Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history – unlike us

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Jacob Richter
Paul Mason: Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history – unlike us

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/30/russian-revolution...

 

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

Sean in Ottawa

I know many blame the increase in total knowledge for the gaps many people have. There is more history to learn now than there was a century ago but in fact people know less.

I think in our specialized view of life, people see random facts as more disconnected than ever. I think that this is particularly true of North Americans, although I am not sure why. Information seems to be in silos such that even if people are aware of it -- the lesson does not pass to the next item.

This is part of an inability to think critically and make connections.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Interesting, but at the same time it seems that when we talk about "the masses" in the late 19th or early 20th century, we talk of illiteracy, religious influence, poverty and ill health.  So I do have to wonder how all those regular folk were so informed of history, and also the degree to which their understanding of politics was rooted in their lot in life.

I guess what I'm wondering is whether the average person, back then, was well informed of what happened and when and by whom, and formed rational and well-considered opinions of it, or whether people just said (for example, as in the U.S. in 2016) "the elites are out to get us and we need to fight back!".  I'm not even saying they might not have been right.  I'm just having a tough time with the idea that everyone was just better educated about history back then.

Sean in Ottawa

Mr. Magoo wrote:

Interesting, but at the same time it seems that when we talk about "the masses" in the late 19th or early 20th century, we talk of illiteracy, religious influence, poverty and ill health.  So I do have to wonder how all those regular folk were so informed of history, and also the degree to which their understanding of politics was rooted in their lot in life.

I guess what I'm wondering is whether the average person, back then, was well informed of what happened and when and by whom, and formed rational and well-considered opinions of it, or whether people just said (for example, as in the U.S. in 2016) "the elites are out to get us and we need to fight back!".  I'm not even saying they might not have been right.  I'm just having a tough time with the idea that everyone was just better educated about history back then.

The masses did not figure then or now.

Of the smaller number that were considered educated then-- they had much more general knowledge than today I think -- and you do not even have to go back very far in Europe. Middle aged people from Europe today have a better knowledge of history than most North Americans. If they did not choose to study social studies, most know nothing about the world here and now.

Today's education moves people to specialization quickly and there are many who know nothing about history who are considered educated and in leadership positions today. The small number who were educated then were not so over-specilaized that they lacked this general history as this was part of a general education.

Pondering

I think people do know less history now but the kind of history that was common knowledge wasn't that useful and I don't think the masses knowing history is necessary to achieve transformative change. It could even be a hindrance.

The ability to think critically and make connections is important but not necessary to revolution. It's more significant in determining what comes next.

"The elites are out to get us and we have to fight back" is a required element for revolt. The belief that your situation will improve not worsen is required.

The people who need to know history and a whole lot more are the leaders. The tricky part is knowing what aspects of history pertain to the present. In terms of revolution we don't have any examples that are similar to our situation in North America. We already live in democratic countries. All we have to do to overthow the government is vote. We also have more poweful tools at our disposal. It makes it difficult to draw parallels.

That goes back to Sean's point on critical thinking. People have to be convinced to revolt through voting in a radically different government. So far that has been a miserable failure but I do believe the potential exists as evidenced by Occupy, Rob Ford, Donald Trump and Valerie Plante.

Democratic revolt is coming more often in the form of Rob Ford and Donald Trump types rather than Valerie Plante types because people lack current events knowledge therefore don't make the necessary connections or think critically. The information people do get is distributed too randomly so it doesn't collect into a critical mass. That's the information people need not historical accounts of revolts and political theory.

Sean in Ottawa

I disagree that the history that was known was useful.

It is true that history was based mostly on events and leaders but some of those consequences were important -- to leaders and those advising them. Social history was lacking and still is except among people studying it.