Causes of the Russian Revolution, History: What the World Got Wrong

ILike 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, 1917 has entered the lexicon of world historical dates that all educated citizens are expected to know and remember. The meaning of 1917, however, remains much disputed, not least because two very different revolutions took place in Russia that fateful year. The February Revolution overthrew the Russian monarchy and ushered in a brief era of mixed liberal and socialist governance, to be replaced by the more radical October Revolution, which saw Lenin’s Bolshevik Party impose a communist dictatorship and proclaim a revolution open world against “capitalism” and “imperialism”. Each of these developments was significant enough to merit serious historical study. Together, they constitute one of the founding events of modern history, which introduced communism to the world and paved the way for decades of ideological conflict, culminating in the Cold War of 1945-1991.

Because the Bolsheviks were avowed Marxists, our understanding of the Russian Revolution has long been colored by Marxist language, from the idea of ​​a class struggle between the “proletarians” and the “capitalist” ruling classes, to the progression dialectic from a “bourgeois” to a socialist revolution. Even many non-Marxist historians tended during the Cold War years to accept the basic Marxist framework of discussion of the Russian Revolution, focusing on issues such as Russia’s economic backwardness compared to Western capitalist countries. more advanced, the stages of its emergence of feudalism and its “late” industrial development, the inequalities and the unbalanced social structure of Russia, etc. As recently as 1982, Sheila Fitzpatrick, in an influential academic textbook titled The Russian Revolutionunambiguously describes Lenin’s goal in the October Revolution as “the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat”.

This relatively uncritical approach to the Russian Revolution has proven surprisingly resistant to revision over the decades, in part because the great anti-Communist writers of the Cold War years, from George Orwell to Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Robert Conquest, are focused on communism in its period of Stalinism. “maturity” in the 1930s and 1940s, not on its origins in the Revolution. New serious studies of the February Revolution have emerged, such as that of George Katkov Russia 1917 (1967) and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa February Revolution (nineteen eighty one). Not before Richard Pipes The Russian Revolution (1990) however, has there been a serious reassessment of the 1917 revolutions as a whole. What happened in Red October, Pipes claimed, was not a revolution, not a mass movement from below, but a top-down coup, the “seizure of government power by a small minority. Far from being the product of social evolution, class struggle, economic development or other inexorable historical forces predicted in Marxist theory, the Russian Revolution was made “by identifiable men pursuing their own advantages”. , and was therefore “properly subject to a value judgment”. Pipes’ judgment of these men was scathing.

Coming out at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, Pipes’ profoundly revisionist study acted as a wrecking ball, demolishing the Russian Communist Party‘s last claim to democratic, popular or moral legitimacy. Pipes was even called as an expert witness in the 1992 Nuremberg-style trial of party crimes convened (and then quickly dropped) by the post-Communist government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Although many Soviet scholars derided Pipes’ revisionist history as irreparably biased (Pipes had worked as an adviser to the Reagan administration in 1981-82), no one could ignore it. In the long-running debates about communism between sympathizers and “cold warriors,” it seemed like the sympathizers had been placed squarely on the defensive, even routed for good.

A quarter of a century later, there are signs that the political worm is turning again. Works such as Thomas Piketty’s 2013 international bestseller Capital in the 21st century, as well as the popularity of openly declared socialists, such as Bernie Sanders, with young voters in an America previously hostile to socialism, suggest that Marx may be on the verge of a surprising comeback. For “Generation Y Marxists,” like the Nation magazine described the wave of young activists motivated by the “scourge of inequality”, the financial crash of 2008 has more resonance than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which marked the end of communism in Eastern Europe, or the collapse of the USSR in 1991. According to many measures (such as the “Gini coefficient”), social inequalities are indeed increasing sharply in Western countries, which fuels increasingly broad accusations against capitalism. We can surely now expect counter-revisionist books on the history of communism, as young historians revive the old dream of social revolution.

An event as important as the Russian Revolution will always be used and abused in political argument, as an epochal transformation that brought the oppressed workers and peasants of Russia either liberation (“peace, land and bread”) or freedom. enslavement, according to the political orientation of each. sympathies. As uplifting as these parables are, they bear only a passing resemblance to the actual events of 1917, which historians, who only had access to the original documentary material after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Russian archives, are still struggling to reconstruct.

Now that the Cold War is happily over, it is possible to treat the revolution with more serenity, as a concrete historical event – controversial and significant in its lasting impact on world politics, but also worth understanding in its own right. without the aid of our current prejudices. . Anecdotes and half-true stories about the revolution, smoothed into worn furrows as they were told and retold according to the evolving concerns of historians over the decades, came to replace the crooked wood of events in our memory. It is time to descend from the airy heights of ideological argumentation around 1917 and return to the solid basis of facts. By going back to the original sources, we can rediscover the revolution as it unfolded in real time, from the perspective of key players who did not know, in action, how history was going to unfold.

Excerpted with permission from The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin (Basic Books, 2017).

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