www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008

Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution?

A defense of the Bolshevik Revolution


TEN YEARS ago1 Eric Hobsbawm presented his Deutscher Lecture on “Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution?”2 A lifelong Marxist and author of the groundbreaking series on capitalist development in the nineteenth century, Hobsbawm’s credentials as the preeminent Marxist historian of our time are unrivalled.3 In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a balance-sheet appraisal on the definitive social movement of the twentieth century by Hobsbawm was quite appropriate.

As I will argue tonight, however, some of the opinions that Hobsbawm articulated are less than convincing. The point here is not to concentrate on Hobsbawm the historian, but, rather, to reexamine a set of propositions that I believe reflected the somewhat inconsistent perspective on the Russian Revolution by a much wider audience on the Left after the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many of these arguments still resonate today. Given that the archives of the former Soviet Union have now been open for some sixteen years, I would like to address some of the issues raised by Hobsbawm, to place this discussion within the much wider historiographical trends on the Russian Revolution, and also to engage in some unabashed self-promotion of my own work.

In framing his discussion on the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm makes several points that I believe we can all agree on. First, his tribute to Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy of Trotsky immediately answers the question yes, it is possible to write the history of the Russian Revolution, although any definitive history on such a politically charged subject is, as Hobsbawm suggests, problematic.4 I would add that other classic Marxist accounts of the Russian Revolution cannot go unmentioned. As a synthesis of the class forces involved in 1917, Leon Trotsky’s epic masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution remains unsurpassed.5 Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution is still the definitive work on the immediate counterrevolutionary attack on Soviet power.6 If we are to understand the Russian Revolution in its broader European context, then we must include Pierre Broué’s masterful study of the German Revolution.7 Ernest Mandel’s writings on Trotsky and Stalinism, and Tony Cliff’s works on Lenin, Trotsky, and the class character of the Stalinist system remain essential reading for any student of the revolution.8

The list of classic Marxist accounts on the Russian revolutionary era is obviously much longer than this, but the point here is that we are not starting from scratch. We stand on the shoulders of a very rich tradition that, in my opinion, despite sixteen years of archival access, has yet to be equaled by the academy. With all due respect to Eric Hobsbawm, I would also suggest that, were he more familiar with this tradition, he would have made fewer concessions to the renewed hostility to the Russian Revolution that again pervades the historiography.

Second, Hobsbawm argued that the opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union should recast our understanding of Soviet society. “Much of what actually happened can now be known,” because information “previously hidden behind locked archive doors and barricades of official lies and half truths” is finally available. He logically asserts that when “better or more complete data are available, they must take the place of poor or incomplete ones.”9 Unfortunately, the issue is much more complicated with the Russian Revolution. As I will argue tonight, if it were simply a question of sources, the standard textbook interpretation of the Russian Revolution would be moving to the left, towards the classical Marxist account, but, instead, we see just the opposite—a historiography shifting to the right and the repackaging of old arguments that often contradict the sources that they are based on.

The defects in the dominant academic interpretation of the Russian Revolution at any given time over the past half century or so have never been primarily due to a lack of access to sources; more important by far has been the question of political perspective. Revolutions inevitably invoke partisanship. Trotsky famously ridiculed historians who feigned neutrality by “climbing out on the wall dividing two camps.”10 Hobsbawm, on the other hand, argues, “It is of course patent that it will take a long time before the passions of those who write the history of the USSR will have cooled down to the tepid temperature of those who nowadays write the history of the Protestant Reformation.”11 This analogy with the Reformation, it seems to me, is quite faulty. Here Hobsbawm has underestimated the driving forces behind the standard academic interpretations of the Russian Revolution and the extent to which the Marxist interpretation, quite deliberately, has been marginalized.

Russian studies first emerged in the United States as a stepchild of the Cold War, and shared much in common with its Soviet state-sponsored counterpart. The Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) helped set up the main academic research institutions. To construct a usable past, scholars simply redeployed the totalitarian paradigm, which had been popularized in the confrontation with the Nazi regime, against their former ally and new adversary—the Soviet Union.12 Cold War Western scholarship was dominated by what Stephen Cohen has aptly termed the “continuity thesis,” which posited an uncomplicated, natural evolution from early Bolshevik organizational practice to the gulags. These accounts typically began by holding up Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? as an embryonic dictatorial blueprint, fully developed well before the revolution. From here it was but a short step to the assertion that a conspiratorial minority of Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 through a military coup, monopolized the state for its own purposes, and, through brute force and terror, created the totalitarian party-state.13

Now, of course, the Cold War textbook version of the “continuity thesis,” that Lenin led to Stalin, did not go unchallenged. The social movements of the 1960s inspired a generation of historians to study history “from below,” in which they attempted to reconstruct the actions and aspirations of those previously written out of history. In no area did this new social history produce a more thorough revision than in the contested field of Russian studies. Over the course of the decade, a talented group of historians proved beyond doubt what many Marxists had long argued—that the transfer of power to the soviets in 1917 was the culmination of a massive popular rebellion. The audacious scholarship of social historians of the Russian Revolution, such as Alexander Rabinowitch and Steve Smith, not only challenged, but ultimately dislodged the totalitarian school.14

Western scholarship that challenged the Cold War interpretation of early Soviet society, however, was, for two reasons, much more speculative and problematic. First, primary source materials that were available for the revolutionary period remained largely inaccessible for the Soviet period. Second, the ideological outlook of some scholars accepted the dualistic framework imposed by the Cold War. Partially influenced by Stalinism in its various incarnations, but also as a simplistic response to the Western propaganda history, these scholars bent too far in the other direction, making absurd and unsubstantiated claims about the popular roots of Stalinism. Whatever shortcomings these academics might have exhibited as historians, however, they were quite skilled at marketing their scholarship. The notion that Stalinism was able to draw on considerable working-class support became, as one industrial expert asserted a decade ago, “an increasingly accepted view.”15

Several factors have shaped the academic study of the Russian Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and offset the advantages of unprecedented archival access. First, the emergence of the United States as the preeminent world power after the Cold War inevitably encouraged a shift to the right in the historiography as part of a broader political trend. For many Western scholars, the collapse of the Soviet Union acted as a catalyst for misplaced confidence and renewed strident anticommunism. If the political climate of the times influences the assessment of the most politically charged event of the twentieth century, as I believe it must, then the rightward shift of American politics also influenced the historiography. It was not that conservatives in the field managed to reassert themselves, but, rather, the political and moral collapse of American liberalism blurred the line between conservative and liberal experts on the Russian Revolution. When Richard Pipes published his magnum opus on the revolution just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the American historian Peter Kenez spoke for a still very lively liberal tradition within the field when he ridiculed Pipes for “prosecuting” the Russian Revolution.16 A generation ago some of these liberal historians even toyed with Marxism, but they now lead the charge for the reemergence of the continuity thesis.

The other negative impact on the historiography can be attributed to the pervasive influence of postmodernism, which has served to provide a veneer of sophistication for the work of some extremely confused historians. As I detail in the introduction to Revolution and Counterrevolution, postmodernism has also encouraged a shortcut, smoke-and-mirrors approach to research over a systematic, comprehensive analysis of the sources.17 In short, what should be an exciting time for scholarly advancement of the study of the Russian Revolution has largely been squandered. Condemnation and prosecution of the Russian Revolution as an ill-fated endeavor has reasserted itself in the field over the past sixteen years. Yet what is striking in such studies as Orlando Figes’ The Russian Tragedy, a book applauded by Hobsbawm as an excellent study, is the paucity of new evidence marshaled in support of such arguments.18

Perhaps no book pinpoints the fundamental flaws in Western studies of the revolutionary era better than Lars Lih’s recent Lenin Rediscovered—What Is to Be Done? in Context. As Lih argues, the standard textbook rendering of What Is to Be Done? presents it as the supposed first link in the repressive Bolshevik chain that eventually led to Stalinism.19 So widespread is this myth that even George Bush added it to his repertoire a few months ago when he argued:

In the early 1900s, an exiled lawyer in Europe published a pamphlet called What Is to Be Done? in which he laid out his plan to launch a communist revolution in Russia. The world did not heed Lenin’s words, and paid a terrible price.20

Lih systematically debunks the standard textbook account of What Is to Be Done? and proves that the most steadfast champion of political liberty in the Russian revolutionary movement was none other than V.I. Lenin. Lih comments on the historiography, “One sometimes gets the impression that the real split within the party was between the faction of Decent and Attractive Individuals vs. the faction of Amoral and Fanatical Thugs.”21 For those with the perseverance to read through this groundbreaking book, there is only one explanation for the ubiquitous hatchet job on Lenin—the academic experts, a veritable who’s who of heavyweights in the field, never even bothered to read Lenin systematically in their haste to demonize him.

Both the social historians of the 1970s and the Marxist tradition have rightly focused their attention on the mass revolts of 1905 and 1917: workers learning through conflict with their employers, the strike movements, the formation of soviets, factory committees, and so on. Where Marxists have differed with social historians is on the question of agency. As John Marot has convincingly argued, liberal social historians have tended to underestimate the role of revolutionaries, particularly the Bolsheviks, as an integral part of this radicalization.22 In fact, we now know that during the most prolonged political strike movement in world history, from 1912 to 1916, all of the contemporary protagonists recognized the role of revolutionaries in the thirty actions over such issues as the murder of Lena goldfield workers and the proroguing of the Duma. What I found is that the catalytic role of revolutionaries determined not just whether specific factories but even whether particular shops participated in these strikes. The argument for political industrial action had to be won on the shop floor. As one report to the Okhrana (the tsarist secret police) demanded, “Find the ones in the factory who are the worst scoundrels and set the tone for the others.” The worst scoundrels turned out to be worker Bolsheviks and, after their arrest, the Socialist Revolutionaries.23

But we should not just view militant workers as mere victims in this inspiring movement. The revolutionary ranks were constantly refreshed, despite regular rounds of Okhrana arrests and sending militant workers to the war front. The harsh measures enacted by management and the Okhrana actually fostered better labor organization—workers elected representatives and put forward demands in unison to avoid victimization. What I also found interesting in the Moscow metal works is that the various divisions in the workplace, based on skill, gender, and age, were overcome in this process, even before the 1917 revolt. Indeed, the issue that led to the ultimate confrontation with the factory owner, Iulii Guzhon, was the workers’ demand to raise the minimum wage rates of the less skilled apprentices and female workers. This prompted the war-profiteering Guzhon to threaten to close the plant, as the demand for minimum pay in his view was “anti-state and anti-democratic because it creates a privileged class of people that is guaranteed its means of existence at the expense of other classes of the population.”24

Now, aside from a small and shrinking milieu of cold warriors, few historians today would attempt to turn the clock back and completely ignore the important contributions of the social historians. As Hobsbawm argues, “We can say, beyond serious doubt, that in the autumn of 1917 an enormous popular radicalization, of which the Bolsheviks were the main beneficiaries, swept the provisional government aside,” and he goes on to say, “The idea that October was nothing more than some sort of conspiratorial coup simply won’t stand up.”25

Yet Hobsbawm’s own ambivalence over October is expressed in a series of “counterfactuals” or “what if?” questions. In this sense, he is very much in line with the prevailing historiography today when he asks “Could the October Revolution have been avoided? What might have happened if the Bolsheviks had not decided to take over, or had been willing to take over at the head of a broad coalition with the other socialist and socialist-revolutionary parties?” Hobsbawm argues, “That it would have been better if a democratic Russia had emerged from the revolution is something about which most people would agree.”26

This ambivalence about October continues to dominate the field—for many historians, October does not measure up to what they believe a genuine proletarian revolution should have looked like. That stridently anti-Marxist historians would have such a keen understanding of what a genuine revolution should look like might sound a bit odd; but let us suppose that this is the case. If you read Philip Foner’s fascinating account of the immediate impact of the Russian Revolution on American politics, you find that, for anyone even slightly to the left of center, the Russian Revolution was a fantastic beacon of hope and inspiration. For example, at a mass rally at Parkview Palace in New York City, 500 workers volunteered to join a Red Guard to defend the Soviet Union against the German invasion, while hundreds of working women threw their jewelry on the stage to give their support to the revolution.27 But perhaps these workers had been deceived. When Lloyd George lamented that “the whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution” maybe the European workers who were joining the communist parties in their hundreds of thousands should also have been better informed about the impure nature of the Russian Revolution.28 Perhaps the academic experts are correct, that they have a better understanding about what a genuine revolution should look like and why the Russian Revolution does not meet these standards. But, surely, if that were the case, they could enlighten us with some previously unknown details about October.

Actually, nothing new has been discovered to challenge what we know, or should know, about October. We do know that 507 of 670 delegates who arrived at the Second Congress of Soviets favored a transfer of power to the soviets and that almost all of those who walked out were among the 163 minority delegates who were against soviet power in the first place.29 The argument about the use of force is a red herring today as it was in 1917. Nothing in the record of Right Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks before, during, or after the Second Congress indicates that they were in any way inclined to support soviet power had only the Bolsheviks avoided the use of force—something the moderate socialists themselves were not averse to in their efforts to overthrow the Soviet regime. Obviously, a double standard is invoked here—the same historians who are so upset that the Bolsheviks used their dominant position in the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee to overthrow the Provisional Government and hand political power to the Congress of Soviets are also conspicuously silent on the military machinations of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).

Given the liberal parties’ strident antirevolutionary record throughout 1917, Hobsbawm rightly dismisses the Kadets30 as champions of democracy, noting that even liberal historians cannot argue with much conviction that a democratic parliamentary Russia was much of a possibility.31 That was undoubtedly true ten years ago, but Mark Steinberg, the current editor of Slavic Review, recently made an incredible attempt to resuscitate the long dead Kadets, arguing that the liberals, inspired by “noble political dreams and practical political courage,” attempted “to construct a new democratic polity.” Ultimately, these democratic efforts were thwarted by the authoritarianism of the Leninists, which “was little known or understood outside a small circle of activists.”32

Hobsbawm’s notion of the possibility of “a broad coalition with other socialists” is a more serious but ultimately flawed proposition. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not averse to conciliation with the Mensheviks and SRs, but on what basis? So disgraced were the Kadets by their compliance in the attempted Kornilov coup that Lenin proposed a peaceful transfer of power to the soviets—if the moderate socialists were willing to draw the lessons of the previous six months and break with the discredited ruling-class parties. In fact, the Second Congress of Soviets unanimously voted to form such a coalition government of parties represented in the soviets, but the minority socialists then immediately chose to ignore the resolution that they had just voted for, denounced the Bolsheviks for overthrowing the Provisional Government, and stormed out of the congress. Alexander Rabinowitch argues that, during the November discussions, the Mensheviks and Right SRs displayed little interest in coming to terms with the Bolshevik regime, or, as Victor Serge argues, they demanded total capitulation on the part of the victors.33

In short, the class divide of 1917 emphasized in the Marxist classics by Trotsky, Serge, and others is simply ignored by Hobsbawm and by liberal historians today. In the United States a veritable academic cottage industry continues to perpetuate the myth of Mensheviks and SRs as advocates of socialist democracy. Here new archival sources are not necessary, but rather a simple reminder of the actions of the Mensheviks and SRs. Victor Serge recounts how, after walking out of the Second Congress of Soviets, the Right SRs and Mensheviks immediately united with the Kadets and industrial magnates to form the Committee of Public Safety, which openly appealed to troops to overthrow soviet power; but not one regiment heeded their call. The Right SRs, headed by Abraham Gotz and supported by the Mensheviks, then attempted to organize the failed “junker mutiny” in an unseemly alliance of monarchists, military officers, and anti-soviet socialists. A few weeks later the Right SRs offered military assistance to the Cossack warlord and future Nazi collaborator Petr Krasnov who was marching on Petrograd. The Menshevik Dan later admitted that they had hoped that the Bolsheviks could be “liquidated by force of arms.” Serge comments, “Nothing is more tragic at this juncture than the moral collapse of the two great parties of democratic socialism.”34 So no new sources will change the fact that, at one of the most decisive moments in working-class history, the Mensheviks and Right SRs walked out of the democratically elected assembly that represented the Russian masses, and joined the forces of reaction.

Indeed, the unprincipled tactics of the Right SRs and Mensheviks ultimately did lead to a socialist coalition government with the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs. The myth of the Right SR electoral victory could by now be put to rest, were it not for the role it plays in anti-Bolshevik propaganda. As Oliver Radkey, the historian of the Constituent Assembly election, shows, the election ballots unduly favored the Right SRs, who were neither socialist nor revolutionary but had become “Kadets without admitting it.”35 Additionally, we now know that, in the three areas that distinguished between Left and Right SRs, the Left SRs won overwhelming, by a margin of more than two to one in the Baltic Fleet, by nine to one in Kazan, and by thrity-two to one in Petrograd.36 A recent study of Saratov province has shown that peasants there complained that they had voted for the SRs under duress and wanted to have their votes changed to the Bolsheviks because of the party’s land decree.37 Now, unless one wants to believe that the peasantry, in mass rebellion against the landlords, were actually simultaneously voting to hand power back to the Kadets in SR clothing, the conclusion, it seems to me, is inescapable: the Bolshevik 25 percent and Left SR majority of the SR 40 percent vote, combined to win the popular vote.

But, for Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was a mistake. He asks, “What made the Bolsheviks decide to take power with an obviously unrealistic program of socialist revolution?” Why was the Bolshevik program unrealistic? He alludes to what he calls the “myth” of the German Revolution that failed to come to the aid of the Russian Revolution as the Bolsheviks had hoped. Hobsbawm recalls that, “My generation was brought up on the story of the betrayal of the German Revolution of 1918,” but, according to Hobsbawm:

Germany did not belong to the revolutionary sector of Europe…. A German October Revolution, or anything like it, was not seriously on and therefore didn’t have to be betrayed.38

I believe that Pierre Broué’s magnificent study of the German Revolution more than adequately refutes this notion of the German Revolution as “myth.”

On the civil war, Hobsbawm agrees with Orlando Figes’ claim that the Bolsheviks won because they fought under the red flag, however misleading, in the name of the soviets.39 Unfortunately, Hobsbawm does not address the issue of the origins of the civil war. For Marxists, the civil war was a continuation of the class war that had started in February. Throughout 1917 the far Right and liberals repeatedly made clear that brute force was their class solution to the rebellion. Yet the usual textbook version accuses the Bolsheviks of fighting dirty and asserts that the civil war started with the soviet seizure of power or the closing of the Constituent Assembly in January.

In my opinion, the most important revelation from the archives was found not in the former Soviet Union, but rather in the archives of President Wilson and his staff. David Foglesong’s book, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, shows that, just a few weeks after the October Revolution, the U.S. started funneling massive amounts of cash to White forces hostile to soviet power. While publicly claiming that the U.S. was attempting to promote democracy in Russia, privately Secretary of State Robert Lansing had convinced President Wilson that continuing the war efforts on the Eastern Front necessitated establishing a stable Russian government through a “military dictatorship.” Over the course of the next several years the U.S. would funnel tens of millions of dollars to anti-Semitic Cossack warlords in an attempt to install such a military dictatorship amenable to U.S. interests.40 What has to be underscored here is that Russian experts know about all this—but I have yet to find a single reference in any academic study of the Russian Revolution that mentions it, even in a study that focuses exclusively on the Don Cossacks.41

Marxists must insist that the massive U.S., British, and French military aid to the White armies is the starting point for any honest discussion about the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Without such support, right from the beginning, the White armies would never have gotten off the ground. We now know that Trotsky’s claim that the White armies were largely mercenary armies created by Western imperialism was quite accurate. Of course, we know that the U.S., Britain, France, and their allies also sent tens of thousands of soldiers into Soviet territory. Winston Churchill described these troops as the “lynchpin” that held the anti-Bolshevik forces together. We also know that, once Western aid to the Whites came to end in late 1919, the civil war also quickly came to an end.42

In the aftermath of the civil war, Hobsbawm claims, “The Russian Revolution was destined to build socialism in one backward and soon utterly ruined country.”43 It is indisputable that the economy was indeed ruined, but building socialism in such a context was problematic to say the least. For the Marxist tradition, this social and economic catastrophe, rather than ideologically-driven policies, provided the material basis for Stalinism to emerge.

There is no doubt that the New Economic Policy era, from 1921 to 1928, saw the demise of both soviet and party democracy. Yet this demise was not preordained or linear. Even after the SR trial in 1922, members of this organization, which had tried to organize a military coup and assassinate Lenin, spoke freely in the Hammer and Sickle factory and ran candidates for the Moscow soviet. In the 1923 faction fight, Bolshevik central committee members from both the majority and minority argued their respective positions in front of the factory cell. By 1926 party democracy, however, was a sham. The Hammer and Sickle vote was typical, with over 400 votes for the expulsion and only two votes against. Yet the hounding of oppositionists and anonymous notes to the speaker show that this was a stage-managed affair. Sixteen of seventeen anonymous notes at the expulsion meeting were either hostile to the Politburo line or wanted a hearing for the oppositionists.44

The silencing of the opposition coincided with the attempt to convert the factory party organization into an institution that would impose economic concessions and attempt to discipline the workforce. Yet open dissent within the trade unions outlived that in the party. At a union conference in 1926 a Hammer and Sickle worker complained, “The trust administration drive around in automobiles, while cutting costs is done on the backs of workers. They trick and screw the peasants and this is what is called the smychka [the union between workers and peasants].” Even in September 1927 the party could not silence dissent outside its own ranks. One report complained that the cell was in complete shambles, “The ideological situation in our cell is bad. There are incidents of drunken communists. Workers torment communists and their activity, but they remain silent. We have no group or individual agitation.”

For historians intent on connecting the dots between 1917 and Stalinism, the NEP [New Economic Policy] presents a major problem. What I tried to illustrate in my study of the Hammer and Sickle factory is that the ideals of 1917 eventually clashed with ascending Stalinism on the shop floor. Yet there was also a very vibrant, active, and relatively tolerant life in the factories that was very different from the coercion of the first five-year plan. During the NEP dissident voices outside the party ranks could be heard; workers could and did practice religion in the shops. The majority of working women regularly attended women’s meetings because these sessions provided a forum in which their grievances could be heard and acted upon. Most workers were active participants in the metal workers’ union and rightfully expected their representatives to respond favorably to their concerns, submitting more than 13,000 grievances in 1924 and 1925, the majority resolved in favor of the workers. Far from being a state institution deployed against the working class, as it would later become, workers themselves viewed the union organization as an effective source of power. So strong was the union organization in 1925 that the factory director later wrote that trade-union deputies—rather than managers—held real power in the shops.45

Despite the economic catastrophe of seven years of war, workers received real wage increases that approximated their prewar levels by 1926. In short, evidence from the archives now proves that, for much of the NEP, political considerations—a pro-working-class policy in industry—took precedence over economic expediency. Diane Koenker found similar evidence of strong union organization in her recent study of print workers. According to Koenker, print workers during the mid-NEP held control “in four key areas in relations with supervisors, issues of discipline, methods of pay, and consultation over the work process.”46 I would suggest that this is a description of a system very different from capitalism.

This is also a very different assessment of industrial relations during the NEP than what Koenker claimed a decade ago when she argued that the socialism that emerged from the civil war “relied on the power of the state agencies—the Cheka [Soviet secret police] and the concentration camp—to ensure adherence to its centrally defined goals and policies.”47 As a litmus test for judging a society, incarceration rates, along with mass terror, might be useful barometers, but American scholars might want to think through the logic of using such a yardstick on a consistent basis. In point of fact, we know that the early Soviet state incarcerated very few workers and a relatively small number of its citizens. Recently published GPU [Soviet intelligence agency] summaries, from 1922 to 1928, report more than 3,000 strikes but mention only six incidents in which authorities arrested striking workers. The entire Soviet prison population only exceeded 100,000 in 1925, with a tiny minority imprisoned for political offences.48 In her Pulitzer Prize winning study of the gulags, Anne Applebaum reluctantly acknowledges that by the end of 1927 only 300,000 Soviet citizens were incarcerated and political prisoners received special privileged status until 1925. Only in the 1930s was their status reduced to one inferior to that of common criminals.49 Oleg Khlevniuk’s more systematic study of the gulags begins in 1929, because, he notes, “the Stalinist penal system was formed and entrenched during the 1930s—more precisely between 1929 and 1941.”50

The most exciting area of scholarly research today on early Soviet society is the study of national minorities. Terry Martin makes the following bold comment:

The Soviet Union was the world’s first Affirmative Action Empire. Russia’s new revolutionary government was the first of the old European multiethnic states to confront the rising tide of nationalism and respond by systematically promoting the national consciousness of ethnic minorities.51

Unfortunately, Martin fails to adequately delineate between the early Soviet support for non-Russian nationalities and Stalin’s more ruthless national policies.

We know that the relative tolerance of the NEP was reversed during the first five-year plan. In the factories real wages were cut in half, while workers were forced to labor for much longer hours, factory committees that had previously defended their constituents were transformed into management productivity organs, and open dissent was ruthlessly silenced. While state agents did arrest workers, Stalinism’s weapon of choice against the working class was, as the leading historian on Soviet labor, Donald Filtzer, argued long ago, the strategic use of food as a weapon to coerce workers into joining various productivity campaigns.52 Thanks to Jeffery Rossman’s study of Ivanovo textile workers, we also know that there were areas of stiff resistance to the state offensive against the working class, but this was the exception rather than the norm.53 Recently published top-secret GPU reports show that smoldering but unorganized hatred against the draconian Stalinist labor policies reverberated throughout the Soviet Union. Lynne Viola’s study of collectivization shows that the situation was even more volatile in the countryside. In 1930 alone there were 13,754 mass disturbances of armed resistance in which two-and-a-half million peasants fought pitched battles with state agents sent to organize collective farms.54

So, if we look at evidence from what has emerged from the archives and from sources that were available long ago, we see a vast discrepancy between the data and the direction of the historiography. What Is to Be Done? was not an anti-democratic declaration for a hierarchal organization but a document that advocated political freedom and a practical way of attaining it. The Bolsheviks did not usurp power but provided leadership for a massive popular revolt that supported soviet power. The Civil War was not manufactured by the Bolsheviks but was a continuation of the class conflict of 1917 and only escalated because of the active intervention of the Western powers. Despite the utter devastation of seven years of war and civil war, Soviet citizens could openly criticize the regime; they had the right to practice their religion; workers continued to have considerable control in the factories; 700,000 women participated in the proletarian women’s movement; the regime enacted favorable policies for national minorities, and the peasantry, for the most part, was left alone. All of this changed, of course, during the first five-year plan, when coercion and repression supplanted tolerance and persuasion in every aspect of Soviet society.

Many historians might acknowledge some of the details on these issues, yet there persists, for ideological reasons, a profound resistance against drawing the conclusion that early Soviet society was fundamentally different from later Stalinism. The new A History of Russia textbook by Georgetown University scholars, for example, argues:

In terms of cultural flowering there was a notable divergence between the NEP and the following two and a half decades of blood-soaked Stalinism…yet, some of the horrors to come—show trials, camps, and executions of innocent people—were already in place. The structure of the Soviet system with its rule by party and ideology was well established before Stalin achieved full power, and that ideology looked forward to collectivization and the full realization of socialism and communism.55

It should not shock us that Western historians are once again trying to connect the dots between 1917 and Stalinism. The ideologically selective recounting of the revolutionary era is no accident. But the rightward shift in the historiography could not have happened without the relative weakness of the Left that failed to meet the challenge. I would suggest that our isolation from the mainstream arguments is, in part, our own fault. The number of Marxist historians of the Russian Revolution is tiny—many of us are in this room tonight. I would propose that we take the initial steps to organize a Marxist historians’ group on the Russian Revolution, to promote discussion on the problematic areas of the revolution but also to engage and challenge the prevailing trends in the field. A new generation of activists inevitably will start to ask questions about the Russian Revolution. We cannot concede this history to the anti-communists. But again we are not starting from scratch. We stand on the shoulders of a very rich tradition that, despite sixteen years of archival access, has yet to be equaled by the academy.

Kevin Murphy is author of Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Haymarket Books, 2007), which won the 2006 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

1 This Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize Lecture, originally entitled “Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution,” was delivered in London, November 2006.The prize was awarded for Kevin Murphy’s book, Revolution and Counterrevolution Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Murphy, 2005; Haymarket Books, 2007). First published in Historical Materialism (Netherlands) journal where it was first published in Vol. 15 , Issue 2, 2007. Reprinted with permission from BRILL, Netherlands.
2 Hobsbawm, 1997, 241–52.
3 Hobsbawm, 1962, 1975, and 1987.
4 Hobsbawm, 1997, 241.
5 Trotsky, 1932.
6 Serge, 1992.
7 Broué, 2006.
8 See Mandel, 1978, 1979, and 1995; and Cliff, 1955, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1993.
9 Hobsbawm, 1997, 242.
10 Trotsky, 1932, xxi.
11 Hobsbawm, 1997, 242.
12 Novick, 1988, 281–319.
13 Cohen, 1985.
14 See Rabinowitch, 1976, and Smith, 1983.
15 Shearer, 1996, 14.
16 See Pipes, 1990, and Kenez, 1991.
17 Murphy, 2005, 2–4.
18 See Figes, 1996, and Hobsbawm, 1997, 250.
19 Lih, 2006.
20 Washington Post, September 5, 2006.
21 Lih, 2006, 439.
22 Marot, 1994.
23 Murphy, 2005, chapter 1.
24 Murphy, 2005, chapter 2.
25 Hobsbawm, 1997, 244.
26 Hobsbawm, 1997, 242–43, 248–49.
27 Foner, 1967, 82.
28 Rees, 1997, 14.
29 Rabinowitch, 1976, 291–92.
30 The Kadets were a pro-capitalist liberal party.
31 Hobsbawm, 1997, 246.
32 Steinberg, 2001, 42, 258.
33 Rabinowitch, 1976, 96.
34 Serge, 1992, 79–106.
35 Radkey, 1963, 469, 301.
36 Gusev, 1975, 336-338.
37 Raleigh, 2002, 46.
38 Hobsbawm, 1997, 246–48.
39 Hobsbawm, 1997, 250.
40 Foglesong, 1995, 87, 104. From May to December 1919 alone, the U.S. supplied $16,000,000 in arms and other materials to the White armies.
41 Holquist, 2002.
42 Lincoln, 1989, 281.
43 Hobsbawm, 1997, 248.
44 Murphy, 2005, chapter 5.
45 Murphy, 2005, chapter 3.
46 Koenker, 2005, 141.
47 Koenker, 1994, 192.
48 Rogovin, 1993, 10. These figures are consistent with Obshchestvo Memorial Sistema ispravitel’no trudovykh lagerie v SSSR, Spravochnik, 1998, 17, which states there were 200,000 prisoners in the middle of 1927. Getty and Naumov, 1999, 588, found records that prove that the annual number of GPU, OGPU, and NKVD convictions from 1922 to 1926 were low 6,003, 4,794, 12,425, 15,995, and 17,804.
49 Applebaum, 2003, 20, 40, 50.
50 Khlevniuk, 2004, 1.
51 Martin, 2001, 1.
52 Filtzer, 1988.
53 Rossman, 2005.
54 Viola, 1996, 140.
55 Evtuhov, Goldfrank, Hughes, and Stites, 2006, 645.


Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor, 2003).
Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 1917–1923 (Haymarket, 2006).
Tony Cliff, Stalinist Russia A Marxist Analysis (London, 1955),
Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (Pluto, 1975),
——— Lenin All Power to the Soviets (Pluto, 1976),
———Lenin: Revolution Besieged (Pluto, 1978).
———Lenin: The Bolsheviks and the World Revolution (Pluto, 1979).
———Trotsky: Towards October (Bookmarks, 1989).
———Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution (Bookmarks, 1990).
———Trotsky: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy (Bookmarks, 1991).
———Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star (Bookmarks, 1993).
Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1985).
Catherine Evtuhov, David Goldfrank, Lindsey Hughes, and Richard Stites, A History of Russia Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (Penguin, 1996).
Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization (Pluto, 1988).
David Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, 1917–1920 (University of North Carolina, 1995).
Philip Foner, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labor (International Publishers, 1967).
J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov, The Road to Terror (Yale University press, 1999).
K V Gusev, Partiia eserov (Mysl, 1975).
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (Mentor, 1962).
Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (Encore Editions, 1975).
Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875–1914 (Guild Publishing, 1987).
Hobsbawm, “Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution?,” On History (New Press, 1997).
Peter Holquist, Making War, Forging Revolution Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921 (Harvard University Press, 2002).
Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered—“What Is to Be Done?” in Context (Brill, 2006).
Peter Kenez, “The prosecution of Soviet history: A critique of Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution,” The Russian Review, volume 50, number 3, 1991.
Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Yale University Press, 2004).
Diane Koenker, “Labor relations in socialist Russia: Class values and production values in the printers’ union, 1917–1921,” in Lewis Seigelbaum and Ronald Suny (eds), Making Workers Soviet Power, Class, and Identity (Cornell University Press, 1994).
Koenker, Republic of Labor Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918–1930 (Cornell University Press, 2005).
Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory A History of the Russian Civil War (Da Capo, 1989).
Ernest Mandel, Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of his Thought (Schocken, 1979).
Mandel, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism: The Bitter Fruits of Socialism in One Country (New Left Books, 1978).
Mandel, Trotsky as Alternative (Verso, 1995).
John Marot, “Class conflict, political competition and social transformation,” Revolutionary Russia, volume 7, number 2, 1994.
Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001).
Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Haymarket Books, 2007).
Murphy, “Can we write a history of the Russian Revolution? A belated response to Eric Hobsbawm,” Historical Materialism, volume 15, issue 2, 2007.
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (Vintage, 1990).
Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (Norton, 1976).
Oliver Radkey, Hammer Under the Sickle (Columbia University Press, 1964).
Donald Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917-1922 (Princeton University Press, 2002).
John Rees, In Defense of October (Bookmarks, 1997).
Rogovin, Vlast’ i oppozitsii (Terra, 1992).
Jeffrey Rossman, Worker Resistance Under Stalin Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks, 1992),
David Shearer, Industry, State, and Society in Stalin’s Russia, 1926–1934 (Cornell University Press, 1996).
S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd Revolution in the Factories 1917–1918 (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Mark Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 (Yale University Press, 2001).
Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (University of Michigan, 1932),
Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (Oxford University Press, 1996).


Back to top