Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Radicalism: It's a Good Thing

Do we get closer or farther from the truth over time? Does time give us the benefit of perspective or the handicap of distance? Revolution in Russia, As Reported by the New York Tribuine and the New York Herald, 1894- 1921, suggests that historiography is overrated. In truth, contemporary American reporters, for all of their ideological and national bias, seem to have gotten the Revolution right on most counts. The American press understood the importance of the Revolution, and also seemed to had a reasonable good grasp of its component parts as they unfolded in real time.

Of course, not until the Civil War came to an end did foreign observers know whether or not the Bolsheviks would ultimately triumph over their diverse opponents, who included socialists, anarchists, tsarists, liberals, Germans, Poles, Japanese, Ukrainian nationalists, and so many others. Even so, they knew who Lenin and Trotsky were, and how they came to power. As Edward Pearlstein's edited volume of New York reporting on the Revolution makes clear, Americans knew that the Bolsheviks were not, as modern historians often suggest, the unlikely beneficiaries of a chaotic and unpredictable situation. Instead, they were the actors who were best suited to the extraordinary times in which Russians found themselves. Although they represented a tiny part of the Russian political spectrum, they had some tremendous political advantages. They were disciplined, organized, well-lead, ruthless, geographically concentrated, and closely allied with the ordinary soldiers and workers who had the power to determine the fate of the Revolution. Or, to put matters differently, in an unrelentingly radical situation, only a radical party could hope to survive.

So, although Lenin's decision to collaborate with the German government in order to arrive in St. Petersburg would ordinarily have severely compromised his political reputation, in turbulent, miserable, war-weary Russia, it was Lenin's ability to articulate a totally novel future for the country that mattered most. Whatever disadvantages Bolsheviks labored under, they wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the past. Most concretely, this meant that Bolsheviks advocated radical land reform and an immediate end to the war. But more generically, this meant that the Bolsheviks could say to the country that they alone understood just how completely the ancien regime had failed. Better to start over with a new and alien political party and economic philosophy, than to adopt any part of the old way of doing business.

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