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Undoubtedly, the Russian Revolution was one of the most significant developments of modern times. It gave rise to an ideology that inspired both hatred and hope across the globe, profoundly shaping international politics for over seventy years. Whilst the importance of the revolution is not a point of contention, the question as to why it happened and the motivations behind it are. As a result of the origin of the revolution being hotly contested, there is available an extensive range of books, memoirs, and documents, offering their own take on the events that took place in 1917, an unsurprising fact considering the significance of the Revolution. By the end of the 1980’s multiple schools of thought or broad traditions had emerged, amongst them were the Soviet, Liberal and Revisionist perspectives. The interpretations of many writers fit neatly into these trends. Most prominently, historians, Richard Pipes evoking the liberal perspective, Sheila Fitzpatrick the revisionist and Christopher Hill depicting a western take on the Soviet view. By 1917, the bond between the tsar and the majority of the Russian people had been broken.
The Soviet interpretation is at odds with itself. Predominantly it was established and fostered by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Despite this, the Soviet Union produced little to none of what we would consider actual history. quite a few valuable contributions to history were produced in the form of primary sources, during the first decade of the Soviet regime such memoirs and collections of documents. Soviet historians as a result of the extensive plethora of documentation intended to initiate ambitious projects of research; thinking they would be the first Marxists to chronicle history in all seriousness, having the of backing the newly established state and the abundance of state archives recently opened.
However, this served as little more than a pipe dream once Stalinism had emerged, dampening the resurgence of any actual historical study. Under the Stalinist state, historians were either intimidated or coerced to meld their studies towards the party line or even have their work rewritten entirely; this was the case at first when dealing with the Soviet revolution, correctly narrating the party strife which had preceded it, and especially inside the Bolshevik Party. All these had to be treated in a manner justifying Stalin as the all mighty ruler of Bolshevik Russia.0 The drive through which historians had thrown themselves into the archives found a deadly enemy in secrecy barring any access to documentation. The historians could not be allowed access to inquire because the free inquiry was incompatible with falsification. Finally, all the chronicles of the party and revolution, even those written in the Stalinist spirit, were banned up to every level of teaching from the rural party talks to academic seminars. Students were allowed to draw from one source only, the Short Course of the History of the CPSU an unusual assortment of Stalinist myths and constructs, written or inspired by the man himself.
Carr despite being a Western historian, made a concerted effort to fill such a void of knowledge missing from a Soviet standing; Also in doing so, he provided an intriguing insight into the revolution itself. Carr was alive in 1917; he not only viewed the events in Russia from a contemporary’s perspective but as a socialist, saw them in a very positive light. Within his own research into the revolution, he was by no means in a ‘commanding position… Instead, the historian was in procession with everyone’1. In terms of his own lines of inquiry and the narratives that he constructed through his research, Carr had a strong focus on the state, not the nation and society behind it. Primarily he focused on the very top of the state hierarchy, as far to say that his History of the Soviet Union is primarily a history upon its ruling group. In part, this is down to his rather basic approach. Whenever he refers to developments in the social background, his reference is accompanied by an analysis of what is also happening in the ruling group. He tends to see society as the object of policies made and decreed from above. This leads one to think that he views the state as the maker of society rather than society as the maker of the state. Such an approach surely caused him some difficulty as a historian of a revolution, as a revolution is the breakdown of the state and demonstrates that in the last resort it is a society which makes the state, not vice versa. He approaches the revolutionary upheaval with the mind of an academic scholar interested in constitutional conceptions and governmental mechanisms.
Along the lines of his top-down perspective, Carr has been argued to have had an overtly strong affliction to the role of Leninism. This is most notable through his presentation of Lenin’s figure dominating and overshadowing that of not just the Revolution, but the Bolshevik party and the Soviet State as a whole- “ it was Lenin who “Smash[ed] the [accepted] framework”2. Carr’s blind affliction doesn’t end there, in his work he focuses in on the Lenin who builds a state that evokes his admiration, not the one who overthrows a state. Carr viewed the story of Lenin the revolutionary as the needed prelude to Lenin the statesmen, and he merely ironically brushes over the fact that Lenin at the height of his summit of power still desired the brutal vision of a classless society. He often quotes Lenin’s speeches and writings, ignoring the statements that clearly indicated Lenin’s resentment of the masses, including both the peasantry and the workers. Carr’s view, then, was somewhat contradictory: though emphasizing the inevitability of the revolution, he focused on the power of Lenin’s personality above all else, incapable of resisting Lenin’s draw and magnetism, which blinded his socialist principles that should have helped him draw a conclusion as to the true cause of the Revolution.
Fundamentally the approach interpretation is that the people were roused to action by a party leader who showed hem how to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. These accords with what the future regime wanted as the image of its origins. The reputations of the Bolshevik Party would be best preserved by projecting it as strong, in control and ready to act. On the other hand, there had to be a certain emphasis on its actions as defensive, otherwise, there might be a case for the Bolsheviks trying to overthrow the popular revolution of February. It would be more effective, in this case, to present the bourgeoisie as the aggressors and the Bolsheviks as taking swift defensive action through a bold strategy initiated by Lenin. This, too, had to be emphasized, since the Soviet state needed a eulogy on behalf of its founder. The official Soviet biography of, therefore, makes much of his Genius as a leader of the masses and his skills as a wise and fearless strategist.
From the 1940’s until the early 1960s most Western historians of the Russian revolution adhered to the ‘Liberal’ perspective. The politics of the Cold War and the ideals of American political science played a fundamental role in shaping the liberal view. It is politically conservative and fundamentally hostile to Marxist theory. They perceive politics rather than class conflict, as a means to provides answers. The argument,‘…identifiable men pursuing their own advantages’ constructed the Russian revolution’3 not only highlights the liberals observation to Marxist theory and the motives behind it but dissects the true motives behind the movements most prolific figures. This view can be further simplified as history ‘from above’. The flawed decisions of Tsar Nicholas II and Kerensky, alongside the fierce determination of Lenin, is the foundations as to the liberal argument; rather than the Marxist notions of class and social conflict.
Richard Pipes argues, ‘…the ‘masses’ neither needed nor desired a revolution; the only group interested in it was the intelligentsia. Stress on alleged popular discontent and class conflict derives more from ideological preconceptions than from facts at hand – namely from the discredited Marxist theory that political developments are always and everywhere driven by class conflict.’
Put simply, pipes is arguing people were largely pre-occupied in their actions and demands. They were passively ignorant to the true nature of the revolution and were blindly following the Bolsheviks. Further building upon this, John Keep argued the October ‘Revolution’ was essentially the skillful exploitation of anarchy by the Bolsheviks for their own ends. Though keep offers more of an exploration of the lower class aspirations than the more traditional liberal accounts, he conveys that the masses were in effect ‘caught up in great events over which they had no control.’
In Pipes’ book The Concise History of the Russian Revolution, his overarching argument is that the October revolution was a “classic coup d’etat, the capture of governmental authority by a small band, carried out, in deference to the democratic professions of the age, with a show of mass participation but with hardly any mass involvement.” But to deconstruct this rather sweeping statement of sorts, he divides his account into three differing sections. The first, “the agony of the Old Regime,” offers a description of Russia under the Tsar and the people within the nation fighting for change. Inherently, the section focused on the Anachronism of the Tsar, his inherent traditions and values and his all-powerful autocratic grasp. He goes further as to say that the monarchy that ruled Russia for centuries had run its course and was no longer capable of dealing with the pressures of modernism. It failed because it was incapable of establishing a system where peasants and the intelligentsia might play a part. The peasantry made up the majority of the Russian Population yet, for the most part, was unfamiliar to and remained largely detached from the state, whereas the Intelligentsia adopted an approach of stringent opposition and discontent towards the monarchical rulers of Russia and the reforms it introduced to serve as peaceful solutions.
The second argument Pipes put forward was “The Bolsheviks Conquer Russia”, which acted in recounting the rise of Lenin and outlining the October Coup itself. He goes about describing the Bolshevik Party as Lenin’s creation, the “Conceived it in his own image and, overcoming all opposition from within and without kept it on the course he had charted.”6 Despite arguments from some of his fellow historians who regard the revolution as a democratic movement representing the interests of the people, Pipes strongly argued the opposite in writing “The events that led to the overthrow of the provisional government were not spontaneous but carefully plotted and staged by a tightly organized conspiracy.”7 His argument is backed up by Lenin’s seizing power and control of Russia with the very little resistance.
As a consequence of the Vietnam War, the new left came to fruition. The movement gave life to new perspectives, different from the Western trail of thought so synonymous within our society. The libertarian perspective undertook by Historians such as Edward Acton, looked passed the Soviet and liberal interpretations of the October Revolution and instead focused on the role of the masses; Acton Writes “Goals for which they (the masses) strove were their own”. Though many of the assumptions made by certain Libertarian historians were based on circumstantial evidence that was later dismissed by liberal and Soviet historians, the focus libertarians had regarding the sociological impact played by masses laying foundations for which the Revisionist argument established itself.
The Revisionist school of thought comes in two distinct strands. First, the Bolsheviks were much more in tune with their popular demands than was previously recognized. Second, their organization was far less structured and effective. Revisionists emphasize upon the reconsideration of the way in which political power operates. They reference the idea that where, Historians such as Carr, convey that power is a process that is exercised downwards by leaders, such as Lenin his Bolshevik party; revisionists argue that the Bolsheviks were largely subject to influence and pressure from below. The practical effect of this new perspective is that the Bolsheviks are now seen as being much more in line with the most immediate wishes of large parts of the population. Instead of forcing the pace of revolution by exploiting popular grievances, they were adapting their policies to enable them to move with a revolutionary current that already existed. The people, therefore, had a vital influence upon revolutionary events.
“The Bolsheviks’ strength was that they were the only party uncompromised by association with the bourgeoisie and the February regime, and the party most firmly identified with the ideas of workers’ power and armed uprising”.
Fitzpatrick here reflects her disagreement with the traditional Western/Liberal perspective, which often attributes great weight to the organizational strength and internal discipline of the Bolshevik party, serving as one of the main reasons for the victory of the revolution. Fitzpatrick instead, counters by arguing that the insistence by Lenin to disavow the provisional government and his decision to embrace “Intransigent radicalism on the extreme left of the political spectrum” meant that the Bolsheviks would ultimately be seen by the populace as the only party not corrupted by the “politics of coalition and compromise.” Moreover, there existed little in the way of party discipline in the period when most of the Bolsheviks were in exile, prison, or laying low in Petrograd.
Fitzpatrick argued, that the Bolsheviks benefited by staying out on the streets with the “Irresponsible and belligerent revolutionary crowd,” leaving the party in the perfect position when opportunity later presented itself to Lenin and his followers. The lack of organization did not matter as the Bolsheviks were in a stronger position than their rivals, the, and Mensheviks, who had sacrificed much of their credibility in 1917 by urging support for the policies of the provisional government. Instead of being highly centralized and conspiratorial, the reds were more democratic and decentralized. The essential point is that they adapted to the goals of the various sectors of society rather than created the demands. The centralized structure would have been a liability in the process of adaptation. The coup itself was carried out by Trotsky and the Military Revolutionary Committee- in the name of the soviet. But this was not a façade or pretense as a democracy.
Through the expansive rise of revolutionary sentiment in Russia before 1917, the Marxist theories around stages of historical development were contradicted, as the overthrow of capitalism required a high density of urban industrial proletariat. The population of Russia pre-revolution was overwhelmingly comprised of rural peasants, in the eyes of Marx, it would not have been prepared for revolution because of this fact. Fitzpatrick goes about smoothing over these inconsistencies in a number of ways. She references the surprising strength of revolutionary spirit among the working class benefited from attacks upon the trade union movements by the state, which had a “large stake in Russia’s native industry and the protection of foreign investment.” Additionally, Fitzpatrick goes about suggesting that the Russian peasantry was much less conservative than your stereotypical peasants of Western Europe, as exhibited through the precedent of two centuries worth of peasant revolts. Building upon this, many peasants were employed in the industrial sector, migrating from rural areas to cosmopolitan cities in search of seasonal work to supplement meager farm incomes. As a consequence of this situation, the peasantry within Russia before 1917 was significantly more susceptible to the embrace of Marx than foreseen, this provided Lenin with an essential ally when the October revolution came into fruition. Edward Acton’s summary of the revisionist view is that “the driving force behind their intervention, their organizational activity and the shifts in their political allegiance was an essentially autonomous and rational pursuit of their own goals.”
The revisionist school, therefore, argues that the Bolsheviks represented the general revolutionary trend in 1917 more effectively than the other revolutionary parties. In the light of this, e efficient and conspiratorial revolutionary organization, previously emphasized by Liberal historians did not particularly matter. Through the emergence of a new methodology, a new style of interpretation, my attention was given to the influence of the population at large as to individual leaders. This new history from below, therefore, acts as a counterweight to the more traditional history from above.
The Soviet and revisionist views both see the Bolsheviks as representing the interests of the population, although the Soviet argument is that the Bolsheviks interpretation and led there, while revisionists maintain that the Bolsheviks were basically opportunists, switching their policies to meet the people’s expectations. Both differ from the liberal view, which is that the Bolsheviks had no real claim too popular support. On the issue of organization, there is more of a connection between the Soviet and liberal arguments: both maintain that the Bolsheviks were carefully organized and led. However, the Soviet view interprets this as enabling them to act on behalf of the popular majority, while the liberal approach claims that it made possible a minority Bolshevik Consipricy. Revisionists, by contrast, tend to present a case for the lack of effective party organization and s structure. The relationship between different styles of interpretation is usually dialectical. They influence each other and syntheses generally began to emerge.
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