Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.
Bolshevik revolution analysed
Bolshevik revolution analysed
"Where is the insurrection? There is no picture of the insurrection. The events do not form themselves into a picture. A series of small operations, calculated and prepared in advance, remain separated from one another, both in space and time. A unity of thought and aim unites them, but they do not fuse in the struggle itself. There is no action of the great masses. There are no dramatic encounters with the troops. There is nothing which imaginations brought up upon the facts of history associate with the idea of insurrection."
Thus Trotsky, a Bolshevik revolutionary leader, writing in 1932 on the October, 1917. Russian revolution. It was a unique revolution. The Russian Embassy in London first learnt about it from the cables of a British telegraph service. An American journalist first noticed it when the soldiers guarding the State Bank told him there was no more Government, glory to God. Lenin, emerging from hiding to find out what has happened to the Revolution. is told by a tramcar conductress that the Bolsheviks have seized power. The insurrection was announced on walls Land fences pasted up with proclamations condemning insurrectionists. only slowly plastered over with announcements of the fall of the Provisional Government.
At 2.35 in the afternoon on the day of the seizure of power, an emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet was opened with a report by Trotsky: "They told us that an insurrection would drown the revolution in torrents of blood . . We do not know of a single casualty." The casualties were yet to come. The storming of the Winter Palace took its toll—a small toll. Only after the workers have occupied the cities, and the Bolsheviks exercise power, will the battles of the revolution go out into the country and devour lives.
Only after successive waves of British. French, American, Czech and Japanese troops have been routed by the new model armies organised by revolutionary improvisation out of a war-weary country will the revolution gain a breathing space. But Bolsheviks and the workers who they represented, in the brief space of time when they dominated and determined events, chose not to harm their adversaries, and their first word spoken to the world was peace—a Declaration of Peace. This fact history has recorded indelibly.
The first successful Communist revolution has both invented its own mythology and had mythologies thrust upon it. The faded romantic revolutionary rhetoric which portrays Lenin, of course in immaculate bourgeois suit and tie leading implausibly emaciated workers in unhistoric battles, has become the conventional style in which the court painters and poets of contemporary Russia are compelled to depict the revolution.
This is as historically and psychologically deceptive a portrayal of the revolution as the conspiracy theories of the American Kremlinologists, who see behind every event in October a Bolshevik plot, a Leninist coup, or the hidden hand of German high finance.
The conspiracy theories are still being woven: people can be found in New Zealand who honestly believe that the Bolsheviks were tools of the Wall Street Jewish Bankers. But the facts speak for themselves. The Bolsheviks won power in Russia in 1917 because they had the support of the Russian workers expressed through free elections to the organs of workers' democracy, the Soviets. It was only after the Bolsheviks had shown they were strong enough to dominate these Soviets that they took power.
"The characteristic of bourgeois governments is to deceive the people. We, the Soviets of Workers'. Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies are going to try an experiment unique in history: we are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers and peasants." To recall this proud declaration of the makers of the 1917 revolution now is to grasp the ambiguity of a great event, the ambiguity between the event as participants saw it, and as posterity sees it.
Today it can seem almost impossible to credit that the Soviet Government could have ever been sincerely extolled as a government incapable of deception. We remember the peasants who died in the anti-kulak campaign. We remember the show trials and the accompanying purges of the 'thirties. We remember the revolutions Stalin's government stabbed in the back—China, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria. Czechoslovakia. Hungary. What was begun in 1917 does not seem, as it seemed then, like a new epoch. The experiment Trotsky spoke of seems, at the moment of speaking, failure or near failure.
Hindsight should not prevent our seeing that for more than five years the experiment seemed to be working, working perhaps in slow deceleration. There was tremendous artistic innovation, exploration, and experimentation. The workers ran the factories. The soldiers ran the army.
This was a new kind of democracy. The head of state, Lenin, lived in a small, modest house with his wife, without servants. Where the ministers of government still kept chauffeurs, they shared meals, tables and quarters with their servants. The homes of the aristocracy, and the mansions of the Tsar, were used by trade unions and workers' political parties.
The West had no answer to 1917 but the gun—one of the best reasons for believing 1917 had the possibility of being a historic success. After the interventionist powers were defeated, the revolution was left with the debris of civil war, the beginnings of Stalinism and the tremendous expanse of Asiatic Russia to reshape.
It is not surprising that what is left of the revolution after coping with all these things has been very little. All that remains now of what was hoped for in 1917, and what existed in 1917 for an all too short period, is a planned economy without the elan of revolution and certainly without the egalitarianism or self-confidence. The men who now rule Russia are the cynical, the crafty, and the close-lipped, the men who weathered the purges, the Second World War, the fall of Stalin and the fall of Khrushchev by keeping their mouths shut, and who had no political ideals which might have been outraged by the invasion of Hungary or quietly warped by the slow growth of a Soviet privileged caste.
The "experiment" of "founding a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers and peasants" is not for these men. It is remembered by the poets—by Yevtushenko, by Voznezhevsky —and maybe a few underground groups condemned to secrecy and ineffectuality.
The Russian revolution was a revolution which made no compromise with any single form of class rule, which did not stop at the democratic stage and which went over to socialist measures and war against reaction from without: that is. it was a revolution whose every successive stage was rooted in the preceding one and which could end only —if undefeated—in the complete liquidation of class society.
It is impossible to imagine a revolution so wide—ranging in its effect, transforming Russian government, Russian culture. Russian industry and Russian democracy being led by, for example, the peasantry rather than the working class. The revolution showed that in cities where labour was concentrated in large factories part-owned by foreign capital, half of it newly recruited from the countryside, a quarter dispatched to help in Russia's feeble war effort, a revolution could be made.
Immediately after 1917, risings in Budapest. Berlin and Vienna ensued. The workers of those cities saw what the Bolsheviks had done as a possibility for themselves also. Today the charisma of the revolution has evaporated: modern "socialist" revolutions are made by peasants in backward countries who install dictators in power, whose propaganda drones out the dreary fictions that somehow workers made a revolution which was fought out outside the cities, that workers have power when factories are run by dispossessed ex-capitalists who have become "socialist" managers, and when workers are not free to strike, still less to elect Soviets or their equivalent.
The experiment Russia made is verging on failure. The only way to find out if the experiment would work in more favourable conditions in the cities of the affluent West is to repeat it.