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
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
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
Serious historians who take the first view (I exclude cold-war writers who merely want to blacken Lenin with the sins of Stalin) will point out that both Marx and Lenin (the latter with great emphasis) assert the essentially repressive character of the State; that from the moment when the Russian Soviet Republic proclaimed itself as a state it became by its nature an instrument of repression; and that this element was monstrously inflated, but not in principle changed, by the pressures and vicissitudes to which it was later subjected. The historian who takes the two-period line seems to have a more plausible case, till he has to locate his watershed. Should one place the transition to policies of mass repression at the time of the Kronstadt revolt of March 1921—or perhaps of the peasant risings in central Russia in the previous winter? Or should one identify it with Stalin’s conquest of the Party and State machine in the middle twenties, with the campaigns against Trotsky and Zinoviev, and with the expulsion and exile of scores of leading oppositionists in 1928? Or with the first large-scale public trials, at which defendants pleaded guilty to bizarre charges of sabotage and treason, in 1930 and 1931? Concentration camps and forced labour existed well before 1930. I am not much impressed with a solution which defers the watershed till the middle thirties. As I said, the choice of periods reflects the standpoint of the historian. I cannot help feeling that this bit of periodization is rather neatly tailored to explain and condone the long blindness of left intellectuals in the West to the repressive character of the régime. Yet even this will not quite do. Even while the great purges and trials were in progress, an unprecedented number of left intellectuals were flocking into western Communist parties.
Let me try to sum up very briefly. Initially, the Revolution polarized Left and Right in the capitalist world. In central Europe, revolution loomed on the horizon. Even in this country there were extremes: the communists who hoisted the red flag in Glasgow, and Churchill who wanted to use the British army to destroy the revolution in Russia. A sizeable number, though nowhere a majority, of workers entered Communist parties in Germany, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. But by the middle of the nineteen twenties the ebb had set in—especially among the organized workers. The Red Trade Union International never succeeded in shaking the authority of the social-democratic Amsterdam International, which became more and more bitterly anti-communist. The tuc under Citrine and Bevin followed suit. The workers in western countries were no longer revolutionary; they fought to improve their position within the capitalist system, not to destroy it. The ‘popular front’ of the nineteen thirties (at any rate in this country) was predominantly