The 90th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution will be seized on as an opportunity to regale us with stories about how the Bolsheviks seized power behind the backs of the Russian masses with Lenin moving to set up a totalitarian state which evolved seamlessly into Stalin’s murderous dictatorship.
Alexander Rabinowitch is the author of the outstanding The Bolsheviks Come to Power. By focusing on events in the storm centre of the revolution, Petrograd (now St Petersburg), he showed that ordinary working class men and women were the driving force in 1917 and that they acted upon the Bolshevik Party, who in turn acted upon the masses.
In this follow up volume (available this December), The Bolsheviks in Power, Rabinowitch looks at the first year of Soviet power in Petrograd. The original draft was written before the collapse of the old USSR and, after previously closed archives were opened up, he had to completely rewrite it. It takes up a similar theme. The working class of Petrograd is the key actor forcing the pace whenever the Bolsheviks and their allies might hesitate. It comes to life in this book, as do the debates in the Bolshevik party.
The Bolsheviks, far from being a monolith, were deeply divided on crucial issues-hardly surprising given they were traveling in uncharted waters. The biggest divide would come over making peace with Germany. Peace talks had been going on at Brest Litovsk with the Germans occupying swathes of the western territories of the old Tsarist empire (some of the key agricultural and industrial areas). The Bolsheviks tried to play things out, hoping, firstly, that revolution would break out in Germany, and secondly, that the Austro-German allies had gained all they wanted and wished to move their forces west to defeat France and Britain.
Yet the German high command took a hard position. They demanded tough terms for peace. Lenin wanted to accept because his priority was to save Soviet Russia until the European revolution broke out. One wing in the party played on the memory of Jacobin France to argue for revolutionary war. Trotsky in the centre argued for “no war, no peace”-saying that German troops would not advance on the revolution and that the peace treaty could be ignored.
The Germans did not oblige and after Trotsky delivered his message began an offensive. Lenin eventually prevailed but there was a huge argument which went way beyond the Bolshevik Party, with different factions publishing newspapers championing their positions.
None of these debates took place in isolation from the reality of counter-revolution. Petrograd was under threat from without and within from day one of the revolution succeeding. Rabinowitch details this as well as British and French attempts to foster the Bolsheviks’ overthrow.
The new Soviet leadership delivered on peace and land-bread was more difficult as the Russian economy collapsed under the impact of German occupation, economic blockade and sabotage from within. In the course of this book you feel the working class of Petrograd draining away as they take on governmental responsibilities, volunteer to fight in defence of the revolution or drift back to the countryside to find food.
Alexander Rabinowitch is no friend of Lenin and clearly disapproves of the way Soviet power developed. That’s an argument we can take up. But in The Bolsheviks in Power there is much to challenge the stereotype presented of the Russian Revolution, one which a new generation of anti-capitalists are increasingly questioning.
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