Skip to Content

Shadow Boxing With the Ghost of Lenin

The centenary of the Russian revolution of 1917 turned out to be a singularly uneventful year in the social calendar of the Left in Europe and elsewhere. In many ways this was only to be expected: our images of the Russian revolution have been so saturated by the vision of the horrors of political repression, civil war and labour camps that it has become difficult for the supporters of the Russian adventure to put forward a more positive thematic just as it has been difficult for the more sceptical to form a clear picture of what actually went on. Many opt for a studied indifference to what was an attempt to foster a haphazard form of social reform in the unforgiving environment of a backward society stuck on the losing end of a brutal war. However, the continued existence of Leninist parties makes it somewhat incumbent upon socialists to reiterate the important points at issue between the mainstream Marxist approach to the movement for socialism and what Lenin and his acolytes considered against all the evidence to be the one best road to socialism. 

This task, however, is accomplished by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval in Lombre dOctobre ('The Shadow of October') (Lux, Montreal). The authors demolish the myth that the Bolshevik movement established an economic system rooted in the autonomous activity of the working population as a whole, the supposed object of the whole enterprise. From the outset this outcome was unlikely as many of the leading students of Marx of the period had already pointed out. The Russian empire contained a small but growing industrial working class and a huge mass of peasants living on the edge of subsistence. Illiteracy was the lot of the vast majority. Revolutionary parties tended to be miniscule and divided on many issues although many expressed a growing fascination with the somewhat scholastic Marxism of the day. Nonetheless, there were  many signs that the working population in the period preceding the Bolshevik takeover were taking the political situation very much into their own hands by establishing independent trade unions, strike committees, peasant groupings, tenant organisations, village councils, military committees and Soviets (workers councils) The hierarchical vanguard party led and inspired by Lenin enthusiastically tapped into this activity, fanning the flames of discontent whilst insinuating themselves into a mutinous army. The party was structured in such a way that its military wing could have made a successful bid for state power at any time in the dying months of 1917.

The important point made by the authors is that the peculiarly zig-zag itinerary traced by the Bolsheviks in their relationship to these popular movements laid the foundations for the subordination that the working population would subsequently experience at the hands of the state following the coup d’état in October. The Bolsheviks explicit support for the Soviets which went from lip-service to highly vocal and back again ultimately operated as a convenient smoke-screen behind which Lenin and his acolytes created sufficient room for manoeuvre in their bid for the monopoly of state power. It allowed him to neutralise his opponents other anti-Tsarist revolutionaries like the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in the Soviets whilst using the threat of a renewal of the war effort to overthrow the Provisional Government under Kerensky. The actual takeover of power concerned, at most, a few hundred armed militants in Petrograd, a febrile and short-lived insurgency in the streets, and many more arms crossed among a bemused and impatient civilian population. Whilst we can credit the Bolshevik takeover with a large degree of passive support, subsequent support for the emerging Leninist state was increasingly brow-beaten out of the coerced masses. A government lacking a state that of Kerensky had been replaced by a fully armed state with a government lacking democratic legitimacy. Pretty soon there would be no room for dissenting voices.

Against this consider that the various Soviets represented a plurality of political orientations and a potential for an active and growing democracy. Prior to the takeover, there was even something of a movement towards a government centred on them. The fact that this considerably complicated the task for the hardliners in the leadership of what became the Communist Party largely explains Lenins ambivalent attitude toward the Soviets. Indeed, their popularity was the reason why militants and the population at large were encouraged to believe that the Bolshevik takeover was an attempt to defend them. However, many of the more active elements in the population and even some Bolshevik leaders had misgivings about the Leninist cornering of state power by military means. That this was the principal goal of Lenin explains the inconvenient fact that he was more concerned that the takeover should take place prior to the Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets on 25 October than he was about fostering their autonomy. On this day he issued his famous proclamation taking power in the name of the Soviets. But he was also far-sighted enough to remove from the draft of the text any mention of the constitution of power based on the Soviets (as the authors point out on pages 56-7). Indeed, the Soviet government (Soviet of Commissars of the People) issuing from the coup was appointed prior to the Congress of Soviets. It emerged in the absence of any consultation with the Soviets themselves and resulted from a back of an envelope list drawn up by a small group within the Central Committee of the Communist Party; henceforth the unique source of all power in Russia.

In the subsequent period, the train of events rolled along the rails laid down by a miniscule party leadership. Delegates to the Soviets were vetted by would-be civil servants, electoral rolls were modified to suit the government and the complexion of what was left of autonomous political tendencies within them came to reflect the economic priorities identified by the state. The Constituent Assembly the object of the widest election in Russian history became irrelevant and was closed down. The press was muzzled despite laws guaranteeing freedom of the press, a secret police was set up and a haphazard and arbitrary policy of terror paralysed what was left of political life. Bolshevik leaders moaned about the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the state they were creating; bureaucracy being the code-word for a political set-up which strangled all autonomous political activity at birth. Oceans of ink would be wasted on whether this state was a degenerated workers state, a state which had capitalist leftovers, an incomplete workers state, the first incomplete stage of communism, or whatever. For the workers, Taylorist production methods were recommended; a detailed subdivision of tasks, the division of management from the shop-floor and even military-style industrial discipline. State capitalism in short.

M.M.