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Paul Le Blanc’s ‘October Song’: Criticism and response

January 8, 2019

Bolsheviks cover 2Paul Le Blanc’s October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, an innovative appraisal of Russia’s 1917 revolution and its results, has provoked both praise and controversy. My review on this website was answered in an extensive comment by Pittsburgh-based socialist Marty Boyers. Paul Le Blanc, in turn, contributed a response to Marty’s criticisms. Both Marty and Paul’s comments are reprinted below, with the authors’ permission.—JR

1. Hostile pressures: The key factor in Soviet decline

By Marty Boyers: Paul Le Blanc’s book October Song has much to recommend it. As John Riddell explains in his comments, it reviews a great deal of English-language available material on the Russian Revolution, especially eyewitness accounts from its earliest years, presenting several different sides of many issues.

However, in surveying the various sources, Le Blanc often fails to differentiate enough between the good and the bad. He also does not give enough value to the fact that, inevitably, the first successful proletarian revolution involved a lot of invention, disorder, and reconfiguration.

The Paris Commune of 1871 lasted about two months, drowned in blood. (The naïve 19th century thought that the massacre of 5,000 to 10,000 people was immense.) The October Revolution, whatever its retreats and betrayals, lasted more than 70 years.

The forces that it faced were not programmatic in nature – they were the pressure of immense social, economic, and military forces. In 1918-21 and 1941-45, it faced military attacks from many capitalist nations, massive destruction, and economic sanctions that sapped at it for decades. Stalin displaced the working class from power due to these pressures, not due to his program. Finally, by 1989-91, the bulk of the working people of the Soviet Union felt no desire to defend the state and let it collapse.

Le Blanc’s treatment is too much of a critique of ideology, and not enough of examination of social forces.

USSR survival led to gains by socialism

The USSR’s survival, even though horribly distorted by Stalin and his heirs, made possible the rise of socialist revolution in places such as Yugoslavia, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. In much of Eastern Europe, the Stalinist military and civil bureaucracy managed a more controlled social transformation but, even so, represented in a certain way an expansion of the October Revolution.

In much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America the impact of the revolution was felt, even where socialist revolution did not come to power. In the imperialist centers, the October Revolution shook up the old Socialist movement and opened the road for new revolutionary movements.

Bolshevik policy on the peasantry

Two points of Le Blanc’s book give me occasions for disagreement — the peasantry and Rosa Luxemburg’s views. First on the peasantry. This is partially a factual question, and partially a political one. Lenin, Trotsky, Deutscher, Victor Serge, and E.H, Carr are the sources of much of my information. I believe they all agree that the Russian peasantry did have clearly different layers, including a minority layer (called kulaks) who, through some combination of luck and skill, were relatively successful. The kulaks employed labor somewhat regularly and were in a position to engage in the market (either legally or non-legally).

A second layer was poor peasants, who did not have enough land to support themselves and had to get outside employment, often at the kulaks’ farms. The third, the majority, was neither employer nor employed – the middle peasants.

Prior to October, all three types of peasants were oppressed by the landlords. They comprised the large majority of the population of the Russian Empire. The rising of the entire peasantry, sweeping through the summer of 1917, convinced the Bolsheviks that the time for insurrection had arrived.

The Bolsheviks, long supporters of the nationalization of the land, adopted the historic SR program, of putting the redivision of the landlords’ estates under the control of peasant committees. During the civil war, both the cities and the armies were on the edge of famine. The civil war itself, the collapse of the currency, the paralysis of transport, and the breakdown of international trade — all this made normal market relationships impossible. The Soviet government sent out requisition teams to obtain necessary grain. To combat kulak hoarding and sabotage, the Bolsheviks mobilized poor peasants, who had knowledge of village life.

Lenin, and other leaders, saw the tension this put into the worker-peasant alliance that had led the revolution. Lenin, in particular, saw the establishment in 1921 of a tax (in kind, as money relationships were still not possible) as the beginning of a restoration of this important relationship. This was the first step of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Le Blanc agrees with those who believe the division of peasantry as much more tentative and unimportant. As I said, it is a question of both fact and of politics. I tend to believe Lenin and Trotsky.

Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Bolshevik policy

My second issue is Le Blanc’s frequent citation of Rosa Luxemburg’s text on the Russian Revolution, without mentioning the controversy surrounding it. Luxemburg wrote this while in prison in 1918. In it, she hailed the Bolshevik revolution, but also criticized a number of its policies. She had long disagreed with the Bolsheviks’ support of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, as well as their land reform policy. She also criticized the manner in which the Constituent Assembly was dispersed (1918).

In a letter to Zinoviev in July 1921 (printed in To the Masses, Third Congress of the Comintern, John Riddell, ed.), Lenin relates that Clara Zetkin, one of Luxemburg’s closest associates, told him that Luxemburg did not want that article published, as she had come to disagree with much of it. As far as I know, she never detailed those revisions. It was a busy year for her, to say the least.

Paul Levi, a German Communist Party leader, dishonestly published Luxemburg’s article as an attack on the Bolsheviks, as he was tumbling to the right. In a short time (1922), he was in the Social Democratic Party, whose officials had unleashed the Freikorps on Berlin and bore the moral and political responsibility for the murder of Luxemburg! Some defender of her ideas!!

From what I can tell, there is no account about what Rosa Luxemburg would have said about the issues she raised. Nonetheless, Le Blanc failed to mention the controversy surrounding the article, which he cities several times. A big weakness.

2. Honest insights are not restricted to one side

By Paul Le Blanc: As I was writing October Song, I anticipated and looked forward to critical discussion. I appreciate Marty Boyers’ comments and am responding in hopes that the discussion can be broadened and deepened in the future.

“In surveying the various sources,” Boyers writes, “Le Blanc often fails to differentiate enough between the good and the bad.” What constitutes “good” and “bad”? Some sources may come from people who were politically “bad” or who would later turn out badly from our point of view, while others may come from people “on our side” – but honest insights, accuracy, and useful information (as well as distortions, wishful thinking, and naiveté) are not restricted to one camp or the other. We must look at as much as we can, be critical-minded, seeking correlations emerging from multiple sources.

Too much focus on ideology?

“Le Blanc’s treatment is too much of a critique of ideology, and not enough of examination of social forces,” according to Boyer. I think he is wrong about this. Some sections of my book involve of ideologies animating various currents (conservatives, liberals, anarchists, at certain points of one or another strand among socialists, including those with whom I identify). But it seems to me that much more of October Song is actually devoted to an examination of social forces – what is happening with the vast peasantry and the dynamic working class, their exploiters and oppressors, global power structures, and more.

Sources on stratification of peasantry

I am wondering if Boyers is particularly concerned with “too much of a critique of ideology” in regard to the Bolshevik approach to the peasantry. He tells us: “Lenin, Trotsky, Deutscher, Victor Serge, and E.H. Carr are the sources of much of my information.” These are the sources of much of my information as well.

But I reached for additional sources as I developed a comparative analysis of the Russian and Nicaraguan revolutions – in my 1989 doctoral dissertation – and was struck by the contrast of Bolshevik and Sandinista approaches to the peasantry. In reaching for more information on the actual social forces that explained the realities of the Russian peasantry, I drew on additional sources – including work by Teodor Shanin, Moshe Lewin, Lars Lih, Alexander Chayanov, and N.N. Sukhanov.

Boyer writes: “Le Blanc agrees with those who believe the division of peasantry was much more tentative and unimportant. As I said, it is a question both of fact and of politics. I tend to believe Lenin and Trotsky.” I tend to believe Lenin and Trotsky as well – they represent the political tradition to which I adhere. But I have also concluded that there was more to the reality than what they had to say. This is terrain deserving further exploration, discussion, debate, and analysis. My hope is that what I offer in October Song will contribute to that collective process.

Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms

Boyer expresses concern about “Le Blanc’s frequent citation of Rosa Luxemburg’s book the Russian Revolution, without mentioning the controversy surrounding it,” which he considers “a big weakness.”

That there was controversy is incontestable. There is, of course, Lenin’s letter to Zinoviev, indicating that Clara Zetkin told him “Luxemburg did not want that article published, as she had come to disagree with much of it.” But disagreeing with much does not mean disagreeing with all.

There exists, for example, a handwritten report (according to scholar Ottokar Luban) by “her Polish party comrade H. Walecki a founding member of the Communist Party of Poland who had long talks with Rosa Luxemburg at the end of November or the beginning of December 1918 in Berlin. He [Walecki] tells: ‘She emphasized again the issues separating her [from the Bolsheviks] on the agrarian question, the question of nationalities, and the question of terror.’”

Needless to say, disagreement with Luxemburg on the first two questions doesn’t preclude finding something of value in what she says about the third.

Neither historical nor scholarly controversies should distract us from Luxemburg’s compelling insights. Her revolutionary internationalist and enthusiastic support for the Bolshevik Revolution matched early warnings regarding sweeping violations of democratic and human rights. Many who remained true to the socialist goal (including Zetkin and Trotsky) ended up embracing the kinds of things Luxemburg wrote in 1918.

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From → USSR/Russia

  1. les evenchick permalink

    I find Boyer’s response essentially superficial and ignorant. Not worth much at all.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  2. geoff1954 permalink

    Though I don’t share all of Mary Boyers’ views I believe he has raised some valuable thoughts. A comment like the one above by Les Evanchick does not advance the discussion in any way. That might be done by explaining WHY someone else’s ideas are “superficial and ignorant” or “not worth much at all.” But apparently old habits die hard and name-calling is easier.

    I am still in the middle of reading “October Song.” But my initial reaction is that Paul LeBlanc tends to underestimate the enormous challenges the Bolshevik leadership faced that led it to turn to “War Communism.” There was no possibility of a leisurely discussion regarding how best to defend the Revolution from, as Paul himself admits, an incredibly violent and brutal counterrevolutionary army assembled by the White generals with help from the imperialist powers. The single most important fact is that the revolutionary forces won the Civil War. I know of no wars — or serious strike battles — that are won without mistakes or errors.

    I have no objection to learning from such errors made under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership and certainly the entire question of the “mixed economy” is deserving of serious discussion. (In fact Lenin and Trotsky LED the process of learning from the errors of “War Communism” once there was the possibility of a “more leisurely” discussion.) But 100 years later, without the genuine pressures of imperialist invasion and ruthless civil war that the Bolsheviks had to face, it is easier to be critical.

    I am reminded of a comment made by the tour guide who accompanied my Militant/Perspectiva Mundial tour group during a visit to Cuba in 1980. He said many north Americans who he met through his work were like fans at a boxing match. They cheered Cuba on but always had many criticisms that were easier to make when one was outside of the boxing ring itself. Of course such an attitude can be used to improperly discount all legitimate criticism. But all proportions guarded, he had a point.

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