Revolutions are bad things. Or at least the social ones are. Revolutions are fine if they are restricted to political changes at the top. Then only the icing on the cake is changed. As the French revolutionary Babeuf once said, these revolutions take one set of robbers and replace them with another.
The real problem is the revolution that threatens the whole robbery process. This is the revolution that makes the issue of control of society and its resources central.
It is then, says one historian, that revolutions are “hijacked”. They cease to be self-limiting and become all-consuming, says another. They begin to devour their children, says a third.
This is an enormously comforting doctrine for those at the top of any society. You may not be as strong, as rich, as powerful as us, we may hold your fate in our hands but don’t rock the boat. If you do it will end badly for you.
You see our power and wealth, the hold we have over you is what makes both of us free. So best be quiet and knuckle down to working hard to make us richer and stronger still.
This is an old story that conservatives and conservative historians have long told. But in the last two to three decades it has been retold by once progressive historians writing about the “inevitable” failure of the Russian Revolution.
All revolutions fail, they say, and Russia was the biggest failure of all. These so-called revisionists sometimes dress the argument up with new terms but they echo long held themes about the danger of extreme ideas, paranoia, and the frenzy of the mob, psychopaths who come to power and so on.
The message is simple. Don’t believe that the world can be any different from what it is. Put your faith in slow reform, be patient.
The real story is rather different. Revolutions are certainly unruly but they are also creative.
Here is Morgan Philips Price, the Guardian correspondent writing of a Russia in chaos in late 1917: “If it were not for the revolutionary councils in the towns, villages and amongst the soldiers in the garrisons, the anarchy would be fifty times worse… Of course, it is plain that the ruling classes in England and their allies, the bourgeoisie here, must in order to save their class discredit all movements like those which inspire the Russian Revolution.”
This is a powerful message to throw back at revisionist history. In a real revolution society polarises. People are tested and they take sides. How this happens affects what comes next.
The Russian Revolution took place in he midst of the bloodiest war there had yet been. It was an attempt to halt that war and overthrow the societies that had created it. But inside and outside Russia the forces that had created that war combined to crush it. The revolution was not driven “off course” by its internal logic but by intervention and civil war.
If the old order in Russia wanted to regain its privileges, outside of Russia the fear was that the revolution might work – that in Lenin’s term, every cook might govern. Counter-revolution is always about holding on to privilege and crushing a challenge from below. 1917 saw little bloodshed in Russia. The deaths rose in 1918-1921.
Having already spilled the blood of millions in the First World War governments were happy to support counter-revolution in Russia. Desperate times called for desperate remedies but somehow historians today seem to want to put all the blame on the revolutionaries.
It is easy then to make the degeneration that led to Stalin seem an inevitable unrolling from 1917. It was not. Stalin came to power in the vacuum created both by the failure of the revolution to spread and the way that the society and people who made the revolution were ripped apart in the midst of the “civil” war supported from abroad.
For nearly two decades conservative views that stress that Lenin led to Stalin have been dominant. Pessimism about all revolution is written through books like Orlando Figes’ account of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy. It has filtered through into school textbooks and helps to create tomorrow’s passive workers.
For a time this may have seemed to make sense when it appeared, briefly, as if history had ended in the 1990s. Lukewarm times needed a lukewarm, history about red-hot events.
But the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is occurring against a different background. The self – satisfaction of ex radicals is being challenged by new generations as neoliberalism fails to deliver on its promises.
Inequality is growing, social mobility is declining and we seem to have endless war. New times are helping re-open old debates but they can do so with new force.
As in 1917 we now look at liberals and their pieties through the smoke of war – in this case Iraq. Their realism has sucked us into this quagmire. We also see how easy it is for the great powers to cause damage, almost casually, as they try to remould the world in their interests.
What inspired people in 1917 was the possibility of a different world. It is their tragedy and ours that they did not succeed. But the greatest tragedy will be if we come to believe that we should not try, for the alterative to revolution is not peace and quiet.
It is a world of great power conflicts, a world where the rich get richer and the poorer simply accept their lot. Another world is desperately needed. Another world is possible and good history can help us get there.
Mike Haynes is the author of Russia: Class and Power, 1917–2000