by Nick Wright

The best and first book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 was written … in 1871. The Civil War in France was the official analysis of the defeated Paris Commune by the General Council of the First International. In it Karl Marx examined the experiences of the insurgents in seizing power in the face of bourgeois collapse, in establishing a pioneering proletarian state machine and in their heroic defence and tragic defeat. Reflections on the experience of the Paris Commune opened up a theoretical and practical fault line in the international working class movement. The 1871 text stated with great clarity that: ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.

This lesson, however, was imperfectly understood even by the most militant and committed of revolutionaries, and came to be expressed in a pedestrian ‘orthodox’ marxism which assumed that the prospects for a socialist revolution could be fitted into a kind of predictable matrix in which the full development of the capitalist system was a necessary condition.

Lenin arrived back from exile on 3 April and immediately laid down in concise style his April Theses which called for the seizure of power by the working people, specifically that the peasants should take over the land and the workers the factories. Lenin was in a minority of thirteen to two on the Bolshevik central committee but quickly won over the key organisers and leaders, chief among them Jacob Sverdlov and Joseph Stalin along with Alexandra Kollantai and Grigorii Zinoviev.

This was not the end of the controversy but it started a process which, in the course of the ebb and flow of events, crystallised the Bolshevik approach to power – ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ – which enabled them to win over, in a matter of of months, the key sections of the urban workers, the most advanced peasants and the soldiers at the front and in the garrisons.

Ten Days that Shook the World is the classic account of the Revolution by eyewitness American revolutionary John Reed. An exemplar of committed reportage it was written in a fortnight after his return from Russia (and an interrogation by the US authorities). Drawing on his notes, documents and materials the book has all the strengths and weaknesses of hurried participant journalism.

Reed’s record of these have a compelling authority but – as a foreigner and with inadequate knowledge of Russian – he naturally gave prominence to the best known names and leading public personalities. Despite the book attracting criticism from many differing ideological standpoints Lenin’s recommendation for me is enough:

With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletarian Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. These problems are widely discussed, but before one can accept or reject these ideas, he must understand the full significance of his decision. John Reed’s book will undoubtedly help to clear this question, which is the fundamental problem of the international labor movement.’

Andrew Rothstein’s History of the USSR has a broader compass then the revolution per se. With characteristic thoroughness and detail it describes and explains – to a post Second World War audience – both the course of the revolution and the tumultuous decades of Civil War and foreign intervention, socialist construction and the defeat of fascism.

Written at the height of the Cold War, when Rothstein himself was a victim of the anti communist purge in Britain, the book defends the broad, popular and democratic character of the October Revolution against the hostile host of anti-communist accounts that sought to weaken support for socialism and working class power in the British working class movement and among the British people.

Rothstein was perhaps the best qualified person in Britain to defend the Russian Revolution. His parents were political exiles from Tsarist Russia. From childhood he knew Lenin who visited their house whilst in London editing the underground Bolshevik newspaper Iskra. His father, Theodore, linked the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party to the British Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which later became the British Socialist Party and subsequently the main element in the Communist party. In the Great war Rothstein led a mutiny against orders to embark to Russia. Chucked out of Oxford University on the intervention of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon he became a key figure in the British communist movement and worked for the Soviet government as a press officer in its British mission.

The fifth book on the significance of the Russian Revolution was written in 1970 by an American educator. Urie Bronfenbremmer was born in April 1917 in Moscow but a few years later his family moved to the USA

His book Two Worlds of Childhood is a comparative study of the Soviet and US systems of education. Bronfenbremmer was a developmental psychologist and a key figure in the research and policy programme that led to Head Start in the USA.

The book, with exemplary objectivity, examines the collective ethos of Soviet society and the ways in which the Soviet child, in the family, social and school worlds is encouraged to develop in a harmonious and productive relationship with her and his peers, adults and wider society. In contrast the child in the USA is shaped by a social environment characterised by exposure to a pervasive television and advertising culture in which peer group norms shape a disconnection with adult society and open a pathway to anti social activity.

Tellingly Bronfenbremmer focusses on the how US children absorb the dominant social values which position teachers: ‘Teachers who are poorly paid, treated as subordinates, and given little freedom and autonomy by the school administration cannot help but reflect their true position and reduce their influence in the pupil’s eyes.’

In a crowded field undoubtedly the worst book written about the Russian Revolution is A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes. Figes is a clever bloke, he knows an enormous amount and is keen to let us know it. His scholarship is wide-ranging but not so exacting as to preclude unforced errors and crude distortions while his detail is overwhelming and in parts irrelevant to any sustained analytical drive.

His standpoint is that of a reactionary big head who deplores the consequences of the revolution but cannot bring himself to apply the transparently ‘moral’ standard of judgement he deploys towards the revolutionaries (in insurrection and in government) to the host of reactionary counter revolutionaries and foreign interventionists, imperialist invaders and Russian despots whose resistance to the people’s will led to so much bloodshed.

He applies – in an ungainly and forced manner – the literary convention of telling parts of his story through the actions of a range of intermediate characters. But unlike the best of Socialist Realist fiction, the lives of his characters, even if ‘real’ do not convincingly signify grander historical truths or bring us psychogical insight.

Figes is an arrogant prat and it shows. (He copped for substantial damages after he infamously posted anonymised and hostile reviews of the work of academic rivals on Amazon, then tried to blame his wife and, when exposed – in a variation on the ‘big boys did and ran away’ – laid responsibility on the trauma of researching the crimes of Stalin.)

Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism by Chris Harman is a concise application of the ‘state capitalist’ doctrine that underlies the theoretical approach of the Socialist Workers Party to the Russian revolution. The factor that links Figes consciously counter revolutionary standpoint to the subjectively ‘revolutionary’ approach of Harman is a failure to account convincingly for the human, economic and political effects of the counter revolution. Harman, at least, considers these issues from a critical standpoint but, faced with the undoubted human cost of defending state power in unfavourable circumstances tries, in a mechanical way, even if with considerable familiarity with the texts of the time, to fit the course of events into the SWP’s crude schema.

Where (right-wing) social democrats dogmatically insist that a revolution in Russia be impossible because the country had not developed to the full a capitalist economy ‘ripe for change’ the deviant Trotskyite theory that the SWP makes its own sees the post insurrectionary obstacles to Soviet power as rendering socialism impossible. Thus the theory that what existed in the USSR was a variant of capitalism because the reality failed to conform to the model.

In both cases the failure is at the level of philosophy – a failure of dialectical thought. In both cases reality failed to meet conform to an ideal model. The Russian Revolution was neither pristine nor perfect. It was a hugely messy process that cannot be comprehended if the vital tools of historical and dialectical materialism are abandoned to dogma.

Dealing honestly with the nature of the counter revolution and the inevitable consequences of defending soviet power must be the foundation of any credible account of the Russian Revolution and it in this respect – and not only this – that Robert Service fails. His book, The Last of Tsars… Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution spares no effort in whipping up sympathy for Nicholas whose regime impoverished millions of peasants, banged up, exiled and massacred all opposition and despatched millions to die in a war in which his soldiers were poorly equipped and inadequately armed.

Service presents himself as an impartial and objective historian able to see the negative aspects of Nicholas and the perverse consequences of his policies. He accepts that the Tsar was a violently anti semitic nationalist but nevertheless regales us with moutainous detail about the conditions under which the Romanov family were accomodated and unending anecdotes about his various noble acts. It seems that at one point in their detention – whilst civil war and foreign intervention was tearing the country apart – they had to reduce the number of servants caring for them.

Service treats the Bolsheviks with an unscholarly lack of detail and analysis and a parade of ill informed prejudice about their conduct and character.

Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed is in a special category of its own. The book is of course, an exercise in self justification – written at a point when life itself was proving him wrong on the central proposition that the revolution was betrayed. Bizarrely, Trotsky spends a good part of the book extolling the material achievements of the Soviet union and the benefits it socialist construction brought to millions. The oddest thing about the book is that its main protagonist – Trotsky himself – appears only in the third person. It is a beguiling book, partly because he is such a powerful writer but his ego is such that even when his insights are compelling and his prediction reflect reality as it developed they remain curiously unconvincing.

If The Revolution Betrayed is an exercise in vanity Trotsky’s unfinished biography of Stalin partners egomania with paranoia. Of course, the paranoia was justified. A Comintern agent assassinated Trotsky before he could finish the book.

Nevertheless, the book is truly awful. One university history teacher I know gives first year undergraduates anonymised excerpts from the text and invites them to detail the authors’ ideological standpoint. Confronted with Trotsky’s unmediated intellectual snobbery, Occidental prejudice, racism and cosmopolitan contempt for working people and provincials they invariably characterise him as reactionary. Perhaps this is what explains Trotsky’s attraction to sections of the petit bourgeoisie.

Trotsky is so outraged that he was bested by this ‘lazy Oriental’ , unable or unwilling to learn ‘foreign; ie European languages, and clearly so undistinguished compared to his biographer that the book descends into farce.

Stalin’s icepick terminated Trotsky’s life before he would be complelled to measure his estimate that the Soviet regime faced imminent collapse against the reality of the Nazi defeat. A turn of events which rather negated the Trotskyist notion of the impossibility of ‘Socialism in One country’ by extending it to a rhird of the world.


This appears in Education for Tomorrow magazine



One thought on “My five best and the five worst books on the Russian Revolution

  1. Pingback: Red News | Protestation

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