Book Review from the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution in Petrograd. By Alexander Rabinowitch. Pluto Press. £12.99
When this book was first published in 1976 it had some contemporary significance. The regime established by the Bolsheviks in November 1917 was still extant and many young people, dissatisfied with capitalism, were discussing Bolshevik tactics and forms of organisation as a serious way to overthrow it. Today, republished nearly thirty years later, it is a work of history much as would be a study of Robespierre and the Jacobins in 1793.
Studying history is not a waste of time of course and Rabinowitch’s research does bring out some interesting points, in particular that the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was not a monolithic bloc under Lenin’s thumb. He shows how in fact Lenin’s views were often ignored by other Bolshevik leaders in closer touch with the feelings of soldiers and factory workers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called). It also emerges that Stalin played a rather more significant role than Trotskyists attribute him in their polemics.
Lenin favoured a naked seizure of power by the Bolshevik Party; most of the other Bolshevik leaders were more circumspect; they realised, as Rabinowitch documents, that while most of the workers and soldiers wanted “peace, land and bread” and, by November 1917, were in favour of the overthrow of the Provisional Government under Kerensky because it sought to continue the war, they wanted to see it replaced by a government made up of all the “socialist” parties of Russia, i.e. of the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries as well as the Bolsheviks, that would emanate from the Congress of Soviets and which would take Russia out of the war. The Bolsheviks, therefore, followed the more subtle approach of disguising the seizure of power advocated (sometimes hysterically) by Lenin as an assumption of power by the Congress of Soviets.
Thus the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 looked to be a “Soviet” revolution, with power appearing to pass into the hands of these makeshift representative institutions (the Russian word “soviet” means simply “council”) that soldiers and workers had formed to give expression to their political views. In fact, power had passed into the hands of the minority Bolshevik Party which was determined to hold on to it, alone, come what may. But that’s another (hi)story.