smith argues that “outside the capital dual power did not really exist” and that the Soviets in many localities had become the de facto “organs of local government, concerned with everything from food supply, to education, to law and order”.19

What of the Bolshevik Party and its key figurehead, Lenin, who were to emerge as the leadership of the new Soviet state by the end of October 1917? Both Smith and Steinberg avoid the crude characterisation of Lenin’s key text What Is To Be Done?, written in 1902, as a blueprint for dictatorship. Smith argues that the book “became more influential than it perhaps warrants”.20 Although he makes a number of routine sideswipes at Lenin’s “obsession with ideological purity” and “authoritarian habits of thought and action”, Smith provides an account of the development and role of the Bolshevik party which confirms Bolshevism and Lenin’s role as an integral part of the revolutionary process; describing the party’s “ability to talk a language that ordinary people understood and to rearticulate in terms of class struggle and socialism their very urgent and desperate concerns”.21

In his account of the period of the emergence and development of the Soviet state during the period of the civil war and after, Smith is critical of conservative historians who see totalitarianism as simply hardwired into Bolshevism and see the violence of the civil war period as a deliberate strategy by the Bolsheviks to impose a dictatorship on Russia. By contrast, while focusing relentlessly on Red violence, Smith sees this primarily as a reaction to the counter-revolutionary violence of the Whites. Unlike the standard right-wing accounts he does not see Stalinism as the necessary outcome of the revolution. He argues for the significance of a “Great Break” in 1928, and explains “the evolution of the Bolshevik regime with particular regard to the historical circumstances of war and economic backwardness that shaped it”.22 However, like many other social historians whose focus is on “history from below”, Smith tends to underplay the significance and impact of foreign intervention on the revolution. This is seen as a separate and temporary feature, driven primarily by allied war aims rather than a conscious counter-revolutionary agenda. This focus on “the specific features that engendered revolution in Russia”23 also means that Smith tends to underplay the potential for international revolution. Smith is rightly critical of the Bolsheviks’ failed attempt to “bring happiness and peace to the toilers of humanity on our bayonets”24 with the Polish war in 1920. But references to the revolutionary upheavals in Germany, and the role of the Comintern as strategic tool of international revolution, tend to be shaped by a sense of the inevitability of failure of the revolutionary project in the West. The fact that the revolution didn’t spread, particularly to Germany, does not mean that failure was inevitable, or that, in the absence of Russia’s “specific features”, revolution in the West remained a pipe dream.25

Faulkner’s approach to Lenin and the Bolsheviks is very different, as might be expected from somebody who identifies as a revolutionary socialist and who for many years was associated with this journal and the Socialist Workers Party. All histories are written through the prism of the present and Faulkner’s present represents an important break with his own political past. One of the key lessons of the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was their ability to develop into a mass party capable of leading a popular revolution to overthrow the capitalist state, through the experience and practice of party-building in the preceding decades. It was this development “of cadres who had endured years of hardship”26 which contrasted the Russian experience in the turbulent revolutionary years at the end of the First World War, with that of other European states. During the “great dress rehearsal” of 1905, the process of building and sustaining revolutionary organisation took place during periods of mass struggle, when large numbers of activists could be won to the party. However, for much of the time, for example during the period from 1909 till 1912, struggle remained at a relatively low level. Faulkner is of course correct to say that: “Only the masses in struggle can create a party of revolution”.27 However, this formulation is not sufficient to address the imperative of how revolutionaries should organise themselves during those periods when there is not mass revolutionary struggle, when struggle from below is partial, sporadic and limited.

Faulkner draws directly on the interpretation of the nature of Leninism put forward by the Canadian Marxist Lars Lih, arguing that Lih makes: “a compelling case that Lenin, so far from being a ‘democractic-centralist’ setting out to create ‘a party of a new type’, was in fact a mainstream European Social Democrat”.28 There is not the space in this review to go into a detailed debate about Lih’s formulations, which have been discussed critically in two recent pieces in this journal.29 However, the practice of Bolshevism, both before and during the events of 1917, differed radically from that of European Social Democracy and from that of the Mensheviks. At key moments during 1917: the period immediately after Lenin’s return from exile in April, the July Days, the Kornilov coup and the October rising itself, the Bolsheviks had to make sharp strategic and tactical shifts. Their ability to make these key strategic turns rested primarily on the basis of the work done over the previous period of lower levels of struggle in building a “party of a new type”. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist intellectual of German Social Democracy, famously stated in a similar formulation to that used by Faulkner that the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was “a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party”.30 The Bolshevik Party, faced with the crisis of the war and the revolutionary upheaval that followed it, passed the test of transforming itself into a “revolution-making party”. The SPD and the rest of European Social Democracy (with some brave exceptions) when faced with that crisis, displayed something rather different. Not only did they not emerge as “revolution-making” parties, but in their collapse into national chauvinism and support for their respective ruling classes during the war, they revealed themselves not to be revolutionary parties of any shade.

How we understand the Russian Revolution is important for the practice of socialists today. Celebrating the revolution for its early success and its potential are important aspects of striving for a better world, as is understanding the factors which were to lead to its eventual isolation and defeat. For revolutionary socialists today the history of the revolution and the experience of the Bolshevik Party provide important lessons of both success and of ultimate degeneration and failure. Reclaiming 1917 from the dead hand of much of the mainstream commentary accompanying the centenary is important, and these three books, in very different ways, make some valuable contributions to that process.

James Eaden is a retired lecturer and member of Chesterfield Socialist Workers Party.


1 Field, 2017.

2 Ali, 2017; Sherry, 2017; Miéville, 2017.

3 Figes, 2017.

4 Examples including Koenker, 1981, Kaiser, 1987 and Steve Smith himself—Smith, 1983.

5 Trotsky, 2017.

6 Steinberg, 2017, p357.

7 Smith, 2017, p393.

8 Steinberg, 2017, pv.

9 Smith, 2017, p2.

10 Faulkner, 2017, p3.

11 Steinberg, 2017, pp223-278.

12 Trotsky, 2017, p3.

13 Smith, 2017, p9.

14 Smith, 1983.

15 Smith, 2017, p40.

16 Smith, 2017, p70.

17 Steinberg, 2017, p85.

18 Trotsky, 2017, p171.

19 Smith, 2017, pp107-109.

20 Smith, 2017, p45.

21 Smith, 2017, pp112 and 115.

22 Smith, 2017, p385.

23 Smith, 2017, p305.

24 Smith, 2017, p175.

25 The classic accounts of the scale and scope of the German Revolution remain those by Pierre Broué (2006), and Chris Harman (1982). There has been some detailed debate about the trajectory of the German Revolution in recent publications in this journal, see for example Phillips, 2016.

26 Smith, 2017, p113.

27 Faulkner, 2017, px.

28 Faulkner, 2017, p63.

29 Corr and Jenkins, 2014; Corr, 2017.

30 Cited in Corr and Jenkins, 2014, p54.


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Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 1918-23 (Haymarket).

Corr, Kevin, and Gareth Jenkins, 2014, “The Case of The Disappearing Lenin”, International Socialism 144 (autumn),

Corr, Kevin, 2017, “Lenin’s April Theses and the Russian Revolution”, International Socialism 154 (spring),

Faulkner, Neil, 2017, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press).

Field, 2017, “Russian Revolution Centenary Celebrations in London: How to Mark One of the Most Radical Moments in History”, Evening Standard (3 February),

Figes, Orlando, 2017 [1997], A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (Bodley Head).

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (Bookmarks).

Kaiser, Daniel (ed), 1987, The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917: The View from Below (Cambridge University Press).

Koenker, Diane P, 1981, Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution (Princeton University Press).

Miéville, China, 2017, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso).

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “Was the German Revolution Defeated by January 1919?”, International Socialism 149 (winter),

Sherry, Dave, 2017, Russia 1917—Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed (Bookmarks).

Smith, Steve A, 1983, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918 (Cambridge University Press).

Smith, Steve A, 2017, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 (Oxford University Press).

Steinberg, Mark D, 2017, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 (Oxford University Press).

Trotsky, Leon, 2017 [1930], History of the Russian Revolution (Penguin Classics).