Eras Journal – Bidgood, A: Review of “The Russian Revolution”, Rex A. Wade
Rex A. Wade,The Russian RevolutionCambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.Isbn 0 521 41548 9.
Rex A. Wade’s book on the Russian Revolution, which he contends ended with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on 6 January 1918 (p. 282), is number 18 in the Cambridge University Press series New Approaches to European History . Whether the book is a new approach or allows a much more nuanced understanding and interpretation of the events of 1917 is a moot point. The collapse of the USSR in 1991, bringing to an end Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘short twentieth century’ does allow for less overdetermined politicised histories of the Russian Revolution. Aimed at both the general reader and the specialist, Wade’s account brings out forcefully the sheer complexity of the factors that came into play during 1917. What to do about the war, the increasing problems of everyday life along with sharpened class conflict in industry, land reform and redistribution, the awakening of nationalities, the role of women, the rise of the radical left – all of these factors and others are familiar to students of the Russian Revolution. Wade’s narrative account covers very well the events of 1917 but what does he add? There are several issues he points to that made a revolution of sorts seem increasingly likely after July 1917 but this is no teleological account with a predestined outcome. At each decisive moment (the April crisis, the June army offensive, the July days, the Kornilov affair of late August and Kerensky’s bungling in October), Wade shows the importance of human decisions and human mistakes.
The first two chapters deal with the February Revolution and its antecedents. These allow Wade not only to indicate the abject poverty endured by most people in the Tsarist empire, but by showing the worsening conditions due to the war (pp. 23-25) and the massive Russian casualties, 3,600,000 dead or seriously wounded by the end of 1916 and another 2,000,000 POWs (p. 18), indicates that the necessity of resolving the war was the primary political issue that had to be solved. The unwillingness and inability of the Provisional Governments to end the war contributed greatly to its decline in popularity. More importantly, Wade highlights the growing discontent from below, the deep distrust felt by workers, soldiers and peasants for the educated leaders of the Provisional Government (pp. 100, 106-107). This fundamental division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the deep-rooted suspicion felt by many workers and soldiers for the ‘bourgeoisie’ (Wade’s terminology) and the fear of counter revolution meant that the Government was constantly under scrutiny for signs of ‘betrayal’. The fear of counter revolution, which according to Wade was exaggerated (p. 61), was widely held and the perception that a counter revolution was possible aided the ‘radical left’. Another recurrent, and welcome, theme is Wade’s demonstration of the impulses and pressures from below, which came to be summed up in the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ The division between the workers and the Government was reflected in the dual authority, dvoevlastie , which existed between the Government and the Petrograd Soviet.
Initially the Petrograd and other Soviets had a majority of those defined by Wade as ‘moderate socialists’, namely right and centre Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) and various Menshevik groupings. These groups described themselves as Revolutionary Defencists, who believed in a negotiated peace and active defence of Russia until then (p. 71), and this was the basic dividing line between themselves and the ‘radical left’, the Bolsheviks, Left SRs and Menshevik-Internationalists. Another point of contention between the socialists, ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’, was the question of the Constituent Assembly. The Government and the moderate socialists insisted that questions of war and peace, land redistribution and social and economic transformation be decided when the Constituent Assembly, a parliament to be elected by the people, was convened. This formally democratic impulse gradually alienated more and more of the masses who had originally supported the February revolution in the belief that their demands were to be met by the revolution. The Provisional Government’s failure meant, for instance, that the Russian and Ukrainian peasantry began to carry out their own land reforms, in the process destroying the old rural social order and demonstrating the practical limits of government power.
Throughout the army and industry, soldiers’ and factory committees arose to challenge the status quo. The return from exile of revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Martov and Spiridinova brought an intransigence into the radical left that had initially been lacking. Besides being the most left of any European left grouping the Bolsheviks, Left SRs and Menshevik-Internationalists had a constituency that was growing in both size and radicalism. Wade’s continual reference to the radical initiatives and views of the workers and soldiers is a point that has often been overlooked especially by historians of the Russian Revolution whose views were grounded in the Russian Revolution as a Bolshevik Revolution, thereby giving the ‘masses’ a secondary role to political parties. The Revolution though was very much a Russian Revolution, its impact in the Moslem areas of Russia was mainly confined to Russian immigrants. For instance, the Revolutionary Council in Tashkent ‘rejected allowing native [Moslem] peoples to participate in the new government’ (p. 265). In the Ukraine, for instance, minority nationalities, particularly Russians, were opposed to Ukranian ‘territorial autonomy and federalism'; an opposition translated into support for Soviet power. This opposition was helped by being ‘[c]oncentrated in the cities, the non-Ukranians were influential beyond their overall numbers and in a position to challenge Ukranian political nationalism’ (p. 153). According to Wade, it was the issue of increased autonomy for Ukraine rather than the usually accepted reason of the July Days which led to the government’s downfall at the beginning of July.
Another of Wade’s themes is his insistence on multiple identities, which he claims affected how the same person responded to different issues. ‘[A] Tatar worker in Kazan could respond to the issues of 1917 as a worker, as an ethnic Tatar or as a Moslem, not to mention other possible identities arising from former peasant status, gender or political beliefs. When confronted with a need to choose among parties and programs, which identity prevailed? Moreover, the identity that came to the fore at a particular time could change with circumstances’ (p. 146).
After the Kornilov affair the soldiers and workers moved to the left increasingly seeing the ‘radical left’ as the solution to their problems. In Petrograd and Moscow, by September, the ‘radical left’ began to win elections to the Soviets and this was only a reflection of earlier moves to the left at a local level since July. The increasing strength of the Bolsheviks in Russia’s large cities together with increasingly radical demands from below led Lenin to contemplate a seizure of power. A combination of circumstances saw this occur in October under the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ The new government, completely Bolshevik, moved quickly to end the war, redistribute land and transform Russian industry. It was this which meant there was little opposition from the soldiers, workers and peasants to the Bolshevik removal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 because the demands of these groups had been met by the Bolsheviks. Wade concludes by pointing out that whatever happened subsequently, civil war, famine, forced collectivization, mass purges,’[t]he extensive popular support for Soviet power and the Bolsheviks, Left SRs and other radicals in the fall of 1917 cannot be doubted’ (p. 295).
With an extremely useful chronology and four maps this book allows for ‘1917’ to be treated as it was, not as a dress rehearsal for the Cold War. My one criticism is where Wade refers to the considerable decline in voting, in Petrograd in August down thirty per cent, in Moscow down by forty per cent in September, compared to earlier in the year (p. 212). These electoral successes for the ‘radical left’, but particularly the Bolsheviks, Wade claims ‘allowed the October Revolution to take place’ (p. 213). If this is the case what significance should be placed on the substantial decline in the numbers voting? Were some people already fed up with politics as others became more radicalised or did the decline reflect increased sympathies with anarchist ideas? Had the city population declined, were some potential voters intimidated? This criticism, however, should not detract from a very well written account which made the book a pleasure to read. Hopefully students and the interested general public will choose Wade’s book not only for his ‘rethinking our narrative and interpretation of several major features of the revolution’ (p. ix) but also for the enjoyment of engaging with a good history of one of the seminal events of the last century that is well told.