History and Revolution

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(318)

Eds: Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys, Verso, £17.99

This important collection of very readable essays challenges the dominance of revisionist historians sympathetic to Francis Fukuyama's claim that "history has ended".

These historians have attempted to downplay the importance of revolutions, depicting them as hiccups of history rather than as its major turning points.

It is the English, French and Russian Revolutions that shook the world more than any others. The English Revolution, at the dawn of capitalism, saw the execution of a king while the New Model Army and the Levellers saw millions of people play an active role in politics for the first time. For revisionists such as Conrad Russell it was simply an argument between different sections of the gentry.

The French Revolution was the archetypal revolution, defining the hopes of radicals and fears of conservatives the world over ever since. François Furet and Simon Schama tell us that it was no more than an orgy of violence with a legacy, if there is any, of free market capitalism.

In the Russian Revolution millions of workers sought to create a world without the madness of war and capitalism, only to see their hopes crushed as invasion from without enabled Stalin to seize power from within. Stalinism, a strange coupling of the hopes of 1917 with admiration for the counter-revolutionary regime that followed it, polarised the 20th century.

But Orlando Figes tells us that the masses were barely involved, and motivated purely by economic need, before becoming victims of a huge con by the Bolsheviks.

From the Cold War came totalitarianism theory, an attempt to equate any challenge to the liberal capitalist order with Nazism. Nolte, a friend of Furet's, even claimed that Nazis were a logical response to Bolshevism.

If history did end in 1989, it didn't take long to start up again. The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements have posed a global challenge to the New World Order, transcending the distortion of Washington-Moscow polarisation.

The introduction to History and Revolution consciously locates the collection within these new movements, as a contribution to a growing mood that change is both possible and desirable.

It shows the inability of revisionism to explain why millions are moved into political activity, and reasserts the importance of revolution in human development.

Geoff Eley's contribution argues that revisionists too often misunderstand democracy as an abstract concept rather than as the product of the actions of large numbers of people - democracy flourishes, Eley argues, not when consumed in moderation but when taken to excess.

Marc Ferro takes on totalitarianism theory, showing how the violence of Western colonialism - of often greater scale than violence committed by non-Western governments - is often overlooked by historians from the totalitarianism school.

The most original and provocative essay is Lars Lih's look at Trotsky in 1920, where he argues that historians - including those on the left - have totally misunderstood the Bolsheviks' position in 1920, wrongly accusing them of making a virtue of necessity - which would imply, given the dreadful situation that year, that they were totally mad. "Trotsky in 1920", Lih argues, "is too important a subject to be left to the Trotskyists."

Other highlights include Geoff Kennedy on the English Revolution, Jim Wolfreys on François Furet and Mike Haynes challenging the "Bolshevik coup" interpretation of the Russian Revolution.

An attack on revisionist interpretations of any one of these revolutions is welcome. A collection that takes them on all at once, and thus exposes revisionism for the court ideology of neoliberalism that it is, is a godsend.

Socialist historians should use this book as a call to arms. If you are based in a history faculty you should organise discussions around the book - the editors would be happy to come and speak.

This book is of enormous value to everyone who believes that "another history is possible" in the fight to reclaim our past from those who wish to see us condemned to a future of free market capitalism, poverty and war.