Sunday, December 2, 2012

Smele's Long View of the Revolution

Now that my wedding is over, and my in-laws from Tunisia are settling in to life in America by enjoying Arabic Internet radio and at least one Arabic cable t.v. channel, I have the opportunity to return to Russian history.  I'm doing this gradually, by reading a few of Lenin's speeches and listening to audio books of Jonathon Smele's The Russian Revolution:  From Tsarism to Bolshevism.  Smele's examination of the Russian Revolution takes a long view of the causes of the Russian Revolution.  In fact, Smele's exploration of the roots of revolution is so rooted in the nineteenth century that one cannot help but reflect upon the arbitrary decisions historians routinely make whenever the attempt to explain a major event or global phenomenon.  When did the Russian Revolution become inevitable?  When did it become likely?  When did it become possible?

Some historians scarcely admit that radical revolution succeeded in Russian in 1917 by anything other than extraordinary bad luck couple with a long series of tragic missteps by Russia's liberal bourgeois and aristocrats. Smele sees things differently:  he argues that Russia's October Revolution cannot be assessed without reference to the profound economic backwardness of the Russian Empire.  Smele's tale begins as early at the mid 19th century, when the Russian state failed so spectacularly to deliver the goods in the Crimean War.  In this war, the Russian intelligentsia realized that serfdom had done nothing to produce a modern society that could compete on any level with its Western European counterparts such as Britain and France.  Russian trains didn't work efficiently;  Russian conscripts were uneducated and ill-equipped;  Russia's factories, insofar as they had any, weren't producing reliable supplies.

Over time, Russia's backwardness vis-a-vis the West was only slightly remedied by Nicholas I's success, Alexander II, who instituted a series of sweeping judicial and government reforms and "freed the serfs." For Russia remained an absolutist state in which the church and gentry exercised inordinate authority over the peasantry.  Moreover, despite some economic activity in St. Petersburg, the Baltic areas, Moscow, and the Southern Ukraine, at the end of the nineteenth century, the peasants continued to lack educational opportunities and, more importantly, adequate land to feed themselves.  Indeed, the peasant commune continued to act as a conservative social and economic force in Russian society right into the twentieth century.

In the end, Smele's main point is that Russia possessed an extremely dysfunctional social system when it declared war against Germany and Austria in 1914.  The 1905 Revolution had revealed as much.  So, notwithstanding the best efforts of Witte and Stolypin in the years leading up to the Great War, the uneducated, dissatisfied, impoverished Russian peasantry remained the dominant social factor in pre-revolutionary Russia. And, despite the long cherished beliefs of Nicholas II and his aristocratic sycophants, the peasants were politically radical.  They proved this when they confiscated land from landowners in 1905 and 1917, and also when they voted for Social Revolutionary or other socialist representatives to the Dumas or the Constituent Assembly.

The Proletariat were another radical force in Russian society, although Smele seems to recognize that this radical social force has been given quite enough attention by Marxist and Western historians alike.  To sum up, Smele's exploration of the revolutionary victory of 1917 rightly places the emphasis squarely on the fragility of Russian society.  Even before the Russian state's catastrophic failures of the Great War, the Russian ancien regime was teetering.  The tsar, Nicholas II, was unintelligent, stubborn, and politically out of touch with his nation.  The proletariat class was angry and alienated.  The peasantry were underfed and uninterested in the political fortunes of either the tsar or the liberal intelligentsia.  Russian intellectuals were dangerously enamored with all-or-nothing political philosophies:  according to Smele, reform held out few attractions for most Russian political theorists.

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