On Murray Bookchin's "Third Revolution"

Marching revolutionary workers in Petrograd 1917

The Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1921 was far more than a precursor to Communist terror and totalitarianism. In The Third Revolution Murray Bookchin recovered the sudden blooming of democracy after centuries of autocracy that occurred in the factory, neighbourhood and village committees of Russia. And how a chance to overthrow the rule of the commissars almost before it began was fatally lost.

It is curious that the Right now seems more interested in the Russian Revolution than the Left. A source of righteous horror for conservative historians that proves the inevitable trajectory of radical social change towards totalitarianism and mass murder, the left, by contrast, seems happy to consign the whole enterprise to the dustbin of history.

But veteran American leftist, Murray Bookchin has been rummaging around where others now disdain to look. This book is the penultimate volume in a mammoth history of “revolutions from below” from the Levellers of 17th century England to the anarchist-dominated Spanish revolution of 1936-7. Neither apologia or indictment, it does not deny the incipient totalitarianism or the ruthlessness, of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, but also recovers the radical democratic possibilities of the Revolution, however briefly they were realised before being snuffed out. It is a reinstatement of the Revolution as more than the precursor to Stalin’s terror.

It is a history that the author seems uniquely place to write. A teenage Communist, later Trotskyite and union activist, Bookchin became an anarchist in the 1960s and one of the first modern ecological thinkers, fusing the two strands of thought in a philosophy known as social ecology. He grew up in the revolutionary tradition. His Russian grandparents even smuggled guns into the country on the eve aborted 1905 Revolution.

It is this background, which gives the book is vivid closeness to its subject and almost journalistic, ground-level description of events. It often reads like the Russian epic it is describing, rather than the dry academic tomes of an EH Carr.

The core of the book is the description of the radical democratic revolution Russian underwent after the overthrow of the monarchy in February 1917. Not in government (the provisional government that replaced the Tsar appointed itself) but in the elected factory, neighbourhood and village committees, in the workers’ militia that outnumbered the police, and in the district soviets (or councils) which sprang up across Petrograd and Moscow, quite independently of the Bolsheviks and other socialist parties. “Workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants created a dazzling new social and economic reality that remade the institutional structure of Russian society,” writes Bookchin.

The factory committees, for example, apart from demanding rights such as the eight hour day and vetoing the appointment of unpopular managers, concerned themselves with all aspects of worker’s daily lives: “They saw to the saw the workers’ food supply, opening canteens and establishing co-operatives as hunger set in ... in time they took responsibility for the formation of workers’ militias, educational and cultural affairs, and campaigns against gambling and drunkenness ... Virtually no aspect of life escaped the attention of the committees. In one instance a committee took it upon itself to decide whether to busy scented soap for the workers.”

This sudden blooming of democracy after centuries of stifling autocracy created a momentum for change that the Provisional Government and the Petograd Soviet, dominated by orthodox Marxists who wanted to act as handmaidens to a bourgeois revolution, could not control. At a mass demonstration in July 1917, one sailor grabbed hold of the Socialist Revolutionary leader Victor Chernov, screaming: “why don’t you take power, you son of a bitch, when we are giving it to you!”

One revolutionary was prepared to. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had a profoundly unMarxist attitude of the power of individuals to change history and a personal maxim of “let’s just do it, then we’ll see” uncannily in tune with the advertising slogan of a modern footwear manufacturer. Bookchin does not condemn the bloodless Bolshevik coup of October 1917 which merely put the unelected Provisional government out of its misery. In fact early Bolshevik rule was distinctly libertarian, resembling the programme of Russia’s anarcho-syndicalists. Workers’ control in the factories was legalised, an immediate end to the war with Germany promised, land pledged to the peasants, equal rights for women and social insurance for workers were introduced, and the army replaced with a militia in which officers were elected.

Tragically it did not last. Whether obsessed by survival after the failure of western Europe to follow Russia into revolution or dominated by Lenin’s inherent authoritarianism, Communist rule gradually descended into dictatorship. Other socialist and revolutionary parties were kicked out of factory committees and soviets and arrested, workers were gunned down when they went out strike and a secret police or Cheka was established under the Polish poet Felix Dzerhinsky. Lenin was reduced to mouthing doublethink that “there is absolutely no contradiction between Soviet, that is socialist, democracy and the exercise of dictatorial power by individuals.”

But the descent into totalitarianism could have been averted. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries, short-time coalition partners of the Bolsheviks, had a different vision of Russia’s future based on worker’s control in factories, the traditional communalism of the peasantry and freedom for all socialist parties. In July 1918, furious at the German army’s continued incursions into Ukraine after the signing of the Brest Litovsk peace treaty, two members assassinated the German ambassador. Supported by 2,000 soldiers, the Left SRs barricaded themselves into the barracks of the Cheka, took over the telegraph office and declared that Communist rule had been overthrown. Lenin, with only 700 troops to defend  his regime, doubted whether he could hold out till morning. But the insurgents’ nerve failed them and their entire party leadership was subsequently arrested.

Finally in 1921, the Kronstadt sailors, ‘the pride and glory of the revolution’ according to Trotsky, rose up and called for a ‘third revolution’ to end the ‘commissarocracy’ and restore democracy to the soviets. But the Petrograd workers, exhausted by years of near famine conditions, did not respond and after a bloody battle the rebels were transported in chains through the streets of the city and then killed. “The Revolution had all but come to an end.”

The Third Revolution rescues from historical amnesia the men and women who fought and often died in revolutions that, however fleetingly, brought into reality radical ideas of freedom and democracy. But they ultimately were defeated. It was the authoritarians - the Cromwells, Robespierres and Lenins who emerged victorious. A lingering questions remains after reading this book - why do revolutions seem to inevitably devour their own ideals?

This review was originally published in Red Pepper magazine in 2004