Friday, November 7, 2008

7 November 1917: Bolshevik Revolution

"The Master Mind of Bolshevism:
A Russian Robespierre,"
Illustrated London News, 1919

The outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution on 7 November 1917 (25 October in the Julian calendar, or Old Style--hence the term, "October Revolution" in Russian and Soviet usage) once seemed to many the dawn of a new age and the culmination of a string of western revolutions. Although the reform and then collapse of the Soviet system led to an opening of archives and minds on some fronts, it also triggered some defensiveness on the dogmatic left and a rather unpleasant triumphalism in many western circles, which have not furthered the goals of rigorous historical analysis. As Christopher Read (1998) noted:
the Russian revolution and its consequences remains a living topic, attitudes towards it being woven into the fabric of liberal capitalist self-justification and into socialist ideas of all varieties, not least the shrill polemics of radical groups which trace their lineage back to one form of Bolshevism or another. It has very much been a case of ‘tell me what you think of the Russian revolution and I’ll tell you who you are.’ Although Russia’s revolution is not as important as it was at the height of the cold war, the collapse of communism has only partially slackened the pace since Russia’s post-1991 ills are still being blamed primarily on communist mismanagement.
The near-simultaneous appearance of his book and that of Orlando Figes provided him with an opportunity to survey the similarities and differences in their work. Despite certain methodological similarities, they differ sharply in their assessment of revolutionary violence: Figes sees it as mere bloodlust, whereas Read finds that it was more rational and discriminating.
Finally, both of us would probably see ourselves as ‘post-revisionists’, as historians attempting to look at the revolution as ‘the past’, something which has gone, which has run its course, something which no longer has deadly importance for contemporary political stances. Although the significance of October will continue to be avidly discussed, it is less vital than it was at the height of the cold war. Only time will tell if these two books are seen as the last dinosaurs of an older style of writing about the revolution or the precursors of a new, more rounded and more dispassionate historiography.
A decade later, relatively little seems to have changed. Historiography has matured, but new subtleties and insights have barely penetrated the popular discourse.

The newspapers so far today seem to contain hardly a mention of the event. Of course, most of us have other, more recent political revolutions on our minds, and appropriately so.

The "October Revolution" page from includes various contemporary communist accounts. Trotsky's reflections on the "Lessons of October" remains worth reading as a source of both history and tactical analysis regardless of one's own political stance. Among other things, it is useful to be reminded of the Lenin passage that he quotes:
“Too often has it happened,” wrote Lenin in July 1917, “that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning – lost it as ‘suddenly’ as the sharp turn in history was ‘sudden’.” [CW, (Moscow 1964), Vol.25, On Slogans (mid-July 1917), p.183]

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