Restructuring the Social and Political Order: The Bolshevik Revolution in World Perspective
Although the Bolshevik Revolution was not the first of the great twentieth-century revolutions, it was the most influential. Unlike other revolutionaries, who primarily stressed national goals, the Bolsheviks followed a set of historical principles that purported to be applicable worldwide. They believed that capitalist societies emerged when middle-class interests overcame feudal societies dominated by aristocrats and monarchs. Eventually, the capitalists brought about their own destruction by exploiting the industrial workers, who then rose in rebellion. As imperialist capitalism spread across the world, revolutionary potential became global.
Although Marx had envisioned that revolutions would break out in highly industrialized states, Lenin adapted Marxist theories to Russia, a country in which the industrial working class made up only about one percent of the population. Lenin’s theory of “democratic centralism” called for a highly disciplined party to guide the working class as it imposed its “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The party and proletariat would then create a modern, and socialist, society.
In the nineteenth century, the Russian state had zealously crushed revolutions both at home and abroad. Its secret police curbed freedoms such as freedom of speech, press, association, and self-expression that were taken for granted in Western Europe or North America.
But after Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean War in the 1850s, even most reactionaries realized that Russia could not modernize without Western ideas. If serfdom were eliminated, modernized agriculture might produce the grain for export that Russia needed to buy Western products, including advanced industrial technology. In the 1860s and 1870s, the tsar abolished serfdom and other impediments to free enterprise.
By the turn of the century, Russia had become a leading exporter of grain. This enabled the tsarist regime to embark on an ambitious program of industrialization. Between 1900 and 1913, Russia doubled its industrial output. Taxes on the peasants, however, increased by 50 percent within a decade, and conditions were grim for the working class.
Greater problems came with the onset of World War I. Despite recent gains in industrial capacity, Russia proved incapable of organizing for total war. By 1917, German troops had conquered vast areas of Russia. In the spring, the tsar abdicated when troops refused to fire on food rioters. The Provisional Government, made up of liberals, tried to continue the war effort. Almost immediately, however, a “parallel government” sprang up in the form of soviets, or workers’ and soldiers’ councils, that were organized around factories and regiments.
To further undermine Russia’s war effort, the Germans transported Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, from exile in Switzerland to St. Petersburg, the Russian capital. Basing their power in the socialist-dominated soviets, the Bolsheviks determined to overthrow the Provisional Government and to carry out a real revolution. In the summer and fall of 1917, the Bolsheviks gained popular support in Russian cities and the army by promising to end the war, on whatever terms, distribute large estates to the peasants, and feed the starving cities.
This program proved so popular that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in November 1917. In March 1918, Bolshevik Russia formally quit World War I and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, surrendering huge areas of Russia’s most productive regions, along with one-third of the population. At the same time, private ownership of land was abolished. To feed the cities, Lenin sent the army to confiscate food from the peasants. Under the program of “War Communism,” banks were nationalized, and industries were merged into government-controlled trusts. Russian foreign debts were repudiated. But the Bolsheviks set out to transform society as well as the economy. Women were granted legal equality, and conditions were eased for divorce and abortion. Universal compulsory education was decreed.
The Bolsheviks carried out these measures without seeking popular consent. In time, civil war broke out. In an attempt to bring Russia back into the war and to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,” Russia’s former allies (Britain, France, Japan, and the United States) sent 100,000 troops to occupy key points on Russian soil and support the anti-Bolshevik forces. Although most foreign troops had withdrawn by 1919, the civil war continued until 1921.
The Bolsheviks won the civil war but forfeited popular support in the process, even among factory workers, soldiers, and sailors, their original support bases. To rebuild the economy and reconcile the populace to their rule, the government instituted the New Economic Policy that reestablished the free market in the agricultural and retail sectors of the economy, although not in heavy industry. Political control, however, remained as strict as ever. In 1922, the Soviet Union, as the former Russian Empire was renamed, became a federal state.
By the time Lenin died in 1924, the party was becoming a conformist, privileged bureaucracy. When necessary, the party program was implemented by force; socialist dreams of an egalitarian society free of coercion were postponed indefinitely. By the end of 1927, one leader, Stalin, had gained control of the party and state. Stalin drove many old Bolshevik leaders into retirement or exile, turning the Soviet Union into a personal dictatorship.
Stalin believed that to achieve socialism and defend the country against capitalist aggression, the Soviet Union needed to embark on a crash course of industrialization. He referred to this program as “socialism in one country,” meaning that the Soviet Union could make a socialist society without waiting for the world revolution of the proletariat. The first Five-Year Plan, beginning in 1928, followed the policy of the last two tsars: to squeeze the countryside to support industrial growth. Thus, the free-market provisions of the New Economic Policy were abolished. Supposedly, rich peasants were liquidated; family farms were abolished; and rural Russians were herded onto collective farms. Mass starvation from 1931 to 1933 was the result. Industry did grow, however, at a rate of 14 percent throughout the 1930s, at a time when much of the rest of the world was sunk in the Great Depression.
In other countries, the Soviet Union had a double image. To some, it seemed a symbol of rapid progress; to others, one of horror and repression. Whatever its image, the case of the Soviet Union proved that industrialization did not have to follow the models of Western Europe or North America.
Russia’s Bolshevik (or Communist) Revolution became the most influential revolution of the twentieth century. It was not, however, the first. By 1917, attempted revolutions had already occurred or were in progress in Iran (1905), China (1911), and Mexico (1910). But the Bolshevik Revolution was the most influential because it combined an ideology with universal claims (Marxism as opposed to nationalism) with an effective model of political organization. After World War II, Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries would lead many non-industrial societies in attempts to duplicate the developmental path of the USSR. However, the fact that these revolutions were all in large part a response to Euro-American imperialism suggests that capitalism, not communism, continued to dominate the world system.
Two poor and backward countries that did not follow the Soviet path were Mexico and India. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) never coalesced around a coherent ideology as the Russian Revolution did. The revolutionaries’ unifying motivation was nationalism and opposition to Mexico’s semi-colonial status vis-à-vis the United States. But huge differences in social status and political ideology divided the revolutionaries, who ranged from landless Native American peasants to huge estate owners. No one social group or political orientation emerged as the clear victor from the fighting, although the Mexican middle classes made the most gains. Mexico’s subordination to the United States was somewhat ameliorated. In the final analysis, however, there was no overturn of the social or economic orders.
In India, one of the leaders of the anti-colonial movement, Mohandas Gandhi, offered a more coherent alternative to the Bolsheviks’ violent, modernist revolution than Mexico’s experience. Gandhi mobilized millions of Indians for nonviolent action against British rule. He drew on traditional Hindu sources as well as Muslim and Christian sources to formulate an ethic of asceticism, self-restraint, nonviolence, and economic self-reliance. Gandhi was clearly revolutionary in that he rejected modern corporate capitalism and advocated equality for women and abolition of Hindu caste distinctions. Although India did not follow many of his prescriptions after independence (1948), his school of thought remains important worldwide. For example, the movement for African-American civil rights in the United States used his methods of nonviolent political action.
China provides the premier example of an underdeveloped and semi-colonial society that did follow the Soviet developmental model, albeit with very important modifications. The Chinese communist route to power was tortuous, involving thirty years of struggle against non-communist nationalists and a Japanese invasion (1937–1945). Mao Zedong, who ultimately emerged as the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist rebellion, revised Marx’s thinking with his belief that peasants, rather than industrial workers, could become the social base for a Communist revolution. He was more of a populist than Marx or Lenin, and he was clearly a Chinese nationalist above all. In contrast to Marx, he emphasized the importance of will and activism rather than economic conditions in determining the success of a revolution.
The authors compare revolutions along two dimensions¾internal socioeconomic hierarchies and relations with outside societies. All of the revolutions discussed in this chapter happened in relatively poor societies with great socioeconomic inequalities and colonial or semi-colonial status. Only the Russian and Chinese Communist revolutionaries made thorough change on both dimensions, overturning established hierarchies and effectively terminating their semi-colonial status with relation to the Euro-American core powers. But obviously, they did so at great cost in human lives. And the non-Communist, nationalist revolutions in India and Mexico had partial success at much less cost.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 4
Global interrelatedness. Both Thoreau and Tolstoy influenced Gandhi, while Marx and Lenin influenced Mao. The Bolshevik Revolution can be viewed as a model for other poor agricultural societies outside the core of the world system.
Identity and difference. National identity asserted as part of the revolutionary process with the ensuing transformation of class and caste relationships in revolutionary societies.
Rise of the mass society. For a successful revolution, the population has to be mobilized. After the initial revolutionary victory, society continues to be transformed.
Technology versus nature. For Stalin, crash industrialization and economic development were necessary to ensure the success of the revolutionary regime.