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Russian Revolution – book reviews

This week saw not only International Women's Day on March 8th, but also its connection to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which celebrates its 100th anniversary. One hundred years ago, women in the cold on the bread lines began protests and riots that led to the overthrow of the 300 year Romanov monarchy. Now, before history-phobia sets in, remember that the events that those women initiated, along with the larger revolution which was initiated, affected hundreds of millions of people and have huge lessons for revolutionaries of today. Those events show as much about what shouldn't be done as what could be done to live on this planet in a peaceful, creative, fulfilling, sustainable way.

Here are some short reviews of books that are relevant to exploring those events which still resonate today. The first is by an overt marxist (Murphy), the second by an academic who is more critical and presents a more realistic view (Pirani). The next group of authors are anarchists, the first a participant in the revolution (Makhno), the other an historian with a cultural background in the area he writes about (Skirda) and the third by an anarchist/libertarian-socialist/councilist and neurologist, (Brinton), should have been read and adsorbed by Murphy, and even Pirani.

Kevin Murphy's Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow metal factory has many fine features, including using recently opened Russian archival material, and attempting to bring women into the revolutionary story. One of the strongest features of the book is in bringing the reader into many of the struggles and arguments on the factory floor during the revolutionary period and the 1920s to early 1930s. Like the next book reviewed, by Pirani, this is a marvelous window into the past, and includes aspects of the social life of the workers and bureaucrats as well as into the factory floor meetings. However, Murphy's main theme is to show how the life of workers was so much better during the era when Trotsky was around as compared to Stalin's rule. What he does not do is recognise how the repression of the Russian people started with the beginning of Bolshevik rule, and certainly may have accelerated under Stalin, but Trotsky, Lenin and the rest were just as complicit in the silencing dissent. Stalin merely built his machine on the foundations of the previous rulers. Much of evidence that the author presents is based on the Bolshevik/Communist Party's meeting minutes, thus a biased account is inevitable. Murhpy just seems sour that Stalin gained the crown instead of Trotsky: there is no evidence to say that Trotsky would have behaved any better, and much to say the opposite. On a positive note, the attempt to look at what was happening 'on the factory floor' is a bonus. Just keep your eyes open as you walk with the author, or you may trip over a litter of 'the party directed' and the 'the party committee expelled x' – accepting the party records as an almost solely valid account of worker reality leaves me with wanting a fuller, more accurate account.

Simon Pirani's The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet workers and the new communist elite is along similar lines as Kevin Murphy's book, reviewed above, however it is a vast improvement. The main strength is in not having a seemingly ulterior motive, an inherent bias that clouds the narrative. Pirani does take us onto the factory floor, but uses a wider range of evidence and has a far more refined analytical capacity. Here we read an honest attempt to examine the relationship between the Bolshevik/Communist Party and the working class in the factories, not merely examine the arguments between one set of authoritarians within the Party and other sets of would-be bosses, each set wanting to take over the reigns of power via that very same Party. While Pirani uses similar archival material from Party and Secret Police records, his aim is to find out why and how the growing bureaucratic machine succeeded in destroying worker's power, democratic worker decision-making structures, and the increasing terror used to maintain control over the population, although focusing on this process in the working class factories and districts. Given the focus on the period 1920-1924, the author misses analysing the previous period, 1917-1920, when the foundations for the revolutionary retreat began and the tactics used to repress dissent within the Party were formulated to repress those revolutionaries outside the Party. Good book, though.

Nestor Makhno wrote an autobiography, now published in English in three volumes by Black Cat Press in Canada, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Under the Blows of the Counterrevolution (April-June 1918), and The Ukrainian Revolution. These books tell the story of Makhno, a peasant/proletarian's role in building a huge voluntary army in 1917 to fight the invading armies after Lenin ceded the Ukraine to the German & Austro Hungarians in order to end Russia's involvement in World War One. The Ukrainians didn't like the deal and Makhno, the former factory worker, with a small band of supporters, took up a guerilla campaign to free the predominantly agricultural region from the new oppressors. Not only was it a struggle against invaders, but also a fight to establish a revolutionary society that was based on anarchist principles. Within a few months a large area was liberated and new social systems developed by the peasants on the land and the workers in the towns. This is an exciting account of the ups and downs of four years of struggle, not only against foreign invaders, but also against local would-be rulers who wanted to crush the Ukrainian Revolution. Well worth reading this original history.

Alexandre Skirda has written an authoritative account of the Makhnovist movement during the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921. In one book, this historian has used more recently available material, as well as primary sources, such as Makhno's autobiography and those of others in the Makhno Insurrectionary Army. Skirda examines not only the brilliant military tactics of Makhno and the strategists who fought along side him, but the politics and the revolutionary principles they fought for and the revolutionary structures that were put in place, not only among the anarchist troops, but also by the Ukrainian people that had been liberated. Often missed is that the Makhnovists fought some of the greatest and last of the world's cavalry battles – against the invading Austro-Hungarian and German armies, the reactionary White Russian armies, and finally the Bolshevik troops. Stirring stuff, an exciting and fast paced read.

Maurice Brinton (aka Chris Pallis) wrote The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The state and counter-revolution in 1970, but don't let that date put you off, as it hasn't really been surpassed for sharp critical analysis of the facts that happened on the factory floor during the Russian Revolution. Importantly, he firstly untangles the notion of 'workers' control' and notes that many political tendencies have trumpeted that as a slogan, from social democrats, Trotskyists, libertarian Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists. But what do they mean, and what does the concept sensibly mean at all. If the Bolsheviks said that they had installed workers control in, say, 1918, when they began dismantling the original Factory Committees that workers themselves build, and replaced them with Party controlled 'factory committees', is that the same idea? Can it be the same beast? Can it lead to the same sort of worker-controlled decision making? And ultimately, the same sort of society? Crucial questions, and ones that we still need to consider, mull over, argue around and come to conclusions about. A must read for any revolutionary, or aspiring change agent in the current times.

The Russian Revolution may have begun 100 years ago, but the challenges that it posed, not only to the monarchy of the time, to the growing capitalism, but to authoritarianism of any sort, and are as relevant today as they were then.

Book reviews: Durruti, Utopia, Workers' Control, and The Death Ship

 

The Man Who Killed Durruti, by Pedro de Paz

Why worry about an man who died in November 1936, or about the man who killed him? Perhaps the more important question is 'who is Durruti and why be concerned about him?'. In this intriguing book both of the questions are addressed in two parts. The first is an investigative historical novel about the death of Buenaventura Durruti, in the form of a detective novel that leads to a conclusion about his killer. This section of the book won the 2003 Spanish Jose Saramago International Short Novel Award. The second part is a more straight historical account of Durruti, his actions and ideas, during the Spanish Revolution, and is by Stuart Christie. This second part covers more about Durruti as a person, a militant anarchist worker, an anarchist militia leader, and, overall, a partisan of the Spanish people with an internationalist vision. His death was a turning point in the Spanish Revolution and one of the events that lead to the defeat of the revolution. Half a million people turned out for his funeral in Barcelona, a tribute to the place he held in people's hearts.

 

The Anthropology of Utiopia: Essays on Social Ecology and Community Development, by Dan Chodorkoff

This is an interesting book which is a collection of essays that have been printed in various places over the years. What brings them together is a series of important themes: an exposition of the work and ideas of Murray Bookchin, examples of how some of Bookchin's ideas have already (and can be now and in the future) be put into practice, the importance of action to (re-) build community as part of the long term revolutionary project and a defense of Bookchin against the poorly thought-out ideological assaults of his post-modern/'post-anarchist' attackers. All this is wrapped in a major theme of looking at ourselves anthropologically. The parts that I liked the most were about Chodorkoff's and a participant and activist in the Lower East Side of New York, in helping to build community among poor Puerto Ricans in what was then a desolate part of New York. Also, how an academic can support and be a part of change, although admittedly he did this when in the Institute for Social Ecology - a radical/anarchist institute if ever there was one. So many lessons to learn, both positive and challenging, that I've got notes scribbled all over the copy that I read. Well worth getting into.

 

Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini

This book is so inspiring and so annoying in so many ways! The various authors come from widely different backgrounds in terms of work, geographic and  cultural location, and ideology. The best aspect is that many examples of attempts at workers' control are covered, from all over the world, although with a less than needed entries from non-European (and its offshoots) areas. So it's a rollikin' read going from workers' revolt to insurrectionary event to factory takeover, and is enjoyable if you don't look too closely into the ideological limitations and biases of many of the authors. So many are just stuck in the nonsense of marxist apologia, here is one example from a look at Russia, 1917-1920: "Some anarchist called for the takeover of factories, but a Bolshevik delegate replied: "control is not yet socialism, nor even taking of production into our hands....Having taken power into our hands, we should direct capitalism along a path such that it will outlive itself..." But no where, in this chapter, in a book about Workers' Control, is there the obvious critique of this marxist nonsense: if marxism is about 'directing capitalism' then it is not revolutionary, and certainly not about workers' control. One look at Simon Pirani's book The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet Workers and the new Communist Elite, should dispel the illusions that some of these authors have. So, if a reader can keep the rose coloured glasses off, and look critically at its limitations, then the book is a good read.

 

The Death Ship, by B. Traven

Traven, not his real name (which was possibly Ret Marut) was a mystery man who shunned fame and notoriety. He always insisted that his work should stand alone and be judged for what it was worth. This novel, his first after escape from his activities during the post WW1 Bavarian German Revolution of 1919, was probably a part biography of his experiences in the deep and dark holds of cargo ships. While the story itself is a great read, like all his other novels, the politics underlying the narrative is not hidden, but not always explicit. He attacked rampant authoritarianism in the form of the state, the boss, the military, religion, and any other of its manifestations that came across his path, or the paths that developed in his stories. Having read it 30 years ago and again recently, I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and the pace of the action, while giving cause and pause for thinking of the meanings within. An easy read, but a provocative and stimulating one. Am now looking forward to re-reading The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which was made into a great film with Humphrey Bogart.

 

Some summer reading and thinking

Summer holidays called for a little light reading and thinking. I've recently finished my tenth read of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Crazy you might think, but I find it endlessly fascinating for the global craft-work, deep thought, and fine word-smithing that forms the composition of this exceptional book - the best utopian classic of the C20th - maybe of all time. The book contrasts two societies, one on Urras 'Earth' and one on Anarres, its habitable moon.

Four short book reviews