Steve Smith has provided a useful overview of Russian history from the end of the 19th century to the 1920s centred, of course, on the dramatic events of 1917 and their aftermath.
He presents a panoramic view and yet includes a considerable amount of detail for a relatively short book.
Smith argues that the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were rooted in the clash between the growing pressure for modernisation of Russia society and the barrier represented by the Tsarist regime.
For the author, the October Revolution was the consequence of the failure of Tsarism to reform and the pressure of total war on an already creaking edifice. He goes on to argue that the structural problems of Russian society that dogged attempts at reform under Nicholas II also lay behind the huge problems faced by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s as they tried to take society forwards.
The book looks at events far beyond the streets of Petrograd so we get an insight into what was going on in key areas such as Ukraine and cities such as Baku and Lodz. Smith looks at all aspects of society including women, the peasantry and the national minorities.
A strength of the book is that it recognises the key role of the masses in 1917 both in the cities and the countryside. Despite some harsh judgements, the author understands that the Bolsheviks were motivated by anger at oppression and exploitation and the slaughter of the trenches. He rejects the view of the Bolshevik Party as a top down monolith during 1917. He recognises that it was the party that best reflected the aspirations of the masses and the only one that was serious about realising them.
Smith does use the word coup to describe the October Revolution but accepts that it was not a conspiracy and that the Bolsheviks enjoyed mass support while the Provisional Government had almost none.
He makes the obvious point, ignored by most mainstream historians, that the Provisional Government was not elected while the October rising was endorsed by the Congress of Soviets and that the Soviet government was made up of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries, which together had a clear majority in the soviets.
He argues that the immediate impact of Soviet power was decentralisation and a pushing through of the revolution in the countryside as the peasants took over the land.
However, Socialist Review readers will have criticisms of his account of subsequent events. Smith provides a grim portrayal of the Civil War. He is clear about the brutality and antisemitism of the White armies but rather plays down the fact that the single most important reason the Bolsheviks won was the fact that only a Red victory guaranteed the peasants ownership of the land.
Smith accepts that policies such as War Communism that alienated the peasants were a response to economic crisis and the need to keep the Red Army fighting. But he also argues that the desperate measures that the Bolsheviks took to win the Civil War were partly due to their “centralising ideology”, not temporary retreats and compromises largely forced on them by circumstances.
Of course Bolshevik leaders did tend to make a virtue of necessity; for example, many activities of the Cheka (Russian secret police), which even some Bolsheviks criticised at the time.
The major failing of the book is that Smith does not take the prospects for spreading the revolution internationally at all seriously. This is curious for the author of a book on communists in Shanghai in the 1920s.
The Bolshevik leaders were united up to 1924 in arguing that without spreading the revolution it was doomed. Just because revolutions in countries such as Germany, Hungary, Italy and later China were defeated did not mean that victory was impossible.
Smith credits Stalin’s personality for his success but the central reason for the degeneration of the revolution and the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy was Russia’s isolation. He describes the events of 1928 as a revolution, not a counter-revolution.
He claims that some practices under Lenin paved the way for Stalin, but denies there was seamless continuity. “Whether Lenin would have recognised the regime he [Stalin] brought into being as socialism is very doubtful”, he argues.
The author credits the Bolsheviks with many achievements, such as improvements in worker and peasant living standards, efforts to liberate women and the national minorities, radical reform of education and a huge increase in adult literacy, for example.
Socialist Review readers will disagree with some of his judgements, but he is mostly fair and balanced. Smith argues that the Russian Revolution is still relevant as an example of an attempt to get rid of capitalism. As he concludes, “In the future the ambition of its challenge to capitalism may once again inspire.”
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928, by S A Smith. Published by Oxford University Press, £25