By Paul Mason
As the events of 1917 unfolded, many working-class people would have been able to understand the parallels with the French Revolution. A century later, our ignorance may be our downfall
Things were going badly for Lenin this time 100 years ago. We are eight days away from the centenary of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, but, as he prepared to strike, Lenin fell victim to one of the great scoops of the 20th century.
After a scratchy committee meeting had set the date of the revolution for 2 November (western calendar), two leading Bolsheviks, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who thought the whole idea crazy, leaked the plan to a pro-government newspaper.
Lenin, outraged, expelled them from the party and ordered the insurrection to be postponed for five days. The provisional government, already largely powerless, spent that time ordering extra troops into Petrograd, while the Bolshevik commissars set about countermanding these orders.
The whole thing, in other words, was done in the open. The New York Times reported, on 1 November 1917, that a “demonstration” planned by “the radical agitator Nikolai Lenine” had been postponed and that the government was safe. The rest, as they say, is history.
As we approach the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, responses will come in three flavours: conservative condemnation; the liberal mixture of admiration and regret; and enthusiastic commemoration. Though I reject Bolshevism, and date the degeneration of the revolution to the early 20s, I will be among those celebrating. The Russian Revolution was an intervention by the masses into history, like the French before it, and it is possible to celebrate that if you also acknowledge and celebrate the fight workers put up against the fairly rapid shutdown of their freedoms that happened in the years afterwards.
For me, the revolution of 7 November represents exactly what the densely typed leaflets the Bolsheviks distributed in the run-up to the event promised: “class power”. The liberal-socialist provisional government that had run Russia since the tsar’s abdication was foundering. Numerous generals were mobilising for a military coup. The army at the front was falling apart. Anti-Jewish pogroms were breaking out.
The working class, said Lenin’s agitators, was the only force that could step into the power vacuum, pull Russia out of a war it was losing badly, end the pogroms and suppress the rightwing officers preparing for military rule. There would be a civil war in any case: the workers had been in control of the factories since July, and many reasoned it was better to start it on the front foot.
We know today how wrong it went. Lenin and the Soviet military commander Leon Trotsky knew that, unless the workers of France and Germany joined in, their own revolution was doomed – and they knew from studying the French Revolution of 1789 exactly what kind of doom it faced: either to be crushed by foreign-backed armies or face a takeover by an authoritarian tendency from within. Though they acted all too ruthlessly against the external threat, they were ineffective against the internal one, and, on balance, stand guilty of promoting it.
What strikes me now, reading the oral accounts and memoirs that researchers have recently dug up, is how historically literate many ordinary people were. As they resisted the idea of a workers’ revolution, working-class supporters of the Mensheviks – a moderate socialist party – repeatedly used the word “Thermidor” to warn of what might happen. Thermidor was the month in 1794 during which the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution was ended, with the beheading of Robespierre.
As early as 1909, Menshevik writers introduced the idea of a Russian Thermidor into their popular press and pamphlets. If the workers were to take power in a backward country, went the argument, then, just as in France, you would need a “terror”; the economy would collapse and, one day, an authoritarian group would rise from within the revolution to reimpose control. As the events of 1917 unfolded, most literate working-class people would have been able to understand the parallels with 1789.
Our time is different. Since 2011, we have lived through a sudden rush of history: the collapse of dictatorships, the emergence of new protest ideologies, the collective punishment of populations, unilateral annexations, declarations of independence and the fragmentation of once-important institutions.
But how much of what we are living through do we understand? Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, and the claims of a permanently unipolar world order that accompanied it, belong to a bygone era. But the assumption that we have entered a state of technocratic permanence lives on.
If you talk to former spooks, diplomats and geostrategic analysts, they are intensely worried about the world, and tend to deploy historical parallels to express their concerns. Businesspeople and politicians tend to be worried about next year’s revenues and poll ratings, and have very few reference points with which to understand the dynamics of catastrophe.
As for the word “thermidor”, in British public life, you are more likely to hear it attached to the word “lobster” than in reference to the dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution.
Public service broadcasting, which has become extremely adept at explaining nature, rarely explains history well. We live in a golden age of historical dramas, in which the events disrupting the love affairs of pretty people in costumes always come like a thunderbolt from the blue. Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark bucks this trend, but if the BBC wanted to add some public service value it would run Dan Snow or Tristram Hunt for an hour after Poldark, explaining the interplay of the French Revolution and the formation of the British working class.
In the next few days, arguments about the rights and wrongs of Russia in 1917 will rise to a climax. Many other arguments will be heaped on top of them – as when Estonia earlier this year demanded the leftwing Greek government admit that “communism was as bad as fascism” (it refused).
What we should promote, as we refight the battles of the 20th century, is historical literacy. Knowing what Thermidor meant didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Russian workers taking the gamble of supporting the seizure of power by a tight-knit underground party. But it probably prepared them better for what happened next.
• Paul Mason is a Guardian columnist