Distorting revolution: 5 things Orlando Figes got wrong on Newsnight

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What makes for a Revolution? Debate on BBC Newsnight. Photo: BBC
What makes for a Revolution? Debate on BBC Newsnight. Photo: BBC

Orlando Figes was enlisted by the BBC to trash the history of the Russian Revolution. In the run-up to Saturday’s Revolution 1917 event, Chris Nineham corrects some matters of fact

  1. Revolutions lead to takeover by demagogues

    The great bourgeois revolutions were the drivers of democracy. They removed tyrannical regimes and foreign powers including the monarchies of Charles 1 in Britain, Louis 16th in France and British rule over its North American colonies. For the first time in history they put the democratic will of the people at the heart of how society should be run and shifted power towards elected assemblies and parliaments. The defeat of the most radical wing of the bourgeois revolutions often slowed moves towards popular sovereignty. But in breaking the power of the feudal landowners and absolute monarchies, they were essential in opening up the path to parliamentary democracy.

    The October revolution in Russia, when workers peasants and soldiers took power through their own mass institutions, the workers councils or soviets, marked the highpoint in the struggle for democracy so far. Delegates to the workers’ councils, were directly elected form workplaces, communities and regiments. The delegates were ordinary people and they were recallable. It was the isolation and smothering of the revolution by foreign armies backing the Russian landlords and capitalists that created the conditions for Stalin to crush the revolution.

  2. The revolution we should celebrate was February 1917 not October

    The February revolution is indeed a moment to celebrate. February was a popular uprising against the hated Tsar and his regime which had taken Russia into the carnage of the first world war in which hundreds of thousands had died and presided over desperate poverty and sometimes starvation at home. It led to the re-establishment of workers and soldiers councils  that had sprung up first during 1905 revolution. Their reappearance was generated by the wider revolutionary movement and at first the Bolsheviks were a minority within them. The Bolsheviks influence in them grew through democratic election over the subsequent months. Figes desire to favour February over October is nonesensical because the regime created by February was unsustainable.

    Removing the Tsar was a huge step forward, but the provisional government solved none of the problems that sparked the February revolution. Russia stayed in the war, the economic situation didn’t improve and crucially right wing forces started organising to crush the limited democratic gains of February. It was the soviets that effectively mobilised against a concerted right wing coup in August 1917. By October, it had become clear that workers had to take things into their hands in order to begin to deal with the problems that wracked Russia. The October revolution ended Russia’s involvement in World War One, led to the immediate dissolution of the hated Russian Empire and instituted the most radical social programme in history including legalising abortion, making divorce available on demand, socialising key industries and massively increasing popular educational programmes and childcare provision.

  3. The Bolsheviks lead a putsch

    The October revolution was carried out not by the Bolshevik party but by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the soviets representing organised working people.  It was called at the moment when the revolutionaries became a majority in the soviets in the great population centres of Russia. The revolution was largely peaceful precisely because the regime of the provisional government had lost all support and credibility. Many workers and soldiers in the capital St Petersburg had been urging insurrection ever since July 1917. The leaders of the Bolsheviks argued against trying to take power before October, precisely because they believed a revolution requires the participation and support of the majority of working people.

  4. The Bolsheviks have become a model for terrorists

    This is a particularly bizarre claim. Apart from the fact that Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders polemicised against terrorism as a way of trying to achieve change, revolutionary socialism could hardly be more different from terrorism. The Bolsheviks slogan of all power to the soviets meant the running of society by the majority, by working people. The means was a mass insurrection involving workers taking over their workplaces, peasants seizing control of their own land and soldiers and sailors removing their officers and running their regiments democratically.

    Fewer people died in the October Revolution in St Petersburg than in the making of Eisentein’s commemorative film October. The violence began when landlords, generals and business leaders launched a counter revolutionary civil war with the backing of the western powers in 1918.

  5. The Bolshevik plan was to take power as a minority and force through national economic development

    Again, factually incorrect. The October revolution would have been impossible without the active participation of the mass democratic organisations thrown up by working people. And far from relying on top down economic development, the Bolsheviks were clear from the start that the only way that the socialist experiment in Russia could survive and prosper would be if revolution spread abroad, in particular to the economic powerhouse of Germany. The First World War had created a revolutionary crisis throughout much of central Europe and parts of southern Europe and Asia. In 1918 workers and sailors led a revolution in Germany which toppled the Kaiser, forced the German ruling class to sue for peace and led to years of acute struggles. Versions of soviets developed in other countries including Italy in 1919. A wave of radicalisation spread from China to Britain. Tragically, revolutionary struggles in Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria and ultimately Germany ended in defeat, and the revolutionary surge was contained.

    Stalin’s takeover in Russia was a product of the decimation of the country in the civil war and the isolation caused by the defeat of the post war revolutionary upsurge internationally. Stalin secured power by closing down what remained of soviet democracy and rounding up or marginalising the majority of the leaders of October. It was only then that national economic development became the official policy of the regime.

    Figes is one – rather discredited – representative of a mainstream historiography of the revolution that sets out to deny the unprecedented gains it made for ordinary people, play down its deeply democratic nature and insist that the Stalinist dictatorship was its inevitable outcome. As ever, the writing of history cannot be disentangled from the contemporary political moment. Expect a lot more of this kind of thing as the anniversary year unfolds.

    This Saturday, experts, activists and writers sympathetic with the aims of the revolution are coming to London to discuss the real history of the revolution and its importance in today’s struggles at a day-long event at the Rich Mix in East London.

Event: Revolution – Russia 1917: One Hundred Years on

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25 Feb, Rich Mix London

With Tariq Ali, Paul Le Blanc, Lindsey German, Lucia Pradella and many more.

Book now

Timetable

10:00 am – 11.15 am

Storming heaven: the achievements of 1917

Paul Le Blanc, August Nimtz, Lindsey German

11.30 am – 12.45 pm

Democracy and the Revolution

August Nimtz, Judy Cox

1.45 pm – 3:00 pm

War, nationalism and revolution

Maria Nikolakaki, Chris Bambery, Alastair Stephens

3.15 pm – 4.30 pm

Lenin and Leninism

Tariq Ali, Paul le Blanc, and Kate Connelly

4.45 om – 6:00 pm

Revolution in the 21 Century

John Rees, Stathis Kouvelakis, Tamas Krausz, Lucia Pradella

Speakers:

August Nimtz is Professor in the Political Science department at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis. He is a leading thinker and writer on socialist strategy, race in the United States and politics in Africa as well as an internationally recognised expert on Marx.

Lucia Pradella is an activist and writer who has written two acclaimed books on Marx’s Capital.

Paul Le Blanc is a world renowned writer on revolutionary history and the Russian revolution in particular. Currently Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, since the 1960s he has been active in struggles for human rights and economic justice.

Lindsey German is a socialist activist and writer. As convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Tariq Ali is a socialist writer and broadcaster. A lifelong leader in anti-imperialist and socialist campaigns, he has been at the forefront of protests against war from Vietnam to the Middle East. His new book on Lenin is out in March.

Maria Nikolakaki is a Greek intellectual and activist. She is a founding member of the Cooperative Institute for Transnational Studies.

Tamasz Kraus is a well know radical intellectual in Hungary and on of the editiors of Marxist journal Eszmélet, he published the award winning Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography in 2015.

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.

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