Monday, December 21, 2009

Tony Cliff - Revolution Besieged

Recent reading has made me think about how it was that the hopes of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 became the distorted caricature of socialism that was Stalinist Russia. Revolution Besieged is actually the third and fourth volumes of Tony Cliff's political biography of Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks and hence the effective leader of the Russian Revolution.

This part of the biography is perhaps the most important. Many activists in the International Socialist Tradition will have read part one of the trilogy, Building the Party. That book deals with the importance and necessity of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, viewed through the lens of Lenin's early life and his single-mindedness about turning the Bolshevik party into a mass organisation of the working class.

But this volume is perhaps neglected slightly. It's importance is two-fold. Firstly it examines in great detail the problems inherited by Lenin and the Bolsheviks once they had taken power. Russia with its backward economy and its domination by the peasantry was hardly the ideal place to build socialism in the midst of its powerful capitalist competitors. Cliff then examines what the revolutionaries attempted to do to strengthen their economy and entrench working class power. But it also shows how they tried to spread revolution, supporting revolutionaries elsewhere and trying to help others learn the lessons of the Russian experience. This is the second important strand of the book, because Cliff doesn't avoid criticism of the mistakes made in this period.

In particular, he tries to demonstrate that because the Russian revolutionaries had such a huge amount of respect for having taken power, often their advice was accepted without criticism by local socialist organisations. This led to a number of mistakes, most importantly perhaps, the German Revolution of 1923 was undermined by an over-reliance of the German Communist Party on the advice of the Russians.

Cliff though understands that this isn't necessarily the fault of the Bolsheviks. Lenin had created a revolutionary organisation that had, over a period of decades put itself at the heart of working class struggles. It had made mistakes, but had learnt from them. Bolshevik activists were respected by other workers. Revolutionaries across Europe couldn't simply create such experience out of thin air.

While this isn't a difficult work to follow, it is dense. There is a huge amount of history and politics to cover here. Some important aspects of post-revolutionary Russia are dealt with in short chapters that urge further reading. The debate over the New Economic Policy, the temporary re-introduction of capitalist processes to try and stimulate the economy following the increased isolation of the revolution is clear, but I was left feeling I needed to know more. Cliff isn't hiding anything here, but using a broad brush to paint a picture.

At one point the author asks rhetorically (about a particular point of the German Revolution) what place it has in a biography of Lenin, given that Lenin had no input on the debates. The answer he himself gives is that the "catastrophe in Germany in 1923 was the most important item on the balance sheet of Lenin's Comintern". The Comintern was the international body created following the Russian revolution to spread revolution internationally and cannot be separated from Lenin's life work - the commitment to international socialism.

There are many tragedies in this biography. The greatest are outlined in the final chapters as Lenin lies dying and Stalin manoeuvres to take personal power. One interesting aspect that Cliff highlights is the growing awareness of Lenin of this process, though it must be emphasised that Lenin is by this stage increasingly unable to intervene. However Cliff also highlights the seeds of some of the worst aspects of Stalin's distortion of socialism. We see the leaders of the Comintern labelling the Social Democrats in Germany as fascists and an increasing desire to downplay international revolutionary activity in place of the interests of Russia. Again, this shouldn't be over-emphasised, but Cliff clearly shows that by the time of Lenin's death the stage was set for a greater tragedy.

But Cliff also shows that there were many other seeds in the Russian Revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought with everything they had to create international socialism. The mistakes they made, as well as their successes provide many lessons for revolutionaries today. Tony Cliff's masterful writing has made these accessible to socialists today, and for that reason alone, though there are many more, this book is worth reading.

No comments: