Book Review


It is a curious thing that an event as consequential as the Russian Revolution, which ultimately determined the destinies of hundreds of millions, can depend in large part on a few personalities and a lot of luck. This is the inescapable conclusion of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (1996), by Orlando Figes. There was no “iron necessity of history” or unstoppable Marxian dialectic leading to Lenin’s revolution of October, 1917; there was contingency, free will, incompetence from some and reckless daring from others. It was anything but a true Marxist proletarian revolution (of which there are no examples in history). Had Nicholas II not been so desperately stupid for twenty years, or Generals Evert and Kuropatkin not so incompetent in June, 1916, or Kerensky not so reluctant to take action against the Bolsheviks in the months before their coup d’état, or Lenin not so determined to seize power exactly when he did, or had V. N. Lvov’s machinations not led to the misunderstandings that eventually got General Kornilov arrested in August, and had a thousand other such accidents not happened, it is quite possible that the course of the twentieth century would have been very different. That is probably the main lesson of Figes’ book. But the book is so comprehensive, evenhanded, and engaging, being a narrative history that fuses social and political analysis with an abundance of vignettes and personal sketches, that much else can be gleaned from it besides merely the historical importance of contingency. 


For example, irony leaps from its pages: the reader is reminded that ubiquitous irony is perhaps the only “iron law” of history. For it is ironic that the Bolsheviks’ total misinterpretations of the significance of their acts—thinking they were establishing socialism or enacting a Marxist revolution when in fact what they were doing and creating was virtually the opposite of Marxism and socialism—in a sense confirmed a basic tenet of Marxism, that “consciousness” is of secondary importance compared to “social being.” The intellectuals and politicians who rise to the top are those useful to the power-strivings of some group or groups in society, be they economic power-structures (business, the landed aristocracy) or some broad section of “the people.” Whatever the subtle meanings of these intellectuals’ elaborate doctrines or however they interpret their own actions, as long as they shout, for example, slogans like “All power to the Soviets!” or “Peace, land, bread!”, and the circumstances are right, they will rise to the top. Naturally they’ll interpret their success as proof of their theories, but really it could be, and probably is, nothing of the kind. Marx himself was a victim of this sort of self-delusion, in that the increasing popularity of his ideas late in life did not mean at all what he thought it did, that capitalism was approaching collapse. The ideas of his that became popular were merely fine expressions of the grievances of workers and gave them useful theoretical legitimation. That’s all. If--or rather when--capitalism does eventually collapse, it certainly won’t be in the exact way he predicted.


Figes is right that Lenin was a product at least as much of the distinctive Russian revolutionary tradition (Chernyshevsky, etc.) as of Marxism—and that he therefore departed from Marxism whenever he found it useful. The following passage is insightful:


All the main components of Lenin’s doctrine—the stress on the need for a disciplined revolutionary vanguard; the belief that action (the “subjective factor”) could alter the objective course of history (and in particular that seizure of the state apparatus could bring about a social revolution); his defense of Jacobin methods of dictatorship; his contempt for liberals and democrats (and indeed for socialists who compromised with them)—all these stemmed not so much from Marx as from the Russian revolutionary tradition. Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, [etc.] inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive—content to wait for the revolution to mature through the development of objective conditions rather than eager to bring it about through political action. It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary (pp. 145, 146).


As I argue in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, an authentic, “dialectical” Marxism would be “evolutionary,” not “revolutionary” in the Leninist sense. It would also repudiate the idea that “a revolution could ‘jump over’ the contingencies of history” (p. 812). As Figes says, Bolshevism’s embrace of this idea “placed it firmly in the Russian messianic tradition,” not the Marxist tradition. In this respect, as in some others, the Mensheviks were more Marxist than the Bolsheviks.


What Russia’s revolutionary period at the beginning of the twentieth century really was was a bourgeois revolution that went off the rails. Its doing so wasn’t exactly “accidental,” although the way in which it did so was (more or less). In a gigantic country composed almost entirely of peasants filled with hatred for landowners and the government, a relatively smooth transition to industrial capitalism—i.e., a transition not disturbed for decades, say, by peasant uprisings and revolutionary demagoguery, or even by a “socialist” takeover of the state—would have been extremely difficult under the best of circumstances. Given the unstable state of Europe at the time, with its imperialism, nationalism, racism, international arms race, and class conflict, it was almost impossible. Even had Russia’s generals during World War I been competent enough to win the war, it is likely that in the following decade or two, perhaps during the Great Depression, massive peasant uprisings would have occurred, probably coinciding with strikes and demonstrations in the cities. The government might have been able to suppress them, or it might have succumbed to its own incompetence and let power slip to some future Lenin. One cannot say for sure. Maybe a future Stolypin would have managed the transition to capitalism with an iron hand. The point is that in primitive, predominantly rural countries like Russia, China, Italy and Spain in the early twentieth century, and much of Latin America for a long time, it is virtually a toss-up whether the transition to capitalism will (perhaps successively) bring to power a “leftist” government (Russia in late 1917, China in 1949, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh), a rightist government (Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, China before Mao), or, more rarely, a centrist one (Italy and Spain before Mussolini and Franco). That is the meaning of the Russian revolution—namely its lack of meaning [at least in the sense that many Marxists, particularly Leninists, have interpreted it].


Anyway, A People’s Tragedy is an excellent book, both entertaining and very informative. Most of the analysis that Figes offers is not terribly profound, but it shows common sense. For example, Figes’ conclusion is surely true: “It was the weakness of Russia’s democratic culture which enabled Bolshevism to take root. This was the legacy of Russian history, of centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule, that had kept the common people powerless and passive” (p. 808). True, but not very interesting. Nevertheless, as a narrative history of Russia’s revolutionary period, the book is probably unsurpassable.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright