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Marxists Look Back on the Russian Revolution

Two new books find committed leftists wrangling with the grisly legacy of October 1917.
Marxists Look Back on the Russian Revolution

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Míeville, Verso, 384 pages.

The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, Tariq Ali, Verso, 384 pages.

On October 25, 1917, across the city of Petrograd, the Bolshevik party was preparing to take power from the Provisional Government that had overthrown the autocratic Tsarist regime the previous February. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the far-left Bolshevik movement, felt February’s coup had been premature and was run by what he viewed as hypocritical liberals who merely sought a moderate polity based on the values of social democracy.  

Sensing a historic moment, Lenin sat down to draft a proclamation for what he believed would be the coming of a worldwide socialist revolution. He wrote: “To the citizens of Russia: The cause for which the people have fought, namely…the abolition of landed proprietorship, workers’ control over production, and the establishment of Soviet power, has been secured. Long live the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ revolution!”

Lenin pulled his principles primarily from Marx’s Capital and The Communist Manifesto. Written in the mid-19th century, both books predicted that the global capitalist system would collapse when the working classes perceived the power they could obtain through unity. Then they would revolt to break free from their capitalist chains.  

By October 1917, Lenin believed those masses had finally spoken through the numerous soviets (councils) that had sprung up across Russia. A centralized party, however, would now take charge of those soviets. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were preparing to abandon the old dictum, “All power to the soviets.” Their vision now, far more authoritarian, was “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Lenin had spent many years in exile in various cities in western Europe. Not surprisingly, his hatred of the Tsarist regime ran deep. The Tsar had imprisoned him, sent him to Siberia, and hung his brother, Alexander, in 1887 for his revolutionary activities. Lenin had been waiting all his life for the revolution; in fact, the revolution was his life.

He returned to Russia in April 1917 in dramatic fashion—via Switzerland— in what historians now refer to as the infamous sealed train supplied by Germany, which hoped he and other revolutions would upend the tsar’s government and take Russia out of the war. The plan worked. Russia did indeed exit World War I when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918.

For the Bolsheviks, the October Revolution would usher in a paradise: land would be transferred to peasants; the cities would be supplied with bread; the nations of the old empire would be offered self determination. The Marxist revolution, it was believed, would thus spread all over Europe and eventually around the globe. It was a glorious vision.

But then a cold dose of reality set in.

As China Miéville points out in the epilogue to October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, problems quickly arose. A mortal threat to Lenin’s revolution was the Russian Civil War of 1917-22. This was fought between the Bolsheviks’ Red Army and the so-called White Army, a mixture of various Russian factions and a number of foreign powers. The conflict resulted in barbarity, starvation, mass death, pogroms, torture, cannibalism, and a collapse of industry and culture.     

During the war Lenin implemented an extremist economic policy known as War Communism, which sought to abolish money and make private trade illegal. The consequences, as Miéville points out, were disastrous—malnutrition, disease, plummeting production levels. In 1921 Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy, which reintroduced state-regulated capitalism, and the economy recovered slightly. But generally the picture in Russia was grim. That inevitably generated disunity in the party.

With Lenin’s death in 1924, Josef Stalin grabbed power through a series of brilliant maneuvers. He promptly moved the country towards a more inward-looking philosophy, called “socialism in one country,” which sought to build up the Soviet Union’s industrial base and military might. Only then, in Stalin’s view, could the revolution be exported abroad. This spawned opposition from Leon Trotsky, always a cosmopolitan internationalist.

Stalin introduced show trials, violent collectivization of farms, purges, gulags, paranoia, and mass murder by millions, including through the induced Ukrainian famine (more commonly known as the Holodomor) of 1932-33 where almost four million died from starvation. The egalitarian values that Lenin had spoken about in October 1917 were now distant dreams. Free thought and expression became de facto crimes. The author of the 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, would later capture the mood when she wrote: “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is a dangerous activity.”

And yet Miéville writes that the 1917 revolution is still “ground zero for arguments about fundamental change.” He is correct in pointing out that the Bolshevik agenda for social change initially included equality between men and women, mass literacy, and the decriminalization of homosexuality. Miéville also accepts that the legacy of the revolution is a bleak one. But he also believes that without scrutinizing the revolution with rigorous analysis, we fall into the trap of what he calls “bad-faith opportunist attacks of October.” Yet his book largely eschews deep-rooted historical analysis. Instead he offers little snapshots of the 1917 revolution from January to October, with a chapter documenting the events of each respective month. For a reader who has no background in Russian history, this might serve as an inviting entry point. But I found the book’s frantic pace, comic book style, and lack of commentary uninspiring, flat, and rather dull.

It must be noted, moreover, that Miéville is a Marxist partisan, and Marxist historians tend to be dogmatic and self-righteous. Which brings us to Tariq Ali, who takes a similar approach in his book, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. Since Ali has been a leading figure of the international left in Britain since the 1960s, it isn’t surprising that he idolizes Lenin. Had Lenin lived another five years, the historian contends, Russia and the Bolsheviks would have moved in a very different direction.   

During the last century, Ali argues, those who have honored Lenin have largely ignored his ideas, while those who sanctified his work rarely read him. Ali’s aim is to place Lenin in historical context. And some of his history is of interest. His interpretation of the failure of Germany’s Spartacist uprising in January 1919—led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were both murdered—is based on an intriguing counterfactual. He suggests that the death of the German socialist revolution essentially killed hopes for a proletariat global revolution.

But generally the book is a scattered affair. Ali wanders in his writing and interjects banal Marxist slogans into his work when he runs out of ideas. “It is revolutionaries that make history happen,” he writes. “Liberals of every sort, with rare exceptions, are found on the other side.” Marxism, he adds, with self-congratulatory assurance, “is a method of objective analysis [which] can communicate physical force to thought itself.”

As a committed Leninist, Ali views the world through a one-dimensional, black-and-white lens. There is right and wrong and the real truth. The real truth is Marxism. There isn’t much nuance here, and Ali seems to regard ideological opponents as traitors, hypocrites, and philistines.  

To seek an understanding of the revolution in its complexities, nuances, and enormous contradictions, one would be better served turning to scholars such as Robert Service, Orlando Figes, and Sheila Fitzpatrick. It is true that Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades—at least in October 1917—wanted to create a more egalitarian society. But it is also true that from the beginning they were willing to eliminate any person or group that did not conform to their particular vision of equality for the masses under the vanguard of an all-knowing, centralized party.

Revolutions by their nature are violent and chaotic, and usually suffused with fervent human emotion. Often they aren’t particularly rational, but rather full of contradictions and paradoxes. October 1917 was no exception. But a century on, with historical hindsight, we can see with clarity the terror and crimes that the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, inflicted on the Russian people. At the same time, we shouldn’t belittle the powerful figures who grasped history in their hands. Even Winston Churchill, that great bull of British imperialism and one of the 20th century’s most vocal opponents of Bolshevism, occasionally praised Lenin’s historical force. In an essay written five years after his death, quoted by Ali, Churchill said the Russian revolutionary’s mind “was a remarkable instrument. It was capable of universal comprehension in a degree rarely reached among men.” Surely he had a point.

JP O’ Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. He has written for a number of newspapers and publications around the globe, including the Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard, the Chicago Tribune, and numerous others.



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