Once Again: In Defence of Lenin - a reply to Orlando Figes

As expected, the centenary of the October 1917 Revolution has been greeted with a cacophony of distortions and slanders, especially against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Hundreds of newspaper articles, books as well as TV and radio documentaries, have been produced with this express purpose in mind, all of which talk of coups and the Bolsheviks being German agents.

“The Great October Revolution! Today, they’re calling it a military coup, the Bolshevik conspiracy…The Russian catastrophe…Saying Lenin was a German agent, and the Revolution was brought about by deserters and drunken sailors. I cover my ears. I don’t want to hear it!”

(Margarita Pogrebitskaya, doctor, 57-years-old. Quoted in Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.)

Most recently, the historian, Stephen Kotkin, who has produced a biography of Stalin, when interviewed in the Financial Times, stated that “Lenin had been sent to Russia by the Germans. One of his first decisions was total surrender on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik coup turned the Soviet Union into an international pariah…After all, Lenin was originally a German agent.” (28/10/17)

The irony of all this is that it was not Lenin, but the Russian bourgeoisie who acted as German agents, desperate for the German army to overthrow the Bolsheviks and restore the Old Order. But this slander is widespread. A whole layer of conservative and liberal historians have joined forces in an effort to bury the truth about the October Revolution. They can hardly contain themselves on this centenary. They howl and gnash their teeth at every reference to ‘Revolution’, ‘Lenin’ and ‘Bolshevism’. The whole revolution must be portrayed as a historic ‘mistake’ and an unforgivable ‘tragedy’.

There is nothing new in all of this. The apologists of capitalism have always displayed a seething hatred for the Russian Revolution. The opening of the Soviet archives some 20 years ago saw a whole host of academics, such as Robert Service, Orlando Figes, Richard Pipes, among many others, rushing off to Moscow, not to enhance historical truth but to dig up as much dirt as possible about Lenin and the October Revolution. On their return, such ‘scholars’ would churn out a few books in the process. It reminds one of what was said about the Webbs in the 1930s:

“To Russia, to Russia to take a quick look,

Back again, back again, to write a big book.”

Their theme is always the same: Bolshevism is the same as Stalinism and Lenin’s dictatorial methods gave rise to the horror of Stalin and the death of millions. Their assertion is that if only the October Revolution – for them, ‘a coup’ – had not happened, the ‘moderate’ Provisional Government could have established a constitutional monarchy with all the trappings of Western bourgeois democracy and life would have been happy ever after.

Bourgeois historians do not seek the truth

Women of the Red Army Public DomainBreadlines before the February revolution - Photo: Public DomainThis appears to be Professor Orlando Figes’ view, who has recently re-published his book, A People’s Tragedy. If only the Tsar had acted differently things would have been a lot better! What a tragedy for the people! What a tragedy of history! But this line of argument is itself tragic. If the Bolsheviks had not come to power in 1917, not ‘democracy’, but a monstrous fascist dictatorship would have been established, over the bones of millions of workers and peasants. The idea of a rosy democracy being possible in Russia under Kerensky or Kornilov is a complete fairy tale.

The whole approach of modern bourgeois historians is not to explore the truth, but to present Lenin and Trotsky as ruthless cold-blooded fanatics, whose ‘utopian’ plans could only end in a nightmare. The Russian masses are simply viewed as pawns, cynically manipulated by the Bolsheviks in a ruthless pursuit of naked power. For these bourgeois apologists, revolution has no other outcome. Their views, however, reflect their political prejudice, and nothing more.

The reality is somewhat different. The October Revolution was a world-shattering event, which abolished landlordism and capitalism, and in its early days introduced the most democratic regime ever seen in history, based upon the rule of the deputies of the Soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants. For the first time in history, it put power into the hands of working people and became a beacon to the war-weary masses everywhere.

For the defenders of capitalism – precisely because it brought to power the workers and peasants – the Revolution constituted an unpardonable crime. For Professor Orlando Figes, the Revolution was indeed ‘a People’s Tragedy’.

Professor Figes’ A People’s Tragedy of 20 years ago has been republished with a new introduction, in which, among other things, he blames the rise of fascism and the Second World War on Bolshevism: “The fear of Bolshevism was a major factor in the rise of fascist movements, leading to the outbreak of the Second World War”, writes Figes (p.xi). The depth to which Figes is prepared to sink in his unscientific approach to history seems to have no limits. The outbreak of the Second World War was an expression of the insoluble contradictions that had accumulated between the major powers, and was in essence a continuation of the First World War. Maybe in a future republication of his work, Figes could add to the causes of the First World War the very existence of the Bolsheviks in Russia, even though they were then still a small minority. We shall see!

There is a logic in Figes’ distorted portrayal of history. By blaming the Bolsheviks for almost everything, he can conveniently avoid the embarrassing fact that fascism was supported and welcomed by big business, which armed and financed the Hitler movement. Winston Churchill and a section of the British ruling class openly admired Mussolini’s Blackshirts before the war, and saw fascism as a bulwark against communism.

In his new preface, Figes even has the effrontery to link Bolshevism with today’s Islamic terrorism:

“All the methods used by ISIS – the use of war and terror to build a revolutionary state, the fanatical devotion and military discipline of its followers, and its brilliant use of propaganda – were first mastered by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.” (p.xvii)

He prefers to ignore that fact that the fanaticism and methods of ISIS are more akin to those of fascism of the 1930s, the very opposite of Bolshevism. It is a counter-revolutionary ideology pursuing counter-revolutionary aims. But this does not fit in with Figes’ aim of drawing false parallels with Bolshevism, the better to discredit the party of Lenin and Trotsky.

Lenin comes in for particularly harsh treatment by Figes. Lenin’s ideas are ripped out of context and distorted to prove the opposite of what he actually said. Everything is done to discredit him as well as the Russian Revolution.

On the very first page of the Preface to the 1996 edition, Professor Figes sets out to show how terrible and bloody revolution is:

“[A]t the risk of appearing callous, the easiest way to convey the revolution’s scope is to list the ways in which it wasted human life: tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and an equal number by the repression of the tsarist regime, before 1917; thousands died in the street fighting of that year; hundreds of thousands from the Terror of the Reds – and an equal number from the Terror of the Whites, if one counts the victims of their pogroms against Jews – during the years that followed; more than a million perished in the fighting of the civil war, including civilians at the rear; and yet more people died from hunger, cold and disease than from all these put together.” (A People’s Tragedy, p. xvii)

In other words, the Russian Revolution, according to our professor, can be easily summed up (its ‘scope’) as a catalogue of death, disease and bloodshed. Thus, the Revolution is reduced to a gigantic minus. We see here how Professor Figes attempts to place the actions of heroic Russian revolutionaries on the same level as the Tsarist butchers. The oppressed and the oppressors are placed in the same boat as both, you see, were responsible for bloodshed.

These bourgeois historians have a particular story to peddle, irrespective of the facts. They are like the scribes of Rome who sought to justify slavery, while trying to cover themselves in so-called ‘objectivity’.

In the Russian Civil War, the Whites were the forces of counter-revolution and reaction, behind which stood world imperialism, determined to destroy the young Soviet Republic. It was the intervention of 21 imperialist armies that sustained the barbarism of the Civil War, and the death and misery that accompanied it.

Again, this should not surprise us. The imperialist powers had already perpetrated world war in which 12 million had died and millions more were maimed and crippled. The imperialist blockade of Russia alone, following the carnage of 1914-17, brought famine, death and disease on a vast scale, in which millions perished.

Violence and the revolution

Women of the Red Army Public DomainDespite Figes’ concerns for the Revolution’s ‘wasted life’, the October Revolution was in fact a bloodless affair, at least in Petrograd, more like a police mopping up operation, where a tiny handful of people lost their lives. The wholesale bloodshed came with the Civil War, the real blame for which lies squarely with the actions of imperialism and its agents.

Women of the Red Army Public DomainBruce Lockhart - Photo: Public DomainThis is not simply our view, but also the view of the British government agent, Bruce Lockhart, who was stationed in Russia at the time:

"I mention this comparative tolerance of the Bolsheviks, because the cruelties which followed later were the result of the intensification of the civil war...For the intensification of that bloody struggle, Allied intervention, with the false hopes it raised, was largely responsible. I do not say that a policy of abstention from interference in the internal affairs of Russia would have altered the course of the Bolshevik Revolution. I do suggest that our intervention intensified the terror and increased the bloodshed." (R.H. Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent, 2002 edition, p.242, my emphasis.)

A victory of the counter-revolution in the early 1920s and the restoration of capitalism and landlordism would not have ushered in an idyllic ‘democracy’, but a bloodbath of workers and peasants, as the White slaughter in Finland, where up to 20,000 workers were butchered, proved. In the intervention, we have the spectacle of the ruling classes of the Allies and the Central Powers putting their ‘differences’ aside and joining forces in order to crush the young workers’ state and restore Tsarist rule. Their common class interests based upon private property were paramount.

The Russian masses, on the other hand, rallied to the Revolution, as for them it meant freedom and dignity; peace, bread and land. The Revolution’s goal of liberation from capitalism and landlordism was something worth fighting for. It was the fervour and enthusiasm for October that eventually saved the young workers’ state in its life and death struggle with the Old Order. The defeat of the counter-revolution demanded the total commitment of the Russian people, which they unreservedly gave. The human sacrifices demanded by the Civil War were of course monumental. The fact is that millions of ordinary Russians were prepared to risk their lives for such a noble cause.

Were the Bolsheviks ruthless and bloodthirsty?

Bourgeois historians continue to peddle the idea that the Bolsheviks were ruthless and ‘bloodthirsty’. The truth is the Soviet government was slow to react to the acts of counter-revolution and imperialist aggression. ‘The Soviet Government’, explained the left-wing historian Marcel Liebman:

“[W]aited several months before it ordered the systematic repression of all counter-revolutionary activities – at the beginning of the Civil War, it went out of its way to stop and punish all excesses. And though the Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and the Counter-revolution) was established in December 1917, it was not until 18 June, 1918, that a revolutionary tribunal passed a death sentence.” (Liebman, The Russian Revolution, p.337)

During the October Revolution, on several occasions military cadets who were arrested were immediately released on promises not  take up arms again against the Revolution. Those captured in the Winter Palace, were allowed to go free after Antonov-Ovseenko, the Bolshevik commander, personally intervened on their behalf to get his men to release them! Of course, those released immediately broke their word. Arrested government ministers were also quickly released, while members of the Pre-Parliament, much to their surprise, were left to get on with what they were doing.

The reactionary General Krasnov, whom Kerensky ordered to recapture Petrograd, was seized by the Bolsheviks, but was then released having promised not to further engage in counter-revolutionary activity. He immediately rushed south and helped to found the White Army. The Soviets paid a grave price for this needless benevolence. So much for their so-called ruthlessness!

Eventually, after so many bloody provocations, the Soviets were forced to abandon their soft approach. But this change did not come about until the summer of 1918, more than six months after the Revolution. During this period, bourgeois parties acted with complete freedom, despite continuously conniving with the Whites and the imperialist powers. The only party to be banned was the fascist Black Hundreds. The other bourgeois parties, including the Cadets, continued to operate openly.

As the British agent Lockhart reveals, regarding the events of June 1918:

"The Bolsheviks had not yet succeeded in establishing the iron discipline which today characterises their regime. They had, in fact, made little attempt to do so. There was no terror, nor was the population particularly afraid of its new masters. The anti-Bolshevik newspapers continued to appear and to attack the Bolshevik policy with violent abuse...The bourgeoisie, still confident that the Germans would soon send the Bolshevik rabble about its business, was more cheerful than one might have expected in such disturbing circumstances. The population was starving, but the rich still had money. Restaurants and cabarets were open, and the cabarets at any rate were crowded. On Sundays, too, there were trotting races before our house, and it was strange to contrast these beautiful, well-groomed horses with the starved and skeleton nags of the unfortunate 'droschke' drivers." (Lockhart, p.241, my emphasis)

Lockhart adds:

“The one aim of every Russian bourgeois (and 99 per cent of the so-called ‘loyal’ Russians were bourgeois) was to secure the intervention of British troops (and failing British, German troops) to re-establish order in Russia, suppress Bolshevism and restore to the bourgeois his property.” (Lockhart, p. 231)

“The bourgeoisie was openly delighted at the prospect of the German advance, which had emboldened the anti-Bolshevik Press to attack the Bolsheviks with a frenzied fury.” (ibid, p.228)

This gives you a real and clear picture of the pro-German sympathies of the Russian bourgeoisie. How different they are dealt with in Lockhart’s text in contrast to the so-called ‘German agent’ Lenin, a lie that has been constantly peddled ever since!

In relation to the anti-Bolshevik organisations that operated at that time, Lockhart reveals:

“Through Hicks I increased my contact with the anti-Bolshevik forces. As far as we were concerned, they were represented in Moscow by an organisation called the ‘Centre’ which was subdivided into two wings of Left and Right, and the League of the Regeneration of Russia founded by Savinkov. There was constant bickering between the two organisations. The Centre was in close touch with the White Army in the South.” (ibid, p.291)

Women of the Red Army Public DomainRussian trenches during World War I - Photo: Public DomainThe fact that these counter-revolutionary organisations could operate quite freely in the capital, shows how slow the Soviet government was to react.

Despite the fact that Figes’ quotes some of Lockhart’s book to bolster his analysis, he never refers once to Lockhart’s views as quoted above. The reason for this seems to be that Lockhart’s eyewitness account does not fit the one being presented by our learned professor.

The assassination of Volodarsky, the Commissar for Press Affairs, then the murder of the German Ambassador Mirbach, followed by the attempted overthrow of the government and the attempted assassinations of Lenin and Trotsky changed the entire situation. The naivety of the early days of the revolution soon dissipated.

The Soviet government was forced to take decisive action to answer the assassinations and counter-revolutionary actions with a firm hand. The Bolsheviks had to fight fire with fire - or perish. They had no alternative. They were forced to fight a civil war, where obviously the rules of warfare apply. As the White Armies advanced into Soviet territory, they did not hesitate to organise the mass butchering of workers, who they correctly saw as the main supporters of Bolshevism. In addition, they rounded up the Jewish population and massacred them for the greater glory of Mother Russia.

The Soviet government under Lenin and Trotsky had, therefore, no recourse but to defend itself and the revolution, with arms in hand. This was no game of chess, but a civil war. In attempting to hide this fact, bourgeois historians place the blame for the bloodshed not on the imperialists, but the Soviets and revolutionaries, i.e., not on the slaveowners, but on the slaves for daring to cast off their chains.

Devastating consequences of civil war

It took three years for the Soviets to finally drive out the imperialists and put an end to the Civil War, which left behind a terrible legacy of destruction. Deutscher in his biography of Trotsky gives a graphic account of the situation:

“At the end of the Civil War Russia’s national income amounted to only one-third of her income in 1913; industry produced less than one-fifth of the goods produced before the war; the coal mines turned out less than one-tenth and the iron foundries less than one-fortieth of their normal output; the railways were destroyed; all stocks and reserves were utterly exhausted…” (The Prophet Unarmed, p.4)

Cases of cannibalism were reported, as starvation became rife. The cities had lost 8 million inhabitants compared to 1914; the population of Petrograd alone had fallen from 2.5 million to 600,000; while Moscow’s population fell from 1.5 million to 900,000. At the beginning of 1917, industry employed 3 million workers, but by January 1921 this had shrunk to 1.2 million.

This was the horrendous situation facing the Bolsheviks at the end of the Civil War. The most dedicated class-conscious workers had gone to the fronts, many of whom perished, and those remaining in the factories were utterly exhausted. As a result of forced requisitioning to feed the cities (‘war communism’), relations between the towns and the peasants broke down.

Facing starvation, there was a desperate exodus from the towns to the countryside in search of food, as the figures show. The Soviets as organs of power withered as the activity of the weary proletariat waned and the struggle for survival took precedence. The emerging bureaucracy, a relic of Tsarism and arising from the backward conditions, elbowed the workers aside. The effects of the Civil War had completely drained the reserves of the Revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky were therefore forced to call a retreat and announce the New Economic Policy, which abandoned ‘war communism’ and made a number of concessions to capitalism. The peasants were allowed to retain and sell their grain, and instead pay a tax, which stimulated the market. This led to the dangerous rise of the kulaks – rich peasants – and Nepmen. The main task of the Soviet government was now simply to hold on against all the odds until help came from the European revolution.

Equating Bolshevism and Stalinism

It has been the prime task of bourgeois historians to discredit the October Revolution and equate Bolshevism with Stalinism. Thus, Orlando Figes states in his original Preface:

“[O]ur story ends in 1924, with the death of Lenin, by which time the revolution had come full circle and the basic institutions, if not all the practices, of the Stalinist regime were in place.”

So as not to forget, he repeats the same line:

“It seems clear that the basic elements of the Stalinist regime – the one-party state, the system of terror and the cult of the personality – were all in place by 1924.” (Figes, p. 807, 1996 edition)

Joseph Goebbels believed that by repeating a lie often enough it would come to be regarded as the truth. In the same way, the bourgeois historians constantly repeat the lie that Stalinism emerged from Bolshevism, while, in reality, Stalinism is the antithesis of Bolshevism and – a small detail – only triumphed with the murder in the Moscow Trials of all the Bolshevik leaders who led the Revolution and those with any direct connection with Lenin. As Trotsky explained, a river of blood separated Bolshevism from Stalinism. That is why as a Bolshevik he fought Stalinism to the bitter end.

Professor Figes’ open hatred towards Bolshevism is hardly surprising or original. It is simply  a reflection of his class prejudices. He takes every opportunity to twist, distort and blacken Lenin’s name, who is made out to be a blood-thirsty monster and dictator:

“Lenin was the first modern party chief to achieve the status of a god: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao Zedong were all his successors in this sense.” (Figes, p. 391)

While the Mensheviks are regarded by our learned Professor as “moderates”, for their preparedness to capitulate to the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks are viewed as a bunch of ruthless fanatics.

From this point of view, Figes’ book is like all the other right-wing literature on the Russian Revolution. At least credit can be given to E.H. Carr, the celebrated historian, who made an honest attempt to understand the Russian Revolution. In comparison to him, our latter day ‘historians’ are simply dishonest charlatans.

Bolsheviks opposed individual terrorism

Figes writes a whole section to ‘prove’ that Lenin was a dedicated disciple of individual terrorism, who advocated the seizure of power by a revolutionary minority. Again, this is complete nonsense, as we will show.Women of the Red Army Public DomainAbdication of the Tsar - Photo: Public Domain

Clearly, Lenin, as with many of his generation, had been sympathetic to the ideas of Populism, which tried to get rid of Tsarism. How could it have been otherwise? The Tsarist system banned any democratic or socialist activity: there was no parliament, freedom of speech, free press, free assembly or the right to organise or strike. Everything was ruled by the autocratic Tsar and his bureaucracy, who acted to ruthlessly crush any sign of progressive or radical thought. The Populists heroically fought against this tyranny.

Not a few despots were dispatched by the actions of these young idealists and heroes who made up these fighting groups. The Populists reached their height with the assassination of Alexander II. Other unsuccessful attempts were made on Tsar Alexander III, for which Lenin’s brother was hanged. In face of Tsarist repression, many of their members displayed courage, devotion and self-sacrifice, a million miles removed from the closeted corridors of academia.

It was the hatred of Tsarist despotism that nurtured terrorism. Let us recall that this was a bloody regime. It encouraged hundreds of pogroms against the Jews. After the defeat of the 1905 revolution, the prime minister became known as ‘Stolpin the Hangman’, when 1,100 people were executed from September 1906 to May 1907. The Tsarina, Alexandra, urged her husband:

“Be an Emperor, be Peter the Great, be Ivan the Terrible, be the Emperor Paul. Crush them all…” (Quoted by Liebman, The Russian Revolution, p.22)

But despite the displays of heroism by the Populists, Marxists understood that this method was a blind alley. Individual terrorism played into the hands of reaction by allowing the old regime to use such actions to justify its repression. Moreover, it reduced the struggle against Tsarism to single-combat between the regime and the terrorist groups, which were isolated from the masses. While you might rid the world of one hated Tsarist official, the system of Tsarism remained and the silent masses continued to be oppressed. Individual terrorism was a failure and counter-productive.

As opposed to the method of individual terrorism, the Marxists instead advocated a revolutionary mass struggle organised by a revolutionary vanguard. Such a struggle served to instill confidence in the masses and in their own strength and capacity. As Figes refuses to allow Lenin to speak for himself, let us see what he actually said on the subject:

“Little is known in other countries of the fact that Bolshevism took shape, developed and became steeled in the long years of struggle against petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter and, in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle… When it came into being in 1903, Bolshevism took over the tradition of a ruthless struggle against petty-bourgeois, semi-anarchist (or dilettante-anarchist) revolutionism, a tradition which had always existed in revolutionary Social-Democracy and had become particularly strong in our country during the years 1900–03, when the foundations for a mass party of the revolutionary proletariat were being laid in Russia. Bolshevism took over and carried on the struggle against a party which, more than any other, expressed the tendencies of petty-bourgeois revolutionism, namely, the ‘Socialist-Revolutionary’ Party…this party considered itself particularly ‘revolutionary’, or ‘Left’, because of its recognition of individual terrorism, assassination—something that we Marxists emphatically rejected.” (Lenin, Left-wing Communism, an infantile disorder)

As we can see, Bolshevism, contrary to Figes’ suggestions, was born in a struggle against individual terrorism. Of course, our professor does not wish to reveal this as it would undermine his aim to smear Lenin and the Bolsheviks as terrorists and followers of the Narodniks.

Figes tries his damnedest to equate terrorism with Lenin and Bolshevism:

“This new spirit of violence and hatred...was even more pronounced in the writings of Sergei Nechaev. Lenin placed a high value on them as a theory of revolutionary conspiracy.” (p. 132)

Again, this is completely false. Nechaev was an anarchist and extreme conspiracist. The Russian anarchist Bakunin had been Nechaev’s mentor, although even he recoiled from Nechaev. Lenin had certainly nothing to do with him. As Trotsky explained in his biography of Lenin:

“In revolutionary circles, the word Nechaevism was long to be a term of harsh condemnation, a synonym for risky and reprehensible methods of attaining revolutionary goals. Lenin was to hear himself accused hundreds of times of ‘Nechaevist’ methods by his opponents.” (The Young Lenin, p.42).

Professor Figes is simply regurgitating these same slanders!

Desperate for some mud to stick, Figes keeps repeating the myth:

“He [Nechaev] was, in short, a Bolshevik before the Bolsheviks.” (p. 133)

What a baseless assertion! You can see where our professor is trying to lead us. Again he writes:

“Its twenty-six articles [of Nechaev’s Revolutionary Catechism], setting out the principles of the professional revolutionary, might have served as the Bolshevik oath. [Only might?] The morals of that party owed much to Nechaev as they did to Marx.” (p. 133)

What an absolute travesty of the truth!

Nonetheless, our professor keeps pressing on regardless:

“The writings of Petr Tkachev marked the crucial watershed. They formed a bridge between the Jacobin tradition of Nechaev, the classic Populist tradition of Land and Liberty, and the Marxist tradition of Lenin. The Bolshevik leader owed more to Tkachev than to any other single Russian theorist.” (p. 137, my emphasis)

Again, what nonsense! Lenin owed nothing to Tkachev, who was close in his ideas to Blanqui, who favoured a coup d’état carried out by a small minority. This was never Lenin’s position.

Women of the Red Army Public DomainGeorg Plekhanov - Photo: Public DomainThere certainly was a Russian theorist to whom Lenin owed a great deal, and who he openly acknowledged, but this was not Tkachev, but Georg Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism. Lenin looked to Marxism, not to anarchism or Tkachevism.

But Figes will have none of it! He refuses to budge and stubbornly continues:

“Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, Tkachev and the People's’ Will to inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive… To begin with, like many provincial revolutionaries, he merely added Marx’s sociology to the putschist tactics of the People’s Will.” (p. 146).

Again, absolute balderdash! Orlando Figes offers not a shred of proof for this fairytale, but he keeps on repeating it.

Lenin in his own words

Lenin was firmly opposed to Blanquism, namely the seizure of power by a minority. We can furnish some examples.

Lenin in April 1917:

“To become a power the class-conscious workers must win the majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority. We are Marxists, we stand for proletarian class struggle against petty-bourgeois intoxication, against chauvinism-defencism, phrase-mongering and dependence on the bourgeoisie.” (LCW. Vol. 24. Moscow: Progress, 1974, p. 40.)

“Ignorant persons or renegades from Marxism, like Mr. Plekhanov, may shout about anarchism, Blanquism, and so forth. But those who want to think and learn cannot fail to understand that Blanquism means the seizure of power by a minority, whereas the Soviets are admittedly the direct and immediate organisation of the majority of the people. Work confined to a struggle for influence within these Soviets cannot, simply cannot, stray into the swamp of Blanquism.” (LCW. Vol. 24. Moscow: Progress, 1974, 48-49.)

Lenin in May 1917:

“Anybody who says ‘take the power’ should not have to think long to realise that an attempt to do so without as yet having the backing of the majority of the people would be adventurism or Blanquism (Pravda has made a special point of warning against this in the clearest, most unmistakable and unequivocal terms).

“There is a degree of freedom now in Russia that enables the will of the majority to be gauged by the makeup of the Soviets. Therefore, to make a serious, not a Blanquist, bid for power, the proletarian party must fight for influence within the Soviets.” (LCW, vol. 24, p.217, emphasis in original)

“Blanquism was a striving to seize power with the backing of a minority. With us it is quite different. We are still a minority and realise the need for winning a majority.” (LCW. Vol. 24. Moscow: Progress, 1974, 145.)

“All your efforts must be devoted to consolidating your own ranks, to organising the workers from the bottom upwards, including every district, every factory, every quarter of the capital and its suburbs! Do not be misled by those of the petty bourgeoisie who ‘compromise’ with the capitalists, by the defencists and by the ‘supporters’, nor by individuals who are inclined to be in a hurry and to shout ‘Down with the Provisional Government!’ before the majority of the people are solidly united. The crisis cannot be overcome by violence practised by individuals against individuals, by the local action of small groups of armed people, by Blanquist attempts to ‘seize power’, to ‘arrest’ the Provisional Government, etc.” (LCW. Vol. 24. Moscow: Progress, 1974, 216.)

“When the masses are free, any attempts to act in the name of a minority, without explaining things to the masses, would be senseless Blanquism, mere adventurism. Only by winning over the masses, if they can be won, can we lay a solid foundation for the victory of the proletarian class struggle.” (LCW, Vol.24, p.263)

Lenin in October:

“Marxism is an extremely profound and many-sided doctrine. It is, therefore, no wonder that scraps of quotations from Marx—especially when the quotations are made inappropriately—can always be found among the ‘arguments’ of those who break with Marxism. Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts, if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, if the majority of the Soviet-type organs of revolutionary struggle that have been recognised as authoritative or have shown themselves to be such in practice have not been won over, if there has not matured a sentiment in the army (if in war-time) against the government that protracts the unjust war against the will of the whole people, if the slogans of the uprising (like ‘All power to the Soviets’ ‘Land to the peasants’, or ‘Immediate offer of a democratic peace to all the belligerent nations, with an immediate abrogation of all secret treaties and secret diplomacy’, etc.) have not become widely known and popular, if the advanced workers are not sure of the desperate situation of the masses and of the support of the countryside, a support proved by a serious peasant movement or by an uprising against the landowners and the government that defends the landowners, if the country’s economic situation inspires earnest hopes for a favourable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means.” (LCW. Vol. 26. Moscow: Progress, 1977, 212-213.)

Professor Figes does not feel the need to offer any evidence for his false assertions. The reason being is that he cannot find any such evidence. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Our professor tries to be very clever by asking:

“[W]hat should the revolutionary leaders do if the people rejected the revolution? What if the peasants proved conservative? Or if the workers were more interested in sharing the benefits of capitalism than in trying to overthrow it?” (Figes, p. 135)

What this has to do with the Russian Revolution is anyone's guess. And, in any case, Lenin had an answer to this nonsense. The task of the revolutionary party is not the seizure of power by a minority, but to first win over a majority by patient explanation. If workers are keen to share in the benefits of capitalism, as Figes hopes, clearly there is no basis for a ‘bid for power’. A revolution cannot be imposed by a small group from above. This is ABC to Marxists.

On 18 April 1917, a matter of months before the October Revolution, Lenin wrote:

“[W]e want by ‘explanation’ to make the majority of the nation see the necessity for such a transfer of power.” (LCW, vol.24, p.173)

He repeated this position ad nauseam. Despite its voluminous size, Figes’ book contains not a single reference to Lenin’s real position.

Lenin the dictator?

Figes portrays Lenin as a dictator, starting within his own party. “Lenin had never been tolerant of dissent within his party’s ranks”, states our historian. Figes deliberately mixes up intolerance with political debate. Lenin mocked his political opponents, both inside and outside the party, “in crude and violent language”, states Figes.

This is completely misleading, as anyone who is acquainted with Lenin’s writings is fully aware of the fact that he deals fundamentally with ideas and arguments and not offensive language. But to emphasise his point, our professor has sought out Lenin’s terrible language: “Russian fools”, “windbags”, “stupid hens”, “silly old maids”, “blockheads”, “cretins”, “scum”, “bastards”, etc. (p. 391) Such language! It hardly compares with the language employed by Tory cabinet ministers against one another, let alone the language of the Blairites in their attacks on Jeremy Corbyn! Figes is scraping the bottom of the barrel arguing that such language is the basis for dictatorial rule. Such language would hardly cause a ripple even in a student's’ common room in Cambridge university.

The idea that the life of the Bolshevik Party was undemocratic is patently untrue. Contradicting himself, Figes is forced to admit later on that:

“The idea that the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was a monolithic organisation tightly controlled by Lenin is a myth – a myth which used to be propagated by the Soviet establishment, and one which is still believed (for quite different motives) by right-wing historians in the West.” (p. 392)

If so, then why repeat this myth?

In fact, the Bolshevik Party was extremely democratic and with a lively internal life. It enjoyed a degree of freedom that caused the historian E.H. Carr to remark that such has rarely been equalled by any other party in the world. Under Lenin, the party’s factions could speak out without fear or favour, engage in heated debate, but remain comrades-in-arms. It was a school of hard knocks, but nothing more. The authority of the Bolshevik leadership was not achieved by wielding the big stick. It was a political and moral authority. And this was especially the case with Lenin.

Lenin was never afraid of being in a minority, which was the case on different occasions. He was initially in a minority of one in the Party in April 1917 and had to wage a struggle for his ideas. In the most heated discussion in the party over the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, Lenin was more often than not in a minority in the Central Committee and even within the rank and file. This simply highlights how democratic the internal regime of the Bolshevik party was.

The democracy of the Bolshevik Party was destroyed later by Stalin and the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy. These bureaucrats put an end to the democracy within the state and within the party, turning it into a Stalinist monolith where all dissent was stamped out. Lenin fought against this bureaucratic degeneration with all his strength. In fact, the last fight of his political life was in a bloc with Trotsky against Stalin and the rise of party bureaucracy. His last writings were an attempt to deal with this threat of bureaucratic degeneration, which called for the removal of Stalin as general secretary. This was, however, suppressed by the Triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, after Lenin’s death.

For Figes, this is a sealed book. He maintains that Lenin’s ‘undemocratic’ method went back to the 1903 split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. But this is not an original idea, and it has been repeated again and again by opponents of the revolution, conservatives, social democrats and reformists alike. Figes states that the 1903 split occurred over the definition of a party member and Lenin’s insistence of a centralised party, as opposed to Martov who, says our professor, wanted a broad-based party.

Again, this is false. Both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were in favour of a centralised party, which was based upon the model of the successful German Social Democratic Party. A working class party working openly in a country teeming with agents provocateurs would have been quickly suppressed. It had to be a clandestine, centralised and highly disciplined party to survive, as Lenin had argued in What is to be Done? Everyone in the Russian revolutionary movement agreed with this idea initially.

The 1903 split occurred not over membership criteria, however, but over the composition of the editorial board, where Lenin wanted to replace the more inactive members. The old timers rebelled and created a stink, which lead to the split. It was only after this that the Mensheviks came out against Lenin’s “centralism”. But all Lenin wanted to do was to professionalise the party, nothing more. Nevertheless, it is true to say that the split over the composition of the editorial board was an anticipation of future political differences.

Was it a coup d’etat?

Among the many other things, Figes cannot resist raising the hoary old chestnut of ‘German Gold’. This is used to imply that Lenin was a German agent and a tool of the Kaiser. These lies were first raised by the monarchists and Allied imperialists, starting with Lord Robert Cecil, and were then used to launch a witch-hunt against the Bolsheviks in July 1917, which forced Lenin into hiding. Figes here once again scrapes the bottom of the barrel. “There is no doubt that the Germans had financed the Bolshevik Party – the Provisional Government had known that since April,” states Figes, without a shred of evidence. “The actual amount of German finance was not very great”, he adds, leaving the reader with the impression that he has the facts on these mythical amounts, but unfortunately he cannot supply us with any concrete figures or sources for what he states.

When Figes repeats the old nonsense that the Bolshevik Revolution was a ‘coup d’état’, carried out by a small conspiratorial group behind the backs of the masses, the implication is that the insurrection had no popular support. But this is certainly not the case. The revolution was very popular and was fully supported by the Soviets, which in turn had the overwhelming support of the masses. The reason why there was a relatively small number engaged in the actual insurrection and arrest of the old government was that there was very little opposition. Nobody – not a single regiment – was prepared to defend the Provisional Government. The revolution met no resistance, which explains why there were only five known deaths in Petrograd. It was a peaceful revolution. It was a political rather than a military achievement. In fact, it wasn’t force of arms, but Trotsky’s powerful speeches that won over first the garrison and then the Motor-Cycle Battalion at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

“We cannot give orders to fight to the last man or the last drop of blood”, said Maliantovich, the minister of Justice, “because in this hour we may possibly be defending no one but ourselves.” The word “possibly” was superfluous. (Quoted by Liebman, The Russian Revolution, p.269). A left Menshevik, Sukhanov, states:

“To call it [the October Revolution] a military conspiracy rather than a national uprising is utterly absurd since the [Bolshevik] Party was already the de facto power in the land, and since it enjoyed the support of the enormous majority of people.” (ibid, p.286)

Sukhanov, who was no friend of the Bolsheviks, underlined the point:

“In actual fact the overturn was accomplished the moment the Petersburg garrison acknowledged the Soviet as its supreme authority and the Military Revolutionary Committee as its direct command. Such a decision, as we know, was made at the meeting of the garrison representatives on October 21st. But in the unprecedented setting this act may said to have had an abstract character. No one took it for a coup d’etat.

“And no wonder. The decision, after all, did not really change the situation: even earlier the Government had had no real power or authority. The real power in the capital had already been in the hands of the Bolsheviks of the Petersburg Soviet long before…” (Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, p.587)

L’Entente, a conservative French paper published in Petrograd, said much the same on 2 November 1917:

“To call it a government of conspirators is quite wrong… No, there is no conspiracy; on the contrary, quite boldly, without mincing their words, without disguising their intentions, they have stepped up their agitation, intensified their propaganda, in the factories, in the barracks, at the front, in the countryside, everywhere, going so far as to proclaim in advance the precise day on which they will take up arms, the day on which they will seize power.” (Quoted in Liebman, The Russian Revolution, p. 286)

Figes also falsely asserts that Lenin was only interested in cynically controlling the mass movement:

“No doubt Lenin viewed all these movements [the surge in local soviet rule as well as workers’ control] as a means to destroy the old political system and thus clear the way for the establishment of his own party’s dictatorship.”

He adds: “there is of course no proof of this…” In other words, it was just made up. He then says:

“It is hard to swallow the notion, which some historians on the Left have favoured, that Lenin was a libertarian at heart and encouraged all these localised forms of power in order to construct a new decentralised state, as set out in the State and Revolution; a plan which was only later blown off course by the centralised demands of the Civil War.” (Figes, p. 503)

Yes, hard to swallow by those who have their own agenda! The truth tends to stick in Orlando Figes’ throat like a fishbone, but this was Lenin’s position. He favoured the maximum initiative from below:

“We need not only representation along democratic lines, but the building of the entire state administration from the bottom up by the masses themselves, their effective participation in all of life’s steps, their active role in the administration. Replacement of the old organs of oppression…not by ‘introducing’ it from above, but by raising the vast mass of proletarians and semi-proletarians to the art of state administration, to the use of the whole state power.” (LCW, vol.24, p. 181)

Lenin put forward measures to begin the revolution: namely, rule by the Soviets, election of all officials, with the immediate right of recall; all representatives and officials to be on no more than skilled workers’ wages; no standing army, but a workers’ militia; all offices of state to be rotated for when “everyone is a bureaucrat, no one is a bureaucrat”. In spite of what Figes tries to claim, it was the Civil War that forced the Bolsheviks to shelve these measures and concentrate everything on self-defence and the survival of the nascent workers’ state.

Lenin’s “monstrous mistake”

Our professor finally ends his book by demonstrating his ignorance, by suggesting that Lenin on his deathbed was tormented with the fear that the Revolution had “turned out to be a monstrous mistake”!

“It was as if he acknowledged [in his last writings], perhaps only to himself that the Mensheviks had been right, that Russia was not ready for socialism…” (Figes, pp. 797-98)

What utter nonsense! Lenin’s last writings were about safeguarding the Revolution and combating the rise of bureaucracy, nothing more, nothing less. Lenin had never entertained the idea that backward, semi-feudal Russia was ripe for socialism. However, Lenin believed, along with Trotsky, that the Russian revolution would be the beginning of the world revolution. Only with the help of several advanced countries would Russia be able to move towards socialism. In other words, the fate of the Russian Revolution was tied to the fate of the world revolution. That is why they set up the Communist International in 1919 to promote this aim.

Women of the Red Army Public DomainLenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks - Photo: Public Domain

Behind his so-called ‘objectivity’, Orlando Figes cannot hide his hated for the Revolution. From the comfort of his Birkbeck College study, our professor asserts that “the experiment went horribly wrong…because their ideals were themselves impossible.” (Figes, p. 823) It is of no surprise that a bourgeois academic should consider socialism an impossible utopia and that the domination of the market economy and the rule of the bankers are the only things possible.

But Figes is also aware that not all is well with bourgeois society. Alas, he mourns:

“The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest.”

And in this he is absolutely correct. He admits that there can be a revival of Communism:

“As long as the mass of the ordinary people remain alienated from the political system and feel themselves excluded from the benefits of the emergent capitalism.” (Figes, p. 824)

He repeats this warning in his new Introduction:

“The recent rise in populist mass movements across Europe should remind us that revolutions can erupt unexpectedly: they are never far away.”

Our champion of capitalism, when he first published his book, was reduced to pleading from his ivory tower:

“As we enter the twenty-first century we must try to strengthen our democracy, both as a source of freedom and of social justice, lest the disadvantaged and the disillusioned reject it again.” (Figes, p. 824)

Well, more than 20 years have passed since this appeal and his ‘people’s tragedy’ opus was published. Since then a new epoch has opened up. But not the one that Figes had hoped for, instead, an epoch of capitalist crisis and upheaval, where millions have become disenchanted with his beloved market economy. Subversive anti-capitalist ideas are being revived among the new generation, even in Russia, where after 1991 the counter-revolution triumphed, as the following extracts from interviews carried out in Russia demonstrate:

“In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of communism. Not a single one of my friends were communists. For us, communism was inextricably linked with Terror, the Gulag. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has lots of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Manifesto of the Communist Party…Marxism is legal again, a trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [Despairingly.] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.” (…)

“Everyone’s talking about revolution, about how Rublevka’s growing vacant [unofficial name for prestigious residential area in suburbs of Moscow]…The rich are fleeing abroad and taking their capital with them. They’re shuttering their palaces, ‘For Sale’ signs are everywhere you look…”

“I believe in revolution…Revolution is long, hard work. In 1905, the first Russian revolution ended in failure and defeat. But twelve years later, in 1917, it took off so forcefully that it shattered the Tsarist regime to smithereens. We’re going to have our own revolution!” (Quoted in Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich)

We have entered a period of class struggle, wars, revolution and counter-revolution. As night follows day, the basis for the re-emergence of the ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and a new October Revolution is being prepared, which in turn will lay the basis for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of world socialism.

The academic apologists of capitalism can write what they like, but they cannot hold back the tide of history. Orlando Figes’ ‘people’s tragedy’ represents nothing more than the desperate gasps of liberalism, overshadowed by the terminal decline of capitalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating, but the collapse of capitalism will be even more earth shattering.