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Reading :: The Russian Revolution

Posted by: on Mar 18, 2015 | No Comments
The Russian Revolution (2nd edition)
By Sheila Fitzpatrick

The link goes to the third edition of this book, but I read the second edition (1994; reissued 2001). Fitzpatrick explains in the introduction that she has revised the book to reflect on the end of the Soviet experiment shortly after the USSR's collapse—a fact that colors our experience of the earlier chapters.

I picked up this book because I want to get a better understanding of the milieu in which activity theory developed. So, as I write the review below, I'll focus on a few key parts. But I found myself making notes throughout this book, which does a great job of discussing why the Soviet revolution happened, who the players were, and how this seemingly promising revolution lurched into the Stalinist purges.

Key to understanding the revolution was that Russia was a feudal society until the 1860s, when the peasants were freed from their legal bondage to lords or the state (p.15). Indeed, capitalism was seen as a liberalizing force by Marxists, including Lenin (p.20; 27); after all, capitalism was, in the Marxist understanding, a stage on the way to socialism. Partially for that reason, Marxists concentrated on cultivating the urban working class as their base of support rather than reaching out to the rural peasants (p.27).

Fitzgerald does a fine job of discussing how this cultivation progressed, sorting out the differences between the Mensheviks (who wanted a socialist democracy) and the Bolsheviks (who wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that if the bourgeoise were not destroyed first, democracy would simply become a tool for reinstating the bourgeoise). She describes how, in the middle of the German advance in World War I, the Tsar's failure to name a successor led to the provisional government in February 1917—an uneasy alliance between the soviets (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and other Marxist groups) and prerevolutionary powers. Many in the Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin, had been in exile in Germany; Germany was more than happy to give them safe passage back to foment revolution across enemy lines (p.50).

Eventually, the Bolsheviks overthrew this makeshift coalition and established Soviet rule. They negotiated a peace with Germany (which involved giving away enormous concessions) in early 1918 (p.70). Touchingly, the Bolsheviks were convinced that the proletariat were primed for similar revolutions across the entire world, and initially they believed that they couldn't survive without workers' revolutions in the other advanced industrial countries (p.69). When those revolutions failed to occur, they had to reassess. The dictatorship of the proletariat—which Lenin had initially seen as a transitional stage before the withering away of the state—could not pass until the worldwide revolution happened, and since it didn't happen, the dictatorship became permanent. And as dictatorships tend to do, this one began to resemble imperialism (p.70).

A few months after the Soviets negotiated an end to their war with Germany, the civil war broke out, pitting the Reds (Bolsheviks) against the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies) (p.70). "The Bolsheviks saw it as a class war, both in domestic and international terms: Russian proletariat against Russian bourgeoise; international revolution (as exemplified by the Soviet Republic) against international capitalism. The Red (Bolshevik) victory in 1920 was therefore a proletarian triumph, but the bitterness of the struggle had indicated the strength and determination of the proletariat's class. ... They expected that at a more opportune moment the forces of international capitalism would return, and crush the international workers' revolution at the source" (p.70). Fitzpatrick goes on to argue that this experience ingrained a permanent fear of "capitalist encirclement" (p.70) and left a heritage of authoritarianism, coercion, and rule by fiat (p.71).

Recall that this heritage mindset was in accordance with the dictatorship of the proletariat (pp.154-155). Lenin, who was quite authoritarian in practice, argued that someday, when the conditions were right, this dictatorship could give way to the withering of the state; at that point, all would have the same ideology and the state would no longer be needed. This vision is utopian, but the Bolsheviks thought they were immune to utopianism; for them, the vision was simply scientific (p.83). But until the rest of the world underwent the proletariat revolution, the end of the vision could not come to pass. The Soviet Union was in a holding pattern, using authoritarian means to jealously guard against the contagion of international capitalism until conditions were right for freedom to spread across the globe. (In the 1930s, even industrial accidents were being blamed on foreign provocateurs; p.164.)

We see the effects of this mindset over the next two decades. Lenin suffers strokes, finally passing away in January 1924. Stalin consolidates his power, makes industrialization his issue by 1925, expels Trotsky in 1927, and starts his first five-year plan by 1929. The Soviet hatred for bureaucracy is contradicted by their need for it, resulting in permanent ambiguity (p.105) and, consequently, shifting political sands (e.g., p.126). In 1928, Party control is asserted over cultural life (p.141).

The first show trials begin in 1928, as does the program of dekulakization (p.125). The Soviets begin to focus on the large-scale transition to collectivized agriculture (p.135)—recall that their power base was among the urban proletariat, not the peasants. (Also recall that it is in 1930 that Luria examines cognitive development among the Kazakh "beneficiaries" of this transition.)

Also during this time, radical innovation becomes valorized (p.142)—a boon to those who, like Luria and Leont'ev, sought to develop a uniquely Soviet psychology.

But of course, this time is also the beginning of the Gulag  (p.147)—the network of labor camps that allowed the Soviets to simultaneously purge class enemies; supply convict labor for industrialization; and keep the populace in fear of being imprisoned, a real fear due to the ambiguity of the conditions in which such a conviction could be obtained. The NKVD enthusiastically undertook witch hunts in the upper bureaucracy in 1937-1938 (p.165).

And this is where this sad history ends. Fitzpatrick tells the story lucidly, compellingly, and with an undercurrent of sympathy—both for the revolutionary idealists and their eventual victims. If you're at all interested in the history of this revolution, certainly pick up this book.