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9-08-2015, 21:32

WAR AND REVOLUTION IN THE EAST, 1917

The upheavals in Russia during 1917 changed the history of the world. Russia broke with the evolutionary Western path of national development. The birth of communist power was seen by Lenin, its founder, as the means by which not only the vast lands and peoples of Russia would be transformed, but also the world. For seven decades Lenin was revered by half the world as its spiritual guide despite the bitter dissensions among communist countries as to which was the rightful heir. His vision of communism as a world force was realised less than twenty-five years after his death. One of the fascinations of history is that it shows how a man, in many ways very ordinary, with ordinary human weaknesses, making mistakes and bewildering his contemporaries with the inconsistencies of his actions, can exert enormous influence on his own times and on the world decades later. Napoleon and Hitler caused devastation. Napoleon left some good behind him; Hitler, nothing but destruction. Lenin’s reputation today has suffered with the demise of the Soviet Union. Once elevated by propaganda, he is now stripped of myth, but the impact of his ideas was enormous. The success of Lenin’s revolution, and the birth and growth of Soviet power, exercised great appeal as well as revulsion. Lenin’s achievement was that he gave concrete expression to the theories of Karl Marx. The Russian Revolution appeared as the beginning of the fulfilment of Marx’s ‘scientific’ prophecy that capitalist society was heading for its inevitable collapse and that the ‘proletariat’, the workers hitherto exploited, would take over and expropriate the exploiters. The poor shall inherit this world, not the next. That was obviously an intoxicating message. Of course, Marx had written his great works in the mid-nineteenth century. Some ‘adjustments’ of his predictions were necessary to square them with the realities of the early twentieth century. In Germany, where Marx’s teachings had the largest political following, and where a powerful Social Democratic Party emerged, the lot of the working man was improving, not getting worse as Marx had predicted. The collapse of capitalism did not after all seem imminent. Some German socialists asked whether the party should not concentrate on securing practical benefits for the workers and accept the political system meanwhile. This became the policy of the majority of the party. The British Labour movement was clearly taking this direction too. In France the doctrine of industrial and class strife leading to revolution had limited appeal outside the towns. Marx’s apocalyptic vision of capitalism in its last throes bore little relevance to conditions in the most industrialised countries. But Lenin was not disconcerted. He sharply condemned all the ‘revisionists’ and compromises with the ‘exploiting’ bourgeois society. He found the answer to the paradox much later in the book of an English radical on the nature of imperialism. J. A. Hobson believed that the drive for empire by the Euro- pean states was caused by the need of advanced Western countries to find new profitable markets for investment. Lenin elaborated and went further. Imperialism, he wrote, was the last stage of capitalism. It postponed the fulfilment of Marx’s prophecy. Because the Asiatic and African labourer was cruelly exploited, employers could afford to pay their European workers more. But the extension of the capitalist world could only postpone, not avert, its collapse. The proletariat must steel itself for the ultimate takeover and not compromise. The class struggle, as Marx taught, was the driving force of historical evolution. Anything that lessened the class struggle was treachery against the proletariat. Lenin’s views were so extreme, ran so much counter to the world in which he lived, that the majority of socialists ridiculed him when they were not accusing him of seeking to divide the socialist movement. Those who were not socialists did not take him seriously. His following, even among Russian socialists right up to the revolution of November 1917, was only a minority one. This fanatical believer in the victory of the proletariat and castigator of bourgeois capitalist society and its intelligentsia of professors, lawyers and administrators had, himself, been born into the strata of society he virulently condemned. More important privileges had given him the education and freedom indispensable to his early success. The founder of communism indubitably sprang from the Russian tsarist middle class, to the embarrassment of some of his Soviet biographers. His real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. He assumed the name of Lenin later to confuse the tsarist police. He was born in 1870. His mother was the daughter of a retired doctor who had become a small landowner. His father exemplified success and social mobility in nineteenthcentury Russia: he had made his way from humble origins to the post of provincial director of schools, a position in the Russian civil service entitling him to be addressed ‘Excellency’. Lenin was not ‘of the people’. Lenin was only sixteen when his father suddenly died. A year later an unnatural tragedy blighted family life. The eldest son of this eminently respectable family, Alexander, a student in St Petersburg, had become involved in a terrorist conspiracy to assassinate the tsar. Apprehended, he was tried and hanged. Lenin now began to study and enquire into his brother’s beliefs and actions, which were a naive and violent response to autocracy in the tradition of Russian terrorism. But in Russia there was not yet guilt by association. The family was treated with consideration. Lenin was accepted to study law in the University at Kazan. However, he was soon involved in student protests and was expelled. For three years he read and studied and became engrossed in the radical writings of his time. It was during this period that he first discovered in Karl Marx’s writings a revolutionary philosophy and a goal which, according to Marx, was a scientific certainty. He spent his life working out the right policies and tactics for Marxists to follow in order to realise the goals of the proletarian revolution. Unlike many other socialists, his faith in Marx’s prediction was absolute, akin to that following a religious revelation. This faith and certainty gave him strength, but Lenin saw no point in martyrdom. His brother’s gesture had been heroic but useless. The leader must preserve himself and avoid danger. It was an aspect of Lenin’s ice-cold rationality despite his attacks on the intelligentsia – that he ignored taunts that he sent others into danger while he himself enjoyed domesticity and safety abroad in London, Geneva and Zurich. A remarkable feature of tsarist Russia at this time is that despite police surveillance of political suspects – and Lenin was undoubtedly a suspect – no political opponent was condemned for his thoughts, as later in communist countries, but only for his deeds. Even then punishment by later standards was frequently lenient. The death penalty was limited to those involved in assassination, political murders or plotting such murders. If sentenced to dreaded fortress imprisonment a man’s health could be broken. The lesser sentence of exile to Siberia bears no relationship to the labour camps of Stalin’s Russia. The inhospitable climate was a hardship but there was no maltreatment. Lenin, for instance, when later on he was sentenced, was free to live in a comfortable household and to study and read. But before this he was allowed a second chance and after three years of waiting and petitioning was readmitted to Kazan University. He was thus able to complete his university studies before moving as a fully fledged lawyer to the capital, St Petersburg. Here he plunged into political activities and became a leading member of a small group of socialists. Adopting the agitational techniques of the Lithuanian Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund, the St Petersburg socialists determined to spread the message of Marxism by involving themselves in trade union agitation on behalf of workers. Lenin and his associates agitated successfully among the textile workers. The police stepped in. Eventually, Lenin was sentenced to three years’ exile in Siberia. In 1900 he was permitted to return to European Russia. He had matured as a revolutionary. He believed he could best promote the revolution by leaving Russia, as so many socialist émigrés had done before him, and to organise from safety in the West. Perhaps the police authorities were happy to get rid of him. In any event, Lenin in 1900 received the required permission to leave his country. Except for a few months in Russia after the outbreak of the revolution in 1905, Lenin spent the years before his return to Russia in April 1917 mainly as an exile in Switzerland. Abroad, he developed the organisation of his revolutionary party based on his own uncompromising ideology. In the process he quarrelled with the majority of Russian and international socialists and finally split the Russian Democratic Socialist Party. His faction, which at the Second Party Congress in Brussels and London in 1903 managed to gain a majority, became known as the ‘majority’ or Bolsheviks, and the minority took the name of Mensheviks, although soon the fortunes were reversed and until 1917 the Mensheviks constituted the majority of the party. It is easier to define the Bolsheviks’ ideas than the Mensheviks’. The Bolsheviks thought that leadership was established by the power of Lenin’s personality and the hardness and sharpness of his mind. Lenin imbued the Bolsheviks with his own uncompromising revolutionary outlook. There was to be no cooperation with the ‘bourgeois’ parties, unless for tactical reasons it were expedient to support them briefly and then only as ‘the noose supports a hanged man’. Lenin believed a broadly based mass party run by the workers would go the way of the Labour Party in Britain and weakly compromise. Only a small elite could understand and mastermind the seizure of power by the proletariat. The party must be centralised and unified. Lenin therefore sought to build up this party of dedicated revolutionaries who would agitate among the masses and take advantage of all opportunities, having but one goal, the socialist revolution. The Mensheviks were never as united as the Bolsheviks nor were they led by one man of commanding personality. In turn, they accused Lenin of dictatorial behaviour. The Mensheviks developed their own Marxist interpretations. Accepting Marx’s stages of development, they believed that Russia must pass through a bourgeois capitalist stage before the time would be ripe for the socialist revolution. And so when Russia embarked on the constitutional experiment after 1905, they were prepared to support the constitutional Kadet party in the Duma. Despite their Marxist authoritarian revolutionary ideology, the leadership in practice softened the line of policy. Lenin was never very consistent about his tactics, but his driving passion for the socialist revolution, his ruthless pursuit of this one goal when others in the party wavered and were distracted, gave him ultimate victory over the Mensheviks, who endlessly debated and advocated freedom of speech. What true revolutionary cared for ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’? Lenin contemptuously regarded rule by the majority as a liberal bourgeois concept. Within Russia itself the adherents of the supporters of the Social Democratic Party had little appreciation of why the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were quarrelling in face of the common enemy of autocracy. It was not among the rank and file, small in Russia in any case, that their differences mattered. The Bolsheviks had no more than 20,000 members as late as February 1917. In any case it was neither Mensheviks nor Bolsheviks who won the greatest popular support but the Socialist Revolutionaries. Formed in 1901, they looked to the peasants rather than to the urban workers. Some carried on the tradition of terror; a special group organised assassinations and thereby satisfied the demand for immediate revolutionary action. In the long run the revolution of the peasantry would occur. Other Socialist Revolutionaries, acting as a reforming party, would press for liberal constitutional reforms and laws to protect the peasants. These liberal reforms would pave the way to socialism later. The Socialist Revolutionary terrorist and party wings were never really coordinated. The revolution of 1905 took the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks by surprise. At the outset they had only a small following among the workers, the Bolsheviks probably only a few hundred. Lenin did not affect its course. Nine years later, the outbreak of the First World War appeared to mark the end of international socialism as one after the other the national socialist parties placed their countries before the brotherhood of the proletariat. Some socialists formed a pacifist wing; with them Lenin had nothing in common. Only a small band of revolutionaries gathered around Lenin. He was briefly imprisoned as a Russian spy in Austrian Poland at the outbreak of the war but was released to rejoin the other socialist exiles in Switzerland. The Social Democrat Party in Russia had dwindled from its peak of some 150,000 members in 1907 to probably less than 50,000 in 1914 and only a small minority of them were Bolsheviks. But Lenin’s supreme self-assurance and confidence in Marx’s analysis enabled him to survive disappointments and setbacks. For him the conflict among the imperialists was the opportunity the socialists had been waiting for. He hoped for the defeat of Russia and the exhaustion of the imperialists. Then he would turn the war between nations into a civil war that would end with the mass of peoples united in their aim of overthrowing their rulers and establishing the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Lenin’s view of the war and of the role of the socialists did not persuade even the left wing of the socialists who met in conferences in Switzerland at Zimmerwald in 1915 and Kienthal in the following year. The majority wished to bring the war to a compromise end, with international friendship and no annexations, and so espoused a pacifist stand. Lenin attracted only a handful to his side, among them the brilliant and fiery young Trotsky, who had inspired the workers’ councils – the soviets – which had sprung up during the 1905 revolution. Trotsky believed in a ‘permanent revolution’. He forecast that the bourgeois first stage would flow into the socialist second stage. Lenin closely shared Trotsky’s views, believing he would witness the socialist revolution in his lifetime. When the revolution did occur, however, in February 1917, the events took him once more by surprise. The overthrow of tsarism took place with startling speed. For the army of 6.5 million men in the field, 1916 had closed with hope for the future. The Russian army, after suffering some 7 million casualties, had nevertheless proved more than a match for the Austrian army. Indeed, only the great power of the German army had stood in the way of total Habsburg disaster. The Germans proved formidable foes, but they were now outnumbered and the plans for a coordinated offensive east, west and south on the Italian front held out the promise that the central powers could be overwhelmed in 1917. The severe problems of weapons and munitions for the Russian army had been largely overcome by a prodigious Russian industrial effort during 1916. After the heavy losses sustained in the third year of war, the rank and file in the army viewed war with stoicism and resignation rather than with the élan of the early months. But it was not an army demoralised and ready to abandon the front. The ‘home front’ was the first to collapse. The hardship suffered by the workers and their families in the cities swollen in numbers by the industrial demands of the war effort was, in the winter of 1916–17, becoming insupportable. The ineffectual government was being blamed. The tsar had assumed personal responsibility for leading the armies and spent most of his time after the summer of 1915 at army headquarters. He had left behind Empress Alexandra, a narrow-minded, autocratic woman. The ‘ministers’ entrusted with government were little more than phantoms. The infamous Rasputin, on the other hand, was full of energy until murdered in December 1916 – an event greeted with much public rejoicing. The rioting that spontaneously broke out in Petrograd – formerly St Petersburg – early in March (23 February by Russian dating) 1917 was not due to the leadership of the socialist exiles. Their organisation within the country had suffered severely when early in the war the tsarist government smashed the strike movement. Yet, unrest in Petrograd and Moscow had been growing. Only a proportion of the workers in war industries had received wage rises to compensate them for the rapid rises in the price of food and other necessities. Other workers and the dependent families of the soldiers at the front were placed in an increasingly desperate position. The peasants were withholding food from the towns and were unwilling to accept paper money, which bought less and less. The railway system was becoming more inefficient as the war continued, unable to move grain to the towns in anything like sufficient quantities. Dissatisfaction turned on the supposedly ‘German’ empress and the administration and government which permitted such gross mismanagement. The revolution in March 1917 succeeded because the garrison troops of the swollen army were not loyal and would not blindly follow the command of the tsar as they had done in peacetime. Quite fortuitously the Duma had begun one of its sessions at the very time when this new unrest began. Among the professional classes, the gentry and the army generals, the Duma leaders had gained respect, even confidence, as faith in the tsar’s autocracy and management of the war rapidly diminished. The feeling of country and towns was still patriotic. Everyone was suffering – gentry, workers, peasants and the professional classes. The war against the invader should be won. But at the same time an alleviation of the hardships that the population was suffering, especially food shortages, must be dealt with now, without delay. There seemed no contradiction. The Duma was the one institution that provided continuity and embodied constitutional authority. Under the pressure of striking workers and increasing anarchy in Petrograd, the Duma attempted to gain control over the situation. Its leaders advised the tsar to abdicate. The tsar, lacking all support, hesitated only a short while before giving up his throne. His brother declined the poisoned chalice when offered the crown. Once the decisive break of the tsar’s abdication had been achieved there could be no saving of the dynasty. The Duma also gave up meeting, handing over authority to a small group of men who became the provisional government, composed of mainly moderate liberals and presided over by a benign figure of the old school, Prince Lvov. The new government contained one Socialist Revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, whose cooperation, however, was sincere and who set himself the goal of revitalising the war effort by winning over the Russian people with a programme of broad reform and freedom. From the start, the provisional government did not enjoy undisputed authority. In Petrograd, as in 1905, the Council of Soviets, of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies sprang up, claiming to speak on behalf of the workers and soldiers throughout Russia. They were not ready to rule but they asserted the right to watch over the provisional government and to act as they pleased in the interests of ‘political freedom and popular government’. The provisional government sought the cooperation of the Petrograd Soviet and had to agree to permit the garrison troops, who had taken the side of the revolution, to remain in Petrograd. Henceforth, this disaffected force was under the control of the Petrograd Soviet, and could not be moved. The provisional government also agreed to the establishment of soldiers’ councils throughout the army, and the Soviet published their famous ‘Order number one’ decreeing that they should be set up in every army unit by election. But the Soviet, dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, was quite incapable of providing for the coherent government of Russia and had no intention either of replacing the provisional government or of seeking an early end to the war other than through a Russian victory. Two leading Bolsheviks at this time, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, were ready to cooperate with the ‘bourgeois’ revolution. The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Soviets of Peasant Deputies were dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries and had no thought of ruling the country. However, the provisional government also found it increasingly difficult to prevent the country sinking into anarchy. Only the army at the war-fronts stood firm. At home the provisional government spoke of agrarian reform, order, freedom and victory. A new, freely elected parliament would be called to decide on Russia’s future and provide a government based on the democratic wishes of the people. But meanwhile the provisional government lacked the power and the means to improve the conditions of the people. In the worsening situation in May 1917, the provisional government insisted that rivalry with the Soviets must cease and that socialist representatives of the Soviets enter the ‘bourgeois’ government. The Soviets agreed to share power in a coalition and the fusion seemed to be consummated when Alexander Kerensky, as war minister, became its leading member. These developments were anathema to Lenin. With the assistance of the German high command, who naturally wished to further the disintegration of Russia, Lenin reached Petrograd in April, having travelled from Switzerland by way of Germany. Lenin had no scruples about accepting the aid of the German class enemy. Soon, he believed, revolution would engulf Germany too. What mattered now was to win back the Russian socialists to the correct revolutionary path, even though he led the minority Bolsheviks. The socialist revolution, Lenin believed, could be thwarted by the collaboration of socialists and the bourgeois government. With relentless energy, overcoming what proved to be temporary failures, he changed the revolutionary tide. For Lenin the mass upheaval taking place in Russia was more than a ‘bourgeois’ revolution. He believed the revolutionary upsurge would pass beyond the bourgeois to the socialist stage without pause. In his ‘April theses’ Lenin argued without delay. There seemed no contradiction. The Duma was the one institution that provided continuity and embodied constitutional authority. Under the pressure of striking workers and increasing anarchy in Petrograd, the Duma attempted to gain control over the situation. Its leaders advised the tsar to abdicate. The tsar, lacking all support, hesitated only a short while before giving up his throne. His brother declined the poisoned chalice when offered the crown. Once the decisive break of the tsar’s abdication had been achieved there could be no saving of the dynasty. The Duma also gave up meeting, handing over authority to a small group of men who became the provisional government, composed of mainly moderate liberals and presided over by a benign figure of the old school, Prince Lvov. The new government contained one Socialist Revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, whose cooperation, however, was sincere and who set himself the goal of revitalising the war effort by winning over the Russian people with a programme of broad reform and freedom. From the start, the provisional government did not enjoy undisputed authority. In Petrograd, as in 1905, the Council of Soviets, of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies sprang up, claiming to speak on behalf of the workers and soldiers throughout Russia. They were not ready to rule but they asserted the right to watch over the provisional government and to act as they pleased in the interests of ‘political freedom and popular government’. The provisional government sought the cooperation of the Petrograd Soviet and had to agree to permit the garrison troops, who had taken the side of the revolution, to remain in Petrograd. Henceforth, this disaffected force was under the control of the Petrograd Soviet, and could not be moved. The provisional government also agreed to the establishment of soldiers’ councils throughout the army, and the Soviet published their famous ‘Order number one’ decreeing that they should be set up in every army unit by election. But the Soviet, dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, was quite incapable of providing for the coherent government of Russia and had no intention either of replacing the provisional government or of seeking an early end to the war other than through a Russian victory. Two leading Bolsheviks at this time, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, were ready to cooperate with the ‘bourgeois’ revolution. The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Soviets of Peasant Deputies were dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries and had no thought of ruling the country. However, the provisional government also found it increasingly difficult to prevent the country sinking into anarchy. Only the army at the war-fronts stood firm. At home the provisional government spoke of agrarian reform, order, freedom and victory. A new, freely elected parliament would be called to decide on Russia’s future and provide a government based on the democratic wishes of the people. But meanwhile the provisional government lacked the power and the means to improve the conditions of the people. In the worsening situation in May 1917, the provisional government insisted that rivalry with the Soviets must cease and that socialist representatives of the Soviets enter the ‘bourgeois’ government. The Soviets agreed to share power in a coalition and the fusion seemed to be consummated when Alexander Kerensky, as war minister, became its leading member. These developments were anathema to Lenin. With the assistance of the German high command, who naturally wished to further the disintegration of Russia, Lenin reached Petrograd in April, having travelled from Switzerland by way of Germany. Lenin had no scruples about accepting the aid of the German class enemy. Soon, he believed, revolution would engulf Germany too. What mattered now was to win back the Russian socialists to the correct revolutionary path, even though he led the minority Bolsheviks. The socialist revolution, Lenin believed, could be thwarted by the collaboration of socialists and the bourgeois government. With relentless energy, overcoming what proved to be temporary failures, he changed the revolutionary tide. For Lenin the mass upheaval taking place in Russia was more than a ‘bourgeois’ revolution. He believed the revolutionary upsurge would pass beyond the bourgeois to the socialist stage without pause. In his ‘April theses’ Lenin argued an overwhelmingly peasant country. But he believed, thus squaring these facts with Marx’s analysis, that the revolution in backward Russia would not survive without the international socialist revolution, without the proletarian revolution, especially in neighbouring Germany. Russia had but provided the spark. The advanced industrialised West, with its large proletariat would, so he thought, take over the leadership of the world revolution. In fact, the Russian crisis had its immediate cause in the war – not in a general world crisis of capitalism, but in the specific failing of Russian autocracy and of the provisional government to provide for the successful economic and military management of the war. Tsarism first and Kerensky next were destroyed by inflation, by lack of food in the towns and by the general hardships inflicted on a people without an end to war in sight or sustained victories to show for their immense sacrifices. The second All-Russian Congress of Soviets had called for a just and democratic peace without annexations and indemnities, and had also abolished the landlords’ ownership of land. Bolshevik propaganda in the army and the lawless state of the countryside, where the peasants seized the land, added to Russia’s state of anarchy. The invading German armies, with their appeal to the subject nationalities, Ukrainians, Georgians, Poles and the Baltic peoples, threatened Russia with territorial disintegration. Lenin’s insistence on peace with the Germans at any price appeared suicidal even to his closest collaborators. Fighting ceased and armistice negotiations were formally completed early in December 1917. Meanwhile, Lenin in November had permitted elections for the Constituent Assembly to be held. When it met in January 1918 the Bolsheviks found they had not obtained a majority. Out of a possible 520 deputies the Bolsheviks had only gained 161, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, with 267 deputies, held an absolute majority. Lenin now turned his back on this ‘sovereign’ assembly and the whole democratic process. The assembly was adjourned and prevented from gathering again. Trotsky was sent to negotiate peace terms with the Germans. At Brest-Litovsk he prevaricated and made fine speeches. Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders pinned their hopes on the coming German revolution, spurred on by revolutionary propaganda among the German troops. The Germans lost patience with Trotsky’s intoxication with his own intellectual brilliance and occupied large regions of western Russia virtually without resistance. Trotsky thereby almost destroyed the revolution in its infancy. On 3 March 1918, the Russians, on Lenin’s insistence, and overruling Trotsky’s tactics, accepted the peace terms of Brest-Litovsk which dispossessed Russia of a large part of its former empire. Lenin had cajoled and bullied his colleagues on the Central Committee into accepting the harsh terms. Then he had to fight again to achieve its ratification by the Congress of the Bolshevik Party. Peace with Germany gave Lenin and the Bolsheviks a breathing space, and saved the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin still confidently expected the war among the Western nations to turn into the great civil war and victory for the proletariat. But meanwhile the revolutionary spark had to be kept alive. It was now threatened by anarchy and by civil war from the opponents of the Bolsheviks, aided by Russia’s former allies, who hoped somehow to bring it back into the war. In the succeeding years of war and famine, the Russian people were to suffer even more than they had suffered during the course of the First World War itself. But at the end of this period, the first communist nation was firmly established in a world very different from the one imagined by Lenin at the time of revolution.

 

 

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