A review of two reviews in the New York Times Book Review Section
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. We might also argue that this year marks 100 years of slander against the leaders of the Russian Revolution. We can list all the wars carried out to supposedly save the world from the so-called communist onslaught.
Fourteen nations, including the United States, joined in a war to overthrow the government in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.
The Nazi armies of Adolf Hitler caused the deaths of about 27 million people in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
In the United States, numerous people lost their jobs and were blacklisted because of a campaign against the idea of communism. This cowardly act was advanced by Joseph McCarthy and his House on Un-American Activities Committee. The future President John F. Kennedy served on that committee.
The United States government carried out holocausts in Korea and Vietnam. Literally millions of people died because of these wars. This was also motivated as attempts to stop the spread of communism.
The United States invaded Cuba and threatened the world with nuclear warfare also, in part, to stop the spread of communism. Today the United States continues a trade blockade against Cuba in spite of worldwide condemnation of this blockade.
The New York Times has continued it’s slanders against the Russian Revolution with two reviews in it’s June 11, 2017 Book Review section.
One of the many problems with the press in any capitalist country is that they look at the events of the world through the eyes of those who have power. Rarely do we see media portrayals of the day-to-day lives of working people and farmers.
We see this tendency clearly in Gregory Feifer’s review of Sean McMeekin’s book The Russian Revolution – A New History. Feifer cites an argument by McMeekin about the state of the Russian economy before the First World War. “Russia’s economy was surging before the war, with a growth rate of 10 percent a year—like China in the early 21st century”
Both McMeekin and Feifer ignore the reasons why the Russian and Chinese economies surged. This was because of low wages and horrendous working conditions. Today, Chinese workers might work a fourteen-hour day for ten dollars. Russian workers toiled in factories for eleven-hour days. Both Chinese and the Russian workers of the past lived in dormitories away from their families. If McMeekin and Feifer worked under those conditions, I don’t think they would have a positive outlook on the economy.
Then, Feifer quotes Richard Pipes who also wrote a history of the Russian Revolution. Pipes argued that the revolution was not a revolution, but a coup by “identifiable men pursuing their own advantages.”
When we look at the facts of the Russian Revolution, this statement appears to be totally absurd. We might consider the fact that in revolutions the ruling powers have most of the advantages. They have an army, the police, the courts, the press, vast amounts of money, and as we will see, the government.
Revolutionaries typically have ideas. These ideas can transform the dissatisfaction of the people into a force capable of replacing the government with one that has completely different priorities. As the Cuban revolutionary José Martí once said: “One just principal from the depths of a cave can be more powerful than an army.”
Then, we have Joshua Rubenstein’s review of Catherine Merridale’s book, Lenin on the Train about Vladimir Illyich Lenin’s transport from Switzerland to Russia during the First World War. Lenin along with many other revolutionaries had been in exile from Russia because of his political ideas.
In the month of February a revolution broke out in Russia. The Czar, as well as the royal family, was replaced by a provisional government. This transition enabled Lenin and other revolutionaries to return to their homeland.
Rubinstein quotes Merridale about her view of the state of affairs in Russia after the February revolution. Merridale argues that, “Russia became the freest country in the world.”
Leon Trotsky was a leader of the Russian Revolution and wrote a comprehensive three volume History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky gave overwhelming evidence that the basic problems that led to the February Revolution were not being addressed by the Provisional Government. The one thing that did change was the fact that the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had the opportunity to organize a mass movement to put a workers government in power.
So, at this point, I will give some facts as to why Russian workers and farmers organized to place their own government in power. I will also give a summary as to how that government was betrayed by Joseph Stalin.
The Russian Revolution
I have worked for a living my entire life as a factory worker and as a housekeeper. One thing all of my coworkers agree on is that politicians need to do the work we do every day and live on our wages. This would give them a completely different perspective towards politics.
So, I will attempt to look at the history of the Russian Revolution, not from the views of those who had power, but from the perspectives of the workers and farmers.
Before the Russian Revolution most people who lived on the vast farmland of Czarist Russia were not farmers but serfs. These serfs were tied to the land and needed written permission to leave.
In a nation that had some of the most fertile lands in the world, the Russian serfs lived in perpetual poverty and hunger. The weapon used to enforce these conditions was the Russian knout. This was a specially designed whip used to beat, or at times, murder serfs.
Russia was only one of many nations that were ruled by the Czar. Nations like the Ukraine and Georgia were routinely discriminated against. The language of those days routinely used abusive epithets to describe individuals of non-Russian nations.
The Yiddish word pogrom was invented to describe raids into the Jewish communities. In these pogroms organizations like the Black Hundreds murdered tens of thousands of Jews. The Black Hundreds had a similar racist outlook as the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
Before the Revolution Czarist Russia was becoming a highly industrialized nation. While most people continued to live off the land, many migrated to the cities where they worked eleven-hour days in French financed factories. These Russian factories were known to have thousands of workers in a single location.
In the cities, Russian workers learned not to question the authorities. In the United States there have been protests against police murders of civilians as well as protests against the police policy of Stop and Frisk. In the cities of Czarist Russia workers understood that police could routinely beat them and there was little they could do about it.
Vladimir Illyich Lenin was the central leader of the Bolshevik party. He was exiled and sent to the frigid climate of Siberia for merely attending a meeting that was critical of the Czar.
In the year 1905 Russian workers organized to protest against these conditions. All they wanted to do was to present the Czsar with a list of their grievances. For this supposed offense, the Russian armed forces murdered hundreds or thousands of demonstrators.
The Russian workers responded to these assaults by organizing their Soviets or workers counsels. These Soviets represented many Russian unions and banned together to protest victimizations against workers. However, these Soviets only had limited success before the Russian Revolution. Many of the leaders of Russian workers, like Lenin, needed to live outside of Russia because of the extreme repression in their homeland.
Thinking about this history, we might also consider Sean McKeenin’s view of the czar. “Russia in 1900 was a going concern, its very size and power a source of pride to most if not all of the czar’s subjects.” So, if most if not all of the czar’s subjects were proud of his rule, why was there a revolution that removed this royal family from power for all time?
The February and October Revolutions
McMeekin argues that the czar made a mistake in going to war against Germany. This war brought all the problems in Russia to a head and created the preconditions for revolution.
However, we might consider that at that time Russian industry was almost entirely owned by French capitalists and Germany was invading France. We might also consider that if Russia had not gone to war against Germany, that Germany might have won the First World War. The entire history of the capitalist world might be different had Germany won the war.
We might also consider that when the Provisional Government held power, they continued the war the czar started. When the Bolsheviks took power, they sued Germany for peace, even though this meant giving up large amounts of land in the Russian west.
The Soviet government and Germany signed the Brest-Litovsk agreement that ended Russian participation in the First World War. Before those negotiations, Leon Trotsky invited all the powers that were participating in the war to join in this peace conference. Trotsky argued that if those powers refused to participate in those talks, they should explain in clear language why they were continuing to spill the blood of millions of soldiers in that senseless war.
Those powers that ordered soldiers to risk their lives in this war refused to state the real reasons for the war. Those reasons were the same as the reasons for the Second World War. These wars were about which capitalist nation would dominate the world. This was why the Bolsheviks had no reason to sacrifice lives in order to serve the interests of the most affluent families in the world.
Ken Follett—Fall of the Giants (Book one of the Century Trilogy)
While I was reading the reviews in the New York Times, I also was reading Ken Follett’s novel Fall of the Giants. This is the first volume of his Century Trilogy. These three volumes are an historical fiction of families in Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States throughout the twentieth century.
Unlike the histories reviewed in the New York Times, Follett’s novel attempts to give a compelling story as to why the Russian Revolution erupted. However, Follett’s narrative has several serious flaws. Throughout most of these books, Follett looks at the world through the eyes of the capitalists and their supporters who have power.
In Fall of the Giants, Follett has a character he named Grigori. Grigori sees his parents murdered in the 1905 Russian Revolution. He then becomes a factory worker who was brutalized by the police. Grigori then is drafted to fight for Russia in the First World War. There he experienced routine hunger and a lack of proper boots because the czar’s army didn’t receive sufficient supplies.
As a soldier Grigori resists fighting the Germans because he learns that this would be an act of suicide. When a commanding officer attempts to murder retreating Russian soldiers, Grigori murders that officer. Grigori’s fellow soldiers had no problem with his actions.
Grigori was sent to St. Petersburg where he was assigned to protect the royal family. In St. Petersburg he cares for a child who is the son of his wife. He learns that his wife needed to work all day and then get on a line at midnight in the frigid cold, just so she might be able to purchase of loaf of bread in the morning.
Then, we see Grigori finding the child he cares for to be ill. He discovers that the reason for this illness is that his wife isn’t getting enough food, and has no milk in her breasts to feed the child. These were common problems before the February Revolution.
Then, Grigori sees the February Revolution erupt. A commanding officer ordered Grigori to open fire on demonstrators and Grigori refused. Among the demonstrators were people he had known throughout his life.
Although Grigori would not fire on the demonstrators, the racist, sexist, and sadistic police began murdering civilians. Grigori and the other soldiers began to arm the civilians and opened fire on the police.
Grigori is there when Lenin returns to St. Petersburg. Lenin understood that the Provisional Government was not going to make any fundamental changes and proposed that the Soviets take power. Lenin made it clear that the Soviets were the only force in Russia that would grant the demands to the people of peace, bread, and land. These were some of the reasons why the fictional character Grigori became a Bolshevik. Although Fall of the Giants is a work of fiction, we can see how Follett’s narrative at this point closely resembles the reality faced by Russian workers and soldiers.
Understanding this reality we might also consider that Russian capitalists were reaping huge profits from their war related industries. This is why Lenin argued that it wasn’t necessary to argue for socialism, but merely to expose the theft of the state.
Lenin’s return to St. Petersburg
Another character in Follett’s book is named Walter, who works for the intelligence service of Germany during the First World War. In his book, Follett has Walter give a significant amount of money to Lenin during his return to Russia. This idea that Lenin received money from Germany to advance the Russian revolution is also supported in the reviews in the New York Times. What are the facts?
First, we can clearly understand why Lenin as well as other revolutionaries allowed German officials to assist them in returning to their homeland. The Russian people had endured centuries of the despotic rule of the czar. The aspirations of the Russian workers and peasants needed to be supported. If the February Revolution failed to do this, Russia would experience more years of despotism. For these reasons, revolutionaries accepted German transport to their homeland.
After the Russian Revolution the officials of the German government were alive. Had they given money to Lenin, they could have said so. They made no such statement. Clearly these officials were no supporters of the Russian Revolution.
In the year 1950 the German archives were opened and there was no evidence that any money had been given to Lenin.
We might also look at the character of Lenin. On several occasions Lenin advanced minority points of view and eventually won a majority to his position. History has shown that almost always Lenin advanced the only course that was capable of bringing about a successful revolution. Understanding all these facts, I see no reason to think that Lenin ever received money from Germany.
Czarist Russia becomes the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
In October of 1917 another revolution led by the Bolsheviks erupted in Russia. This revolution was relatively bloodless. The Provisional Government had become so discredited that few people rallied to it’s defense.
The Bolsheviks delivered on the demands they advanced. Although there were shortages of food, bread was distributed equally to the people and hording was punished as a crime. The Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in the First World War. Peasants were given land they had worked on their entire lives.
Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This reflected the fact that there were many nations within the old Czarist Russia that would now have the power to develop their own cultures.
The new government rigorously defended the rights of workers. Those owners of industries who were used to abusing workers might have their enterprises confiscated.
As a result, there was a cultural awakening after the revolution that flowered in the arts and sciences.
However, those who had power in the capitalist world were horrified by these developments. They had grown accustomed to accumulating vast quantities of wealth from the labor of workers. Now, there was a workers government in the largest nation in the world that was dictating the will of the people to capitalists.
So, fourteen capitalist nations carried out a war attempting to overthrow the government in the Soviet Union. In this civil war there was a tremendous loss of life. However, the Bolsheviks managed to organize an army that defended the nation that had perhaps the longest border in the world.
Stalin betrays the revolution
Here we might consider the fact that with every revolution there are also counter-revolutionary movements. Those people who had been removed from power use whatever influence they have to regain political control.
In the United States there was the Civil War. This war removed slave owners from their positions of power in this country. Because of the Civil War the United States government adopted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These Amendments outlawed slavery and gave former slaves full rights in this country. All men received voting rights.
However, by the year 1877 the federal government made a deal where it removed the Union Army from the former Confederate states. This deal enabled those who were hostile to the interests of former slaves to mobilize. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan went to war and put in place governments that stripped Black people of their citizenship rights. Thousands of Black people were lynched and the federal government did nothing to prosecute the murderers. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement forced the government to return many of the rights that had been taken away.
We might consider that after the Civil War in the Soviet Union, the economy of the nation had been almost completely destroyed. Transporting food from one location to another became a challenge. The nation had lost millions of people due to the First World War and the Civil War.
Under these conditions Joseph Stalin, who was a Bolshevik, worked to betray everything the revolution fought for. Stalin recruited many individuals from the former middle class. He allowed these people to maintain their relative privileges as members of the Communist Party. He then worked to place the entire leadership of the Russian Revolution on show trials where most would be sentenced to death.
The Soviet Communist Party was in the leadership of an international movement. Under the leadership of Lenin, this movement supported the interests of workers all over the world.
Stalin reversed the political orientation of this movement. Time after time Stalin betrayed the interests of workers in the world, in order to advance his personal relationship with capitalist governments. This tendency was best illustrated when Stalin made a pact with Nazi Germany.
Today, the present Russian head of state is Vladimir Putin. Putin is openly critical of the policies of Lenin. Putin has amassed a fortune and he might be one of several billionaires in Russia. However, the standard of living for Russian workers is deteriorating. This state of affairs is merely a continuation of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Joseph Stalin.
We might consider that the union movement in the United States flowered after the Russian Revolution. Capitalists learned that they could loose everything if a workers government took power. This was a compelling reason to recognize unions and grant many of their demands.
Workers began to understand that employers were not all powerful. If employers failed to negotiate with workers, they could be forced out of power and replaced with a workers government.
Working people learned of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism—the highest stage of capitalism. This pamphlet explains how the economic and political domination of nations is not because of mistakes or insensitivity. No the mass poverty in the world is the inevitable result of the normal functioning of the capitalist system.
The First and Second World Wars were not wars for democracy. No, these wars were about what capitalist nation would dominate the world. The effect of these wars has been that today about one billion people in the world don’t have enough food, lack access to electricity, and running water, and are denied education, and health care.
Working people also learned that the only way for all workers to advance is to fight against all forms of discrimination. The institutionalized discrimination in the United States against Black people, women, Native Americans, and immigrants needs to be challenged by workers. This is the only way for working people to achieve the unity necessary to put in place a government where human needs are more important than profits.
We also learned that workers and farmers need a political party that works consistently to advance the interests of workers throughout the world. This organization can fight for concessions from capitalists, but it must also strive to put in place a government that represents the interests of workers and farmers.
The Russian Revolution also inspired Cuban revolutionaries. In spite the Stalinist betrayals, the Soviet Union gave significant aid to revolutionary Cuba. The Soviet Union also gave military aid to Cuba and Angola when the apartheid government of South Africa invaded Angola in an attempt to place their own government in charge of that country.
Understanding this history, we can begin to truly appreciate those who put in place the first workers government in the world. They managed to overcome the seemingly overwhelming obstacles that confront workers throughout the world. Then, for a time, they showed the world that it is possible to have a government where human needs are more important than profits.