Revolutions Look Different According to Authoritarian or Democratic Conditions

The Russian Revolution led to revolutionary upheaval in countries far beyond Russia. Looking at Russia’s imperial borderlands like Finland suggests that socialist struggle can look wildly different in autocratic versus parliamentary conditions.

Finnish Red Guards during the 1918 Finnish Civil War, provoked by the Finnish Social Democrats’ attempt to carry out a revolution. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the history of Russian and Soviet labor and Social Democracy, once a subject of prodigious academic research, fell into a memory hole, as historians turned toward other topics. An engaged scholar and activist, Eric Blanc has not only revived exploration of a neglected subject but delved deeply into the history of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and widened his lens to include the too often overlooked revolutionary Marxists of the borderlands of the tsarist empire.

Blanc writes simultaneously sympathetically to the aims and aspirations of the revolutionary socialists but critically as well — which, from a Marxist perspective, following in the tradition of the founder of that approach, ought to be the essential methodology of empirical and theoretical investigations. Revolutionary socialist movements were powerful, even dominant, emancipatory efforts in the non-Russian peripheries. In Georgia, Finland, Latvia, Poland, and elsewhere, they were the national liberation movements of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

As a historical sociologist, Blanc uses the natural experiment provided by the diversity of the tsarist political structure — in which the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland allowed a legal labor movement and elections, a situation starkly different from the repression of independent politics in the rest of the empire — to argue that “successful insurrectionary movements [like the Bolsheviks] generally only arise under conditions of authoritarianism,” while “anti-capitalist rupture under parliamentary conditions [as in Finland] requires the prior election of a workers’ party to the state’s democratic institutions.”

He then contends that the usual view that parliamentarianism inevitably leads to socialist moderation is belied by the experience of the Finnish Social Democrats, who became more militant after the revolution of 1905. His book thus advances beyond the usual Russocentrism and credence in Bolshevik exceptionalism evident in much of earlier scholarship and uses the comparative cases of borderland socialists to explain strategic choices, as well as victory and defeat in insurrectionary moments.

Superbly equipped with linguistic skills in eight languages and dedicated to reading in archival and published sources, Blanc brings a passion and energy that enables him to mine diligently the documentary evidence for his exhaustive exploration of the prerevolutionary workers’ movements in Russia. In line with work by Lars Lih and Erik van Ree, he connects the politics of Tsarist Russia’s Social Democrats to Karl Kautsky, who he claims has been caricatured in Western liberal, and even Marxist, accounts as a reformist rather than revolutionary.

Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt Program was a foundational text, the window into Marxism for Latvian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and other young activists. In parliamentary regimes, socialists could exploit the opportunity to build a mass workers’ party and work through available institutions and, as occurred in Germany, win large representations, even a majority, in the legislature in order to be ready for the revolutionary rupture with capitalism.

Such a road to power did not exist in Russia proper. But it did in Finland, where the Social Democrats implemented Kautsky’s strategy. As Blanc puts it, “Both Kautsky and his peers under Tsarism insisted that Marxism was a method, not a dogma; tactics and strategy, therefore, always had to be based on a hard-nosed appraisal of a concrete situation.” Until the German Social Democrat appeared to take an equivocal position on his country’s entry into the Great War, Vladimir Lenin considered Kautsky the epitome of Marxist orthodoxy, after which he referred to him as a “renegade” who once had been a Marxist.

Basing his analysis in the social context of late tsarism rather than giving us a simple intellectual history, Blanc contends that it was not Kautsky’s moderation but the entrenched bureaucracy of the SPD that determined its accommodation to the imperial regime in Germany. In Russia, on the other hand, instead of the integrative pressures of bourgeois democracy to work with liberals and the middle classes, autocracy’s erasure of alternative political possibilities and the absence of political outlets and solidified labor organizations led socialist parties to adopt intransigent positions in relation to the regime. There was no other game in town. “At the turn of the century, political nationalism was extremely weak, Russian populism [peasant-oriented socialism] had virtually collapsed, and strong liberal-democratic currents were absent,” he writes.

While Bolsheviks maintained their antipathy to collaborating with the liberals, Mensheviks, Georgian and Ukrainian SDs, and more moderate Marxists after the failure of the 1905 revolution sought alliances with liberals and even, in some cases, with nationalists. This was the great strategic divide that would lead into the final fatal schism in 1917.

Borderland Socialism

The Finnish Social Democrats were in a unique position, given Finland’s autonomy within the empire and the relative freedom that they enjoyed. The Finnish Marxists had their share of conciliationists and intransigents but generally tended toward party unity rather than schism and often sought cooperation with other parties within Finland. Blanc maintains that after 1905, the party grew more militant.

While that is certainly true of important elements within Finnish Social Democracy, most historians of the movement, and Blanc’s own evidence, demonstrate that relative moderation characterized the party well into 1917. This posture conforms with Blanc’s principal argument that where parliamentarianism was possible, socialist parties tended to be more moderate, while in states where such institutions and possibilities for open organization did not exist, as in Russia proper, socialist parties were more militantly revolutionary. In my view, he overestimates the radicalism of the Finnish Social Democrats, who were deeply divided right up to their fateful (and fatal) decision in January 1918 to make an armed bid for power.

The first Marxist party in the empire, founded in 1882, was the Polish “Proletariat” Party, about which Norman Naimark produced a groundbreaking and comprehensive monograph in 1979. Jewish parties organized before the Russian and most others, and by 1905 significant Marxist parties worked among Latvians, Finns, Georgians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, and others. Muslims were late comers but joined other parties or set up committees and organizations like Hummet, founded by Caucasian Muslims.

The non-Russian parties, like Rosa Luxemburg’s Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPIL) and the Jewish Bund, were critical of Lenin’s notion of a centralized political party, and most non-Russian socialists did not accept his idea of a postrevolutionary Russian state with only regional rather than national cultural autonomy. Except for the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) of Józef Piłsudski and a few small parties, they were not for separation from Russia but wanted a federal structure that recognized ethnic nationality.

Only in January 1918, at a moment when Russia was splintering into separatist states, did Lenin come around and accept both territorial national cultural autonomy and federalism as the basis for the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and, later, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Still, Bolsheviks were attractive to radical non-Russians, given Lenin’s uncompromising support for national self-determination to the point of separation and his party’s stance in 1917 as “the empire-wide political current most supportive of the demands of dominated national groups.”

Proletarian Hegemony

Blanc’s touchstone for understanding revolutionary social democracy in Russia is the evolving strategy of proletarian hegemony — that is, the argument that, in the absence of a powerful liberal bourgeoisie in Tsarist Russia, the working class would have to exercise leadership in the expected bourgeois democratic revolution. This strategy was accepted by almost all Marxist leaders in Russia up to the winter of 1905, when the defeat of the December insurrection in Moscow led Mensheviks and others to contend that militance had led to the defection of the bourgeois liberals and that Social Democrats must moderate their tactics and seek an alliance with them.

Blanc shows that not only the Russian but the Georgian Mensheviks, along with the Jewish Bund, the PPS-Revolutionary Faction, the Ukrainian USDRP, to an extent, and other peripheral parties adopted this more moderate stance — to the chagrin of Lenin, who was appalled by class collaboration and banked on the peasantry instead of the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks were joined in their stance by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (LSDSP), the SDKPIL, the PPS-Left, and many of the Finnish Social Democrats.

A distinction between the practice of historical sociologists and that of some overly empirical historians appears to be that the former tends to see the forest while the latter often gets lost in the trees. But heeding Marx’s formulation of the agency versus structure problem — “Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” — Blanc’s analyses combine both structural and actor-centered factors.

“The divergent trajectories of socialist organizations across the empire after 1905,” he writes, “are hard to explain without taking into account the political choices made by party leaders, especially following the first Russian Revolution’s defeat.” Once those choices of strategy were made, however, they remained in place well into the next revolution and determined which side of the barricades a party would find itself during and after October 1917. As Blanc even more pointedly asserts:

The result of the revolutionary struggle was by no means preordained by the social structure. Deep social crisis, state collapse, and labour insurgency were necessary but insufficient conditions for anti-capitalist rupture in imperial Russia. At least one other factor was needed: socialist parties that were sufficiently influential, radical, and tactically flexible to help the working-class majority effectively unite to break with capitalist rule.

Bolsheviks in the two Russian capitals, Petrograd and Moscow, proved to be “sufficiently influential, radical, and tactically flexible” to exploit the deep social divisions that widened through 1917 to gain vital support among urban workers and soldiers to take and hold power. Blanc’s focus is so sharply on the workers that he misses discussing at all the important role of the soldiers, men with guns, without which the Bolsheviks could never have taken power. Both February and the October Revolution were worker and soldier revolutions, and it is regrettable that Blanc notes in his bibliography only Allan Wildman’s first book on the origins of Russian Social Democracy but neglects to mention his magisterial and indispensable two volumes on the soldiers in 1917.

Blanc is very critical of the existing scholarship on Russian Social Democracy, finding fault with many who have made significant contributions to the literature. His aim is to provide socialists in the present and future with possible strategies for making the needed rupture with capitalism.

“The main reason,” he says,

why there has never been a socialist revolution in an industrial democracy is not that socialists have lacked resolve, patience, radical leaders, or grand strategies. Capitalism has survived primarily because the power of employers, combined with the intractable strategic dilemmas facing leftists under capitalist democracies, makes winning socialism very difficult. . . .  Workers, above all, need to dramatically scale up their organised power.

While he shows that Marxists often differ on strategies, Blanc identifies the correct strategy with what he labels “orthodox Marxism” — that is, the position of Kautsky, which expounded flexibility while always keeping the need for revolution in mind. The Bolsheviks got it right by sticking to a strategy of working-class hegemony, that is, rejecting collaboration with liberals and the bourgeoisie. Mensheviks and other “class collaborationists” broke with the Social Democratic strategy that rejected alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie after 1905. Moreover, moderate socialists generally turned inward and neglected the importance of the international and anti-colonial revolution that Kautsky emphasized.

Blanc holds up Finland as an example where parliamentarianism spawned a radical, not an accommodationist, socialist movement, a “long-overlooked example” of “the potential viability of a non-insurrectionary strategy for building working-class power and moving toward anti-capitalist rupture.” But in my research and reading, much of his story, as well as the research of others, indicates that moderation and a sincere commitment to parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage had such an extraordinarily powerful hold in a divided party that it prevented the radicals from instigating a revolution until January 1918, which turned out to be too late for success.

The structuralist part of his argument, that is, “the causal importance of governmental regimes,” appears to be confirmed in Finland: authoritarian conditions lead to worker and socialist intransigence, as in Russia proper, but “the presence of democratic freedoms and parliamentary institutions” encourages moderation, “union organising and electoral politics — i.e., ‘the democratic class struggle.’” What is murkier is how strong the militancy of the Finnish party was after 1905. Here, the historical sociologist may have lost his way in the forest, not noticing that there are many different trees in quite distinct groves that require more specific consideration of the variety of circumstances in which socialists operate.

Blanc minimizes the role of Lenin in 1917 but forcefully demonstrates that the major concern of the Bolsheviks was for the party and the workers to carry out the democratic — not socialist — revolution as far as possible, something that was impossible in coalition with the bourgeoisie. As Lenin wrote in October 1915 and on other occasions, the “task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe.” The fatal mistake of the moderate socialists in Petrograd was to maintain their ties to the liberals long after that alliance had become toxic.

In addition to extracting Russia from the world war, the soviet seizure of power in October was meant to carry on the democratic revolution without the bourgeoisie, not to move to socialism immediately in Russia but to stimulate revolution abroad that would make possible transition beyond capitalism.

“And as the year dragged on,” Blanc sums up:

Establishing soviet power increasingly came to be seen as a necessary step to defend political freedom and the revolutionary process against the Right. In this sense, Russia’s revolution had more in common with Finland — and traditional Marxist orthodox strategy — than has usually been assumed.

For the workers, October was a defense of February.

Costly Mistakes

Reading this dense, detailed, compelling analysis of Russian Social Democracy was a heady reintroduction to a subject with which I have spent much of my career. While I have some reservations about some of Blanc’s conclusions, I learned a great deal and was impressed by his erudition, his commitment to socialist possibilities, and his reassessment of some of the crustier readings of this history.

He ends by lamenting the Bolsheviks’ post-October reassessment of 1917 as a socialist rather than democratic revolution, the Comintern’s rejection of parliamentarianism, and the ebbing of the revolutionary wave after the world war that led to “the revolution’s defeat abroad and its degeneration in Russia.” Turning his gaze back to the imperial borderlands of Russia, Blanc shows that international revolution stopped short when radical regimes in Baku, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia, Finland, and elsewhere lost to liberals and conservatives backed by foreign interventionists.

In Poland and Ukraine, the most decisive regions for carrying the revolution westward, not only foreign forces but intransigence and precipitous actions by ultraleftists undermined the export of Bolshevism. The Red Army secured Ukraine for the Soviets but was decisively defeated at the gates of Warsaw.

In an epilogue, he concludes that an opportunity for socialist victory existed in Europe after the war, but

at this critical historical juncture, while a majority of workers attempted to use parliaments to push through radical transformation, Marxist anti-electoralism and denunciatory approaches toward political rivals led to missed opportunities to winning over moderate workers, premature clashes with the state, and repeated political defeats.

Leninists and Communist parties mistakenly gave up on winning in parliamentary elections. As a Marxist would suppose, “Social structure sets the parameters for political conflicts, but it does not directly determine their results.” The agency of parties, collective and individual actors, and their strategic choices must also be accounted for. Costly mistakes can be made.

Adapted from Historical Materialism.

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Ronald Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago, and Senior Researcher at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He is the author of The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972), among many other works.

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