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  • Published in Book Reviews

Rabinowitch’s classic account of 1917 reveals the mass, popular nature of the October Revolution led by the Bolsheviks, argues Chris Nineham

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Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (Pluto 2017), 400pp.

This is the definitive account of one of the most dramatic four months in history, the months between July and October 1917 in Russia when the revolutionaries won majority support amongst workers and soldiers organised in the soviets, and with them, came to power. It combines gripping accounts of key episodes of the revolution with real insight into the shifting moods of the mass of the Russian people in the most democratic year in Russian history.

The book was published in 1973. Author Alexander Rabinowitch was the son of Russian emigres who had fled to Germany after the revolution and eventually settled in the US. Originally hostile to Bolshevism, close research led Rabinovitch to revise his views. After analysing rarely consulted minutes of party and soviet meetings and publications available in the West, and later studying party and soviet newspapers in Moscow libraries, he developed a picture of the revolution sharply at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy of the revolution as what he calls ‘a failed Leninist coup’ (p.xx).

The twisting path to power

His story starts halfway between the February and October revolutions when the left revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks) were trying to deal with the difficult situation of the ‘July Days’. Workers and soldiers in the capital Petrograd had called massive demonstrations against war and food shortages, which were turning into a full-scale assault on power. The semi-uprising of the July days was premature in the view of the Bolshevik leadership because the revolutionary workers didn’t have sufficient support in the rest of the country. If they took power in Petrograd they would be isolated and crushed. Through a combination of support for the protests and intense argument they managed to persuade the leaders of the movement to beat a temporary retreat.

But the Bolshevik party paid a high price. The government, an alliance of moderate socialists and liberals, accused the Bolsheviks of trying to overthrow it at a time when the country was threatened by invasion. It instituted a crackdown, encouraging the break-up of party presses, arresting leaders and forcing others like Lenin and Zinoviev into hiding. It launched a propaganda offensive against the Bolsheviks too, accusing them among other things of being German agents. Significant sections of the working class turned against the Bolsheviks as a result.

The revolutionaries’ fortunes changed quite fast though, for the simple reason that their basic arguments proved correct. The government was incapable of solving the problems that were radicalising Russia. It failed to bring an end to the catastrophic slaughter of World War One. It proved unable to sort out the terrible shortages of food and basic necessities, partly themselves a product of the war economy. It had no answer to the growing desperation of the peasants who had begun to seize land from their landlords.

Meanwhile, its ideological opposition to workers’ power made the government very nervous about the existence of workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets) and the continuing influence of the Bolsheviks within them. So much so that when in August, General Kornilov (a man with ‘a lion’s heart and the brains of a sheep’, according to a colleague, p.97) began to prepare a coup, Prime Minister Kerensky was tempted into supporting it, at least until he realized that Kornilov planned to remove him too. The coup attempt was overturned by an inspirational movement from below described by Rabinowitch in some of the great passages of the book:

‘Within hours after public announcement of the Kornilov emergency, alarm whistles were sounded in factories throughout Petrograd. Acting on their own, without instructions from higher authorities, workers reinforced security around plant buildings and grounds and began to form fighting detachments … to help arm these recruits, personnel in the canon shops in the Putilov Factory speeded production of a variety of weapons which were dispatched directly to the field without even a test-firing; metalworkers simply accompanied their products and adjusted the weapons on the spot … hastily organized mass meetings of soldiers in military barracks throughout the capital and its suburbs had passed resolutions condemning the counter-revolution and voicing their readiness to help defend the revolution … in addition, swift action by rail and telegraph workers initially prevented rightist leaders from establishing communications with advancing counterrevolutionary forces’ (pp.142-4).

Democracy and revolution

The Bolshevik party was the main organized political force to throw itself behind this extraordinary action. This and the exposure of the government’s partial collaboration with the coup radicalised the population once again and restored the Bolsheviks’ standing. From this moment, the government’s authority drained away. New questions were raised. Could power be transferred relatively peacefully from the bourgeois semi-parliament to a workers’ government based on the soviets or would there need to be an armed uprising? If an uprising was needed, the question followed, who should organise it? On these issues, the Bolsheviks were divided. Rabinowitch carefully describes the debate which raged within the Bolshevik central committee, between the central committee and the wider bodies of the party, and with the various institutions of the Petrograd soviet.

Rabinowitch’s book is a great piece of history writing with many virtues, but two things strike you again and again as you read. The first is the cynicism, deviousness and violence of the Russian elites under pressure, the second is the unbounded democracy of the workers’ and soldiers’ movement.

Lenin fought a relentless and ultimately successful battle with the leadership of the Bolshevik party, demanding an organized overthrow of the regime. He won the argument once again because he was proved right. As its authority ebbed, the government used every means at its disposal, including the threat of force, to try to suppress another revolution. Nonetheless, on a number of issues, including the timing of the insurrection and the mechanism for organizing it, Lenin was overruled.

Rabinowitch shows the decisive importance of Lenin’s political interventions overall but also reveals that the organization of the revolution involved a dynamic interaction between the Bolsheviks’ elected leadership, the wider party and the workers, soldiers and sailors – and the peasants – organized in the soviets. It was for example the military organisational committees of the Bolshevik party that insisted that the original date for the insurrection – that Lenin was promoting – was too early to have much hope of success. It was Trotsky and others who insisted that it that the insurrection should be organized by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the soviets rather than by a party body. This gave it greater legitimacy and drew in wider forces.

Rabinowitch develops a picture of a mass party with deep roots in the mass of the population, in which regional and local Petrograd organisations ‘were relatively free to tailor their tactics and appeals to suit local conditions’ in which there was a ‘lively debate and spirited give and take’. The result was a party whose ‘relative flexibility … as well as its responsiveness to the prevailing mass mood’ had ‘at least as much to do with the ultimate … victory as did revolutionary discipline, organizational unity or obedience to Lenin’ (p.xxxix). In the epilogue Rabinowitch once again judges that the most important attribute of the Bolshevik party was its ‘internally relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralized structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character’ (p.311).

The art of insurrection

This is of course a far cry from the right-wing caricature of a top-down dictatorship within the party, or indeed of the revolution as a coup or a conspiracy. The seizure of power actually took place on the eve of the assembly in Petrograd of the second congress of the soviets. There were technical reasons for this decision, but the fundamental reason was political. It was clear that the congress was going to mark the moment that the Bolshevik party became the strongest force within the soviets. At the Congress, the Bolsheviks had three hundred delegates as against 193 for the Social Revolutionaries and 68 for the Mensheviks (p.291). The year 1917 cannot be understood without grasping that the Bolsheviks’ whole concept of revolution depended on mass participation and support amongst workers and the oppressed. Only this can explain the policy of restraint during the July Days and only this can make sense of the extraordinary ease with which the key centres of power were taken in October.

Garrisons were mobilized for insurrection, battleships, including the Aurora, famously were stationed on the river Neva with their guns trained on the Winter Palace, the seat of the government, but there was little or no violence on the night of the insurrection. Kerensky fled the city, narrowly avoiding arrest, and his assembled government ministers surrendered because there were virtually no soldiers left prepared to defend them. Vital installations like the Telegraph and Post Office were easily taken because the soldiers guarding them supported the revolution, and the people working in them, while often not Bolsheviks, were ultimately persuaded via their trade-union leaders to accept the authority of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd soviet (p.262).

If these dramatic events in Petrograd are taken with the growing semi-spontaneous mass mutiny on the front and the wave of land seizures by peasants - which he can only sketch as he concentrates on Petrograd – the mass character of these events are made clear. No-one reading this book with its huge accumulation of documentary evidence could doubt that the October revolution was anything other than a popular insurrection with the support of the majority, and the participation, in one form or another, of millions.

Having effectively dismantled the mainstream narrative of the revolution, Rabinowitch raises notes of doubt right at the end of the epilogue, curiously at odds with the body of the work. In the same paragraph, he suggests that the Bolsheviks strong support only came ‘in the wake of the government’s direct attack on the left’ and that the masses’ belief that the Bolsheviks stood for ‘a broadly representative, exclusively socialist government by the Congress of the Soviets’ was in some way a delusion (p.314). These are two rather separate points.

The attacks by the government on the left were both real and predicted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But they were hardly some accident of history. Rather they proved the Bolsheviks right. They formed a part of the practical education of the working masses, that the right-wing socialists would ally with sections of the bourgeoisie against the revolution, and that dismantling the existing regime and replacing it by a government based on the soviets was essential to take the revolution forward.

The narrowing of the support for the revolutionary regime that took place at the Congress of Soviets was a product, as Rabinowitch details, not primarily of the actions of the Bolsheviks but of the bulk of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who actually walked out of the Congress in protest against the seizure of power. Rabinowitch quotes the Menshevik historian Sukhanov, who was there, complaining in retrospect that ‘by quitting the Congress, we ourselves gave the Bolsheviks a monopoly of the soviet, of the masses and of the revolution’ (p.294). But once again, this irresponsible action underlined the unreliability of these political forces and their hostility to a break with the bourgeois regime, something that had been proved over and over again in the preceding eight months.

Overall this is an utterly riveting celebration of October 1917, an indispensable guide to the art of insurrection, and a wonderful evocation of the creative interaction between the spontaneous and the deliberately organised that marks all great revolutions.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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