Dec 5, 2007

Book Review: The October Revolution

Russian historian Roy MedvedevMedvedev, Roi
New York: Columbia University Press, 1979

Roi Medvedev is a Russian historian whose writing typically reflects anti-Stalinist sentiments, and whose political philosophies are generally supportive of a reformed democratic socialism. Medvedev was purged from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after the publication of his book Let History Judge, which was harsh in its criticism of the Stalinist revolution. The October Revolution examines the Bolshevik ascension to power within the context of some of the major historiographical debates on the topic, including whether the revolution was inevitable, whether it was premature, the legacy of the first hundred days of the revolution, and the effects of what Medvedev described as the “difficult spring of 1918.”

In the section of the book dedicated to the revolution’s inevitability, Medvedev first provided for readers a summary of historiographical opinions on the matter, noting that such an exercise in counterfactual history is “useful for practical politicians, too, if they wish to learn something from history.” Medvedev argued against the “absolute” inevitability of the February revolution, in which the Tsar abdicated and the Provisional Government assumed power, noting that revolution was “only one of the alternatives in the existing historical situation.” The author argued that Nicholas II could have avoided revolution were it not for “the tsar’s unwillingness to surrender even a small share of his power” and the fact that “the ruling dynasty was afflicted with blindness.” Still, noted Medvedev, the revolution was all but assured “well before the abdications of Nicholas and [Grand Duke] Michael,” noting the almost complete lack of support for the Romanov dynasty by February 1917.

Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov (Лавр Георгиевич Корнилов), senior Russian army general during World War I and leader of the Kornilov rebellion (Kornilov Affair)Left: Russian general Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov

Neither was the October Revolution inevitable, argued Medvedev, especially given the fact that as late as August 1917 “it seemed as though the cause of socialist revolution had temporarily lost.” The heightened activity of counterrevolutionary forces, highlighted by the Kornilov rebellion, created a fluid political situation in which a rightist coup d'état was seemingly as likely of an outcome as would a socialist revolution. Medvedev, moving away from the historical determinism often found in Marxist interpretations of the October Revolution, depicted the Bolshevik rise to power as only one of a number of possible outcomes:
From what we have said it is evident that the October revolution was not at all an absolutely inevitable event; to an even greater degree than the February revolution, it represented the realization of one of the possible alternative lines of Russia’s historical development. It was neither accidental nor absolutely unavoidable, but like any historical event, was a combination of accident and necessity.
One of the main differences between the February and October Revolutions, argued Medvedev, was in the degree of spontaneity exhibited by workers and soldiers. The February Revolution, the author maintained, was “largely the result of a spontaneous eruption of the mass unrest” in Petrograd and Moscow, and was a function of “a country deprived of basic democratic freedoms.” Conversely, the October Revolution occurred after the implosion of most of the structures of the tsarist government, and Medvedev asserted that this provided the Bolsheviks with distinct opportunities to organize the socialist revolution:
Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks were able not only to carry out active propaganda work but also to build a political army for a new revolution. They did a great deal of organizational work to establish real military support [emphasis in original] for the new revolution. Armed Red Guard units with a unified command were established in the factories. The Bolsheviks succeeded in becoming the dominant force in the revolutionary organizations of the Baltic fleet. And their influence grew in many units of the garrison in the capital and on the fronts (especially the Northwestern front).
One of the most significant differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks concerned the issue of whether Russia was fully “prepared” for a socialist revolution, which Marx believed would occur only in a highly industrialized state with a politically aware proletariat. Even two weeks before the revolution began, leading Bolsheviks such as Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev expressed public doubts about Russia’s readiness for a socialist revolution. Medvedev noted that both the Mensheviks and SRs ironically denounced the completed revolution as premature after the fact, with both parties adhering to strict interpretations of revolutionary Marxist theory. Lenin, argued Medvedev, believed that the February revolution was bourgeois in nature, and that “the details of the Bolshevik [economic] program could be worked out after the seizure of power;” moreover, Lenin was convinced that the capitalist industrialization that Marx deemed necessary for the transition to socialism could be accomplished by the Russian proletariat.

Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Влади́мир Ильи́ч Улья́нов), better known as Vladimir Lenin, wearing a wig and with his beard shaved off during his 1917 exile in FinlandLeft: Vladimir Lenin, wearing a wig and with his beard shaved off during his 1917 exile in Finland

Medvedev, however, broke with official Soviet historiography in his assessment of the Bolshevik Revolution as premature. The author argued that the pre-revolutionary economic assumptions by Lenin were “erroneous and utopian oversimplifications of the traditional aims and program of the communist movement.” This might seem surprising, given Medvedev’s generally high opinion of Lenin in other works, but the author approached his examination from the perspective of a more mature Marxist analysis. In hindsight, Medvedev asserted that the pre-revolutionary projections of the Bolsheviks were “unrealistic and unrealizable,” and that these mistakes reflected the evolving nature of Bolshevik Marxism.

The nascent Bolshevik state faced innumerable difficulties after the October Revolution, inheriting a disintegrating military, a moribund economy, and the looming possibility of widespread famine. Medvedev argued that there were several factors enabling the Bolsheviks to survive the first few months after seizing power. Chief among these was the Decree on Peace, which the author described as giving “the country the breathing spell it needed so badly.” In addition, Medvedev applauded the resolution by the Soviet government declaring the annulment of state loans “eliminated Russia’s colossal foreign debt and freed it from a semi-colonial state of dependence.” One of the most important factors, though, was the existence of the black market, and Medvedev argued that the “so-called free market” ensured that surplus grain in the villages could be traded for necessities such as fuel, matches, and tools that were located in the cities.

Medvedev was critical of the manner in which the Bolsheviks managed the elections to and convocation of the Constituent Assembly, arguing that the party “made a number of serious miscalculations from the standpoint of their own interests.” The Bolsheviks had consistently called for the Assembly in the months prior to the October Revolution, and used their willingness to hold elections a point of contrast with the delays put forth by the Provisional Government in arranging the elections. Medvedev argued that the Bolsheviks erred in sticking to the original election date set by the Provisional Government of 12 November 1917, noting that it was unreasonable “to expect that elections could be conducted properly and calmly caught up in a revolution.” The failure of the Bolsheviks to capture a majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly – coupled with Lenin’s decree of dissolution of the newly convened Assembly – provided political rivals with ammunition, and Medvedev maintained that the Bolsheviks wasted an opportunity to “extract any political capital from their confrontation with the Constituent Assembly.”

The decision by the Bolsheviks to embark on the economic policies collectively known as War Communism was another area in which Medvedev criticized the direction of the Revolution. While recognizing that the Bolsheviks faced tremendous difficulties in keeping cities and Red Army troops supplied with food and supplies, Medvedev argued that the new government simply “did not yet have the capacity for such all-embracing measures.” The use of troops to commandeer grain and other necessities engendered hostility among the peasantry, reducing the already tenuous popular support for the Bolsheviks. Instead, asserted Medvedev, the Bolsheviks “should have switched in early 1918 to the policy which was later called NEP.”

Bolshevik poster during Russian civil war; the caption reads - Women, Go into CooperativesLeft: Bolshevik poster during Russian civil war; the caption reads: "Women, Go into Cooperatives"

War Communism initiatives often alienated ordinary Russians from the new regime, while other policies further compounded the problems faced by the Bolsheviks. The Supply Commissariat, which was set up to organize the exchange of grain for manufactured goods, found that peasants would often refuse to trade their grain for goods, as they could fare better on the black market than the fixed rates of exchange. Medvedev argued that the 1918 decree abolishing the right of inheritance was an “obviously hasty and unjustified measure which roused the discontent of the petty bourgeoisie in both town and country.” Such ill-conceived policies, noted the author, had “serious consequences and brought Soviet power to the brink of disaster,” and the stubborn insistence upon grain appropriation tactics by the Bolsheviks “provoked a wave of peasant revolts that swept over the entire country.”

Medvedev’s The October Revolution is ostensibly a synthesis, though the author derives a considerable amount of information from Soviet documents. The book follows a chronological approach to the revolutionary events, though individual chapters focus on particular revolutionary themes. Referential material is provided in an endnote format for readers interested in further research on a given topic, and the translator included an excellent 30-page glossary that Western readers will find especially useful. Medvedev also included a collection of private and archival photographs of the October Revolution that provide additional visual insights into the chaos and turmoil of the period. While Medvedev’s doctrinaire Marxist perspective occasionally sounds dated, The October Revolution works well as both historical analysis of the Bolshevik rise to power and as a sort of time capsule into the gradual evolution of Soviet historiography away from official mythology and toward objective scrutiny.

1 comment:

microdot said...

The amount of material you have published here about the books written on Russian Revolution is staggering. A fascinating, riveting subject. I recently saw a photograph of Tsar Nicholas standing next to King Edward of England dressed in the same yachting outfits and they were almost identical. They were in fact cousins.
I have a fascinating book which I got hold of years ago that was published in the 1930's by the Soviet Union that commemorated the Life of Lenin. It of course is written from a totally revisionist Stalinist point of view, but it is an amazing work with facsimilies of Lenin's notebooks, reproductions of posters and handbills and other documents of the time all bound into the book.
It is in English and I always wondered what course it had taken to end up in a junk store in Brooklyn in the 1970's when I found it. It is in reasonably good condition.