In 1917 Russia lived through the last of the great bourgeois revolutions and the first proletarian revolution in European history. The two revolutions merged into one. Their unprecedented coalescence imparted extraordinary vitality and élan to the new régime; but it was also the source of severe strains and stresses and cataclysmic convulsions. I should perhaps give here, at the risk of stating the obvious, a brief definition of bourgeois revolution. The traditional view, widely accepted by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeoisie played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians: the recent exchanges for instance between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character.
It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and historically unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries. Nor did they seize the reins of government during the revolution or for long time afterwards, either in England or in France. The lower middle classes, the urban poor, the plebeians and sans culottes made up the big insurgent battalions. The leaders were mostly ‘gentlemen farmers’ in England and lawyers, doctors, journalists and other intellectuals in France. Here and there the upheavals ended in military dictatorship. Yet the bourgeois character of these revolutions will not appear at all mythical, if we approach them with a broader criterion and view their general impact on society. Their most substantial and enduring achievement was to sweep away the social and political institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property and of the social relationships that went with it. When the Puritans denied the Crown the power of arbitrary taxation, when Cromwell secured for English shipowners a monopolistic position in England’s trading with foreign countries, and when the Jacobins abolished feudal prerogatives and privileges, they created, often unknowingly, the conditions in which manufacturers, merchants, and bankers were bound to gain economic predominance, and, in the long run, social and even political supremacy. Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish. In this, rather than in the particular alignments during the struggle, lies its differentia specifica.
It is in this sense that we can characterize the October revolution as a combination of bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, though both were accomplished under Bolshevik leadership. Current Soviet historiography describes the February revolution as bourgeois and reserves the label ‘proletarian’ for the October insurrection. This distinction is made by many Western historians too; and is justified on the ground that in February, after the Tsar’s abdication, the bourgeoisie seized power. In truth, the combination of the two revolutions appeared already in February, but in a shadowy form. The Tsar and his last government were brought down by a general strike and a mass insurrection of workers and soldiers who at once created their Councils or Soviets, the potential organs of a new State. Prince Lvov, Miliukov, and Kerensky took power from the hands of a confused and groping Petrograd Soviet, which willingly yielded it to them; and they exercised it for as long only as the Soviets tolerated them. But their governments carried out no major act of bourgeois revolution. Above all, they did not break up the aristocracy’s landed estates and give land to the peasants. Even as a bourgeois revolution, the February revolution was manquée.
All this underlines the prodigious contradiction with which the Bolsheviks undertook to cope when in October they promoted and directed the double upheaval. The bourgeois revolution over which
The socialist revolution was supported wholeheartedly by the urban working class. But this was a small minority of the nation. Altogether one sixth of the population, twenty-odd million people, lived in the towns: and of these only half or so could be described as proletarian. The hard core of the working class consisted at the most of about three million men and women employed in modern industry. Marxists had expected the industrial workers to be the most dynamic force in capitalist society, the main agents of socialist revolution. The Russian workers more than justified this expectation. No class in Russian society, and no working class anywhere in the world, has ever acted with the energy, the political intelligence, the ability for organization, and the heroism with which the Russian workers acted in 1917 (and thereafter in the civil war). The circumstance that Russia’s modern industry consisted of a small number of huge factories, concentrated mainly in Petrograd and Moscow, gave the massed workers of the two capitals an extraordinary striking power at the very nerve centres of the ancien régime. Two decades of intensive Marxist propaganda, fresh memories of the struggles of 1905, 1912, and 1914, the tradition of a century of revolutionary endeavour, and Bolshevik singleness of purpose had prepared the workers for their role. They took the socialist aim of the revolution for granted. They were not content with anything less than the abolition of capitalist explotation, socialization of industry and banking, workers’ control over production and government by Soviets. They turned their backs on the Mensheviks,
Yet Petrograd and Moscow, and a few other scattered industrial centres, constituted an extremely narrow base for this undertaking. Not only did people over the whole immensity of rural Russia scramble to acquire property while the workers of the two capitals strove to abolish it; not only was the socialist revolution in implicit conflict with the bourgeois one, in addition, it was fraught with its own inner contradictions. Russia was and was not ripe for socialist revolution. She was able to cope with its negative rather than with its positive tasks. Guided by the Bolsheviks, the workers expropriated the capitalists and transferred power to the Soviets; but they could not establish a socialist economy and a socialist way of life; and they were unable to maintain their dominant political position for any length of time.
At first the dual character of the revolution was, has been said, the source of its strength. If a bourgeois revolution had taken place earlier (or if, at the time of the Emancipation, in 1861, the freed serfs had been given land on fair terms), the peasantry would have turned into a conservative force; and it would have opposed proletarian revolution, as it did in Western Europe, particularly in France, throughout the 19th century. Its conservatism might then have influenced even the urban workers, many of whom had roots in the country. A bourgeois order would have had far greater staying power than that possessed by the semi-feudal and semi-bourgeois régime. The conjunction of the two revolutions made possible the alliance of the workers and peasants for which Lenin strove; and this enabled the Bolsheviks to win the civil war and withstand foreign intervention. Although the aspirations of the workers were in implicit conflict with those of the peasants, neither of the two classes was as yet aware of this. The workers rejoiced in the muzhiks’ triumph over the landlords; and they saw no contradiction between their own striving for a collectivist economy and the peasantry’s economic individualism. The contradiction became apparent and acute only towards the end of the civil war, when the peasantry, no longer inhibited by fear of the landlords’ return, forcefully asserted that individualism.footnote1