JThings were bad for Lenin 100 years ago. We are eight days away from the centenary of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, but just as he was about to strike, Lenin fell victim to one of the great scoops of the 20th century.
After a tough committee meeting set the date for the revolution as November 2 (Western calendar), two Bolshevik leaders, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who thought the idea was crazy, leaked the plan to a pro-government newspaper. .
Lenin, outraged, expelled them from the party and ordered the insurrection to be postponed for five days. The Provisional Government, already largely powerless, spent this time ordering additional troops into Petrograd, while the Bolshevik Commissars set out to rescind those orders.
In other words, it all happened in broad daylight. The New York Times reported on November 1, 1917, that a “demonstration” planned by “radical agitator Nikolai Lenin” had been postponed and the government was safe. The rest, as they say, is history.
As we approach the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the responses will be of three kinds: conservative condemnation; the liberal mixture of admiration and regret; and an enthusiastic commemoration. Although I reject Bolshevism and date the degeneration of the revolution to the early 1920s, I will be among those celebrating. The Russian Revolution was an intervention of the masses in history, like the French before it, and it is possible to celebrate that if you also recognize and celebrate the struggle that working people waged against the fairly rapid closure of their freedoms which s was produced in the years that followed. .
For me, the November 7 revolution represents exactly what the densely typed leaflets the Bolsheviks distributed in the run-up to the event promised: “class power.” The liberal-socialist provisional government which had ruled Russia since the abdication of the Tsar was collapsing. Many generals were mobilizing for a military coup. The front army was collapsing. Anti-Jewish pogroms broke out.
The working class, said Lenin’s agitators, was the only force that could step into the power vacuum, pull Russia out of a war it was badly losing, end the pogroms, and repress the right-wing officers who were preparing for the military regime. There would be a civil war anyway: the workers had controlled the factories since July, and many felt it was better to start it on the right foot.
We now know how badly it turned out. Lenin and the Soviet military commander Leon Trotsky knew that unless the workers of France and Germany joined them, their own revolution was doomed – and they knew, by studying the French Revolution of 1789, exactly what kind of misfortune it faced: either being crushed by armies supported from abroad or facing a takeover by an authoritarian tendency from within. Although they acted too ruthlessly against the external threat, they were ineffective against the internal threat and, on the whole, are guilty of favoring it.
What strikes me now, reading the oral histories and memoirs that researchers have recently unearthed, is how literate many ordinary people were historically. While resisting the idea of a workers’ revolution, working-class supporters of the Mensheviks – a moderate socialist party – repeatedly used the word “Thermidor” to warn of what might happen. Thermidor is the month in 1794 in which the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution came to an end with the beheading of Robespierre.
As early as 1909, Menshevik writers introduced the idea of a Russian Thermidor into their popular press and pamphlets. If the workers were to take power in a backward country, they said, then, just as in France, there would have to be a “terror”; the economy would collapse and, one day, an authoritarian group would rise from within the revolution to reimpose control. As the events of 1917 unfolded, most literate working-class people could have understood the parallels to 1789.
Our times are different. Since 2011, we have experienced a sudden rush towards history: the collapse of dictatorships, the emergence of new protest ideologies, the collective punishment of populations, unilateral annexations, declarations of independence and the fragmentation of institutions that used to be important.
But to what extent do we understand what we are experiencing? Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, and the demands for a permanent unipolar world order that accompanied it, belong to a bygone era. But the assumption that we have entered a state of technocratic permanence persists.
If you talk to former ghosts, diplomats and geostrategic analysts, they are intensely worried about the world and tend to deploy historical parallels to express their concerns. Businessmen and politicians tend to worry about next year’s earnings and polls, and have very few points of reference to understand the dynamics of the catastrophe.
As for the word “thermidor”, in British public life it is more often heard attached to the word “lobster” than in reference to the dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution.
Public service broadcasting, which has become extremely adept at explaining nature, rarely explains history well. We live in the golden age of historical dramas, where events disrupting the love affairs of pretty costumed people always happen like a thunderbolt. Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark bucks this trend, but if the BBC wanted to add public service value it would run Dan Snow or Tristram Hunt for an hour after Poldark, explaining the interplay of the French Revolution and the formation of the British working class.
In the coming days, the arguments over Russia’s rights and wrongs in 1917 will come to a head. Many other arguments will add to them – like when Estonia earlier this year asked the leftist Greek government to admit that “communism was as bad as fascism” (it refused).
What we must promote, as we re-fight the battles of the 20th century, is historical culture. Knowing what Thermidor meant did not prevent hundreds of thousands of Russian workers from betting on supporting the seizure of power by a tight-knit underground party. But it probably prepared them better for what happened next.
Paul Mason is a Guardian columnist
- This article was edited on Monday, October 30 to add an additional line of context.