From the archive: Russia and the Bolsheviks

The October Uprising of 1917 saw Bolshevik forces seize power in Russia. Local councils of urban workers called "Soviets" overthrew Aleksandr Kerensky's Provisional Government and plunged the country into civil war. This article, published in the New Statesman on November 17 1917, reflects on the state of a country increasingly "rent between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat."

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De Tocqueville, in explaining the origin of the French Revolution, lays emphasis on the equality of condition, education and manners which had existed between the nobility and the Third Estate, and the galling inequality of rights. The result was the political revolution of 1789. The present social revolution in Russia is the outcome of a similar contrast. There is hardly a country in Europe where the equality of men is as real as in Russia, and where the economic contrast of classes is equally acute. France has her small rentiers and her conservative peasantry; England her well-to-do artisans, her office clerks and shop-assistants; Russia posseses practically none of these types in any considerable numbers. The peasant-holding in Russia is not a fixed, economically sufficient unit, like a farm in England or France, or a Bauernhof in Germany, but a strip of land in the open fields. By subdivision among heirs this strip has been reduced below the minimum which, under the present backward system of tillage, could satisfy the needs of its owner. He therefore cries out for more land, for “a new lot” to be got by breaking up the big landed estates. There is hardly another social type, except perhaps the miner, which has an equally strong consciousness of its separate individuality as the peasant. The peasants were actuated by class-consciousness ages before anyone discussed the matter. Peasant revolts, jacqueries, and Bauernbündlereien are the oldest form of class warfare; and conditions have made the Russian peasant into a revolutionary proletarian. In the Russia towns, on the other hand, work which in English offices is done by unskilled experts in the art of writing and counting without understanding anything of what they do, is performed by men of a very different mental calibre. There is the poor intelligentsia, men who in education and outlook are as much the equals of the biggest bourgeoisie as the bourgeois of pre-revolutionary France were of her nobility. But that intelligentsia consists largely of proletarians. The absence of them in England accounts for the mental poverty of our labour movements, their presence in Russia for the acute consciousness of the social conflict. Russia is rent between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the present Revolution is mainly social.

But for the sake of Russia and the future of the world civil warfare between classes has now to be prevented. She has to fight out the present war to the end which her best idealists desire, she has to preserve her integrity and help in redeeming the liberty of those small nations in Eastern Europe which look to her as their safeguard against German dominion. The vast masses of the Russian people know but very little about these problems and ideas; no one has ever taught them, they have been merely driven like cattle into slaughter. Professor Pares, a reliable eye-witness, has told us recently that when Russian units went into action, no matter whether victorious or unsuccessful, losses amounting to half or even three-fourths of the effectives were expected. The old regime cared as little for the lives and well-being of the soldiers as for their opinions. They have paid with their lives and with untold misery for the peculation and the crimes of their rulers. Can one, then, wonder at what has happened? The Revolution did not start in villages and factories, but in the Army. And when the peasant behind the front cried for land and the workman in the towns for bread, the soldier at the front cried out for liberty and peace. Could he be expected to credit his past rulers implicitly with high idealism and righteousness? Here are these immense illiterate masses asking why they should fight; here are these masses distrustful of the bourgeoisie almost as much as they were of the old regime, lumping the two together as “rulers”; and educated men come forward who confirm them in their dark beliefs.

These men are the Bolsheviks. Roman law taught us in servorum conditione nulla differentia est – a slave cannot be possessed of any legal rights. The Bolsheviks believe that there can be no difference in the morals of masters, because masters have no morals. The Bolsheviks will not enter into the rights or wrongs of a war which has been started by capitalist societies. No settlement of the war in terms of these societies counts for much with them. The real liberty and the whole liberty can come through social revolution alone. As Friedrich Adler, the murderer of Count Stürgkh – who, like Liebknecht, is one of the most prominent German-speaking Bolsheviks – said on his trial, it is no good for him to discuss these problems with men who think in terms of the bourgeois or of the Moderate Socialist parties, because, as for distance, the two points of view might be held on different planets. Still, with regard to peace, the Bolsheviks put forward a programme which nothing except a Bolshevik revolution in the Central Powers, or a victory of the Entente involving the break-up of Austria-Hungary could realise – complete, unfettered self-determination for all nationalities.

In Russia, say the Bolsheviks, no delay should be admitted in carrying out the social revolution. No compromise should be entered into with bourgeois parties – this would be an infinitely worse crime in their eyes than fraternising with German soldiers at the front is to us. There are Bolsheviks in every white community, but they are unimportant. They have much wider influence in Russia, where, under the old regime, ideas were developed far away from the reality of politics and business, and splits frequently occurred in Socialist parties over questions as subtle and hypothetical as those which separate the different “free reformed new seceders” in the Churches of Scotland. No doubt, by experience, many an honest Bolshevik would be brought down to our planet; but is there time for such long journeys? Meantime, in the incomprehensible theological disquisitions of the Bolsheviks, peasants and soldiers hear their own cries for an immediate new distribution of land and for peace. It is a truly magnificent evidence of the deeper sanity of Russia that the power of Bolshevism should not be greater than it has proved hitherto. Perhaps it is the instinct of self-preservation which guides the Prussian people. For, naturally, the Germans have fastened on to the party which preaches armistice and an immediate social revolution as a channel for instilling poison into Russia. Before the Revolution her Socialist parties were honeycombed with Government spies and agents provocateurs; they were to be found even among the chief leaders – to name but Azev. It remains to be seen how many of the German agents among the Bolsheviks have merely passed from the service of one reactionary Government into that of another. But to represent the typical Bolshevik as a German agent, or as a soldier who flies from the front and turns into a bully or robber at home, is just as clever and fair as to try to make our that an I.D.B. from the Rand or a fraudulent company-promoter is the type of a British Imperialist.

Whilst the bulk of the Bolsheviks want immediate social revolution and peace, the Cadets (using that word to cover all Russian Liberal bourgeois parties) realise the truth about the present war. Russian must be saved, and a disastrous and humiliating peace must be prevented; thousands among the Cadets would willingly sacrifice their lives and all they possess merely to achieve the salvation of their country. But, then, there is also the other side to their programme. They do not want social revolution, either now or ever; many because they recognise the impossibility of such violent transformations and the danger inherent in attempts at achieving them, others (whose number, as men are, is probably larger) for more selfish reasons. The result of their attitude on social problems is that those who, almost along in Russia, possess experience in business and administration, and count in their ranks the most prominent statesmen, are distrusted by the masses, and have a comparatively small following in a country rent by class divisions.

Between the Cadets and the Bolsheviks stand the Moderate Socialists. They understand the problems of the war as well as its dangers. They wish to make certain that it will not be continued for a day longer than is necessary, and that the side on which Russia fights does not put among its war-aims anything incompatible with the principles of democracy – either in the direction of the Morning Post or in that of the Labour Leader. They know that should Russia fail in the struggle and collapse before militarist Germany her own liberty as well as that of the small nationalities of Eastern Europe would be jeopardised. They know that it is impossible at present to carry on the government of Russia without the Cadets, but that it is equally impossible to govern Russia whilst disregarding the desires, be they half-conscious desires, even of the illiterate masses. To the Cadets they offered a guarantee that the war will be carried on for Russia’s salvation, to the Bolsheviks that Socialist reforms will be carried our as soon as it is possible to do so. The extremists of the Right hate them because they affirm the need of Socialist reform, the extremists of the Left because they enter into a compromise with the bourgeois parties and help them to power. The have to sustain attacks, from both sides without committing themselves to either. They know that, were they to make common cause with the Bolsheviks, they would betray Russia (which does not, however, mean that all the Bolsheviks are conscious traitors), but that, were they to make common cause with the Cadets against the Bolsheviks, they would run the danger of betraying those interests of the people which they have promised to uphold. And they alone stand between Russia and the made convulsion of an implacable class-war which would ruin Russia or the future of her working-classes, or, most probably, both.

The whole scene is dominated by the singular figure of Kerensky. It may be hard for us to descry its real outlines through the heroic legend on the one hand and the idle scandal on the other which have become attached to it. Yet already the policy public actions of the man seem to give the basis for a provisional estimate. Feeling and understanding marked out for him the line of all-round compromise which sane policy also would have dictated. He has tried to win the confidence of the people and the co-operation of the upper classes. He did not want to coerce or terrorise either. Critics accuse him of weakness, of being a man of many words. But the power of his words has for half a year bridged the abyss into which rash action might have plunged Russia, and even if now the time has come for much more decisive action, such action might have proved disastrous if undertaken prematurely. Kerensky tried to educate where others would have attempted to impose obedience. He poured out his soul and endangered his life in addressing mutinous crowds where others would have used machine-guns. The fact which confronted him was that to try to overcome the ignorance of the people by machine-guns would have been to kill the soul of the Revolution. Is it so inexplicable that he reduced to deal in that way with the child-like, trusting masses which had put confidence in him and whose main sin was ignorance?

A very heavy blow was inflicted on the cause of moderation by the rising of General Korniloff. Yet, as soon as the strength of the Revolution had been proved, Kerensky persisted in the course mapped out for him by the needs of Russia. No repression was applied to the parties of the Right, but, on the contrary, a Cabinet was formed – including the best from among the Moderate Cadets. Was this the act of a weak man or of a demagogue? But the crowd did not understand Kerensky’s motives, and a movement towards the extreme Left set in among the working classes. The Soviets passed into the camp of the Bolsheviks. Had it not been for the ill-fated rising of Korniloff the Bolsheviks would never have been able to enact the Petrograd Commune and fratricidal war might never have come.

A strong Government must now arise. Condemnations and executions can hardly be avoided. In future men will perhaps have to suffer even for opinions, delusions, and ignorance. Russia must be saved at any price, and will be saved. Her greatness is indestructible. But that period of the Revolution which is most characteristically Russia is probably drawing to an end. For six months a nation in which certain wild, cruel instincts are still latent has been in full revolution; passions were at their highest pitch, and yet the country was governed without violence. Kerensky will be able to say of this period what Plutarch reports as the dying words of Pericles – that no fellow-countryman has had, by any act of his, to put on mourning. Kerensky may yet disappear in the maelstrom, but his name will not die. He will be remembered for his passionate self-immolation, for the suffering through which he did his work, and for his deep human feeling. He did not set himself up to be a judge over men, perhaps he was not even a judge of events. But Russia’s heart spoke through him.