The Russian Revolution could be the most significant event in the history of left wing politics. During the course of 1917 a group of radical left wingers overthrew an authoritarian government and then tried to do something that had never been done before: create a state that exists for the benefit of everyone and not just the few in power. Any hope of this ended with the terror of Joseph Stalin and his purges. Mass death on a scale never seen before.
What went wrong? is the question I ask myself over and over. When did the noble idea of equality and emancipation from toil give way to violent oppression? The answer depends on what you want the “lesson” of the revolution to be.
Some say that it was always doomed to end in terror: these are the people who cannot imagine a better world. Some say that the February Revolution was a flowering of liberal democracy and the October Revolution was an authoritarian coup: this is a simplistic reading of history. Some say that liberty won in 1917 was crushed by Stalin; this overlooks Lenin’s authoritarian streak.
Some say that it was Russia itself that corrupted the revolution. These people want to try again somewhere else without learning anything. Some praise the hope and mourn the loss of opportunity. These are the people who dwell endlessly on counterfactuals.
What you need to know
All of the above have some truth to them, but none are a complete explanation. After researching this question, I can say that I don’t know what exactly went wrong. To find out, I would need to read many more books and probably write one of my own to cover all the details. What follows is what all of us on the left need to know about 1917 and the Russian Revolution.
Russia in 1917
It cannot be understated how terrible Tsar Nicholas II was as ruler. Even amongst the royal families of Europe, he was especially authoritarian. He tolerated no opposition to his authority and believed he had a divine right to rule over all of Russia. He executed dissidents and suppressed newspapers that were critical of him. At several points the revolution (and ultimately his death and that of his children) could have been prevented if the Tsar had allowed a few modest, liberal reforms. He refused, and when reform fails, revolutionary sentiment will grow.
At the start of 1917 almost all Russian Marxists believed that Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution. The country was too backwards, there was too little industry, too many peasants and not enough industrial workers. Orthodox Marxism stated that a bourgeoisie revolution was needed to create a capitalist economy in Russia, which could then be overthrown by a socialist uprising. Many thought Britain in 1917 would be the better site for a socialist revolution than Russia.
The February Revolution
The February Revolution was a spontaneous uprising that took revolutionaries and reformers by surprise. Due to this, the February Revolution was many things and it cannot be said what it was for and what its trajectory was. It was not necessarily a liberal, democratic revolution like the American Revolution or the revolutions of 1848. The Provisional Government it created had many flaws, which led to the October Revolution.
The Provisional Government was weak. There were many far right and proto-fascist groups, such as the Black Hundreds, which talked openly about a military coup and creating an authoritarian government. Between February and October there were pogroms against Jews. Fascism could have easily been born in Russia and not in Italy.
The Provisional Government
The Provisional Government was not like the liberal, bourgeoisie governments of Britain or America at the time. It suppressed critical newspapers and jailed dissidents. It also didn’t do enough to satisfy the peasants on the key issue of land reform or improve the lot industrial workers. Strikes and unrest continued under the Provisional Government as it had under the Tsar.
The Provisional Government lost the support of the people and the army. This was mainly because it continued support for Russia’s involvement in the first world war. The war was unpopular and went badly for Provisional Government, as it had for the Tsar. Opposition to the war united disparate socialist groups that would have argued between themselves. Lenin adopted popular positions against the war and in favour of land reform. Ultimately, the October Revolution happened because the Provisional Government failed to effectively govern.
After seizing power the Lenin and the Bolsheviks were thrown into the struggle against military counter-revolution and then the Russian Civil War. Millions died from the disease and starvation during the war. Both sides showed a terrifying degrees of cruelty against civilian supporters of their enemies. The War Communism that the Bolsheviks imposed on Russia was authoritarian in nature and put huge pressure on Russian society.
The task of managing and feeding the Red Army lead to increased centralisation of power, which was necessary to fight the war. The Red Army became the main engine of the Bolsheviks state and all talk about decentralisation and a workers’ run state were dropped under War Communism.
NEP and Stalin
After the Civil War, Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) brought a degree of liberalisation. NEP was also a move away from economic policies of equality and towards policies focused around industrialisation. The Bolsheviks’ control was total, but all the idealism and potential of Revolution, and a government for the benefit of all, had been replaced by a one party authoritarian state.
Stalin increased centralisation and the authoritarian powers of the government. But Lenin had already created a state that was effective at crushing individual freedom and equality, a state where power was hoarded centrally and opposition was suppressed as it had been under the Tsar. The Bolsheviks’ state was already a dark place when Stalin began his blood soaked rule.
Despite the terror and blood shed there was progress after the October Revolution. There were advances in economic development, healthcare and literacy as well as women’s rights and a degree of autonomy for the separate nations that had made up the Russian Empire and now made up the USSR (such as Ukraine and Finland). Despite this, it was clear by the early 1920s that Lenin’s Russia was not a country moving towards equality of workers and emancipation from toil.
You can use the above as colours to paint any picture of the Russian Revolution you like. Was it doomed to failure because of Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution? Or was the flowing of freedom of February crushed by October? Or was the radical hope of October eradicated by the Civil War? Or was it Lenin’s thrust for power and refusal to accept opposition that killed the hope of a better form of government?
The Russian Revolution was many things in many different ways. There is no one truth of what it was or what it meant. Everyone on the left needs to take some time to understand it and find out what they think for themselves. The Revolution also has a long legacy for the left, which I will explore in my next article.