A People's History of the Russian Revolution

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On the face of it, Neil Faulkner has written a reasonably good history of the Russian Revolution. This should not be surprising. As he acknowledges, between 1980 and 2010 he was an active member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and took part in debates on the international working class movement.

So Neil provides a good analysis, going back centuries, of the development of the social, economic and political conditions that laid the basis for the February Revolution. He also provides a good account of the critical events that occurred subsequently. He also describes the international impact of the revolution, and how its failure to spread to other countries finally provided the grounds for the bloody counterrevolution.

But Neil has another agenda. He sets out the three bogus arguments he wants to nail, number one being that “Lenin was a democrat, not a ‘democratic centralist’, and that the Bolshevik Party was a mass democratic movement, not a pseudo-revolutionary sect”.

Neil quite rightly wants his book to be for “activists who want to change [the world]”, but he has a big problem with the way this can be done. In particular, he has a problem about the nature of the “vanguard party” — one informed by the writings of the Canadian Marxist, Lars Lih.

Kevin Corr and Gareth Jenkins have written a critical rebuttal of Lih’s conclusions in International Socialism 144. The argument is about whether Lenin and the Bolsheviks operated in the tradition set by the then largest socialist party, the German Social Democrats, or were a “party of the new type” — a more tightly knit organisation that brought together the most class conscious members of the working class. Neil, following Lih, opts for the former.

In a vulgar passage he describes the alternative as a “small organisation run by a self-appointed ‘vanguard’ that seeks to insert itself into a mass movement in order to grow parasitically like a tic”. As Corr and Jenkins say, much of the left has concluded that the idea of “working class revolution led by a revolutionary party to smash the state seems a quaint property of irrelevant groups unable to break out of the far-left ghetto”.

Neil reinforces that belief. Even worse, he provides no alternative way forward apart from the vague “Only the masses in struggle can create a party of revolution.” Hear, hear to that; but how many times have we seen the “masses in struggle” only for it to all end in tears, or seen left parties such as Syriza in Greece promise to challenge the tyranny of capitalism, only for it to end in disillusion. What has, time and again, been lacking is a revolutionary party “of the new type”, steeled in class struggle and able to point the way forward — just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did at critical points.

Get real, Neil. Patiently building Leninist parties rooted in workers’ struggles remains the only way to overthrow capitalism.