World View: Centenary of Russian revolution well worth marking

Whatever about Putin’s unease, events of 1917 set the tone for the hundred years since

Eric Hobsbawm:  writing in the late 1980s, he regarded the Russian revolution as the central event of the 20th century as one-third of humanity lived under communist regimes deriving from those events.

Eric Hobsbawm: writing in the late 1980s, he regarded the Russian revolution as the central event of the 20th century as one-third of humanity lived under communist regimes deriving from those events.

 

Workers’ revolution or Bolshevik coup d’état? Inevitable or contingent? Authoritarian or democratic? Modernising or retrogressive? Historical dead-end or continuing inspiration?

This week’s 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution raises all these questions and usually poses them in starkly binary terms. Its commemorations combine political and historical judgments, highlighting the revolution’s still essentially contested character across ideological and intellectual spectrums.

Just as a necessary way to understand the French revolution is to study the history of its political and historical interpretations, so it is with October 1917. One of its principal contemporary historians, Sheila Fitzpatrick, reviewing five anniversary books earlier this year in the London Review of Books, pointed out that Eric Hobsbawm, writing in the late 1980s, regarded the revolution as the central event of the 20th century because one-third of humanity lived under communist regimes deriving from those events.

A few years later, when his book The Age of Extremes was published after so many of them collapsed in 1989-1991, he saw that experience as more of a lost world giving way to a new century whose character had yet to be defined. Given China’s remarkable development since then, perhaps its revolution in 1949, partly inspired by 1917, will come to deserve a similar reputation in the 21st century? Or is that more of a political than a historical judgment about its model of authoritarian communist rule based on capitalist economics?

Revolution from above

Such questions surely justify taking the revolution’s anniversary seriously – unlike official Russia where Vladimir Putin regards it as an embarrassment which could have been avoided by a more evolutionary approach to the country’s modernisation. He has much more sympathy with Stalin’s revolution from above in the late 1920s to industrialise, collectivise agriculture and purge the intelligentsia than with Lenin’s one to give power to the soviets or workers’ councils, end the war and give land to the peasants in 1917. Fitzpatrick regards Stalin’s revolution as part and parcel of the overall Russian one, ending her book with his terror in the late 1930s.

These issues of political and historical continuity or discontinuity were the stuff of left-wing politics through much of the last century. They distinguished orthodox communists from Trotskyists who regarded Stalin as a counter-revolutionary and from social democrats who sympathised much more with Kerensky’s February 1917 revolution than with Lenin and Trotsky’s one in October. The social democrats further argued that both men misjudged the readiness and willingness of workers in the more developed parts of Europe to achieve socialist objectives by revolutionary not evolutionary means.

Debates like these can overpersonalise those fateful events and underestimate the objective conditions which gave rise to the revolution. The Russian empire and the Tsarist state were collapsing under pressure of war, economic disintegration and mass hunger, posing acute dilemmas for reformers and revolutionaries alike on how to respond. As Lenin put it then, there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen; his genius was to understand and seize the opportunities for revolutionary change arising and to convince majorities of workers and peasants that bread, land and peace would follow.

Interchange of ideas

Sympathetic social historians of the 1917 events like Alexander Rabinowitch show Lenin was often in a minority and had to win those arguments within his Bolshevik party, that it was decentred and in daily touch with popular shifts of mood and that the soviets were genuine expressions of a huge movement for direct democracy in factories, workplaces, armies and navies. Party and class formations, he writes, “emerged out of a continuing interchange of ideas regarding the development of the revolution, and constant interplay between party members at all levels with factory workers, soldiers, and sailors”.

That puts a different perspective on liberal assumptions of a coup d’etat engineered by a disciplinarian Lenin in October 1917. He saw no prospect that a coalition with other parties could defeat the counter-revolutionary armies immediately organised to remove the Bolsheviks from power. The subsequent three years of “war communism” mobilised to fight them in a brutal civil war when millions died saw an extension of one-party rule, illegal methods and repression of internal dissent later used by Stalinism.

Lenin saw Russia as a weak link in the imperial world capable of triggering socialist revolution elsewhere in Europe after the war. Trotsky said its backwardness was simultaneously uneven and combined with the most developed parts of the world. Their European gamble failed; but their actions created an enduringly changed world.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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