Two letters in defence of the October Revolution
6th December 2004
The following letters were written to the northern nationalist newspaper the ‘Irish News,’ in response to attacks in its letters page on the legitimacy of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The first letter was published in a slightly edited form from the original below; the second was not published.
The ‘student of Russian history’ from Twinbrook (Irish News 23 October) obviously hasn’t passed many exams in his/her chosen subject. He places the cause of Stalinist dictatorship in Russia on the shoulders of Lenin and Trotsky but the facts he presents to demonstrate this are all false.
Lenin did not refuse to share power with any other group. The Bolsheviks formed a coalition government with the only group willing to join them in supporting the revolution – the Left Social Revolutionaries.
The new revolutionary Russia wasn’t run like the old Tsarist autocracy but was the most free and democratic society in the world. Workers and peasants took control and no matter what happened to the revolution afterwards nothing can eradicate this fact.
The Bolsheviks didn’t start the civil war that further ruined the country – the old aristocracy and landlords backed by western powers did that.
The prime cause of famine in 1921 wasn’t Bolshevik policy but war and natural disaster and the New Economic Policy wasn’t a reaction to it.
Lenin didn’t invade Poland – except after Poland had attacked and invaded Russia.
I could go on but the fundamental point is this. The Stalinist dictatorship that arose in Russia was not the logical culmination of the October 1917 revolution but of a counter revolution that arose from inside the revolution itself. The poverty and desperation of the country and foreign imperialist invasion were its main causes. Thus the degeneration of the revolution was ultimately caused by the success of reaction elsewhere in Europe which prevented help from reaching the besieged Bolshevik government.
As to the role of Lenin and Trotsky, they made mistakes – serious ones, but their role can be appreciated by two facts. First they fought against bureaucracy while Stalin supported it and secondly the bureaucratic regime could only consolidate its power by literally killing the old Bolshevik party, including Trotsky.
Many people who condemn the Stalinist dictatorship
are not so much opposed to dictatorship as to the popular revolution that
came before it. They are not so much opponents of Stalinist counter
revolution as of the revolution that Stalinism strangled. There is
no need for more ‘students of Russian history’ who seek to do this, especially
ones as ill informed as the one from Twinbrook.
The student of Russian history (November 9th) wisely does not seek to defend all the falsehoods of his first letter but still persists with two of them. First he continues to be under the impression that it was the Bolshevik regime that attacked Poland when any history book will inform him otherwise.
Secondly he continues to believe that it was the Bolsheviks who started the civil war. How then does he explain why the assorted landlords, aristocracy, capitalists and Tsarist generals attacked through the Kornilov revolt even before the Bolshevik revolution had taken place?
He blames the Bolsheviks for the civil war because the peasants were forced onto collective farms. In fact forced collectivisation happened much later under Stalin and the major reason the Bolshevik regime won the civil war was because it defended peasant ownership of the land from the attempts of the old landlords to take it back.
The argument put up by student starts to collapse right from the start when he acknowledges that the previous regime, which he seems to approve of but which also came about through revolution, lost ‘massive support’ because it supported continued Russian participation in the world war. He doesn’t acknowledge that it lost its support to the Bolsheviks who opposed the war.
Finally his whole argument is undermined by his acceptance that in the revolution ‘power was given to the workers and land to the peasants.’ This would not have been possible without the Bolshevik party and the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. It was Bolshevik workers who seized the factories and it was the Bolshevik led government that defended peasant occupation of the land.
So what is the student’s attitude to this situation, no matter how short lived? Does he support power being claimed by the workers? Does he think this should have been defended? If so, how?
If he does not does he support the old regime where the factories were owned by the capitalists, the land by the landlords and the state by the autocracy? That was the choice facing everyone then and of students of history now.
Nothing said in the letters of our student can get away from the fact that this was a genuinely popular revolution led by the Bolshevik party. When it comes to explaining its subsequent collapse it is not very convincing to blame the very people who helped bring it about.
Any explanation that does not include the backward nature of much of Russian society, the poverty and destruction left by the First World War, the civil war waged by the remnants of the old autocracy and the economic blockade and invasion by western powers is obviously pretty useless.
For those interested in learning about
the Russian revolution the first thing to appreciate is that its lessons
do not lie in the individual psychology of Lenin, whether ‘hero’ or ‘monster.’
They lie in understanding the actions of millions of Russia workers and
peasants and the political programmes of the parties that grew out of them.
In other words to begin to understand the Russian revolution a student
has to understand that it really was a revolution.