Monday, November 16, 2009

Rule Number One: "Take Power When It's Given to You"

Marching Women

Walter Laqueur’s 1917 is a wonderful overview of both the year 1917 and the historiography surrounding it. Let me just hit on a few of his more interesting points about the year and its place in history.

Unlike the French Revolution, historians were largely unable to analyze new primary sources related to the Russian Revolution as a result of the closed society that guarded these documents. So the debate over the Russian Revolution was largely been confined to the meaning of events right up until 1991, as opposed to debating what actually happened. One crucial question about meaning is whether to accept the Marxist contention that 1917 was a deep, structural transformation of society rather than an accident or conspiracy.

The counter-revolution saw things differently: the Bolsheviks defeated their enemies because they exploited a series of bizarre and tragic circumstances that led to an unprecedented power vacuum. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the Bolsheviks—once a tiny minority even within the greater socialist movement--in Russia. In light of subsequent events in Russia, which really did transform society in fundamental ways, this argument is unconvincing. But Laqueur also points out one weakness in the Marxist argument that the year 1917 was really the inevitable result of historical processes and irresistible social pressures. If the first revolution of 1917, the one that resulted in the Provincial Government, represented the victory of the bourgeoisie, is it possible that real socialists actually replaced the bourgeoisie less than one year later, in the October Revolution of 1917?

Laqueur also looks at the victory of the Bolsheviks over their socialist rivals. It’s one thing to look at why the Tsar lost credibility and the Kadet party failed to make a commitment to the kind of radical reform the country needed. It’s even possible to understand that Kerensky’s Provincial Government was too attached to the war effort to survive failed military offensives against the Germans. But why did the Bolsheviks prevail against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were each much larger socialist parties? Laqueur thinks that most historians have accepted the premise that the Mensheviks weren’t equipped to compete with the Bolsheviks. Although they were much larger, they accepted the traditional Marxist theory that socialist revolution was not appropriate in backward Russia, which lagged far behind the West in terms of economic development as well as political maturity. The Mensheviks were, at first, more numerous than the Bolsheviks, but they had no will to power, and were even committed to a measure of democracy.

The Social Revolutionaries were more complicated. Were they or were they not capable of competing for power with the Bolsheviks? The Social Revolutionaries were by far the largest socialist party in Russia. But they were seriously divided into left-wing and right-wing faction—to say nothing of the Chernov center--and the left-wing faction was closer to the Bolsheviks than they were to their own center. They were rooted in the countryside, and almost by definition bereft of strong communication networks and mobilization strategies.

It’s true that the Bolsheviks had some significant advantages over their rivals. The Bolsheviks were well-organized, fervent, and willing to take power. They had no scruples about democracy. Moreover, the Bolsheviks were ideologically versatile. Lenin had scrapped large portions of Marxist theory by moving to seize power in Russia, but he had also thrown over Marxist theory by conveniently adopting the peasant-friendly land confiscation platform of his Social Revolutionary rivals. Indeed, Lenin at first also favored the liberation of the subject nationalities, which clearly conflicted to any notion of the solidarity of the working classes across national loyalties.

For Laqueur, one of the strange ironies of 1917 is that the Bolsheviks defeated their rivals and won Russia precisely because they had such a poor political position. That is to say, the Bolsheviks won because nobody else took them seriously and, more importantly, nobody else was willing to make a serious play for power at a time when power seemed to be so elusive and ephemeral. Laqueur sites that famous worker exclamation to the Social Revolutionary leader, Chernov: “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you.”

Since Chernov had just witnessed the execution of the tsar followed by the gradual dissolution of the authority of the Provincial Government (which shared power with the Soviets even at the height of its authority), it’s no wonder that he wasn’t eager to “take power.” But once the Bolsheviks did take power, they became instantly locked in Civil War with reactionary opponents. And this being so, large portions of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Party were obviously unlikely to support the White Guards against any form of socialism.

Laqueur’s concluding remarks on the year 1917 and its place in history are notable, notwithstanding the fact that they undermine the premise of this blog. Laqueur says that 1917 was at first seen to be one of the central turning points in modern history. However, in retrospect, he feels that historians will see 1917 as only an early sign that the focus of world history was moving eastward toward China, India, and other countries. In hindsight, he thinks decolonization will loom much larger than anything that happened in Russia.

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