100 years on from the October revolution, Judy Cox introduces Arthur Ransome's pamphlet The Truth about Russia
Preface to The Truth about Russia
Every day brings a ship,
Every ship brings a word;
Well for those who have no fear,
Looking seaward well assured
That the word the vessel brings
Is the word they wish to hear.
Emerson wrote the poem I have stolen for a headpiece to this letter, and Emerson wrote the best commentary on that poem: “If there is any period one would desire to be born in – is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” Revolution divides men by character far more sharply than they are divided by war. Those whom the Gods love take the youth of their hearts and throw themselves gladly on that side, even if, clear sighted, they perceive that the fires of revolution will burn up perhaps the very things that, for themselves, they hold most dear.
Those others, wise, circumspect, foolish with the folly of wisdom, refrain, and are burned up none the less. It is the same with nations, and I send this pamphlet to America because America supported the French Revolution when England condemned it, and because now also America seems to me to look towards Russia with better will to understand, with less suspicion, without the easy cynicism that prepares the disaster at which it is afterwards ready to smile. Not that I think all this is due to some special virtue in America. I have no doubt it is due to geographical and economic conditions. America is further from this bloody cockpit of Europe, for one thing. For another, even rich Americans dependent for their full pockets on the continuance of the present capitalist system, can wholeheartedly admire the story of the Bolshevik adventure, and even wish for success, without fearing any serious damage to the edifice in which they live. Or it may be, that, knowing so little about America, I let myself think too well of it. Perhaps there too men go about repeating easy lies, poisoning the wells of truth from simple lack of attention to the hygiene of the mind. I do not know.
I only know that, from the point of view of the Russian Revolution, England seems to be a vast nightmare of blind folly, separated from the continent, indeed from the world, by the sea, and beyond that by the trenches, and deprived, by some fairy godmother who was not invited to her christening, of the imagination to realise what is happening beyond. Shouting in daily telegrams across the wires from Russia I feel I am shouting at a drunken man asleep in the road in front of a steam roller. And then the newspapers of six weeks ago arrive, and I seem to see that drunk, sleeping fool make a motion as if to brush a fly from his nose, and take no further notice of the monstrous thing bearing steadily towards him.
I love the real England, but I hate, more than I hate anything on earth (except cowardice in looking at the truth) the intellectual sloth, the gross mental indolence that prevents the English from making an effort of imagination and realising how shameful will be their position in history when the story of this last year in the biography of democracy comes to be written. How shameful, and how foolish .... for they will one day be forced to realise how appalling are the mistakes they committed, even from the mere bestial standpoint of self-interest and expediency. Shameful, foolish and tragic beyond tears for the toll will be paid in English blood. English lads will die and English lads have died, not one or two, but hundreds of thousands, because their elders listen to men who think little things, and tell them little things, which are so terribly easy to repeat.
They look across Europe and see huge things, monstrous figures, and, to save themselves, and from respect for other little lazy minds, they leap for the easiest tawdry explanation, and say, “Ah yes, bogies made in Germany with candles inside turnip heads!” And having found their miserable little atheistical explanation they din it into everybody, so that other people shall make the same mistakes, and they have company in folly, and so be excused. And in the end it becomes difficult for even honest-minded, sturdy folk in England to look these bogies squarely in their turnip faces and to see that they are not bogies at all, but the real article, giants, whose movements in the mist are of greater import for the future of the world than anything else that is happening in our day.
I think it possible that the revolution will fail. If so, then its failure will not mean that it loses its importance. The French Revolution gave a measure of freedom to every nation in Europe, although it failed most notably in France and ended in a dictator and a defeated dictator at that, and for the brave clear-sighted France foreseen by Diderot and Rousseau substituted a France in which thought died and every one was free to grub money with a view to enslaving everybody else. The failure of the French Revolution did not lessen the ardour which the ideas that sprang from it poured into the minds that came to their maturity between 1795 and 1801. And perhaps it was that failure which sharpened the conflict of the first half of the nineteenth century, in which, after all, many candles were lit and fiercely, successfully guarded in the windy night that followed the revolutionary sunset. Let the revolution fail. No matter, if only in America, in England, in France, in Germany, men know what it was that failed, and how it failed, who betrayed it, who murdered it. Man does not live by his deeds so much as by the purposes of his deeds. We have seen the flight of the young eagles. Nothing can destroy that fact, even if, later in the day, the eagles drop to earth, one by one, with broken wings.
It is hard here, with the tragedy so close at hand, so intimate, not to forget the immediate practical purpose of my writing. It is this to set down, as shortly as possible, the story of the development of the Soviet power in Russia, to show what forces in Russia worked against that power and why; to explain what exactly the Soviet government is, and how the end of the Soviet government will mean the end of the revolution, whatever may be the apparent character of any form of government that succeeds it.
Moscow, 14th May, 1918
Revolutions are not definite political acts carried out by the majority in a nation who are unanimous in desiring a single definite object. Revolutionaries and their historians often try to give them that character afterwards, but that is only an illustration of man’s general tendency to supply his instinctive acts with family pedigrees of irreproachable orderly reasoning. It would be less dignified but more honest to admit that revolution is a kind of speeding up of the political flux, during which tendencies that in ordinary times would perhaps only become noticeable in the course of years, reach a full fruition in a few weeks or days. Revolution turns the slow river of political development into a rapid, in which the slightest action has an immediate effect, and the canoe of government answers more violently to a paddle dipped for a moment than in more ordinary times to the organised and prolonged effort of its whole crew.
When the revolution had begun, when the flux had already gathered speed, when the banks of the hitherto placid stream were already crumbling under pressure of the torrent, there was not a single class in the nation that was not dissatisfied with the Tsar. The Tsar, accordingly, left the stage as politely as he could, as painlessly as a person in a play. And, seeing the bloodless character of his removal, and mistaking his removal for the object and end of the revolution, English, Americans, and French united in applauding the most moderate, the biggest, the most surprising revolution in the world.
The bourgeois classes in the fighting countries and those of the labouring classes, who, by reading newspapers had been tamed to a happy acquiescence in bourgeois ideas were a little troubled lest the disturbance in Russia should affect their war, they having forgotten that they were fighting for democracy and that the enfranchisement of 180 million souls was in itself a greater victory than they had set out to gain; so that, from that moment on, the main object of the war should have been to save that victory. But, if the bourgeois classes in the Allied countries were a little troubled, their disquiet was as nothing in comparison with the helpless terror of the bourgeois classes of Russia. They had taken no part in the actual starting of the revolution. Miliukov1 as he openly confessed to his party, had seen from his window the soldiers pouring out into the street with red flags to fight for the people instead of for their masters, and he said to himself: “There goes the Russian Revolution, and it will be crushed in a quarter of an hour.” A little later, he had seen more soldiers in the streets, and decided that it would not be crushed so easily. It was only when the risks had already been taken by plain soldiers and workmen, by Cossacks who refused to fire on them; it was only when the revolution had begun, that the already existing organ of the bourgeoisie, the Duma, threw itself into line, and, foam on the crest of an irresistible wave, tried vainly to pretend that it had the power to control and direct the wave itself.
Already a newer, more vital organ was forming. While Miliukov was formulating his ideas about the preservation of the dynasty, or, in other words, the transfer of the autocracy to the bourgeoisie, the Soviet of Workmen’s Deputies, at first merely a small group of Duma Labour Members, had formulated quite other ideas, had declared that the revolution belonged to those who made it, not to those who stood aside and then sought to profit by it, and had stated that neither Miliukov nor the outworn Duma had the right to decide their future for those who had won their freedom by risking their lives, but that that task would be undertaken by a Constituent Assembly which should represent all Russia. Subsequent history illustrated the necessary opportunism of all parties in a time of revolution, since within a few weeks Miliukov and his party had declared for a republic, and, when the Constituent Assembly met, it had already earned for itself a place like that of the Duma among the relics of the past, and was gently set aside by the Soviet, which had been the first cause of its summoning.
There were thus formed two bodies, each of which claimed to represent the revolutionary nation. The first of these was the Provisional Government, which was appointed by an executive committee of the Duma, and so did indirectly represent that body, which, never fully representative of the people, had lost in the course of the war any claim to stand for anything except the bourgeois and privileged classes. The second of these was the Soviet of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies. Each thousand workmen had the right to send one member to the Soviet, and each company of soldiers. From the very first there could be no sort of doubt in the mind of an unprejudiced observer as to which of these two bodies best represented the Russian people. I do not think I shall ever again be so happy in my life as I was during those first days when I saw working men and peasant soldiers sending representatives of their class and not of mine. I remembered Shelley’s
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many -- they are few,
and wondered that this thing had not come to pass before. And I thought how applicable to revolution are Sir Thomas Browne’s words on the Flood, when he wrote:
“That there was a Deluge once seems not to me so great a Miracle as that there is not one always.”
Immediately there became visible a definite fissure, soon a wide gulf, between the ideals of these two bodies, the Government and the representatives of the people. The people, the working classes, the peasants, who suffered most from the war, demanded that steps should be taken to secure peace. They did not want to fight to get territory for the sake of some phantasmagoric gain which did not affect them, which they did not understand. They were starving already, and saw worse starvation ahead. The Government, on the other hand, was, if anything, except for the presence in it of Kerensky, the labour member, more definitely imperialistic than the autocracy whose place it had taken.
The gulf between the working classes and the Government became suddenly deeper when it was realised that the future of the revolution depended on the possession of the army. If the army were not to be swept into the revolution, if it were allowed to remain apart from politics, it would be a passive weapon in the hands of the Government, which would thus be able to suppress the Soviets, and so the true expression of the people’s will, whenever it should think fit. If the Government had been able to retain possession of the army, then Miliukov might have had his way and the bourgeoisie would have secured the profits of the revolt of the masses.
This, however, was not to be, and immediately the contradiction between a revolution and war of the imperialistic kind became evident. The army, which at that time meant practically the whole of the younger peasantry, took the share in politics it had a right to take. From that moment the future of the Soviets was assured, and the bourgeois Government was doomed to be a government only by the good will of the Soviets, who, within a few days of the beginning of the revolution, were the only real power in the country.
 Pavel Miliukov was a liberal politician and the leader of the Kadet Party. As a member of the Provisional Government, he fought to keep Russia in the war, and to establish a constitutional monarchy.
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.
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