The collection of essays in October 1917 show the Revolution as animated by ‘the irrepressible aspiration of humanity to freedom’, finds Judy Cox
October 1917: Workers in Power, ed. Fred Leplat, introduction Paul Le Blanc (Merlin Press 2016), 320pp.
Maxim Gorky was a celebrated playwright and friend of Lenin. Despite being a critic of some aspects of the Bolsheviks’ centralism, he understood what the October Revolution of 1917 represented:
‘Whoever honestly thinks that the irrepressible aspiration of humanity to freedom, to beauty and to an existence guided by reason is not a useless dream but a real force which by itself, could create new ways of living – that it is itself a lever which could change the world – every honest person must recognise the general significance of the activity of the consistent revolutionaries. The revolution should be conceived as a vast attempt to give shape to the guiding ideas and response envisaged by the chief thinkers of humanity’ (p.106)
That spirit animates this book and lots of it is very interesting, but it is also a strange project. It begins with a useful chronology of events. This is helpful as many studies assume that readers have a basic understanding of what happened when, but revolutions are nothing if not complex. This is followed by Paul Le Blanc’s brief but insightful survey of the historiography of the Russian Revolution. Le Blanc charts the shifts and turns in how historians have approached the events of 1917.
Le Blanc begins with the eye witness accounts of four idealistic young American journalists, Louise Bryant, John Reed, Bessie Beattie and Albert Rhys Williams. ‘I went to gather pebbles,’ Bryant wrote, ‘and found pearls’ (p.2). ‘It is man in the act of making himself’, Beattie believed, ‘To have failed to see the hope in the Russian Revolution is to be a blind man looking at the sunrise’ (p.2). Rhys Williams wrote that hunger was the great agitator, but revolutionaries played their part: ‘They did not make the Revolution. But they made the Revolution a success’ (p.3).
These early responses to the revolution were followed in the 1930s by Trotsky’s magisterial History of the Russian Revolutionand other serious accounts published outside Russia. Inside the Soviet Union, historians had begun to invent a key role for Stalin, notably absent from the first eye-witness accounts. Following the Second World War, interpretations of 1917 were shaped by the Cold War. In the West, as well as the East, historians stressed a unity between Lenin and Stalin. It is this concept which had proved to be enduring in all subsequent interpretations of the revolution, and which this book attempts to disprove.
The Russian Revolution, Le Blanc points out, was a combination of multiple insurgencies, of class, of nationality and ethnicity and of gender. How those insurgencies interacted with the revolutionary party was crucially crucial, and recent scholarship for example by Lars Lih has demonstrated that the Bolshevik Party was a collective organisation, not the monolith of Cold War myth.
At the heart of the volume is a long essay by Ernest Mandel. Mandel will be familiar to many who have been on the revolutionary left for many years as an important figure in the Trotskyist movement. Mandel’s essay challenges many misconceptions about the nature of the revolution and it is striking how relevant many of his arguments remain. The Russian Revolution was not a coup, it was not a dangerous attempt to leap straight into a utopian future, nor was it a putsch by fanatics manipulated by Lenin. He describes the international significance of 1917, stressing how it was both possible and necessary for the revolution to spread internationally. Mandel describes the measures that the revolutionary government took to end the war, to solve the land question and to create a higher form of democracy. Some very powerful sections of the essay describe the White Terror which was launched against the revolutionary forces. The extent of anti-Semitic pogroms was horrific and gave a glimpse of what Russia would have been subjected to had it not been for the socialist revolution of October 1917.
The most controversial section of the essay comes at the end, where Mandel outlines his criticisms of the Bolsheviks attitude to democracy, in particular the banning of other parties in the Soviets. Mandel refers to a debate between John Rees and Samuel Farber about the context for this ban. Mandel argues against John Rees, writing that that the ban was unjustified because the Civil War had ended. However, the context for the ban and other similar measures was the continuing attacks by foreign powers and White Armies and the destruction of the Soviet economy. Although this is potentially a fascinating discussion, I found this the least satisfying section of the book. There are lots of detailed points that could be made, but overall in seeking the germ of Stalinism in the practice of the Bolsheviks, Mandel undermines the case the volume is making – that Lenin did not lead to Stalin. The Bolsheviks were not perfect but their imperfections were born out of a commitment to the survival of the revolution against enormous odds and in this they succeeded magnificently.
The last section of the book is comprised of a selection of essays, two recent works looking at the role of the factory committees by David Mandel, followed by four classic revolutionary defences of the October Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky. These are gems that are worth reading and rereading for their scope, power and depth. Reading the words of these great anti-capitalist revolutionaries underlines their commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class and to a different future for humanity.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.