The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 
by Richard Pipes.
Harvill, 946 pp., £20, December 1990, 0 00 272086 8
Show More
Show More

The coalface of Soviet politics is collapsing; among the long-term miners, the professional Sovietologists, this has had a salutary effect. Two separate work-gangs had emerged over previous decades. One drove its picks into history; the other into politics, economics or sociology. This division of labour was caused both by pressure on researchers to choose a single discipline in the humanities and social sciences, and by the global increase in researchers – although the British Government in the Eighties shamefully diminished the national commitment to Soviet studies. The transformation of the Soviet political scene under Gorbachev has ended such bifurcation. A reversion to the traditions of the earliest Sovietology has occurred. Founding figures such as E.H. Carr and Leonard Schapiro were renowned for their ability to write as knowledgeably about 1917 as about the latest political developments. Once again it is thought absurd to hold the Soviet past – which is only seven decades old – and the Soviet present in separate analytical boxes.

Richard Pipes resisted the pressure to choose between historical and political specialisms. He matched his articles on Khrushchev and Brezhnev with works on the origins of Russian Marxism. His first book, on the foundation of the Soviet Union as a federation, published in 1954, remains the subject’s textbook. In the Seventies Solzhenitsyn attacked his writings on the Romanov autocracy, and their dispute was carried by Western external services radio stations to the USSR. Pipes was not unknown there. In 1966 his book on Russian Marxism so incensed the authorities that two official historians were deputed to write a denunciation: Mister Paips fal’ tsifitsiruyet istoriyu. If the variety and eminence of his critics are a criterion, Professor Pipes is in the front rank of Soviet studies.

This was recognised by President Reagan when he made Pipes Director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council in 1981. He stayed in post for only a short time before resigning and returning to Harvard. In 1984 he published a notable article, ‘Can the Soviet Union reform?’, reflecting Ronald Reagan’s optimism that the Soviet political system could be pushed towards fundamental reforms if the West pummelled the Soviet economy by maintaining the international arms race. This was one of many standpoints in Sovietology at the time. Some on the political right declared adherence to it. On the left, too, there were those who felt that economic decline would compel a programme of reforms, arguing that, once Brezhnev’s gerontocrats had died off, a more sophisticated generation of party apparatchiki would volunteer as reformers. With hindsight, we can probably concur that both involuntary and voluntary factors were at work in the mid-Eighties. Mikhail Gorbachev was reacting to circumstances, but he also made circumstances. Yet Pipes’s article stands up pretty well as a prognosis of the early course of reforms in the USSR.

A central theme in his writing has always been the Revolution, and his latest book is intended as a summary of a lifetime’s work. It is as heavy as an average-size metal bust of Lenin (now, for the first time, allowed to be sold in second-hand bookshops in Russia); and the author, disposing of textual space as broad as the southern steppes, roams freely over the questions which interest him.

The book has so far been received courteously in the USSR. The reviewer for the government newspaper Izvestiya simply noted that the author puts forward impassioned opinions. Izvestiya also predicted, surely correctly, that Pipes’s chapters will be read enthusiastically when they are translated into Russian. Ironically, scholarly hackles are being raised in the USA, where criticism derives from the nature of Pipes’s interpretation of the Revolution and from the implications of this interpretation for the analysis of politics in West and East. His book partakes of the American conventional wisdom on the Russian Revolution from the Fifties and Sixties. It castigates socialism in all its forms. It portrays Lenin and Leninist ideology as the main motive forces for change in Russia between the February Revolution (when the Romanov monarchy collapsed) and the October Revolution. It derides the liberals and the moderate socialists for their various alleged failures of nerve and understanding; it suggests that a pre-emptive violent strike against the Bolsheviks would have saved the day. It recapitulates the awesome repression of the early post-1917 period and the onset of the Red Terror.

Professor Pipes has a lovely turn of phrase and a flair for enthralling narrative. He has no heroes, save for two men. The first is Stolypin. Pipes points out that Stolypin, as Nicholas II’s chief minister between 1906 and 1911, had an intelligent vision of reform in local administration as well as on the agrarian question. Stolypin’s policies were the monarchy’s last chance to stave off its own demise. Yet Nicholas II hated the activities of Stolypin as an intermediary between the throne and the Duma, and was far from distraught when he fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1911.

The other person of heroic status is General Lavr Kornilov. He was the soldier chosen by the Provisional Government – which took power from Nicholas II upon his abdication in February 1917 – to maintain the Russian Army as a force against the Germans and to keep order in Russian cities. Like Stolypin, Kornilov fell foul of his political superiors. Alexander Kerensky became Premier in July 1917 and instructed Kornilov to quell rebellion in Petrograd. But Kerensky panicked, suspecting Kornilov of being about to organise a coup d’état, and Kornilov, when ordered to turn back from Petrograd, concluded that Kerensky was unfit to govern a country at war which faced Bolshevik insurrection. Kornilov’s mutiny was quickly suppressed. In Pipes’s account, he was the last figure able to prevent the rise of Lenin. He claims that the Bolsheviks had little support in the soviets and that the October Revolution was essentially a coup, not a revolution. He notes the peaceful quality of life on Petrograd’s streets on the day when power was seized. As he has argued in previous works on police-state methods, Lenin’s authoritarianism was not an aberration from Russian historical precedent. But the Bolshevik Party in government scaled unknown peaks of state violence, a violence which was consciously theorised and mercilessly applied.

The analysis girding this narrative is designed to explain the evident ease with which Lenin seized power in the capital and the provinces. Here a well-worn theme is replayed. Pipes stresses that Lenin was a domineering figure in his own party and that this party was run like a piece of highly centralised machinery. This emphasis is unaccompanied by explication: it is integral to the author’s intellectual assumptions and evokes no further comment.

This is a weakness. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were riven by disputes about policy throughout 1917. They held together until the October seizure of power mainly because they agreed that the Provisional Government should be overthrown and that measures for the ending of the Great War should be undertaken; these agreements were spontaneous, and not merely the products of Lenin’s insistence. Once the Bolsheviks had obtained power, they found that they disagreed about other basic aspects of political and economic policy. The hierarchical structure of the Party was a formal aim, not a reality. Central and local bodies conflicted, and the local committees ignored Pravda’s directives at will. Discussion and electivity were characteristic of the Party’s internal procedures. It may be that what inhibits Pipes from recording this is a feeling that by doing so he would somehow be making the Bolsheviks into democrats. This is not a necessary conclusion. The Bolsheviks had constantly paraded their lack of commitment to following democratic decisions, inside and outside the Party, whenever such decisions contradicted their existing intentions. What gave Lenin his chance to influence the Party were his forceful arguments and his clearly-stated objectives. Bolsheviks lower down the Party liked what they heard from him.

They still had a chance to like it or not for most of 1917. The break in the pattern occurred in the Central Committee in mid-October, when the overthrow of the Provisional Government was discussed. Only a small number of leaders of a few local committees participated; the Party held no internal referendum. The question of insurrection could not be extensively aired without alerting the Provisional Government and inviting repression. But Lenin did not give orders to an obedient machine: he used the Party’s organisational looseness to push a policy through the Central Committee and to present any doubters with a fait accompli.

This success allowed Lenin to refuse to share power with most other Russian socialists; and Pipes details his massive role in the inauguration of a partocracy more autocratic than any dreamt of by Nicholas II. Yet the account of Lenin’s impact is surprisingly thin. He is dubbed bull-headed and cold-hearted. His supposed mastery of ‘crowds’ outside the Party is described as having been crucial. This is a peculiar assertion. Lenin addressed very few crowds in 1917. His first public speech in Russia was made only in April, and he delivered no more between early July and the October Revolution. If he really commanded the Revolution by means of crowd manipulation, the case remains undemonstrated. This is an analytical failure. In the past two decades several major books have appeared in Britain and the USA seeking to chart the importance of ‘history from below’ as a major ingredient in the Bolshevik rise to power. Few of these are mentioned by Pipes. His determination to state his case in his own terms evades polemics while implicitly challenging a broad school of interpretation to a duel: but the opportunity is lost to set out a clear statement of Pipes’s counter-arguments.

Deliberations continue among historians about the importance of sociological, economic and low-political factors for the explanation of high politics. A few exponents of ‘history from below’ dottily ignore the need in principle to blend all the factors, high and low. Most others, however, aim at a blend. Pipes’s intention seems to be to reassert the primacy of high politics. This is a defensible viewpoint: but Pipes comes close to suggesting that high politics were all that mattered. Juice is being squeezed out of very stringy fruit. For example, the popular anti-government demonstration in April 1917 is said to have been mainly Lenin’s work. Proof is lacking. Pipes may or may not be right, but until the archives are opened, we cannot know.

Above all, this book is not the comprehensive account of the Revolution recklessly claimed by the author. The complex interrelationships between metropolitan and provincial political organs are barely sketched. And social history enters the account only fitfully: there is a long account of the peasantry before 1914, but next to nothing on rural developments after the February Revolution. It is especially odd to find no substantial attention given to the labour movement between February and October 1917. Moreover, the Russian economy’s precipitate decline in 1917 receives only a few general sentences in the book’s nine hundred pages. And yet, if it had not been for this decline – a result of the strains of a modern war upon the fabric of a semi-industrialised society – Lenin would have lived out his days scribbling about the virtues of Hegel and Marx either in the Bern Public Library or in the Rumyantsev Library in Moscow. The interpretative framework espoused by Richard Pipes was popularised by political scientists like William Kornhauser and Hannah Arendt in the Fifties. The leader tells the Party; the Party tells the masses; and the masses do what they are told because they are anomie, untutored, irrational crowds. By the same token, Lenin the totalitarian knew exactly what he was doing in 1917. Consequently Russian politics in the period between the February and October Revolutions were fundamentally different from what is conventional in liberal capitalist democracies.

This is too comforting a contrast. What is striking about 1917 is the mixture of similarities and dissimilarities between the politics of Russia in 1917 and the politics of most of the world in 1990. Lenin was not simply a master instructor: he was also a brilliant fudger, modifying policies with the skill of an American Presidential candidate dropping planks from his platform in accordance with intimations of popular opinion. He talked little about dictatorship, civil war and land nationalisation until he had seized power. Lenin was also a complex individual. If he hoodwinked the masses to a great extent, he also hoodwinked himself. He had little idea of the intellectual incoherences and practical difficulties inherent in his programme. He was a gambler, playing for far higher stakes than a British opposition leader who says that all the historic ills of the nation’s economy will be righted when another party is allowed to handle the levers of industry, agriculture and trade.

No one reading the Soviet press, not even the most benighted fellow-traveller, could deny that terrible things were done in the time of Lenin and that there was some link between Leninism and Stalinism. Nor is it deniable that the intentions of the Bolsheviks, with their emphasis on state control of the entirety of society, were dangerous even in 1917. But to treat the Russian Revolution in the manner of Kornhauser and Arendt is to disarm oneself before the threat of the creation of such a society. Neglect of the factors which facilitated the Bolshevik rise to power nourishes the conviction that it is sufficient to discern the individual Communist or Fascist leader in good time and liquidate him and his party before they can do damage. The range of social and economic conditions which help to produce such individuals is overlooked; Russia in 1917 becomes a narrow and exotic theme. Yet Leninism and Stalinism were not exclusively ‘Eastern’ phenomena. They derived in part from elements in the thought of a Central European, Marx, who was influenced by the Enlightenment in Western Europe and by the American and French Revolutions. Furthermore, the rise of French and Italian Communism from the Twenties resulted from autochthonous as well as alien stimuli.

To focus on Communism as the Devil without and to consistently ignore its connections with processes within our societies is to misunderstand the nature of the phenomenon: it is also to risk underestimating the social and economic injustices which Communism has traditionally sought and professed to cure. The hooray-Henryism which has greeted the fall of Communism in Eastern and East-Central Europe is a case in point. The idea that laissezfaire capitalism has always had all the answers and that ‘the end of history’ may be declared flies in the face of evidence as diverse as the rain forests of Brazil, the child-labour carpet factories of Srinagar and London’s cardboard city.

Professor Pipes has not been among those shouting hooray: the tone of his recent public statements on the USSR has been astringently threnodic. But his book is a historiographical thunderflash and should be handled with care. In Moscow it will join the other heavily-politicised hooks Russians currently love to devour. The nation’s professional historians are moving towards more flexible methodologies. But they are losing their public to well-informed zealots writing for journals and weeklies with vast circulation figures. Curiously, it is the anti-Leninists there who are nowadays most Leninist in manner. Castigating Marxism-Leninism, they nevertheless suggest – as did the old-style Marxist-Leninists – that every principal ill of the past is attributable to the actions of a single leader. Leader-bashing, especially when the leader is both dead and Communist, has become everybody’s leisure pursuit. It must be hoped that this understandable but incomplete method of comprehending the past does not become a prescription for managing the present. Politics are dangerous when people think that virtually the sole political choice to be made is which dominant leader to elect or approve. Should it be Gorbachev or Yeltsin? Or possibly a duumvirate of KGB chief Kryuchkov and the dashingly conservative General Gromov?

In 1917, workers voted pro-Bolshevik because they liked Bolshevik policies and not because they knew or had even heard much about them. Today the inhabitants of Moscow, having adored Yeltsin for standing up to Gorbachev, are showing signs of moving away from him. A fascination with individual leaders is not a permanent Russian characteristic. In almost every other respect, the outlook is grim. As in 1917, authority and confidence are collapsing: disorderly and intolerant political groups contend for power, the economy is in precipitate decline, speculation and corruption abound, inter-ethnic tensions persist. In such circumstances it is not unknown for disoriented and hungry citizens to turn to simplistic and vengeful policies. So it was in 1917 in Russia. So it has been in other countries since then; and so it could be again in Russia in the early 1990s.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences