In a well-known passage in What is History?, E.H. Carr addresses the perennially perplexing issue of historical inevitability. Seeking to ridicule the ‘“might-have-been” school of thought—or rather of emotion’, Carr contrasts the treatment of more chronologically distant events from the more recent. ‘The historian,’ he tells us, ‘writes of the Norman Conquest or the American War of Independence as if what happened was in fact bound to happen, and as if it was his business simply to explain what happened and why. . .When, however, I write about the Russian revolution of 1917 in precisely this way—the only proper way to the historian—I find myself under attack from my critics for having by implication depicted what happened as something that was bound to happen, and failed to examine all the other things that might have happened.’

Carr was well aware of why his treatment of the Russian Revolution as a ‘closed chapter’ provoked such a response. As he put it, ‘plenty of people, who have suffered directly or vicariously from the results of the Bolshevik victory, or still fear its remoter consequences, desire to register their protest against it.’ They thus let ‘their imagination run riot on all the more agreeable things that might have happened.’ Writing in the early 1960s, Carr undoubtedly had in mind the then dominant Cold War historiography which favoured almost any outcome other than a Bolshevik victory and still reflected the hope of its reversal. But his complaint would apply equally to other versions of Soviet history. Thus, a decade later, he could be quite critical of Stephen Cohen’s biography of Bukharin, on the grounds that its attempt to rescue the kinder and gentler version of socialist construction articulated by one of Stalin’s chief victims was excessively imaginative.

Samuel Farber’s Before Stalinism footnote1 will probably evoke a similar or perhaps even more dismissive response from professional historians. It is not so much a work of history as ‘a political reflection on history, an inquiry into what alternatives existed and might have worked at the time, as well as what can we learn for today.’ Thus, while acknowledging that the past is immutable—Carr’s ‘closed chapter’—Farber insists that it is usable. To ponder what might have been, he would argue, is not to rewrite history, and still less the past, but it can be a powerful means of rethinking the present.

Vladimir Brovkin’s The Mensheviks After October footnote2 is a much more conventionally historical inquiry into the tribulations of the party that Trotsky, in the midst of the October Revolution, notoriously consigned to the ‘rubbish heap of history’. A revised Princeton Ph.D. dissertation, the book reconstructs the Mensheviks’ disarray in the immediate aftermath of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, their ‘political comeback’ in the spring of 1918, and their (divided) response to the rigging of local soviet elections and the onset of full-scale civil war up to October 1918.

Thoroughly researched, and densely empirical, the book scrupulously avoids the kind of counter-factualism in which Farber indulges. Its thesis is elegant in its simplicity. It is that the Mensheviks were Abel to the Bolsheviks’ Cain (see the Biblical epigraph), a Doppelgänger of the democratic socialist aspirations for which the Bolsheviks claimed—and may have believed—they stood. They thus were ‘dangerous because they belied the Bolsheviks’ image of themselves. It was hard for the Bolsheviks to admit that the party of the proletarian revolution, the party of Red October, was losing support. It was much easier to destroy the evidence.’ (p. 295—I have reworked the order of the sentences.) As the uninvited guests at the post-October feast, they were a constant reminder of the Bolsheviks’ betrayal of soviet democracy, and paid dearly for their insistence on staying around. Nor were they the only ones. Brovkin convincingly demonstrates how the Bolsheviks employed ‘Menshevik (or Socialist-Revolutionary) agitation’ as an excuse for the disintegration of their support among workers and a means of legitimizing repression against both their political opponents and workers themselves.