George Walford: Not Even by Force

Pipes R. 1990 The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 London: Collins Harvill.

Final judgments about Soviet Russia will remain premature until the authorities there have fully opened their archives and scholars had time to study them, but Richard Pipes does not try to hide his opinions. He sees Lenin as a brutal coward who urged his followers to attack while himself remaining safely abroad. He accuses the Bolsheviks of inflicting on the Russian people conditions far worse than any imposed by Tsarism.

One Russian writer traced the roots of the Revolution back to 1730. By the 1860s a radical intelligentsia had begun to incite the peasants under the guise of enlightening and – as formerly in France – the nobility played a large part in these first efforts at liberalisation. The peasants dismayed the radicals by showing no interest in collectivization and little in freedom; only a hunger for land and confidence that the Tsar would give it them. Resistance even to serfdom hardly appeared among the peasants, serfs rather despising masterless men as footloose and unprotected, and some of them seeing Emancipation as a rejection of them by their masters. The most determined radicals found themselves driven to form history’s first terrorist organisation, Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), as a way of working that did not need mass support. A revolutionary movement flourished in the 1870s, and Pipes sets the starting date for the events leading directly to 1917 in 1899, with the disorders in the universities. He dismisses any idea that the Revolution began among workers or peasants, identifying the revolutionaries as for the most part students or dropouts and firmly ascribing it to irreconcilable attitudes rather than intolerable conditions. By 1900 Russian industry had begun to develop, bringing increased pressure for democratisation since foreign investors believed parliamentary government would mean greater stability. Revolutionary pressures came wholly from the gentry and intelligentsia. In 1905 the soviets (Pipes translates the word as “councils”), later to play so large a part, made their appearance, the first of them without any political programme and intended to help the workers in their economic conflict with the employers. At first the Bolsheviks opposed them, holding that if the workers succeeded in establishing organs of proletarian self-rule at that stage they would frustrate the revolution; it had to be made not by them but for them.

Pipes identifies the intelligentsia as those, committed to the public good, who subscribed to certain philosophical assumptions about man, society and materialism. Few of them, before the Revolution, belonged to the workers or the peasantry; they constituted, he virtually says, a group distinguished and united by its ideology. He notes, apparently without perceiving the contradiction between them, the two claims made by the revolutionaries: first, that conditions of life fundamentally govern behaviour; second, that the behaviour of revolutionaries can alter conditions of life.

Russia remained overwhelmingly a peasant country, the northern and central areas occupied by communes holding title to the land which their members cultivated. (Like most who have studied the subject, Pipes notes the discipline imposed by these communes, their refusal to tolerate dissent). Adding in the areas in European Russia where individual ownership predominated, on the eve of the Revolution peasant cultivators owned nine-tenths of the arable land, and after 1905 they bought 37 per cent of the land coming onto the market, but their refusal to adopt intensive agriculture kept productivity per acre far below that of the more industrialised countries. Even so, throughout the 1914-18 war Russia produced ample food, even surpluses, although the government had trouble persuading the peasants to part with it and transport difficulties caused local shortages.

In 1905 the Petrograd Soviet, later so important, made its first appearance, created by the Union of Unions as an organising body for the general strike following defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In February 1917, following food shortages, political agitation and strikes, rioting broke out in Petrograd and although at first put down by the troops, a garrison mutiny turned it into first a rebellion and then a revolution. This led to a system of dual government, a Provisional Committee of the Duma under Kerensky representing legitimacy and the Petrograd Soviet (a private body, not elected) the revolutionary forces, a minority of Bolsheviks among them. For Pipes this transition constituted the great step forward, the Bolshevik takeover, although disguised as the true Revolution, forming in fact the counter-revolution.

The Ispolkom (Provisional Executive Committee), also including a few Bolsheviks, acted for the Soviet. Troops sent to Petrograd to regain control for the Tsar refused to move against the people, but the trouble remained largely confined to the capital; most villages did not learn of the upheaval until some four to six weeks after it had taken place. On 3rd March the Tsar abdicated, largely in response to a general belief that this would permit more efficient prosecution of the war. By the spring of 1918 the communal peasantry, having seized most of what land it did not already possess, had begun to return to its former monarchist sentiments, but the time for that had passed.

Here Lenin makes his appearance, son of a school-inspector who had reached a rank giving him hereditary nobility with status equivalent to a general, and himself qualifying as a lawyer although he did not practise. “The longer he [Lenin] observed the behavior of workers in and out of Russia, the more compelling was the conclusion, entirely contrary to the fundamental premise of Marxism, that labor (the ‘proletariat’) was not a revolutionary class at all: left to itself, it would rather settle for a larger share of the capitalists’ profits than overthrow capitalism.” Both sections of the Social Democratic Party attracted more than their share of gentry, the Bolsheviks counting 22 per cent, the Mensheviks 19 per cent, against 1.7 per cent in the population at large.

Rendered almost helpless by police penetration and imprisonment of their leaders, the Russian Bolsheviks did not welcome the programmes (almost instructions) from Lenin safe in Zurich, pressing for revolutionary action to take over the government. Repeatedly they found excuses for disregarding his letters and with good reason, for attempts at supplanting the socialist revolution by a Bolshevik one failed in April and again in June. In June the elections to the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets took place, the Bolsheviks winning only 105 places against the Mensheviks’ 248 and the Socialists- Revolutionaries’ 285 and this convinced them that they had no chance of winning a majority in the planned election for a Constituent Assembly; to gain control at all they had to seize it before any settled government had established itself.

About the October Revolution itself there hangs a curious air of sleight-of-hand. After the public tumults of the preceding months things had quietened down. Instead of masses on the streets, with mutinies, massacres and armed struggle, the change took place by way of resolutions at meetings and undercover actions by small groups. The Bolsheviks came to power by means of a coup d’etat in Petrograd and Moscow, without mass participation; those engaged numbered at most a few thousand in a nation of 150 million. They separated the government from its forces by simply cutting the telephone lines to the Military Staff, and systematically took over all the objects of strategic importance by the simple device of posting pickets. “The entire operation was carried out so smoothly and efficiently that even as it was in progress the cafes and restaurants, along with the opera, theaters and cinemas were open for business and thronged with crowds in search of amusement.” Contrary to revolutionary mythology, only after its defenders had departed did the Winter Palace fall – to mobs, with total casualties of five killed and several wounded, mostly by stray bullets. At 10 a.m. on the morning of October 25 Lenin released to the press the declaration that the Provisional Government had been deposed by the Military- Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet; this body which took sovereign power over Russia had been authorised to do so by nobody outside the Bolshevik Central Committee, and “no one except a handful of principals knew what had happened.” So much for the October Revolution as a rising of the Russian people.

Realising that the great body of workers and peasants neither knew nor cared about socialism (for a week after the coup this word did not appear in any official document the Bolsheviks (now ruling through the Council of People’s Commissars) appealed to their self- interest, leaving the peasants and their communes to divide the land among themselves and the factory soviets to distribute industrial assets, while the soldiers raided military stores. As if determined to parody the system they had displaced, the Bolsheviks accompanied this reversion towards uncontrolled private enterprise with a Decree on the Press (dated October 26, the first day of their new government) that would have thrown freedom of publication back to its position before the reign of Catherine II.

In November 1917 the people voted for a Constituent Assembly, the previous Provisional Government having extended the franchise to all, both male and female, over twenty years of age. Of 715 seats the Bolsheviks gained 175; at this period they could still count on support from the Left Socialists-Revolutionaries, but even with that they had a total of only 30 percent of the delegates. Bolshevik control of the Council of People’s Commissars enabled them to postpone indefinitely the convening of the Assembly, and they took an attempt by their opponents to open it as an excuse for using the military to dissolve it in favour of government through the soviets; they had got control of the critical ones, usually by tampering with the franchise.

Their original expectation, that the rest of the advanced world would quickly follow the Russian example, soon proved illusory. Faced with a choice between abandoning their principles and doing what they could to set up socialism within Russia they pressed ahead, and one part of the task, the abolition of money, had virtually been performed for them by inflation. A price of one rouble in 1913 had become, by 1923, 648,230,000. By February 1921 Lenin had agreed in principle to a decree abolishing money (and with it, for the first time in history, taxes) but it never appeared. Compulsory labour (vigorously supported by Trotsky), abolition of the right to strike, the transformation of trade unions into agencies of the state and attempts at forcing the peasants to sell their produce at controlled prices, sent the economy into severe decline. “The government found itself in the absurd situation in which the strict enforcement of its prohibitions on private trade would have caused the entire urban population to starve to death.” Only the relaxation of the ban, introduced in 1921 under the name of the New Economic Policy, averted disaster.

Pipes sets out to cover only the period from 1899 to 1919, with extensions at each end linking his account to more general history. He writes as a historian rather than a political or social theorist, but the most strictly factual history requires some interpretation on the part of the narrator, and this account shows him rejecting one orthodox scenario: the Bolsheviks did not act as spokesmen or agents for an oppressed mass of workers or peasants making demands which could only be met by socialism. Subsequent events confirm his view. From the middle of the 19th Century, when radical intellectuals first went among them, to the 1980s, when the productivity of their private plots massively exceeded that of the collectivized farms, the peasants consistently resisted integration into any units much larger than their familiar communes. Even in 1983 Caroline Humphrey, studying the operation of a collective farm, noted that people still contravened socialist principles, working primarily for themselves rather than the community. As even Lenin had to recognise, if left to themselves the bulk of the workers and peasants (like the bulk of the bourgoisie) would not have gone beyond trying to improve their conditions within the existing system, leaving revolution to the revolutionaries. They wanted more of what they already had, land above all, and such support as they ever did give the Bolshevik revolution lasted just so long as it helped them to achieve this. The difference, between supporters and opponents of liberalisation and later of the Revolution, had little to do with their respective class positions.

Russian history since 1917 demonstrates once more the impracticality of an exclusively eidodynamic society. When the Bolsheviks found the great body of the people not supporting them they tried to enforce the new principles, but after seventy years of unremitting effort, applying the full force of the state, they have had to admit failure. With each year that passes Russia moves closer to the methods and practices of other great states, and for the reasons that moved them. Britain, France and America have all had their revolutions, and each of them has settled down to a system consonant with the ideological pyramid, the eidostatic majority setting the main features, the eidodynamic minority pressing for change, preventing the accumulation of overweening power, preserving flexibility, helping with the adjustments called for by technological development. Now Russia follows suit, with China and the other countries.

from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.