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War and peace

Nov 8, 2017

The Bolshevik putsch, 100 years on

Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power a century ago. Much blood has flowed under the bridge since then.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

A little over a hundred years ago, in March 1917, an uprising in St Petersburg overthrew the venerable Russian autocracy of the Romanov czars.

This was a real revolution, conformable to the models of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and a provisional government – broadly based and moderately left wing – was established pending the election of a constituent assembly.

But the government didn’t live to see that election. On the 7th and 8th of November it was ousted by the Bolshevik Party, which had a strong base in the urban proletariat and its workers’ councils, or soviets.

Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, took power. When the constituent assembly was elected, it turned out to have a large plurality for the Bolsheviks’ rivals, the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was promptly dispersed by force: Russia’s first democratic election was also its last for more than 70 years.

Readers probably know the rest of the story. The Bolsheviks consolidated their power through victory in a civil war, aided by the talent of their military chief, Leon Trotsky. They renamed the country the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and themselves as the Communist Party. Soon they controlled a network of like-minded parties throughout the world.

Compared to its March predecessor, the November revolution (usually known, confusingly, as the October Revolution, because Russia was then still on the Julian calendar) looks more like a putsch than a popular movement. But that doesn’t mean it was unimportant. On the contrary, it was one of the pivotal events of the twentieth century.

Over the next few decades, Communism drenched much of the world in blood. Lenin was cruel and ruthless, although principled in his way; his successor, Stalin, was downright psychopathic. They provided a model for equally barbaric Communist regimes in other countries, most notably China (where it still survives, unlike the USSR).

But the bloodshed did not stop there. Bolshevism provides the essential context for the rise of fascism; fascist movements played off fear of the Bolsheviks while imitating their methods and ultimately matching their homicidal record.

No doubt there would have been left-wing agitation at the end of the First World War in any event, and therefore presumably a violent reaction from the right. But without Lenin and Stalin it’s hard to imagine that it would have taken quite such a malignant form.

So, is there anything good to be said for the Bolsheviks? No doubt, many of them were idealists, firmly believing that they were acting for the good of the people and that a world of freedom and prosperity was just around the corner. Maybe even Lenin really thought of the dictatorship as a temporary and regrettable necessity. But the ease with which his successors gave up that belief must cast some doubt on its genuineness.

The Soviet Union did win the Second World War; without it, one might say, the Nazis would have conquered Europe. But without it, perhaps the war never would have had to be fought in the first place. And in any event, a democratic Russia might have been a more effective ally: for a start, it wouldn’t have just shot most of its leading generals, as Stalin had.

The Communists did try to eradicate many harmful things within their sphere of control, but by their inhumanity they often provoked a reaction in favor of those very things. Would feminism, for example, have quite so many enemies today if it were not for Lenin? More than anyone, he was the man who gave modernity a bad name.

Anti-communism, so necessary and obvious in its own terms, distorted the political spectrum. While those on the left tied themselves in knots trying to pick and choose from the elements of the Leninist program, those on the right blamed Marxism and socialism for all of the ills that Communism brought.

But the indictment was unfair: what Lenin was doing was not Marxism. Marx could have told him that at Russia’s stage of development, bourgeois liberalism was a progressive ideology, and that Marxists should be supporting the progress of capitalism, not intervening to derail it.

No Marxist party that has repudiated Lenin has ever repeated his brutality. If Marx had never existed, Lenin would probably have found some other convenient ideology to justify his schemes. But if Lenin had never existed, Marx might be remembered as a prophet of social democracy, not of dictatorship.

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13 thoughts on “The Bolshevik putsch, 100 years on

  1. garydj

    “But without [the Soviet Union], perhaps the war never would have had to be fought in the first place.”
    I think this is doubtful. The origins of the Second World War in Europe are complex, but have much to do with unresolved issues in Europe from the First World War, particularly Germany’s position in Europe. The nature of the Soviet Union added an ideological dimension to the war, but I don’t think had much to do with its causation.

    1. Charles Richardson

      Thanks Gary. I’ve never really been convinced by that argument; yes, there were definitely unresolved issues, but there was also a solid majority in Germany rejecting militarism. If Germany had remained a democracy, I don’t see any way there would have been another war. So I think the rise of fascism is the key thing, and that in turn seems to me unlikely (while certainly not impossible) without Bolshevism.

      1. David Walsh

        What makes you think Bolshevism was a necessary precondition for Nazism?

        1. Charles Richardson

          “Necessary condition” is too strong; it might have happened anyway. But just looking at the whole course of events that strikes me as unlikely. Mussolini’s rise to power was all about the “red scare” in northern Italy – would that have happened without Bolshevism? And without Mussolini’s example, would Hitler have been able to get much traction? And would the German capitalists have backed him as strongly as they did if they weren’t spooked by the supposed Communist threat? And would the Nazis have been able to leverage their parliamentary numbers without that block of Communist votes co-operating with them to make the country ungovernable? I don’t say it’s impossible, but I think it’s more likely that German democracy would have muddled through.

  2. Guy Rundle

    Two points:
    1. ‘Lenin was not Marxist’. Nonsense, simply wrong. The ‘new economic policy’ was introduced in 1920. It put a third of the economy in private hands, in parallel with state-based education, health, literacy programmes. It’s perfectly consistent with a Marxist analysis, to have a socialist political system run a mixed economy. Engels, Kautsky and Parvus all wrote about it. It lasted beyond Lenin’s death.
    2. Bolshevism caused Fascism/Nazism. That flatters liberalism. Fascism had many contradictory sources. Much of it was a rebellion against liberalism, and part of it was a capitalist attack on liberal political institutions, because democratic socialism was succeeding. Decades of nationalism, ideas such as Nietzsche’s ‘will’ etc flowed into it. As the rise of people like Erdogan, Putin, Orban, show, there’s no need for a left ‘other’ to make right wing authoritarianism possible. Its doing fine on its own. Yr counterfactual doesn’t convince for a second.

    1. Charles Richardson

      Thanks Guy. Problem is, I didn’t say either of the things you attribute to me.
      1. Of course Lenin was a Marxist. The point is that overthrowing the provisional government at that point was a very un-Marxist thing to do. The fact that you can then give a Marxist interpretation of his subsequent behavior (not that I think the NEP was introduced for that reason – it was introduced to stave off economic collapse) doesn’t undo that point. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and you can’t return Russia to what, from a Marxist point of view, was its proper course of development. And although there are a few things he wrote that go the other way, I think Marx would have insisted that “a socialist political system” had to include democracy and free debate, not Leninist dictatorship.
      2. No, I don’t think Bolshevism caused fascism; I agree completely that there were other causes at work. The question is whether it would have got the traction it did, when it did, if not for Bolshevism. The short answer is we don’t know, but it seems to me unlikely. The Italian industrialists didn’t back Mussolini because they’d been reading Nietzsche, they backed him because they were scared of a Communist takeover. I think that fear was largely irrational, but it was real. Would fear of social democracy have pushed them to such extremes, without Lenin’s example? I very much doubt it.

      1. Guy Rundle

        On 1. No, Charles, you are simply ignorant of Marxist debates between the 1880s and 1917, and of the history of the Feb-Oct period. Seizing power prior to socialism, and running a state-capitalist economy – which is what the Bolsheviks did – was oft-discussed (even in late Marx). You’re using a high-school textbook view of Marxism to chide Lenin as not being Marxist – for not supporting a government which had power over to generals and aristocrats
        2. In your original article you say Bolshevism provides the context for the rise of fascism. No it doesn’t, or not solely. Anti-liberalism, nationalism, anti-finance capitalism, masculinism, and the politics of ‘the will’ provide the context. Industrialists got behind it at a later stage. Bolshevism didn’t turn the Nazi party from a sect into a major party; the Great Depression did, a product of global capitalism.

        1. Charles Richardson

          1. No, I’m not convinced. If you can find me a passage where Marx or Engels suggested that socialists could seize power in a pre-capitalist society and manage the transition to capitalism, I might rethink, but I doubt that you can. And even then, that’s not actually what Lenin did: he tried to introduce socialism, then backtracked part-way when he discovered it didn’t work. (Sometimes the high school textbooks are right.)
          2. See my response to David Walsh above. Just to emphasise: I don’t think (and didn’t say) that Bolshevism caused fascism. I’m well aware that there’s a trope on the right to the effect that fascism was just a natural outgrowth of Bolshevism, and I think that’s stupid and dangerous. But I maintain that you can’t understand the way fascism grew and developed without looking at Bolshevism. Yes, its origins are in the things you list, but without both the spectre of Bolshevism to rally adherents and the collaboration of Communist parties in undermining democracy, I think it would have been much less successful. And of course I don’t agree that the depression was “a product of global capitalism,” but that’s a topic for another day.

  3. Steve Davis

    Charles, it’s an interesting summary, but a little superficial I believe.
    In highlighting the brutality of the regime you overlook the fact that they were attacked by the West, on two fronts I think, and fighting an insurgency. It’s a consistent theme of Western history that we brutalise our enemies then use their inevitably brutal response as a justification for further interference and vilification.
    You also overlook the fact that capitalism has an equally bloody history, with Russian history seeming to be out on its own by being fresher in our memory.

  4. Steve Davis

    Charles, I should also add, for what it’s worth, that fascism seems to me to be the natural endgame of liberalism. It must not be forgotten that liberalism is the political expression of the economics of the individual, which, when put into place becomes corporatism.
    For all their nationalistic swagger, the main outcome in Germany and Italy was the rise of corporatism, which is exactly what we are seeing in the liberal democracies of the West today.
    The Newman government in Queensland was a great example of the drift towards fascism.

    1. Charles Richardson

      Thanks Steve. We disagree about the relationship between liberalism and corporatism/fascism, but that would require a whole essay – which will probably happen at some later date. But I agree that western intervention against the Bolsheviks is an important ingredient in understanding how Lenin’s regime played out. In terms of brutality, however, the Bolsheviks really were in a class of their own; the czars killed and exiled only a fraction of the numbers that Lenin did. You have to go to colonial exploitation (like Leopold in the Congo) to get comparable death tolls: for a European government to do that to its own people was unprecedented.

      1. Steve Davis

        Thanks for the reply Charles.
        You said “for a European government to do that to its own people was unprecedented.”
        Not really. The Czars were far more brutal than you say, but events since are really interesting.
        Amartya Sen, a politically neutral economist, studied the manner in which the East Asian famine in the 1950s was handled by the governments of India and China. The death toll in India, where market forces were allowed to play out, was horrendous in comparison to China where the communist government intervened. Sen found that the unnecessary deaths in India were greater than all deaths attributed to all communist regimes.
        So liberal democracies do not get their hands dirty to the same extent as communists, they let the market do the dirty work for them.

        1. Charles Richardson

          I’m not sure what it is of Sen that you’ve been reading, but that’s not my take on him at all. He points to the horrendous death toll in the Bengal famine of the 1940s, under colonial rule (which was just the point I made about colonialism), and says that India has had no famine since independence, because democracy forces governments to act. China, by contrast, lost something like 30 million people to famine under the Great Leap Forward in 1959-61.
          As to the czars, you certainly won’t find me denying their brutality. But in terms of numbers executed or sent to Siberia, the Bolsheviks outdid them by a very large margin.