A century ago this year, Russia was undergoing its Marxist revolution, an attempt to create a fairer nation that instead led to one of the most brutal tyrannies of all time.
So what happened? This is a debate that is once again becoming important thanks to the rise of socialist organizations and editions. Centrist liberals, who believed that the fundamental evil of socialism had been firmly established decades ago, were rather caught off guard by this development. For example, new York The magazine’s Jonathan Chait was in writing Many times against socialist publications, especially Jacobin, arguing that the repression of the Soviet Union was an inevitability of Marxist ideology. He affirms that Marxism is a “theory of class justice”, which only protects the political rights of the “oppressed class”. From this point of view, the October Revolution automatically led to the gulags because “repression is woven into the ideological fabric of Marxism”.
It is a popular reading of the revolution. But it’s also wrong about Marxism, Lenin’s mistakes and revolution in general.
In fact, as China Mieville writes in her new book October, there was not just one Russian revolution, but two. The first, in February 1917, abolished the Tsarist monarchy. The second, in October of the same year, led to the communist Soviet Union. And as Mieville argues, nothing about either or their consequences was predestined.
To understand why, it is important to first realize that Marxism is fundamentally a theory of economic history, not “class justice.” Marx described several stages of economic development, moving from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism and, ultimately, to socialism. The inevitability of socialism, according to Marx, was that capitalist development would lead to a falling rate of profit and increased conflict between workers and big business owners, resulting in a state in which the workers controlled the means of production.
All this gibberish is important because it explains one of the main characteristics of the Russian revolution: the extreme reluctance of most Russian socialists to take power.
But the socialists in Russia were not monolithic. The most famous faction today was, of course, the Bolsheviks, a political party created following a schism within the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1903. This more left-wing faction, led by Lenin, advocated membership in professional organizations. revolutionaries, but there was also a more moderate faction, led by Juliy Martov, who advocated a more open format. After some bickering, Lenin won a narrow majority (thus Bolshevik, or “one of the majority”) while Martov’s faction became Mensheviks (“one of the minority”). But these two parties were only one of the many left-wing parties that existed these days. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, led by Viktor Chernov, was more important than either at times, and it also had its own schisms.
But one thing that most of the different socialist factions had in common was a resistance to seizing power. Even the Bolsheviks hesitated before Lenin, with his tremendous energy and organizational talents, returned in person. Most socialists believed that according to Marxist lights, Russia – then a largely agrarian and unindustrialized country – was not ready for socialism. Instead, they had to step back and let the bourgeoisie go through its historical phase (perhaps with the help of the socialists), after which it could become a fully socialist nation.
It just turned out to be untenable. The Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to govern; the provisional government set up after the abdication of the incredibly incompetent Tsar Nicholas II never had full popular legitimacy. Instead, he ruled in concert with the system of soviets that organically sprang up throughout the country. (“Soviet” is another important term to be clear about; at this stage it was simply a workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils.) The Soviet of Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in particular, energized by fervent left-wing radicalism in what was then the Russian capital, was the real power behind the throne, so to speak.
Worse still, the interim government quickly squandered what little legitimacy and power it had. The First World War had devastated Russia and caused a serious morale crisis in the army. However, in July, Alexander Kerensky, then Minister of War in the Provisional Government, ordered a major offensive which failed spectacularly. Many soldiers became deeply radicalized, many more deserted en masse, and armed rebellion briefly broke out in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.
Despite the fact that they basically already had it, the Soviet leadership would not take power in a pinch. In early July, workers surrounded the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, demanding, in the words of one worker who shouted at Chernov, “take power, son of a bitch, when it’s handed over to you!” They were so furious that Chernov could have been lynched had it not been for the courageous intervention of Leon Trotsky. But the Soviet leadership still refused, reinforcing the belief of Lenin and the other Bolsheviks that they should.
An increasingly erratic Kerensky then took over the leadership of the Provisional Government, where he made a second disastrous mistake: appointing General Lavr Kornilov, a right-wing extremist, as commander-in-chief of the army. Kornilov was soon embroiled in a coup attempt, which was repelled only with massive help from the Soviets – and especially the Bolsheviks. After that, the Kerensky regime began to crumble.
The great mistake of Marxist ideology during the revolution was not primarily a lack of concern for rights, to which they were far ahead of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, it was far too preoccupied with events in the distant future, which led to hesitation and an inability to reason more practically. Over-intellectualized Marxists were totally caught off guard by the level of organic left uprising among the masses during the revolution – even the Bolsheviks often struggled to stay ahead of them.
Lenin’s characteristic intellectual idea, on the other hand, was a rejection of traditional Marxist history. He argued that it was not necessary to first pass through bourgeois capitalism to arrive at socialism; instead, workers could directly seize power through a revolutionary vanguard. This idea was so crazy at the time that convincing even most Bolsheviks was an uphill battle.
In retrospect, that was clearly enough reversed to justify taking political power now (instead of having to wait 50 years or so), but on at least one level, that was okay. Russian leftists simply could not stand idly by while the bourgeois regime crumbled on its own – the result would be total chaos or a bloody right-wing dictatorship, as Kornilov showed. (During this period, far-right militias called the Black Hundreds regularly ran in to carry out horrific anti-Jewish pogroms.)
However, Lenin also made a similar mistake of overconfidence in predicting the future. He was totally convinced that socialist revolutions were going to break out in other countries, notably in Germany. It didn’t even come close to happening. Worse, he was far too cavalier, at best, about democracy. The seizure of power by force is always liable to go wrong, and the Bolsheviks did not anticipate the fight that might ensue well, nor did they protect democratic rights well, especially later. Martov and his Mensheviks were right to say that trying to move directly to a socialist state by force was extremely dangerous.
Lenin’s characteristic organizational concept of “democratic centralism”, in which a party position is determined by debate, after which all party members must accept it without question, is also highly suspect. This was partly the root of Moscow’s abusive and dogmatic manipulation of Western communist parties throughout the Cold War years.
But these two elements are typically Leninist additions to Marxism.
You could, I suppose, try to lay some of the blame for later Stalinist atrocities on the Marxist theory of labor-value, which asserts that all capitalist profit is in some sense stolen from the workers. If this is true, we should be on the lookout for a revolutionary vanguard of libertarians who think taxation is theft.
But it is simply not the case that Marxism – a dry and over-elaborate doctrine, very interesting in some respects and clearly flawed in others – is a crank formula for purges and dictatorship. All European labor parties were officially Marxist for decades, leading only to generous welfare states and some experimentation with government-owned industry. The Nordic countries have become the most decent nations that have ever existed thanks to policies that have direct roots in an early 20th century socialist movement that was fervently Marxist.
So if Marxism did not condemn the Russian Revolution, what did?
The obvious culprit is the incomprehensible chaos and brutality of his circumstances. Just before the revolution, some three million Russians had died in World War I. The rapid collapse of Tsarism and the Provisional Government gave power to the most radical and radical factions on all sides. Immediately after the revolution, the Bolsheviks had to wage a civil war against virtually every other faction in Russia, many of whom were murderous reactionaries armed by Western powers. Winning required even more brutal tactics and combat, killing around 10 million more people in the process. That’s when a really awful authoritarianism started to take hold.
But again, none of this was written in the stars. At many points in the revolution, history has been poised on a knife edge. If the Soviets had declared themselves the sole power of the country in July 1917, when they were still ascendant democratic institutions, it is possible that Russia turned out to be simply a leftist democratic republic with unusual governmental structures. If Kerensky had not launched his offensive and put a far-right reactionary in charge of the army, the Provisional Government could easily have held out long enough to establish an ordinary parliamentary democracy. Without Lenin – who was nearly captured several times in 1917 – it is unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have succeeded in taking power. etc
So, in a century of those heady revolutionary days, let us remember the need for political action to deal with problems as they arise, but also the need for humility and the preservation of democracy at all costs. Utopian visions should not be imposed by force – but neither should we shy away from bold activism just because it is tinged with Marxist ideas. A better world East possible.