October 1917

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Books marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution are not in short supply. But this is among the few to praise the revolution rather than seek to bury it.

American Marxist Paul Le Blanc provides an introduction to the collection of articles with an overview of eyewitness accounts and interpretations by historians with varying degrees of sympathy, mostly none.

There is a fascinating piece by Canadian activist and historian David Mandel on “Economic Power and Factory Committees” and the process these passed through between the February and October revolutions as the necessity of workers seizing political power became clear.

Mandel quotes a factory delegate at a conference in May arguing, “To us workers the bourgeoisie, by undermining production, is skilfully organising a counter-revolution. Sabotage…requires the immediate establishment of workers’ control. Otherwise all workers’ organisations will be destroyed.”

By October, amid growing crisis, a Bolshevik trade union leader could report to the party’s central committee that the workers “all agree that outside the struggle for power there is no way out of the situation. They demand power to the soviets.”

However, the core article, “October 1917: Coup d’etat or social revolution?” is by Ernest Mandel, first published in 1992 following the collapse of the USSR. This explains the international significance of the revolution, its mass democratic nature, the role of the Bolsheviks, addresses whether it was a mistake to take power, and so on.

The would-be butcher of the revolution, General Kornilov, had declared in August 1917, “The greater the terror, the greater our victories.” In the circumstances, Mandel notes: “The concrete choice was not between bourgeois democracy and Bolshevik dictatorship. It was between counter-revolutionary dictatorship and Soviet power.”

He lists the “precise goals” of the soviets in taking power: “An immediate end to the war; the land to the peasants; the right of self-determination for the oppressed minorities; [to] avoid the crushing of red Petrograd [by the German army]; to stop the sabotage of the economy by the bourgeoisie; [to] establish workers’ control over production; [to] stop the victory of the counter-revolution.”

And he quotes contemporary opponents of the Bolsheviks such as Nicholas Sukhanov, who noted, “To talk about military conspiracy when the party was followed by the overwhelming majority of the people was an absurdity.”

The impact was such that British prime minister Lloyd George warned, “The whole existing order is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other.”

It’s a spirited defence of the revolution and deals with perennial arguments — in particular, the claim that Lenin led to Stalin, the line deployed both to sanctify Stalin and to dismiss the revolution.

But the piece is weakened by Mandel’s failure to recognise that Stalin presided over a counter-revolution, not the bureaucratic degeneration of a workers’ state, which was Trotsky’s understanding up to his assassination in 1940.

Mandel stuck to this view until his death in 1995, despite the post-war extension of Stalinist rule across Eastern Europe and Russia’s superpower competition with the US.

By contrast, the founders of this magazine developed an analysis of Russia as state capitalist, accumulating competitively on a global capitalist stage. This failure renders the book incomplete and ultimately dissatisfying — which is a pity because there is much to admire, in particular the pieces included by Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

A piece by Lenin, “Letter to American Workers” from August 1918, notes: “No revolution can be successful unless the resistance of the exploiters is crushed… We are not daunted by our mistakes… For the first time, not the minority, not the rich alone…[but] the vast majority of the working people are themselves building a new life.”

A marvellous speech by Trotsky, “In Defence of October” — delivered in Copenhagen in November 1932 on the eve of Hitler being handed power in Germany — delivers a clear-eyed account of the revolution and its historical significance.

Trotsky, the organiser of October but exiled by Stalin, characterises the process as “4 million workers in industry and transport leading 100 million peasants”. He explains the combined and uneven development which made it possible, the historical “prerequisites” which led to October, the role of the oppressed nationalities, and the decisive role of the Bolsheviks.

He quotes a Russian nobleman’s complaint in 1917 that “I cannot get it into my head that I must lose my land” and notes, “It is precisely the task of revolutions to accomplish that which the ruling classes cannot get into their heads.”

I recommend this book, but it’s pricey, there are far too many typographical errors, and the articles by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg are freely available online. More important, it’s politically flawed. It should be read in conjunction with Chris Harman’s “How the Revolution Was Lost”, available both on the Marxist Internet Archive and in Harman’s Selected Writings.