The lessons of the Russian revolution, 100 years later

Is Marxism just a turn-crank formula for purges and dictatorship or was something else to blame?

The Russian revolution.
(Image credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

One century ago this year, Russia was undergoing its Marxist revolution, an attempt to create a more just nation that instead led to one of the most brutal tyrannies of all time.

So what happened? It's a debate that's becoming important again thanks to the rise of American socialist organizations and publications. Centrist liberals, who thought the fundamental badness of socialism was permanently established decades ago, have been rather wrong-footed by this development. For instance, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait has been writing repeatedly against socialist publications, especially Jacobin, arguing that the repression of the Soviet Union was a foregone conclusion of Marxist ideology. He asserts that Marxism is a "theory of class justice," which only protects political rights for the "oppressed class." By this view, the October revolution led automatically to the gulags because "repression is woven into Marxism's ideological fabric."

It's a popular reading of the revolution. But it's also wrong about Marxism, Lenin's mistakes, and the revolution in general.

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In fact, as China Mieville writes in his new book October, there wasn't just one Russian revolution, but two. The first, in February 1917, abolished the Tsarist monarchy. The second, in October of the same year, led to the Communist Soviet Union. And as Mieville argues, nothing about either of them or their aftermath was foreordained.

To understand why, it's important to first realize that Marxism at root is a theory of economic history, not "class justice." Marx outlined several stages of economic development, moving from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism and, eventually, to socialism. The inevitability of socialism, Marx claimed, was that capitalist development would lead to a decreasing rate of profit and increasing conflict between workers and large business owners, ending up with a state in which the workers control the means of production.

All this gobbledygook is important because it explains one of the key features of the Russian revolution: the extreme reluctance of most Russian socialists to take power.

Now, socialists in Russia were not monolithic. The most famous faction today was, of course, the Bolsheviks, a political party created as a result of a schism in the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party in 1903. This more left-wing faction, led by Lenin, advocated a membership of professional revolutionaries, but there was also a more moderate faction, led by Juliy Martov, which advocated a more open format. After some wrangling, Lenin won a narrow majority (thus Bolshevik, or "one of the majority,") while Martov's faction became Mensheviks ("one of the minority"). But those two parties were only one of several left-wing ones around during these days. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, led by Viktor Chernov, was larger than either at some points, and it had its own schisms as well.

But one thing most of the different socialist factions had in common was a resistance to taking power. Even the Bolsheviks were hesitant before Lenin, with his tremendous energy and organizational talents, returned in person. Most socialists thought that by Marxist lights, Russia — then a largely agrarian, non-industrialized country — was not ready for socialism. Instead, they needed to step back and let the bourgeoisie go through its historical phase (perhaps with some assistance from socialists), after which it could be a fully socialist nation.

This turned out to be simply untenable. The Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to govern; the Provisional Government set up after the staggeringly incompetent Tsar Nicholas II abdicated never had anything like full popular legitimacy. Instead it governed in concert with the system of soviets that organically sprang up around the country. ("Soviet" is another important term to be clear on; at this point they were simply councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants.) The Soviet of St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in particular, energized by fervent left-wing radicalism in what was then the Russian capital, was the real power behind the throne, so to speak.

Worse, the Provisional Government quickly bungled away what little legitimacy and power it had. The First World War had laid waste to Russia, and led to a severe morale crisis in the army. Yet in July, Alexander Kerensky, then the minister of war of the Provisional Government, ordered a large offensive that failed spectacularly. Many soldiers became deeply radicalized, many more deserted en masse, and armed rebellion briefly broke out in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

Despite the fact that they already basically had it, the Soviet leadership would not take power in the pinch. In early July, workers surrounded the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, demanding in the words of one worker who shouted at Chernov, "take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!" They were so furious that Chernov might have been lynched if not for a courageous intervention by Leon Trotsky. But still the Soviet leadership refused, strengthening Lenin's and other Bolsheviks' conviction that they would have to do it.

An increasingly erratic Kerensky later took full leadership of the Provisional Government, where he made a second disastrous error: appointing General Lavr Kornilov, a right-wing extremist, to be commander-in-chief of the army. Kornilov was quickly involved in an attempted coup d'etat, which was fended off only with massive Soviet — and especially Bolshevik — help. After that, Kerensky's regime began to collapse.

The great error of Marxist ideology during the revolution was not primarily a lack of concern for rights, at which they were far ahead of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, it was far too much concern about events in the far-off future, which led to hesitation and an inability to reason more practically. Over-intellectualized Marxists were totally wrong-footed by the level of organic left-wing uprising among the masses during the revolution — even the Bolsheviks often struggled to stay ahead of them.

Lenin's signature intellectual idea, by contrast, was a rejection of traditional Marxist history. He argued that you did not have to first progress through bourgeois capitalism to get to socialism; instead the workers could directly seize power through a revolutionary vanguard. This idea was so wild at the time that convincing even most of the Bolsheviks was a steep uphill battle.

In retrospect this was pretty clearly reverse-engineered to justify taking political power now (instead of having to wait 50 years or whatever), but on at least one level it was correct. Russian leftists simply could not sit on their hands while the bourgeois regime collapsed of its own accord — the result would be utter chaos or a bloody right-wing dictatorship, as Kornilov showed. (During this period extreme right militias called the Black Hundreds were regularly running around conducting horrific anti-Jewish pogroms.)

However, Lenin also made a similar error of overconfidence in predicting the future. He was totally convinced that socialist revolutions were about to spring up in other countries, particularly Germany. That did not even come close to happening. Worse, he was far too cavalier, at best, about democracy. Seizing power by force is always liable to turn out badly, and the Bolsheviks did not properly anticipate the fight that might ensue, nor properly protect democratic rights, especially later. Martov and his Mensheviks were right that attempting to leapfrog straight to a socialist state by force was highly dangerous.

Lenin's signature organizational concept of "democratic centralism," in which a party position is figured out through debate, after which all members of the party are to accept it without question, is also highly suspect. That was partly the root of the abusive, dogmatic manipulation of Western Communist parties by Moscow all through the Cold War years.

But both these are distinctively Leninist additions to Marxism.

You could, I suppose, try to pin some blame for later Stalinist atrocities on the Marxist labor theory of value, which asserts that all capitalist profit is in a sense stolen from workers. If that is true we should be on the lookout for a revolutionary vanguard of libertarians who think taxation is theft.

But it is simply not the case that Marxism — an arid and over-elaborate doctrine, very interesting in some ways and clearly mistaken in others — is some turn-crank formula for purges and dictatorship. All the European labor parties were officially Marxist for decades, which led only to generous welfare states and some experimentation with government-owned industry. The Nordic countries became the most decent nations that have ever existed through policies that have direct roots in an early 20th century socialist movement that was fervently Marxist.

So if Marxism didn't doom the Russian revolution, what did?

The obvious culprit is the incomprehensible chaos and brutality of its circumstances. Immediately before the revolution, something like three million Russians had died in the First World War. The rapid collapse of Tsarism and the Provisional Government empowered the most hardline and radical factions on all sides. Immediately after the revolution, the Bolsheviks had to fight a civil war against virtually every other faction in Russia, many of them murderous reactionaries armed by Western powers. Winning required yet more brutal tactics and fighting, killing roughly 10 million more people in the process. It's at that point when truly awful authoritarianism started to set in.

But again, none of this was written in the stars. At many points during the revolution history was balanced on a knife edge. If the Soviets had declared themselves the only power in the land in July 1917, when they were still bottom-up, democratic institutions, it's possible Russia would have turned out as merely a left-wing democratic republic with some unusual governmental structures. If Kerensky hadn't called for his offensive and put a far-right reactionary in charge of the army, the Provisional Government might easily have held on long enough to establish an ordinary parliamentary democracy. Without Lenin — who was nearly captured multiple times during 1917 — it's unlikely the Bolsheviks would have managed to take power. And so on.

So a century from those heady revolutionary days, let us remember the necessity of political action to deal with problems as they arise, but also the necessity of humility and preservation of democracy at all costs. Utopian visions should not be rammed through by force — but neither should we fear bold activism simply because it is tinged with Marxian ideas. A better world is possible.

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