Que faire de 1917? Une contre-histoire de la revolution Russe, Paris: Autrement collection, 2017; 192 pp.: ISBN 2746745461, 17 [euro]
No Less than Mystic, London: Repeater Books, 2017; 654 pp.: ISBN 1910924474, 9.99 [pounds sterling] (pb)
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, London: Verso Books, 2017; 384 pp.: ISBN 1784782777, 18.99 [pounds sterling]
The iconography of the Russian Revolution is curious business. The iconographer must evince gloom for the Revolutions historical predecessor, Tsarism, then awe at its conditions of birth, the revolutions of 1905 and February 1917, followed by adulation for its first steps, the Council of People's Commissars, followed by odium at its murder in the hands of Stalinism. Generations of Leninist historians have incessantly plastered this macabre altarpiece with ink, layer after layer, typically drawing inspiration from Isaac Deutscher's revered triptych of the life of Trotsky. Three recent histories of the Revolution, all by non-professional historians, propose to dispense with these revolutionary pieties.
The first book, entitled Que faire de 1917?, is by Olivier Besancenot, the uniquely recognizable face of the French anti-capitalist Left. The second, October, is by China Mieville, a well-known science-fiction writer. And the third, No less than mystic, is by John Medhurst, writer and activist.
Besancenot sets out to answer two questions. First, was the October insurrection a revolution, or a coup? Second, was totalitarianism grafted into that revolution from the start? Conservative historiography, from Richard Pipes onward, offers affirmative answers to both questions. Besancenot disputes both affirmatives. He then offers a 'eulogy' to Soviet workers' self-management. I discuss revolution, totalitarianism, and workers' control in turn.
October: coup or revolution?
The suspenseful drama of October has been recounted innumerable times; Mieville distils it in a few pages. The facts are as follows: in October 1917, Russia is governed by a Provisional Government, comprised of bourgeois politicians, Mensheviks, and Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). It is headed by Alexander Kerensky. As the country teeters on the brink due to war and poverty, Kerensky's position looks increasingly tenuous. His only source of support is a slipknot, a noose formed by the artillery and guns and factories controlled by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. The Soviet's Executive Committee is headed by the Bolsheviks, with Leon Trotsky as chair. On the 9th of October, Trotsky creates the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), ostensibly to defend the Soviet against attack.
On the 10th of October, a secret meeting is held in Petrograd; the Bolshevik Central Committee votes for insurrection. Two weeks later, Kerensky orders troops to shut down Bolshevik newspapers. Trotsky tightens the noose: he instructs all army units loyal to the Soviet to keep Petrograd bridges down and prepare for the final showdown. On the 25th of October, the Winter Palace falls to the Bolshevik-orchestrated insurrection, with barely a shot fired. Is this a coup or a revolution?
Medhurst (2017) maintains that the Petrograd insurrection was 'carried out by a relatively small group of men with no mandate to do so', (p. 253) Furthermore, the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, meeting in Petrograd on the 26th of October, was confronted with an undemocratic fait accompli. Indeed, the Congress only ratified the insurrection after a walkout by Menshevik and SR leaders. Crucially,
the insurrection flew in the face of classical Marxist theory about a transfer of political power based on the leading role of a mature working class who were a majority of the population. From that perspective it was hardly a revolution at all. (Medhurst 2017, 254)
Medhurst is right that a Russian insurrection contradicted classical Marxism, a fact that Lenin and Trotsky never disputed. As the Menshevik leader, Julius Martov later put it, 'No less...