Let us begin with its significance for Russia itself. One need hardly dwell today on the negative consequences of the Revolution. For several years, and especially in the last few months, they have been an obsessive topic in published books, newspapers, radio and television. The danger is not that we shall draw a veil over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its cost in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name. The danger is that we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, its immense achievements. I am thinking in part of the determination, the dedication, the organization, the sheer hard work which in the last sixty years have transformed Russia into a major industrial country and one of the super-powers. Who before 1917 could have predicted or imagined this? But, far more than this, I am thinking of the transformation since 1917 in the lives of ordinary people: the transformation of Russia from a country more than eighty per cent of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants into a country with a population more than sixty per cent urban, which is totally literate and is rapidly acquiring the elements of urban culture. Most of the members of this new society are grand-children of peasants; some of them are great-grand-children of serfs. They cannot help being conscious of what the Revolution has done for them. And these things have been brought about by rejecting the main criteria of capitalist production—profits and the laws of the market—and substituting a comprehensive economic plan aimed at promoting the common welfare. However much performance may have lagged behind promise, what has been done in the ussr in the past sixty years, in spite of fearful interruptions from without, is a striking advance towards the realization of the economic programme of socialism. Of course, I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the Revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail. After all, an English historian can praise the achievements of the reign of Henry viii without being supposed to condone the beheading of wives.

I tend to fight shy of the crux of inevitability in history, which very quickly leads into a blind alley. The historian asks the question ‘Why?’, including the question why, of several courses apparently available at any given moment, one particular one was followed. If different antecedents had been at work, the results would have been different. I have no great faith in what is called ‘counter-factual history’. I am reminded of the Russian proverb which Alec Nove is fond of quoting: ‘If grandma had a beard, grandma would be grandpa’. To re-arrange the past to suit one’s own predilections and one’s own point of view is a very pleasant occupation. But I am not sure that it is otherwise very profitable.

If, however, you ask me to speculate, I will say this. Lenin, if he had lived through the twenties and thirties in the full possession of his faculties, would have faced exactly the same problems. He knew perfectly well that large-scale mechanized agriculture was the first condition of any economic advance. I do not think he would have been satisfied with Bukharin’s ‘snail’s pace industrialization’. I do not think he would have made too many concessions to the market (remember his insistence on maintaining the monopoly of foreign trade). He knew that you could get nowhere without some effective control and direction of labour (remember his remarks on ‘one-man management’ in industry, and even about ‘Taylorism’). But Lenin was not only reared in a humane tradition, he enjoyed enormous prestige, great moral authority and powers of persuasion; and these qualities, shared by none of the other leaders, would have prompted and enabled him to minimize and mitigate the element of coercion. Stalin had no moral authority whatever (later he tried to build it up in the crudest ways). He understood nothing but coercion, and from the first employed this openly and brutally. Under Lenin the passage might not have been altogether smooth, but it would have been nothing like what happened. Lenin would not have tolerated the falsification of the record in which Stalin constantly indulged. If failures occurred in Party policy or practice, he would have openly recognized and admitted them as such; he would not, like Stalin, have acclaimed desperate expedients as brilliant victories. The ussr under Lenin would never have become, in Ciliga’s phrase, ‘the land of the big lie’. These are my speculations. If they serve no other purpose, they may reveal something of my beliefs and of my standpoint.

More has been published since I wrote that preface in 1950, but there are still dark places. R. W. Davies, who collaborated with me in my last economic volume, is working on the economic history of the early nineteen thirties, and will I think produce convincing results. I have lately been interesting myself in the external affairs of the period and the run-up to the popular front; here, too, I find no shortage of materials. But political history in the narrower sense is more or less a closed book. Big controversies obviously occurred. But between whom? Who were the winners, who the defeated, what compromises were reached? We have no documents comparable to the relatively free debates at Party congresses in the twenties or the platforms of oppositions. A dense fog of mystery still envelops such episodes as the Kirov murder, the purge of the generals, or the secret contracts between Soviet and German emissaries which many people believe to have occurred in the later thirties. I could not have continued my History beyond 1929 with the same confidence that I had some clue to what really happened.

This introduces the famous question of ‘periodization’. An event like the Revolution of 1917 is so dramatic and so sweeping in its consequences that it imposes itself on every historian as a turning-point in history, the end or beginning of a period. Broadly speaking, however, the historian has to define his periods and, in the process of organizing his material, to choose his ‘turning-points’ or ‘watersheds’; and this choice reflects—often, no doubt, unconsciously—his own standpoint, his own view of the sequence of events. Historians of the Russian Revolution from 1917 to, say, 1940 face a dilemma. The revolutionary régime which began as a liberating force was associated, long before the end of that period, with repression of the most ruthless kind. Should the historian treat this as a single period with a continuous process of development—and degeneration? Or should he split it into separate periods of liberation and repression, divided by some significant watershed?