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Review: The Russian Revolution (Documentary, Netflix, 1917, Dir Cal Seville)

In this documentary the Russian Revolution unfolds as a battle between the ruling Romanov dynasty and Lenin’s family, the Ulyanovs. To take such a focus is not necessarily a bad idea. The Romanovs could be a useful window through which to examine the nature of the semi-medieval autocracy that ruled Russia. Lenin and his older brother Alexander could be a lens through which to understand the revolutionary movements in Russia. In this case, however, these starring figures are a device with which to avoid talking about actual history and politics at all costs.

The pre-title introduction lays the film’s cards on the table. One of the talking heads, Professor David Rayfield, makes an absurd claim about Lenin, and Stalin features heavily in spite of the fact that he was a very minor player until some years after 1917.

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People’s Will members, including Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov, are hanged for attempting to assassinate the Tsar

The early part of the documentary looks at the People’s Will groups, democrats who hatched plots to kill Tsars and high-up officials. Lenin’s older brother was one of their number, a fact the documentary places great emphasis on without drawing out the most important point. Lenin learned from his brother’s failure, and developed his ideas in opposition to terrorism and conspiracy. This reflected a shift in the entire revolutionary movement. Lenin focused on building a political party and winning power through revolutionary action by the masses, particularly the workers concentrated in cities. The Russian Revolution, unbelievably, skips this vital point, and tells us simply that Lenin joined his brother’s movement, implying that he became a terrorist, when actually the precise opposite was the case.

The story of the “People’s Will” is told here on the one hand to evoke sympathy for the poor blameless dictators of the Romanov dynasty, and on the other hand to tarnish Lenin with the brush of terrorism. This is a potent smear in 2017, however dishonest. Tarnished on the one hand with Stalinism, and on the other with terrorism, it’s fair to say that, even before the narrative enters the 20th century, Lenin hasn’t got a fair shake. The viewer assumes that sometime before the end of the documentary, surely, someone will say a positive thing about him. But it never happens. We are told nothing about what the Bolsheviks stood for, what methods they used or why people supported them – there are a few references to Marx, and no explanation of who he was. Half-way through the documentary, around the 1913 mark, Stalin features prominently. This description of Stalin does its best to imply that the Bolsheviks were basically gangsters, robbing banks and bumping people off as a matter of routine throughout their history.

The historians who are interviewed cannot be blamed for the script or the editing, but the things these talking heads come out with are really outrageous. Apparently, under Tsarism, to be imprisoned for your political beliefs or exiled thousands of miles away from home was “not a bad life.”

The documentary falls into the dreary cliché (of which Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast was unfortunately also guilty) of spending a fair chunk of its 47-minute running time talking about Rasputin and hemophilia as if they were somehow historically significant. Herman Axelbank’s 1937 documentary Tsar to Lenin, which has a similar running time, gives Rasputin only a passing mention, and rightly so. He was a colourful symptom of the dysfunction and superstition in the Romanovs’ court but he does not even partially help to explain the Russian Revolution.

According to the film, the July Days were an attempt by the Bolsheviks to seize power – rather than a spontaneous uprising which the Bolsheviks saw as premature, and laboured to hold back. Daniel Beer insists that the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets” simply meant dictatorship, a claim for which he supplies no evidence. Helen Rappaport shows real contempt for the peasants in the documentary’s sole mention of the revolution in the countryside. It was “horrific” and “savage” what those nasty peasants did to those poor long-suffering hereditary landowners.

How did the Bolsheviks go from a small minority to the ruling party in the space of a few months? To this, the most important question of all, the film suggests only one answer: not through their programme, orientation or the active and sincere support of the masses – no, merely through lying, and the skillful use of “black propaganda.”

Understandably distracted by the burning necessity to tell us about hemophilia and terrorism, the narrator and historians neglect to mention a few little things. For example: that the Bolsheviks had a majority in the soviets; that nowhere and never did they plan to rule through a one-party state; that the Bolsheviks recognised independence for multiple countries, ended the First World War and enshrined the rights of women, LGBT people and minorities; that they built a system of participatory democracy that functioned well into the civil war years.

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Instead we get a narrative that jumps from October 1917 to the killing of the Romanovs in July 1918, without paying any attention to what was happening among the other 150 million or so people in Russia who were not Romanovs. Dwelling on these executions, the talking heads express disbelief and horror, but do not even attempt to explain the reasons or context.

This is a symptom of a wider problem: even someone opposed to the Bolsheviks would find the treatment of them in this film dreary, one-note, didactic and unenlightening. Marx is mentioned twice or three times, but we are not told what he represented. At the end of the film the Bolsheviks remain vague and shadowy figures because we have only been shown unrepresentative details picked out from the whole.

The historians make interesting points at times. The incredible achievements of Lenin and Trotsky in the Civil War are acknowledged. Beer makes a point about how years of war from 1914 to 1921 helped to deform the regime that emerged. In general, though, the narrative is clichéd and massively one-sided. It’s not anything close to the fresh look at events that we deserve on the centenary.

I want to make one more mention of Tsar to Lenin, which presents such a contrast, in every way, to this film. One shot shows the first Soviet president, Kalinin, sitting on the steps of some public building, surrounded by workers presenting petitions to him. His clothing drab, his hair dishevelled, he smokes a rollie, reading over the pieces of paper given to him, listening carefully. The self-educated peasant has a craggy, patient face. The film cuts, without comment from the narrator, to a clip of the Tsar proceeding down an aisle lined by regimented ranks of uniformed nobles, adorned in jewels and furs. The contrast between these two heads of state signifies the massive change that has taken place. The historical point being made is both genuine and skillful.

At one point in the Netflix documentary, Rayfield casually remarks, “So much for Bolshevik egalitarianism!” He’s referring to the fact that Lenin once employed a maid. With the image of Kalinin on the steps fresh in my mind, this struck me as a glib and shallow dismissal. The remark was also bizarre in the context of the documentary. This dismissal was the first, last and only hint we got that the Bolsheviks were (or even aspired to be) egalitarian. That indicates how completely The Russian Revolution ignores real politics and history, and how carefully it avoids mentioning anything that might show Lenin or the Bolsheviks in a positive light.

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Revolution 1917: Busting the Scare Stories – Part 2

At some point growing up, I don’t know when, I heard about the Russian Revolution of 1917. The idea of equality and liberation it represented was attractive to me. Then things changed. School textbooks, movies, Sunday Times book reviews and a thousand other sources all painted a picture of the revolution as a crime or a disaster. All this left me convinced that it was a terrible thing – motivated by good intentions, but disastrous in its outcomes. However, this conviction was not firm, because it wasn’t based on much, and it didn’t last.

Socialism still seemed to me to hold out a promise of human liberation – it was not just a nice idea, but an urgent necessity in a world tortured by hunger, climate change, poverty, war and exploitation. I set about looking more deeply into history to find out what went wrong with the socialist experiments. Years later, as a result of this and of my own activity in the workers’ movement, I have come firmly to the conclusion that the Russian Revolution was not a crime or a calamity, but perhaps the single greatest blow against oppression in human history so far.

On the centenary of the Revolution, this historical truth is worth waging a struggle for. This article accompanies Part 2 of “Revolution 1917: Ten Right-Wing Scare Stories that shook the world,” a humble contribution to this struggle. The videos speak for themselves, but for those who want to learn more, go in-and-around the facts and issues more, or check the sources, this article is for you.

Scare Story #4: “The Bolsheviks were un-democratic and sinister!”

The Truth:

In the late 19th century the working class in Russia grew and developed, and with it a socialist movement expressing its interests and its world-view. At the same time layers of the middle class turned against the autocratic rule of the Tsar. Some of them, such as Lenin and Trotsky, became convinced that the working class was the force that would overthrow the Tsar, and that capitalism worldwide was doomed to collapse and be replaced by socialism.

The Russian Social-Democratic and Labour Party was born from this coming-together of forces. This party worked illegally, underground, its members on the run or imprisoned. Early in its history the RSDLP split into the Mensheviks (minority) and Bolsheviks (majority). The difference between these forces was that the Bolsheviks wanted a party of committed, dedicated revolutionary activists while the Mensheviks wanted a broad, undifferentiated party on a less firm programme.

This split is sometimes presented as evidence that Lenin or the Bolsheviks were undemocratic. In more absurd accounts, all the calamitous history of Stalinism is traced back to this moment. But the issue at hand was not democracy. Both parties had elected leaders, conferences etc, as far as was possible operating illegally. Both parties fought for democracy, and never, as outlined in Part 1, did Lenin or other leading Bolsheviks call for a “one-party state” or anything of the kind.

The Bolsheviks had an elected leadership, among whom Lenin was the most respected. Lenin was not the “dictator” of the party, as the many instances where he did not get his way demonstrate. There were many other important, extremely talented and prominent leaders, from the central right down to the local. From 1911 to 1914 the Bolsheviks developed into the biggest working-class party in the country. In this period their members “on the ground” in local branches and chapters were themselves respected leaders in their workplaces and communities.

Lenin’s sharp polemics and articles are often cited as evidence that he was undemocratic. What this evidence actually shows is that the Bolshevik party had a rich internal life, full of debate and discussion. Lenin always went to great lengths to convince people of his point of view, an approach that was absolutely democratic.

In 1917 there were repeated sharp conflicts in the ranks and in the leadership of the Bolshevik party, struggles that provide further evidence of a democratic organisation. Repeatedly Lenin was in a minority in leadership bodies, and had to wage a campaign for his ideas, patiently winning party members over. Nowhere was this clearer than in September-October 1917, when Lenin and others were arguing for an uprising while others such as Kamanev and Zinoviev, counselled waiting.

Lenin won the leadership bodies firmly to his position only thanks to the rank-and-file members of the party, who put pressure on the leadership bodies and backed up those who favoured insurrection against those who favoured waiting. In an undemocratic party, one ruled by bureaucratic dictates from a central committee, this would have been impossible. An undemocratic party would simply not have been capable of leading the uprising of October/ November 1917. Connected with this, the story of Kamanev and Zinoviev, who publicly broke with Lenin in flagrant violation of party rules and continued as leading members, is further evidence of a democratic internal culture.

The Bolsheviks were centralised, and operated on the basis of full and free discussion followed by unity in action. There is nothing in this that contradicts democratic principles.

Myth #6: “The Revolution prevented Russia from becoming a democracy!”

I once read an essay that imagined an alternative history in which Lenin is shot on his arrival at the Finland station, and as a result no October Revolution happens, and Russia, under the brilliant leadership of Kerensky, develops into one of the world’s most prosperous liberal democracy. I can’t remember the title of the book the essay was in, or the author. I suspect it was Robert Service.

This fantasy has no basis in the facts. The Provisional Government (unelected and self-appointed) refused to deliver on the demands of the people of Russia for month after month. The war, the domination of the landlords and the profiteering and exploitation went on. The country was driven to the brink of famine and economic collapse by Kerensky and co and their refusal to break with imperialist war, landlordism and capitalism.

As early as July a near-revolution took place in the capital. The army and navy were crumbling. By September, the country had been rocked by rural uprisings of peasants against nobles: the seizing of land, equipment and riches, the burning of estates. The scale was undeniable: “Out of the 624 counties constituting old Russia, 482, or 77 per cent, were involved in the movement. And omitting the borderlands, distinguished by special agrarian conditions – the northern district, the Transcaucasus, the region of the steppes, and Siberia – out of 481 counties, 439, or 91 per cent, were drawn into the peasant revolt.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, “The Peasantry Before October”).

Meanwhile the ruling class was enraged and determined to crush this revolution. Kornilov’s coup represented an attempt to stamp down the iron heel of dictatorship. The histories of other revolutionary movements provide abundant parallels to illustrate what a victorious Russian counter-revolution would have looked like. One will suffice for now: the Italian Revolution suffered from fatal indecision and hesitation in its leadership, allowing Mussolini the opportunity to become dictator. The establishment welcomed this apparent “outsider” with open arms because he offered the muscle required to batter the working class into submission. In Russia, a successful counter-revolution would have had to take the land back off the peasants, put down the workers in the cities and break their organisation, and rebuild a functioning army. Obviously all this would have involved totalitarian powers and massive bloodshed.

There is no greater illusion than to imagine that Kerensky’s Provisional Government could have brought in a liberal democracy in Russia. There was on the one hand an enraged ruling class, and on the other the vast majority of workers, peasants and soldiers, who were rising up against the old order. Neither side was willing to compromise because both sides were fighting for astronomical stakes. It was not a choice between 1937 Stalinism and 1970s Sweden, but between Soviet democracy and a counter-revolutionary military dictatorship. Those were the real choices before the people of Russia at that moment.

Myth #7: “The October Revolution was a coup!”

The February Revolution and the October Revolution present a striking contrast to one another.

The February Revolution was extremely bloody. It was a huge struggle lasting five days during which hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets, lines of soldiers gunned down workers, and pillars of smoke from burning police stations rose high. There was no clear political party, organisation or personality at the head of the protests.

This uprising overthrew the Tsar, but was not sufficiently organised to create an alternative regime, a bit like the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Instead, the self-appointed “Provisional Government” took power. Meanwhile, the Soviet, a more democratic body directly elected by workers, sailors and soldiers, formed as a rival to it.

The October Revolution passed with very few fatalities. Though Sergei Eisenstein’s film would have us believe otherwise, the military side of the struggle was not terribly dramatic. The Soviet could call on massive numbers of armed men: the thousands-strong Red Guard of factory workers; the sailors of Kronstadt, Helsingfors, etc; many military units of the garrison. The government on the other hand had a short list of armed defenders: the military college students and a women’s unit. The forces of the Soviet simply took over the capital. The struggle for the Winter Palace was protracted but not bloody. There were significant battles and skirmishes in the days following the insurrection but these were not on the scale of February.

The October Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and substituted for it the Soviet and the Council of People’s Commissars. In February the events were much more dramatic, bloody and visually momentous. But in October the change, the result of the struggle, was far more significant and far-reaching.

In February the workers went into the streets themselves, in incredible numbers. In October, the Soviet was well-organised and could call on loyal and reliable armed units. The Soviet, expressing the democratic will of the workers, soldiers and sailors, sent forth armed representatives, who did the work on behalf of and at the behest of the masses, and feeling behind their backs the strong support of the masses.

A coup is a seizure of power by an underhanded conspiracy, boasting brilliant tactics and powerful individuals and institutions, but little popular support. Because it did not take the form of an earth-shattering inchoate Tahrir Square-type movement, the October Revolution has often been described as a coup.

In October, those directly involved in Petrograd alone, with weapons in their hands, numbered ten to twenty thousand. They operated on the orders of a democratically-elected body, the Petrograd Soviet, and received the approval of the All-Russia Congress of Soviets.

For the sake of completeness, and as an aside to the above argument, we need to point out that there was significant fighting around Petrograd in the weeks after the October Revolution. Meanwhile the insurrection in Moscow, less well-organised than the one in Petrograd, took the form of a week of bloody street-fighting.

Why were there fewer in the streets in October compared to February, or even July? Because in the intervening months the workers had organised themselves to a higher level, and instead of going out in person, they sent out a minority of their number, armed and organised in fighting detachments. Also in the intervening months the government had lost support. It was extremely weak in the capital. Only limited forces were necessary for its overthrow. October was less dramatic than February because it was a more unanimous and decisive uprising.

To accept this argument is to fly in the face of an item of conventional wisdom widespread among liberals and to some extent among anarchists, which holds that the only defensible revolutions are those which are too inchoate and disorganised and leaderless to substitute a new regime for the old one. In February there was no soviet ready to assume power and no revolutionary party ready to lead the struggle; in October both were present, and as a result the uprising was highly-organised and almost bloodless. It is for this reason that opponents of the Russian Revolution claim that it was a coup.

A note on references: The best source on democracy and the Bolshevik party is LeBlanc, Paul, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Haymarket books, 1990. On the myth that the October Revolution was a coup, see Trotsky, Leon, History of the Russian Revolution, Gollancz, 1933 (1930), especially the relevant chapters in Volume 3 (“The Art of Insurrection”, “The Conquest of the Capital”.) The figure of 20,000 comes from this book. Most of the above, however, is not so much a presentation of data as the elaboration of an argument based on universally-accepted facts.

Critic peddles lazy lies in rant against Russian Revolutionary art

Given the year that’s in it, the New York Museum of Modern Art is running an exhibition with the neutral title of Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. One art critic in The Guardian has a big problem with this. “It is a lazy, immoral lie to keep pretending there was anything glorious about the brutal experiment [of the Russian Revolution],” writes Jonathan Jones, who has glorified the art of the Spanish Inquisition.

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But his own article is riddled with lazy and immoral lies – the kind of lies you can expect to hear a lot more of over this centenary year. Here are my responses to just six.

  1. Russia after the Russian Revolution was demonstrably not a one-party state. The Bolsheviks had a majority in the Soviets and, along with their coalition partners, won a majority in the short-lived and unlamented Constituent Assembly as well. The first government was a coalition. Under the Civil War, neither side allowed political parties on the other side to operate openly on their territory – as in every civil war.
  2. Rural society, far from being “destroyed,” grew richer because the Revolution gave tens of millions of peasants vast tracts of new land at the expense of the nobles.
  3. Jones takes famines separated by ten years, claims they were the same thing, then for good measure equates the poor peasants’ committees to Nazism. Let’s attempt to reverse his dishonest mangling of events. The famines of the early years of Soviet rule were an atrocity committed (through blockade, invasion and intervention) by regimes whose art Jones would have no problem celebrating: the “democratic” UK, USA, France, etc. The famines of the early 1930s were a result of Stalin’s forced collectivization of farms – an idea that Lenin and the Bolsheviks consistently opposed over decades.
  4. Jones first claims that the Poor Peasant’s Committees somehow brought about famine (which they didn’t), then equates them with Stalin’s policies of mass starvation and deportation. Then he claims that they anticipated the Nuremberg Laws and the Holocaust. As well as being stupid and disgusting, this is a ridiculous show of juvenile historical leap-frogging.
  5. Jones repeatedly equates the Russian Revolution with Nazism. This is the worst of all. The Nazis had the explicit aim of killing tens of millions of people based on their ethnicity. Even in the very bloody history of Stalinism, we find no parallels to the Nazis’ apocalyptic vision of brutal colonization. To give just one example (aside from the Holocaust itself), the Nazis deliberately starved four million to death between the Siege of Leningrad and their “camps” for Russian prisoners-of-war.
  6. But to compare Lenin and the Bolsheviks to Nazism, which Jones does, again and again and without a trace of subtlety, is outrageous. Sadly, the wartime emergency measures taken by the Bolsheviks do not constitute “one of the most murderous chapters in human history.” Mass killings of civilians that many times exceed this have taken place repeatedly up to the present day. The Indonesian terror of the 1960s and the USA’s actions in Vietnam are the first that come to mind, but we could, unfortunately, compose a much longer list.

Complaining bitterly about El Lissitzky’s masterpiece “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, Jones asks, “Did Billy Bragg and Paul Weller worry about [the fact that it very obviously refers to the Russian Civil War] when they borrowed its cool title for a 1980s effort to make pop music political? Nah, they didn’t give it a thought.”

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This patronizing aside flies wide of the mark. The founders of “Red Wedge” were consciously referencing the Russian Civil War – a struggle between the Reds, an army of workers and peasants fighting for democratic socialism, and the Whites, a force that fought for industrialists and ex-nobles, lacking popular support but armed and set on its feet by massive helpings of foreign aid. If the Whites had won, a true war on the peasants would have ensued as the nobles sought to grab back their land, along with massacres in the cities as “order” was restored, and lynchings of Jews that would actually have anticipated the holocaust. Weller and Bragg could see which side they were on. Evidently they gave it a lot more thought than Jonathan Jones, who suggests that the workers and peasants of Russia placed themselves on the same moral level as Hitler when they fought to defend their revolution.

No, aliens did not build the pyramids…

This article from The Vintage News accompanying drone footage of the awesome pyramids of Nubia begins with a ridiculous claim:

“The pyramids even to this day are somewhat of a mystery. There are some theories but no one really knows how they were built, who built them, or why.”600px-nubianmeroepyramids30sep20052

In the next TWO PARAGRAPHS, all these questions are answered! They were built by the Kushite kingdoms. They were presumably built by masses of slaves, shaping big blocks and then piling them on top of one another according to precise blueprints drawn up by trained engineers.

There is NO MYSTERY! “no one really knows”..? Yes, we do know!

These clichés feed into all that bullshit about “ancient aliens” building the pyramids (which the “History” Channel is happy to lend credibility to).

This abuse of history is really criminal and needs to stop. 

A lot of people just innocently like stories about aliens, but there’s a more disturbing side. Our culture has difficulty accepting the fact that Africans built these magnificent structures at a time when people in northern Europe were living in shacks made out of mud and sticks.maxresdefault

Everything you need to know about the “alt-right”

In response to the disgusting Irish Times piece:

  • They’re well-off white boys who have convinced themselves (against all the evidence from boardrooms and cabinets) that the world is no longer being run by rich old white men. They are angry about this because they’re swine.
  • Many of their leading lights are fascists.
  • The shite they say online, most wouldn’t have the guts to say to your face.
  • They hide their racism and sexism behind irony because they’re cowards.
  • The media are too soft on them.

See also: this

Revolution 1917 – Part One: article accompanying video

I made this video to provide some respite from the avalanche of right-wing propaganda that will hit us on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. No doubt there will be documentaries, books and pull-out newspaper supplements seeking to “prove” that the Russian Revolution was any of a number of terrible things. It would be a tragedy if the real gains and lessons of this incredible period were to be hidden to millions under a cloud of red-gothic nonsense and false identification with Stalinism.

The video, which I intend to be the first of 3 or 4 that I will upload over the course of the year 2017, is accompanied by this article going a little deeper into some of the points raised and including at the end credits for clips, images and music, as well as references.

Scare Story #1: “The revolution led to an oppressive one-party state”

From school textbooks to standard histories, it’s treated as a matter of fact that the Bolsheviks planned to set up a one-party state in Russia when they led the October revolution. This is a key plank in the argument that counterposes “communism” to “democracy.” In fact, communism from Marx to Lenin to Trotsky was not a reversal of the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, but their extension.

You will seek in vain in the writings of the key thinkers and leaders of the Russian Revolution for any reference to plans for a one-party state. References to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, if you read them in context, clearly mean “rule by the proletariat”. At its most severe, this formulation can mean a brief period of wartime dictatorship (such as existed in all combatant countries in both world wars) in the event of civil war or invasion following a successful revolution.

The first Soviet government had a formal majority in elections to the Constituent Assembly – itself dissolved without a whimper of protest from the working class because it was understood that the Soviets represented a more democratic form of government. This first Soviet government was a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). Between them these two forces enjoyed overwhelming majority support, the former leading the workers and the latter leading the peasants.

A “one-party” regime emerged unplanned and de facto from the conditions of civil war. The Mensheviks and both wings of the SRs, along with the bourgeois parties, supported the Whites, including in the lynching of Bolsheviks such as in Baku and Samara. Parties that were in armed conflict with the government were naturally banned. But this wasn’t total; as late as 1921, Mensheviks and Anarchists were operating openly and freely in Russia.

The real one-party regime dates not from 1917 but from 1921. In this year there was a formal, actual decision by the Bolsheviks to ban opposition parties and internal factions. This was an emergency measure – 1921 saw the country totally reeling from the effects of war, with the working class reduced in size from 3.8 million (1917) to 1.5 million and the New Economic Policy being brought in. This was supposed to be a temporary measure, a breathing space to last just a few years while the economy stabilised and the working class grew once more. In the event this recovery happened. But by then the party had become bureaucratised and still refused to allow factions or opposition parties. The Opposition within the party, from the mid-1920s on, supported the restoration of Soviet democracy and an end to the one-party regime, among other policies.

The actual liberating effects of the October Revolution are almost never spoken of. They are briefly summarised below:

  • The Soviets represented real, actual, active democracy for the mass of the people in a way that the world has not seen since. Democratic management of state-owned factories was another incredible experiment. The right to vote was given to every worker and peasant regardless of sex or nationality.
  • Housing was shared out on the basis of need.
  • Rather than the chaos of the market or the iron heel of the aristocracy, the revolution brought in a scientifically-planned economy, with massive benefits for the vast majority of people.
  • Communal services replaced or partly replaced household duties like cooking and cleaning.
  • These early years also saw outlawing of racism and the granting of independence, autonomy and cultural development for a whole series of oppressed nationalities.
  • Divorce was made easily available, abortion was legalised and child support was required of absent fathers (sometimes on multiple male partners where parentage was unclear). Equal pay and equal rights were mandated by law. The formal stigma on illegitimacy was abolished.
  • The Soviet Family Code of 1918 led to a legal recognition of transgender identity, LGBT rights and equal marriage. There are records of early forms of gender reassignment surgery.
  • Forms of liberation not officially encouraged by the government also flourished: nudists jumped onto Moscow trams, young people engaged in free love and Esperanto enthusiasts flourished.

All this gives a sense of the real atmosphere of the time: not a dark night of descending oppression but a flourishing of real freedom. All this was short-lived and limited due to the effects of the Civil War and the later rise of Stalinism, but it gives a taste of what socialism promises.

 

Scare Story #2: “The revolutionaries were violent and undemocratic, compared to the free, peaceful west.”

A refutation of this scare story needs to begin with a caveat about the gruesome practise of historical body-counting, which we can all fall victim to. Is the killing of 6,000 people “worse” or “as bad as” the killing of 5,000 people? It’s a silly and obscene question. But from the review supplement of the Sunday Times to The Black Book of Communism and online pseudo-scholars, this practise is widespread. Thousands and millions of deaths are marshalled as arguments and thrown around like confetti. I want to steer clear of this kind of thing as much as possible, but it will be necessary at times.

In 1917 the capitalist countries were presiding over a war that was to claim 16 million lives. These states were pursuing their interests by means of the most over-the-top violence and repression; shelling mountains into valleys, spending tens of thousands of lives in single days, instituting dictatorships at home, and killing, imprisoning or driving to death many who opposed the war or refused to fight. For supporters of these states to pretend that Bolshevik violence somehow stood out as particularly bad in the period is absurd.

The points about democracy and violence should also be seen in the context of imperialism. At this time almost all of Africa and large swathes of Asia were under the control of European powers or of the USA. The wars these powers fought to gain or to keep their colonies are truly harrowing and brutal. Anyone who persists in labelling the USA, Britain, Belgium and France as “democracies” needs to read about the Belgian Congo, the war in the Philippines, the Boer Wars or any one of many other episodes in the bloody history of capitalism and empire. Each one of these far exceeds the Civil War waged by the Reds in terms of violence and denial of rights. Many exceed even the crimes of Stalinism. Anyone who condemns the Bolsheviks as “undemocratic” or “violent”, but then cheers on the so-called “democracies” is ignorant or else hypocritical.

Another key point in response to this scare story is that Red violence in the early years after the revolution was a response to the terrible violence being committed by a minority in the form of the Whites in the Civil War.

The White Armies were financed from abroad on a massive scale. This really can’t be overstated. As well as “boots on the ground” (to use the modern term) from over a dozen different armies (including 70,000 from Japan and at one stage 300,000 from all foreign armies put together), there was massive material aid. Without this aid, the Whites could not have fought on, showing how small a base of support they had in the country, and showing also how determined the capitalist countries were to trample Russia underfoot and impose capitalism once more, even at the cost of millions of lives.

Megan Trudell writes:

Reports from Siberia while it was still under the control of the [White] Directory detail the foreign supplies, including 100,000 train wagons from the US. Trade between the Whites and foreign powers continued despite the blockade. Between October 1918 and October 1919 Britain sent Omsk 97,000 tons of supplies, including 600,000 rifles, 6,871 machine guns and over 200,000 uniforms. According to Pipes, ‘every round of rifle ammunition fired by [Kolchak’s] troops was of British manufacture’.
Total Allied aid to Kolchak in the first months of 1919 amounted to 1 million rifles, 15,000 machine guns, 800 million rounds of ammunition, and clothing and equipment for half a million men, ‘roughly equivalent to the Soviet production of munitions for the whole of 1919’. By August 1919 Britain had already spent £47.9 million helping the Whites – rising to £100 million by the end of the year, a figure equivalent to approximately £2.5 billion today. The French contribution was only slightly less, while the US allowed ‘considerable sums’ it had granted Kerensky’s government to be diverted to the White cause by the ambassador of the Provisional Government.

A capitalist dictatorship or a restored monarchy, with truly totalitarian powers, would have been necessary for this well-armed minority to crush the working class and take the land back off the peasants. Given the anti-Semitic and proto-fascist views of many of the White leaders, it’s clear that a White victory would have meant fascism by another name, years before fascism ever came to power in Italy.

These were the stakes the workers of Russia were fighting over. Such was the strength of their enemies. It was in this context that they militarised society, restored one-man management in the factories, seized food from the villages for the armies and the cities, and began a “Red Terror” which claimed at least 10,000 lives and possibly as many as 50,000.

Not for the sake of ghoulish body-counting, but for the sake of comparison, we should look at the “White Terrors” in Russia as well as Finland and Hungary. In Russia, it took the form of lynchings and shootings of “Reds” and Jews. General Kolchak’s army had a policy of shooting all “Red” prisoners and one prominent White slogan was “Death to Jews and Commissars!”. In Finland, between 10,000 and 20,000 “reds” and workers were killed in a matter of months, and tens of thousands locked up. As the video points out, this is equal to, or possibly more than, the total number executed by the Cheka during the entire Russian Civil War – in a much smaller country and in a much shorter time-frame. In Hungary, an ill-conceived “Red Terror” by the short-lived Soviet government there had claimed 500 lives; the “White Terror” of 1919-20 claimed 5,000 lives and imprisoned 70,000, again descending into anti-Semitic pogroms, leaving Hungary under a military dictatorship for decades.

Then there is Germany, where a socialist revolution was crushed by naked brute force. I couldn’t find statistics for this but it is recorded that 700 workers and leftists were shot in Munich alone after the crushing of the Bavarian Soviet.

The horror in Syria today reminds us that it is not necessary to “pick a side” in every war. Sometimes both sides in a war are, if not equally brutal, at least both far beyond the pale. The Russian Civil War was not such a war. The Reds were clearly far more sympathetic, far more progressive, far more democratic and far less violent than the Whites. The Reds represented progress, equality, humanity and the rule of the majority over society; the Whites represented a snarling defence of privilege, rampant bigotry, a denial of the aspirations of tens of millions, and the circling vultures of imperialism looking to tear the county to pieces.

Perhaps the reader is a pacifist, or holds a candle for Nestor Makhno or for the “Green Armies”. These forces were based on peasant resistance to the extreme and terrible effects of the war, and did not represent a real potential future for the Russian or global working class or for humanity in general. They were side-phenomena that could not have developed into a real challenge to capitalism and imperialism. Meanwhile, to pretend that they were innocent of all repressive measures against their enemies, in a civil war context, is to indulge in fantasy.

Scare Story #3: “The revolution led to the rise of Stalin”

Decades before the revolution, Marxists in Russia had anticipated the fact that unless the revolution spread beyond the borders of Russia, there was no hope that socialism could flourish in Russia itself. They stated with certainty that without revolutions in Europe (with its higher level of production, technology and organisation), socialism could not be built in revolutionary Russia. “We will now proceed to the construction of the new socialist order” were the famous words of Lenin after the October insurrection. But never did Lenin or Trotsky claim that Socialism had been achieved in Russia.

The revolution of 1917 was the first explosion of an international revolutionary wave that covered most of Europe and even saw mass movements and revolutions in other continents. But none of these other revolutions succeeded in establishing socialism, primarily because the leaderships of the Social-Democratic parties were more interested in reinforcing capitalism, even against the wishes of their supporters. The prediction of Lenin was borne out: socialism failed to develop in Russia. What developed instead was a bureaucratically-deformed workers’ state. It was not capitalist, as large-scale private property did not exist; but nor was it socialist, as the large-scale property was in the hands of unaccountable officials and managers, not under democratic control.

Stalin’s rise to power in the mid-to-late 1920s was the political expression of this trend. His terrible crimes and colossal blunders, which are well-known, were the crimes and blunders of the bureaucratic clique that had seized power. In 1936 he declared that Socialism had been achieved; this, coming right before the monstrous purges, was a bare-faced lie.

Why did Stalinism develop?

Some argue that the socialist revolution inevitably led to Stalinism, or that they were one and the same. But the terrible crimes of Stalinism – the millions of deaths which the ghoulish body-counters lay at the door of socialism – did not take place until well over a decade after the October Revolution. Let’s look at the nature of these crimes as well.

The purges wiped out what was left of the leadership of the 1917 Revolution, with the exception of Stalin himself and some loyal followers like Molotov. Both Stalin and Molotov had been leaders of secondary or tertiary importance back in 1917. The main target of the purges was the Left Opposition, whose members called themselves the Bolshevik-Leninists, and who stood for workers’ democracy and internationalism. Other targets of the purges were minorities seeking national independence and a layer of pretty powerless right-wing groups that supported capitalist restoration. But the Left Opposition were the main target; labelled “Trotskyists” on their gulag papers, they were marked out for extra hard labour and beatings.

The forced seizing of all farms was a measure that the Bolsheviks, before and after the revolution, had explicitly ruled out. Lenin’s writings on the land question envisage a gradual and consensual transition to collective farming, and warn of the terrible consequences that could arise if collectivisation was forced. Stalin’s faction had previously been totally opposed to collectivisation, even of a gradual and consensual kind, a policy that led the cities to the verge of famine and spurred Stalin into a u-turn toward collectivisation.

In both of these examples we see that Stalin’s greatest crimes were directed against the supporters of the original principles of the revolution, and flatly contradicted its aims and methods.

Some seek for the roots of Stalinism in the organisational principles of the Bolshevik Party in 1903. Some seek for its roots in the repression carried out during the Civil War. These scholars find crumbs of fact to nourish their theories in a general context that totally contradicts them.

It is much easier to find evidence for the argument that Stalinism grew out of the barbarism of the civil war and out of the decimation of the working class that attended it. The Soviet regime based itself on the active participation of workers and on the spread of revolution to other countries; denied these two conditions, it sickened and degenerated into Stalinism. This was not an “inevitable” development, in the sense of being inherent in the revolution from the start. It flowed from these conditions, devastating war and prolonged isolation, which were imposed on the revolution from outside.

  1. “Socialist economic policies failed”

We are regularly told that millions died in the years following the revolution due to hunger and disease. We are left to infer, or sometimes we are explicitly told, that this calamity came about due to the economic policies of the Bolsheviks. In fact, all those people died primarily because a British-led blockade on food and medicines was imposed on Red-controlled areas. This was a deliberate strategy of starvation. Blame for these deaths lies with the architects and supporters of this blockade.

We are also regularly told that communism “impoverished” the people of the Soviet Union. Those who believe this have not taken a cursory look at the most elementary facts of Soviet history in the 20th century. They need to look at life expectancy, which shot up until the 1970s in spite of tens of millions of deaths inflicted by the Nazis in World War Two. They need to look at consumption, literacy, and all the other statistical indicators of progress. Life expectancy, for example, went from the 30s under Tsarism to 46-9 in the 1930s to 67 in the mid-1950s.

All these indicators levelled out or declined in the 1970s and 1980s, as bureaucratic management hit its limits and the system cried out for democratic public ownership of the economy; and plunged after the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s.

We have made the point that Stalinism was not socialism. But Stalinism did include one key component of socialism: the planned, publicly-owned economy. While the world was reeling from the Great Depression, the Soviet Union was industrialising. When the revolution took place in 1917, many Russians still ploughed their fields by hand. Less than forty years later, the Soviet Union launched humanity’s first satellite into space.

Those who argue that a publicly-owned, planned economy failed have no ground to stand on. They are ignoring the millions of deaths from hunger and disease in peacetime Tsarism. They are ignoring the jumps in all indicators of progress, especially after World War Two when peaceful conditions allowed the planned economy breathing space. They are ignoring the development from the hand-plough to Sputnik.

 

Bibliography

  • Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, Opus, 2nd, 1982, 1994
  • Megan Trudell, “The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis”. From International Socialism2:86, Spring 2000. Copyright © International Socialism. Copied to Marxists.org with thanks from the International Socialism Archive. Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
  • LeBlanc, Paul, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Haymarket books, 1990
  • Deutscher, Isaac, Stalin: A Political Biography, Penguin Books (1949, 1970)
  • Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firelfy Books (1958, 2004)
  • Rogovin, Vadim, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror, Mehring Books, Michigan (1998)
  • Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Vintage (2011)
  • Trotsky, Leon, Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, New Park Publications Ltd (1937, 1973)
  • Ulam, Adam B, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Fontana/Collins (1965)
  • Lenin, VI, Online archive, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/index.htm
  • Valtin, Jan, Out of the Night (Fortress Books, 1941)
  • Pastor, Peter, Hungary Between Wilson and Lenin (East European Quarterly, Boulder, Colorado, 1976)
  • Payne, Stanley G, Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
  • Read, Anthony, The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism (Pimlico 2009)
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence, World War One: The Global Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
  • Toynbee, Arnold J; McInnes, Neil; Seton-Watson, Hugh; The Impact of the Russian Revolution 1917-1967 (Oxford University Press, 1967)
  • Ulam, Adam B, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Fontana (1966)
  • http://www.socialismtoday.org/80/lenin.html – Per-Ake Westerlund, “Lenin: The Original Dictator?”

 

Credits for clips, images and music

Music:

  1. Catch-22, “Prologue”, from “Permanent Revolution” (The piano music at the start and end).
  2. Immortal Technique, “Golpe De Estado” (The hip-hop song that lays throughout. This song and its lyrics are not directly related to the Russian Revolution, but I thought the music struck the right tone).
  3. Red Army Choir, “The Sacred War” (The music that plays over the “Scare Stories”).

All clips from Youtube.com.

Introduction

From Tsar to Lenin, 1937 documentary

“Young Indiana Jones and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”

1

“Russian Revolution in Colour – Mutiny in Petrograd” – Smithsonian

Google images: “Petrograd-soviet-clear”

Tsar to Lenin

“USSR industrialisation and the 5 year plan under Stalin”

Rosa Luxemburg, feature film

“Dr Zhivago – scene on road”

Industrialisation

“Reds Internationale” clip from Reds

2

“Red alert 2 intro” from videogame Red Alert 2

Admiral– feature film

Tsar to Lenin

“Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Real footage”

Google images – “Russian Civil War map”

Gandhi – Amritsar massacre

Indochine trailer

Michael Collins clip

“The Battle of George Square – #Occupy fl.1919”

“The Revolution In Berlin!”

Hitler: the Rise of Evil, part one

3

“The Celebration Of The 1st Of May Moscow 1938 Aka May Day Rally Moscow 1938”

“Footage from infamous Moscow show trial”

“The Crimes of Stalinism”

Smithsonian

“ZED-Stalin In Color (Documentary) (Trailer)”

Reds

Tsar to Lenin

4

Anticomm cartoon

“Inside The Gates Of Soviet Russia (1920-1921)” Pathé

Industrialisation

Tsar to Lenin