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The Enigma of the Russian Revolution and the Legacy of Bolshevism: Dilip Simeon

3 November 2017

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from Economic and Political Weekly, November 4, 2017 - Special Issue Russian Revolution Centenary

The Bolshevik Heritage

Our Party, like any other political party, is striving after political domination for itself. Our aim is the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat. V.I. Lenin, 1917

For what is most terrible in it (communism) is the mixture of truth and falsehood. Nikolai Berdyaev, 1931

The process of shift in meaning is never concluded, because, in history, it is never determined at the beginning what will result at the end. Karl Lowith, 1941 [1]

The Rupture

August 23, 1793 (when France’s Committee of Public Safety adopted universal conscription); and October 25, (November 7) 1917, are dates which represent the essence of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution respectively. They also mark the difference in their orientation and significance. The big difference between the French and Russian revolutions was this: the first converted civil war into national war; the second converted national war into civil war. The extreme wing of the French revolutionaries exercised power during the counter-revolutionary upsurge of the Vendee. The suppression of peasant resistance (1793-94) was coterminous with the levee-en-masse and the Jacobin dictatorship. The combination of these factors channelled the forces unleashed in 1789 into patriotic mobilisation for international war. The violence of the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, was directed at enemies within Russia, those deemed to represent the ruling class and its allies.

The Bolshevik revolution owed its very origin to the conversion of international war – imperialist war in Lenin’s words - into civil war. The outstanding features of Bolshevism were its unwavering demand for Russia’s exit from the world war; and the conviction that a Bolshevik seizure of power would herald world revolution. This stance was reflected most clearly in Lenin’s avowal of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ - the doctrine calling for Russia’s defeat on the ground that its ruling class had dragged the people into a war ‘between the biggest slave-holders for the maintenance and consolidation of slavery’. [2] Whereas nationalist militarism was the very means of survival for the Jacobins; the Bolsheviks came to power on a wave of war-weariness, calls to exit from the war, and a refusal of the patriotism that in 1914, had led so many socialists to forget their internationalist convictions and join hands with ‘their’ capitalists.

The Russian Revolution is not synonymous with the Bolshevik Revolution. The overthrow of Tsarism was not the work of the Bolshevik Party, although various socialist cadres were active during the events.
Moreover, if the assumption of power by the Second Congress of Soviets in October was unavoidable it was not destined to be pre-empted by the Bolshevik-Left SR seizure of power. [3] The changes that occurred in Russia were latent in the complex struggles between March and October 1917, foreshadowed in the years prior to the outbreak of world war, and manifest most clearly in the practice of Bolshevism in power during the civil war and after.

As the revolutionary regimes of France and Russia came to be identified with state power in a bounded area, so also did the ‘national’ element gain over the universalist, international one. In both upheavals the line dividing internal and external enemies tended to disappear. The French revolution provoked a counter-revolutionary coalition. And the civil war that broke out in Russia was joined by a eleven- member coalition including Britain, France, Japan and the USA, bent upon crushing the communist regime, which for its part proclaimed its support for insurrectionary forces in Europe and the world.

Authority and Legitimation

Thus despite their marked differences, there was a resonance between Jacobinism and Bolshevism. In fact, Lenin directly identified the Bolsheviks with the Jacobin regime. [4] To examine what this might mean, we could reflect upon the assumptions at the heart of democratic politics since 1789. The first relates to state legitimacy; the second to the paradoxical emergence of militarized, rank-ordered societies in the wake of an egalitarian movement. The revolutionary era inaugurated in 1789 carried the promise of a rationalist utopia; but soon appeared to foreshadow terror and eternal warfare. This dichotomy was rooted in the crisis of legitimacy arising out of the execution of the monarch and the challenge to the doctrine of Divine Right.

The problem of legitimation is at the heart of the major political confrontations of our time. For Lenin, it appeared to have been decisively resolved by the appearance of soviets in 1917. His utterances that year referred repeatedly to the historic destiny of these institutions. Throughout 1917, the Bolshevik slogans peace, land, bread and immediate convocation of the Constituent Assembly were combined with all power to the soviets. Yet by December the status of the soviets had become a crucial component of the Leninist argument for the denial of legitimacy to the Constituent Assembly. [5]

For their part, proponents of the Assembly were justified in placing the utmost importance to its work, because the demand for such an assembly had been the unifying slogan of the entire Russian democracy. After October 25 however, the profound political tension between soviet power and party control rapidly became evident. And this was due to Lenin’s identification of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with the untrammeled domination of his party.

The revolutionary order subsumed theological truth by a modern version of belief (ideology); and bypassed the issue of legitimacy by subjugating it to the dogma of historical ‘law’ or necessity. In the twentieth century, we enter the age of what Carl Schmitt in 1922 theorized as ‘political theology’. [6] In 1923, Schmitt claimed that ‘acclamation’ was superior to voting procedures, and that Italian fascism and Soviet Bolshevism ‘were certainly anti-liberal but not necessarily antidemocratic.’ [7] The Marxist adherents of decisionism were unperturbed by the paradox that a politics founded upon the dogma of historical necessity was shown to have depended for its success upon contingency and individual will. These two philosophical moves were of profound significance. Practically speaking, Lenin was the first successful decisionist of the twentieth century.

Two of Marx’s observations on the history of ideas are especially relevant to the world-changing events of the twentieth century. The first was his warning that materialism could end up as an elitist doctrine: ‘The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing... forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society’. [8] The second was his reference to feudal socialism in the Communist Manifesto: ‘The aristocracy took their revenge by singing lampoons on their new master, and whispering in his ears sinister prophecies of coming catastrophe. In this way arose feudal Socialism, half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future..’ [9] [ . . . ]

Bolshevism and Leninism

The notion of the Communist Party as the only legitimate vehicle of revolutionary knowledge is directly Lenin’s. Pavel Axelrod, who along with Georgi Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich was a pioneer of Russian Marxism, called this theory ‘an organizational utopia of a theocratic character.’ [10] Truth was relative to class-orientation, Marxism was the truth of History; and he, Lenin, possessed the correct understanding of Marxism. Lenin does not appear to have distinguished theory from ideology. His approach toward ‘socialist consciousness’ - which he insisted could only be introduced into the ranks of the working class from ‘outside’, was a view he shared with leading Marxists of his time. [11] However, there were distinct differences between his view and that of Kautsky and Plekhanov - the latter declared Lenin’s position to be non-Marxist.’ [12] [ . . . ]

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The Bolshevik Heritage : Dilip Simeon ( 4 Nov 2017)

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[1The head citations are from On Compromises, V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, (hereafter CW) Progress Publishers Moscow, 1974; vol 25, p 310; Nikolai Berdyaev,; The Religion of Communism; 1931, accessed October 22 2017; and Karl Lowith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: the revolution in nineteenth-century thought; Columbia University Press, New York, 1964; p. vi. Dates are cited as in the calendar in use at the time under discussion.

[22 Lenin, CW, vol 21, p 302

[3Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928; Allen Lane, London 2014; p 223

[4Can “Jacobinism” frighten the working class? Lenin, CW, vol 25, p 121

[5Alexander Rabinowitch; The Bolsheviks in Power: First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd; Indiana University Press;
Bloomington 2007; p 91

[6The terms decisionism and political theology were used in 1922 by Carl Schmitt in Political Theology: Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty; MIT Press, Cambridge/Mass; 1985. He wrote, ‘The classical representative of the decisionist type... is Thomas Hobbes. The peculiar nature of this type explains why it, and not the other type, discovered the classic formulation of the antithesis: auctoritas, non veritas facit legem;’ (authority, not truth, makes law); p. 33

[7Carl Schmitt; The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy; MIT Press; Cambridge, Mass.; 2000; p 16

[8Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach; Marx & Engels, Selected Works; vol 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973; p 13. Hereafter MESW (Emphasis added).

[9MESW vol 1; p 128-129

[10Andrzej Walicki; Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: the Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia; Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1995; p 310

[11We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without...’ Lenin, CW, vol 5, p 375

[12Walicki; Marxism and the Leap; p. 310