Issue 62 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 1994 Copyright © International Socialism

Bookwatch: the Russian Revolution


The Russian Revolution has generated an enormous literature of varying worth. This article will concentrate upon those books most helpful for socialists. An example of anti-socialist history of the revolution is Richard Pipes' recent best seller, Russian Revolution.1 Pipes has been telling his tale for years, and Russian Revolution has been attacked by professional historians for ignoring recent historical studies which undermine his case. This Bookwatch will identify some of this valuable recent scholarship.

There are several narrative accounts that deal with the 1917 revolution from the overthrow of the Tsar in February to the Bolshevik insurrection in October. The most important of these is still Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.2 It is unsurpassed in its historical understanding, its political depth and its literary style. Although a long book, it is a treat to read.

The first three volumes of E H Carr's mammoth history of the Soviet Union concern the Bolshevik Revolution.3 They are not a priority--it is the volumes dealing with later years that are valuable. More accessible is the memoir of Nikolai Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917. A Personal Record.4 An ex-Socialist Revolutionary, Sukhanov joined the Mensheviks in the course of 1917 and is therefore hardly a friendly witness to the Bolsheviks. His honesty, though, makes him a valuable witness.

W H Chamberlin's The Russian Revolution 1917-1918 5 is the first of two volumes accepted as the 'standard' history by bourgeois historians. This should not put readers off. Chamberlin was able to collect materials for his history in the 1920s before Stalinism closed real historical debate. We may disagree with his politics but he produced a fine narrative which, because of its basis in early material, is able genuinely to reflect some of the dynamic of the revolution. John Rees' 'In defence of October', in International Socialism 52, is a good short account of current debates about the revolution, using recent scholarship and the classics to refute the right wing.

The two books by David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime and The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power,6 can together be used as a narrative of 1917, although their focus on the consciousness of the working class gives them a special value. They are wonderful books that should be better known.

There is also a well known pair of books by Marc Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 1917 and The Bolshevik Revolution.7 Ferro was co-director of 'Annales', a French school of historians that disapproves of narrative. They are therefore difficult books unless you already know the story of the revolution.

Narrative is important because social processes work themselves out over time. Tracing the dynamic of revolution as an outcome of these social processes is the task of the historian. This Bookwatch will trace the course of the revolution through some of the available accounts.

Trotsky's History is most explicit in its examination of what history is and how it must be studied. It is a magnificent work of historiography. It is a study of how social dynamics operate, of how key historical moments can become subject to the exercise of human will. In this sense it is a study of all revolution, as well as of 1917. This is possible only because the depth of Trotsky's Marxism is marshalled and focused with the greatest subtlety. No one who has read this work could ever argue that Marxism is 'mechanical' or 'only interested in economics'.

The History is the place to read of the background to the revolution. To set the historical scene Trotsky discusses how the key feature of Russian history is '...the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms and low level of culture resulting from it.' But what Trotsky calls the 'law of combined and uneven development' means that Russia was not simply backward:

The combination of backwardness and advanced industry meant that the Russian Revolution was both a workers' and a peasants' revolution, and only Trotsky adequately deals with how these intertwined and determined the course of the revolution.

He shows how the uneven development meant the most glaring social inequality. The First World War meant terrible hardship for the masses but:

By 1916 prices were rising and shortages increasing. Trotsky tells us that the 'curve of the workers' movement rises sharply'. Discontent spread, there was a wave of meetings in factories and leaflets were distributed. Meanwhile the villages remained comparatively peaceful: 'That was because its active forces were at the front. The soldiers did not forget about the land--whenever at least they were not thinking about death...' The organisation of peasants in the army meant they could become a force for revolution. But still, Trotsky insists, 'the peasantry, even after learning to handle firearms, could never of its own force have achieved the agrarian democratic revolution--that is its own revolution. It had to have leadership.' That leadership had to come from the working class.

No account of the background to the revolution could ignore the Tsar and his autocracy. Trotsky writes:

There follows one of the most devastating personality profiles ever written. As evidence Trotsky uses the Tsar's diary. During a key stage of the revolution, the July Days, Nicholas II wrote: '14 July. Got dressed and rode a bicycle to the bathing beach and bathed, enjoyably in the sea.'

'15 July. Bathed twice. It was very hot. Only us two at dinner. A storm passed over.' Trotsky carries out an autopsy on the decadent court where this 'dim, equable and "well-bred" man' was under the influence of the more malevolent Tsarina, and she under the influence of the malign Rasputin. Even members of the ruling class could see the need for change, but decadent, vicious and weak, they did not make the palace revolution that was the whispered talk of society. Trotsky explains, 'The unsystematic and inconsistent character of the noble['s] discontent is explained by the fact that it is the opposition of a class which has no future.'

The rottenness of the regime is shown by its fall within one week. On 23 February there was a mass demonstration to celebrate International Women's Day, strengthened by striking workers from the massive Putilov works. On 24 February 200,000 workers were on strike. The next day the weak advisory Duma refused to disperse when dissolved by the Tsar. Workers took to the streets in their thousands. On 27 February the Guards' regiments mutinied. The soviet was formed and so was the Provisional Committee of the Duma. Two days later the Provisional Committee formed the Provisional Government and the Tsar abdicated in favour of his brother, the Grand Duke Michael. In his turn Michael abdicated on 3 March and the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia since 1613, was finished.

These events can be followed in Trotsky's History, but there are also some books particularly on the February Revolution. Marc Ferro's The Russian Revolution of February 1917 has already been referred to. It adds little to our understanding other than some useful documents, and the translation does not overcome the laboured style of writing. There is also George Katkov's Russia 1917. The February Revolution! 8 This was first published in 1967 and is remarkably old fashioned. Katkov is obsessed with the shady operations of the German secret services.

The most detailed study of this short period is the 600 page The February Revolution. Petrograd 1917 by Tsuyoshi Hasawgawa.9 The result of years of archival scholarship it gives a very full account and has some of the best maps. Hasawgawa provides one story that encapsulates the class rottenness of the old regime. During the insurrection of 27 February troops had been going over to the demonstrators. The army would not shoot down workers as in 1905. Those small numbers of troops remaining loyal were feeling demoralised and confused. Their dwindling band had been shifted hither and thither by their officers. They were then moved to the Winter Palace:

Hasawgawa's work supports the main outlines of Trotsky's approach to the February Revolution, despite a rather artificial quarrel over the nature of 'dual power'.

The whole issue of whether the February Revolution was 'spontaneous' has a literature all of its own. No one now seriously contends that the Bolshevik Party led the February Revolution. There is a useful introduction to how the issue became entwined in Russian political debates in D A Longley's chapter in the collection Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917.10 This book, by many of the recent historians of the revolution, is valuable in setting out some of their concerns--but it is really for specialists.

Longley traces the understanding of February from a general acceptance in Soviet historiography that it was spontaneous, to the argument that worker-Bolsheviks played a vital role. Against this argument, closely associated with Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov, Zinoviev insisted in 1923 that the Bolshevik Party had been 'smashed' in Russia during the First World War. Some of Shlyapnikov's memoirs have been published in English as On the Eve of 191711 and, as long as their polemical purpose is appreciated, they are still useful. They give a picture of how, even though the Bolsheviks had been disorganised, the political tempering its cadres had received meant that they were still active. Longley shows that a wave of 'worker-memoirs' were published in 1922-3 to discredit Shlyapnikov. There was a return to the idea of February as 'spontaneous'. After Stalin's victory, which led to Shlyapnikov's disappearance, it was compulsory to argue that the Bolsheviks had both planned and led the February Revolution.

The February Revolution was not 'led' by any organised group or party. Trotsky's History has a key chapter, 'Who led the February Revolution?' devoted to this issue. The revolution was unplanned, but this doesn't mean that it 'happened of itself', without cause. Trotsky shows how the forces in society--'molecular processes'--created revolution, though of course these historical forces created and worked through real people. One of the key moments of February was when Cossacks refused to attack demonstrators.

Trotsky argues that February arose without leadership from above, but that it left unresolved the key question, 'The insurrection triumphed. But to whom did it hand over the power snatched from the monarchy?'

The next stage of the revolution can be followed in several accounts. Trotsky, of course, or Sukhanov. Chamberlin is also good here. He understands that the issue was the 'deepening of the revolution' and his summary of the first months of the revolution is masterly:

The Provisional Government, led by the capitalist Cadet party, sought to 'consolidate' the revolution. Consolidation meant stability, and stability implied order--the war must continue. But the Provisional Government was weak and confronted by a victorious population. Its orders were only carried out to the extent that they matched the wishes of the people. Between these two forces stood the moderate executive of the soviets which gave 'conditional support' to the Provisional Government.

For the best discussion of the Bolsheviks' position there is the second volume of Cliff's political biography Lenin, 12 which covers 1917. Neil Harding's Lenin's Political Thought13 is interesting on the relationship between Lenin's recently developed understanding of imperialism and the tasks of the Bolsheviks. Indispensable are the 1917 writings of Lenin himself, either from the Collected Works or more conveniently in the collection Between the Two Revolutions.14 They show Lenin not with all the answers, nor as infallible, but seeking at every stage the key task for Bolshevik intervention in the process of revolution.

The stance of the soviet executive towards the government was supported by the Bolshevik paper Pravda after the return of Stalin and Kamenev from exile. Lenin, with his usual robust polemic, denounced this from abroad, then in the April Theses on his return. He insisted that the war was still an imperialist war and that to support the government waging it was to support imperialism. He argued that:

This was not yet a call for insurrection. The task was to win over a majority in the soviet.

In the 'April Days' Foreign Minister Miliukov, leader of the Cadet party, was forced out of the government by demonstrations after he sent a telegram to the Allies to reassure them that the revolution meant no weakening of Russia's role in the war. Some demonstrators raised the demand 'Down with the Provisional Government'--the Bolshevik slogan. The Provisional Government was reorganised as a coalition with Kerensky as key figure, acting as a bridge between the government and the soviet executive of which he was also a member.

There are some important books by modern historians that study the attitude of the working class through the revolution. Based on previously under-used sources they give the lie to the idea that power fell to the Bolsheviks either by historical accident, or because of Lenin's peculiar conspiratorial prowess. There are the two volumes by David Mandel referred to earlier. There is also Steve A Smith's Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-18.15 Although marred by a syndicalist approach that cannot see that post-October factory committees could not be allowed an autonomy which privileged sections of the class over its totality, his work is still of enormous value. There is Diane Koenker's Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution.16 Koenker and William G Rosenberg contribute a chapter on strikes in 191717 to Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917, mentioned earlier. This also has a study by David Mandel of the Ivanovo-Kineshma textile region.18 Another fascinating collection is The Workers' Revolution in Russia, 1917. The View from Below.19 This has contributions from Steve Smith on Petrograd workers, from Diane Koenker on Moscow workers, and includes a fascinating geographical study of Petrograd and Moscow in 1917 by James H Bater, which gives a spatial understanding to the class divisions--and shows how social divisions were a little less harsh in Moscow and advanced industry was less significant.

Steve Smith's book explores the relationships between the factory committees, trade unions and the development of 'workers' control'. Analysing the Petrograd working class by its distribution, and by skill, gender and age he concludes:

The skilled workers, especially metal workers, with stronger traditions were, as one would expect, the first to create factory committees and to take up Bolshevik slogans.

David Mandel's The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime is invaluable in exploring the issue of the varying tempo of political development of different sections of the working class. The procedure at factory meetings was for each political grouping to put forward a resolution that best summarised its position. A comparison of resolutions which were passed provides clear evidence as to whose policies commended greatest support within the workplaces. Mandel is able to give a vivid picture of the debates and arguments inside the working class.

The 'April Days' marked a shift to the left; some workplaces started to take up Bolshevik positions. Mandel cites the resolution of the Optico machine construction factory:

Meanwhile the less advanced general assembly of the Leont'ev textile mill resolved:

The start of the shift towards the Bolsheviks was shown when the First Conference of Petrograd Factory Committees, convened on 30 May, was dominated by the Bolsheviks. David Mandel shows that the shift toward the Bolsheviks was even reflected in local government (District Duma) elections. But in the all-Russian Congress of Soviets that met on 3 July the Bolsheviks had only 155 out of 777 delegates.

Mandel is a wonderful source for the period between April and July in the factories. For the wider picture use Trotsky, Chamberlin or Sukhanov. They relate how the Bolsheviks decided to test their support by calling a demonstration for 10 June. The slogans were to be 'Power to the Soviets' and 'Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers'. The executive of the soviets issued a decree banning the demonstration. Cliff relates the divisions in the Bolsheviks and Lenin's role in the eventual decision to respect the order of the soviet executive.

The moderate soviet majority sponsored an alternative 'unity' demonstration on 18 June in order to isolate the Bolsheviks. Sukhanov describes the 300,000 to 400,000 strong demonstration:

The most advanced sections of the workers and soldiers were now won to the idea of soviet power. Lenin argued hard against forcing the pace--power could be seized in Petrograd, but that would have isolated the centre of the revolution and it was premature to talk of holding power.

The crisis caused when the most militant pushed ahead can be studied in Alexander Rabinowitch's important book length study of the Bolsheviks and the 'July Days', Prelude to Revolution.20 The very militant Kronstadt garrison played an important role in these events, and they are dealt with in Norman E Saul's Sailors in Revolt,21 or in the memoir of F F Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917.22 Rabinowitch relates how on 3 July the First Machine Gun Regiment called for armed demonstrations against the government. This call was rejected by some army units, but accepted by others who toured for support:

The huge demonstrations of 4 July were in advance of the majority, and posed a problem for the Bolshevik leadership. On 4 July, in order not to be left behind events, the Bolshevik Central Committee issued a call to continue the demonstrations, but stressing the need to maintain their peaceful character. Cliff discusses this decision and how it relates to Lenin's understanding of the stage the revolution had reached.

The majority of factories voted to participate in the next day's demonstration but the soldiers were now wavering. Many of the less militant regiments became worried over the increasingly aggressive tone of the demonstrations. Some regiments that had taken part decided to remain neutral next day. Rabinowitch reports that Minister of Justice Pereverzev circulated information that the Bolsheviks had deliberately provoked the July Days on the instructions of the German General Staff. Chamberlin reports that a soviet executive resolution contained the following:

The appeal to loyalty to the army was successful. The government, with the support of the soviet executive, now had enough support amongst the soldiers to reimpose 'order'. The demonstrators returned to their homes and barracks.

Many right wing commentators, and more surprisingly Rabinowitch, call the 'July Days' an insurrection. Although insurrection was imminent in the events this is unhelpful. Cliff's Lenin discusses this important issue, and Norman Saul's Sailors in Revolt. The Russian Baltic Fleet in 1917 summarises:

David Mandel, as always, is good on how the July Days affected the working class:

An immediate result of this confusion was that workers looked to unity--and this meant towards the soviet executive. Hostile motions were passed against the 'splitting' of the Bolsheviks. The government was able to physically repress the Bolsheviks, Lenin went into hiding, Trotsky was arrested and imprisoned. The forces of reaction became more confident.

The next stage of the revolution can be followed in Trotsky's History, in Chamberlin, and in Sukhanov. David Mandel continues his survey of the working class in The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power--as good as his earlier work. Alexander Rabinowitch follows up his earlier book with The Bolsheviks Come to Power,23 this too is full of insight.

As reaction grew the government became more unstable. More and more marginalised and weak, it sought artificial solutions to real problems. Trotsky's analysis of this process is especially powerful:

He tells us, 'The Moscow State Conference ended in the failure assured in advance.'

David Mandel shows that, despite the setback of the July Days, 'July and August witnessed the near total collapse of the remaining working class support for the government coalition of census [upper class] and soviet representatives and also for the moderate socialists who supported it.' Giving the sort of detail that makes his books so valuable he reports:

Alexander Rabinowitch quotes the response of the Menshevik paper, the Rabochaia Gazeta, to these elections:

On 26 August the commander of the Petrograd military region, on the orders of General Kornilov, put the capital on a military footing. Kornilov started to march on Petrograd, stock prices soared. David Mandel describes the reaction:

As a result support for the Bolsheviks grew. At a plenum of the Petrograd Soviet--both workers and soldiers--on 31 August the delegates for the first time passed a Bolshevik sponsored motion demanding a government of the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry. On 9 September the soviet voted for soviet power, the old executive withdrew and Trotsky became president. His account is the place to follow this transformation.

The newer historians cited here are emphatic that the acceptance of Bolshevik slogans was the result of practical experience by workers. Steve Smith writes in his chapter in The Workers Revolution in Russia:

In the same collection Diane Koenker makes a similar point:

David Mandel reports that:

Mandel tells us that in September the Conference of Factory Committees warned against,

With the soviet majority won to the Bolsheviks, insurrection was the key issue. For the period of September and October, besides the sources given earlier, there is the vivid, journalistic account of John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World, 24 heartily recommended by Lenin. Trotsky's History has a sustained and magnificent discussion of Marxism and insurrection, and Cliff is very clear on the debates amongst the Bolshevik leaders. On this subject Trotsky's short The Lessons of October25 is an important classic. The minutes of the Bolshevik Central Committee are available in English,26 although they are frustratingly compressed and incomplete.

John Reed, outlines the political situation:

If the time was not seized the property owners would regroup and smash the revolution. The process of revolution had developed to the stage where consciousness was key. Trotsky, in The Lessons of October, explains:

Lenin poured out insistent demands for the Bolsheviks to embrace insurrection. His writings in Between the Two Revolutions are required reading, alongside Cliff's Lenin, and Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks Come to Power.

By one of the splendid jokes of history the Bolshevik Central Committee meeting that eventually decided on insurrection was held at Sukhanov's flat. Sukhanov tells us:

On 16 October the Central Committee moved to 'technical preparations', after assessing the mood of the districts. Zinoviev, opposed to the insurrection, argued that 'the mood in the factories ... is not what it was in June.' This was true. Again the best source on the details of the workers' state of mind is David Mandel, he summarises:

The discussion by Trotsky around the role of the masses, the role of soviet legality, and the function of the party in insurrection is of extreme importance. Trotsky persuaded Lenin that the insurrection should be mounted through the mechanism of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet. He also showed that the insurrection should be presented as a defensive move against the government's plan to move militant army units out of Petrograd.

The insurrection was not like February, it did not involve huge numbers on the streets, it was far more 'technical'. Superficial observers have noted this, and used it as justification for the contention that October was merely a 'coup'. Trotsky explains:

The details of how the insurrection was conducted are best followed in Trotsky's History. At ten o'clock on the morning of 25 October, by which time Kerensky had fled, the railway terminals, the bridges and the telephone exchange had been occupied, came the announcement:

It took the rest of the day to clean up the last strongholds of the Provisional Government. The Second Congress of Soviets finally convened after repeated delays at 10.45pm, just as the battleship Aurora was preparing to fire upon the government's final refuge, the Winter Palace. Descriptions of the congress are in Trotsky's History, and also in Five Days Which Transformed Russia '27 a set of eyewitness accounts by Sergei Mstislavskii. After the election of a Bolshevik presidium, and after those opposed to the realities of the situation had made their last declarations and left, the congress eventually declared:

Of course this was not the end of the revolution. There was the street fighting in Moscow, the spread to the provinces, the disbanding of the now anachronistic Constituent Assembly. There was the resistance of reaction that was to lead to the civil war. There was the terrible need to grapple with the economic devastation of war and revolution. All of this is outside the remit of this article. As starting point for the post-revolution period read Victor Serge's Year One of the Russian Revolution and Arthur Ransome's Six Weeks in Russia 1919 and The Crisis in Russia 1920, all of which convey the enormity of the difficulties facing the new regime. The degeneration of the revolution is best followed in Chris Harman's How the Revolution was Lost and John Rees' 'In defence of October' .28

There is enough material on the revolution for a lifetime of reading. Besides the books mentioned here there is a huge literature of specialist studies. But Trotsky, especially if supplemented by David Mandel, will provide a full enough picture to show that 1917 stands as the highpoint of our history, a workers' revolution that opened a new prospect for humanity. Understanding 1917 is vital for us to reopen that prospect.


  1. R Pipes, Russian Revolution (Fontana, 1992).
  2. L Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto, 1977).
  3. E H Carr, A History of Soviet Russia, 14 volumes (Harmondsworth, 1950).
  4. N N Sukhanov (abr. J Carmichael), The Russian Revolution 1917. A Personal Record (Princeton, 1983).
  5. W H Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, Vol 1 1917-1918, From the Overthrow of the Tsar to the Assumption of Power by the Bolsheviks (Princeton, 1987).
  6. D Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime (Macmillan, 1983); and D Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power (Macmillan, 1984). These are expensive books, so get them in a library.
  7. M Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 1917 (Routledge, 1972); and M Ferro, The Russian Revolution of October (1980), published in paperback as The Bolshevik Revolution. A Social History of the Russian Revolution (Routledge, 1985).
  8. G Katkov, Russia 1917. The February Revolution (Fontana, 1969).
  9. T Hasawgawa, The February Revolution. Petrograd 191 7 (Washington, 1981).
  10. E R Frankel et al (ed), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge, 1992).
  11. A Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917 (Allison and Busby, 1982).
  12. T Cliff, Lenin Vol 2. All Power to the Soviets (Pluto, 1976).
  13. N Harding, Lenin's Political Thought (Macmillan, 1983).
  14. V I Lenin, Between the Two Revolutions (Moscow, 1971).
  15. S A Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-18 (Cambridge, 1983).
  16. D Koenker, Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution (Princeton, 1981).
  17. D Koenker and W G Rosenberg, 'Perceptions and Reality of Labour Protest, March to October 1917', in E R Frankel, op cit.
  18. D Mandel, 'October in the Ivanovo-Kineshma Industrial Region', in E R Frankel, op cit.
  19. D H Kaiser (ed), The Workers' Revolution in Russia 1917. The View from Below (Cambridge, 1987).
  20. A Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution. The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (Indiana, 1968).
  21. N E Saul, Sailors in Revolt. The Russian Baltic Fleet in 1917 (Kansas. 1978); see also E Mawdsley, The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet (Macmillan, 1978).
  22. F F Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 (New Park, 1982).
  23. A Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power (NLB, 1979).
  24. J Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (Harmondsworth, 1977).
  25. L Trotsky, The Lessons of October (London, 1987).
  26. The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution (London, 1974).
  27. S Mstislavskii,Five Days Which Transformed Russia (I B Tauris, 1988).
  28. V Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (London, 1992), Arthur Ransome in Revolutionary Russia (Redwords, 1992), C Harman, How the Revolution was Lost (Bookmarks, reprint forthcoming May 1994).

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