Book Review: Voline’s 1917

25 Feb

[Blogger’s note: I neglected to mention that 1917 is part of a much larger work entitled The Unknown Revolution, which I likewise commend to your attention.]

For some time now I have been trying to convince my fellow anti-capitalists (to little avail) of the need to unite the Left. The authoritarian and libertarian wings of the workers’ movement have been pelting each other with recriminations, often bitter, since the feud between Marx and Bakunin detonated the International. The span has widened, driven less by further theoretical divergence than by the logic of subsequent events and an ever-expanding list of grievances. The longer the rift persists, the more firmly rooted it becomes, retarding our progress with its obtrusive presence and deepening all the while from neglect.

Most frustrating of all, as Orwell pointed out in Homage to Catalonia, the ideological ground between authoritarian and libertarian socialism is precariously narrow and unobstructed, yet it remains untraversed. One might hope that as a united Left we could review the modern history of social revolution and come to some agreement, but this has not occurred, quite the opposite. Each camp has for so long been insisting upon its analysis and strategy as the correct one, that even the most conspicuous theoretical problems are denied or attributed to sabotage or unfavorable circumstance (as though theory and practice were incommensurable).

It would be an absurdly optimistic to suggest that Voline may resolve the impasse, but nothing I have read exposes the theoretical fault lines of Leftist discourse to more light than this book.

For Leninists, the Russian example is the proper form of proletarian revolution, and a vindication of Lenin’s insistence on the need for a revolutionary political party and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was a smashing success, his devotees affirm, even if it was, as most Leninists now believe, subsequently run off the rails by his successor.

Voline has four goals: to contrast the two conceptions of social revolution; explain why the Russian Revolution failed (as is the general libertarian position); to demonstrate how that failure undermined revolutions elsewhere in Europe; and to show just how the inherent contradictions of vanguardism led to state capitalism and fierce political repression of all dissent, and the establishment of a social order which in the end bore no likeness to that which was intended. All in all, 1917 is an excellent exploration into the two main currents in Leftist thought and their consequences when put into effect, and at the same time an incendiary, two-fisted rebuke to centralized, bureaucratic socialism from above.

How might such a book, being so partisan, bring the two opposing camps, so long estranged, into cooperation? The case is made so perspicaciously and in such detail that one cannot read it without coming to some sort of position on each point. This book is the ultimate measuring stick. Howard Zinn famously quipped that one cannot be neutral on a moving train, Voline’s locomotive is barreling down the track at full steam and driving all before it aside. Indifference is impossible. If one assumes that the viability of future insurrections hinges on proper practice, inductively derived from  a thorough-going examination of past rebellions; or if one believes the success of the uprisings yet to come will pivot upon correct theory, then the importance of 1917 and the case it makes cannot be overstated, a case which no revolutionary who wishes to be taken seriously can fail to come to some kind of conclusion about one way or another.

As for the actual arguments, readers can discover those for themselves. However, there is one episode in the book which highlights the divide and the need for an end to hostilities. Voline relates the sad fates of French revolutionaries who went to Moscow for the Comintern and never made it back to their homeland. According to Voline, three of the delegates from France, Jules Lepetit, Marcel Vergeat and Raymond Lefebvre, two anarcho-syndicalists and a left-leaning communist respectively, were upset by what they found in Russia and said so publicly. The details needn’t concern us here, but they noted what they saw and experienced and let it be known that their report would be critical.

When it was time to leave, their official escorts asked the three men for their briefcases. Fearing they would not be returned, Lefevre, Vergeat, and Lepetit refused to hand them over. They were then separated from the other delegates and put on a special train to Murmansk, a city on the Arctic coast, and told to wait there for a ship. Along the way they were mistreated. When they got there they were abandoned by their escorts and left to fend for themselves, eventually they were taken in by some fishermen. When no ship arrived to transport them, they complained in writing to Moscow but nothing came of it. They also sent letters to friends (again, according to Voline) in which they expressed fears that the Bolsheviks were trying to kill them. In the end they resolved to buy a boat and try to escape on their own. Their Fishermen tried to dissuade them, but to no avail. They set sail never to be seen again.*

What is extraordinary about this tale, is that the Leninists have an entirely different version, one in which no mention is made of how the three came to be in Murmansk, and how unhappy they had been during the conference. In Voline’s account, Trotsky intercepted the letters sent from Murmansk and was well aware of their displeasure, in the other he expresses confidence that the anarcho-syndicalists were on there way to embracing Bolshevism.

With all due respect to the three comrades who lost their lives, this affair is of little overall importance when measured against the sum of those who in the course of revolutionary activity have paid the ultimate price, yet it reveals just how bad things have been. If Voline is right, the Bolsheviks murdered these men just to save face. They were not a threat to Bolshevik rule, these comrades were killed in the interests of good publicity. If the story is apocryphal, then the deaths of these men were exploited for propaganda purposes and the Bolsheviks, Trotsky in particular, were accused of an awful crime which they did not commit. Somebody is telling a terrible lie, and a disgraceful one.

Libertarians may find nothing new in 1917, just a familiar critique brilliantly made, but for those on the other side, or those as yet undecided, this book is a must-read. The chapter entitled “Why the revolution failed”, whether or not one agrees with Voline’s conclusions, presents the issues clearly, issues we should all come together and discuss pragmatically and in comradely fashion. There are valuable lessons to be learned, ones that might avert a repetition of the errors of the past. We need to do this because the Left is in a pitiable state, and we need a way forward.

*I’ve read other accounts which mirror Voline’s.  Emma Goldman wrote about it in My Two Years in Russia, Alexander Berkman also wrote about it in The Bolshevik Myth if I remember correctly. And I believe Paul Avrich did as well but I cannot remember where.

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