The Bolshevik Heritage. By Dilip Simeon

First posted November 3, 2017

NB: This essay has appeared in EPW’s special number commemorating the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which falls on November 7. (A Word file is downloadable here). The revolution began on February 23, 1917, (March 8 according to the new calendar adopted in 1918); but for complex reasons, tended to be identified with the Bolshevik seizure of power on October 25 (November 7). However the two should not be conflated, as I argue below. My essay deals with Lenin’s ideology and the period between 1917 and 1922. 

I taught Russian history for many years at Ramjas College in the 1980’s, as some of my students will remember. This enabled me to study the complex history of Russian social-democracy and its Bolshevist wing. For decades the socialist movement unfolded in the shadow of Bolshevism; and its Indian counterpart was no exception. Unfortunately, idealism was often overtaken by dogma and ideological factionalism, resulting in a closure of debate and the reduction of history to propaganda. I have always argued that once socialist theory stops challenging itself, it embarks upon the road to irrelevance. 

It is in this spirit that I studied and taught whatever I could understand of the tremendous complexity of Russian history. This essay is a summary of my interpretation of the events of 1917 and is offered as a contribution to a debate rendered poignant by the implosion of the USSR in 1991. There’s no original research here; I owe a great deal to the work of scholars such as Oskar Anweiler, Alexander Rabinowitch, Steven Kotkin, Simon Pirani; and Diane Koenker & William Rosenberg; not to mention many others whose work finds mention below.

Andrzej Walicki’s Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia; deals with Marxism-Leninism, and is the last volume of his massive five volume study of Russian thought. It is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read on the subject. 

Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism (volume 2), is also of great value. Arup Banerji’s Writing history in the Soviet Union: Making the past work; is a study of state manipulation of the past. The transcripts of proceedings of the Central Executive Committee of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets between October 1917 and January 1918; were published in J. L. H. Keep (ed), The Debate on Soviet Power: Minutes of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets, Second Convocation, October 1917–January 1918 (1979); and should be an eye-opener for those unaware of the distinction between Bolshevism and soviet power. Needless to say I have barely scratched the surface of this immense saga. 

After 1991, archives became available in Russia that had never been open to historians. This trans-formed Russian and Soviet historiography, and even Napoleons’s 1812 invasion could be studied with a much larger archival basis than ever before. The story of the Annals of Communism series is instructive in this regard. Those interested in pursuing the readings, should know that most of the books and articles cited in my essay are available in the public domain, if one knows where to look. 

I would like to thank my friends Jairus Banaji, Marcel van der Linden, and Ritwik Agrawal for their invaluable assistance. The essay is long, and cannot be read in its entirety on this blog.  Here is a PDF version in a Word file (footnotes at the bottom of each page);  and here is a link to EPW’s online version (with PDF available) DS

The Bolshevik Heritage

(Economic and Political Weekly, November 4, 2017; vol 52, # 44; Special Issue)

Our Party, like any other political party, is striving after political domination for itself. Our aim is the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat. V.I. Lenin, 1917

For what is most terrible in it (communism) is the mixture of truth and falsehood. Nikolai Berdyaev, 1931

The process of shift in meaning is never concluded, because, in history, it is never determined at the beginning what will result at the end. Karl Lowith, 1941 

The Rupture

August 23, 1793 (when France’s Committee of Public Safety adopted universal conscription); and October 25, (November 7) 1917, are dates which represent the essence of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution respectively. They also mark the difference in their orientation and significance. The big difference between the French and Russian revolutions was this: the first converted civil war into national war; the second converted national war into civil war. The extreme wing of the French revolutionaries exercised power during the counter-revolutionary upsurge of the Vendee. The suppression of peasant resistance (1793-94) was coterminous with the levee-en-masse and the Jacobin dictatorship. The combination of these factors channelled the forces unleashed in 1789 into patriotic mobilisation for international war. The violence of the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, was directed at enemies within Russia, those deemed to represent the ruling class and its allies.

The Bolshevik revolution owed its very origin to the conversion of international war – imperialist war in Lenin’s words – into civil war. The outstanding features of Bolshevism were its unwavering demand for Russia’s exit from the world war; and the conviction that a Bolshevik seizure of power would herald world revolution. This stance was reflected most clearly in Lenin’s avowal of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – the doctrine calling for Russia’s defeat on the ground that its ruling class had dragged the people into a war ‘between the biggest slave-holders for the maintenance and consolidation of slavery’.  Whereas nationalist militarism was the very means of survival for the Jacobins; the Bolsheviks came to power on a wave of war-weariness, calls to exit from the war, and a refusal of the patriotism that in 1914, had led so many socialists to forget their internationalist convictions and join hands with ‘their’ capitalists.

The Russian Revolution is not synonymous with the Bolshevik Revolution. The overthrow of Tsarism was not the work of the Bolshevik Party, although various socialist cadres were active during the events. Moreover, if the assumption of power by the Second Congress of Soviets in October was unavoidable it was not destined to be pre-empted by the Bolshevik-Left SR seizure of power.  The changes that occurred in Russia were latent in the complex struggles between March and October 1917, foreshadowed in the years prior to the outbreak of world war, and manifest most clearly in the practice of Bolshevism in power during the civil war and after.

As the revolutionary regimes of France and Russia came to be identified with state power in a bounded area, so also did the ‘national’ element gain over the universalist, international one. In both upheavals the line dividing internal and external enemies tended to disappear. The French revolution provoked a counter-revolutionary coalition. And the civil war that broke out in Russia was joined by a eleven-member coalition including Britain, France, Japan and the USA, bent upon crushing the communist regime, which for its part proclaimed its support for insurrectionary forces in Europe and the world.

Authority and Legitimation

Thus despite their marked differences, there was a resonance between Jacobinism and Bolshevism. In fact, Lenin directly identified the Bolsheviks with the Jacobin regime.  To examine what this might mean, we could reflect upon the assumptions at the heart of democratic politics since 1789. The first relates to state legitimacy; the second to the paradoxical emergence of militarized, rank-ordered societies in the wake of an egalitarian movement. The revolutionary era inaugurated in 1789 carried the promise of a rationalist utopia; but soon appeared to foreshadow terror and eternal warfare. This dichotomy was rooted in the crisis of legitimacy arising out of the execution of the monarch and the challenge to the doctrine of Divine Right.

The problem of legitimation is at the heart of the major political confrontations of our time. For Lenin, it appeared to have been decisively resolved by the appearance of soviets in 1917. His utterances that year referred repeatedly to the historic destiny of these institutions. Throughout 1917, the Bolshevik slogans ‘peace, land, bread’ and ‘immediate convocation of the Constituent Assembly’ were combined with ‘all power to the soviets’.  Yet by December the status of the soviets had become a crucial component of the Leninist argument for the denial of legitimacy to the Constituent Assembly..  

read more:

Alexander Rabinowitch: The Bolsheviks Come to Power: Centennial Reflections

Marcel van der Linden: Why Leninism and Bolshevism Are Not the Same

Jairus Banaji: Rethinking the Origins of Stalinism

Book Review: Inside the Stalin Archives / Annals of Communism Series

Jairus Banaji – Revolution Destroyed

The Bolsheviks & workers’ control: State & counter-revolution, by Maurice Brinton

Alec Luhn – Gulag grave hunter unearths uncomfortable truths in Russia

Solidarity with Memorial: Russia’s most prominent civil rights group in danger

The destruction of society EUROZINE REVIEW

EVGENIA LEZINA – The revival of ideology in Russia

Book review – Linda Grant on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

Book review: Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge / Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Heda Margolius Kovaly (1919-2010) : Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968

The Captive mind revisited – Jerzy Krzyżanowski on Czeslaw Milosz

Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’

Kafka: An End or a Beginning?

Farewell to reality

On the political theory of Claude Lefort: Democratic disquiet

The Captive mind revisited – Jerzy Krzyżanowski on Czeslaw Milosz

Book review: Moscow Under Terror

Madhavan Palat on Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn

Madhavan Palat: Utopia and Dystopia in Revolutionary Russia

Arthur Koestler – A quintessentially twentieth-century life