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 …