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Lavallée’s Review of Friends of Aron Baron, eds. Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution

6 October

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H-Socialisms (October, 2019)

Friends of Aron Baron, eds. Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution. Chico: AK Press, 2017. 250 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84935-296-3.

Reviewed by Marie-Josée Lavallée (Université de Montréal/ Université du Québec à Montréal)
Published on H-Socialisms (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Leninism and the Counterrevolution

Historical anniversaries are often marked by an outpouring of publications that claim to offer new perspectives on the celebrated event, but too often they simply repackage received ideas and established knowledge. Although the centenary of the October Revolution did not escape this trend, the reopening of historiographical debates on communism’s legacy has helped shatter questionable ideas that still firmly surround this topic, such as the equation between communism and totalitarianism. Unfortunately, Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution reaffirms the latter. Nonetheless, the book contributes to the growing number of studies that rehabilitate revolution as a legitimate topic of discussion. Revolution, according to the editors, is far from outdated and must be thought about anew and placed again on the agenda of political action, even if the October Revolution seems to have “both opened and demolished” the very possibilities it promised (p. 3).

Bloodstained, as its title boldly signals, reexamines the Bolshevik revolution and the developments that emanated from it. The editors intend for the essays to provide “a socialist or anarchist history” (p. 4), written, as far as possible, from the perspective of the masses and “not from that of their self-declared representatives” (p. 3). This effort is not entirely successful. The testimonies gathered in the volume—often neglected in scholarship—were mostly written between the 1920s and 1940s. In this respect, Bloodstained differs from other commemorative publications released in 2017-18. The essays trace a “living history” of the events as they appeared before contemporary witnesses and disclose how people anticipated their outcome. Most of the essayists were not part of the masses but intellectuals or activists who observed the events through the lens of their own ideological agendas. Moreover, the choice of more recent texts is questionable. Cornelius Castoriadis has long written about socialism and revolution; however, he did not have firsthand experience of the events. Why, then, did the editors prefer his 1964 text, “The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy,” over numerous other retrospective, and similarly, critical accounts? Indeed, Castoriadis’ condemnation of Bolshevism, as well as Ian McKay’s reassessment of Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917), a fifty-page chapter written especially for this volume, serves well the anti-Bolshevik perspective of the collection. This review will focus specifically on the 1920s-40s essays since they are also historical testimonies.

This collection is dedicated to Aron Baron, an anarchist executed by the Bolshevik regime in 1937, and in general, anarchistic perspectives on these events are well represented in Bloodstained. Within the essays (including the essays by council communists), antistate and anti-Bolshevik stances predominate. The October Revolution is depicted as the seizure and suffocation of popular revolutionary organs and structures like the soviets, factory committees, and cooperatives by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They are accused, more specifically, of having rebuilt the recently smashed state as soon as they took power. The editors maintain that “the masses up as one,” as “there [was] no power that c[ould] oppose them” (p. 4). This picture is no less idealistic than triumphalist accounts of the revolution and its aftermath. This account of the Bolsheviks’ early capture of a revolution, also narrated in Paul Mattick’s “Bolshevism and Stalinism” (1947), has been questioned by sympathetic political thinkers and philosophers, and by historical research on the first phase of the revolution (February–October 1917) and the civil war, the phase most cited by authors in the book.

Let’s mention only a few elements which clash with the arguments put forward in the essays. With respect to the people’s alleged leading role, insurgent groups found themselves under the guidance of the socialist parties, just as the socialist parties were often in leading positions in the soviets from the onset and gave direction to many popular uprisings in February 1917.[1] On the other hand, the Bolsheviks, once they had seized power in the name of the soviets, issued decrees sanctioning the spontaneous seizure of land owned by the gentry, the church, and the crown. The precise modalities of land redistribution and its implementation were entrusted to the communes. Decrees on workers’ control of industry aimed to push self-management beyond the level already achieved.[2] Centralization, repression of the peasantry, and the limitations placed on workers’ autonomy were the result of contextual constraints rather than carefully planned policies. There was a great deal of political improvisation, made necessary by harsh economic conditions, a tense political atmosphere, foreign intervention, factionalism, and secessions.[3] Moreover, the history of the world wars reminds us that democratic governance is often compromised during wartime. Authoritarian and centralizing trends are the rule, even in countries where liberal and democratic traditions are well rooted.

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks were blameless, but they did not implement tyrannical rule immediately. Their decision to overlook the results of the elections to the Constituent Assembly of January 1918 betrayed a willingness to suffocate other factions, but this move was not translated into immediate centralizing measures. Matters were neither already set in October 1917 nor in the following months.[4] The editors of Bloodstained agree with the standard account of these events when they state that the masses proved unable to assume power. The “seeds of failure,” they write, also “belong to the masses,” who “failed to resist at crucial moments or, when they did resist, they didn’t go far enough. They surrendered, inch by inch, the power that they had taken” (p. 4). The editors, nonetheless, overestimate the popular will for, and interest in, self-government.[5] Historical witnesses like Alexander Berkman voiced a similar account of the events. He declared in 1927 that “the path of the Russian Revolution lay in the constructive self-reliance of the masses, in the direction of no-government, of Anarchism” (p. 120).

In view of recent historical knowledge, one-sided and overtly partisan depictions of the events relying on old prejudices, like the one put forward in Bloodstained, have neither credibility nor real value to understand what went on. Indeed, the collection reads as a settling of accounts between the anarchists and other antistate advocates of the past and present on the one side, and Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and even, at times, Karl Marx and Marxism. Witnesses like Luigi Fabbri (and Ian McKay in his critique of The State and Revolution [1917]), by contrast, suggest that anarchism is the authentic heir of Marxian thought. Nonetheless, the critiques that surface throughout the essays are not wholly false, and many readers will be familiar with their broad outlines.

Rejection of the state, centralization, and institutionalization recur throughout Rudolf Rocker’s “The Soviet System or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat?” (1920). Rocker denounces the gulf between a dictatorship of the proletariat which equaled a dictatorship of the party, and a genuine soviet- or council-based system. These “two radically different,” “mutually opposed” ideas result because “the notion of dictatorship is wholly bourgeois and as such, has nothing to do with socialism” (p. 47). Rocker resorts to historical arguments to show their incompatibility. Councils were not a creation of the Russian Revolution; their historical roots were to be found in the workers’ movement of the nineteenth century. By contrast, the idea of “dictatorship is closely linked with the lust for political power, which is likewise bourgeois in its origins” (p. 51), and naturally connected with ideas about state power. Marx and Friedrich Engels, who put forward the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Communist Manifesto (1848), were heirs of “bourgeois traditions going back to the French Revolution” (p. 54). Moreover, according to Nestor Makhno’s “The Idea of Equality and the Bolsheviks” (1926), the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat revealed the Bolshevik’s contempt for equality.

Many essays suggest that had the anarchistic vision prevailed among dissident ranks, the revolution would not have taken the wrong path, a view that does not take the contextual constraints into account. A representative example is Luigi Fabbri’s “Anarchy and Scientific Communism” (1922): “If the cause of the Revolution is the cause of freedom and justice, in a practical and not in any abstract sense … the only ones still faithful today to the Russian Revolution, the revolution made by the working people of Russia, are the anarchists” (p. 40). The message the editors wish to convey cannot have been expressed more accurately. Indeed, Iain McKay, in his reading of The State and Revolution, writes that Lenin’s position “on the need for social transformation and opposition to both sides in capitalist conflicts had previously only been advocated by anarchists” (p. 62). Of course, the bulk of his essay is devoted to the demonstration that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had betrayed these aspirations. The editors, who call themselves the “Friends of Aron Baron,” want readers to believe that the anarchists knew exactly what went on. Yet, it is only in retrospect that the critiques and anticipations expressed in these papers could claim to be prescient.

Fabbri critiques Nikolai Bukharin’s pamphlet, “Anarchy and Scientific Communism” (1918). According to Fabbri, Bukharin juxtaposes a “scientific” vision of revolution to the spontaneous and rebellious impulse which animates it, to the “love of liberty” that is highly praised by anarchists (p. 14). Bukharin’s critique had been presented in Italy as “a definite account of the inconsistency and absurdity of anarchist doctrine” (cited on p. 13). Thus, a thorough deconstruction of its argument, deemed representative of the Bolshevik posture, was urgent, according to Fabbri. Without having any “true notion of anarchism,” Bukharin depicts anarchists as delinquents and criminals (p. 13). Anarchism affirms egalitarianism and freedom, whereas the Bolsheviks fostered hierarchy and subordination, referred to by Fabbri as “human teaching” rather than a “doctrine of the proletariat” (p. 16).

According to Fabbri, the Bolsheviks hold in contempt all those who did not comply with their rules. Bukharin thus describes anarchism as “a product of the ideological dissolution of the working class, the ideology of a horde of beggars,” while accusing anarchists of being accomplices of the bourgeoisie and enemies of the proletariat (p. 15). With this statement, Bukharin has denied “the heroism of so many Russian anarchists killed since 1917 at the front, weapon in hand, in the defense of their country’s revolution” (p. 18). Because of Bolshevik influence in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, “alert[ing] [the proletariat] seriously to the risks it will be running should it have the misfortune to entrust its future to these doctrinaire champions of a dictatorial communism” is, for Fabbri, an urgent task (p. 17). He compares communist and anarchist positions on key issues, such as the role of the state, centralization of production, and notions of dictatorship.

Alexander Berkman’s short essay, “A Decade of Bolshevism” (1927), examines the consolidation of the Bolshevik regime in Russia, a phase which encompassed the civil war and the New Economic Program (NEP). The NEP, adopted in April 1921, was a response to the economic and social hardships caused by the two overlapping wars (World War I and the subsequent civil war in Russia). The civil war had been accompanied by an economic and social regime referred to as “War Communism” (discussed in Ida Mett’s essay in Bloodstained). The resuming of market economy practices in some sectors was intended to foster economic revival and ease social tensions. Lenin understood that concrete conditions must be taken into account and addressed with adequate means if communism was to survive in Russia and if the country was to embark more successfully on the road to socialization.[6] This required temporary infringements of communistic principles. Berkman’s position reflects the numerous criticisms that were addressed to Lenin at the time—that is, that he had compromised by reinstituting capitalist measures. The NEP, Berkman contended, marked “the return of capitalism in 1921, which the social revolutionary work of the laboring masses of Russia had abolished in 1917!” (p. 122). Emma Goldman’s 1924 testimony (“My Disillusionment in Russia—Afterword”), also included in Bloodstained, contains a similar condemnation.

The Kronstadt rebellion, associated with the end of the civil war, is often invoked by the adversaries of the Bolshevik regime, and here too in these essays it is scrutinized intensely. “The Kronstadt Commune” (1938), by Ida Mett, in spite of a strongly partisan reading of events, is an important primary source. It contains textual quotations of proclamations, resolutions, and declarations issued at the time of the rebellion. The essay thus provides the reader with a sense of the demands raised by the sailors and of the important issues as they were formulated at the time. Mett’s text is preceded by an introduction by Maurice Briton (1967). He noted that much detail surrounding the Kronstadt rebellion was still unknown at the time Mett wrote. Her text remained virtually unknown until the 1960s, when people realized that it represented one of the rare pieces that documented the events. Mett sketched out the background to the rebellion, marked by the consequences of the civil war and War Communism and by a growing centralization and bureaucratization within Soviet society. Popular discontent was rampant, and hunger had inspired a series of mass strikes in Petrograd’s factories. The workers formulated a set of economic and political demands protesting recent developments. The working class had “reluctantly abandoned its demands for equality and for real freedom, believing them to be … difficult to achieve under wartime conditions (p. 140), but “the generation in question had not forgotten the meaning of the rights it had struggled for during the Revolution” (p. 141).

The Kronstadt rebellion was due to the sailors, who issued a list of demands after having learned of the strikes in Petrograd. They had their own grievances, resenting the imposition of increasingly hierarchical structures and disciplinary measures in the navy. The open clash with the Bolsheviks was triggered by the elections to the Kronstadt Soviet. According to the Petropavlovsk resolution, deputies were not freely chosen nor were elections held by secret ballot. A Provisional Revolutionary Committee was set up; the sailors attempted to arm sympathetic workers, isolate their own town and fortress, and implement measures of self-management and self-government. Mett wrote that “many rank and file communists decided to support the Provisional Revolutionary Committee” because “this body expressed the wishes and aspirations of the working people” (p. 161). After recounting the main events of the rebellion and its subsequent crushing, Mett denies any direct anarchist influence on the sailors. The anarchists were wrongly incriminated, even though they “defended the Kronstadt rebels” (p. 174). Mett thus confirms the anarchist partisanship that has inspired Bloodstained.

According to Otto Rühle’s “The Struggle against Bolshevism Begins with the Struggle against Bolshevism” (1939), the subsequent attempt with the NEP to make Russian communism reconnect with the ideals of 1917 was a pitiful failure. His essay reiterates the critiques already mentioned, now colored by the Nazi peril and shaped by the paradigm of totalitarianism. Interpretations of this kind were long-lived and influential. Rühle states that “whether party ‘communists’ like it or not, the fact remains that the state order and rule in Russia are indistinguishable from those in Italy and Germany” (p. 207). According to him, the Bolsheviks intended to implement socialism, but they were afraid of the soviets since they were unable to make them subservient to their will. The success of their revolution depended on the support of the workers in other countries, but it was the council movement, rather than “Bolshevik theory and practice” that won the day (p. 210). This is why, in a desperate attempt to suffocate the council movement, Lenin launched an attack against the so-named ultraleftists. Rühle’s interpretation fuels the myth that the people were the main actors during the revolution. As to the council movement, what is true of Russia is also true of Germany: most of the Räte in Germany were dominated by the socialist parties from the onset and when the councils had an opportunity to form a new government, they preferred a ruling committee composed of parliamentarians.[7]

In sum, this book does not succeed in presenting a fair historical picture of the Bolshevik’s October Revolution, its main actors, and its outcomes. Even though the criticisms of the Bolsheviks are based on source materials, they articulate partisan arguments. Nonetheless, the collection will be useful to scholars interested in examining the perceptions surrounding events in Russia between the 1920s to the 1940s. Mett’s essay on the Kronstadt Commune is of special interest because of the quotations from original documents and proclamations.


[1]. Stephen A. Smith, “The Revolutions of 1917-1918,” in The Cambridge History of Russia. Volume 3: The Twentieth-Century, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 114-15, 117-18; Rex A. Wade, “The Russia Revolution and Civil War,” in The Cambridge History of Communism. Volume 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, ed. Stephen A. Smith and Silvio Pons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 75-76, 80.

[2]. Smith, “The Revolutions of 1917-1918,” 135-36; Wade, “The Russia Revolution and Civil War,” 83-84, 87.

[3]. Smith, “The Revolutions of 1917-1918,” 139. There were secessions within the “Reds”’ ranks: the Social Revolutionary initiative in Samara in 1918 is famous; see Donald J. Raleigh, “The Russian Civil War,” in The Cambridge History of Russia. Volume 3, 144 and 147 on factions on the Reds’ side. As to the workers, the Bolshevik Party tried to implement measures to foster participatory practices in 1920. The limitations placed on worker autonomy and the worsening of their working conditions as a result of economic hardships and increased military needs started to seriously alienate them from the Bolsheviks. In an attempt to reverse this tendency, they created the Workers–Peasants Inspectorate. This initiative failed to reach this goal “because of the billiard-ball interaction of circumstances” (Raleigh, “The Russian Civil War,” 155; Wade, “The Russia Revolution and Civil War,” 90). During the last phase of the civil war, the “Green movement” of 1920-22 was a direct consequence of the party’s launching of a food procurement program (in August 1918) in the context of a serious lack of food supplies in the cities and for the army. Until then, the peasants managed their own farms. Their resistance to delivery quotas hardened the Bolshevik’s measures and methods (Raleigh, “The Russian Civil War,” 158-59).

[4]. The liberals’ and moderate socialists’ decision to continue the war fostered the already deep polarization and people’s support of the Bolsheviks from the summer of 1917. Only the Bolsheviks and the anarchists had supported workers’ control prior to the revolution (Smith, “The Revolutions of 1917-1918,” 138-39, 129). As to centralization, the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 authorized the government to centralize the political system. During the civil war, however, there many local self-constituted councils of people’s commissars that declared themselves independent republics or communes (Raleigh, “The Russian Civil War,” 152).

[5]. See, for instance, Smith, “The Revolutions of 1917-1918,” 119-21.

[6]. Wade, “The Russia Revolution and Civil War,” 92.

[7]. See, for instance, Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 140-43, 158; and Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Councils Movement (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 75-76.

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[SEE ALSO: Full text of "Bloodstained One Hundred Years Of Leninist Counterrevolution" ]


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