Two Years That Shook the World

The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd

by Alexander Rabinowitch
Norton, 393 pp., $14.95

The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization

by John L.H. Keep
Norton, 614 pp., $19.50

Class Struggles in the USSR: First Period 1917-1923

by Charles Bettelheim, translated by Brian Pearce
Monthly Review Press, 567 pp., $18.95

The File on the Tsar

by Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold
Harper & Row, 416 pp., $12.50

The Secret Police in Lenin's Russia

by Lennard D. Gerson
Temple University Press, 368 pp., $15.00

Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin; drawing by David Levine

Nearly sixty years have passed since the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd—traditionally on November 7, 1917, because that was when the Second Congress of Soviets voted them into power. Actually power had been in their hands for some time before, but it is regarded as more democratic to stress the vote of the Congress rather than the military coup d’état, and hence the myth of the date, one of many, which has become firmly rooted in the popular presentation of the Russian revolution. Seizure of power without enacting any democratic pantomime was Lenin’s determined plan: he was opposed on this by Trotsky and others, who realized that there was a wide divergence between Lenin’s intention of establishing communist party rule, disguised as democratic, mass rule, and that of the “masses” concerned who wanted power to be taken over by the Soviets, which they saw as a coalition of numerous left-wing parties, both communist and socialist.

It is not possible to establish on available evidence (and not even the late Professor S.P. Mel’gunov, the leading historian of 1917, succeeded in doing it) whether the way things actually worked out was the result of chance or design. The Bolsheviks Come to Power is largely concerned with the way in which Lenin maneuvered his supporters in the capital in order to achieve what he wanted, rather than what they believed was happening. The second book under review, John L.H. Keep’s The Russian Revolution, is also concerned with the way in which Lenin dealt with the “parliamentary illusions” which long outlasted the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Bolsheviks survived, at times very precariously. But the Kronstadt rising in March 1921 showed that these “illusions”—that the Bolshevik revolution had been intended to install rule by the popular councils called Soviets and not by the communist party—had considerable vitality in the popular imagination.

In spite of their titles, neither of the two books on the revolution in fact deals with more than some aspects of it. Professor Rabinowitch covers the story in detail as it unfolded in Petrograd from the July 1917 rising until the seizure of power in October. He has amassed an immense amount of material which has been published in recent years in the Soviet Union, and there is no doubt that his work illuminates many details in the story that have hitherto been unknown. I am not sure that it throws any real new light on the main events. Dr. Rabinowitch claims to have put right “many” or “most” Western accounts in three respects: by showing that the October revolution was neither a “historical accident” nor a “well-executed coup d’état without significant mass support,” nor yet the work of a “united, authoritarian, conspiratorial organization effectively controlled by Lenin.”

But where are these Western accounts to be found? Not so far as I am aware among serious historians. I should have thought that most…

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