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Kevin J. Murphy, "Setting the Standard for the Study of the Russian Revolution"

Setting the Standard for the Study of the Russian

Kevin J. Murphy

Reviewing Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power

Chicago: Haymarket Books, London: Pluto Press, 2004.

xxxiii + 394 pp. Photographs, maps, notes, selected
bibliography, index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-745-32269-7; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 0-745-32268-9.

Contemporary politics always have figured prominently
in framing the way historians approach the Russian
Revolution. The social movements of the 1960s inspired
a generation of historians to study history "from
below," in which they attempted to reconstruct the
actions and aspirations of those previously written out
of history. In no area did this new social history
produce a more thorough revision than in the contested
field of Russian studies. Over a course of a decade, a
small but extremely talented group of historians proved
beyond doubt what many on the Left had long argued —
that a massive popular uprising had ushered in the
transfer of power to the soviets in 1917.To gain an appreciation of this seismic shift it is
necessary to recall the extent to which the
totalitarian school had dominated the field from its

Russian studies had emerged in the United
States as a stepchild of the Cold War and shared much
in common with its Soviet state-sponsored counterpart.
The OSS (the precursor to the CIA) helped set up the
main academic research institutions, and historians
moved easily between academic posts and government
positions. To construct a usable past scholars simply
redeployed the totalitarian paradigm, which had been
popularized in confrontation with the Nazi regime,
against their former ally and new adversary, the Soviet

During the 1950s, ideological conformity and
fear dominated the profession. As the president of the
AHA reminded historians, "Total war, whether it be hot
or cold, enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to
assume his part," and hundreds of dissident professors
in many disciplines were purged from academia.[1]

audacious scholarship of social historians of the
Russian Revolution not only challenged but ultimately
dislodged the totalitarian school. With renewed
interest in the political history of 1917, the
republication of the single most important social
history of the Russian Revolution offers a useful
barometer to gauge how far the field has come.[2]

Rather than trivializing the influence of Bolshevism
during 1917, as had even much of the best social
history of the Revolution, Alexander Rabinowitch's The
Bolsheviks Come to Power
seeks to explain their
ascendancy in Petrograd meticulously.[3]

traces the radicalization of the mass movement by
studying "the aspirations of factory workers, soldiers,
and sailors as expressed in contemporary documents."
Rejecting the view that depicts cunning Bolsheviks
manipulating a brief, shallow shift to the left in the
wake of Kornilov's failed military coup, he argues that
even as early as the late spring "rapidly growing
numbers of Petrograd workers and soldiers and Baltic
Fleet sailors viewed the Provisional Government
increasingly as an organ of propertied classes, opposed
to fundamental political change and uninterested in the
needs of ordinary people." According to Rabinowitch, it
was the Bolshevik connection with this mass
radicalization, and not some unique capacity for
scheming, that won them political ascendancy. Popular
aspirations closely corresponded to the Bolshevik
program, while other major political parties were
"widely discredited because of their failure to press
hard enough for meaningful internal changes," including
ending Russia's participation in the war (pp. xvi-

Although Rabinowitch acknowledges Lenin's strategic
brilliance and "the sometimes decisive role of an
individual in historical events," (p. 208) he also
recounts in vivid detail the plethora of party
disagreements, showing that on many occasions Lenin
found himself in a distinct minority. Rabinowitch
demonstrates that "within the Bolshevik Petrograd
organization at all levels in 1917 there was continuing
and lively discussion and debate over the most basic
theoretical and tactical issues." He draws a startling
conclusion about the party's rise to power: "the
phenomenal success of the Bolsheviks can be attributed
in no small measure to the nature of the party in
1917," and above all to "the party's internally
relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralized
structure and method of operation, as well as its
essentially open and mass character — in striking
contrast to the traditional Leninist model" (p. 311).

This assessment of Bolshevik democracy as the lifeblood
for the party's integration with the mass movement
certainly is at odds with the Cold War caricature.
Almost thirty years after the first publication of
Rabinowitch's seminal work, most conservative and some
liberal historians continue to assert that Bolshevik
ascendancy was based on their manipulative and
conspiratorial practices.[4]

Rabinowitch's appraisal of popular power and Bolshevik
practice can be read as a powerful critique of the
later failures by both conservative and liberal
historians of 1917. It shows how social history is so
much more than merely weighing prevalent attitudes:
crucially, Rabinowitch demonstrates, the radicalized
mass movement set the parameters for various political
solutions to the crisis. For example, it was this mass
radicalization that rendered it impossible for Kerensky
to enact Kornilov's measures that (some argue) could
have enabled the military leaders to wage total war by
smashing the soviets, extending the death penalty in
the rear, instituting martial law in war industries,
and taking "resolute measures" against the

In his chapter on "The Ineffectiveness
of Repression," Rabinowitch shows that even during the
aftermath of the July Days, district soviets resisted
government attempts to disarm workers and transfer
radicalized soldiers from the capital. Similarly,
Kornilov's repression solution failed precisely because
the military forces loyal to the ruling classes were so
much weaker than those of the militant workers,
soldiers, and sailors (chapter 8). When Kerensky
attempted to use the German military advances as an
excuse to rid the capital of unruly elements, garrison
troops responded "with predictable vehemence" and by
early October, units "in unison" proclaimed their lack
of confidence in the Provisional Government, demanding
the transfer of power to the soviets (pp. 226-227).

While conservative historians have recognized the chasm
between the left and right (and end up siding with the
latter), some liberal historians continue to try to
patch up the mutual class hostility and blame the
ostensibly intransigent Bolsheviks for failing to
compromise with the moderates.[6] Yet Rabinowitch shows
that the Bolsheviks repeatedly attempted conciliation
with the Mensheviks and SRs. In early September, Lenin
proposed a peaceful transfer of power to the Soviets —
if the moderate socialists were willing to draw the
lessons of the previous six months and break with the
discredited Kadets and other ruling class parties (pp.
169-173). A few weeks later (25 October), the Second
Congress of Soviets unanimously voted to form a
coalition government of parties represented in the
soviets. The minority moderates then immediately chose
to ignore the resolution that they had just voted for,
denounced the Bolsheviks for overthrowing the
Provisional Government, and stormed out of Smolny (pp.
292-293). Even in the days after the congress, when
"the Bolshevik leadership was inclined toward
compromise, the Mensheviks and SRs displayed little
interest in coming to terms with the Bolshevik regime"
by refusing to accept the general program of the
soviets and a coalition government without
representatives from the propertied classes (pp.

Many historians are much closer to Rabinowitch's
assessment of Bolshevik practice and their integration
with the mass movement. For example, Rex Wade argues in
his history of 1917 that Bolshevik "politics of
sweeping change, of a revolutionary restructuring of
society, aligned them with popular aspirations as the
population turned toward more radical solutions to the
mounting problems of Russia." Wade is more qualified in
his appraisal of Bolshevik democracy, stating that
lower party members "sometimes challenged or ignored
the policies of the top leaders."[7]

Peter Kenez also
rejects the Cold War notion that Bolshevik support was
merely ephemeral, noting that except for a brief period
after the July days, popular backing for their
positions "grew steadily during 1917." The key factor
leading to the Bolshevik seizure of power, according to
Kenez, was "the complete disintegration of governmental
authority."[8] Ronald Suny argues that by mid-summer
the country was "irreconcilably divided" and that the
Bolsheviks "shaped the frustration in the factories and
garrison, explaining in their own way the causes of the
crisis" Significantly, Suny notes Lenin's attempt to
compromise with the moderates in early September but
quickly became disillusioned "by the refusal of the
moderate socialists to push for a soviet government,"
resulting in the Bolsheviks moving toward a more
exclusive stance.[9] Additionally, Ronald Kowalski's
outstanding primary source collection includes a
detailed historiography on the Russian Revolution with
wide-ranging citations from Richard Pipes to Alexander
Rabinowitch, encouraging students to make their own

But such diversity in summaries of 1917 should not mask
a discernible shift to the right in new archival
research on the Russian Revolution. While Rabinowitch
tactfully alludes to "current political considerations"
(p. 242) in noting the shortcomings of 1970s Soviet
historiography, much the same can be said of the
current state of U.S. scholarship on 1917. Several
studies have supported the "continuity thesis" by
emphasizing the supposed natural progression from the
early Soviet regime to later Stalinism.[11] Some
historians even have reverted to a "prosecutorial"
approach to the Russian Revolution by grossly
exaggerating early Bolshevik repression while
sanitizing the White terror. As U.S. politics have
shifted to the right, one would be hard pressed to find
either recent references to Rabinowitch's notion of
Bolshevik "democracy" as central to understanding the
Revolution or citations on what is now known about
U.S.-funded mass violence against Soviet citizens.[12]

Rabinowitch has the confidence to integrate and assess
all of his sources. If there is a weakness to The
Bolsheviks Come to Power,
however, it is that he
occasionally fails to draw the larger interpretive
conclusions from his own findings, choosing instead "to
let the facts speak for themselves" (p. xxi).

Convincingly documenting the escalating popular
indignation against the ruling classes and the
unelected Provisional Government, Rabinowitch avoids
indulging in the mythology of a missed opportunity for
a supraclass "democracy." He does, however, blame the
uprising of October 24-25 for the failure to establish
"a broadly representative socialist government by the
Congress of Soviets" (p. 314). But it was precisely
such an anticapitalist "socialist government" that the
Right SRs and Mensheviks feared most of all. The
moderates' persistent pandering to the liberals and
their steadfast refusal to support soviet power — which
Rabinowitch describes so clearly but does not
adequately analyze — were driven by their class
collaborationist premise that the masses were unfit to
rule. In this sense, the study lacks the theoretical
depth of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, a
work which manages to situate the deep social crisis of
late summer and early fall within the context of an
epochal class confrontation, a standoff that could only
have ended in the forceful rule by either the men of
property or the soviets.

Nevertheless, the strength of Rabinowitch's work is his
unparalleled tenacity in incorporating and explaining
conflicting data, rather than parsing it out for
polemical convenience. Those who disagree with
Rabinowitch's findings have yet to offer a frontal
challenge to his work. Evidence of errors has not been
provided, nor have new, conflicting data been
introduced. Rather, the impressively detailed
scholarship underpinning the arguments advanced in The
Bolsheviks Come to Power
simply has been ignored. This
groundbreaking work has stood the test of time and will
continue to set the standard for the study of the most
important social movement in world history.


[1]. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity
Question" and the American Historical Profession
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp.

[2]. On the new political history, see Kritika 5 no. 1

[3]. On social historians' propensity to trivialize
Bolshevik influence in 1917, see John Marot, "Class
Conflict, Political Competition and Social
Transformation," Revolutionary Russia 7, no. 2 (1994):
pp. 111-163.

[4]. On the Bolsheviks as conniving conspirators, see
chapters 9, 10, and 11 of Richard Pipes's The Russian
Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990). Similarly, Mark
Steinberg, in Voices of Revolution, 1917 (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2001), p. 258, claims that
Bolshevik ideology "was little known or understood
outside a small circle of activists."

[5]. Richard Pipes blames Kerensky for not instituting
these "resolute measures." See his The Russian
Revolution, pp. 441-445.

[6]. For an example of the liberal interpretation, see
Mark Steinberg's, Voices of Revolution, 1917.

[7]. Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp.

[8]. Peter Kenez, The History of the Soviet Union from
the Beginning to the End (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1999), pp. 27-28.

[9]. Ronald Suny, The Soviet Experiment (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 50-52.

[10]. Ronald Kowalski, The Russian Revolution 1917-
1921 (London: Routledge, 1997).

[11]. For a critique of the "continuity thesis" see
Stephen Cohen's Rethinking the Soviet Experience:
Politics and History Since 1917 (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1985). In Experiencing Russia's
Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2002), Donald Raleigh argues in favor of such a
continuity perspective because "[m]any of the features
of the Soviet system we associate with the Stalin era
and afterward were already clearly adumbrated,
practiced, and even embedded during the 1914-1922
period" (p. 416). Peter Holquist in Making War,
Forging Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 2002) shares this assessment.

[12]. On the prosecutorial approach to the Russian
Revolution, see Peter Kenez, "The Prosecution of
Soviet History: A Critique of Richard Pipes' The
Russian Revolution," The Russian Review, 50 (1991):
pp. 345-352. Kenez takes Pipes to task for several
wild assertions, including his absurd claim that the
Red Terror was worse than the White Terror. Peter
Holquist concludes his Making War, Forging Revolution
by echoing Pipes's claim about Red Terror without
providing a semblance of proof (p. 288). On U.S.
secret funding of Cossack terror, see David
Foglesong's America's Secret War Against Bolshevism
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1996), a work that has gone largely ignored. On the
recent resurgence of the "prosecutorial" methodology,
see Kevin Murphy, "Liberal Historians in the Age of
Neo-liberalism: A 'Postmodern' Return to Prosecuting
the Russian Revolution?," Historical Materialism

Library of Congress Call Number: DK265.8.L4 R27 2004


* Lenin, Vladimir Il´ich, 1870-1924.

* Kommunisticheskaia partiia Sovetskogo Soiuza--

* Saint Petersburg (Russia)--History--Revolution,

* Soviet Union--History--Revolution,