Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tony Cliff - All Power to the Soviets, Lenin 1914 - 1917

The second volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin contains perhaps the most important political and historical period for socialist activists. The first volume of the three part series dealt with the early years of the Bolshevik party and Lenin's role in building it up to the point when the First World War broke out. This part has, in my experience been widely read, discussed and debated through by the revolutionaries who stand in the tradition that Tony Cliff founded.

But both the remaining volumes also have much to offer activists and students of the Russian Revolution. The period under question begins with the activity of the Bolsheviks with the outbreak of the First World War. It ends with, as Cliff points out, Lenin speaking to the Congress of Soviets the day after the uprising had taken power and declaring "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order."

The period is interesting, not least for the amazing events that took place. By the time 1917 had arrived, Russian military hopes were being dashed by a combination of military ineptitude, rebellion and mutiny. Conditions at the front were appalling, hunger, lack of equipment and a brutal military regime combined to make a situation ripe for rebellion. Conditions in the cities, villages and towns were hardly better. Something that revolutionaries were quick to build upon.

The twists and turns of the final year before the uprising takes up most of the detail of this volume. Contrary to the perceived idea of a simple Bolshevik coup, Cliff paints a picture of a working class and peasantry increasingly moving of it's own interest towards revolution. The Bolsheviks fight to put themselves at the heart of the movement, though in the initial stages, when the February revolution overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks were taken by surprise.

Through patient argument, principled slogans and activity and often sheer bravery, the Bolsheviks gradually become the acknowledged leaders of the revolutionary movement. At various points during 1917, the Bolsheviks go on the defensive. During the "July Days", the working class of Petrograd, the largest and most important industrial city, move instinctively towards revolution. Lenin argues hard, against most of his party and its leadership that the time is not right. The Bolsheviks see a collapse in support and are repressed even further, though their subsequent practice in the face of a far-right attempted coup, makes their principles clear to the great mass of the workers.

On this and in other moments, Cliff makes an important point. Far from being the monolithic organisation that the Bolsheviks are often described as, there was much internal disagreement and debate. Lenin was often in a minority and took time to win his comrades around. At other points, Lenin was wrong, despite the Stalinist myth of his infallibility. Even more importantly, Lenin never simply used his own standing within the organisation to win a political position. He frequently refers back to the rank and file, or the experiences of other workers to deal with a changing situation and win the leadership of the organisation to a new direction or new slogans.

I was also interested, as I suspect many revolutionary socialists will be, at how the internal organisation of the Bolsheviks worked. Being an underground, illegal group for most of their existence, there are some differences for those organising in the UK today, for instance. But there are similarities. Not least the way that revolutionaries must constantly change tack to relate to changing political circumstances.

But also of interest is the lack of organisation. Groups of Bolsheviks outside the main cities, frequently complain of lack of material and direction from the centre. The Central Committee seems at times to be at odds with each other, certainly, Cliff points out, that they occasionally took decisions that they seemed to forget. Perhaps as a result of the illegality, the CC often didn't have full meetings - the meeting that decided to go for the insurrection had only slightly over half of its members present.

This is a fascinating work for students of revolutionary history. At times, it lauds it's central character a little too much. But this is because its real subject is the creation of a revolutionary organisation capable of leading the working class to power. There is little her about Lenin himself - what he liked to eat or what music he preferred. If you want that information, I'd recommend Krupskaya's book. For Cliff, Lenin is utterly inseparable from the revolutionary struggle. His experiences are the experiences of the movement, and there is much here to learn from.

Related Reading

Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Cliff - Revolution Besieged, Lenin 1917 - 1923
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

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