At the halfway point in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds, about John Reed and the Russian Revolution, Reed and his wife Louise Bryant march in a joyous candle-lit procession through the streets of Petrograd in late October 1917 and stroll into the Winter Palace as if it is already a quiet museum; all to the stirring sounds of the Internationale. It would be difficult to better encapsulate the notion that Lenin’s seizure of power was an event to celebrate and consisted in the popular overthrow of a reactionary few by the liberated masses. The following year, 1982, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book The Russian Revolution enshrined this myth by describing the Bolshevik coup against the Provisional Revolutionary Government as “the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat”. It was nothing of the kind. It was the seizure of arbitrary power by an unscrupulous coterie who let nothing stand in their way and then imposed their rule ruthlessly on the majority of the population, not least the workers and peasants.
There is a long-running and, alas, still unresolved debate about modern revolutions which typecasts them in terms of the “progressive, radical Left” and the “reactionary, counter-revolutionary Right”, with everyone in between cast as waverers or petit bourgeois opportunists. The language is Marxist-Leninist, but the dichotomy dates back to the French Revolution and it bedevils democratic politics in the West and around the world even now. We badly need to be rid of it. The Russian Revolution, even more than the French, entrenched the dichotomy in political discourse and despite all the terrors and privations caused by Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism in the decades after 1917, the pernicious dichotomy persists. It has the grievous consequence that many of those whose philosophical and political views are decidedly enlightened, responsible and moderate can be dismissed as “reactionary” or “right-wing” in the name of the most hare-brained or bigoted of causes, merely because the adherents of these causes style themselves “left-wing” or “progressive”.
If we are to get these matters tolerably clear, we need to go back again and again over the language and history of modern revolutions. One of the most enlightening observations in the literature is still Hannah Arendt’s remark, in On Revolution (1963) that:
It was the French and not the American Revolution that set the world on fire and it was consequently from the course of the French Revolution and not from the course of events in America or from the acts of the Founding Fathers that our present use of the word “revolution” received its connotations and overtones everywhere.
At a time when the American republic itself is struggling under the strains of ideological and social confrontations and when its constitutional system is being seriously tested, it is more important than ever to reflect on this. For it was the French Revolution, not the American, that gave us the polarising terms “Left” and “Right” and gave us the guillotine and the terror instead of the division of powers and the attempt, at least, to set the principles and processes of republican government on lasting foundations.
This essay appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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Hannah Arendt had, of course, come to the United States as a refugee from Nazi tyranny in Europe and appreciated the American republic’s virtues, even while being critical of its flaws and the dangers of its subversion, as she spelled out in Crises of the Republic (1973). An earlier European observer of the United States, a century before Arendt, was Alexis de Tocqueville. His classic study Democracy in America (1835) should be getting widely read right now. It was an extraordinarily perceptive piece of work and remains illuminating still, despite the immense changes that have occurred in America and the world since he wrote it. Twenty years later, he wrote his mature reflections on the French Revolution—The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). It was and remains a beautifully nuanced and perceptive reflection on the causes and course of the revolution, the ironies of history and the tragedy of the radical violence that swept France between 1789 and 1794 only to end in the establishment of Napoleon’s dictatorship.
It is a symptom of the failure of far too many scholars (and activists) to absorb the lessons drawn by Arendt and Tocqueville that Timothy Tackett, in his The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution (2015), still repeated like a mantra the tired old assertion that all “major” revolutions necessarily follow the course of the French Revolution because they involve the mobilisation and enactment of:
intense convictions that the society must and can be changed, convictions that easily breed impatience and intolerance with opposition. All revolutions engender counterrevolutionary opposition among those whose interests and values are threatened … All revolutions can be pushed in unanticipated directions through the influence of the popular masses. And it may well be that all major revolutions are beset by periods of conspiracy obsession, of intense suspicion and lack of trust, of agonizing uncertainty as to who are one’s friends and who are one’s enemies …
One cannot say that this is an “eccentric” interpretation of the French Revolution as the very model of a modern major revolution. It is, alas, the conventional interpretation and one repeated again and again by those who style themselves “progressives” and see the Jacobins and, all too often the Bolsheviks and Maoists, as the “impatient” agents of “progress”. Yet they were not. They were, in each case, political conspirators who created a form of government that was far more tyrannical than the “reactionary” governments they overthrew—something that was not true of the American Revolution.
It does not appear to have occurred to Tackett that “intense convictions that society can and must be changed” constitute a form of fanaticism and that such fanaticism is inherently unlikely to result in constructive or even durable change, much less in liberty and social peace. It is, moreover, simply untrue to assert that the so-called “major” revolutions have been the bringers of progress. Tocqueville pointed out in 1856 that the French Revolution had destroyed stability and legitimacy in France and had swept away not only much that was genuinely corrupt and decadent, but a great deal that it would have been better to maintain. The Russian Revolution did far worse, the Chinese Revolution worse again, and the nadir was surely reached in the late 1970s, when Pol Pot and his cronies inflicted an unprecedented catastrophe on Cambodia in the name of “revolution”. The Khmer Rouge founders were not only inspired by the French Revolution and its avatars, but actually taught by Stalinists and self-styled theorists of “liberation” in Paris itself. Khieu Samphan (Brother No. 5 and the Khmer Rouge head of state) actually took a PhD from the Sorbonne in 1956. Philip Short’s Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (2004) is the outstanding biography of Brother No. 1, Pol Pot.
This month being its centenary, the Russian Revolution badly needs to be put into a framework of historical and even counterfactual perspective that the “progressive Left” somehow seem never to contemplate. The great myth of the revolution is, broadly speaking, that Lenin’s “workers and peasants” overthrew the old regime, established a radical communism that was emancipatory and visionary, but were then set upon by Whites and foreign interventionists, forcing the poor innocent Reds to defend themselves, which alas led to regrettable excesses. The capitalist powers attempted to strangle the “revolution” in its cradle by denying the Bolshevik regime investment or credit or even diplomatic recognition. This was all deplorable. Stalin then pulled things together and “made the best of a bad job” by building “socialism in one country” through forced collectivisation and state-led heavy industrialisation. These things worked, even if things got nasty along the way, and Stalin was vindicated when his newly industrialised state beat off the Nazis after June 1941. He should not, therefore, be too severely criticised and those who denounce his rule are simply reactionary “Cold Warriors” who don’t “get it”.
As Sean McMeekin has laboured to point out in The Russian Revolution: A New History (Profile Books, 2017), this myth is a delusion at virtually every point. In the two decades before 1914, under the last Tsar (Nicholas II), Russia had begun to develop and industrialise rapidly. Its growth in the 1900s and early 1910s resembled that of China in recent years at 8 to 10 per cent per annum. Foreign investment was pouring in and exports were growing, railroads were being built, industries were sprouting up, oil was being discovered. That there were inequalities in this process, that there were still high levels of poverty and that the system of government was monarchical and often genuinely “reactionary” is all true. But as the Tsar’s great prime minister of order and development Peter Stolypin declared to the Russian Leftist deputies in the Duma in 1907: “You people want a great upheaval. We want a great Russia. Give me twenty-five years of peace and you will not recognise Russia!”
Stolypin was assassinated four years later. Twenty-five years after 1907, in 1932, Russia was being ground beneath the Stalinist jackboot, famine and terror stalked the country and there was no Duma, no liberal intelligentsia, no freedom of dissent. Russia had become a nightmare of despotic state-dominated “development”. The alternative had been a constitutional monarchy with a diverse legislature and thriving economic relations with the outside world—Stolypin’s great Russia.
At a time when fewer and fewer of our students elect to study serious history and those who do are often taught by ideologues of “intense conviction” like Timothy Tackett, no such understanding of the colossal tragedy of the Russian Revolution enters into the minds of the populations of the Western democracies. This needs to be corrected. But here is the thing: such correction is likely to be dismissed by all too many as merely being a “reactionary” or “right-wing” version of events. This is pernicious. It is the very problem that the Left–Right dichotomy has entrenched for about two centuries or more. It is neither “Left” nor “Right” to point out that Lenin was illiberal, that his catastrophic economic policies led to the collapse of trade, investment and industry and to an appalling famine that killed millions; that his terror killed more people by two orders of magnitude in five years than had been executed under the Tsars in the last hundred years of their rule; that he dispersed the elected Constituent Assembly and replaced it with an arbitrary dictatorship which never sought an electoral mandate and that Stalin then took all this to the next level of repressive totalitarian government. These are checkable empirical facts. The question is, What do we think about politics and “revolution” in the light of such facts?
McMeekin addresses all these matters of historical fact and others besides at book length. He expresses concern that historical ignorance and increasingly intense convictions about the “one per cent” and inequality in the context of globalisation have led various people to start talking again of Karl Marx having been “right”—which is to say “Left”, of course. He points to the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the rise of rancorous populism of various stripes and says that those who seek “revolution” ought to be careful what they wish for, since they just might get it. He means that however much the Gini co-efficient may point to rising levels of inequality and however unjust or corrupt certain practices or policies may be, there are approaches to rebellion against these things that we should not only be wise enough to avoid, but prudent and firm-minded enough to suppress if it comes to that. Had the Provisional Revolutionary Government, a century ago, been wiser and more prudent, it might have pulled together the forces that would have made it possible to suppress Bolshevism. Its failure to do so, closely analysed by McMeekin, opened the door to dreadful things.
“Ah,” one can hear the “progressives” intoning, almost in a chorus, “so you are an extreme right-wing reactionary! You actually believe Bolshevism should have been suppressed!” Others, styling themselves “realists”, will respond by saying, with an affected (or, let’s be charitable, a sincere) wearied worldliness, that Bolshevism was fated to win and that the system of government the communists built was simply “Russian” in character, since the muzhiks (Russian peasants) had only ever responded to the knout (scourging whip). It seems to me terribly important that we not settle for or succumb to such cant. Bolshevism was in no sense fated to win, and the Russia that it took over was far more civilised than it then became. We need to dwell on this, because it is the lesson we all need to imbibe and share in the interests of civilised and liberal government—here and elsewhere—in the twenty-first century. The old regime had Bolshevism well in hand before 1917. Its victory in 1917 was highly contingent and the revolutionaries it overthrew (for it overthrew the Provisional Revolutionary Government, not the old regime) were far more civilised than Lenin and his minions—as indeed the old regime itself had been.
There is a moment in David Lean’s famously romantic film Doctor Zhivago where Victor Komarovsky says to Yuri Zhivago that he admires the Bolsheviks because “they may win”. This is around Christmas 1913, eight months before the Great War began. The screenplay is by Robert Bolt and the words he put into Komarovsky’s mouth in the mid-1960s were flagrantly anachronistic and historically misleading. By 1913, the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, had Bolshevism pinned down, with Lenin and many of his leading followers in exile abroad or in Siberia. Both then and almost until the Germans shipped him to Petrograd in April 1917, with bags full of money to make mischief, Lenin himself had not believed Bolshevism could overthrow the old regime. Seeing that it had been overthrown for him, but that the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) was making every kind of tactical and political error in its inept attempt to govern, Lenin saw an opportunity to seize power. His colleagues, including Stalin, argued that this was a dubious idea, even in terms of Marxian historicism. Undeterred, he led them to an attempted putsch in July. When this did not succeed, he had another crack at it in October and this time knocked Kerensky and the PRG off their perch in Petrograd.
McMeekin’s coverage of the German gambit—using Lenin as a “catalyst of chaos” to break Russia and drive it out of the war—is a study in contingency and cynicism. Anyone who believes that the October 1917 seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was in any sense “fated” to occur, or that it was a matter of a popular uprising by the fabled “workers and peasants” needs to read McMeekin’s book. Had the PRG been willing or able to assume legitimacy from the Tsarist regime and to keep its secret police and army in working order, it could very easily have suppressed Lenin and his crew, as the old regime had done. That it was unable to do so was not a matter of “historical necessity”, but due to the fact that the PRG consisted of an unstable coalition of constitutional monarchists, liberals, socialist revolutionaries and social democrats who simply could not agree on what to do. The irony of their overthrow is that it was possible precisely because they would not act to suppress violent fanatics when they could and then found that their emasculation of the forces of order and the army made suppression impossible when the chips were really down—in October. The Bolsheviks didn’t overthrow “reactionaries”. They overthrew genuine, democratically inclined but disorganised and inexperienced revolutionaries.
This was confirmed in November 1917 when, despite the Bolshevik seizure of power and declaration that they were the government of Russia, elections for a national Constituent Assembly that the PRG had arranged went ahead. The turnout, in the circumstances of war and growing chaos, was remarkable: fully 50 per cent of eligible voters or almost 42 million people participated. The Bolsheviks, with all the advantages of “incumbency”, won 175 seats out of 707, or just under a quarter. The Socialist Revolutionaries won 410, of which the Left SRs won forty. The Bolsheviks refused to ratify the vote until “electoral abuses” could be investigated and, when the Constituent Assembly was finally convened, in the Tauride Palace, Petrograd, they derided it, then dispersed it by force. In the interim, as McMeekin points out, they declared the outright confiscation of all the savings and bullion deposits in Russia’s banks above 5000 roubles in the name of “revolution”, repudiated the country’s international debt obligations and initiated a process of unilateral disengagement from the war. By these means they effectively abolished private property, brought the economy to a halt, alienated Russia’s wartime allies and capitulated to Germany. And that was just the beginning.
In Doctor Zhivago—the film, not the novel—the voiceover of Alec Guinness, as Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf, a Bolshevik, declares as the war begins, “Our task was to organise defeat, because from defeat would come revolution and revolution meant victory for us.” But this, again, is anachronistic. As McMeekin argues in detail, the war right through to the end of 1916 was far from being the disaster for Russia that popular and “progressive” opinion has long seen it to have been. Bolshevik penetration of the ranks did not occur in any serious manner until after Lenin returned to Petrograd in April 1917 with piles of German money to spend on propaganda and agitation. German military opinion before 1914 had been that Russia was rapidly developing and was on the verge of becoming a formidable military power. The course of the war actually demonstrated this and Russia, while struggling to deal with the German military, had the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires very much on the back foot by 1916. The PRG, from February 1917, however, in the name of “revolution”, undermined the officer corps, even though it wished to prosecute the war vigorously. This was a serious error of judgment and, in combination with the German use of Lenin as a wrecking ball, opened the door to the Bolsheviks and crippled the Imperial Army as a fighting force by late 1917.
Nowhere was the ineptitude of the PRG better illustrated than in the Kornilov affair of August-September 1917, in which Alexander Kerensky mistakenly and fatefully undermined and removed from office General Lavr Kornilov, commander in chief of the Imperial Army, who might otherwise have held the Army together and protected the PRG against the Bolsheviks. Kornilov, as McMeekin points out, “represented the Russian Imperial Army at its best, ascending from the humblest of origins [with a peasant-soldier father and a Turkic mother in Kazakhstan] to the top of the officer corps on talent alone”. He was multilingual, an explorer, a scientist and a military intelligence specialist. Succumbing to fears that Kornilov was party to a “right-wing” coup plot, Kerensky had him arrested. Kerensky would later state that he believed the danger he faced was from the Right rather than the Left. He was wrong. Kornilov, after being released, would join forces with his senior colleague General Mikhail Alekseev in an attempt in 1918 to raise a force that could defeat the Bolsheviks and restore the Constituent Assembly. He died in that attempt.
McMeekin’s coverage of this matter is meticulous. This is important, because earlier accounts differ and the official Soviet view for decades was that Kornilov had been a monarchist intent on overthrowing the PRG and restoring the Tsar or becoming a dictator in his own right. This, it seems, was not the case. What Kornilov sought to do was to stiffen the resistance of the PRG to the Bolsheviks in the wake of their attempted putsch in July 1917. Kerensky, jumping at shadows, had him dismissed and arrested, which completed the demoralisation of the officer corps. In an extraordinary move, which proved fatal to his government, he had dozens of Russia’s most patriotic and professional senior officers thrown in jail and, at the same time, released from jail Leon Trotsky, who had been so instrumental in the abortive July putsch. He also abolished the very counterintelligence organisation that had conducted the investigation into the events of July and the Bolshevik use of German money. Let off the hook, the Bolsheviks proceeded to seize forty thousand rifles from a government arsenal. A month later, they overthrew the PRG and Kerensky fled from Petrograd.
None of this might matter very much had Lenin and the Bolsheviks truly been a “progressive” force, which is to say committed to a regime in which the actual, tangible well-being and civil rights of human beings mattered and in which deliberation and accountability in politics were to be institutionalised. Had they been so inclined, they might have left us the Russian equivalent of the Federalist Papers, debating how best to achieve these things in a country that had been heavily damaged and traumatised by the Great War. They would, surely, have sought to form a coalition with the PRG liberals, socialists and others, perhaps with the Socialist Revolutionaries who had an actual majority anyway (370 out of just over 700 seats) and campaigned for greater support in the years that followed among a newly enfranchised Russian public. Or they might have accepted minority status in the Constituent Assembly, adopting the role of a loyal opposition. Kerensky bent over backwards to leave this path open to them. They did not take that path. They took power and within six weeks (on December 7, 1917) Lenin created the Cheka—the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage. Counterrevolution, it soon became apparent, meant everything from seeking to defend one’s private property to being a Socialist Revolutionary, never mind a liberal, a monarchist or for that matter an anarchist.
Would it have been an extreme reactionary right-wing thing to have suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 and prevented them from ever taking power? To have prevented, therefore, the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, the creation of the Cheka, the unleashing of civil war and the Red Terror, the abolition of private property by decree and the collapse of the Russian economy, the armed confiscations of grain from the peasants and the consequent famine and epidemic which took an estimated five million lives? Would the restoration of some form of constitutional monarchy or fledgling democracy that put Russia more or less back on the path of growth and liberalisation envisaged by Peter Stolypin in 1907 have been “right-wing”? Would a regime that was based on private property, trade and the rule of law, with considerable civil liberties and freedom of the press have been “right-wing”, compared with what emerged in monstrous form in the 1920s and 1930s, under first Lenin and then Stalin? Are there not, to say the least, numerous gradations of political constitution and opinion between what actually happened and being an outright reactionary?
Of course there are. That is the whole meaning of an open society—the ideal of the modern liberal. It was in order to make this clear and defend the idea of such an open society against Leninism that, dare I say it, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was set up and Quadrant founded under its auspices, in the 1950s. If public policy and related matters are to be discussed in a constructive and intelligent manner, it is necessary that there be voices that cover a wide spectrum of opinion. In any matter of significance, this is rather likely to be the case. Attempts to prevent the expression of such diverse opinions in the name of a “truth” proclaimed by some party or other of, shall we say, “intense convictions” intrudes on intelligent and civilised discourse. What this means is that a liberal constitution requires the defence of a number of civil and political liberties. The American Constitution was an attempt to define and institutionalise those liberties. Leninism systematically and violently abolished them. They are, in our time, under attack from many quarters—as the current trial of Jiang Tianyong in China testifies, even in the wake of the death in jail of Liu Xiaobo—and must be defended by all means.
It has been estimated that the average longevity of creative individuals—novelists, poets, artists, composers—who left Russia to escape Bolshevism was seventy-two, while that of those who stayed behind was forty-five. Vitaly Shentalinsky’s Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime (1996) is the classic account. Among the many who fled after October 1917 were the Nabokovs. Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (2013) tells the story exquisitely and poignantly. Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the father of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, was a leading liberal political figure in Russia in the years before war and revolution threw it into chaos. He worked for democratisation, argued against the death penalty and in favour of liberalisation of laws against homosexuality. He was threatened by monarchists before 1917 and by the Bolsheviks both then and after 1917. He was a senior member of the PRG. His property was seized by the Bolsheviks after October 1917 and he was driven into exile, only to be assassinated in Berlin by a monarchist. His son’s novels are haunted by this and what followed.
The creation of the Cheka was the signature of the Bolshevik “revolution”. It led almost at once to the creation of what would become the notorious Gulag Archipelago. We now have good histories of the Gulag, notably those by Anne Applebaum and Oleg Khlevniuk. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (2003) and her Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–56 (2012) should be core reading in a mandatory course in modern history and the nature of political liberty at our universities. Her Epilogue to the book on the Gulag is poignant in drawing attention to the fact that there seems to be a pervasive amnesia about the matter—wilful in Putin’s Russia, neglectful in the West. Putin has long openly called himself a Chekist and still honours the Soviet and KGB past. Unless that past is understood in the West, the myth will persist that the Cold War was somehow due to an unjustified paranoia about communism and that the communist revolutions were, in fact, “progressive”, so that efforts to prevent or contain them were unjustified and merely “reactionary”.
McMeekin argues that the total number of people executed in Tsarist Russia between the reigns of Nicholas I (1825–39) and Nicholas II (1894–1917) was about six and a half thousand, including both criminal and political executions. That figure might be contested, but it is almost certainly close to the right order of magnitude, as Russia was, paradoxically, at the forefront in civilising penal codes in the nineteenth century. In the first five years of Lenin’s rule (until he was cut down by strokes), with the Cheka under his direct control, it has been estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 people were executed on political grounds without anything resembling the kind of trial most of those executed under the Tsars had received. In an Appendix to her history of the Gulag, Anne Applebaum addressed the question of how many people died unnecessarily as a consequence of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a scrupulous and sobering attempt to reckon with a grim and controversial subject. Rather than being simply an appendix to a book, it might well serve as the introductory text for a course, provoking students to inquire into sources, methods and meanings.
Timothy Tackett seems prepared to accept that “intense convictions” are a reasonable explanation and even excuse for political terror. He would not agree that this held in the case of the Nazis, but he appears to suggest that it did do so in the case of the French Revolution and other “major” revolutions. Yet what those revolutions wrought was political regression of the worst kind. Education in their malformation of Russian, Chinese and Cambodian (or Ethiopian and from 1979 Iranian) society ought be part of a core curriculum in the West. There should be a mantra among all of us that says of this history, as of the Holocaust, “Never again! Never again!” Whatever our differences of opinion, we should be united in our commitment to civil liberties, constitutional checks on the abuse of power and willingness to defend these things against those who are programmatically committed to destroying them. For there are such parties or organisations still, and well-ordered liberty is far from being the natural or default setting of human societies. It requires informed, principled and active exercise to maintain. The centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état is a good time to reflect on all this.
Paul Monk is the author of Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005), The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (2009) and Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990–2015 (2015). His latest book, The Secret Gospel According to Mark, will be published late this year.