The First Years of Soviet Rule in Petrograd

A review of Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power (Indiana University Press, hardback, 494 pages, published December 2007)

We have had to wait 35 years for this sequel to Professor Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power. This earlier work was enormously influential and when the CWO produced its pamphlet 1917 (1) back in the 1980s it owed a great debt to The Bolsheviks Come to Power. The chief reason for this is laid out in the Preface to the latest Rabinowitch book.

The Bolsheviks Come to Power, together with Prelude to Revolution (2) challenged prevailing Western notions of the October revolution as no more than a military coup by a small, united band of revolutionary fanatics brilliantly led by Lenin. I found that in 1917, the Bolshevik party in Petrograd transformed itself into a mass political party and that, rather than being a monolithic movement marching in lock step behind Lenin, its leadership was divided into left, centrist and moderate right wings, each of which helped shape revolutionary strategy and tactics. I found also that the party’s success in the struggle for power after the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917 was due, in critically important ways, to its organisational flexibility, openness and responsiveness to popular aspirations, as well as to its extensive, carefully nurtured connections to factory workers, soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, and Baltic Fleet sailors. The October revolution I concluded was less a military operation than a gradual process rooted in popular political culture, widespread disenchantment with the results of the February revolution, and in that context the magnetic attraction of the Bolsheviks’ promises of immediate peace, bread, land for the peasantry and grass-roots democracy exercised through multiparty soviets.

But having established all this, the question he poses in the present book is

... how was one to explain the fact that it was so quickly transformed into one of the most highly centralised authoritarian political organisations in modern history?

It is a question that revolutionaries also have to face, even if we already know that Rosa Luxemburg was right when she said that the question of socialism could only be posed in Russia, it could not be solved in Russia. The failure of the international revolution led to the crushing of the hopes of October 1917 but that defeat did not come in the way the Bolsheviks expected. When Trotsky announced to the Second Congress of Soviets, which met as October was being enacted, that

We are placing all our hopes on our revolution unleashing the European Revolution. If uprisings by the peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism we will be crushed.(3)

In fact that will be always be the case wherever and whenever a proletarian revolution breaks out. It has to start somewhere and it cannot be victorious without the solidarity of the international working class. However, what Trotsky could not see was that the Bolsheviks would win a military victory against imperialism on Russian territory but only by destroying the very basis on which the Bolsheviks had taken power. Rabinowitch’s book is therefore of interest in underlining some of the problems of any period of insurrection against capitalism and the transition to socialism, an entirely different mode of production. The Bolsheviks might have cleared their last imperialist-backed opponent out of the Crimea by December 1920 but the failure of the international revolution, and the consequent isolation and ruin of Russia, meant that they were in no position to build socialism.

However, we have to say that right from the outset Rabinowitch’s latest work suffers from two cardinal defects. In the first place he is a very political historian (4) which means that the actions of those who had to make decisions are often given so much prominence that the material circumstances which govern those actions either remains shadowy or, at points in his narrative, disappear altogether. It is a big weakness since it sometimes means that his account implies that there were more options facing the Russian Revolution than reality allowed. This is connected to the second big weakness in his approach.

“Men make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing” is one of Marx’s famous statements of historical materialism. Making history means also writing it, since history is not a neutral objective fact which only needs to be chronicled. Those who write history do so in the prevailing zeitgeist of their own time, not the time they are writing about. As Marxists, we always begin from the class nature of any issue (even though other factors may appear to obscure this).

Bourgeois history pretends it does not start from a class viewpoint. It always lays claim to a greater “objectivity” but this is in fact a mystification. Rabinowitch recognises this and highlights trends in bourgeois history which actually distort historical objectivity. He cites how the “revisionists” like himself in the 1970s effectively destroyed the “cold warrior” view of the October Revolution in both the Stalinist USSR and the United States. In some ways the cold warriors on both sides mirrored each other. Whilst the US cold warriors and their supporters insisted that the October Revolution was a coup d’état which paved the way for dictatorship, the Stalinists were insisting that it was a perfectly coordinated plan devised by Lenin and carried out by an ultra-disciplined party (of which Stalin was the one true heir). These mutually reinforcing distortions were ideologically immensely powerful and in some respects still are today. The Revisionists of the 1970s though studied what actually went on and concluded that the Revolution was a much more messy affair, involving the conscious activity of thousands, if not millions, of the exploited who ultimately built the Bolshevik Party as their revolutionary instrument. This Bolshevik Party was far from the monolith of Stalinist depiction. It was a hotbed of different ideas and views of how the working class could build a political entity which would ultimately lead to socialism. Not surprisingly this revisionist work was carried out after May 68, at the time when the post-war boom was coming to an end and there were mass strikes in many countries from Britain to Buenos Aires as well as movements against both Stalinist and US imperialism (Czechoslovakia, Vietnam).

Today, however, the spirit of the time is different. As Rabinowitch wryly notes, even the old notion that the Bolsheviks’ Revolution was a coup d’état has been restored since the collapse of the USSR.

We could also add so is the repeated lie that Stalinism was the natural consequence of Leninism. (5) However, the Professor is himself not immune to this spirit of the time and in his case this is revealed in his teleological assumption that the Russian Revolution should have ended up as a version of Western democracy. His whole premise is that the revolution could have turned out differently if one of the Bolshevik oppositions could have overruled Lenin. This is in fact turning history on its head since the reason why Lenin ‘s view often prevailed was not because he was more skilful at political manoeuvre than his opponents (something Rabinowitxch believes) but because in the last resort the basis for the views of his opponents often collapsed when faced with the material reality of 1917-18.

Saving Soviet Power

This is most obvious in the first chapter entitled “The Defeat of the Moderates”. In this chapter Rabinowitch contrasts the views of the “moderate Bolsheviks” like Kamenev, Riazanov, Nogin, etc. who were seeking an accommodation after October with the Mensheviks and Right SRs who had dominated the Soviets until fresh elections in September 1917 gave the Bolsheviks and their allies a majority. The language here gives away the bias of the author. “Conciliationists” or even “class collaborators” would be more accurate terms for this group. The problem for these “moderates” was that the Mensheviks and Right SRs had already made it clear that they intended to get rid of the soviets as soon as the class would allow them. This was one of the major reasons why the class had voted them off the Soviet executive. In their negotiations with Kamenev they arrogantly assumed that the Bolsheviks had no right to lead the proletariat and made it quite clear on which side of the class barrier they stood. Not only did they make impossible conditions (no Lenin or Trotsky in the government, no guarantee of soviet power) but they actively took part with the bourgeoisie and ex-tsarist officials in the All-Russian Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland and the Revolution (the ACS). This body not only organised the strikes of civil servants and bank workers against the new government but also plotted military insurrection.

Rabinowitch tells us all this but then implies that Lenin and Trotsky somehow outmanoeuvred Kamenev but the fact is that Kamenev’s discussions came to nothing as the other side refused to be “moderate”.

In short it was the material situation of the Russian working class which brought about a Bolshevik-dominated soviet regime rather than “a coalition of all the soviet parties” as Rabinowitch states was the preferred option of the majority of workers (although there was a concerted working class rejection of the oborontsy, or defencists, as the Right Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were called). The fact that it never happened was down to the refusal of the Right wing socialist to sanction soviets.

Rabinowitch is an honest historian and does not shrink from giving us the evidence for this. Commenting on a “hard line resolution” of the Menshevik Central Committee on October 28th (November 10th)

So confident were centrist and right Mensheviks that things were going their way that in this resolution they called on the ACS to propose to the MRC [the mainly Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee which had organised the overthrow of the Provisional Government and was at that point fighting the troops of General Krasnov on the edges of Petrograd - CWO] that it surrender at once - in exchange for which its leaders would receive guarantees of personal safety until the Constituent Assembly had an opportunity to decide whether they should be tried. (6)

And this from the same people who had organised the smashing of the Bolshevik press and the murder of Bolshevik workers in the aftermath of the July days! The Mensheviks and Left SRS were thus bent on eliminating the Bolsheviks and their participation in discussions were only aimed at undermining Bolshevik unity.

Rabinowitch gives all the evidence for this but still refuses to draw the obvious conclusion that there was no grounds for compromise with these appeasers of the bourgeoisie. The issue was a class one. In Germany in January 1919 the majority Social Democrats came to the support of the old order by doing a deal with the Kaiser’s generals to crush the Spartakists.

The Spartakists had prematurely taken to the streets to defend the soviets which had sprung up in November 1918 in Germany and which the Social Democrat majority proposed to liquidate. The German workers were, however, not as prepared or as ready to support the Spartakists as the Russian workers had supported the Bolsheviks, and the rising was crushed by paramilitaries (Freikorps) under the joint command of the Social Democrat and the Army. The cold-blooded murder of Leibknecht and Luxemburg plus 400 of their comrades was precisely the fate the Mensheviks and Right SRs had marked out for the Bolsheviks.

The Constituent Assembly

The “moderates” thus had no real interlocutors to discuss with. The Mensheviks and Rights SRs were “socialist” in name only. The Bolshevik moderates were not out-manoeuvred by Lenin. In fact, though they failed to get a coalition of soviet parties they still had some influence in the party. This is proven by the debate inside the Bolshevik Party on the fate of the November elections for the Constituent Assembly. Lenin argued for their postponement but a combination of the so-called moderates and the arguments of Sverdlov, the Party organiser, that the Bolsheviks had promised early elections and a postponement would be seen as a betrayal of their promise ensured that the elections went ahead as scheduled. This was a disaster since they came too soon after the October Revolution for most places in Russia to understand what the situation was and thus were not a verdict on the Revolution. More significantly, the SRs had split before these elections. The Left SRs had supported soviet power and the October Revolution. The Left SRs may even have represented a majority of the peasant vote, but, in the event, the Right who controlled the party apparatus only allocated them about 1 in 6 of their seats.

Indeed, this was one of the two reasons which the Left SRs gave in their final speech to the Constituent Assembly (by one of their “moderate” leaders, Shteinberg) (7) for following the Bolsheviks out of that body.

The other reason was the one which demonstrated the pivotal class divide between the two sides - the failure of the Right SRs and Mensheviks to support Soviet power. Rabinowitch cannot add much to what we already know of how the Bolsheviks came to leave the Constituent Assembly since there are no records of the debate in the Bolshevik faction to that body. All he can do is repeat from Raskolnikov’s memoirs (8) that Lenin proposed to the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) that the Constituent Assembly should not be dispersed by force. They should be allowed to talk as long as they liked and then just “Let them go home”. At the end of the chapter, despite all his equivocation about the possibility of a Western-style democracy emerging in Russia in 1918, Rabinowitch is forced by his own honesty to confirm that the “most important” factor in the victory of soviet power here was “the Russian people’s fundamental indifference to the fate of the Constituent Assembly” (9).

The Agony of Brest-Litovsk and Its Aftermath

In fact, Rabinowitch is better on the struggle within the revolutionary camp over the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with German imperialism. His account is much more located in the material situation (in this case framed by the war weariness of the Russian workers and soldiers) but even here he undersells Lenin. His implied criticism of Lenin that he executed “a characteristic 180 degree U turn” over the possibility of international revolution is a superficial reading of Lenin’s method. Lenin always related his overall revolutionary strategy (how to achieve world revolution) to the actual situation as he perceived it.

He was not always correct in his perceptions but his method was consistent.

The Bolsheviks had come to power as a result of the war-weariness of the population and the first act of the Second All Russian Soviet Congress was to approve Lenin’s Decree on Peace on November 8th 1917. Lenin had assumed that the rest of Europe was also war weary and that the Russian Revolution would be swiftly copied. After two months it was clear that conditions in Western Europe were not yet mature enough so Lenin concluded that the Revolution would have to play for time. This was his method. You had to relate to material reality even if that reality did not turn out as you had originally expected.

At that point you had to change your immediate policy.

As Rabinowitch demonstrates, the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk were dragged out as long as possible by Trotsky until the Germans tired of the game and presented the Russian delegation with an ultimatum. Lenin in the meantime had been inquiring of Kirilenko, and the other Army commanders, the precise state of the soldiers’ morale and had received no evidence that it could resist further. He presented these findings to every body of the Soviet democracy but remained in a minority in his insistence of the need for immediate peace throughout January and February 1918. This is why he made the deal with Trotsky to support his proposal to neither sign a peace nor continue the war. It was a compromise which re-united the revolutionaries in both the Bolshevik and Left SR parties.

Leaving aside his anti-Lenin view here, Rabinowitch is at his best in the narrative over the agony which the revolution went through in this debate. He also reveals that Trotsky jumped the gun when he declared the “no war , no peace” formula to the Germans. Having had his fun in stunning the German delegation, and without waiting for a response, Trotsky immediately telegrammed to Kirilenko to tell him to demobilise the Russian Army. This was an act of revolutionary romanticism. Lenin counter-telegrammed the next day to tell Kirilenko to withdraw the demobilisation order but it was already too late. Many troops had already set off for their villages. Any hope that a feeble resistance to further German advances could be made now vanished. This was cock-up rather than conspiracy, but when the German General Hoffman did decide to advance, he was able to take entire Russian garrisons with less than 100 men (as at Dvinsk). The Treaty that was then signed was far worse than the original one the Germans had offered.

Lenin remained unmoved but Rabinowitch again does not do him justice by quoting his full position. Lenin said he did not intend to read it or comply with it except in so far as he was forced to and he expected the world revolution within six months would make it obsolete (the German Revolution broke out exactly 6 months later).

During the debate on Brest-Litovsk, according to Ilyin-Zhenevsky, Lenin had to endure many personal insults from his own comrades but Rabinowitch does not tell us that he endured these with good humour (though he quotes Ilyin-Zhenevsky on other matters related to the Treaty). The Left Communists resigned from official positions and some even from the Party but in the end they returned to work for the revolution and many later came to realise that there had been little alternative in March 1918.

Not so the Left Socialist Revolutionaries whose leaders, though still part of the many Soviet institutions became increasingly hostile to the Bolsheviks. What followed was, as Rabinowitch aptly puts it, “The Suicide of the Left SRs”. The Left SR leaders remained internationalists but now returned to a practice from their Populist past - individual acts of terror. The Left SRs had hoped to overturn the Treaty of Brest- Litovsk at the Fifth Soviet Congress in July 1918 but, according to Rabinowitch (who admits his evidence is “circumstantial”) the Bolsheviks adopted various tactics to ensure that they would be over-represented, When the challenge to the Bolsheviks over the delegates who should have been disqualified failed, the Left SR leadership immediately decided to assassinate Count Mirbach, the German ambassador, without informing, let alone discussing the idea with, their own members. Mirbach was duly assassinated by two Left SR members of the Cheka on July 6 and this was interpreted by the Bolsheviks as an attempted coup. The significance for Rabinowitch was that the abrupt action of the Left SRs took the Revolution one step further towards a one party state. What he demonstrates quite forcefully is that this came about not as a result of a preconceived plan by the Bolsheviks but as a result of the desertion of other forces from Soviet power. For Rabinowitch, though, it is Lenin’s refusal to compromise, and indifference to widening the base of Soviet power, that is at the root of the problem. This argument only has validity if we ignore the extreme situation of economic privation and an already open civil war in Russia which continued a wartime emergency.

Rabinowitch tends to downplay these factors or presents them as a result of earlier Bolshevik failures and this should always be remembered when reading the text. And read it we should. Not only is it a gripping narrative of an unfolding tragedy (although his definition of the tragic element is different from ours) but he makes salient points which have to be taken on board by anyone trying to think about how a period of transition from capitalism to communism can take place. One of these is one we have made ourselves on several occasions. The real Government of the Soviet Republic should have been based on the Central Executive Committee (CEC) elected by the Soviet Congresses (which met every few months). Instead the Council of Peoples Commissars (Sovnarkom) was the government and, though it nominally answered to the CEC, the various crises of 1918 meant that in practical terms it became the real executive of the state. This meant that, instead of creating the semi-state that would wither away based on soviet power, the way was open to a development of a more centralised and authoritarian body.

Where we depart from Rabinowitch is that he argues that the process was over by the end of the first year of Soviet power and the revolution was already lost. Our view is that the revolution was still alive (if not well) into the 1920s, but that the errors of the civil war and even after it did not lead to a totalitarian state. An international revolution in this period could have saved it. The absolute burial of the revolution had to wait until later in the 1920s when Stalin began his work of destroying not only what was left of the revolution, but also the best amongst the revolutionaries themselves.


(1) Newly reprinted. £2 (including postage) from our London address.

(2) This is a reference to an earlier work Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July Uprising (Indian University Press 1968). The Bolsheviks Come to Power first appeared in 1976. The British publishers New Left Books issued it in 1979.

(3) Quoted by Rabinowitch, p18.

(4) As a complement to Rabinowitch Mary McAuley’s work Bread and Justice - State and Society in Petrograd 1917- 22 (Oxford University Press 1991) is recommended. Like Rabinowitch she focuses on Petrograd but extends her survey beyond the first year of the revolution. Hers is a much more grass roots version of events which shows the huge diversity of ideas and experimentation that was going on at the time, and her perspective is closer to our own in that she is interested in the question of how a really working class society can operate a socialist mode of production.

(5) For a little more on the lies of current bourgeois history see Ninety Years On: The Lessons of the Russian Revolution for Today in our last issue.

(6) Op. cit., p28.

(7) Rabinowitch, p123.

(8) Feodor F. Ilyin (Raskolnikov) was a Bolshevik from his youth and a member of Sovnarkom as well as being the leading Bolshevik representative at Kronstadt in 1917. He published two revealing memoirs which have been translated into English by Brian Pearce. Petrograd and Kronstadt in 1917 and Tales of Sub-Lieutenant Ilyin. The information above comes from the latter book. His brother Alexander’s memoir, A.F.

Ilyin-Zhenevsky The Bolsheviks in Powers - Reminiscences of the Year 1918 have also been translated by the same author and all three published by New Park Publications.

They are both extensively used by Rabinowitch.

(9) Rabinowitch, p127.

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