A Short History of the Russian Revolution
Marxism and Freedom (second edition)
Let us try a mental experiment. Suppose Lenin had not got to Petersburg in 1917, had arrived too late, or had been jailed by the Provisional Government. Would there have been a Bolshevik seizure of power? It seems most unlikely. Lenin himself in October (old style) insisted that it was now or never: the fleeting chance might not return; the Government would somehow extricate itself from the war, satisfy some of the peasants, and disarm the workers; then the opportunity would be gone. Lenin’s opponents agreed: this was indeed what they were working for. Most of his colleagues were against an armed rising and followed him with the greatest unwillingness. No other leader had either the ability or the will to act in his manner. Trotsky indeed was willing, but he lacked an organization. The others were for a coalition with the Mensheviks and the Populists. None dreamed of dictatorship. In February (March) they had been ready to support liberal democracy and the Provisional Government.
The October Revolution, then, was the work of one man in the sense that without him it could not, would not, have happened. This was the view of Lenin’s opponents at the time. It was the judgment of Trotsky years later. It is reflected in the numberless incidents that crowd the pages of Sukhanov’s famous Diary (edited by Mr. Carmichael some years ago). It appears to be the conclusion to which Mr. Carmichael is brought in his excellent Short History now published. Yet it is totally subversive of Leninism as a doctrine. For if the October Revolution depended upon one man, it was fortuitous; and a fortuitous event cannot be in tune with “determined necessity.”
Or can it? The Third Reich depended on Hitler, and Hitler ruined Germany; but perhaps it is arguable that Germany’s overweening ambition would anyhow have caused trouble sooner or later. But trouble on this scale, leading to national catastrophe, and much else besides? Clearly the element of chance in history can have fateful consequences. Lenin’s arrival in Petersburg, in April 1917, fated Russia, in the sense that once he was there and had got control of the Bolshevik party he was able to exploit a unique opportunity. Whence a historical break-through; not just a revolution (there have been many revolutions), but the phenomenon called Communism. For Communism is defined not by anything Marx wrote, but by what Lenin did in 1917. Thus the shape of our present world depended on one man.
Or so it seems. In fact of course we do not know what would have happened to Russia and the world if Lenin had failed. Yet certain things are tolerably clear. For example, Russia would surely have become a great industrial and military power (it was already a sizeable one in 1914). Pretty certainly, too, liberal democracy would have proved a failure in Russia. After all, it failed in Spain twenty years later, and Spain was better prepared. Already in 1917 the battle-lines of the future were being drawn. The ruling democrats were beset on their Right as well as on their Left. Failing the Bolshevik seizure of power, there might—there probably would—have been a brief Anarchist rising, followed by the inevitable military repression and dictatorship. Russia would then have passed under the rule of White generals and landowners. And how long would that have lasted? After all, the revolutionary forces were still powerful, and the peasants dissatisfied. Before long, a democratic upheaval would have brought the Left to power. But it would not have been a Communist Left—its leaders would have pursued the old Narodnik dream of agarian socialism. After a while these illusions would have faded (as they are now fading in India), and the Russian bourgeoisie would at last have taken over. And would its leaders have looked and sounded so very different from technocrats like Brezhnev and Kosygin?
Or try another track. Suppose there had been Fascism—i.e., Russian National Socialism. But what was Stalinism if not National Socialism? A Fascist dictatorship would doubtless have crushed the labor movement, dragooned the peasants, set up concentration camps, militarized the country, persecuted national minorities, Jews, and intellectuals. In short, it would have done what Stalin did (though probably less effectively). Would there have been a difference? Industrialization might have been pushed a shade less rapidly, and there would certainly have been no kolkhoz. But heavy industry would surely have been nationalized (much of it was under State control before the Revolution), and everything would have been done to turn Russia into a great power. War with Germany would have been more, not less, likely. The annexation of Eastern Europe would have been pursued, as it was under the Tsars. It is true the ideology would have been different: there would have been no Marxism, just plain Russian National Socialism. But it is arguable that this is going to happen anyhow. The Chinese think it has already happened. They may be right.
What I am suggesting, of course, is that in the end Lenin made no difference. Millions of people died, or were killed, for the sake of Communism; but Communism has not been established in the USSR. What has been established is a great industrial structure (and a somewhat shaky agricultural one). The structure is centrally planned, but then this seems to be an economic necessity, especially in backward countries. If one is so minded, one may call it socialism, though Trotskyists and others insist that the proper term is “state capitalism.” (There are objections to this, on Marxist grounds, since “capitalism” without private property and the market hardly makes sense). Whatever one chooses to call it, the system is such that it can be operated by people who are not Communists and who do not believe in Marx or Lenin. If Russia’s rulers turned Fascist tomorrow (Stalin was pretty close to it in 1940, at the time of his alliance with Hitler), they could go on operating the system without changing its essentials. They would indeed have to change the ideology—admittedly not an easy job. On the whole they are better off with Leninism, on condition that they do not take it seriously. For Leninism is not really relevant to Russia any more, and the troubles of the regime really spring from the fact that the political elite has to operate with concepts derived from the traditions of a revolutionary movement which at one stage had genuinely Utopian aims in view. The reality of technocratic planning, hierarchical control in industry, and great-power politics abroad, undermines the official creed. Yet the creed also serves the regime by providing it with a doctrine, a good conscience, even the semblance of a universal idea. The political elite is not yet an ordinary ruling class: sheltering behind slogans it has ceased to believe, despising in private what it professes to hold sacred in public. It will probably get there in the end (and then we shall see the start of true political warfare, perhaps even a two-party system), but for the time being the veil of illusion still holds.
I have wandered some distance from the theme of Mr. Carmichael’s admirably compressed work; yet not, I hope, so far as to lose sight of the two ends of the argument: Lenin’s central role in 1917, and the ultimate irrelevance even of Lenin. This last naturally does not appear from Mr. Carmichael’s account, since he is concerned with the October coup and what made it possible. Yet the future already cast its shadow in 1917-18: Mr. Carmichael reminds us that, although the Bolsheviks officially introduced workers’ control (the workers having anyhow seized the factories), the real agent of economic coordination was the State: in other words, the bureaucracy. Thus the cloven hoof made a very early appearance. True, the Communist leaders at the time still thought of themselves as representatives of the workers, and were determined to keep the bureaucracy in its place. But the decisive step had been taken: in the three-cornered struggle between the old capitalist owners, the working class, and the state bureaucracy, the latter had gained the key position. All it needed now was a leader who would identify the State with the Party, and himself with both. Then it would become apparent that it was not the workers who had won power.
As with the workers, so with the peasants: they seized the land, won formal ownership of it in 1917, and lost it some years later, when Stalin went back on the promises of the October Revolution. Stalin hardly appears in Mr. Carmichael’s account (or for that matter in Sukhanov’s). Which is as it should be: after all, his role in 1917 was quite secondary. To Sukhanov he seemed no more than a “gray blur”—a remark which cost its author dear at a later stage, when the “gray blur” had come to fill the center of the stage. Among the numerous legends which find no room in Mr. Carmichael’s scholarly account (so much more reliable, and so much more readable, than some of the volumes to which we have been lately treated) there is that of Stalin’s important role in 1917. But he is perhaps entitled to even more praise for having put Trotsky in his place. For there is a myth which comes close to suggesting that Trotsky might have taken Lenin’s place in 1917, had the Bolshevik leader been killed or incapacitated. This is not so, and the reader of Mr. Carmichael’s Short History will discover the reason. Bolshevism was Lenin’s creation from start to finish, and though his colleagues balked at the critical moment, he was able to carry the party machine with him and drive his reluctant associates into what they privately regarded as the crazy gamble of the October rising: a rising predicated on the Utopian idea that a worldwide proletarian revolution was only waiting for the signal from Russia. When these phantom armies failed to make an appearance, the Bolsheviks knew in their hearts that they were lost, unless they could turn Russia into an invincible fortress. By 1921 at the latest it was clear that the initial gamble had not come off; but by then it was too late to go back.
Mrs. Dunayevskaya’s lengthy essay (first published in 1958 and now available in paperback) plays variations on this theme. A former close associate of Trotsky—with whom she broke in 1939 over the Hitler-Stalin pact and other matters—she belongs to the “ultra-left” or libertarian stream of socialist thought. Understandably in the circumstances she treats the Revolution as a tragedy, and Lenin as a genius whose vision ran ahead of its time. Though sentimentally attached to him, and even inclined to overrate his intellectual accomplishments (notably his rather amateurish Hegel comentaries) she has a firm grasp of the essentials so far as the descent from Lenin to Stalin is concerned. Her own utopianism comes out in the chapter devoted to 1921, the NEP, and the failure of the “Workers’ Opposition.” It is true that Lenin in 1921 tried to salvage what was left of party democracy, where Stalin later ruthlessly destroyed it. But to say that the Kronstadt mutiny “compelled sharp measures which are certainly no model for a workers’ state to follow” is to display a rather ingenuous view of politics. What “workers’ state”? There never was such a thing. And conversely, if the Bolshevik regime in 1921 was what she imagines it to have been, why should it not have suppressed the rebellion? “The tragedy of the Russian Revolution,” in her view, was that “the masses” were not really drawn into public life, in the way Lenin had envisaged when he wrote State and Revolution. But in the absence of democracy, how could they have been so drawn in? Mrs. Dunayevskaya might have learned the reasons of the failure from Rosa Luxemburg, whose general outlook is somewhat akin to hers. It is not enough to say that “the young workers’ state could not lift itself by its own bootstraps, particularly as it didn’t have any boots.” When will these Utopians realize that there never was a “workers’ state”? Probably never. If they did, they would have to stop being romantic about it.
In the case of Mrs. Dunayevskaya and those who think along similar lines, the matter is complicated by arguments over “state capitalism.” This is now the label fixed by these purists upon all Communist regimes, including that of Mao Tse-tung. (Oddly, they combine this approach with naive adulation of colonial liberation movements). Stalinism and Maoism are both “state capitalist.” Very well, but then why do the Russians and the Chinese quarrel? Because it is in the nature of the unregenerate to come to blows? Because they are not really Communists? But where and when shall we see real Communism, if it is not embodied in these self-styled regimes? The answer seems to be: when the workers and the intellectuals have seized power from the bureaucrats and installed true socialist democracy, on the model of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956. One would like to see some hint that, even in this happy event (for which we are all waiting), the workers will not in fact become a new “ruling class.” At most they will have some of the liberty now denied them. They will also, one hopes, be able to restrain the planners, with whom the ultimate control will continue to rest. But more than that? These neo-Marxists really must get it into their heads that a “workers’ state” is no more possible than a “peasants’ state.” Even Marx never went beyond saying that it was the task of the workers to “liberate the elements of the new society already forming in the womb of the old.” His disciples would do well to ponder this message. It holds no encouragement for utopianism.
Be that as it may. By the time the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution comes around, we shall still see the new technocracy installed in the seats of power, disputing border issues with the Chinese, and combining Leninist rhetoric about the class struggle with discreet overtures to whoever sits in the White House. But when, if ever, will these men, who hold power over 220 million Soviet citizens, cut the Gordian knot and proclaim that the goals of the Revolution have been attained? Khruschev was getting close to it, and this may have been a factor in his political demise. But the problem remains what it was: the new society needs an ideology appropriate to its real (as distinct from its spurious) aims and interests. Lenin left his successors an immense estate, but he also saddled them with the problem of legitimizing themselves in the eyes of their own people and the world. Hitherto they have not solved it. Utopia continues to beckon, and the lesser breeds (most of them colored) are getting obstreperous: they dimly sense that Russia is no longer the revolutionary power it once was—may indeed be on the point of turning conservative. Will the Leninist synthesis of nationalism and socialism hold in the face of this challenge? There have been other revolutions, but none with a universal creed claiming to offer mankind a solution for all its ills. Lenin’s heirs are also the prisoners of this claim. To become realists they would have to repudiate it. Perhaps they will. But it is well to remember that nations have committed suicide for less. Spain ruined itself for the sake of the Counter-Reformation, Turkey for Islam, Germany for the myth of the Nordic Race. Russia might just conceivably ruin itself for the sake of Communism. One must hope that it will not.