Book Review: The Russian Revolution by Abraham Ascher

LeftCentral Book Review  

This is short book with a long reach; it begins by outlining developments before October 1917, ending with the demise of the Soviet Union.  There is even a contemporary reference to Vladimir Putin – all achieved in less than 200 pages. Of course what is important is not what is covered but what is discovered by the reader and there is much to learn in this beginners guide.

The Russian revolution of October 1917 took place in a country that had not yet reached the appropriate stage of economic development, necessary for such a Marxist transformation.  This lacuna in economic development, required a Leninist push in a revolutionary direction encapsulated in his promise of Bread, Land and Peace and all power to the Soviets. Russia was an autocracy, with a tiny (though emerging) industrial working class, in a predominately agrarian peasant country. 

The process of industrialisation in Britain excluded state involvement but any nation attempting to emulate GB`s industrial capacity, did so through state direction.  And autocratic Russia was no exception but such an economic transformation (even if partial) would have profound constitutional implications for the tsar`s regime.  This situation was amplified when Russia found itself at war with Japan, a conflict which began in 1904.  The consequences of this war were profoundly felt a year later in Russia.  1905 is outlined by Ascher in great depth; it clearly was a dress rehearsal for 1917. This contextual understanding is crucial and very well drawn out in the text; indeed the book does an excellent job of outlining the role and significance of personalities such as Count Witte, P.A. Stolypin, Kornilov, Rasputin and General A.V. Denikin.

The book is packed with economic detail for example “in 1880, Russia had 22,865 kilometres of railway track. By 1890, almost 8,000 kilometres had been added, giving a total of 30,596; and by 1904 had virtually doubled, to 59,616 kilometres.”  On the same page Ascher outlines growth rates in the production of coal and cloth.  The author pointing out that estimates for the size of the industrial proletariat are difficult to determine and he cites M.I Tugan-Baranovski, stating that by the 1890s about three million people made up the Russian industrial working class “which means the proletariat constituted no more than 2.4% of the total population.”

The late Eric Hobsbawm was one of the UK`s most eminent historians and a member of the Communist Party.  He once explained how his “political affiliations curtailed his academic work.  He never professionally wrote or said anything about the USSR or the Russian Revolution” (stated prior to the publication of Age of Extremes), because he said “what we were officially supposed to say about it just was not so, or at any rate, contained large chunks which were simply not defensible.”  Hobsbawm did not equate his belief in Socialism directly with the Soviet Union, describing it as “an awful place”.  He gave the country his support because “between the wars, that was the only game in town.  There was no other kind of Socialism.  If that had gone there would have been no chance at all”.  Hobsbawm totally acknowledges that Stalinism resulted in the death of millions in the Soviet Union but points out it also helped save the West from defeat during the Second World War.  However as Ascher makes clear, Stalin`s purge of the Red Army in the late 1930s, resulted in “three out of five marshals, thirteen of fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven of eighty-five corps commanders, 110 of 195 division commanders, 220 of 406 brigade commanders, all eleven vice commissars of war, seventy-five of eighty members of the Supreme Military Council, 90 percent of all generals, and 80 percent of all colonels were arrested and killed.”  The inability to meet the early onslaught from the Nazis was clearly the responsibility of Stalinism.

Perhaps Churchill was correct when he described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, a riddle that eventually became unravelled. Gorbachev`s perestroika and glasnost signalled the end of Soviet Communism.  And it’s taken for granted today that its influence became null and void in 1991, an appraisal that seems a little premature.  Two significant economic legacies emanated from the Russian Revolution, one was War Communism the other the New Economic Policy.  The former is rather better known than the latter, NEP originated from the decision at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, to introduce free market principles in the nascent state.   At the same time ending democracy, through the banning of Factions.  It was this political decision followed in 1924 by the death of Lenin, which saw Stalin emerge as ultimate leader of the Soviet Union – the details of the various opposition groups he defeated are outlined clearly and succinctly by Abraham Ascher.  Interesting that few are aware of Bukharin (despite the best efforts of Stephen Cohen – his text cited in Ascher`s bibliography). This is strange because the NEP legacy lives on, evident if one looks at China today.

Any discussion which focuses on the Russian Revolution and legacy is problematic for the left.  Creating numerous rifts and political sectarianism and sadly, general discourse tends to shed more heat than light.  As the debate between Alan Woods and Orlando Figes on whether the October Revolution was a coup or people’s revolution demonstrates.  Did Stalin betray the ideals of the October Revolution or was his emergence a natural consequence of Leninism? If you are looking for an answer then this beginner’s guide is a good place to start.

The lay out of the book is clearly designed to be accessible.  Key words and terms are highlighted providing a definition and explanation.  Such as `Bolshevism`, `Zemstovo`, `Count Witte`, `Soviet`, `The Constitutional Democrats`, `Cossacks`, `Leon Trotsky`, `Revolutionary Pseudonyms` `The Nationalities in the Russian Empire` and `The Commune`.  Clearly this approach is influenced by the emergence of e-books but the inclusion of certain words seemed a little arbitrary.  Also the idea seemed to run out of steam further into the text.  The key word approach for this type of book actually provided enormous information and sat well within the framework of the text, when it was applied.

The book also made excellent use of paragraphs, placing complex themes into bite size chunks.  A great deal of hard work and thought has clearly gone into the production and writing of this book.  However, the book did appear to be trying to do a bit too much it overextended itself and by virtue of this missed some important issues.   For example Khrushchev was highlighted but there was no mention of his secret speech in 1956 – the implications for which extended beyond Russia.  Nor was there any real mention of his attempt at de-Stalinisation and how it differed from the later approach by Gorbachev.  Indeed the Timeline jumped from the death of Stalin in 1953 straight to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Cold War cited but there was no mention of Ronald Reagan (JFK cited) and his policy of military Keynesianism.  The Soviet attempt to keep up with USA defence spending explains a great deal about the USSR collapse – another lesson China has learnt.

Ascher does an outstanding job in highlighting the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union – reference to the work of Hannah Ardent and Leonard Shapiro cited.  The nomenklatura is well explained (though not as a key term).  He highlights that three “constitutions adopted in 1924, 1936, and 1977 but it would be pointless to describe them in detail, since the changes did not affect the exercise of power”.  The implementation of a Criminal Code is also described. Ascher also explained how the rule of law was absent (the Cheka later known as NKVD identified) and how the independence of the Judiciary was nonexistent. But how Khrushchev`s reform programme operated within this complex system was not explained and there was more to this later period than the execution of Beria.

The Russian Revolution (2014) by Abraham Ascher (Oneworld) 206 pages


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