The Few Who Won

How should we understand the October Revolution and its tragic aftermath?


A devout Polish Catholic, Felix Dzerzhinsky was once asked why he was sure there was a God. “God is in the heart,” the teenager replied. “If I ever come to the conclusion that there is no God, I would put a bullet in my head.”

A few years later, he realized just how alone humanity was. But instead of a bullet, he found a new faith, vowing “to fight against evil to the last breath” as a revolutionary socialist. By age forty, he was clad in black leather, designing a bloody terror as head of the young Soviet Union’s secret police.

This story of zealotry fits with the popular image of Bolshevism — a conspiratorial sect, singular in purpose. By virtue of their ruthlessness, they would take advantage of 1917’s democratic upheavals, perverting the noble February Revolution into the bloody excesses of October. That Stalinism emerged from its womb is no surprise — the extremism of men like Dzerzhinsky, confident the utopia they were building was worth any cost, made it all but certain.

The narrative is neat, and seemingly vindicated by history. The system that emerged out of the October Revolution was a moral catastrophe. But more than that, it was a tragedy — and tragedies don’t need villains.

Take Dzerzhinsky’s socialism. It was rooted in the humanist idea that the “present hellish life with its wolfish exploitation, oppression, and violence” could give way to an order “based on harmony, a full life embracing society as a whole.” The future executioner suffered for his beliefs — eleven out of twenty years underground spent in prison or exile — “in the torments of loneliness, longing for the world and for life.”

Poor, tortured, imprisoned, and martyred, the revolutionaries of Russia seemed destined to meet the same fate as radicals elsewhere in Europe. Only they didn’t. After half decade in solitary confinement, enduring beatings that permanently disfigured his jaw, Dzerzhinsky’s last letter from prison was resolute: “At the moment I am dozing, like a bear in his winter den; all that remains is the thought that spring will come and I will cease to suck my paw and all the strength that still remains in my body and soul will manifest itself. Live I will.”

Here’s what happens when noble, determined people win — and find themselves in an unwinnable situation.


The Bolsheviks Before Bolshevism

In the Cold War, both sides painted Vladimir Lenin and his party as special — unique in their brutality or their model for revolution. But despite being an underground movement, it’s striking just how ordinary they were. Lenin saw himself as an orthodox Marxist, trying to adapt the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) plan to a largely rural and peasant country with a weak civil society and mass illiteracy.

The supposed proto-totalitarian smoking gun, Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, does have unusual elements. Lenin calls for professional organizers capable of eluding police and places special emphasis on the role of print propaganda, for instance. But it wasn’t a blueprint for a radically different party; rather, these were tactics needed for a movement barred from the legal organizing and parliamentary work pursued by its counterparts elsewhere. Once tsarism was overthrown, backward Russia and its small working class could develop along Western lines and push the struggle further.

Siding with Karl Kautsky, Lenin took aim at Eduard Bernstein and others on the SPD’s right wing for trying to change “a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms.” To be a revolutionary, for Lenin, meant smashing the capitalist state — it was a politics of rupture. But his project, unlike the “Blanquists” he also denounced, was about cohering a workers’ movement and placing it at the center of political struggle, not creating a hardened core of putschists. For Lenin the problem wasn’t that workers weren’t flocking to the vanguard party, but that socialists were underestimating workers. His goal, following the German example, was a merger of the two currents — a militant socialist workers’ movement.

Then perhaps if not by design, the Bolsheviks were forced by repression to adopt a military-like structure that they would take into power. This claim, too, is doubtful. Bolshevik organs even functioned with transparency and pluralism few organizations in much rosier conditions today can match.

Take the “economists,” the grouping Lenin criticized so thoroughly in What Is to Be Done? He thought that they, like every other faction, deserved “to demand the opportunity to express and advocate views.” Lenin was hardly a genial interlocutor — like Marx, he was a fan of personal invective. Still, the leader had to deal with not getting his way. Between 1912 and 1914, forty-seven of his articles were refused by Pravda, the “party paper.”

Dissent cut through Russian social democracy; no one’s marching orders were followed without debate. It wasn’t just Bolshevik, Menshevik, and Socialist Revolutionary (SR), but dozens of shades of opinions among the Bolsheviks themselves.

On important political issues, however, the main wings of Russian social democracy were close. When the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks split in 1903, it was over small points of emphasis, not because of Lenin’s supposed call for a professional vanguard party. When the 1905 revolution arrived, all parts of the movement fought side by side. Most Mensheviks, like most Bolsheviks, opposed the Great War, a clarity matched by few socialists elsewhere in Europe. In the lead-up to February 1917, they differed on how to view the liberal bourgeoisie, but agreed that the immediate task of Russian social democracy was overthrowing autocracy, not socialist revolution. Only in this period did it become obvious what set the Bolsheviks apart.

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