Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, with his family. Photograph: Corbis
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Half-echoes of the past

Blue Labour is conservative, but about a society that no longer exists – or never existed. Ed Miliband should be wary of this faction and instead forge an alliance that will win back aspirational voters in the south.

The Labour Party, founded in 1900, has been in existence for 112 years. But there have been Labour governments for just 32 of those years; for another eight years, Labour participated in wartime national unity governments. During the remaining 72 years, it was in opposition. Why has so much of Labour’s existence been spent in opposition? There are three reasons.

The first is factionalism. After the election defeats of 1951 and 1979, Labour was rent by fratricidal disputes between left and right – between the Bevanites and the leadership after 1951 and between the Bennites and the leadership after 1979. The party seemed more anxious to have a dialogue with itself than a dialogue with the British people, who decided, both in the 1950s and in the 1980s, to confirm Labour’s status as a party of opposition.

After the defeat of 1970, too, Labour threatened to descend into factionalism, but Harold Wilson skilfully contained it. Even so, the party returned to power in March 1974 through the vagaries of the electoral system, as opposed to any merits of its own. Between 1970 and the general election of February 1974, Labour lost 6 per cent of the vote – one-seventh of its support – the largest fall in votes of any opposition party in Britain until, in 1983, Michael Foot succeeded in doing even worse.

Labour’s defeat in 2010 was worse than those of 1951, 1970 or 1979. Indeed, in terms of percentage of the vote, Labour did worse in 2010 than at any time since it became a mass party except for 1983. Yet there have been no renewed outbreaks of factionalism, no divisions between left and right. The party has shown a remarkable degree of unity. There have been no latter-day equivalents of the Bevanites or the Bennites. That, no doubt, owes much to Ed Miliband’s empathetic and consensual style. It is an unnoticed achievement.

The second reason for Labour’s long years in opposition is that it has, since 1918, seen itself as the sole party of the left, and has been intolerant of competition from other claim ants. In the 1920s, it was more eager to eliminate the Liberals than to seek a progressive alliance with them, an alliance that might well have undermined Conservative dominance. Some Labour leaders actually preferred the Conservatives to the Liberals. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, declared in 1924 that he “could get on with the Tories. They differed at times openly then forgot all about it and shook hands. They were gentlemen but the Liberals were cads.”

In the 1930s, the Labour leadership stood firmly against a Popular Front, an alliance with Liberals and anti-appeasement Conservatives which might have brought about a change of government policy. Indeed, Labour succeeded in its aim of driving out the Liberals as a third party, but the price was a long period of Conservative hegemony, and the 20th century became the Conservative century even though there may well have been a progressive majority among the voters for much of the period.

Liberal friends

In the 1980s the third force revived – first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, then the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s instincts remained the same: to regard the third force as a competitor rather than a potential ally. Tony Blair was a great exception. The Ashdown diaries show that he would have preferred a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to a single-party Labour majority. Had the majority in 1997 been smaller, Blair would almost certainly have sought coalition.

Gordon Brown also sought an alliance with the Liberal Democrats in 2007 after becoming prime minister, and suggested coalition to Menzies Campbell, the then Liberal Democrat leader. In 2010, after the election, he again offered coalition to the Liberal Democrats, saying that the moment had come to create the progressive alliance. But it was too late. Labour was too weak. In 1997, it had been too strong. It was never the right moment.

Here, too, Miliband can claim to have escaped the entrenched positions of the past. There are no precise details of what has transpired between him and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, but it is clear that a dialogue has begun and that Miliband does not regard all Liberal Democrats as the enemy. There is, after all, a powerful social-democrat tradition among the Liberal Democrats, one wing of which, including Cable, was in the SDP, a breakaway from Labour in 1981. Cable, indeed, began his political career as a Labour activist, and would probably have continued in the Labour Party had it not swung so far to the left after the election defeat of 1979.

Clearly, many Liberal Democrats were prepared to swallow their doubts about Conservative methods of curing the deficit and proposals for student fees in order to secure cherished measures of constitutional reform – reform of the voting system and a directly elected House of Lords. Now that it has become clear that these reforms are unattainable, they may well revert to their natural home on the left.

Miliband needs perhaps to make a sharper distinction between the Liberal Democrat leadership, or the Clegg-Laws faction of the leadership, whose ideological sympathies lie with the right, and the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members and voters, whose heart remains on the left. Franklin Roosevelt, after all, never attacked the Republicans, only the Republican leadership.

Yet Miliband’s flexibility towards the Liberal Democrats is a second achievement of Labour in opposition. He needs to become the leader of all progressive forces in Britain, not just the Labour Party.

There is a third reason why Labour has spent so much of its life in opposition. It is that its inclination in defeat is to retreat to its comfort zone, its core basis of support, such as that represented by the Blue Labour tendency, set up in 2009 by the academic Maurice Glasman, who was subsequently made a peer. The instincts of the Blue Labour faction are the same as those that led Labour to elect Foot as leader in 1980, and that lay behind its failure to pressure Attlee to retire after the 1951 defeat.

During the 1950s, Labour’s vote fell steadily from the 48.8 per cent peak of 1951 – achieved, paradoxically, in an election in which the party was defeated by the Conservatives. Not until after the third election defeat in 1959, however, did Hugh Gaitskell feel able to attempt to modernise the party by proposing the deletion of Clause Four from Labour’s 1918 constitution, which committed it to the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Even then, the party refused to support him, and it was left to Gaitskell’s successor, Harold Wilson, to modernise Labour by more surreptitious means, Wilson’s 1964-70 government being revisionist in practice if not in theory.

After the 1983 defeat, Neil Kinnock took over where Gaitskell had left off, but he was constrained by activists and his progress in modernising the party was painfully slow. It was not until 1992, after the fourth successive defeat, that Blair was able to take Labour by the scruff of the neck. Succeeding to the party leadership in 1994, he got rid of Clause Four and founded New Labour. There was just one Labour tradition that he hated, Blair told the 2006 party conference in his farewell speech – losing elections. Some in the party have never forgiven him for breaking that tradition.

Today also, there are siren voices saying that Labour should return to its comfort zone. For the essence of the Blue Labour faction is that the party should become more conservative, more respectful towards the supposed values of working-class communities and of working-class attitudes (some would say prejudices) on immigration and crime. The politics of nostalgia would be disastrous for the left, however, ideologically and electorally.

Blue Labour emphasises co-operatives, mutuals, friendly societies and more localised provision of public services. Never mind that it was because this very approach was insufficient that past Labour governments strengthened central government. It is fashionable to decry the state, but it is to the state, not the Salvation Army or the Co-op, that we turn when we find ourselves sick or out of work.

The truth is, as the recent TUC conference has shown, that there are no hermetically sealed working-class values. The values of the organised working class reflect wider social ethics. The calls at the conference for a general strike were an attempt to use the market power of organised labour to alter the policy of the democratically elected government. Miliband was right to distance Labour from it. But was the call for a strike any worse than the threat made by bankers and their like that any attack on their bonuses would lead to them taking their business abroad? If the rich and powerful can use their market power to threaten the government, why should organised labour not follow their lead?

Labour was founded more than a century ago to represent the organised working class, and perhaps its electoral rise up to 1951 and its decline thereafter can be correlated with the rise and fall of that class. Even so, the party’s central aim was to secure certain values, to transcend a society based on economic self-interest. Lab - our, Keir Hardie insisted, attacked a system not a class. If the values of community and fellowship had already been present in working-class communities, as some of the advocates of Blue Labour seem to imply, there would have been no need for a Labour Party. It was precisely because these values were not present that the party was founded.

The better life

There is a great danger in romantic mythologizing of working-class communities, a tendency sometimes practised by those who have never lived in them. Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s seemed to understand working-class aspirations better than Labour, declared that she had rarely met anyone from such communities who did not wish to escape from them.

Most working-class people want their children to have a better life than they had – a better education, better housing and a more fulfilling job – not to replicate their position in the “community”. Those aspirations received little expression at the TUC conference. They need to be expressed by the Labour Party. Indeed, it is only when Labour has been able to express such aspirations, as in 1945, 1966 or 1997, that it has been successful electorally.

Blue Labour, by contrast, is conservative, but conservative about a society that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed. It resembles Tory paternalism of the Baldwin-Macmillan variety; or perhaps the feudal socialism that Marx ridiculed in his Communist Manifesto as “half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future”.

Speak for the middle

In any case, the old-style working class is not Labour’s problem. Even in 2010, the Conservatives were unable to win a single seat in any of the large cities of the Midlands or the north – Birmingham, Bradford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, while the Liberal Democrats won just six. In fact, one reason why the remnants of the working class have so little political leverage is that they are largely concentrated in safe Labour seats. The best way to strengthen the electoral influence of the working class would be to reform the electoral system so as to eliminate the safe seat.

But Labour’s electoral problem lies elsewhere. It lies, as in the 1980s, in its failure to retain the allegiance of aspirational voters in the south of England. South of the Severn-Wash line outside London, the party holds just ten out of 197 seats. It has no MPs at all in Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire or Here fordshire. The BBC’s electoral analyst David Cowling was right, therefore, to describe the outcome in 2010 as “the dismem - bering of New Labour’s 1997 electoral triumph”. Labour must seek to reassemble that triumphant coalition, not retreat to the safety of its heartland.

Labour’s problem is not the working class but the southern working class, the most aspirational segment of the working class. Indeed, psephological studies have shown that a northern middle-class voter is more likely to vote Labour than a southern working-class voter. Blue Labour would do little to win back these lost voters.

Ed Miliband has kept Labour away from its comfort zone and his call to defend the “squeezed middle” resonates with many voters. However, he has not yet allied the party firmly enough with the aspirations of voters in the south of England; and he has still to spell out his programme for responsible capitalism, taming the markets, rebalancing the economy and achieving greater fairness at a time when public spending will be constrained. Perhaps his greatest difficulty is that most voters find it difficult to identify with him, to “place” him; and, in so far as they do place him, it is as a north London intellectual, remote from their concerns. His background is not his fault any more than David Cameron’s is, but he needs to transcend it.

Wilson faced a similar problem. Before becoming Labour leader, he had been associated in the public mind with the bureaucratic restrictions necessary after the war and a dry, impersonal, economic approach to politics. To overcome his image problem, he enlisted advisers such as the journalist Joe Haines and Albert Murray, the MP for Gravesend, who could supply what he lacked. Wilson rapidly reinvented himself as a man of the people.

Miliband needs to do the same. He could begin by avoiding terms such as “predator capitalism” and “predistribution”, which may resonate with readers of the New Statesman, but lend themselves to ridicule elsewhere. He needs to become the natural spokesman of Middle England, the “squeezed middle” whose aspirations he has sought to champion.

Democracy, it is often said, is government by explanation, and the crucial electoral battleground is that of public opinion. Governments can transform opinion by acting. Oppositions can transform opinion only by speeches, by teaching. For many years, the left in Britain has lacked a teacher. The task for Ed Miliband is to show that he can be as formidable a teacher for the left as Thatcher was for the right.

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College London. His books include “The Coalition and the Constitution” (Hart, £20), published last year.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[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.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit