A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.
The event known to the world as the ‘October Revolution’ in Russia – or simply as the ‘Russian Revolution’ – took place on November 7-8, a hundred years ago. But then why call it the October revolution? Thereby hangs a tale – the tale of modernity, myth-making and of a new imagination of time.
As a matter of fact, the revolution occurred on October 25-26 according to the Julian calendar (so called because it had been promulgated by Julius Caesar), which Russia, along with a large part of the Western world, followed at the time. It was only in January 1918 that the Soviet government decreed the shift to the Gregorian calendar. The reason was that Russia should join ‘all cultured nations in counting time’, as a decree cited by historian Mark Steinberg put it. Accordingly, the first anniversary of the revolution was celebrated on November 7, 1918 throughout the Soviet Union.
What is interesting here is not so much the shift but the reason assigned for it: joining other ‘cultured nations’ of the world, which, in the language of the early 20th century, meant only one thing – the modern West, which had long been setting the norm for everything desirable. Ways of ‘counting time’ too had to be aligned with Europe, lest one be considered insufficiently modern. Spatially, the Czarist Russian empire straddled both Europe and Asia, which had already, in the new reckoning of time, been cast as ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ respectively. The desire to become modern and join the ‘cultured nations’ was to run through the history of the revolution and its consolidation into the new Stalinist state. This desire was to be manifested in its deep distrust of the peasantry and rural life on the one hand, and in the frenetic drive to ‘catch up’ with Western Europe. As Stalin would say, he wanted to accomplish in a couple of decades what Europe had in a few centuries, compressing time, as it were, into one dizzying experience for entire society. The continuing ‘past’ had to be annihilated.
Writing in December 1917, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist leader, welcomed the Russian revolution as a revolution against Das Kapital. “In Russia,” he wrote, “Marx’s Capital was more a book of the bourgeoisie than of the proletariat. It stood as a critical demonstration of how events should follow a predetermined course: how in Russia a bourgeoisie had to develop, and a capitalist era had to open, with the setting-up of a Western-type civilization, before the proletariat could even think of…its own revolution.”
Gramsci was writing long before the story was known of Marx’s later troubled engagement with the Russian peasant communes and Eastern societies like India. That story was excavated decades later by the Japanese scholar Haruki Wada in the 1960s, and brought before the English-speaking world only in the 1980s. Wada brought before us the strange story of the suppression by his followers, of Marx’s four drafts of a reply to Vera Zasulich, precisely on the peasant commune. Very briefly, Zasulich, a former ‘populist’ (Narodnik) when she turned Marxist, had internalised the entire story of capitalism as narrated by Marx. Like most Marxists, she had begun to believe that in Russia too, a bourgeoisie and Western-style capitalism had to develop before any proletarian revolution could take place. But the Narodniks argued that in Russia this was not necessary, for the traditional peasant commune could actually form the basis of a future socialism based on common property. Zasulich’s question to Marx was about this difference of opinion, to which he wrote four drafts of a reply, but ended up not sending them. These drafts indicate he was rethinking.
Later, in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that Marx and Engels jointly wrote, the duo conceded that indeed, “the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development”.
While Gramsci hailed the Russian Revolution as “the revolution against Das Kapital“, because of its not following the blueprint laid down in that text, he erred seriously in believing that the Bolsheviks had a very different understanding regarding the ‘inescapability’ of capitalist development.
As a matter of fact, the entire Bolshevik imagination – and Stalinism as its most virulent form – was predicated upon a fascination with capitalism and large-scale industry. The inescapable violence of large-scale industrialisation, founded almost always on mass dispossession of agrarian and artisanal communities, that was spread over a few centuries in England, for example, was sought to be accomplished within a few decades in the USSR. Even though, for Lenin and his followers, ‘worker-peasant unity’ constituted an apparent article of faith, the peasant really was required only for the Bolsheviks to capture state power.
The war on the peasantry began immediately after the revolution. Lynn Viola, in her fascinating study Peasant Rebels under Stalin, brings to light a long suppressed story of the revolution, where it becomes apparent that in dealing the with the peasant as an exclusively economic category, the Bolsheviks erred from the very beginning. As the civil war raged, communists formed committees of the village poor to requisition and forcibly seize grain from the rich peasants, in order to feed the cities. But the poor peasants too considered themselves peasants, and were unwilling to turn in all their grain to those committees. As early as in May 1918, Lenin declared that ‘owners of grain who possess surplus grain’ but refuse to turn it in, regardless of social status, ‘will be declared enemies of the people’, against whom a ruthless war would be launched.
Undoubtedly, the exigencies of the civil war forced a certain ‘war communism’ on the peasantry in particular, but the roots of the idea lay deep in the philosophy itself: the peasants as a class, with their attachment to land and crop, had to be eliminated and transformed into propertyless workers. However, by March 1921, the communists had to retreat. A new economic policy was introduced that replaced forcible grain requisition with a ‘tax in kind’ and eventually, ‘money tax’. The peasant question, so to speak, was at the centre of this retreat.
Yet this was merely a ‘tactical’ retreat, for what was now in the offing was the programme of large-scale industrialisation. The only way this could be done was by turning the terms of trade against agriculture, in favour of industry – with higher prices for industrial goods and lower for agricultural. This led to the peasants once again trying to secure their existence by refusing to part with their grain. Indeed, Evgenii Preobrazhensky, a significant leader of the Left Opposition, ultimately propounded his thesis of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ that made a theoretical argument for squeezing the peasantry in order to facilitate accumulation for industrialisation. Then, and later during the forced collectivisation drive of the early 1930s, Viola tells us, when hundreds and thousands of peasants were deported and dispossessed, the violence was seen as ‘revolutionary necessity’.
Equally interestingly, through these decades, peasants saw in the coming of the Bolshevik state ‘the reign of Antichrist on earth’. The key question that most political histories of the revolution overlook is that which pertains to the great disjunction between the virtually exclusively economic view of classes and the way these ‘classes’ actually see themselves. Viola claims therefore, that the “nightmare of apocalypse pervaded the rumours of collectivisation. Antichrist and the four horsemen of the apocalypse became figurative symbols in rumours portending the end of traditional ways of life.”
In a sense, such notions of doom, fuelled by rumours, were nothing new: they have been noticed elsewhere in peasant societies under stress of rapid and inexplicable transformation, just as they had been seen in Russian society at large, during the time of the revolution. However, larger questions of popular consciousness are indicated here. Gossip and rumours tied to notions of the Jews and Germans as ‘the enemy’ had been important in what Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii call the ‘desacralisation of the monarchy’, just as much as they had figured in the delegitimisation of Kerensky, the charismatic leader of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, formed after the February Revolution.
Thus ‘dark forces’ of speculative traders, Germans and Jews, and corrupt officials were seen to be conspiring to profit from people’s hunger. Such a perception helped turn bread queues ‘into food riots and demonstrations against the monarchy’, suggest Figes and Kolonitskii. It is a fact often brushed under the carpet that anti-Semitism was a fairly widely prevalent sentiment even among the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Bolshevised’ masses. Neither the February revolution nor the October revolution actually can be understood as purely class phenomena. What is more, there is no ‘pure’ revolutionary subjectivity in evidence anywhere: the revolutionary element always co-existed with elements like anti-Semitism in the same social groups and individuals.
Kerensky recalled that as he fled the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917, he saw, written on the wall ‘Down with the Jew Kerensky, Long Live Trotsky’. The graffiti, say Figes and Kolonitskii, was doubly ironic, for Kerensky was not Jewish and there were no Jews in the Provisional Government – although it was often referred to as the Jewish government because it had given equal civil and religious rights to the Jews. And on the other hand, ‘Leon Trotsky (a.k.a. Bronstein) was the best known Jew that Russia ever had.’
Figes and Kolonitskii explain that the terms ‘Jew’, ‘German’ and ‘burzhooi (bourgeois)’ had become confused and even interchangeable in the plebeian language of the streets. ‘Kerensky had become the metaphoric “Jew” – a symbol of the fears and prejudices which had won the Bolsheviks their militant support’, they conclude.
Unfortunately, a lot of celebratory writing on the hundredth anniversary of this game-changing event of the 20th century continues to be problematic for two interrelated reasons. First, it makes no attempt to come to terms with the ‘past’ the socialist revolution sought to annihilate. For this ‘past’ was actually the predominant present of peasant existence. Despite the predominance of capitalist relations in urban Russia, its society taken as a whole still embodied a coexistence of different times. Second, this writing skirts important questions of the revolution’s secret history that has much to tell us about the complex relations between classes and the traditions and culture they inhabit; about forms of popular consciousness with all its complex and messy dimensions. Revolutions and projects of social transformation invariably flounder because they pay insufficient attention to culture and tradition.
Aditya Nigam is a professor of political science at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.