Recently, we marked the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, an event sparked by the revolutionary fire in the minds of men that has burned for as long as there have been men on the earth. In the modern era, revolution ignited in France in the 18th century. It caught fire again in 1848, inspiring anarchists and Marxist revolutionaries intent on remaking the world.
Today’s Russian authorities seem not quite able or willing to deal with the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik “Red October” Revolution head-on, fraught as it is with painful memories that many would rather not revisit, while a significant contingent of Russians continues to take pride in the Soviet past, or at least in the parts of it they care to recall.
In the United States, members of the “Resistance,” comprising hipster would-be Bolsheviks and their minority allies, are live-action role-playing the imagined glories of the revolutionary past, wrapping themselves in the red banner, while the embers of what James H. Billington called “the revolutionary faith” continue to glow in the no longer secret dreams of our elites. Thus, the New York Times, our “newspaper of record,” is indulging itself in Bolshevik nostalgia, publishing articles “exploring the history and legacy of Communism” in a series entitled “The Red Century.” The series has an air of benefit-of-the-doubt lamentation for an experiment that did not quite work out—but that, perhaps, could be reborn in a new time and place and in an altered format.
Writing in 1980, Billington called revolutionary enthusiasm “the faith of our time” and modern revolutionaries “believers, no less committed and intense than the Christians and Moslems of an earlier era.” The faith of our present-day revolutionaries is equally intense—and just as based on fantasies about the malleability of human nature as were those of Lenin and his revolutionary vanguard. Though the doctrines of their faith have developed from Marxism-Leninism into Cultural Marxism, the goal remains the same: to create, in Billington’s words, a “perfect secular order” through “the forcible overthrow of traditional authority.”
In its postmodern form, the revolution has dropped its pretense of scientific social engineering, as it believes objective truth is either unknowable or nonexistent, while retaining the conviction that rapid, revolutionary transformations are essentially supreme acts of will. Like its predecessor, the revolution of today remains predicated on the notion of historical inevitability, the belief that there is an end to history that can be, must be, and will be attained.
In The Russian Revolution: A New History, Sean McMeekin challenges the accuracy of the assumption that the October Revolution was the most probable, perhaps the only logical, outcome of a chain of events that rapidly gained momentum after Russia’s disastrous war with Japan and the 1905 revolution that followed. His valuable, highly readable revision of the historical account draws on Soviet archives, opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to explore a narrative of “might-have-beens,” of missed opportunities, of personal failures on the part of the Russian leadership (the tsar and his “loyal opposition” in the State Duma) that created an opening for a small group of fanatical and determined revolutionaries, enabling them to mount a coup that was hardly inevitable but rather a very near thing.
Tsar Nicholas II sat uneasily on his throne, but was committed to retaining the autocratic powers he inherited from his father, Alexander III. Both had vowed to maintain tsarism as an absolute monarchy following the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, the “tsar liberator” who had freed the serfs and instituted other liberalizing reforms before being killed by terrorists who were members of a group called the “People’s Will.” This determination to preserve autocracy set Nicholas at odds with his liberal “loyal opposition” in the State Duma; indeed, the liberals’ plotting and manipulations were among the factors that weakened the Russian state at decisive moments.
The first Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred in February, sparked by riots in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) as the Great War dragged on. This attempt at “bourgeois revolution” precipitated Nicholas’s abdication, an event that produced a wave of chaos his overconfident liberal and moderate socialist critics could not cope with. The liberals and leftist Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) jumped at the chance to rule, but proved incapable of doing so. Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party who served in, then headed, the Russian Provisional Government, was blind to the real threat the communist Bolsheviks actually represented. Being preoccupied with the possibility of a coup from the right, Kerensky armed Trotsky’s Red Guards against Gen. Lavr Kornilov, whom Kerensky himself had asked to restore order in a chaotic Petrograd. The Bolsheviks formed a powerful armed force in the capital as a result of this grave error.
The liberals and the moderate SRs were pro-war reformers. In their political attacks on the tsar, they had claimed that the war effort was floundering (questionable), the army near collapse (it probably wasn’t when they came to power, as McMeekin’s research demonstrates), and the economy moribund (though they themselves admitted there was actually not a bread shortage in Petrograd at the time of the February Revolution, as some people claimed). During the period of “dual power” from February to October 1917 (according to the “old style” Julian calendar, which the Bolsheviks eventually replaced), leftists established a “Petrograd Soviet” (soviet means “council”) in parallel to the Provisional Government.
Kerensky underestimated the will and fanaticism of the radical socialists—though he should have known better, as he had served in both the government and on the Petrograd Soviet—and overestimated the willingness of the Russian masses to continue in an offensive war. Russia’s soldiers had largely been willing to fight a defensive war, but the Bolsheviks effectively branded the Great War an “imperialist war” of expansion. At the same time, the reformers failed to halt Bolshevik agitation among the troops.
The liberal imperialists and pro-war socialists of the Provisional Government were determined to carry on the Great War. Entering that war proved to be the most disastrous decision made by Nicholas II, a decision made against the counsel of his conservative advisors, including the liberals’ chief bête noire, the strange Siberian holy man Rasputin, who Nicholas and the tsarina believed had successfully treated the tsar’s heir, Alexei, for hemophilia. Rasputin, murdered in 1916 by Russian luminaries seeking to end his influence on the royal family, had strongly advised the tsar against war with the Central Powers. Thus, he was characterized by liberals and socialists as pro-German and pro-authoritarian. (The liberals envisioned a constitutional monarchy in Russia and an alliance with the democratic powers. Rasputin advised peace with the authoritarian kaiser.) While continuing to pursue the war effort, the Provisional Government failed to rein in the Petrograd Soviet, even as the latter issued Order No. 1 to the army, bypassing the government. The order stripped the officer corps of authority and undermined discipline in the military at a time when the army was being resupplied and had achieved overwhelming superiority in manpower, preparing to counter German advances in 1917.
As the situation deteriorated, it was Lenin who hit on the policy that could bring the Bolsheviks to power: End the war. Had Nicholas listened to Rasputin instead of the pro-war elements, McMeekin suggests, Nicholas “might have died peacefully on his throne instead of being butchered by the Bolsheviks.” Nicholas was later disinclined to listen to the advice of pro-war liberals, or to yield power “to ambitious politicians who had already shown poor judgment.” The “terrible ifs” had begun to accumulate.
McMeekin notes that
The crazy twists and turns of the Russian Revolution should give us pause in drawing out historical lessons from it. Far from an eschatological “class struggle” borne along irresistibly by the Marxist dialectic, the events of 1917 were filled with might-have-beens and missed chances. . . . Even after the abdication, the tsar might have made a comeback as a constitutional monarch had not the liberals blown their chance so badly, or had Kerensky not chosen to immolate himself in the Kornilov affair.
Among those twists and turns was Lenin’s collaboration with the Germans. Indeed, he could not have succeeded without German aid. Using fresh archival evidence, McMeekin shows just how beholden Lenin was to the Germans. The Bolshevik leader was a full-fledged German agent in the eyes of “Kaiser Bill’s” functionaries, bolstered by vast amounts of German gold. The Germans, Churchill noted in The World Crisis, had turned upon Russia “the most grisly of weapons,” transporting Lenin by train “like a plague bacillus” from Switzerland to Russia and bankrolling the Bolshevik coup that finished off the hapless Provisional Government. In power, Lenin surrendered vast swaths of Russian territory to the Germans in the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which took Russia out of the war. Lenin had a “ferocious will to power” that his enemies lacked—he was very fortunate in that regard, as McMeekin points out—and a “clear, unambiguous political program.” His insistence on ending the war was the winning argument; the liberals’ and Kerensky’s determination to continue the conflict, the losing one.
What the peasants who were deserting the front did not realize, however, was that Lenin was cynically using an antiwar policy as a ploy. His aim was to transform the “imperialist war” into a civil war and destroy the remnants of Tsarist Russia. This scheme included making war on the peasants themselves, who had been promised land and bread, and robbing the Russian Orthodox Church of her valuables. (Chaotic “war communism” was bankrupting the Bolshevik regime.) The Reds won their civil war “with the inherited capital of the old, ‘capitalist’ regime,” including recycled officers trained in the tsarist military and weapons from the old army.
As all of this was happening, the Entente wavered, failing to move decisively to strangle the Bolshevik infant in its cradle. Eventually, the Western powers would sell the communists the rope Lenin intended to use to hang them with, helping the Bolshevik regime survive by providing Soviet Russia with weapons (mostly from Germany and the United States) and laundering stolen tsarist gold bullion in Sweden.
Lenin and Trotsky used brute force to have their way, unleashing the first iteration of the Soviet secret police (commonly known as the Cheka) and Trotsky’s Red Army to impose their will on an often recalcitrant population. The Revolution, the Red Terror, the Civil War, the war on the peasants, and the famine in the Volga region of Russia created by communist policies, including confiscations of grain, cost the lives of some 25 million people—18 times more than Russia’s losses in the Great War. The Soviet regime “erected a secret police apparatus geometrically larger and more murderous” than that of the tsarist past; and Stalin, following Lenin’s death in 1924, instituted the sacred ritualistic aspect of the quasireligious Soviet leadership cult when he had Lenin embalmed and put on display in his pyramid-like tomb in Red Square.
McMeekin notes that some in the West today look back to the era of “maximalist socialism” with longing. “If the last hundred years teaches us anything,” writes McMeekin, “it is that we should stiffen our defenses and resist armed prophets promising social perfection.” The Bolshevik imitators of today are, like their predecessors, financed by capitalists. The transnational billionaire class of globalist “masters of the universe” are using the grungy anarchists and Bolshevik wannabes, along with radicals among the racial minorities, as their militant wing, to suppress resistance to their agenda of dissolving nations and making the world safe for the “one percent.” They share the Cultural Marxists’ and self-imagined Guevaristas’ dream of a radically restructured world. In common with each other and the Bolsheviks who made the Red October Revolution, they share a hatred of their own countries, contempt for ordinary people, and disdain for traditional society, for authority, for everything that makes civilized life possible. Men who would be gods, they are determined to remake Creation, in defiance of the Creator.
The Russian Revolution: A New History, by Sean McMeekin (New York: Basic Books) 445 pp., $30.00