Harmonies and dissonances: Russia in revolution

In a piece originally published in the rs21 magazine, Mike Haynes illuminates the contested histories of the Russian revolution

The bookshelves creak. But does it matter? No-one who remembers the Russia Revolution is still alive. You would have to be at least in your 40s to even have much of a memory of what the USSR was. Yet the question of whether the USSR was a betrayal of what people fought for in 1917, or whether it flowed directly from it, once split the left. It was a test of your politics. It was a test of who you were and who you wanted to be. But now…? There are many ways in which you can kill a revolution. One is boredom. Let us try to avoid that fate and listen to the clash of ideas.

Dissonances – ‘The Orchestra of the World’

Revolution matters. The Russian Revolution matters. Our debates and quarrels are never only about what happened then. They are also about what is happening now and what can happen in the future. They are arguments about how we can change things. That is why we all still quarrel over the might-have-beens of history.

They hate the masters and the rich, and when they meet a master riding in his chariot and surrounded by his slaves, they make him get down and put the slaves in the chariot, and oblige the master to run on foot. They boast that they have come to establish equality on earth, and they summon the slaves to liberty.

This is a description of a slave revolt in North Africa over 1500 years ago. If these words call to us now, how much more do the stories of more recent revolutions call out to us? Let us listen to the Russian poet Alexander Blok in January 1918:

We loved those dissonances, those roars, those ringing sounds, those unexpected transitions when we heard them from the orchestra. But if we really loved them, rather than letting them tickle our senses while we sat in a fashionable theatre after dinner, then we must hear and love these sounds now, when they are pouring out from the orchestra of the world…With your whole body, your whole heart, your whole mind – hear the Revolution.

Harmonies – revolutions consume their own

2017 is a rerun of 1989. Even 1989 seems a different era. Ironically 1989 was itself a year of revolutions. But then the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution united historians and establishment commentators in denouncing 1789, the revolutionaries of that time and the idea that ordinary people could change the world for the better. Now it is the turn of the Russian Revolution.

The argument is always the same. Revolutions end badly. You must not try to overthrow the existing system. You can only work to reform it. Try to go any further and, as surely as night follows day, you will get dictatorship. There will be bloodshed, prison camps, executions.

This is what did happen in Russia, but the question we all ask is, did it have to happen this way? Was this really what the revolution was about? Of course, cry the supporters of today’s conventional wisdom. This is the lesson for today. Listen to what we are telling you.

[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.

The words could come from any rightwing hack. But they do not. They are the recent words of Steve Smith, whose book Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-1918 still sets the standard for a different story of 1917. When he wrote that book he believed that there were failings that arose from the weaknesses of the revolutionaries and the revolution. But if things went wrong then this was more because of the ways in which counter-revolution and intervention helped destroy the basis of an alternative – for fear that it would spread beyond Russia to Europe. But we are asked to forget this. Smith, with a whole generation of historians who once loved the dissonances, now sings the most trite harmonies.

Let us not make that mistake. It is the dissonances that matter.

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.

Dissonances – A few words on ‘their’ hidden histories with some numbers

Now it is my turn and your turn. Let us praise Domenico Losurdo – a philosopher-historian from Italy. His dismantling of the illusions of liberal history are precious for us. Liberalism is not about a peaceful path of progress. That story can only be told if we forget what really happened and the human costs of making peace with capitalism.

Liberalism was once a revolutionary idea. It had to be for the social forces it represented to be able to overthrow the old order. But today liberal historians isolate and excise that history. Liberalism, they tell us, was a doctrine of progress that worked best when it was peaceful and worst when it was forced into revolutionary detours. Look at Britain and celebrate the (almost) bloodless ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Damn the revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. But how could one happen without the other, Losurdo asks? And we will ask it too.

“Perhaps,” say the liberal historians. “But our revolutions were also more restrained. Yours were not.” Are they sure? Societies were smaller, but the scale of death from bloodshed, disruption and disease was great.

In England and Wales between 1638 and 1660 around 100,000 soldiers and civilians died in fighting and a further 130,000 from war related disease – 4.5% of the overall population of 5 million. In Scotland some 9% of people perished in war or from related causes; in Ireland, it was an astonishing 20% or higher. The population of the American colonies was only 2.5 million when the American Revolution broke out. Military and disease-related deaths were smaller but over 2% of the population fled because they found themselves on the losing side – probably a greater share than fled Russia between 1917 and 1921. The French Revolution is more complex but it was war, rather than terror, the claimed the bulk of the victims. Then, in the American Civil War, when the US had a population of some 32 million, some now think that there may have been 750,000 or more deaths from battle and disease – 2.5% of the population. This is not to diminish what happened in Russia but it helps put it into perspective.

Before the intensification of the Civil War – in the summer of 1918 – deaths from political conflict in revolutionary Russia are measured in thousands and by far the biggest number were victims of counter-revolution in Finland. In the next three years, deaths from disease rose into the millions but those from fighting itself remained in the hundreds of thousands – probably a lower casualty rate than that of the American Civil War. Given that Russia had a population of 170 million the comparative shares are much closer than liberal historians want to admit.

“But our liberal revolutionaries compromised”, say today’s historians of harmony. “They were not zealots, not like your Jacobins, not your Bolsheviks.”

Yes, sometimes they did and perhaps that was their problem. In the US the American revolutionaries saw no inconsistency between their moderate revolution and racism and slavery. It was their weaknesses here which led to the need to fight a Civil War later in which the numbers who died fighting were far greater than those who died fighting in the Russian Civil War. And where these compromises were the greatest, then on any objective calculation this also produced societies that blocked the advance of bourgeois democracy longer. Do we believe that Britain and the USA really embody the highest aspirations of bourgeois democracy in the world today?

And there is more. The revolutions that they tell us were so moderate still conquered, plundered and exterminated ‘internally’. Look at what happened in Ireland. Look at the wars against the native peoples in the United States. Were these simple aberrations? And what about imperialism abroad – their liberal revolutions aspired to conquer the world to make it fit for global capitalism no matter what the cost. And this is not to mention the wars between empires in the centre of the system, like the First World War. Let you and me borrow a question from Trotsky “Is it not remarkable”, he asked, “that those who talk most indignantly about the victims of social revolutions are usually the very ones who, if not directly responsible for the victims of the world war, prepared and glorified them, or at least accepted them?”

So do we not here too find in this history a story of “how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals?” And if earlier generations saw through the tawdriness of the liberal myths of their day should we not challenge the myths they feed us today with equal force?

Harmonies – God bless the Tsar and his relations

I am Nicholas the Second, by the grace of God, I am ‘Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias ….’ My title goes on so long that even in the official documents they say ‘… etc, etc, etc.’ But it should be long. I command the largest state on Earth. And God is on my side. ‘God save the Tsar’. Even after I allowed their parliament I told them “I am responsible to God and to Russia for everything that has happened and will happen”.

All you need to know is that on July 17 1918 I was murdered in Ekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks. I had been taken there so that I could no longer be a rallying point for counterrevolution. But Czech solders were advancing from Siberia and might have rescued me. So the Bolsheviks murdered me.

Murdered is a good word. I like it. They call me Nicholas the Bloody. But I am a Tsar. I do not murder. I do my duty. I execute. You are not a Tsar, so you murder me and my family. I know that they did have a meeting to pass a death sentence on me, but that is not the same as an execution order from one of my properly constituted courts.

And now, because you murdered me I am a saint. Actually, I am only a second-class saint. In the Orthodox Church if you die for your faith then you can become a first-class saint. But if you die incidentally, not for your faith, but believing in God, then you become a second-class saint. That is me and my family and a few Tsars that went before me. They have a technical name for it. I am a ‘passion bearer’ – not a martyr of the church. But few know or care about the difference. And I can do the miracles and heal the sick now which I could not do before.

As a saint in heaven I do not suffer the company of those I had killed and those whose deaths my enemies blamed me for. I did my duty. I execute you. You murder me. I wonder if, as they died, those I had executed and shot believed in God in the same way I did? Why are they not saints? When you have an eternity to contemplate your martyrdom, heretical thoughts can be a nuisance.

I telegraphed General Khabalov in February 1917: “Put a stop to the disorders in the capital city, as they are unacceptable in this difficult time of war with Germany and Austria”. He ordered troops to open fire. They say some 1300 were killed. Some were on the side of disorder but some were my servants, supporting me. Nicholas the Bloody, they called me again as they deposed me. Not now. Perhaps if it had not been for the Jews it would
have been different. I still hear my supporters in 1918 saying, ‘Бей жидов, спасай Россию’ – ‘Beat the Jews and save Russia’.

Dissonances – war against war

We want to believe that we would have been heroes in 1914 and stood against the war. I want to believe it but I am not sure that I can. I do not think that you can be sure that you would have done either. The pressures to support one side against the other were so great that very few resisted . On the way to the Zimmerwald Anti-War Conference in 1915 Lenin joked, “You can put all the internationalists in the world into four stage-coaches.” If by some remarkable chance you and I were in one of those coaches, there would not be many there with us.

It is always easy to be right after the event. It is so hard to be right at the time. And so we must recognise that those who did make a stand were all the greater for the fact that they did. They suffered humiliation. They were isolated. Some were exiled, others were imprisoned. Still others went to their deaths. Pacifists did this because they abhorred any violence. Socialists did it because they refused to side with one part of the capitalist class against the other. If they were conscripted, they went under duress.

Do you know how many the First World War killed? We have only estimates. Did you know that some of the first of these estimates were made by starving revolutionary statisticians in Russia after the revolution?

And what did these soldiers and all those civilians die for? And why are people still dying? Yes – a century on, people are still dying. A few dozen die each year on former battlefields as unexploded shells erupt beneath their feet. But many others die on contemporary battlefields because of the borders that the victorious imperialist powers created. Yes, let us use that term plainly without absolving the losing imperialist powers who would have been just as bad. That carve up, and the borders that followed, still blight people’s lives today. In 1916, for example, it was the Sykes- Picot agreement between Britain and France that laid the basis for carving out the modern Middle East as their sphere of influence. The Tsarist Government was a minor party (it wanted Istanbul and the Straits). No-one knew details of the pact until 23 November 1917 when the Bolsheviks, having searched the files of the Russian foreign ministry, published it along with all the other secret treaties and dirty dealings of those fighting a war for ‘freedom and democracy’. They were able to do this not simply because they believed that the war would create the opportunities for revolution but because they saw no other way to end capitalism’s conflicts than changing the system. This is why they opened the archives and let the sun shine in on the diplomacy of the imperial carve up. Were they wrong? “Ah, but that is a different argument.” Is it?

Harmonies – “Holding Out For A Hero”

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?


But you didn’t.


In the Russian political crisis of 1916 you missed your chance. You would not challenge the Tsar. You faded as anger rose in January and February 1917. “The deputies wander round like emaciated flies. Nobody believes anything. Everyone has lost heart, everyone feels and knows his powerlessness. The situation is hopeless”, wrote a member of the bourgeois progressive bloc on 18 February 1917. Look at that date – the day before workers at the Putilov plant had begun to strike. Days later the whole of Petrograd would be in revolt.


So where were the bourgeois revolutionaries? Meekly obeying the Tsar even as his authority began to collapse. They did not even have the courage to seize the constitutional initiative. That’s why the Soviets had such prestige. What power was held by those you look to was forced on them by the street. And the street kept forcing them, and they kept refusing.

‘Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you,’ the street said.


Dissonances – Arthur Henderson Lost in Petrograd

1917 February to October. So much talk, so many committees. You know this story. We will not detain ourselves long on it. But here is Arthur Henderson – a British Labour Party Leader, who had gone to Russia in July of 1917 to help the war effort and the Provisional Government:

19th June 1917

My dear Jack

…. Since my arrival here I have had a most interesting experience, though I have found the situation most perplexing. Both politically and industrially things are in the most chaotic condition … (F)rom the industrial standpoint matters are almost more hopeless here than they are politically. A form of intoxication appears to have taken possession of such of the men’s leaders as there are. Unfortunately there are no steadying influences akin to our Trade Unions and the demands that are put forward to the employers are so outrageous that it is obvious that they are not promoted with a desire for economic improvement so much as a view to establishing complete control of industry… (T)he last thing any of them think about is getting on with the war and this idea appears to have largely permeated the Armies in addition to the civil population. What exactly will be the result I do not know, though I have not lost hope and to the best of my ability am assisting the Government to cope with the more serious aspects of the problem ….

Sadly for Arthur, all his efforts, and those of all the others, including those looking to dictatorship, failed. Power passed to the revolutionaries.

Harmonies – It was all Lenin’s fault

Julius West was in Russia in 1917 and at the Second Congress of Soviets in those October days. He spoke Russian well. The New Statesman, published in Britain, printed his report. He saw the Decree on Peace passed. “Universal peace settled after a discussion of an hour and a quarter”, a bourgeois newspaper correspondent cynically observed. “But it was impossible for anybody present not a cynic to check the rising feeling that Lenin’s speech might turn out to be a landmark in human history. Two thousand crowded enthusiasts and a stuffy room have a curious effect upon one’s convictions.” No more. Let us make a list some of their words about Lenin from a single article in the same magazine in 2017:

Incomprehensible, ruthless dictator, not a man of the people. Jewish, Kalmyk, ‘Mongol eyes’, going nowhere for years, one track, control freak mind, endlessly plotting, frenziedly writing, not actually doing, obsessed, frustrated, ruthless, domineering, vicious, a martinet, tub thumping, crazy, hectoring, churning out, cowardice, covering up, a mirror image to the Tsar God.

And for good measure he was adulterous, and objected to people smoking in the train toilets – the bastard. “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” Is it any wonder it all turned out bad?

Dissonances – “the blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned”

They were astonishing and wonderful days – the beginnings of a revolutionary art … It is difficult now to imagine how it was … in Leningrad, for instance, in 1919 or 1920, the former capital of the Russian empire, starving but still beautiful. Victor Shklovski describes the period, how the grass grew on the sidewalks and between the stones of the road… which is all true; but at the same time the city was experiencing an intense cultural life. There had never been so many theatres (And incidentally, at that time the theatres were free); never had so any books – particularly volumes of poetry – appeared. Never had there been so much experiment in the theatre and painting. (Sergei Yutkevitch)

Things were falling apart, yet they were holding on. Sergei Yutkevitch and his teenage friend Sergei Eisenstein were surviving on hope and potato fritters. That is all there was. Why?

Well, there was a blockade, an Allied blockade, that cut the links between revolutionary Russia and the world. The aim, said the French President Clemenceau, was “to achieve the economic encirclement of Bolshevism and cause its fall”. Nothing much got in and nothing much got out. Not food, not medicines and not munitions to fight the counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks had to rely largely on the rapidly dwindling stocks held in the territories that they controlled. Did you know that 60% of the aircraft and machine guns of the Tsar’s army in 1914-1917 were imported? So too were some 40% of the rifles and cartridges.

And behind the blockade there was ‘a civil war’. As I write, Wikipedia – that fountain of all useful knowledge – tells me and you that it was ‘a multiparty conflict’. There was foreign intervention, true, but ‘the civil war’ was essentially a Russian affair. The Bolsheviks brought it on themselves. The revolutionary Reds fought the counter-revolutionary Whites. The peasant Greens took on both. Locals fought locals. The countryside fought the city. What a mess. What a disaster. We told you so.

But what would have happened if there had been no intervention? In January 1919 Sidney Reilly, a British agent, reported back to London on a conversation with General Denikin. Denikin was seeking to overthrow the revolution from the south and unite the counter-revolutionaries behind him. He told Reilly that he needed help:

People think that in order to pacify Russia, all one has to do is to take Moscow. To hear again the sound of the Kremlin bells would, of course, be very pleasant, but we cannot save Russia through Moscow. Russia must be reconquered as a whole, and to do this we have to carry out a very wide sweeping movement from the South, moving right across Russia. We cannot do this alone.

We must have the assistance of the Allies. Equipment and armament alone are not sufficient; We must have Allied troops which will move behind us, holding the territories which we will reconquer, by garrisoning the towns, policing the country and protecting our lines of communications. Only then shall we be able to mobilise fresh troops in the territories occupied, introduce the most necessary guarantees of order and move forward without anxiety. Simultaneously we must have assistance in organising the transport and we must have the necessary manufactured goods of which the country is completely bare. We will do all the fighting, but you must stand by and protect us from being struck in the back.

So many powers intervened – 14 in total so they say. So why is there a lack of any proper accounting of this by historians? It’s a simple question – just how much effort was expended? What did it cost? How many weapons were given? You get partial clues but no-one yet has added it up. Why not? Just ask them why they do not add it all up.

I cannot do the sums here. I only have partial information. I will take a snippet. It will shock you. In the British War Office papers there is a summary of material aid by the British to the counter-revolution in the South – that is, to Denekin and his successor, Wrangel – to supply an army of perhaps 150,000. It includes (I quote from a summary):

army kit for half a million men, 1,200 field guns with almost two million rounds of ammunition, 6,100 machine guns, 200,000 rifles with 500 million rounds of ammunition, 629 lorries and motorcars, 279 motorcycles, 74 tanks, six armoured cars, 200 aircraft, 12 500-bed hospitals, 25 field hospitals and a vast amount of signal and engineer equipment.

One front, one interventionist power. A big one, true – but there were so many others. Do you find these numbers astonishing? And what of the support for the counter-revolution that came in from the Baltic, from the far north, and across Siberia from Vladivostok?

Yes the revolution failed and the revolutionaries became its victims. But it was not pre-ordained. Victor Serge said in 1939, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.” He is still right today. But there is another person who also asks us to listen. Rosa Luxemburg was in prison but she was able to think and write about the Russian Revolution. She was far from uncritical but that
was not her main thrust. This is what she wrote in a letter to Luise Kautksy on November 24 (western style) 1917:

are you glad about the Russians? Of course they will not be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ Sabbath – not because the statistics show that they are too backward as your clever husband has worked out, but because Social Democracy in the highly developed West consists of a pack of piteous cowards who are prepared to look on quietly and let Russia bleed to death. But such an end is better than “living on for the fatherland”; it is an act of world historical significance whose traces will not be extinguished for aeons.

I like Rosa. She had a point. But even as they were letting “Revolutionary Russia” bleed to death they got to her too.




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