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Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917.

Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917, edited by Edith Rogovin Frankel, Jonathan Frankel, and Baruch Keni-Paz. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992. xx, 434 pp. $59.95 U.S.

The book has an introduction plus five parts, containing a total of eighteen essays. The five general headings are 1) "Political Power and Mass Action"; 2) "Peasants, Workers and Bourgeoisie"; 3) Nationalities"; 4) "Leninism And the Making Of October"; and 5) "1917 In Retrospect: Historiography and Theory."

The essays collected here were first presented at a conference held in Jerusalem in January 1988, and, in the opinion of the editors, they "constitute a cross-section of the diverse ways in which the Russian revolution is perceived today by historians in the West" (pp. xvi-xvii).

In his introduction, Jonathan Frankel once again raises the question of the inevitability of the Bolshevik victory and retention of power. He concludes that the weakness of the right and support for Bolsheviks among industrial workers were two of the key elements in the outcome.

Israel Getzler's argument is that from February through October 1917, the soviets played the major agitational role in bringing the masses into the process through such activities as democratic elections, political parties, and parliamentary procedures. Working against soviet democracy was the Bolshevik party apparatus which did everything to reduce the power of V.Ts.I.K. (the Soviet Executive Committee) in favour of Sovnarkom (the Council of People's Commissars headed by Lenin).

Donald J. Raleigh's purpose is to shift the focus away from why Russian liberalism failed to what he believes is a more central issue: "why the radical wing of Russian socialism triumphed over the more moderate socialists who commanded such broad support in Saratov in the spring of 1917" (p. 35). Raleigh suggests that this pattern in Saratov was common throughout provincial Russia: moderate Public Executive Committees [P.E.C.s], with ties to the Provisional Government, gave way to the more radical soldiers' committees and soviets. According to Raleigh, the Bolsheviks became inseparably associated with soviet power -- which greatly enhanced their "institutional legitimacy," whereas the moderate socialists were discredited by their policies of coalition with the Kadets and their commitment to the "imperialist war" aagainst Germany.

Rex A. Wade's piece on the Red Guards stresses their local initiative and spontaneity, non-partisan radicalism, and importance as one of only two (along with the garrison) armed forces in Petrogard during the critical days of the October Revolution. Thus, despite the fact that they were not under Bolshevik control, they "provided essential support for the Bolshevik government."

Allan Wildman describes the officers during the summer of 1917 as chiefly concerned with keeping the state intact -- which for them meant keeping it above politics -- while defending the national honour on the battlefield against the German enemy. They failed to see the paradox between their own increased political activity and that avowed goal. Most officers supported the Provisional Government, while the Kornilov movement could only count on some senior members of the general staff.

John Channon, following V.V. Kabanov and Donald Raleigh, notes that after February public executive committees appeared in many villages and were closely associated with the local soviets. The latter enjoyed the greatest popular support, in contrast to the zemstvo, the Provisional Government, and even the Constituent Assembly. Channon concludes that the peasants wanted to have their own institutions of self-government and proved themselves as capable as the soldiers and workers of organizing and managing their affairs.

Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg describe the relationship between strikes and their representation to the public by the periodical press. They tell us, not surprisingly, that "the moderate socialist press ... represented the interests of organised labour, ... just as the moderate liberal press both reflected and represented the interests of the state, and to some extent, those of management as well" (p. 139). Their equally obvious conclusion is that, in addition to the strikes themselves, the way they were represented and perceived emphasized the divisions.

In describing an industrial region northeast of Moscow, David Mandel stresses the strength of grass-roots support for the Bolsheviks. He believes that the proletarian dictatorship was a popular idea, effected by the workers themselves through the soviets "in order to put an end to a coalition of the soviets with the propertied classes" (p. 182). What they wanted instead was a soviet government which was responsible only to the workers and peasants and which excluded the bourgeois parties.

Ziva Galili argues that there were two critical junctures during 1917 for entrepreneurial activity: immediately after the February Revolution when a small progressive leadership was able to engineer concessions to labour which went far towards achieving industrial harmony during the months of March and April; and then, in the turmoil of the summer, when management reverted to a less conciliatory approach. Whereas the earlier tactics produced political co-operation, the latter "both contributed to the process of social polarisation and undermined the defence of commercial-industrial interests against the effects of such polarisation" (p. 189).

Following the model of E.P. Thompson, Ronald Grigor Suny argues that, like class consciousness, nationalism was not a clear cut thing, but subjective and variable. Generally, it meant far more to intellectuals than to peasants or workers: "Neither nationalism nor a sense of class were ends in themselves for ordinary people, as they often were for intellectuals" (p.240).

Stephen F. Jones argues that the key to the success of the Georgian Mensheviks was their ability to combine national and class issues, and their appeal to all segments of the population. He draws a contrast with the Russian Menshevik organization which never got beyond the intellectuals and a few skilled workers. Georgian Menshevism was more pragmatic and determined, and even enjoyed support within such normally Bolshevik constituencies as the front-line soldiers.

Ingeborg Fleischhauer shows that the overwhelming majority of the Russian Germans were Miliukov-type Kadets and ardent supporters of the Provisional Government, especially after March 1917 when it proclaimed the equality of all Russian citizens regardless of religion or nationality.

According to Neil Harding, as of March 1917, Lenin was no more than an advocate of the democratic revolution in its most radical form. Moreover, he remained convinced that state power, rather than the building of socialism, was the priority for the present and the foreseeable future. Lenin was, therefore, less a socialist ideologue than a politician pur sang with a strong pragmatic sense for what could be done under the circumstances.

Robert Service suggests that in the last few weeks before the October Revolution Lenin backed off from his overt advocacy of civil war. Instead he presented himself as the patriotic saviour of the country against the forces of chaos and dismemberment. He also came quickly to understand that his new government was in no position to fight an immediate revolutionary war abroad, as advocated by the Left Communists and some other members of the Bolshevik leadership.

John Keep draws heavily from the fifth volume of the exhaustive Biographical Chronicle, published in the Soviet Union in 1974, to reiterate T.H. Riby's point that, during the early part of Lenin's tenure in power, the party was hardly given "a vanguard role": the Central Committee met far less frequently than the Council of People's Commissars. Neverthelss, the leadership's fundamental contempt for liberalism and civil rights encouraged the Bolshevik cadres to treat all enemies with the utmost prejudice.

D. A. Longley argues that on the question of the nature of the February Revolution, G. Katkov's old view remains closer to the truth than T. Hasegawa's, despite the latter's wealth of new detail. But basically Longley's quarrel is with the famous account of Shliapnikov which gives the most prominent role in February to the Bolsheviks. Shliapnikov's version not only became orthodoxy under Stalin, but has been accepted by many western scholars, including Shliapnikov's exclusive emphasis upon events in the Vyborg district of Petrograd.

Edward Acton's argument is that the libertarians (code for anarchists) alone believed in and respected the masses -- in short, were the true democrats. Only they were really willing to address the needs and desires of workers and peasants, as well as to acknowledge their rationality and political consciousness. In the end, however, the libertarian revolution failed because the masses lacked the discipline to resist the authoritarian ways of the Bolsheviks.

Baruch Knei-Paz believes that Lenin was influenced by Max Weber even more than by Karl Marx. Specifically, in power Lenin exemplified Weberian qualities of a "bureaucratic, rationalised intentionality ... " (p. 418). This, however, was not to be confused with Stalinism which was pure exploitation of both state and bureaucracy.

How much, then, do these essays add to our understanding of the important issues of 1917? For the most part, they represent a continuation of their authors' important ongoing revisionary efforts (much of which has already appeared elsewhere); in some instances -- notably with Getzler, Raleigh, and Suny -- they add minor dimensions to earlier works. But only the essays by Jones and Longley are really original. Otherwise, there is not much new here for the specialist, while the general and undergraduate reader will find a more suitable format in several well-known syntheses (such as those of Keep or Pipes) on the Russian Revolution. The different points of view alluded to by the editors, in fact, represent the familair Menshevik to Kadet spectrum which has dominated western historiography on the subject.
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Author:Pereira, N.G.O.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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