The Insurrectionists

Issue section: 
(342)

William J Fishman, Five Leaves, £9.99

This book attempts to trace the path from the early revolutionary theory of the French Jacobins of the late 18th century to the Bolshevism of the early 20th century. The majority of the book is made up of fascinating condensed biographies of the major players in revolutionary and socialist thought, from François-Noël Babeuf and Louis Auguste Blanqui of France, to Petr Tkachev and Julius Martov of Russia.

However, alarm bells start to ring when the author begins comparing Blanqui's method with that of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, including associating Lenin's seminal work, What Is To Be Done?, with Blanquism. A clumsy and rushed final quarter of the book sees the author describing the October Revolution as essentially a coup, and the historic role of the soviets as merely a "tactical strike force" to be harnessed by the party. Lenin is accused of "authoritarian elitism" and Fishman even goes so far as to suggest that the soviets were a potential "threat" to the Bolsheviks.

Ironically, I found this an excellent book in reaffirming the importance of the theory of "socialism from below". Genuine revolutionaries such as Blanqui and Philippe Buonarroti were products of their time and in the end failed to have confidence that the mass of people could make a revolution and believed that only an enlightened socialist core were capable of such a task. Rather than hurrying through the events of October 1917 and offering out of context quotes from Lenin, this book could have highlighted precisely where the Bolsheviks broke from such ideology, rather than the continuation purported by Fishman. The crucial events of the July Days of 1917, a perfect example of the Bolsheviks applying socialism from below in practice, is given merely a few paragraphs and no explanation as to why the Bolsheviks did not call for revolution then (the reason being that the majority of workers were not yet on the side of the revolution). It is unfortunately clear that Fishman has started with a preconceived agenda of what he wishes to portray.

This is a shame, because this is an excellent piece of work on the development of revolutionary political thought in France and its spread to Russia. And, although small, this book is academically dense and covers a lot of ground. For readers of Socialist Review it will highlight how much we take the theory of socialism from below for granted, and how important it is for today.