Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Social Revolutionaries

One of the many things I like about Bruce Lincoln’s treatment of the Revolution, is that it explains the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the other political parties or factions. This isn’t really easy to do. Politics in the period between the February and October revolutions was utterly chaotic and political processes and institutions were themselves ill-defined. Via Lincoln, one can see how the Bolsheviks could slowly gain control of the Soviet in Petrograd.

Despite its minority status, it was courting an extremely targeted audience, radicalized workers in a radicalized city. Thus one can understand why this very narrow stratum of the Russian public could move slowly away from the other socialist alternatives, especially that of the Mensheviks. Lincoln also shows how the Kronsdadt naval base and certain other narrow segments of the Soviet military were won over to the Soviet cause. The sailors were poorly fed and poorly trained, as were all of Russia’s military forces after three years of massive warfare in which officers usually led the charge.

We know already that Lenin promised Land, Bread, and Peace. It was Lenin’s genius that kept him from compromise, even when many of his lieutenant’s advocated for collaboration with other socialist parties. At most times and places, compromise works, it allows you to leverage support for your own point of view. Not in Russia in the year 1917. At this time, collaboration and cooperation themselves became suspect.

It began with autocracy. While it’s true that the Civil War demonstrated that tsarist ideals still had advocates as late as 1921, the vast majority of workers and soldiers, the people who mattered most when a war effort was required, had utterly abandoned anything related to the Old Regime. Actually, Lincoln’s explanation of the Bolshevik takeover is strengthened by his lengthy treatment of Nicholas II and his bride. As Lincoln shows at great length, the royal couple were utterly incompetent. They weren’t just naive or unimaginative, they were criminally negligent or worse.

Mad Monk

It’s strange that one needs to be reminded of this, but when one looks at Alexandra’s letters to her husband, and her successful advocacy of some of the worst ideas available to Russia, one cann’t have sympathy for the couple, except in terms of the awful fate they both eventually met. Really, one need look no further than Rasputin, and see his all-pervasive influence on conservative politics, to know that autocracy—and by extension tradition or moderation—would come to seem the very definition of insanity to many people throughout Petrograd society.


But if autocracy was rejected out of hand, the Duma, and its liberal leaders, were tarnished by their association with the tsar. By itself, the war may well have led to radical revolution; but combine horrific war with a disgustingly atavistic institution like autocracy, and moderation begins to look ridiculous. As things in the war got worse, socialism became the only sensible alternative to many important components of society. The conservatives lost influence; the moderate Cadets declined as well.

Lincoln’s description of the cauldron of revolutionary Russia wouldn’t be complete without treatment of the peasants. Quite simply, the peasants—who made up at least 85 percent of the country—wanted to own their own land. By itself this factor would ave led to some form of insurrection and some form of socialist political influence. But the peasants’ chief party, the Social Revolutionaries, couldn’t be a serious contender for power. They weren’t organized in the only places that mattered: Moscow and Petrograd. Russia’s lack of technology and roads and railways made the isolation of the countryside worse.

Lincoln shows that the Social Revolutionaries would indeed have been a real power if the Constituent Assembly had mattered, or if the electoral system in pre-Soviet Russia had mattered. But they didn’t. The Bolsheviks allowed the Constituent Assembly to take place, because it didn’t hurt them to do so, and would have cost them some unfavorable press if they had not. But they were able to disband the Assembly because real power had nothing to do with elections. Real power was won in the Petrograd Soviet and in the armed forces.

Lincoln does show that the Bolsheviks did reasonable well with the large peasantry for a couple of reasons. First, contact between the working class and the peasantry was great during the War, when labor or food shortages were sometimes acute. And second, because the armed forces were made up of peasants. Lincoln’s book doesn’t neglect the concrete steps Lenin took to win power. He makes special mention of propaganda work in the armed forces, and the armed revolutionary action committees (if I have the right term here). But after all is said and done, one is left with the impression that Lenin’s drive to power worked because his failure to compromise seemed logical in view of the situation Russia found itself.

Lenin’s genius, but also the bizarre situation in which Russia found itself, is revealed again by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Here, a majority of even the Bolsheviks, once again advocated a form of compromise with Russian tradition. They wanted to continue the war on some level unless a non-penalizing treaty could be signed with Germany. It’s instructive to see Lenin in the minority within his own conquering party on this important issue. For even after winning power, many or most Russian Bolsheviks were willing to risk the Revolution itself. Why were they willing to do so?

One could say, as Bukharin said, that they wanted to wage a revolutionary war with Germany against the bourgeoisie in Europe as a whole. This may be, but since even Bukharin was willing to settle for a just peace with Germany, it seems likely that many Bolsheviks were still tied to Russia’s past, especially her traditional political boundaries. Yet here again, Lenin’s radicalism—which robbed Old Russia of one third of her territory and a considerable economic power and population---still seemed reasonable to most Russians, including the peasants who wanted no more than immediate peace, immediate access to land, and bread.

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