Russia: The Meaning of 1917

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Czar’s downfall, a question: Was there really a Russian Revolution?

WHEN I WAS getting my training as a historian, even people who detested Bolshevism and loathed Lenin told their students that the Russian Revolution was the most important event of the twentieth century. When I was starting out in my own career, I told my students the same thing, although I haven’t done so for a while.

What my teachers—and I, in this earlier incarnation—meant was that the Russian Revolution not only gave rise to the divided world of the Cold War but also was the impetus behind much of the radical energy, many of the political and economic forms and utopian points of view, that animated revolt against the colonial world order. In a way all the progressive transformations of the twentieth century were closely connected to what happened in 1917. This, of course, was also the heart of the Russians’ much more grandiose and ideologized message. The exact nature of the Russian Revolution’s legacy could be debated, but that the legacy would be substantial far into the future neither my teachers nor 1 doubted. We assumed that it would eclipse the more parochial English and French revolutions.

As we all know, the Russian world has changed utterly. And although with respect to contemporary politics we are beginning to come to terms with the loss of the Soviet Union, historians have barely begun to contemplate what that loss will mean for them. And if the Soviet Union—the fruit of the Russian Revolution—has gone, what does the revolution itself now mean? Or was there ever any such thing? Let me argue, for provocation’s sake, that although there certainly was a violent overthrow of the Imperial Russian government in 1917, there never was a Russian Revolution.

Academics, if they want to keep up with contemporary trends, must explain to their students that in this postmodern age everything by way of meanings and values is in the eye of the beholder. There was a Russian Revolution, that is, because Marx explained what a proletarian revolution was, and Lenin and Trotsky said that Russia had had one, and William Henry Chamberlin agreed, and so did Robert V. Daniels and, more recently, Theodore von Laue and Sheila Fitzpatrick— and The New York Times, and Le Monde, and so on.

But we know that Bolshevik rule lasted some seventy-four years and then gave way to chaos or warlordism or primitive capitalist accumulation or whatever we say is happening in Russia now, and so we may legitimately ask. Do the events of 1917, or of 1917 to 1921 (or, if we use Von Laue’s or Fitzpatrick’s version, 1917 to 1930 or 1932), still constitute a revolution?

What is a revolution, anyway? Are we any longer able to say why a certain set of events does, or does not, constitute such a thing? Can we tell revolution from counterrevolution? What happened in Iran when the Shah fell—revolution or counterrevolution?

The idea of progress governs the dominant interpretations of revolution. As the European left evolved during the nineteenth century, it developed retrospective views of itself; it wrote its autobiography, so to speak; it defined its origins and explained to unbelievers what it meant. In a sense Karl Marx provided the fullest and most ambitious historical version of what the left meant; he saw its history as culminating in his philosophy. And, of course, the idea of a phased revolution, each phase being historically progressive, leading inexorably to ever higher stages of European and ultimately world civilization, was the essence of Marxism. Even among non-Marxists the notion that “revolutions” are connected to progress according to universal criteria is still very influential. Among non-Marxist social scientists the whole idea of a “modernization” process, which may be accompanied by revolutions, is clearly derivative of the Marxist view.

This belief in inevitable historical progress, it seems to me, has been almost entirely destroyed among thoughtful people by the events of the twentieth century, but it has hung on the longest on the political left. The drama of the so-called Russian Revolution and its failures has dealt the belief another blow. The consequences for modern history are enormous, not least for modern Russian history. If we are not sure that there was a revolution, what can we say did happen in Russia from 1917 to 1932?

WHAT WE have called the revolutionary process of 1917 and afterward actually consisted of a combination of class warfare and nationalist revolts against the centralized Russian empire. It was ultimately quelled by a new elite, which was animated by a radical socialist ideology. The process was touched off by the old regime’s loss of legitimacy in the midst of famine and war. In the system that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the Russian political world changed drastically, but oligarchic-autocratic politics remained, in a somewhat more efficient form.

The Russian social system changed drastically too. Virtually all of the upper and much of the middle stratum of the Russian population, especially the upper-middle, disappeared abroad or into prisons and camps. The world created by them—sometimes called “civil society”—largely ceased to exist after 1917. The people who remained from that world were submerged in a mass of workers and peasants, who themselves began to move upward in the complex process of social mobility which started at about the same time. In that process most of the more successful peasants (the kulaks) were destroyed and the less successful ones were collectivized.

A new elite emerged, highly militant, politicized, and anti-Western, although devoted to creating a variant of Western-style industrial civilization. These leaders regarded political democracy as a sham. They had a real, indeed a visionary, commitment to social democracy, but it attenuated and was somewhat corrupted over the years.

One of the most striking revelations in the collapse of Soviet Russia is how much of its alleged progress was flawed, limited, or even illusory. Education, from humanistic to technical and vocational, had its most important effects— and they are undeniable—on the upper strata of the intelligentsia, but large numbers of workers and peasants participated only marginally in its benefits. Meanwhile, they developed a distinctively communist culture. They are lacking in initiative, socially and politically passive, and only negatively egalitarian—that is, they are disposed to prevent their neighbors’ success rather than emulate it. The huge socialistcommunist bureaucracy was parasitic, corrupt, and unable to generate any serious institutional innovation or change after Stalin’s death. Industry never developed beyond the smokestack phase, and environmental degradation is worse in the former Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world, except possibly those parts of Eastern Europe where the same governmental system prevailed. Finally, the problems of intercommunal and interracial hostility, which were supposed to have been solved by communism, were merely held in check, repressed, or papered over. The hatred between Azerbaijanis and Armenians may be worse than it has ever been; the hatreds between nationalities in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia are at least as bad as they were after the Second World War, and relations may well deteriorate elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

It is very hard to see the regimes that produced these results as in any serious way progressive. It is not easy at this juncture to see what the positive inheritance of the events generally known as the Russian Revolution might be—except, perhaps, the liquidation of aristocracy and the remnants of feudalism, and, to be sure, that is not nothing. Outside the former Soviet Union, of course, the impetus that the Russian Revolution gave to decolonialization remains. But those features of postcolonial society which derived from the Soviet experience are everywhere on the defensive.

If one can still make the case that the English and French revolutions had largely beneficent or progressive results and were worth what they cost (and even that idea is strongly under attack by French historians), such a case is far harder to make about the Russian Revolution.

SOME HISTORIANS are taking the view that the events of 1917 are merely the most recent of periodic upheavals that have characterized Russian history since the sixteenth century. It seems to me that a good deal of what took place during the socalled Russian Revolution and afterward is akin, for example, to the developments in Russia between the death of Boris Godunov in 1605 and the promulgation of the new law code of 1649. Then, too, a crisis of legitimacy, intensified by war and famine, led to the dissolution of Russia into class war and national war, followed by foreign invasion. A new dynasty was founded. Its leaders, in their search for solutions to the social and economic chaos in the country, found it necessary to increase social control drastically, and political autocracy as well. Serfdom was consolidated, and almost all Russians were bound to the place in which they lived or worked. The earliest forms of industrialization were developed by workers who were moved to wherever the new elite wanted or needed them. The new leaders tried to keep their subjects at work, but flight from the government and its oppression was frequent.

The crisis is usually known as the “Time of Troubles,” and its normally assigned dates are 1605-1613. But the new configuration of Russia really took until the middle of the seventeenth century to establish itself. Like its later cousin, the so-called revolution, it could be assigned a much longer duration. Soviet historians always thought that historical developments in seventeenthcentury Russia—even the consolidation of serfdom—were “progressive,” but in their system everything important affecting Russia’s evolution had to be progressive. Most Western historians thought that the Russia we could see in the Law Code of 1649 had become even meaner and less free than the Russia of Boris Godunov, and was characterized by even greater rigidity. Peter the Great had to shake it up again a short time later.

SO ONE THING we could do is to call what happened in Russia after the First World War “the new Time of Troubles,” or something like that. The interesting thing about these repeated upheavals is that what future generations of Russians would call progress was always relatively limited, and the reversion to coercive authoritarianism relatively powerful.

Another possibility (and I suspect that most historians would opt for this) would be to keep the name Russian Revolution but revert to the older and less influential view of revolution as something that goes through a cycle, or around in a circle (as the name implies), but does not push the world in a progressive direction.

An interesting book expressing that view is Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution. First published in 1938 and then substantially revised in the early 1950s. Brinton’s work has long been neglected, for at least two reasons. First, it is written in an engaging, highly accessible style, and this, of course, is anathema to all serious students of revolution. Second, Brinton’s mentors were not Marx and the Marxists but Italian elite theorists like Mosca and Pareto.

Brinton compared revolution to a fever in the body politic, or to a thunderstorm, metaphors that would have annoyed Marx very much. On a less analogical note, he was much interested in Pareto’s theories about social equilibrium, and tried to develop the idea that revolutions resulted when societies lost their social equilibrium, ultimately restoring it in some new form. Pareto believed that the great revolutions of human history were no more than the struggles of new elites to displace old ones, and that ordinary people were only the foot soldiers of the elite, rather than new classes in the making. Brinton adopted that fundamental view in his analysis.

Brinton, comparing the English, French, American, and Russian revolutions, attempted to demonstrate that—at whatever cost—in each case social equilibrium was at least partly regained and the worst abuses of the old regime were eliminated. Had he been writing in 1992 instead of 1952 (when the second edition appeared), he might not have seen the Russian Revolution as so relatively successful in its outcome. Here is an example of the sort of thing he wrote about Russia:

All future historians will probably have to admit that as a piece of political machinery the Soviet system worked better than did that of the Czars. .. . You may not like the Five Year Plans, but you must admit that beneath their parade of statistics lies a concrete economic achievement greater than anything the old regime could show for a similar period. The Communists have, in short, brought the Industrial Revolution to Russia. Perhaps it was coming under Stolypin; perhaps the Communists brought it harshly, cruelly. But bring it they did.

Even Brinton’s carefully phrased estimate of the success of the Russian Revolution is, it seems to me, open to question today.

One final possibility. The Manchu Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, so the Chinese Revolution is some six years older than the Russian, and it may not be any nearer to re-establishing social equilibrium than the Russian. Perhaps we should continue to allow the term “revolution” but view the Russian Revolution as actually beginning in the period prior to the emancipation of the serfs, in 1861, and continuing all the way to the present. Then the communist period becomes only one phase in a very long and disruptive revolutionary process. But if one thinks of the matter that way, then one must think of revolution as being for the Russians the bedrock of ail modern life.

—Abbott Gleason