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‘October Song’ – A challenging portrayal of the Russian Revolution

October 9, 2018

Russia Oct SongReview of Paul Le Blanc, October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917-1924, Chicago: Haymarket, 2017, 479 pp., US$19.56.

By John Riddell. Amid a flock of volumes marking the Russian revolution’s centenary last year, Paul Le Blanc’s October Song is set apart by its unique method. Working from English-language sources, Le Blanc offers us an anthology of assessments and viewpoints on the revolution with “a strong inclination to privilege older things” – that is, testimony and opinions from its early years.

The result is a kaleidoscope of observations, some by respected historians and many by unknown or forgotten voices, which, taken together, constitute a far-ranging debate over the meaning of these world-shaking events.

Among these comments are many vivid on-the-spot recollections, such as the portrayal by Eduard Dune, then a Bolshevik worker-activist, of a factory debate in May 1917. Since workers had taken effective control of the factory, their conditions had improved dramatically, the Bolshevik speakers pointed out. “If we could organize a revolutionary government in one factory, then why could we not create a similar order across the whole of Russia?” (104)

Le Blanc

Paul Le Blanc

In the same vein Maurice Hindus, returning in the 1920s to the remote Russian village where he had been born and raised, noted changes among the peasants: “Their imagination had been stirred…. [T]heir minds teemed with new concepts, new ideas, new beliefs. They were aware of a world outside of their village. They were awake to the darkness around them and to the need of ushering in enlightenment.” (170)

We also hear the testimony of Victor Krawchenko on how, as a 16-year-old foundry worker, he joined the Communist youth movement (Komsomol) in 1921, a time of “general distress and pessimism.” As a Komsomol member, however, his life now had “an urgency, a purpose, a new and thrilling dimension of dedication to a cause” (172-73).

Then there is Katia, a young factory woman writing to a friend in exile, an opponent of Soviet rule, in the 1920s, as clouds gather over the revolution. Referring to the legend of the Golden Fleece and the myth of the Garden of Golden Apples, Katia writes:

I am not so simple as I used to be. I know that our generation will never reach the Fleece nor the Apple. We thought we held it in our hand, but it rolled away into the dirt and blood. Then, splashed and stained, we saw how it shone as it rolled along. It is the light that leads us.” (249–50; 323-4)

Le Blanc’s narrative thus unfolds as not so much a reinterpretation but an invitation to reflection.

Global dimension

Russia red cavalry

Red Army cavalry recruiting poster

“The Bolsheviks saw their revolution as only the beginning of a global insurgency,” Le Blanc declares, (183) citing Lenin’s dramatic appeal in his 1918 letter to U.S. workers:

We are banking on the inevitability of world revolution…. We have raised the banner of struggle for the complete overthrow of imperialism for the whole world to see. We are now, as it were, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief. (185)[1]

The chapter that Le Blanc devotes to the revolution’s global dimension thus sparkles with urgency. His collection of quoted reactions of imperialist chieftains highlights the obstacles faced by the revolution. Necessarily compressed, his account ably summarizes the Communist International’s first four congresses, to which I have devoted 6,000 printed pages, in a mere seven – in itself a noteworthy achievement.

It was the International’s dependency on the Soviet Communist Party that, in Le Blanc’s view, became the overriding factor in its decline and degeneration. This explanation, widely accepted and valid in a general sense, leaves a lot to be explained. For example:

  • Why was the Comintern weak in advocating defense of democratic rights, a characteristic strength of the Bolshevik Party that it took as a model?
  • Why did the Comintern, after rejecting ultraleftism at its Second Congress (1920), become entangled in a damaging ultraleft adventure (the “March Action”) only one year later?
  • Why was united front policy, among the early Comintern’s most enduringly useful innovations, effectively dropped only two years after its adoption?

In this sense, the unavoidable limitations of global analysis in October Song pose relevant questions for future attention on this blog.

Theoretical blind spots

Le Blanc deploys varied testimony to buttress his conviction that the Russian revolution was necessary and that the course of the early Bolshevik party, which led the Soviet government, was broadly speaking the best possible under the circumstances. While forceful, his argument here is not original. Of greater interest is his discussion of the weaknesses he perceives in the Bolshevik’s understanding of this revolution’s dynamics.

Russia literacy

Soviet poster: ‘To be illiterate is to be blind, cursed by failure and unhappiness.’

Le Blanc praises the Bolsheviks’ wisdom on agrarian policy after the October Revolution. They then accepted what Lenin called “the decision of the [peasant] rank and file, even if we disagree with it,” to divide the landlords’ estates. (258) Yet Le Blanc criticizes the Bolsheviks’ failure to sustain that approach, particularly in their commitment to conducting a class struggle against a bourgeois layer in the villages – the “kulaks.” In reality, no such crystallized layer existed, Le Blanc says, and very few peasant farms employed hired labour.

Le Blanc draws here on Lars T. Lih’s Bread and Authority in Russia and Theodor Shanin’s Late Marx and the Russian Road as well as on two dissident Soviet agronomists of the 1920s, Nikolai Sukhanov (better known for his Notes on the Revolution) and Alexander Chayanov. It is unfortunate, in Le Blanc’s view, that the latter two theorists were marginalized in Soviet discussion of agrarian policy, while Marxist theory on the peasantry stagnated. Implications of Le Blanc’s analysis are evident for today’s world, where peasants remain prominent in anti-neoliberal coalitions in many countries. (See, on this blog, “World Farmer Alliance.”)

Le Blanc does not discuss the analogous “blind spot” in Bolshevik policy toward national minorities. But here, by contrast, Bolshevik policy underwent a significant evolution often missed in present-day studies (see “The Russian Revolution and National Freedom”).

Organized diversity

A second blind spot, in Le Blanc’s view, involved “an insufficient theorization and comprehension of the dynamics and requirements of democracy,” particularly with respect to the “closing off of organized diversity” as represented by contending parties and collective viewpoints. (357) Bolsheviks understood democracy as both a means and an end, but not the complexities of its realization, Le Blanc states. In particular, the need for freedom “to join to gather in order to develop and argue for [dissident views],” although realized in Bolshevik practice in the revolution’s early years, was not acknowledged in the plane of theory – at least, not by the party as a whole. (358)

Bureaucratic peril

The third Bolshevik “blind spot” concerned the character of bureaucracy. To be sure, Bolsheviks leaders gave much thought in the early years of Soviet rule to problem of a state apparatus mushrooming beyond workers’ control. In 1921, Lenin made an apt comparison of the Soviet administration with an automobile “going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.”[2]

In Lenin’s view, the sinister hidden hand was that of administrative cadres drawn from or reflecting the outlook of former ruling classes. This was certainly part of the story. It was this malign influence that led Lenin in 1921 to define the Soviet republic in 1921 as a “workers’ and peasants’ state with bureaucratic distortions.”[3]

Still, Le Blanc is right in noting the absence in Bolshevik and, more broadly, socialist thought in that period of “the notion of a bureaucracy developing a will of its own and for its own benefit.[4] (359) It was not until 1928, Le Blanc tells us, that Leon Trotsky acknowledged that a “bureaucratic hierarchy with all its ministries and departments” had “raised itself over and above society.” (359) But for Le Blanc, resistance to bureaucratization is linked with preservation for an extended period of a mixed economy under Soviet rule, which he rightly identifies as the Soviet government’s original policy in 1917-18.

Le Blanc writes that “Destruction of the mixed economy in 1918” – however inevitable this may have been under the circumstances – “was a disaster … [one] matched only by the disaster of the isolation of Bolshevik Russia” combined with the “militarism generated by foreign invasion and brutal civil war.” (161) Sweeping nationalizations in conditions of civil war and social disintegration made it necessary to replace capitalist economic relations across the entire economy right away, a process that created the overgrown and ultimately uncontrollable bureaucracy.

Of course, market relations did not vanish during the Russian civil war; in part they took refuge underground. The return to a mixed economy in 1921, under the New Economic Policy (NEP), brought market relations back into the light of day where they could be regulated and taxed – arguably a step forward toward Soviet economic planning.

Le Blanc portrays the vitality of Soviet society under the NEP but also highlights its negative side: the evils of capitalist relations (mass unemployment, austerity, etc.) all returned within a year. Moreover, the bureaucracy took shape as an ultimately dominant political current securing elite privilege and closing off avenues for control from below.

In subsequent decades, socialists worldwide projected several methods of avoiding such a bureaucratic takeover, including workers’ enterprise self-management and worker-run cooperatives. Yet an economy of such self-managed units faces an urgent question: Who speaks for the interests of the working class as a whole? This challenge has been addressed above all by Canada-based Marxist Michael Lebowitz and is taken up in his Contradictions of Real Socialism.[5] (See, on this blog, Dissecting the Failure of Soviet Socialism.)

An unanswered question

In one respect, October Song does not fulfil the promise of its subtitle: the narrative, which closes in 1924, does not portray the consummation of the “Communist tragedy” to which the title refers. Le Blanc portrays the life of working people in the first half of the 1920s as marked by an unprecedented degree of freedom; in the words of historian W.H. Chamberlin “a sense of release, of social liberty.”[6] (303) In Le Blanc’s view, at the time of Lenin’s death (1924), “the road seemed open to different possibilities of development.” (297)

Yet 15 years later the Bolsheviks’ leading cadres had been in their vast majority executed by Stalin; their party was transformed beyond recognition. Soviet democracy, limited as it was, vanished, Le Blanc explains, while brutalization and repression overwhelmed the humanism and creativity unleashed in 1917. Somewhere in that period the party of Lenin suffered a definitive defeat: the “Communist tragedy” that Le Blanc’s subtitle refers to.

Lenin and his comrades made a “wager on revolution,” Le Blanc tells us, and – although they ultimately lost – “the greater failure would have been never to have tried.” (377-8) Very true, but still we must ask whether this failure was so complete. A strong case can be made that despite its degeneration under Stalin, the Russian revolution survived and was vindicated by its overall impact on world history.

Even after the end of Bolshevism, as Trotsky pointed out just before his assassination in 1940, the Russian revolution was still alive in the hearts of Soviet working people.[7] (See, in this blog, “Did Trotsky Retreat…?”) Its survival found expression in the Soviet victory over Hitlerism, postwar social gains of Soviet working people, and the inspiration and material aid provided to the Chinese and other anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolutions. Even the Soviet Union’s ignominious collapse in 1991 did not erase the historic memory of the 1917 revolution.

The entire range of attempts during the twentieth century to achieve some form workers’ power needs to be analyzed as a single process – a task well worth our collective attention.

Notes

[1]. Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” August 29, 1918, Collected Works, 28:62-75.

[2]. Lenin’s views are taken up in more detail in a book, still in print,  for which I wrote the initial draft, Lenin’s Final Fight, Speeches and Writings 1922-23, New York: Pathfinder, 1995.

[3]. See Lenin, “The Party Crisis,” Collected Works, 32:43-54.

[4]. Le Blanc is quoting here from J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London: Oxford UP, 1966, vol. 1, p. 406.

[5]. Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted, New York: Monthly Review, 2012.

[6]. William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia, A Living Record and a History, Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, pp. 397-401.

[7]. See, on this blog, “Did Trotsky Retreat from Viewing the USSR as a Workers’ State?”, including footnotes 6 to 9.

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From → History, USSR/Russia

One Comment
  1. geoff1954 permalink

    Thanks very much for this thought provoking review John. I appreciate the links to other articles that discuss some of the questions you’ve raised in greater detail. I hope to go back to them. I also appreciate the review because I believe Paul Le Blanc has chosen a poor title for his book. While you may not share my view of that choice, your comments about whether Le Blanc’s judgement of the full impact of the Russian Revolution is accurate, points in the direction I am suggesting.

    In any event your review has done the job of convincing me that I should read the book. Haymarket publishers has it on sale now as both a paperback and an ebook (or bundled together) and I will order it.

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