Post-Bernie Socialism: Reform or Revolution?

bernie_sanders_284954058943229Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in Biden’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the presidential election last this year. This was a pretty remarkable development, not just because in 2016 Sanders only grudgingly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the same nomination after a long, acrimonious primary battle that continued all the way to the Democratic convention and the fight over the content of the Democratic platform. In endorsing Biden, Sanders beat other progressive Democrats like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders even endorsed Biden before former President Barack Obama, Biden’s former running mate, did.

It seems outlandish given his well-established antagonism toward the Democratic establishment, but Sanders has a close friendship with Biden, which was on display during the video conference announcing the endorsement. Biden has been a U.S. Senator from Delaware since 1973, served as chair of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, and of course was Vice President of the U.S. from 2009 to 2017. He is as much part of the Democratic ruling class as Clinton, and like her, helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill (responsible for the mass incarceration in U.S. prisons, especially of people of color) and voted for the Iraq War in 2002. Also like Clinton, he has been more friend than foe to Wall Street, billionaire donors, and other private interests. Yet when Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and Sanders supporter, penned an op-ed calling out Biden for his “big corruption problem,” Sanders condemned the piece and apologized to Biden, saying it was not his opinion “that Joe is corrupt in any way.”

334px-joe_biden_-_world_economic_forum_annual_meeting_davos_2005_portraitIt was a bizarre statement to make, especially since Biden is well-known for championing a 2005 bankruptcy bill, legislation that made it much more difficult for debtors to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that would wipe out most of their debts. Thanks in large part to Biden, the bill made bankruptcy too expensive for most ordinary people, with the average out-of-pocket cost increasing from $600 to $2,500. Why did Biden side with lenders over borrowers? It is no coincidence that Biden’s state, Delaware, has a history of courting banks and credit card companies with low corporate taxes and uncapped annual interest and late fees. Hence, Biden has been responsible for building, as journalist Tim Murphy put it, “a financial system that’s great for Delaware banks and terrible for the rest of us.”

Given the discrepancy in self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders backing Joe Biden, whose fingerprints are all over the embattled status quo that is failing so many, it is unsurprising that many Sanders supporters are indicating they will not support a Biden candidacy. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a long-time left-wing pressure group that surged with new members after Sanders’ 2016 insurgent campaign, has said it will not endorse Biden, as have many rank-and-file DSA chapters and members. It seems hardly remarkable that an organization explicitly dedicated to promoting anti-capitalist policies would decline to throw in behind in the capitalist, pro-business Biden.

320px-traditional_workers_may_day_rally_and_march_chicago_illinois_5-1-18_1290_282699088805729Sanders caught the public mood in 2016, tapping into a raft of popular grievances over rising economic inequality, the existential crisis posed by climate change, government gridlock and venality, and a general mistrust of major U.S. institutions. But while the Republican Party hooked its star to Donald Trump and his brand of bellicose right-wing populism, the Democratic establishment has largely resisted any major shifts to the left. Even now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has revealed how fragile and broken the U.S. and its principal systems and processes really are, discussion of student loan forgiveness and more accessible higher education include conditionalities and caveats, such as means-testing—and that is before the inevitable compromise and amendments that will come when/if such legislation is hashed out in Congress, with a far-right Republican Party that will surely oppose any attempts to increase social spending. If history is any guide, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill will spark bipartisan calls for “deficit reduction,” i.e. austerity. The stimulus bill passed to address the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the Obama administration creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which called for huge spending cuts (including slashing Medicare and Medicaid plus raising the Social Security age). Biden, incidentally, backed the commission, appointing GOP deficit hawk Alan Simpson to it, as well as his own chief of staff, Bruce Reed. Reed wrote the 1996 welfare reform law, which made it more difficult for people in poverty to get the assistance they need.

Given all this, the DSA membership and other anti-capitalists devoted to overturning the status quo have every right to be skeptical of Biden and the Democratic elite he represents. This begs the question, however, of how U.S. socialism should proceed: continuing to work with the Democratic Party to somehow oversee a gradual, lawful transition to socialism, or to adopt the traditional violent, insurrectionist approach ultimately leading to substituting the bourgeois state with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The chief difficulty with the latter strategy is its unpopularity, especially given the “bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices” of the “backward masses,” as Lenin once put it. For obvious reasons, people are reluctant to engage in violence against the state, especially in situations where state power is strong and still widely seen as legitimate. In the advanced capitalist West particularly, where the standard of living is relatively high even for the working poor, scraping by in a daily struggle is preferable to being imprisoned or killed. There is also the historical context: communist revolution in Western countries was eminently more likely in the direct aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the inspiring establishment of the first ever socialist state, much more so than now, given the “victory” of neoliberal capitalism over the Soviet Union. While the Bolshevik example roused a revolutionary wave across Europe from 1917 to 1923, these proletarian insurgencies failed, prompting the Stalinist regime to adopt “socialism in one country,” i.e. focusing on domestic development over exporting revolution. By the 1930s, most European communist parties had adopted a strategy of forming “popular fronts” with non-communist parties against fascism. Spanish communists took part the Popular Front government elected in 1936. In 1951, with the blessing of Stalin, the Communist Party of Great Britain published The British Road to Socialism, a program arguing for implementing socialism through popular democratic alliances rather than revolution. The French Communist Party was the leading left-wing party in French national elections from 1945 to 1960 and entered into coalition governments three times between 1944 and 1997. Outside Europe, the pattern was much the same. Chilean communists participated in the Popular Unity political confederation that helped elect Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election.

s.allende_7_dias_ilustradosIn all these cases, communist parties had two things in common. The first is that they embraced the reformist attitude of attaining socialism by piecemeal, peaceful reform. The second thing they share is that they all failed. Spain fell into a bloody civil war in 1936 when right-wing forces launched a coup, leading to the widespread massacre of communists and their allies, something the country still struggles to acknowledge. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost much of its influence after the 1956 protests in Poznan, Poland, and the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. The French Communist Party never recovered after denouncing the civil unrest of May 1968, which involved student occupations and general strikes, an instance where communists sided with the state against popular revolt. In Chile, the military overthrew the elected Allende government and brutally repressed all left-wing dissidents, with the approval and assistance of the Nixon administration in the U.S. In recent decades, many Western countries, notably the United Kingdom and the U.S., have seen surges in electoral socialism (manifested by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively), but these surges failed to overcome opposition by centrists and private interests unwilling to loosen their grip on power. These defeats beg the question: is socialism via constitutional reformism even possible?

Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Anglesey North Castles Historic SitesThe answer is that it is not, for one simple reason: the power of the capitalist ruling class does not exist outside civil society, purely in the political and economic domains. Power in capitalist societies should not be represented as a central tower to be slowly besieged by an organized, agitated mass movement; it is instead a concentric castle with inner and outer wards, defenses within defenses. Even assuming there was a socialist majority in Congress with a sympathetic executive and Supreme Court, abolishing capitalism would be impossible by merely passing a law. Granted, it would be possible to increase the rate of corporate tax and taxes on wealth, to pass laws raising the minimum wage or breaking up monopolies (such as in the tech industry), and by extension weaken the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism. As history shows, however, the capitalist class does not take this sitting down; their responses are layoffs, cutting of benefits (particularly harsh in a system where health care is a “job perk,” not a human right), reduced wages, accelerated inflation, and so on. Like falling dominoes, economic destabilization leads to the fraying of social life, with spikes in homelessness, malnutrition, drug abuse, riots, etc. The capitalist relations of production are not a Jenga tower to be gently altered piece-by-piece; it must be dismantled in its entirety in one go, in a chaotic period of not just political upheaval but also turbulent socioeconomic crisis.

Lenin described these moments of crisis as “revolutionary situations,” and identified them according to their “three major symptoms,” which are as follows:


(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Reformism actually stultifies the creation of revolutionary situations by affording the status quo the very legitimacy it must lose for a revolution to occur. The strategy of influencing the Democratic Party to adopt socialist policies, for example, is only possible with the belief that it is, as advertised, a vehicle of popular demand. “Mass politics” becomes canvassing for candidates and “getting out the vote” instead of “independent historical action,” the overthrow of one ruling class for another. Certainly in populist times such as the present, it is true that the “lower classes do not want to” live in the old way, but as long as existing dominant institutions are treated as valid, it remains true that the “upper class” continues to live in the old way. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly adding to the “suffering and want” that already existed for most ordinary people around the world before the crisis began, but even as misery is multiplied, there can no revolutionary situation if the majority work within the system instead of outside it.

If socialism is to remain at all relevant in our politics, there must be a reckoning with this basic paradox of Western socialism: the common aversion to any strategy that is not reformist, and the futility of effectively carrying out any strategy that is. It is important to remember that it is not violence that most people disfavor (indeed, history shows us the opposite is true) so much as the hard work of building a new society, a messy class struggle across all parts of life. Without a willingness to engage in that struggle, to take that leap of faith that a better world will follow the destruction of the old one, that new world cannot be born. It is also important to remember that Lenin directed the seizure of power in April 1917 in the aptly named April Theses, and yet the revolution did not happen until Red October, and of course was followed by several years of gruesome civil war. It is no surprise that class war is more appealing in theory than in practice.

Simultaneously, however, we must confront the absence of any alternative, as well as the likelihood of the crisis deepening the longer the old discredited order persists past its time. There is also the risk of revolution of the right-wing variety; right-wing militias are ubiquitous in the U.S., and the military, despite its traditional respect for civilian government, is one of the most powerful, well-funded pillars of U.S. empire. The collapse of the old order will not wait on us, and were it to happen tomorrow, it is the forces of reaction that are poised to exploit its arrival. Whether that arrival is imminent remains to be seen; in the meantime, it is up to the radical left to resolve that age-old question that has followed Western socialists for centuries: reform or revolution?

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.

The Fall of the Girondins

The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.

Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.

Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.

In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.

Understanding the Terror

The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.

The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.

182px-terreur_nantesThis is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.

Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.

In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.

On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.


Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.

It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.

Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.


Censer, Jack R. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Penn State Press, 2001.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford Paperbacks, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Hachette UK, 2010.

Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. Yale University Press, 1989.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1964.

Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2013.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

Palmer, Robert Roswell. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French revolution. Random House, 2012.

Shulim, Joseph I., et al. “Robespierre and the French Revolution.” (1977): 20-38.

Soboul, Albert. “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4.” Past & Present 5 (1954): 54-70.

The French Revolution: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.


Bouton, Cynthia A. The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society. Penn State Press, 1993.

Campbell, Peter. Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745. Routledge, 2003.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Duke University Press, 1991.

Cobban, Alfred. The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Kaplan, Steven L. Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV. Anthem Press, 2015.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution Volume I: from its Origins to 1793. Columbia University Press, 1962.

Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, and Rolf Reichardt. The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom. Duke University Press, 1997.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter, ed. A Companion to the French Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Beacon Press, 1993.

Moote, A. Lloyd. The Revolt of the Judges: the Parlement of Paris and the Fronde, 1643-1652. Princeton University Press, 1971.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Soboul, Albert. The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. NLB, 1974.

Treasure, Geoffrey Russell Richards. Richelieu and Mazarin. Psychology Press, 1998.


The Bolsheviks in Power: The 1920s

Upon coming to power at the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks immediately implemented sweeping reforms. On social issues, 8womendaythey separated church and state, the Orthodox Church having long been a pillar of support for the old tsarist order. They abolished the church hierarchy and nationalized its property. Those who wanted a place to worship had to petition their local council, and those churches allowed to operate had to depend on donations. The state ceased its recognition of religious holidays and instated secular holidays such as May Day and the anniversary of Red October. The government even switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, joining most of the Western world despite the preferences of the Church. The Bolsheviks also secularized marriages, with spouses being able to pursue divorce through civil means (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 147). This meant that women no longer needed the permission of their husbands to end their marriages. The Bolsheviks appointed Aleksandra Kollontai as People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, and she founded a communist women’s section (the “Zhenotdel”) in 1919 dedicated to bettering conditions for women, increasing their educational opportunities and informing them about the Bolsheviks’ social reforms (Von Geldern 2014). The state also decriminalized homosexuality, although this remained in effect in Russia; most of the soviet republics in Transcaucasia and Central Asia banned homosexuality in the 1920s (Healey 2001, p. 258). In the 1930s, the Soviet Union would reverse several of these developments, eliminating women’s departments as redundant and abolishing legal abortion in the hopes of reinvigorating a falling birth rate. Nevertheless, at the time, the Bolsheviks succeeded in enacting the most socially progressive policies yet seen in history.

Seeking allies on the world stage, the Bolsheviks established the Third or Communist International (the Comintern) in 1919 to organize parties modeled after the Bolshevik structure and to spread proletarian revolution. The first president of the Comintern Executive Committee, Grigory Zinoviev, issued 21 conditions for membership in the group, including ideological consistency with the Bolsheviks and opposition to non-revolutionary left-wing parties. When hopes of repeated revolutions soon dimmed, however, the Comintern muted its militancy, especially between 1920 and 1921, when the Bolsheviks signed border treaties with many of its European and Asian neighbors and even concluded a trade agreement with Great Britian (Kort 2006, pp. 158-159). The failure of other European countries to replicate the Bolshevik revolution dampened dreams of a grand union of socialist nations led by Moscow. Gradually, the Comintern endorsed member parties forming restricted alliances with other socialist groups in their countries, including political parties and trade unions, so long as they did not fully embrace “Centrist ideology” (Siegelbaum 2014a). Moscow would later take this validation of left-wing unison farther in response to the rise of fascism in Europe in the coming decades, with calls for “popular fronts” against the fascists.

More than any aspect of domestic or foreign politics, the Bolsheviks were concerned with the economy. In December 1917, Russland, Bäuerinnen bei der Erntethey set up the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh), and straightaway began to mobilize state resources for the civil war in what became known as “War Communism.” This was more a set of military measures meant to provide the Bolsheviks with the means to win the war than anything else; after all, the Bolsheviks did not control much territory beyond central European Russia at this point. However temporary it might have been, the actions taken under “War Communism” were by no means minor. The Bolsheviks nationalized the major industries and instituted mandatory labor for all males over sixteen years, issuing labor books to track employment and work behavior. The devastation wrought by the civil war and the intense discipline imposed by “War Communism” led to industrial strife and despair. The number of industrial workers in Moscow dropped from around 190,000 in 1917 to around 81,000 in 1921 (Wade 2001, p. 71). When the civil war finally ended in 1920, around 7 million people had died from fighting, starvation or disease, and in the following years, famine claimed around 5 million more victims. Accusing the “rural bourgeoisie” of hoarding grain, the Bolsheviks tasked “committees of poor peasants” with waging class war in the countryside.

The peasantry remained complacent during the civil war, perhaps in the knowledge that, as bad as Bolshevik grain requisitions were, the Whites would have been worse had they triumphed, most likely kicking the peasants off the land they had seized and reducing them once more to total servitude (Hosking 1985, p. 76). Most peasants probably reasoned that it was better to tolerate the socialists who had permitted land seizures than the tsarist officers who spoke openly of restoring traditional serfdom. When the Whites were defeated, peasant rebellions broke out across Russia, primarily in the southwest as well as in Siberia. Perhaps the best known of these, the Tambov Rebellion, persisted for a year before it was put down through a mixture of repression and concessions, with military force supplemented by the ending of the appropriation of grain in the province (ibid., pp. 78-79). For the most part, the Tambov revolt and others like it were not coordinated political movements so much as visceral reactions intended as expressions of opposition to specific agricultural policies.

In the cities, the much-diminished ranks of the workers also demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the “iron discipline” associated with the Bolsheviks’ wartime policies. In February 1921, some workers went on strike in Petrograd and the RedKronstadt_attack Army put down the demonstrations by force. A month later, at the nearby Kronstadt naval base, the sailors stationed there declared their defiance to the state and set up their own Provisional Revolutionary Committee. They called for increased political freedoms for non-Bolshevik socialist parties as well as free and fair elections to the workers’ councils. After five days of negotiations, the sailors refused to compromise and the Bolsheviks decided to use force once again, before the coming spring could melt the ice around the base and leave it isolated. A memorandum written by an organization of anti-Bolshevik exiles also shows the Krondstadt uprising had the potential to become a rallying point for White émigrés still hoping to bring down socialism (Avrich 1970). After storming the fortress, the Red Army took the base, with thousands killed on both sides. Those rebels who survived faced either execution or sentences in concentration camps (Kort 2006, pp. 143-144). With the suppression of the Krondstadt rebellion came an end to the major challenges to Bolshevik rule.

For decades, the Krondstadt rebellion has served as the defining moment for many on the left and right as to when the Bolsheviks fully betrayed the principles of the 1917 revolutions, choosing state power over people power. Such critics argue that the sailors’ proposals called for democratic practices and a multiparty regime, and a demand for libertarian socialism embodied by the early revolutionary councils and even articulated by Lenin himself in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution. The fact that Krondstadt itself had also long been a Bolshevik stronghold and supporter of the revolution only seemed to underline the fact the Bolsheviks had turned their back on popular empowerment and chosen to become bloody autocrats as harsh as the tsarist state.

These criticisms are somewhat inaccurate. Many of the Kronstadt sailors who participated in the 1920 revolt were, veterans and recruits alike, from rural areas that, as we have seen, suffered greatly during the civil war years. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Stepan Petrichenko, came from a family of Ukrainian peasants. He had witnessed the austere conditions of “War Communism” firsthand when visiting his home in 1920 (Lincoln 1989, p. 495). Yet, this does not deny that the Kronstadt rebels had sincere grievances. There seems little reason to believe that the rebellion was anything other than a genuine grassroots insurrection by left-wingers disillusioned with the Bolsheviks. After escaping the Red Army reprisals, Petrichenko fled to Finland where he remained a left-wing politician and even supported the socialists there, prompting the Finnish government to arrest him in 1945 and turn him over to the Soviet Union, which unsurprisingly imprisoned him before his death mere years later.

Leon Trotsky, as the head of the Red Army in 1921, spent much of his later life defending Bolshevik policy at Kronstadt, 19210321-lenin_voroshilov_trotsky_and_participants_liquidation_kronstadt_uprising_in_moscowprimarily against anti-Bolshevik anarchists like Emma Goldman, who were irate that left-wing revolutionaries would use state power to execute other radical leftists. In Stalinism and Bolshevism (1937), Trotsky argued that anarchists are incorrect to use Kronstadt as evidence of Bolshevism intrinsically leading to an oppressive centralized state, since the Bolsheviks shared the anarchist wish of abolishing the state through creating the necessary conditions for communism, when the state would wither away. Until those conditions were realized, however, the Bolsheviks had to use the power of the state to defend the revolution. He also claims that he and Lenin were not inherently hostile to anarchists and anarchism, and even discussed plans to permit some revolutionary anarchists to experiment with a stateless society, but the realities of the civil war and existential threats to the Bolsheviks prevented such projects. Hostility to Bolshevism foreign and domestic necessitated the quelling of rebellions, right-wing and left-wing, as well as the prohibition of non-Bolshevik parties. It was a matter of accident, not design, that these measures meant to preserve the revolutionary program ended up facilitating (in Trotsky’s view) the rise of Stalin and the transformation of the Soviet Union into an authoritarian state.

Whatever the later legacy of the Krondstadt rebellion, it made clear that the Bolsheviks needed to change their approaches to governance. By the end of 1921, they had replaced the austere and punitive policies of “War Communism” with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Originally intended as a means to motivate greater agricultural production, the NEP evolved into the permission of private ownership in the production of consumer goods. The government remained responsible for the “commanding heights” – the major industries, transportation and foreign trade – but in other areas, private buying and selling thrived. As planned, the agricultural sector recovered, but the economy struggled due to the “scissors crisis” of 1922-1923,Graph_illustrating_the_Scissors_Crisis
 so-called because of the sharp divergence between grain prices and the cost of manufactured products. Essentially, the state bought abundant grain at low prices, but because the factories had yet to recover from recent wars, the farmers could not afford to buy consumer goods. In response, the government terminated the employment of staff at state-owned industries, increased the number of consumer cooperatives and forced company trusts to sell off their warehoused stocks (Siegelbaum 2014b). Also in the industrial sector, the state retained control over economic planning through Gosplan, the State Planning Commission, and state-run firms employed over 80% of workers. The state did permit the operation of small businesses, however, as long as they employed 20 employees or less and produced non-essential goods and services such as handicrafts. By 1925, overall economic production had reached close to pre-war levels (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Bolsheviks had created a system that was neither socialist nor capitalist, but a prototype of the “mixed economy” seen all around the world today, with a combination of public and private ownership.

If the NEP represented a strategic retreat by the Bolsheviks on economic matters, in the political sphere they continued to take a hard line. In 1921, they passed two resolutions. The first effectively brought trade unions under the control of the Bolsheviks and ostracized the Workers’ Opposition, a movement within the party that had called for greater trade union autonomy and union control over the industries. The second resolution banned all “factions” among the Bolsheviks entirely, limiting dissent to sanctioned periods of decision-making conducted by the party leadership. A majority vote of the Bolshevik Central Committee could expel anyone found guilty of spreading “factionalism.” The Bolsheviks also started to purge their ranks, cutting their membership ostensibly to remove those merely seeking status and power. Outside the party, those Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who had somehow managed to survive the civil war found their parties proscribed (Kort 2006, p. 148). As in other episodes from the revolution, the anti-democratic nature of these moves seems less sinister when one recollects that the Bolsheviks never purported to be a democratic organization. Their concern remained seeing through the revolution, and considering how unpopular “War Communism” and the subdual of popular rebellions had made them, they had some cause to be fearful that sharing power would mean losing it. It is important to note that several Bolsheviks later critical of the centralization of power in the Soviet Union, such as Trotsky and Karl Radek, supported the clampdown on dissent, as the revolution was considered too important to be left to the public mood. In addition, despite his enshrinement of party unity, Lenin himself to the very end generally permitted debate within the party, preferring to persuade his opponents than to imprison or kill them.

Indeed, well into the 1920s, the Bolsheviks actively debated the issues of industrialization and the collectivization of Russian_1_May_Poster_1920agriculture. The Right, so-named because of their favoring the status quo, wanted to maintain the balance between industrial and agricultural prices set by the NEP and claimed socialism could be achieved slowly and organically. Proponents, including Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, argued that increased farming production would stimulate demand for more industrial goods, resulting in higher industrial production and thus lower industrial prices, until the town and country were equal (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Left Opposition, including Trotsky and the economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, railed against what they perceived as the “bureaucratization” of the revolution, with policies guided by technocrats and specialists rather than by revolutionaries. In their view, industrialization would only occur through the vigorous appropriation of agricultural surpluses via taxation and price controls. The Bolsheviks had to pursue “super-industrialization” in order to catch up with the industrialized countries of the West, which of course had industrialized over centuries (Siegelbaum 2014c). The Bolshevik leadership deemed these proposals too excessive and too risky and the status quo prevailed. Rather than bypassing capitalist development and attempting a socialist economy from the start, the Bolsheviks came to accept limited capitalism as a way to construct communism with bourgeois hands.

Lenin especially came to view the NEP as more than a fleeting change in policy. Like many other Bolsheviks, he worried that a flourishing of private trade, especially after years of war and shortages, would allow capitalism to re-establish itself. For the most part, however, he remained convinced that as long as the state steered the economy and encouraged democratic consumer cooperatives, socialism would eventually come to Russia (Figes 1996, p. 770). He also became increasingly concerned with the problem of “bureaucratization” and the growing lack of transparency and accountability of the government to the people. He realized that the Bolsheviks, having been devoted to overthrowing the state, had to learn how to rule, but he still detested the dearth of efficiency and civility on the part of government officials. He bemoaned that many Bolsheviks lacked “humaneness and feeling in dealing with people” (Ulam 1998, pp. 531-532). In 1919, he created an office of inspector general, the Rabkrin, with oversight powers over government agencies as well as “control commissions” to fight misconduct within the newly formed Communist Party. The first head of the Rabkrin was Joseph Stalin, a Bolshevik noted for his industriousness.

As People’s Commissar for Nationalities Stalin had been heavily involved in the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia, his native land, and in 1922, he had become General Secretary of the Communist Party due to his support for Lenin’s crusadeJoseph_Stalin_(Dzhugashvili) against “factionalism.” Lenin praised Stalin for his willingness to take on responsibilities and protect the party, but a rift grew between them over the 1922 Georgian Affair. Stalin and another Georgian Bolshevik, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, wanted to subordinate Georgia to Moscow and jettison any nationalist feelings by creating a Transcaucasian soviet republic including Georgia along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The local moderates disputed this and appealed to Lenin, who agreed that the soviet republics should be politically equal. Lenin suffered a pair of strokes in 1922 and 1923, however, and due to his poor health, could no longer mount an effective opposition against Stalin. In March 1923, Lenin and Stalin had a personal falling out. The past December, Lenin had dictated a letter to his wife and fellow Bolshevik, Nadezhda Krupskaya. When Stalin learned of this, he verbally abused Krupskaya for placing undue strain on Lenin while he was recovering. Lenin perceived the incident as a personal insult whereas Stalin considered Krupskaya just another “comrade” and thus undeserving of special treatment (Figes 1996, pp. 800-801). Lenin suffered his third and final stroke a few days later, leaving him an invalid unable to speak more than a few monosyllabic words. His faculties had not endured long enough for him to satisfactorily address his concerns about party operations or government bureaucracy, but he had led his cadre of revolutionaries to victory and to the establishment of the first socialist state.

In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded, consisting of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. Contrary to the Georgian Affair, the early Soviet Union devolved great cultural autonomy to its member republics, especially compared to the previous tsarist regime and its policies of “Russification.” Non-Russians could use their own native tongues and practice their own cultural traditions freely, and the government even played a role in creating written languages for some of the illiterate peoples in the eastern provinces (Kort 2006, p. 155). The state also passed laws against anti-Semitism, although it suppressed the teaching of Hebrew due to its religious connotations, encouraging Soviet Jews to use Yiddish instead. In Central Asia, the Soviets developed a Latin and later Cyrillic script to replace the Arabic alphabet in order to downplay connections with other Muslim peoples. In terms of actual administration, the Soviet Union devolved some portfolios wholly to the soviet republics, including education, health and social services. Other matters, such as foreign relations, foreign trade and the military remained with the central government. The central and republic governments shared jurisdiction over domestic economic issues like employment and industry. A constitution would be formed and formally approved in 1924.

In January 1924, Lenin died at the age of 53. Against the wishes of himself and his family, the state embalmed his body and put it on display in a mausoleum in Red Square. Petrograd, the city where the 1917 revolutions had played out, becameLenin-last-photo Leningrad. Stalin may have initiated the “Lenin cult” from his understanding of religious symbolism learned in his early seminary education. The notion of “God-building” – that is, creating a divine aura around the “new man” formed under socialism – also influenced the transformation of Lenin from the leading Bolshevik theoretician to a Christ-like figure in the Soviet psyche (Hosking 1985, pp. 132-133). Whatever propaganda may have come later, at the time an estimated half a million people attended Lenin’s funeral to pay their respects, as wreaths and somber eulogies poured into Moscow from across the Soviet Union. This grief was genuine and predated any Soviet hagiographies. While some Western historians have sought to portray Lenin as a cruel dictator or a monstrous murder from the outset, coming to power via a coup and supported only his key followers among the Bolsheviks, the truth is that he had become the face and the driving force of the revolutions. It would be erroneous to assert that he created the Soviet Union on his own or that he was anything close to an infallible, omnipotent individual, but it also cannot be denied that his great contributions to forging a new socialist society were widely recognized in 1924.

Of all the events and incidents concerning the Bolsheviks, none is more commonly misunderstood as Lenin’s succession and Stalin’s rise to power. The typical narrative repeated by historians is that Lenin wrote a “testament” before his death, deriding Stalin and naming Trotsky his successor. Stalin suppressed or destroyed this testament (depending on what version you hear). As part of a triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, Stalin isolated and then exiled Trotsky, before then turning on his partners and then executed them as counterrevolutionaries. In this account, Trotsky is the benevolent and mild-mannered hero, undone by a conspiracy of his jealous rivals, including the crude and underhanded Stalin. Obviously, Trotsky’s followers favor this story, but it is also common to hear it repeated by left-wing libertarians and even right-wingers as evidence of the dangers of too much centralized authority and proof that “the revolution eats its children.” Thanks to recent scholarship and access to new documents like Stalin’s personal correspondence, a different reality emerges.

First, Lenin did not pen a “testament” so much as a series of notes he took while recovering from one of his strokes. At the time, the prevailing view was that Lenin would return to politics, and Lenin apparently believed this himself. As already 1919-Trotsky_Lenin_Kamenev-Party-Congressmentioned, Lenin was especially concerned with the bureaucratization of the government and the party, and he drafted a number of proposals, such as increasing the size of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee to 50 to 100 members, and giving the committee oversight over the powers of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s chief policymaking body. He also reviewed the main personalities in the party besides himself, and while he did take Stalin to task for being “too rude” and amassing a worrying amount of power, he had recriminations for them all. Kamenev and Zinoviev had opposed Lenin’s calls for an armed uprising in late 1917, even leaking Lenin’s plans to the press. The primary proponent of the NEP, Nikolai Bukharin, was popular, but his devotion to limited capitalism made his allegiance to Marxism suspect. Trotsky, meanwhile, suffered from “excessive self-assurance” and spent too much time on administrative matters and not enough on party business (Figes 1996, pp. 800). In fact, even though he held a position in the Politburo, Trotsky did not hold a party post and rarely attended party meetings. With all these criticisms taken together, Lenin seemed less interested in anointing an heir than with making the point that no one man should rule over the party, and that instead the Bolsheviks should look at ways to check institutional power and get rank-and-file members more involved.

To return to Trotsky, his “excessive self-assurance” had been a known problem when it came to his relations with the other Trotsky_ProfileBolsheviks. In 1903, at the Second Congress of the Social Democrats, he had been “irrepressible,” speaking on behalf of the Jewish proletariat (he was middle class) and addressing others with condescension (he referred to an older man as “young comrade”) (Ulam 1998, pg. 189). During the civil war, he alienated others by traveling from battlefield to battlefield in a furnished train, equipped with its own private restaurant. He made sure his political commissars were always dressed in immaculate uniforms. He also dealt with those Bolsheviks who criticized his use of tsarist officers and a strict chain of command in harsh terms. He was not noted for his tact and even he himself admitted he was disliked for his “aristocratism” (Figes 1996, pp. 593-594). This, after all, had been the man who popularized the phrase “the dustbin of history” when referring to the ultimate destination of the Mensheviks when they walked out on the Bolshevik-controlled Second Congress of Soviets in 1917. This was despite the fact he had been more closely aligned with the Mensheviks initially, joining the Bolsheviks only on the outset of the 1917 revolutions. He was a relative newcomver to Bolshevism, and to the regular party membership, he was seen purely as “a specialist on military and economic problems” (Ulam 1998, pg. 575). He had his admirers, but he was not generally beloved.

It would be remiss if we did not also factor in feelings of anti-Semitism. The Whites, Poles and Allies explicitly displayed Trotsky’s Jewish heritage in their propaganda against him, and given the prevalent hostility against Jews in this period, it is reasonable to assume that more than a few Bolsheviks disdained Trotsky for being a Jew. Trotsky himself considered his ethnic identity an issue, turning down the post of Commissar of the Interior in 1917 and Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars in 1922 because a Jew in those posts would be too controversial (Figes 1996, pp. 803-804). If Trotsky did not already suffer from his tendencies for pomposity and vanity, in addition to being a late convert to Bolshevism, he also likely fell victim to racism and prejudice.

All of this coalesced into making Trotsky a less than likely successor to Lenin and led to the creation of an “underground Politburo” that consisted of all the Politburo members besides Trotsky. Contrary to popular perception, we know now that there was not so much a Stalin/Kamenev/Zinoviev troika after Lenin’s death as there was an elite executive of seven Bolsheviks: Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Alexei Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky. These seven met before Politburo meetings and discussed which actions to take and which resolutions to approve before including Trotsky (Stalin, et al. 1995). Thus, there was not so much a Stalin versus Trotsky duel after Lenin’s death, and not even a conflict between Trotsky and the troika. Trotsky was already a marginalized figure in 1923, and Stalin consolidated his power not by removing Trotsky, who was not a threat, but instead by leading an anti-Trotsky campaign with other Bolsheviks.

Lenin’s “testament” was not destroyed or suppressed. Nadezhda Krupskaya brought it to the attention of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, which decided not to read it into the record at the 13th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in May 1923. Instead, it was read to each delegation privately, with Stalin offering his resignation as General Secretary, in response to Lenin’s suggestions. The party rejected his resignation. If Lenin had recovered from his strokes, perhaps he could have used his forceful personality and oratorical skills to force the issue, as he did so many times when the Bolsheviks resisted his wishes. As it stood, however, the scales were stacked against eliminating Stalin from the leadership and causing party upheaval, especially with the polarizing personage of Trotsky touted as a possible replacement. For his part, Trotsky must have realized that the chances of him succeeding Lenin were dubious at best.

In October 1923, Trotsky wrote an open letter to the party leadership criticizing them for marginalizing the involvement of the masses in the party. On the heels of Trotsky’s letter came the Declaration of the 46, a missive from 46 party members, largely agreeing with Trotsky and expressing worry that the promotion of “professional party functionaries” was “destroying the Trotskyist_Left_Opposition-1927independence of the party, replacing the party with a selected bureaucratic apparatus” (Fahlgren 2008). With these letters, the Left Opposition had added to their criticism of the NEP a complaint about intra-party democracy being sacrificed in the name of party unity. These stances were actually consistent, as the objection to the NEP was that it relied on bourgeois specialists from the tsarist economy, and therefore took economic matters out of the hands of the people and the party, much as the Politburo had reduced the input of the general party from political matters. Later that month, the party leadership accused Trotsky of “factionalism” and berated him with numerous personal attacks, mostly variations on his vanity and selfishness. Despite a speech from Trotsky implying that the charges were racially motivated, the Plenum of the Central Committee censured him for trying to split the party in a landslide vote.

It is crucial to note that at this time party members did not fear death for their dissent. The party had banned factions, yes, but among the Bolsheviks, there had been open debates over the NEP, intra-party democracy, industrialization and other issues. Whatever their disagreements, the partisans on any topic had no cause to believe they would be sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia or placed before a firing squad. Those outside the party could countenance the possibility of being investigated by the Cheka, now the State Political Directorate (GPU) of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), but party members were generally above such worries. The worst they could expect was to be removed from their posts, as Trotsky would be in the coming years. Perhaps believing that he had nothing more to fear domestically but cognizant of his sequestration on the Politburo, he decided to take his case abroad to foreign sympathizers.

In October 1924, Trotsky published Lessons of October, his reflections on the revolution of late 1917. In this work, he sought to pass on the experiences of the Bolsheviks to socialist revolutionaries in other countries. He also brought attention to how Kamenev and Zinoviev had resisted seizing power at Lenin’s insistence, as well as how, as editors of Pravda, Kamenev and Stalin had initially supported the Provisional Government rather than violent insurrection. As might be expected, Kamenev and Zinoviev were especially furious with Trotsky over this, and even proposed that he be expelled from the party; Stalin, however, refused this. Instead, in a series of speeches and publications, and supported by other Bolsheviks, he contrasted “Leninism” and “Trotskyism,” downplaying the significance of the disagreements among the Bolsheviks as well as Trotsky’s own role in the revolution as secondary to Lenin. He also explored polemics Lenin and Trotsky had written about one another between 1903 and 1917, when Trotsky was still more aligned with the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks (Stalin 1924). The result of the “literary debate” was the further exaltation of Trotsky outside the Soviet Union, whereas within it the charges against him of dividing the party seemed all the more valid, and Stalin all the more credible as party leader.

The Eastman Affair the following year solidified this perception. Max Eastman, an American socialist and journalist, published Lenin_and_stalin_cropSince Lenin Died in 1925, revealing the existence of Lenin’s “testament” and portraying it as Lenin naming Trotsky as his devoted and loyal successor. Encouraged by Trotsky and his supporters, Eastman advanced the misleading interpretation of the document, juxtaposing Trotsky, the “saintly” revolutionary, with the other leading Bolsheviks, who are all corrupt careerists disregarding the wishes of the late leader. Even if the other members of the Politburo had not already been against Trotsky, this inaccurate assessment lauding Trotsky while harshly condemning them would surely have served to dishonor him in their eyes. In the aftermath of the publication, Trotsky remained silent, so Stalin wrote a memorandum listing the errors of Eastman’s account and demanding Trotsky disavow it. Trotsky did so, noting that Lenin did not leave a “testament” but instead a letter of “an internal party character.” While some Trotskyites have construed this as Stalin forcing Trotsky to lie to save his skin, we know from Stalin’s letters that Stalin felt that Trotsky “saved himself” by denouncing Eastman and wanted to publish his memorandum to make it clear that Trotsky only did so under pressure from the Politburo (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 21-22). Unemployed and completely discredited in the eyes of the party, Trotsky seemed destined for a downfall.

Yet, in 1926, two of his enemies in the Politburo, Kamenev and Zinoviev, joined with him against Stalin, giving him new political life. Still, Trotsky proved as difficult an ally as ever, and for their own parts, Kamenev and Zinoviev soon lost their bases of support in the Leningrad and Moscow party branches. From the outset, the United Opposition did not possess the institutional or mass support needed to make a true challenge for power (Hosking 1985, p. 145). Zinoviev was, however, the head of the Comintern, and we know from Stalin’s letters that he treated the United Opposition with more seriousness than he regarded the threat posed by Trotsky. Indeed, the Opposition took Stalin and the Politburo to task for their fruitless support of non-revolutionary movements outside the Soviet Union. For example, in 1926, there had been a general strike in the United Kingdom in support of coal miners, with Soviet support; not only did the strike fail, but also the miners had to accept longer hours and lower wages than before. Meanwhile, in China, the Soviet Union encouraged the communists there to collaborate with the nationalist Kuomintang in the hopes of forming a “revolutionary-democratic bloc.” By the summer of 1927, however, the KMT banned the Chinese Communist Party and persecuted its members. Stalin, however, refused to deviate from these policies. In the meantime, he made fresh allegations of factionalism against Kamenev and Zinoviev, using their actions in 1917 against them as well as a telegram allegedly sent by Kamenev that year expressing support not just for the Provisional Government but also for the brother of Tsar Nicholas, Mikhail, who had briefly been tsar following Nicholas’ abdication. Kamenev claimed to have never written the telegram, and numerous witnesses came forward to endorse this, but Stalin and the rest of the Politburo managed to prevent these defenses from being published in the party press. Forced underground, they attempted to operate in secret, but when the NKVD discovered one of their printing presses, the Politburo expelled the Opposition members from the party’s Central Committee and, in the case of Trotsky and Zinoviev, from the party itself. They would be readmitted only if they renounced their actions and admitted their errors in working against the party. Kamenev and Zinoviev did so, thus surrendering any legitimacy they may have had; Trotsky refused to repudiate his opposition and was exiled, but he had long ago been discredited.

As the 1920s ended, the NEP faced extinction. The Soviet Union had reached levels of prewar production, but grain remained scarce on the market. Government price controls prompted affluent peasants (the kulaks) to withhold their grain, Wladimir_Gawriilowitsch_Krikhatzkij_-_The_First_Tractorhoping for higher prices, leaving the state unable to feed its people or fund new industrial projects. Stalin, like Lenin, initially opposed the idea of forced collectivization of agriculture, preferring “example and persuasion” (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 197-198). He made a U-turn on the issue, however, embracing collectivization and by 1929 implementing it with the full force of his now monumental authority. Some historians have argued Stalin linked collectivization with increasing the grain “tribute” paid to the state to finance industrialization. In both public speeches and private correspondence, however, Stalin argued that the benefits of collectivization – increased state subsidies, less dependence on the kulak saboteurs, access to new equipment – would offset the damaged cause by collection of the tribute. From him, the procurement of grain was the main thing. We also know that his push for all-out collectivization was fueled by reports of remarkable success in Khoper county in the lower Volga region, where the collectivization of farms jumped from 2.2% in June to at least 30% in October (Davies 1980). By the end of the following month, a commission set up to review the Khoper case reported that the state should reduce the rate of collectivization. Stalin thus came to believe that there was no need to adopt a “wait and see” approach, and that all-out collectivization could be accompanied by the liquidation of the affluent peasants as a class (or “dekulakization”). According to Soviet records, the government deported around 400,000 peasant families (over 1.8 million people) to special settlements in eastern Russia or Central Asia between 1930 and 1931 (Kort 2006, p. 205). On the economic front as well, Stalin increasingly used the power of the state to enforce his plans. A letter from 1929 on improving grain procurement asks the Politburo to use the NKVD to put down petty speculators and truculent farmers preventing the state from obtaining its full resources, a suggestion adopted by the Politburo. Nevertheless, in another letter Stalin worries that the security forces will see through the directives unless they too are checked on (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 51-52). It at this point that we come to see both how much power Stalin has amassed in his hands but also his own style and outlook on governing.

According to Lars T. Lih, Stalin’s worldview was informed by what he terms the “antibureaucrat scenario.” This perspective stemmed from the long-running Bolshevik concern, expressed by Lenin and others, about the reliance of the new socialist state on “bourgeois specialists” who had not been a part of the revolution and may have even opposed it. To counteract counterrevolution, then, it was necessary to both present a united political front and to constantly monitor progress on the part of the bureaucrats. Whereas Lenin seemed to believe in using oversight and auditing to make this possible, Stalin favored a much more direct, hierarchical structure, wherein those deviating from the spirit of the revolution and party directives needed to be “cleansed” or “purged.” Stalin, in a sense, was in the late 1920s and 1930s drawing from Bolshevik political culture and an established identification and frustration of the problem of bureaucrats and opportunists working against the revolution. Yet, this does not absolve Stalin with how he chose to tackle this problem; he himself chose, for example, to use the Soviet secret police to administer his economic plans, and to judge and mete out punishments against those who, in his view, did not hold “correct” views.

Evidence of the latter can be found in the political demises of Bukharin and Rykov. Like Stalin, they had represented the Bolshevik “Right” against the “Left” Opposition of Trotsky. In the late 1920s, however, Stalin launched a crusade against them as part of a right-wing deviation from socialism. This round of in-fighting must be distinguished from the Trotsky and United Opposition instances, because there was no explicit challenge to Stalin; indeed, Bukharin protested through 1928 and 1929 that he had no political differences with Stalin. Stalin, meanwhile, claimed Bukharin was, at his core, a Kadet posing as a Bolshevik, “more at home in the left wing of a party of petit bourgeous socialists than in the Communist Party, where he is a decrepit, rotten defeatist” (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 54-55). Ironically, modern historians have latched on to the notion of a split between Stalin and Bukharin over the NEP (painting Bukharin as “right” and Stalin as “wrong”) while, at the time, Bukharin was vociferous that there was no such split and that their feud stemmed from personal disputes. Rykov, a preeminent Bolshevik on economic matters often overlooked by historians, in 1926 spoke out on the bureaucrat problem at a party conference, but offered a solution more nuanced than Stalin’s total war, calling on the party to separate the good specialists from the bad ones. We know from Stalin’s letters that he from that point considered Rykov to devoid of faith in revolution, a specialist simply showing sympathy with the Soviets (ibid., p. 56). By the end of 1930, Stalin had engineered the removal of Bukharin and Rykov from the Politburo, casting them into the political wilderness. They had met the same fate as Kamenev and Zinoviev despite not showing the same defiance as the United Opposition; it was primarily in Stalin’s own judgment that they had been branded traitors.

As we assess the Soviet Union going into the 1930s, it is tempting to speculate how things may have been different had Lenin recovered from his strokes or at least made some of his final proposals a reality. Stalin would have ceased to be the General Secretary of the party, certainly. There no doubt would have been some in-fighting over the issues of foreign policy and the economy, much as there had been intra-party debate in the past, although party members would likely have remained immune from expulsion save for instances where they clearly went against decided doctrine. It is doubtful we would have seen the sort of personal verdicts on ideological purity turned into official practice as witnessed on the part of Stalin. The “bureaucrat problem” would have remained an issue, but it is possible Rykov’s subtle solution of keeping the good and eliminating the bad could have prevailed. Likewise, although the NEP would likely not have provided the internal capital necessary to fuel industrialization due to its dependence on voluntary compliance on the part of peasants who had been hostile to the Bolsheviks since the days of “War Communism,” the shift to forced collectivization need not have proceeded at the breakneck speed that it did. It must be admitted, though, given the unresolved hostility between the Bolsheviks and the peasants, it is difficult to envision how the wide gulf between the state and the countryside could have been bridged to avoid any top-down coercion.

Conjecture and speculation aside, it is apparent that the Soviet Union by 1930 had changed in character dramatically from the conclusion of the civil war in 1920. The Bolsheviks held uncontested power, but such were the divisions within the party itself that much of the 1920s had been devoted to contests over power and between personalities. Small steps toward socialism through partial capitalism as represented by the NEP had been replaced by a bold economic offensive meant to bring the Soviet Union to a level of development equal to the industrialized nations. Abroad, those Bolsheviks dreaming of more revolutions and a long list of countries within the Communist International had come to temper their expectations, hoping instead that the global left could counter the rising tide of reactionaries and fascism. At the same time, the Soviet Union would devote much of its energy at home to repressing and purging its enemies, with both regular citizens and prominent Bolsheviks suspected of political crimes.

Works Cited

1. Avrich, Paul. 1970. Kronstadt, 1921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Davies, R.W. 1980. The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3. Fahlgren, Martin. “The Platform of the 46.” Documents of the 1923 Opposition. Retrieved from
4. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
5. Healey, Dan. 2001. “Masculine Purity and Gentlemen’s Mischief: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution Between Russian Men, 1861-1941.” Slavic Review, 60(2), pp. 233-265.
6. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
7. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
8. Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1989. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster.
9. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
10. Siegelbaum, Lewis. 2014a. “Comintern.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Retrieved from
11. Siegelbaum, Lewis. 2014b. “Scissors Crisis.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Retrieved from
12. Siegelbaum, Lewis. 2014c. “Industrialization Debate.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Retrieved from
13. Stalin, Joseph. 1924. Trotskyism or Leninism? Retrieved from
14. Stalin, Joseph, Lih, Lars T., Naumov, Oleg V., Kosheleva, L. and Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich. 1995. Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
15. Trotsky, Leon. 1937. Stalinism and Bolshevism. Retrieved from
16. Ulam, Adam. 1998. The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia. Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.
17. Von Geldern, James. 2014. “The New Woman.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Retrieved from
18. Wade, Rex. 2001. The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

The Russian Civil War: 1918-1920

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, toppling the crumbling Provisional Government and replacing it with their own interim administration. They shared power with the left-wing breakaway faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), the party of the farmers, and thus claimed to represent both the industrial proletariat as well as the peasantry. Yet their place in government was not secure. Socialist moderates, including the Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, even though the Second Congress of the Soviets had sanctioned it. Moreover, the time for the long-promised Russian Constituent Assembly had come, and although the Bolsheviks dominated the soviets throughout Russia, they did not expect to win a majority in a national poll. The elections went ahead just three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, with over 40 million votes cast under equal suffrage with secret ballots, the first of its kind in Russian history (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 145). As predicted, the SRs achieved a majority, with the Bolsheviks coming in second with a quarter of the votes. In the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, Lenin reacted by claiming that a soviet republic transcended a bourgeois assembly as a “higher form of democracy,” and in light of the ongoing class struggle unfolding from the revolutions, the candidates chosen to stand in the election did not truly represent the will of the people (1917a). The Constituent Assembly met for one day in January 1918, electing Chernov, the former SR minister of agriculture under Kerensky, as its president. The following day, the Bolsheviks dispersed the new legislature by force. In truth, indignation about the fate of the assembly limited itself to its moderate members. When moderate socialists later attempted to use the incident as a rallying cry in their civil war against the Bolsheviks, they found that most peasants knew nothing about it.

For anyone who paid attention to the pronouncements of the Bolsheviks, the rejection of electoral politics came as no great shock. Most considered themselves revolutionaries, not politicians, and their mission was to construct a socialist society, not compromise and accept half-measures with those who did not have the stomach to demolish the status quo. Like Robespierre and the Jacobins, they recognized that virtue without force behind it is powerless; they therefore needed to use force to pursue their aims and overcome the class enemies. They founded the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage, commonly shortened to Cheka, under the direction of the Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky. In his memoirs, the revolutionary Victor Serge (2012) criticized the creation of the Cheka, explaining that reactionary threats made the Bolsheviks “lose their heads” and that even Dzerzhinky considered the group “half-rotten” due to “psychological perversion.” Many of its members had been humiliated and tortured by the Imperial government, and thus were prone to paranoia and violence (p. 94). Initially a set of small squads tasked with internal security, the Cheka combated the looting and rioting that had understandably broken out during the revolution. Intended as an extension of popular power, its relative independence from other institutions contributed to its subsequent growth in power and autonomy, leading to the unchecked activities that would make the Cheka so feared during the civil war.

Before discussing the civil war, however, we should explore how the Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in the world war started in part by the tsar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, calling for immediate peace without annexations or reparations (Lenin 1917b). This of course did not appeal to Russia’s enemies, but politically it showed the Bolsheviks were serious about seeking the peace, unlike their predecessors. Following a preliminary armistice, Lenin later proposed a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, but met with stiff opposition from most of his party. Most still assumed that revolutions would erupt throughout Europe, having witnessed Bolshevik success, and that Russia could conclude peace with fellow socialist governments. When this did not transpire, some militant Bolsheviks like Bukharin called for a “partisan war” not involving opposing formal armies but instead with guerilla fighters waging a battle of attrition against the enemy governments (Hosking 1985, pp. 60-61). Lenin, however, claimed that the revolution needed temporary “breathing space.” Trotsky, heading the peace negotiations as commissar for foreign relations, remained true to his theory of permanent revolution, opposed Lenin and broke off the bargaining. As the Germans advanced on Petrograd, however, most Bolsheviks shifted to Lenin’s position, and in early 1918, negotiations resumed. The resulting Treaty of Brest-Livotsk saw Russia cede the Baltic territories and the entire Ukraine to German occupation. This proved too much for the Left SRs, who quit the Bolshevik government in protest. This left the Bolsheviks alone against their foes.

The Czechoslovak Legion was a small unit within the Imperial Russian Army composed of Czech and Slovak volunteers who hoped that their valor and sacrifice in World War I would earn their homeland its independence from the Austrian Empire. When they ended Russian participation in the war, the Bolsheviks permitted the Legion to join their compatriots fighting in France, as the Legion wanted to continue the war. Unfortunately, sending the Legion through Russo-German lines was not an option, so the Legion had to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port, where it would sail across the ocean to Western Europe via the United States. In May 1918, in a town just east of the Urals, an incident involving Legion soldiers and Austrian-Hungarian POWs led to the Legion taking control of a Russian city and firing on Bolshevik forces. Whether Britain and France pressured the Legion to take up arms against the Bolsheviks is unclear, as is whether the Bolsheviks faced similar pressure from the Central Powers to disarm the Legion. What is apparent is that once the Legion started the conflict, the Allies capitalized on the opportunity to re-open an Eastern Front with Germany and at the same time bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 46-49). At any rate, the Legion used control of the telegraph system to obtain effective control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the main form of transportation in Siberia. After turning over most of their western territory to the Germans, the Bolsheviks now saw their enemies also controlled most of Russia east of the Ural Mountains.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Russia along the Don River, a hodgepodge of liberal democrats, disillusioned SRs and Imperial military officers rallied together, loosely united by their hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” to the Bolshevik “Reds,” they formed a Volunteer Army under the leadership of General Mikhail Alekseyev, formerly the tsar’s chief of staff, as well as Lazr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, Sergey Markov, and other former high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army. Their experience made them a formidable fighting force, but their disparate ideologies and identities translated to a slow mobilization, and they initially only numbered several thousand strong. Bolshevik militias sent to crush them drove them south toward Kuban, and the Whites made an “ice march” over the frozen steppe. They attempted to take the city of Krasnodar, the capital of a new soviet republic in the north Caucasus, but failed, with Kornilov killed by artillery (ibid., pp. 20-21). Nevertheless, southwest Russia remained under the control of the Whites, leaving the Bolsheviks concentrated in the central region of European Russia. However, since this region was the most populous and the most industrialized, they retained important advantages in terms of recruitment and resources to supply their troops.

The Bolsheviks’ main fighting force, the Red Army, originally operated according to the model set by the Red Guards militia, with no ranks and officers chosen by elected committees. While suitable perhaps for guerilla war, this structure could not withstand the German offensives that had occurred between the Brest-Livotsk treaty negotiations (Hosking 1985, pp. 66-67). In early 1918, the Bolsheviks appointed Trotsky as the new head of the Red Army, qualified as he was from his time covering wars as a journalist and his experience as chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s military committee. Controversially, he reinstated several traditional military practices, such as conscription, the death penalty for desertion and the appointment of officers, including those from the former Imperial Army. He used political commissars to ensure these officers remained loyal to the revolution and to keep the regular soldiers passionate about their cause (Kort 2006, pp. 128-129). As one might assume, some of these tsarist officers defected to the Whites in the course of the civil war, but the majority remained faithful. Many historians highlight the practice of holding officers’ families hostage, but the Bolsheviks typically did not have to resort to violence. Most officers acted according to pragmatism, realizing that whatever their feelings about socialism, the Bolsheviks controlled the state, and the state supplied them with food, shelter and other needs (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 60-61). When the Reds gained the upper hand as the war progressed, what began as a dispassionate allegiance of convenience normalized with the absence of any real alternative. Trotsky of course faced no small amount of criticism from some of his fellow Bolsheviks for his changes, but he cited the centralism at the center of Leninist doctrine as justification, and mostly concerned himself with directly intervening on the front lines when needed. Traveling in an armored train, he would give speeches to demoralized or deserting troops, inspiring the Red Army to keep up the fight.

Fight they did, as events snowballed throughout 1918. Emboldened by the Czechoslovak rebellion, some Socialist Revolutionary politicians set up rival governments in western Siberia, in the cities of Samara and Omsk. They called for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, but in many other ways, their policies were just as radical as the Bolsheviks. For most of 1917, they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in government, and their political beliefs revolved around land redistribution and other programs popular with the peasants. This association drove a wedge between the SRs and the tsarist troops upon which they depended to conduct the civil war. By the fall, these tsarist officers and Cossacks led a coup that installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as their “supreme ruler” with Allied support (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 151). The ousted SRs fled Russia, effectively ending their relevance in the revolution. The Whites had no time for socialists of any stripe, and in many cases, actively attempted to undo the land reforms implemented by socialist politicians and the peasantry. They also earned the enmity of various nationalists with their promises of restoring an absolute empire with political power and cultural control once more centered around Russia. Their close ties to the Allies provided them with valuable equipment and supplies, but it also gave credence to Bolshevik charges that the Whites were the puppets of imperial powers (Kort 2006, pp. 125-126). The Whites’ scattered dispersion along the Russian periphery and their relative scarcity compared to the Reds hindered them the most, but their total distaste for politics and neglect for the popular mood, even when they came the closest to possibly winning the war, certainly did not do them any favors.

In the beginning of 1919, Kolchak joined forces with Yevgeny Miller, a tsarist officer who had declared himself Governor-General of Northern Russia, based in the northwest city of Arkhangelsk. This offensive stalled, and by the end of the summer, an overextended Kolchak retreated to Siberia and Miller, abandoned by British troops sent to assist him, faced the Red Army alone. In the Baltic region, General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British aid, came close to taking Petrograd in the fall, but in the end could not overcome the city’s defenders. At the same time, Anton Denikin led the Volunteer Army up from the Caucasus, conquering much of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and came within two hundred miles of Moscow. He spread out his forces too much, however, and moved too fast, losing control over his advance. These factors helped contribute to his defeat by a largely improvised Bolshevik counterattack (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 202-207). As 1920 dawned, the Whites were defeated and in disarray. The Czechoslovak Legion, having missed the end of World War I, turned Admiral Kolchak over to the Bolsheviks and purchased passage out of Russia with what remained of Kulchak’s treasury. The Reds executed Kulchak, ending the White threat from Siberia. Yudenich’s subordinates arrested him after he was caught trying to embezzle military funds before escaping. His British benefactors arranged his release. Meanwhile, Denikin fled to Europe, living out the rest of his life as an émigré, a common fate for many other White survivors.

Despite the White downfall, war persisted into the next year. In the spring of 1920, Polish nationalists under Marshal Josef Pilsudski attacked the western Ukraine and seized Kiev in May. The invasion had both offensive and defensive aims: to expand “Greater Poland” along its eastern border and to prevent preemptively a reassertion of the Russian yoke over the Poles by creating a sort of “buffer zone.” The Red Army, under the ex-tsarist commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky, led a counterattack, securing victory after victory. Soon what had started as a reaction to Polish aggression transformed into a Bolshevik plan to bring the Poles socialism by force. This entailed beating the defeated Polish forces west in the hopes that the coming of the Red Army would spark a socialist revolution in Poland, causing the long-awaited domino effect of other such revolutions through Western Europe. However, this turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Much as the Whites had been driven too far too fast by their dreams of taking important Russian cities, the Red Army push to Warsaw stalled along the Vistula River and the Bolsheviks had to seek an unfavorable peace with Pilsudski in 1921 (ibid., pp. 257-260). In the meantime, Denikin’s successor, Pyotr Wrangel, briefly set up a White proto-government in the Crimea. Upon reaching peace with Poland, the Red Army crushed Wrangel’s forces, sending him and his followers scrambling across the Black Sea. The civil war was finally over.

Both the Reds and Whites engaged in political violence between 1918 and 1920. Unlike with the Bolsheviks, however, the Whites resorted to brutality out of instinct rather than from ideology. Kolchak himself wrote that many Whites had “no conscience, no sense of honor or duty, only a cynical spirit of competition and money-grabbing” (Hosking 1985, p. 66). With the exception of Wrangel, none of the White leaders showed any interest in administration, and even if they had, most did not hide their hatred for Russian intellectuals, the majority being socialists, thus ensuring the character of the White forces was all military and no ministers. The Whites fed themselves by looting, which itself was not remarkable given the country’s depletion from years of world war and then civil war. In the Ukraine, however, the Whites added a layer of anti-Semitism to their raiding, carrying out pogroms against the Jews there. White propaganda fueled this hatred, depicting Bolsheviks and Jews as synonymous, with special emphasis given to Trotsky’s Jewish heritage (Figes 1996, pp. 676-677). This echoed in many ways themes later witnessed in Nazi propaganda, when Hitler justified the persecution of the Jews as a response to Bolshevism and the “threat” of socialism. According to documents released from the Russian archives, over 150,000 Jews died due to the White pogroms, with the wounded bringing the number closer to 300,000 (ibid., p. 679).

Figes describes the cruelty:

In the town of Fastov the Cossacks hung their victims from the ceiling, releasing them just before they choked to death: if their relatives, who watched this in terror, could not pay up the money they had demanded, the Cossacks repeated the operation. The Cossacks cut off limbs and noses with their sabers and ripped out babies from their mothers’ wombs. They set light to Jewish houses and forced those who tried to escape to turn back into the fire. In some places, such as Chernobyl, the Jews were herded into the synagogue, which was then burned down with them inside. In others, such as Cherkass, they gang-raped hundreds of pre-teen girls. (p. 678)

Two arguments frequently arise to justify or at least excuse the “White Terror.” The first is that the generals did not directly order it, while the second argues that the historical moment required callousness. To the first point, research shows that under Denikin the death penalty was in effect not just for Bolshevik party members, but also for anyone who had participated in workers’ councils or collaborated in the 1917 revolution (Bortnevski 1993, p. 363). This could be interpreted to mean even regular Russians “guilty” of voting for delegates to represent them, or as we have seen from White propaganda, Jews with no actual connection to politics whatsoever. Additionally, even if the White officers had not commanded the Jewish pogroms, they also did not do much to prevent them from occurring, which they could have done easily, given the highly regimented and even authoritarian nature of the various White regimes. Documentation exists of White generals ordering pogroms, but none where those generals stepped in to stop the raping and murder. As to the second rationalization, individuals of all nationalities from all time periods have used “war is hell” to justify all assortments of war crimes, and if we reject this excuse in the present when it is employed to hand-wave the shooting of civilians or the desecration of corpses, why should we accept it in regards to White abuses?

The “Red Terror,” too, was neither mere indulgence nor a collective hardening of the heart to the civil war. In reality, it was an eruption from below by the those downtrodden and dispossessed by feudalism and early capitalism, a social leveling that drew upon the traditions of peasant communes and a enduring mistrust of the propertied classes. Those that argue that terror is a necessary ingredient of Bolshevism suggest that socialism created the mass terror from whole cloth, but it did not. The “Red Terror” had its origins in the social order that fell apart in 1917. In just the 20th century alone, the Russian state had starved the masses, driven them to exhaustion in the factories, and sent them east and west to die in wars that had to do more with imperial pride than national security. It did so while also denying them political inclusion on the basis they were too ignorant, too wild and too primal to make the “right” decisions. What is remarkable about the “Red Terror” is not that it happened, but that it was so long in coming, when one considers both the relative size and strength of the masses to their masters, as well as the great lengths the Russian state went to impose its will over the working classes. Granted, the Bolsheviks provided the people with the institutions of the “Terror” – the secret police, the people’s courts, the seizure of private property – but the terror itself came from tensions of inequality and repression as old Russia itself. Whereas the anti-Semites among the Whites tormented and slaughtered the Jews for imagined roles in fictional conspiracies, the punishments, however savage, meted out to the Russian upper class had its roots in genuine mistreatment and subjugation. Men and women, quite free of any communist coercion, named their daughters “Terrora” to celebrate what they viewed as an overdue reckoning (Figes 1996, pp. 522-525).

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played no part in fomenting political violence; on the contrary, it had been a central component of their political program for many years. As Trotsky (1920) put it, the “Terror” was a “direct continuation” of the armed uprising of late 1917, the revolution removed from theoretical tracts and applied to the real world. Their isolation and extreme position on the political spectrum also left the Bolsheviks with an onus to prove themselves true to their words, not just to bolster their integrity, but also to discredit and destroy their rivals on the left as well as the right. They had been clear about their intentions from the beginning. Lenin, upon hearing in late 1917 that Kamenev had endorsed abolishing the death penalty, asked: “How can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself?” (Figes 1996, p. 630). With the slogan, “Loot the looters!” he heartened the impoverished to take the property of the upper classes by force. Data from the Russian archives also supports the theory that the execution of the deposed tsar and the imperial family came from a direct order from Lenin rather than, as has been speculated, a spontaneous decision by local party members (ibid., pp. 635-639). Just as an “innocent tyrant” is an oxymoron, Lenin and most Bolsheviks believed that a class war without political violence was a contradiction in terms. For a new society to emerge, the old one had to die.

Of course, not all of the Bolshevik bloodletting came from politics; some of it was indeed about survival. In July 19, Left SR rebels showed their dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk by assassinating the German ambassador in a bid to restart the conflict. When the Cheka demanded the assassins turn themselves in, the Left SRs briefly took control of Moscow before being defeated, the ringleaders imprisoned. In the autumn of that year, a Socialist Revolutionary named Fania Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin outside a Moscow factory, seriously wounding him. On the same day, another anti-Bolshevik socialist killed the head of the Chekists in Petrograd (Mawdsley 1987, p. 80). These attacks came from the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile allies; one can only imagine what would have befallen them had the Whites been successful in capturing Petrograd or Moscow. Regardless, most of the political prisoners placed in monasteries-turned-concentration camps were not enemy combatants, but merely class enemies. Inmates in Cheka jails could be anyone, from politicians to professors, from priests to dissident peasants, even children. In some cases, they were Bolsheviks themselves, denounced in trivial quarrels by friends and strangers (Figes 1996, pp. 642-643). The “Terror” was not a systematic process operating with military precision for a military objective; it was, as is to be expected given its social origins and the anarchy of the civil war, often disordered and indiscriminate, driven by dogmatic goals as by the concerns of war.

The exact number of people killed in the “Red Terror” remains unknown. The Cheka officially claimed it executed 6,300 people across 20 provinces during the civil war (Mawdsley 1987, p. 83). Figes (1996) puts the figure at “several hundred thousand” if one includes those who died in the prisons along with those killed in anti-Bolshevik revolts (p. 649). Precise figures are impossible because for most of the “Terror” no one held the Cheka to account. In early 1919, it was brought under the Commissariat of Justice, but in reality, it remained answerable only to those on the Bolshevik central committee, where Lenin actively protected it. Some high-ranking Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Kamenev frequently criticized the Cheka for its unrestrained behavior, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was perhaps the most prolific and outspoken opponent of the “Terror.” To these censures and reproaches, Lenin remained adamant that the mistakes of the Cheka, whatever they might be, were worth it to preserve the welfare of the workers’ state. “What injustice,” Lenin wrote sarcastically. “A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants!” (ibid., pp. 678-679).

Understanding the “Red Terror” is easy; judging it is hard. Knowing even a little about what the poor and vulnerable endured through most of Russian history makes even the excesses against the elite plausible. Yet is it acceptable? To the modern liberal mind, it is generally not. The notion of believing in any political doctrine fully, even one based in scientific rigor as Marxism claims to be, is alien to the average 21st century mind. That one might use such a doctrine to justify killing political opponents or class enemies is even more inconceivable. From youth we learn to treat politics as being about concessions and rough calculations, so that “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” For the Bolsheviks and their followers, they demanded nothing less than perfection, the establishment of the world’s first truly socialist society, with the prior edifice ripped away to its very foundation. They were so committed to the enterprise they not only took power by force, but also endeavored to use that power even when fenced in by their enemies with prospects of their survival dubious. They remained true to their intentions when other actors would likely have bent or even broken for the sake of saving their own skin. Mawdsley (1987) argues that the short-term stability brought by the “Terror” did not outweigh the long-term costs later used against the Bolsheviks, stating that the “Terror” played a large part in Western antagonism toward the Soviet Union. This is doubtful, given what we know about the opposition of the West to any anti-capitalist government, peaceful or otherwise, around the world. Moreover, this sort of pragmatic calculus adopts the modern perspective the Bolsheviks did not share. For them their long-term concern was not propriety or foreign relationships, but instead following through on the revolutionary activity that had seen them in and out of prisons and exile for most of their adult lives. They had endured beatings, torture and years away from loved ones in the name of an ideal, one they could only realize by tearing apart the very system that had persecuted them for so long and perpetuated injustice everywhere. Recent history proves that being kind and trusting to those who profit from plunder and state-sanctioned rule-breaking does not bode well; protecting the corrupt elites is arguably just as cruel to the masses as permitting the masses to exact bloody revenge on those same elites. Granted, in a truly faultless system, the elites would not repress the working classes, or vice versa. An important thing to note is that decision-makers behind the “Terror” believed such a world was possible and claimed to be working towards it, while the decision-makers of today say such a world is fantasy and that exploitation and alienation is the unpleasant but natural state of man under capitalism. There is no perfect world, liberals say, just one better than all the others. The Bolsheviks, for all their sins, believed otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Bortnevski, Viktor. 1993. “White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period).” Russian Review, 52(3), pp. 354-366.
2. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
3. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
5. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. Theses On The Constituent Assembly. Retrieved from
6. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. Report on Peace. Retrieved from
7. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
8. Mawdsley, Evan. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.
9. Serge, Victor (2012). Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Trans. Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis. New York, NY: New York Review Books.
10. Trotsky, Leon (1920). Terrorism and Communism. Retrieved from

1917: The Bolshevik Revolution

In the early 20th century, numerous tensions existed in Imperial Russia, and in 1917, these tensions converged into revolution. The country boasted a vast empire, its borders stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean, and consequently, it struggled to exert dominion over a fragmented populace consisting of more than 100 ethnicities and 20 nationalities (Wade 2001, p. 4). From 1881 to 1894, Tsar Alexander III and his conservative adviser, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, implemented policies of “Russification” meant to stamp out Western institutions and spread unity through the forced assimilation of non-Russians. The government subjected Russian Jews to especially harsh decrees, such as the “Temporary Rules” of 1882, that required Jews to live only within towns and large villages and restricted them to certain occupations. The authorities overlooked occasional pogroms designed to kill Jews and loot their property (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 34-35). This oppression and state violence meant to preserve the status quo and instill harmony instead bred hatred toward the Imperial regime, its leaders and their bigoted policies.

Alexander III died in 1894 and his son, Nicholas II, came to power. Not only did Nicholas continue his father’s cultural imperialism, but he also worked actively to maintain absolute monarchy, now a rare breed in the Western world. While some227px-Nicholas_II,_1914 historians have depicted him as a weak-willed and superstitious ditherer more interested in his family than ruling, Nicholas actually demonstrated a remarkable resolve to retain power during his reign. His grandfather, Alexander II, had been a reformer, and his 1881 assassination left his descendants believing that parliaments and constitutions would be corrupting forces. Despite this passion for keeping power and maintaining the autocracy, Nicholas did not believe in a direct, hands-on approach. He relied on ill-informed backward-looking advisers and sycophants to steer an enormous Byzantine bureaucracy. He spent most of his time yachting, hunting or inspecting troops, fully entrusting his courtiers and ministers to run the state for him (Figes 1996, pp. 19-24). The person closest to him, his wife Alexandra, also pushed her husband to “show more power and decision” and to “be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all before you” (Russland 1970, p. 145, 454). Russians rightly doubted that Nicholas would ever be more inclined to restructuring his empire along more liberal lines than his father had been. Revolution from above would not come.

Russia lagged behind its neighbors in other ways besides form of government. The Crimean War of the 1850s had exposed the consequences of Russia’s dismal infrastructure and its lack of railroads. In 1862, the Russian government began borrowing heavily from foreign investors, but this debt soon turned the empire into a dubious investment prospect. Therefore, in the 1880s, the Russian state decided it would build the railways itself, while simultaneously balancing its budget to get its fiscal house in order and lure foreign capital. Revenue had to come from somewhere, and being a primarily agricultural economy, Russia squeezed the peasants – and squeezed them hard, with high taxes and export quotas that bled the peasantry of their consumer goods as well as grain. Robbed of its grain reserves, the Russian countryside experienced severe famine in 1891. The public started calling the huge grain shipments “starvation exports” (Kort 2006, pp. 48-49). Such facts did not bother the government, which covered up the shortages and declined relief offers. While the peasants struggled to survive, industrialization brought profits to the vaults of the state treasury.

In 1892, the tsar appointed Sergei Witte as Finance Minister, who immediately Poezd-transsibincreased railway construction, including the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the longest in the world. He subsidized domestic industries, enacted tariffs to bolster Russian goods, and tied the currency to the gold standard, stabilizing the ruble. The effects of these measures led to even greater industrial advances. The country’s industrial growth rate topped 5% between 1885 and 1914, reaching around 8% in the 1890s, the highest of any of the other major powers (Wade 2001, pp. 4-5). In the cities, the new capitalist class ruthlessly exploited the growing proletariat, with trade unions forbidden and any strikes brutally repressed (Kort 2006, pp. 51-52). Simultaneously, a new educated middle class emerged, an intelligentsia including populist revolutionaries as well as liberal democrats. The industrialization the Russian state had so eagerly strived for produced the very classes from which anti-monarchist political movements would spring forth to bring down centuries of Romanov imperialism.

Revolutionary socialism was a dominant current among these movements, although predominantly much more peasant-centered than elsewhere in Europe. Since the 19th century, many Russians radicals had adhered to narodnichestvo, an agrarian populism influenced by the works of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and the socialist Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Nardoniks argued that the peasantry, as the largest part of the population, provided the route to revolution and that Russia could make the jump from an agricultural economy to a collectivist state without first transitioning to capitalism (Pipes 1964, p. 441-442). This particular socialist strain strongly influenced the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), founded in 1901, that became the largest political party with its strongholds in the rural areas. Yet industrialization and urbanization meant political power had shifted increasingly to the inchoate proletariat centered in the cities (Kort 2006, pp. 55-56). Russia had slowly but surely industrialized, and this was no more evident than in the large industrial centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the capital. Additionally, the fact that the peasants had endured endless injustices and mistreatment, including the 1891 famine, without rising up discredited the notion that they could be a revolutionary class. Industrial workers, however, with their tendency to strike and organize despite state repression, showed greater potential in this regard.

The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the SDs) was the primary proletarian party. Soon after their founding, in 1903 the SDs divided into two factions, the332px-Lenin_book_1902 Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority,” as they were narrowly the most numerous in the party) and the Mensheviks (the “minority”). The intellectual leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Lenin, who had been influenced by the populists (his 1902 work What Is to Be Done? borrowed its title from an 1863 populist novel) but dismissed their ideas once it became clear Russia had entered a capitalist stage. He documented this phenomenon in The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), wherein he also noted that the peasantry had split into their own classes, with rich peasants (the kulaks) exploiting their poorer brethren. Lenin asserted that revolution had to come from the industrial proletariat, but that the workers required a centralized vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to bring them class consciousness. The SDs were at war with the state, and as such, democratic approaches would be indecisive and dangerous, open to infiltration by wreckers and self-promoters. The Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, rejected this and placed their trust in an all-encompassing workers’ movement that would campaign through the inevitable shift to bourgeois power to create a broad coalition for the workers. Many SDs wavered between the two groups and their positions, with some members – including a young Leon Trotsky – hoping for settlement between the blocs.

Russia also had its share of non-revolutionary parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party (the KDs or “Kadets”) represented the sort of mainstream liberalism common throughout the rest of Europe, centered on political rights and parliamentarianism. Founded in 1905 and led by Pavel Milyukov, the Kadets drew support from the bourgeoisie and shared with the aristocracy an aversion to any sort of revolution from below that would threaten their favorable position in the existing social order (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 71). The Russian autocrats, however, viewed any restriction on the authority of the tsar as a threat, and as such, ruled out any sort of alliance with the middle class against the workers and peasants. Unlike in England, where the landed gentry had aligned with the embryonic capitalist class to bring gradual enfranchisement and political participation to propertied men, in Russia no one in power even considered such a strategy. It was unthinkable power would rest anywhere but with the tsar.

Russian_Star_1904-1905The government’s foreign policy blunders competed to match its inability to resolve its internal political dissent. Eager to enhance its prestige abroad, Russia attempted to flex its muscle in Asia, demanding from Japan access to Port Arthur in northeast China while also refusing to recognize Japanese dominion over Korea. In the ensuing 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, Russia suffered a series of unexpected and humiliating defeats, with Nicholas prolonging Russian involvement purely for pride (Ascher 1994, pp. 157-158). When news of Port Arthur’s fall reached the Russian capital in January 1905, a seeming testament to the hollowness of national power, factory workers peacefully marched on the Winter Palace to demand the bettering of working conditions. Fearing a general insurrection, the authorities ordered the marchers to disperse. When the marchers refused, soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds of unarmed protestors.

This incident, “Bloody Sunday,” led to a short-lived general insurrection that lasted for most of the year. Many imagined, quite justifiably, that this would be the realization of the expected revolution. In St. Petersburg, a committee set up to organize and direct strikes evolved into the first soviet, a workers’ council with an executive committee of 22 members. Mensheviks and their allies controlled the committee, Leon Trotsky among them, although Trotsky himself said he had a “behind the scenes” role (Trotsky 1907). Nicholas, desperate for a stopgap measure, pacified the liberals with the October Manifesto, which pledged the creation of a legislature (the Duma), the legalization of political parties, and greater political freedoms. Nicholas remained the final authority of government policy, and his concessions to the middle class proved little more than cover for him to put down the working class uprisings. By the end of the year, the government had crushed several peasant revolts and arrested the leaders of the St. Petersburg Soviet (Fitzpatrick 1994, pp. 32-33). The tsar had survived by slowly inching towards reform, but in the years that followed, he and his allies would take several steps back toward despotism, undoing what scant changes he had countenanced.

The tsar appointed an uncompromising monarchist, Pyotr Stolypin, as hisStolypin_1902 head of government. Stolypin sought to pass a series of agrarian reforms meant to replace communes with individual farms, in a move reminiscent of the enclosure acts in England. This plan proved too ambitious and contentious given the immediate peril facing the autocratic regime, and it did not help matters that Stolypin alienated his few friends in the Duma with his belief that the legislature should be secondary to the tsar and himself (Ascher 2001, pp. 143-144). In 1907, using emergency powers, Nicholas dissolved the Duma and changed the electoral laws so that the more conservative parts of the electorate, landowners and the middle class, were overrepresented at the expense of the working class. This led to a more agreeable Duma, but Stolypin himself remained unpopular, as illustrated by his assassination in an opera house in 1911. Between 1912 and 1914, there were numerous peasant revolts and industrial strikes, and even the middle class, not appeased with merely the loosening of the leash, resumed its clamor for more far-reaching and long-lasting political development in its interest.

In the summer of 1914, Nicholas again compounded his domestic crises by embroiling Russia once more in war. He showed he had learned little from his war with Japan by coming to the adamant defense of Serbia, following the June assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, during a state visit to Sarajevo. Serbian military intelligence officials had collaborated in the political killing, meant as a warning to Vienna to stay out of Balkan affairs (Dedijer 1996, pp. 388-389). Eager to reaffirm that Russia was indeed a “great power” and demonstrate Slavic solidarity, Nicholas came to Serbia’s aid after an Austrian ultimatum, despite some initial indecision. As a result, Germany went to war with Russia along with Austria, and France and Britain entered the fray on the side of Russia. Thus the European alliance system produced World War I. Within Russia, the bourgeoisie mostly supported the war, with the Kadets leading the patriotic charge. In the eyes of their leader, Milyukov, if there was one failing with the Russian leadership, it was the fact that the tsar’s wife was German and therefore likely working secretly for the Kaiser (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 111). So intense was the war fever that the government renamed St. Petersburg to Petrograd in 1914 to avoid any Germanic associations with “-burg.”

The poor Russians who provided the manpower and supplies despised the war. They were expected to fight, work and die for a state that totally denied them political participation and starved them for the sake of economic progress. As they fought and toiled, their casualties mounted. By the end of 1916, around 5,700,000 Russians had died, been wounded or captured (Wade 2001, p. 9). Following a series of disastrous losses, Nicholas himself adopted the role of commander-in-chief in September 1915. In reality, he remained a figurehead, while his subordinates made the strategic decisions (King and Wilson 2003). Nevertheless, in the minds of most Russians, responsibility for the war – and Russia’s poor performance – rested on the tsar’s shoulders.

Down_with_the_eagleIn March (February Old Style) 1917, a strike held by workers at Russia’s largest factory in Petrograd had blossomed into a general walkout. Nicholas, away at his military headquarters in Mogilev, left the matter to his ministers, who planned to use force: 3,500 police, Cossacks with knouts, and 150,000 soldiers from the local garrison (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 113). On March 8, the strikers joined with crowds celebrating International Women’s Day, bringing the capital to a halt. The troops sent to disperse the protestors received orders to fire on the unarmed demonstrators, just as during “Blood Sunday.” They refused and joined the protestors. On March 11, Nicholas dissolved the Duma, but most of the legislators defied the order and remained in their offices. Liberal members established what would become the self-styled Provisional Government, while the left-wing radicals founded the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Moderate socialists such as the Mensheviks led this Soviet at first, just as they had the inaugural St. Petersburg prototype in 1905. The Bolsheviks now found themselves languishing in opposition (ibid., p.123-124). Nicholas, isolated and pressured to abdicate by his advisors, gave up his throne to his brother, Michael, who declined the crown. Over 300 years of Romanov rule had ended.

There soon came to be a competition between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, a phenomenon Trotsky later dubbed “dual power” or “dual impotence” (Trotsky 1917). The people showed little passion for the Kadets who dominated the Provisional Government, and its initial leadership of Prince Georgy Lvov, a wealthy aristocrat, and Kadet leader Milyukov, a pro-war fanatic, did little to endear itself to the poor, anti-war masses. Only in Alexander Kerensky, a right-wing Socialist Revolutionary who started with the Soviet but obtained permission to join the Government, appeared aligned with the average Russian. Thanks to its pro-war stance, the Government obtained recognition from most of Russia’s allies, but in terms of the economy and local garrisons, the Petrograd Soviet, comprised of thousands of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates, exercised real power. Across Russia, this split authority replicated itself, with the liberal bourgeoisie forming city governments while the working class and soldiers created their own councils (Wade 2001, p. 12). From this arrangement arose a broad coalition between liberals and centrist left-wingers, with the radicals on either side of the spectrum marginalized. In the early days of 1917, there existed a sentiment that this coalition would meet the aspirations of the people, with the promised elections of a constituent assembly as the next step to come.

In Switzerland with other socialist expatriates, Lenin learned of the revolution and made plans to return to Russia. He secured the assistance of the German government, which was assisting anti-war Russians in the hopes of bringing Russia out of the war. UntilLenin Lenin’s arrival, the Bolsheviks had, as the opposition faction in the Petrograd Soviet, supplied tacit support to the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, under editors including Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, had published articles to such effect. Days after his return, Lenin issued his “April Theses,” where he dismissed bourgeois parliamentarianism and supported a republic of soviets alongside the nationalization of land and banks as well as the foundation of a revolutionary international to usher workers’ revolutions abroad (Lenin 1917a). The Petrograd Soviet did not adopt Lenin’s platform, and one of the leading Russian Marxists, Georgi Plekhanov, called it “nonsense.” Over the next month, however, Lenin managed to bring most of his faction on board with his manifesto, and received help in this from Trotsky, who had returned from exile in May and now found himself sympathetic to Bolshevik militancy and socialist internationalism. Outside of the Government and on the Soviet sidelines, the Bolsheviks nevertheless had several critical qualities their rivals lacked: able leadership, discipline and commitment.

Spring gave way to summer, and the Provisional Government continued Russian involvement in the war. More moderates from the Soviet joined the Government, including the leader of the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, Viktor Chernov, now minister of agriculture. Kerensky, shuffled from the interior ministry to war minister, personally visited the front and oversaw a 12-day offensive in July that soon faltered. Demoralized, 700,000 soldiers deserted through the fall (Kort 2006, p. 103). Back in Russia, troops headed to the front mutinied in Petrograd, leading to the “July Days” 19170704_Riot_on_Nevsky_prosp_Petrograd_2of rebellion against the liberal ministers. The Bolsheviks only supported the revolt with great reluctance, as Lenin felt – correctly – that the Bolsheviks had insufficient national influence to take power and hold it (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 129). The Provisional Government endured, and Lenin had to flee the country briefly for fear of arrest. Kerensky replaced Prince Lvov as the head of the government shortly afterward, but despite the addition of more SRs and Mensheviks to his cabinet, his commitment to the war and Kadets alienated the people. Had the moderate Soviet leaders moved to totally supplant the Provisional Government at his point, they likely would have succeeded, leaving the odds of a Bolshevik takeover quite dim. Yet, even during the July Days, when mobs clamored for the Soviet to act, pleading for them to take power, the Soviet moderates actively declined. According to one anecdote, a mob formed outside the Soviet headquarters, demanding a Soviet takeover, and Chernov spoke to them and sought to persuade them otherwise. A member of the mob shook his fist in front of Chernov’s face and yelled, “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is offered to you!” (Kort 2006, p. 104). As support for the moderates faded and their participation in the Government opened them up to accusations of inaction, the ranks of the Bolsheviks swelled, although they lost much of their leadership due to their involvement in the July Days. The Government arrested Trotsky while Lenin remained in hiding in Finland.

With the left-wing revolutionaries divided, reactionary forces plotted to reassert themselves. They rallied to General Lavr Kornilov, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the military thanks to patronage from business leaders and disillusioned liberals concerned with the growingly socialist nature of the government. Described asKornilov_Lawr_1917 having “the heart of a lion, the brains of a sheep,” Kornilov fancied himself the Russian Napoleon, destined to save his country from the terror of neo-Jacobins (Figes 1996, 442-443). In August, Kornilov deployed troops around Moscow and Petrograd and prepared to crush the largest soviets. Kerensky for a time hedged his bets, hoping that he could salvage his authority by letting Kornilov obliterate the more radical elements of the Soviet left, and then reassert himself with the backing of the moderates. Yet when he became fearful that Kornilov might go on to lead a coup and create a military dictatorship, Kerensky sacked the general. Furious, Kornilov marched on Petrograd regardless, thinking Kerensky had bowed to Soviet pressure. Panicked, the Soviet released the detained Bolsheviks and armed and deployed a workers’ militia, the Red Guards. Delegates influenced telegraph and railway workers to delay, derail and otherwise confuse Kornilov’s troops. Bolshevik orators managed to convince the enlisted soldiers to turn on their officers (Wade 2001, p. 18). The coup failed with Kornilov arrested and the public again up in arms.

The Kornilov Affair brought counterrevolution to the forefront of Russian mind and did much to delegitimize further the moderate Government, which now seemed completely ineffectual and out-of-touch. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, had shown the resolve and the capability to protect the revolution, all while sticking to their platform of bread, land and peace. In Petrograd and many other city soviets, the Bolsheviks went from the minority to the majority through fair elections. The SRs under Chernov fell into discord, with Right SRs continuing to support democracy and cooperation with the Government, and Left SRs sympathetic to a violent overthrow and a social revolution. Many peasants, frustrated and impatient, began to seize the property of landowners and formed their own committees. The Government had little choice but to recognize these committees, being powerless to quell them. In the cities, rampant inflation and plummeting wages pushed workers into accordance with the position of the Bolsheviks (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 131-132). Much of their own volition, the Russian working class came to see the Bolsheviks as their only credible benefactors in the revolution.

pravdaYet most of the Bolsheviks themselves balked at taking power when they believed it would fall into their lap. Still on the lam, Lenin observed that the Bolsheviks now possessed the widespread support they had lacked during the July Days. He wrote to the soviets in Petrograd and Moscow, urging them to assume power, before Kerensky could surrender Petrograd to the Germans in a peace treaty (Lenin 1917b). The central committees disregarded these letters. Trotsky, one of the chief Bolsheviks in Petrograd with Lenin away, counseled caution and patience. Nikolai Bukharin, a staunch Bolshevik, later wrote that most of the Bolshevik central committee was “aghast” at Lenin’s calls for violence (Kort 2006, p. 106). Most of his comrades wanted to wait until the upcoming Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, a conclave of all the soviets throughout the country, which they expected would have a Bolshevik majority. There, they could vote all political power to the Soviets in theory before taking it in practice, supplying them an added amount of legitimacy. To Lenin, this obsession with legitimacy smacked of bourgeois affectation; his concern, as ever, was the revolution.

In October, Lenin traveled back to Russia in disguise, intent on pushing his position in person. Due to his stature within the party, he succeeded in passing a resolution 19-to-2 in favor of an armed uprising. Lev Kamenev and one of Lenin’s colleagues from his Swiss exile, Grigory Zinoviev, authored the pair of dissenting votes, and Kamenev went so far as to resign his spot on the Bolshevik Central Committee and leaked to the press an announcement (and a denouncement) of Lenin’s position (Figes 1996, pp. 476-477). Outraged at this betrayal, Lenin used the Bolshevik press to condemn Kamenev and Zinoviev, calling them traitors and strikebreakers, referring to them as “Mr. Kamenev” and “Mr. Zinoviev” rather than as comrades. While Figes and other historians would claim these acts by Lenin stemmed from an inherent tendency to play the dictator, a more likely explanation is psychology rather than pathology. For Lenin, the Bolsheviks could not carry out a revolution if they were concerned with niceties and appearances; he pressured his followers to remember his platform of dedication and single-mindedness. Only by being energetic and dynamic could the Bolsheviks avoid the same pitfalls of passivity that had claimed their Menshevik and SR counterparts.

Despite the leak of the proposed Bolshevik coup, the Provisional Government did not respond right away, a testament to its deterioration in capacity. It was not until November 5 (October 23 Old Style) that Kerensky declared a state of emergency and issued warrants for the arrest of major Bolsheviks, including Trotsky. He sent soldiers to important sections of Petrograd and shut down several Bolshevik newspapers. When Trotsky learned of this, he issued purely defensive measures in his capacity as chairperson of the Military Revolutionary Committee (Wade 2001, p. 19). Momentum and morale so favored the Soviet forces, however, that most of Petrograd fell easily into Bolshevik hands. What was intended as a mere finger-poke in the chest of the Government toppled the entire establishment. It is reasonable to assume many on the Soviet side presumed the hour had come for the decisive battle between revolution and counterrevolution, a repeat of the Kornilov Affair, and thus embellished on their orders. Seeing the iron was hot, the Bolsheviks moved on the evening of November 7 (October 25 Old Style), with the cruiser Aurora firing empty shells at the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government. The Red Guards occupied the building and arrested the ministers inside, placing them under house arrest. Kerensky escaped, fleeing in an automobile provided by the U.S. embassy before traveling to England (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 134-137). In a matter of weeks, the Bolsheviks gained control in the rest of Russia. The Second Congress of Soviets occurred as planned, with 390 of the 650 delegates being Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks and other moderates walked out in protest at the demise of the Provisional Government whose cabinet they had participated in, leaving the Bolsheviks and Left SRs to form their own council of commissars, with Lenin at its head. The Bolshevik revolution was complete.

Soviet and some Western historians would portray the ultimate outcome of the 1917Soviet_Union,_Lenin_(55) revolution as a meticulously planned and carefully executed operation by the Bolsheviks from the beginning. Others, such as Robert V. Daniels, described the revolution as “a wild gamble, with little chance that the Bolsheviks’ ill-prepared followers could prevail against the military force that the government seemed to have, and even less chance that they could keep power even if they managed to seize it temporarily” (1967, p. 215). The truth is that the Bolsheviks would not have had the opportunity to come to power had it not been for the tremendous failures of their rivals, but they would not have so fully exploited those opportunities had it not been for their political and organizational skill. The Bolsheviks understood that the workers wanted industrial democracy, that the peasants wanted land and that the soldiers, above all, wanted peace. The liberals, by contrast, spoiled their credibility by continuing to partake in the sham parliamentary sessions post-1905, especially after the government disenfranchised the working class. This, along with their zealous support for Russia remaining in World War I, ensured the masses saw them as agents of the bourgeoisie and nothing more. The Mensheviks, Right SRs and other moderates fared slightly better in this regard, the masses electing them to lead the soviets in the early months. Yet their internal squabbles and almost comically stubborn denial of power independent of the Provisional Government set up the Bolsheviks to show their worth when the masses needed it: during the July Days, in squelching the Kornilov Affair and in response to Kerensky’s final gambit.

It cannot be said that the Bolsheviks’ rivals never had a chance at power; at all turns, they either refused it or squandered it. The true tests for the Bolsheviks came from within. Had Lenin relented in the galvanizing of his comrades or been absent from the revolution entirely, might things have transpired differently? As distasteful as virtually all of the Bolsheviks save Lenin found armed rebellion, it should be noted this was an objection to method, not objective; the Bolsheviks had been defined by their vow to put the revolution above all considerations. If there had been a reluctance to embrace Lenin’s incitements, it was not to due an ideological aversion to violence, but instead the belief that taking power through ballots would be more respectable than taking it by bullets. Given that Kerensky’s Provisional Government no longer posed a threat by its end, it was a matter of taste whether to vote it out of existence or to take it out back and shoot it. Only Kamenev and Zinoviev indicated a passionate preference for a democratic approach and power-sharing and only Kamenev tried to force the issue. Had the formal taking of power waited until after the Second Congress of Soviets, would it have made any meaningful difference? That is doubtful. The Bolshevik majority at the Congress was overwhelming, and it would have required the entire faction to abandon its crucial characteristic of being revolutionaries, not democrats. Lenin gifted the Bolsheviks with their defining “eye on the prize” mentality, and his constant pressure to not deviate from treating the revolution as the Bolsheviks’ main priority helped in propelling them past the finish line, but it was not the only fuel in the engine. Given the political climate that existed by the end of 1917, it is hard to imagine how this chapter does not end with the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs as the only groups in power.

Works Cited

1. Ascher, Abraham. 1994. The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2. Ascher, Abraham. 2001. P.A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
3. Daniels, Robert V. 1967. Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
4. Dedijer, Vladimir. 1966. The Road to Sarajevo. New York: Simon and Schuster.
5. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
6. Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 1994. The Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
7. King, Greg and Penny Wilson. 2003. The Fate of the Romanovs. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
8. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
9. Lenin, Vladimir. 1899. The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Retrieved from
10. Lenin, Vladimir. 1902. What Is to Be Done? Retrieved from
11. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution. Retrieved from
12. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power. Retrieved from
13. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
14. Pipes, Richard. 1964. “Narodnichestvo: A Semantic Inquiry.” Slavic Review, 6(6), pp. 441-458.
15. Russland, Zar. 1970. The Nicky-Sunny Letters: Correspondence of the Tsar and the Tsaritsa, 1914-1917. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.
16. Trotsky, Leon. 1907. 1905. Retrieved from
17. Trotsky, Leon. 1917. The Struggle for State Power. Retrieved from
18. Wade, Rex. 2001. The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

The Bolshevik Revolution: Introduction

The purpose of this study is to spread awareness and education about one of the critical turning points in world history. The Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union represent a major milestone to left-wing movements everywhere, as the262px-Soviet_Roundel Soviet Union was not only the first true socialist state but also the first attempt at forging a new socialist society. Compared to other revolutions, which merely saw one ruling class replaced with another, the Bolshevik Revolution offered a chance at total social upheaval, a clean break with the hierarchical and exploitative systems of feudalism and capitalism. In addition to revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks were pioneers exploring new territory, constructing a world to that point only imagined by academics, politicians, trade union activists and working class agitators. Marx and Engels provided thorough and scientific critiques of capitalism and called upon the workers of the world to unite, but they had not supplied any systematic blueprint as to how to create a worker’s paradise. Like many revolutionaries before them, the Bolsheviks experienced success and failure, triumphs and mistakes. They engaged in careful planning as well as foolish impulses. They relished good luck and suffered ill fortune. They also understood they were making history, but remembered Marx’s statement that, while men make history, they do not make it as they please.

Most of the Western history concerning the Bolshevik Revolution and the early Soviet Union demonstrates a strong anti-communist bias as well as an obsession with the “great men” of the era. Despite popular conceptions about academics all being left-wing radicals, most Western historians have towed the conventional position on Stalin-Lenin-Kalinin-1919the Bolsheviks: they were, at best, naïve idealists undone by “inherently” selfish and power-hungry human nature, or, at worst, brutal tyrants hiding their thirst for autocracy behind their populist appeals. Additionally, scholars have focused most of their attention on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin (each having their own “-ism”), as if these individuals exercised complete monolithic top-down control among their peers or even in the sprawling, complex Soviet state. While this approach is patently ridiculous at the early stages of the revolution, when inter- and intra-party conflicts were rampant and often in flux, it also ignores the fact that even at the height of his power Stalin never enjoyed the sort of absolute power commonly assigned to him. He may have been an autocrat at the center of a cult of personality, but placing him on a pedestal, even in a hall of infamy, neglects the acts and accompanying responsibility of other prominent personalities in his era. Stalin may have eventually become the most important person in the USSR, but he was never the only important one.

My aim is not to be completely comprehensive, as scholars have written entire books on some of the topics I will cover here, such as the Russian Civil War, Trotsky’s fall and exile, the purges of the 1930s, and so on. My intention is to draw on academic sources about each of these subjects to form a concise but still informative overview of events, their causes and their outcomes, and in so doing, do away with commonly held myths and stimulate further research on the part of the reader. As such, this is a labor of love rather than a true academic enterprise, although it will meet basic academic standards of citing sources and only asserting definitively what sources can prove.

Finally, a disclaimer: I am a Marxist and a socialist. I am not a Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist or a “Soviet Union apologist.” I am not seeking to create a work of Soviet propaganda. The Soviet Union and the individuals involved in establishing it and later administering it were flawed, as I am and this work will no doubt be. History is not about making men into heroes or events into drama. It is about drawing lessons from the past to understand the present. Please keep in mind I have written this work in that spirit.

Important Terms

MarxismKarl Marx never articulated a clear and complete ideology; the majority of his work was dedicated to analyzing the political economy of capitalism and the role of productive forces in history. Unlike the idealist followers of Hegel, Marx offered a materialist understanding of the world, where actual existing conditions give rise to the state and society. Under capitalism, there is an underlying tension between the productive class, the workers (the proletariat), and those who own the means of production and strive for profit, the capitalists (the bourgeoisie). Marx argued that as the workers realized the exploitative nature of capitalism, there would be a social revolution. Socialism would replace capitalism with a transitional stage marked by proletarian control of the state and cooperative ownership of the means of production. Eventually, socialism would lead to communism, a stateless and classless system. In Volume III of Capital, Marx states the revolution occurs when productive forces can no longer continue to develop. His longtime friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, however, suggested revolution was possible once the character of production reached the point where “the abolition of class distinctions” could occur. It is important to stress that most of the work of Marx and Engels was a diagnosis, not a prescription for the cure.

Bolsheviks – The Bolsheviks were the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). They were distinguished from the minority faction, or Mensheviks under Julius Martov by their belief in a dynamic revolutionary party wholly devoted to actively overthrowing the state, rather than pursuing gradual reform with the aid of sympathizers (such as trade unions) who were not fully committed to the overall objective of socialist revolution. The RSDLP split occurred in the summer of 1903 at the party’s second congress when one of its members, Vladimir Lenin, argued that the party program should reflect the thesis of his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, which called for a revolutionary vanguard party to induce Marxist class consciousness in the working class rather than wait for it to form naturally. The Bolsheviks triumphed thanks to a narrow majority, and hence earned their name (“bolshevik” roughly means “member of the majority”) as did the Mensheviks (“member of the minority”).

Leninism – Leninism refers simply to Marxism supplemented with the theoretical works of Vladimir Lenin, specifically his writings on the development of a revolutionary party to seize power for the workers and construct a socialist society. Lenin advocated a revolutionary vanguard because trade unions tended to be concerned just with improving economic conditions and the spontaneous activity of the working class was insufficient for revolutionary struggle. Lenin also addressed imperialism, something Marx did not write about, stating that the search for profits drove industrialized countries to export capital and divide the world between competing empires, leading to enormous and destructive conflicts (such as World War I). In the metropolitan countries, the bourgeoisie is able to placate the working class, but in those underdeveloped countries lagging behind the advanced nations (such as Imperial Russia), the nascent bourgeoisie is weak but the proletariat class-conscious enough for revolution.

Trotskyism – Leon Trotsky built on the works of Marx and Lenin by adding the concept of permanent revolution, which argued that the imperialist nature of late capitalism would lead to socialism beyond national boundaries. Communism would be a global stateless society. Like Lenin, he advocated revolutionary parties seizing power and establishing dictatorships of the proletariat, although how centralized such parties should be depends on whether you are reading pre-1917 Trotsky, when he opposed Lenin’s centralism, or his writings of 1917-1923, his period of greatest agreement with Lenin. In general, many regard Trotskyism as diverging from Marxist-Leninism by being more internationalist and pluralist, although specifics are difficult to nail down as Trotsky’s followers are famous for their tendency to split and recriminate one another.

Stalinism – Stalin himself never used the term “Stalinism” and it is typically used in a pejorative sense, to refer to the arbitrary use of authority or an extreme centralization of power. There are those, however, who do use it to note the dogmatic points where Stalin broke with his predecessors. Stalin dismissed the prescriptions of Lenin and Trotsky that the Soviet Union could only thrive with the spread of socialism around the world. Stalin promoted the establishment of “socialism in one country” and criticized foreign adventures. This had strong nationalist overtones, something Lenin had rejected as “Great Russian chauvinism.” Stalin also argued for the strengthening of the state, as evidenced by his policies of forced collectivization of agriculture and the rapid heavy industrialization of the USSR in the 1920s. Defenders of Stalin argue that Stalinism did not abandon the principles of socialism as he continued the public ownership of economic activity, while his critics (such as Trotsky) claim the subordination of society to the state represented “state capitalism” or “bureaucratic collectivism.”

Democratic Centralism – Adopted by the entire Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1905, democratic centralism referred to a system of party organization where members could democratically determine policy but, once that policy was settled, the party membership would move uniformly to see it carried out. Lenin described democratic centralism as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” The Bolsheviks permitted factions within their organization up until the Tenth Congress of 1921, when the party leadership banned factions due to the need for unity during the civil war. In the years that followed, debate within the party effectively ceased to exist.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat – In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx described the “period of revolutionary transformation” from capitalist to communist society, during which “the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” In the Civil War in France, Marx notes the significance of the Paris Commune in its efforts to eliminate state power and empower the working class with the actual job of governing. In his State and Revolution, Lenin built on this and described the dictatorship of the proletariat as more than just the replacement of one class with another, with the actual task of governing left to bureaucrats. Under socialism the proletariat actually taking up the duties performed by the state. The distinction between dictatorship of the proletariat and dictatorship of the party acting for the proletariat is ambiguous. In practice, the latter became reality as the Bolsheviks centralized power during the Civil War to combat their opponents. In the end, the USSR did not achieve a transition to working class government, as political power remained firmly with the party.

Soviets – Derived from the Russian word for “council,” the Soviets associated to the Soviet Union were workers’ councils formed during the revolutionary era that organized protests, directed strikes and supplied the proletariat with weapons and leadership. They consisted of deputies chosen by the masses. The first Soviet took form in St. Petersburg in 1905, led in part by Trotsky, until the Imperial government disbanded it. A good number of them arose in 1917, the largest being the Petrograd Soviet, with 4,000 members and control over the garrison. Lenin considered the soviets to be the conveyors of state power, acting as an “armed force” wielded by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and nobility, who the proletariat would exclude from participation.

Important Bolsheviks

Vladimir Lenin – Born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, Lenin came from a well-off family. His father died while he was young and, soon after, the Imperial government executed his older brother Alexander for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the tsar. 640px-Lenin_CLHe attended Kazan University in 1887 but the school expelled him soon after for his radicalism. In 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg and became a leading member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The government arrested him 1895 and subsequently exiled him to Siberia. In 1900, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and helped to found Iskra (The Spark), a national newspaper intended to be a platform for likeminded revolutionaries. He emerged at the forefront of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP in 1903, urging direct insurrection on behalf of the working class by dedicated revolutionaries. During the 1905 revolution, he advocated for economic reforms, such as land nationalization. The outbreak of World War I prompted him to develop his theory of imperialism and the concentration of production into trusts and cartels. In 1917, he has just published State and Revolution, a rather libertarian work calling for the popular seizure of state power and the economic monopolies.

Leon Trotsky – Born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein on November 7, 1879, Trotsky came from a family of affluent farmers. He grew up in Odessa, a relatively cosmopolitan (by Russian standards) port city. The state arrested him in 1898 for revolutionary activity, and he took the name “Trotsky” from one of his jailers. He joined the RSDLP later thatTrotsky_Portrait same year. He began writing regularly for Lenin’s national newspaper, which prompted Lenin to try and recruit Trotsky to the Bolshevik faction. Trotsky followed his own path, however, often attempting to unify the RSDLP and reconcile the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This often put him at odds with Lenin, who wanted to expel the Mensheviks for the sake of creating his vanguard party. In 1905, during the short-lived revolution, he helped manage the St. Petersburg Soviet, the first workers’ council of its kind, before the state arrested and exiled him. During his exile, he developed his theory of permanent revolution and engaged in anti-war activism during World War I. Living in New York when the revolution breaks out in Russia in 1917, he returns in May, now sympathetic to the Bolshevik calls for an armed uprising.

Joseph Stalin – Born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili in modern day Georgia, Stalin was one of the few Bolsheviks to come from an actual working class family. His father was an alcoholic cobbler who abandoned his wife and children after assaulting the town Stalin_lg_zlx1police chief. Young Stalin attended a theological seminary in Tbilisi that expelled him in 1899 due to his taste for proscribed books (including the work of Victor Hugo) and his inability to pay his tuition. He became a follower of Lenin after reading his writings and joined the RSDLP, siding with the Bolshevik faction as early as 1904. After 1902, he became a professional revolutionary, stuck in a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, exile, and escape. In 1913 the Imperial government exiled him to a remote part of Siberia, where he lived until the start of the 1917 revolution. He returns in March and takes over as one of the editors of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, initially endorsing cooperation with the liberal Provisional Government. Only when Lenin’s position in April prevails does he come to support violent revolution.

Grigory Zinoviev – Born Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslovsky Apfelbaum on September 11, 1883, Zinoviev – like Trotsky – came from a well-to-do family of Jewish farmers. Home-schooled, he initially sought to become a teacher but soon joined the RSDLP as a professional revolutionary. As such, he supported Lenin and theGrigory_Zinoviev Bolsheviks when they sought to turn the RSDLP into a party wholly dedicated to insurgency. In 1908, the Imperial government had him arrested for organizing metalworkers in St. Petersburg, but the state released him due to his poor health. He ended up joining Lenin in Geneva, working closely with him, co-authoring several articles concerning World War I and attacking the use of nationalism to suppress worker solidarity. He returns to Russia with Lenin in 1917, but unlike Lenin, he prefers cooperation, reform and reconciliation to Lenin’s tactic of seizing power.

Lev Kamenev – Born Lev Borisovich Rozenfeld, Kamenev attended Moscow Universlev-kamenev_1-tity, having received a good education thanks to his father, a railway worker. In 1901, he joined the RSDLP and, like so many of his contemporaries, lived either detained by the authorities or in exile. He married Leon Trotsky’s sister, Olga, around the same time. In 1905, he went to St. Petersburg to join the revolution but was arrested and forced to join Lenin in exile, only to return to Russia in 1914 where the state again incarcerated him. This time the government exiled him to Siberia, where he stayed until the revolution of 1917. Back in St. Petersburg, he joins Stalin as one of the editors of Pravda, and like Stalin, prefers supporting the Provisional Government to open revolt. He becomes one of the most vocal advocates within the Bolsheviks for taking a democratic approach, preferring power-sharing with other socialist parties.

Nikolai Bukharin – Born on October 9, 1888, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the son of schoolteachers, became involved in politics while at Moscow University. In 1906, he joined the RSDLP and sided with the Bolshevik faction. The government arrested him for instigating revolution and in 1911 shipped him to a remote section of Arkhangelsk. He escaped to Germany, met Lenin and began writing Marxist works. His theorizing on theBucharin development of capitalism and its influence on imperialism and colonialism heavily influenced Lenin’s own work on the subject, although Bukharin focused more on the economic elements of the issue than its political ramifications. Like Trotsky, his made theoretical contributions to Marxism and engaged with other prominent European Marxists of the day, such as Rosa Luxemburg. For a time he edited a newspaper in New York City with Leon Trotsky, and followed Trotsky back to Russia following the first 1917 revolution. He becomes active in Moscow politics, where the Bolsheviks enjoyed a majority position, unlike in Petrograd/St. Petersburg. A hardliner among the Bolsheviks, he believes very strongly in spreading revolution outside of Russia, but his advocacy of “market socialism” will make him synonymous with the Bolshevik right-wing.

Alexei Rykov – Born on February 25, 1881, Rykov hailed from peasant stock. His father died in 1889, forcing Rykov’s older sister to adopt him. At 18, he joined the 220px-AlexejrykovRSDLP and in 1903 sided with the Bolsheviks In 1910, he started his own moderate faction, which like Trotsky, sought to take a middle path between the hardline Bolsheviks and the “broad tent” Mensheviks. His exile to Siberia, however, scuttled these efforts, and he did not return to the major Russian cities until 1917. He dedicates himself to urging reconciliation and coalition between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and other non-RSDLP socialists. Like Kamenev and Zinoviev, he pushes hard for building a coalition of socialist parties and, later with Bukharin, supports small-scale capitalists enterprises as long as the government controls the major industries.

Other notable Old Bolsheviks: Alexander Bogdanov, Mikhail Frunze, Adolph Joffe, Viktor Nogin, Sergey Kirov, Mikhail Kalinin, Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Tomsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Maxim Litvinov, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Jānis Bērziņš

Part One, covering the 1917 revolutions, coming soon…

After Mubarak, It’s the SCAF-terparty

(I intended to post this last week, but due to some issues with posting on WordPress, I was unable to do so until now. Other than there being a new Egyptian president, most of the post is still relevant.)

News outlets buzz with stories about the failing health of ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Yet does it matter whether the former despot lives or dies? Even if he passes away in the next few days, the institution he used to govern the country – the military – retains their hold on power. The tens of thousands people returning to Tahrir Square, the main site of Egypt’s protests during the Arab Spring, are not coming back because of Mubarak. They are resuming the expression of their dissent because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals currently ruling Egypt, has declared strict limitations upon the powers of the newly elected president. Who that newly elected president is, however, is unclear, as both the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and the candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, have proclaimed victory. All this follows on the heels of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is closely linked with the SCAF, dissolving Parliament and giving a seal of approval to Shafiq’s candidacy, despite his ties to the brutality of the Mubarak era. Egyptians are rightfully concerned that their new democracy is at death’s door, not Mubarak.

Is it fair to blame the Egyptian people for the dark prospects their revolution faces? After all, it is long-entrenched institutions have stymied and reversed democratic reform, not the people, who cannot be accused of a lack of enthusiasm for change. Nevertheless, one can fault them for the half-measures with which they have sought that change, enabling the generals and their judicial allies to undermine and reverse the gradual seizure of power away from the narrow elite. Two developments especially testify that the Egyptian revolution has been stillborn: the emergence of Ahmed Shafiq as a serious contender for the presidency, and the very fact that the SCAF rules the country in the first place.

Given that the ongoing narrative is that Egypt just went through a revolution, it is illogical that Ahmed Shafiq could potentially be the new president. It would be the equivalent of the French Jacobins electing a member of the royal family to head the National Assembly. The former prime minister who once described Mubarak as a “role model” does not stand for where people want the country to become in the future, but rather what it used to be. Who would want that? Those who benefited under Mubarak, of course. Mubarak ruled through the military, and army officers would be understandably reticent to see that end. Additionally, there are the millionaires who thrived despite the growing income disparity and rising poverty of Mubarak’s Egypt, along with crooked bureaucrats and other officials who enjoyed luxury thanks to nepotism and graft. Every revolution has its reactionary elements.

More worrying are those among the oppressed who nurture that which destroys them. Long-suffering Coptic Christians fear what will happen under an Islamist administration rather than a secular one. Liberals disenchanted with widespread support for the Muslim Brotherhood have decided to sit on the sidelines and sometimes even vocalized preference for a liberal dictatorship than a religious democracy. Then there are those who simply want stability for stability’s sake – for someone to fill the power vacuum, regardless of who they are or what they represent as long as they can bring order and a return to “normalcy.”

These people are buying into the very argument Mubarak attempted to use for his continued stay in power. He claimed that without him there would be anarchy. Of course, as my former professor Diane Singerman and the famed intellectual Slavoj Zizek have pointed out, Egypt is so unstable without a strongman government precisely because Mubarak crushed civil society and let it languish, ensuring that only those institutions groomed and developed by him – the military chief among them – could ever hope to impose themselves on the country. As Zizek put it, “The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.”

Mubarak is no longer relevant, but his military cronies remain. The assumption is that the SCAF will only fill the void, playing a transitional role before standing aside, giving up the control and influence it has enjoyed with near-exclusivity for around thirty years. We are expected to regard SCAF as Atlas from Greek mythology, holding up the heavens as a punishment, a begrudging but necessary responsibility, one that those belabored generals would only too happy to relinquish – especially to candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very organization the Egyptian military has spent decades upon decades stamping out, the very “enemies of the state” they have been indoctrinated to despise. How naïve would someone have to be to accept this fiction? The SCAF will hold on to power, tooth and nail, and whether the acts of the last few weeks speak more to uncertainty and confusion than to a genuine stealth coup d’état ultimately matters little. The outcome will be the same: the dream of democracy in Egypt remaining just a dream, an experiment too dangerous for the public to actually realize.

Egyptians should take a lesson from history and know that when the state is weak and vulnerable it cannot be trusted to change for the better. It must be torn down and destroyed, then rebuilt on new terms, on new conditions, with the people overseeing the project by themselves. The generals of the SCAF should not be sitting behind desks making executive decisions but standing before a firing squad – or, at the very least, on planes to sit at the Hague, in the stead of Mubarak, their former boss.

State Power or Power to the People?: Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions Today

Lenin once declared that, as long as the state exists, there could be no freedom. Given the growth of state power around the world in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent global War on Terror, it would appear that Lenin’s vision of freedom is more out of reach than ever. Does it therefore follow then that rebellion and revolution are impossible in the post-9/11 period? This essay uses Theda Skocpol’s analysis of popular uprisings in France, China and Russia to argue that, in actuality, the structural conditions necessary for successful social revolutions still exist. Despite the considerable resources at their disposal, modern states continue to undergo major crises that they cannot cope with, even in an age with so much significance assigned to stability and continuity. Additionally, as the Arab Spring attests, classes still unite into powerful coalitions via shared interests that undermine the status quo and demand a broad reconstruction of the political, economic and social landscapes. Of course, just as Skocpol describes the required conditions for social revolution, she also stresses the constraints placed upon elites as well as revolutionaries, and in the current epoch consideration of such constraints remains relevant, as no major international incident occurs within a vacuum. Indeed, the question becomes not whether radical reform can emerge to shake the state, but whether it can endure myriad forces arrayed against it to create a lasting and meaningful new order.

In each case study within States and Social Revolutions (1979), Skocpol finds a crumbling “old regime” unable to institute “reform from above.” Absolutist monarchies, once relied on to safeguard servitude of the lowest classes, proved impotent to answer competing military power abroad and to satisfy basic needs at home. For Russia, it was the devastation and humiliation brought on by defeat in the first World War, while France and China could not adequately meet the demands of landed gentries agitating for greater autonomy. It was only when “top-down” change due to structural parameters failed that revolution “from below” became credible; the revolutionaries found themselves knocking on open doors. Presently, in the developing world, countries fall generally within two categories: (1) those witnessing economic growth through open markets and liberalization, birthing nascent bourgeoisies eager for empowerment, and (2) cash-strapped states, typically contending with severe Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), relying on force to hold onto power through fear and intimidation. In the developed world, advanced countries follow a trend of maintaining public appeasement through tax cuts and benefits programs, while also operating in an international environment where foreign intervention – justified either as “humanitarian interventions,” preventive strikes to halt the rise of even the possibility of existential threats, or both – is commonplace. In the case of the Third World, the parallel with the restless, newly influential French and Chinese middle classes is clear, while the unsustainable use of brutality amidst squalor invokes comparison with Russia after total war. As for the First World, states cannot maintain solvency when they are little more than gigantic pension funds with equally massive armies. Countries that are more the former than the latter, such as Greece and Italy, descend into much-protested austerity; while those that are more the latter than the former, such as the United States, alienate those they occupy and pay a high domestic cost for doing the occupying – in terms of “war weariness” as well as body count. Moreover, all countries at all levels of development must contend with neoliberalism’s economic hegemony, and the crisis borne from its prescriptions of deregulation.  The recent financial crisis affected all countries, and the inability of states across the board to either hold those responsible accountable or to enact reforms to prevent its repeat evidences that states are more beholden to global capitalism than the other way around. In sum, states may be more “muscular” after 9/11, but they are not perfect, and Skocpol argues that when states reach a critical juncture of failure, revolutions are not just possible – but inevitable.

Whether a revolution has potential or is automatically in the pipeline, someone has to lead it. Skocpol comments that the “patterns of class dominance” determine this, with dominant classes (outside the state) often working in tandem with the oppressed working classes to bring down the state. We see this today, most recently with the Arab Spring, and Egypt serves as case in point. The revolution began with trade unions, as workers demonstrated for improved conditions and higher wages, and was supplied momentum by the downfall of an authoritarian regime in Tunisia by grassroots protest. This galvanized the liberal intelligentsia, who had long campaigned for democratic reforms, in addition to other sections of the population, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The consequence was a national movement acting as a “broad tent,” and while the revolution could not be described as a truly social one due to constraints upon the process (to be described below), there was clear consensus that the state had to be transformed. Just as the revolutionary classes were not “equal winners” in Skocpol’s cases (the liberals triumphed in France, for example, while the peasants prevailed in China), it seems those favoring a moderate religious party have subordinated the secular Egyptian intellectuals. Meanwhile in the United States and the United Kingdom, the last few years have seen a flood of collective action, as primarily middle class groups – affluent, well-educated white adults in the Tea Party, disaffected college students in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements – have taken to the streets. While not genuinely embracing revolutionary tactics, such protests are linked by grievances that transcend singular policies and speak to a more general displeasure with the system as it is operating, part of a grand narrative that professional politicians have lost touch with citizens and are unwilling to defy vested interests to make tough decisions. Certainly, in terms of class interests alone, the “squeezed middle” in developed countries could feasibly make common cause with more traditionally repressed fragments of society to realize an overhaul not just of one particular regime but the system itself.

So why do they not do so? In her book, Skocpol writes about constraints upon classes. The Russian peasants, for example, gained independence and solidarity after their emancipation, but did not achieve true impact as a force until the disintegration of the military weakened state coercion. Similarly, disgruntled groups in the Third World may conceive their own independence and solidarity through the advent of civil society organizations (such as the aforementioned trade unions), but state coercion decides the issue as insurgent groups do not gain from a fractured military (as in Libya as well as Egypt). Swift and merciless suppression as seen in Bahrain and Syria are more typical. In instances where movements with an agenda of reworking society take power democratically, e.g. the socialist successes in Latin America and parts of Africa, multinational corporations and transnational economic institutions apply pressure to ensure new governments do not deviate too far from the neoliberal project. In cases where they do, as in Venezuela, what follows is isolation and vilification as a deviant anomaly. In the First World, the constraints are primarily cultural. Despite the obvious appeal for the working class to be at the forefront of unrest, they have been notably absent. One can explain this by their demonization in society as inherently uneducated and incapable of sophisticated reasoning – the “white trash” of the middle U.S. or the “chavs” of urban Britain. The middle classes are disinclined to ally with those dismissed as deserving their servile status. Given this dismissal, the working classes retreat into their own “false consciousness,” rallying to a cultural narrative that they are the “real” backbone of their country and their interest should be in defending tradition rather than crusading for change. As for the middle classes themselves, they are lulled into the liberal hope of “revolution without revolution” as Robespierre described it: the ability to affect upheaval without shedding the unpleasant blood, sweat and tears necessitated by drastic action. They are quick to identify the programs and policies they do not like, but their faith in the importance of the atomized individual – a chief cultural standard – makes sacrificing personal self-interest in order for delayed gratification unthinkable. The winds of change cannot surmount the barricades of their sense of self, and consequently these winds are only so much noise against the shutters, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

State power is neither invincible nor undying, despite the enlargement of authority that followed terrorism’s rise as a locus of international anxiety. People are still anxious about a great many things in addition to the suicide bomber lurking under their bed: the ability to trust their leaders, to hold them to account, to earn a living and provide for their families and to participate meaningfully in decision-making. When states fail in these areas and lose the cornerstones of credibility and coercion, the potential for their downfall is there. Yet a line of dominoes does not begin falling on its own; it must be pushed. This is why recognizing Skocpol’s attention to constraints is so essential to her work. Looking around the world today, we see the conventional barriers to revolution, chiefly in the blunt instrument of state oppression. Yet Skocpol omits cultural values from her analysis, which is unfortunate, as value systems can be just as important to structural analysis as the state and its institutions. Many years ago, Skocpol “brought the state back in” to aid in comparative political research. Perhaps it is time to bring social norms into her still useful approach as well.