Tuesday, March 27, 2007

S.A.Smith – Red Petrograd; Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918

For those who want to attack the Russian Revolution of October 1917, there are many myths to peddle. Chief amongst these, are that the revolution wasn’t anything of the sort, rather the argument goes, it was a coup, organised by the minority Bolshevik party with little popular support.

There are many ways to demolish this myth, one of them, is to actually look at what ordinary workers in the stronghold of the revolution – Petrograd – thought and did. In particular, the struggles they fought and the people they supported in the heady days of 1917.

Anyone with an interest in the Russian Revolution, and by extension, an interest in defending it against it’s right-wing critics, will be fascinated by Smith’s book. It’s an in-depth look at the Petrograd working class, particularly those in the major factories.

Smith comes to many conclusions. The most important of these, is that he paints a picture of a revolutionary city, that throughout 1917, starting with the overthrow of the Tsar in February, is thinking, acting and fighting for itself. The slogans of popular power and worker’s control aren’t imposed from outside, rather they are slogans that are raised by the workers themselves in response to the day-to-day experience of revolution.

As 1917 progressed, many forces came into play. The immediate gains of the February revolution gave confidence to the mass of workers. Their organisations, in particular Factory Committees started to fundamental alter the balance of society. In the factories, men and women began evicting management and changing every aspect of working life. Ending “piece work”, removing rude or particularly oppressive overseerers and, most importantly, starting to organise production themselves.

It would be impossible to go into the detail in this review. Smith’s book is an extensive look at what happened in those months. Its conclusions are backed up by huge amounts of facts and figures (from strike statistics to information about literacy) and often the arguments are supported by the voices of the Petrograd workers themselves.

While the Bolsheviks are by no means the most important or the largest socialist party at the beginning of 1917, Smith shows how their consistant argument, their principled opposition to the war and their support for working class control of production gradually win them more and more support.

Their members aren’t isolated from the workers. They are the workers. It’s only by seeing this, that we are able to understand just how the revolution became possible. The final thing that Smith does is to show that the very backward nature of the Russian economy left the revolution dependent on international revolution. The war and economic crisis (followed by the western invasion in 1919) left the country drained. With the failure of the German revolution, and the isolation of Russian Soviet power, the rise of a bureaucracy and the eventual development of a new “capitalistic” society became almost inevitable. However this is beyond the scope of Smith’s book. What this book does do, is to nail the lie that the October revolution was something imposed from above and we see the revolution for what it really was – a mass action by ordinary people fed up of war and poverty, who believed they could create a better world.

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