1917 as world-historical event

Little can be understood about the causes and consequences of the Russian revolution outside its global context. Let's begin at 1900 when a handful of Western powers dominated the globe through the unprecedented force of industrially-manufactured arms and rational bureaucratic organization. Russia was lagging behind, only a notch better off than the Turks or Chinese. This geopolitical configuration looked as imposing and indestructible as the Titanic. And then, in 1914, the Powers engaged in a group suicide. The continent was re-pacified only after 1945, albeit now dwarfed and under the joint tutelage of its former frontier outliers, America and Russia.

First, how did Lenin win? And who was he, a devil or a visionary? Lenin was in fact a provincial autodidact who could become a great agrarian economist or a lawyer. But in imperial Russia, like the pre-1789 France or later so many Third World countries, the inherited aristocratic privilege stymied the aspirations of middle class of professionals. Instead, they became the famous intelligentsia who wrote great moralistic novels, passionately advocated for the peasants, and sometimes threw bombs. The political genius of Lenin was in his finding an alternative strategy. Essentially, he applied the Germanic organizational discipline for the creation of mass revolutionary party. The military defeat and disarray in the half-modernized, polyglot Russian empire gave Lenin's party their chance.

It is not surprising that the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. The real surprise was that they still kept power a year later. Consider the Mexican revolution which cost almost a million lives but changed so little. Its heroes Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in 1915 seized Mexico-city only to realize that they had no clue how to govern a ministry. Leaving in dismay, Villa told Zapata `Compadre, this rancho is too big for us'.

For once, Lenin showed how to survive victory. This would be replicated in dozens of revolutions and decolonizations. In theory, Lenin followed the philosophical vision of Karl Marx. In the ferocious practice of multi-sided civil war, he rather relied on other Germans: Bismarck and the pioneer of war-time planning Gen. Lüdendorf. Lenin's writings are also full of scornful admiration for another unlikely hero: that most modernistic and authoritarian of American industrialists, Henry Ford.

Three organizational adaptations in the main secured the Bolshevik victory and shaped the Soviet state for its duration. First, the commissar network of direct pervasive control and ideological guidance later called the nomenklatura (literally, the list of political appointments). The precedent was supplied by Jacobin France and Cromwell's dispatch of fighting preachers to the army of English parliament. The Bolshevik invention went beyond the imagination of Max Weber himself: the new party became a charismatic bureaucracy.

The second adaptation was regimented military economy that centralized all economic assets in the realm all the way down to peasant households. It was a single-goal strategic economy geared to the Fordist mass-production of modern weaponry. Given the interwar geopolitical environment, draconian sacrifices in popular consumption for the sake of rapid military industrialization seemed the only way of making the USSR a serious player in that world. The pursuit of human happiness had to wait. Besides, in their messianic belief to be the vanguard defenders of historical progress, how could the Bolsheviks ever compromise?

The third adaptation, however, was squarely Lenin's own. It was the creation of national republics united in the Soviet federation. In autumn 1918 Gen. Denikin's Whites crashed the Reds in the Cossack-populated plains of Kuban and Don before turning north, on Moscow. The remnants of defeated Bolsheviks fled into the Caucasus mountains where their commander, Kirov, engaged the Chechen Islamic sages in a peculiar theological debate. Comparing the teachings of Marx and Mohammed convinced many Chechens that the Reds were waging really a variety of holy jihad. The Red-Green guerrilla alliance of Bolsheviks and Chechens struck just as Denikin's army was closing on Moscow. Such romantic if short-lived alliances largely explain how the Reds prevailed over the intransigently conservative Whites.

This would be another major lesson for the future Third World: all socialist revolutions would inevitably acquire a national-liberation dimension, while all national-liberation movements would borrow some socialism. The road to victory was Leninism, with or without Marxism.
The Bolshevik alliances during Civil War thus created what its historian Terry Martin wryly called the `Affirmative Action Empire'. The centralizing nomenklatura operated just as well in the newly created national republics harnessing them into the joint modernizing effort. Yet outside the Russian provinces proper the nomenklatura and state-sponsored intelligentsia were mandated to be native. The national republics, especially those lesser developed, received generous economic aid. The nationality policy kept the Soviet Union together for seventy years, just as it would later work in preventing the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. Centrifugal forces would emerge only when the Soviet center began losing its developmental dynamism.

Critics stress the role of terror in making the USSR. Yet, terror alone cannot explain how could the Soviets overpower the Nazi war machine and then continued to balance against America. Those awesome tanks and airplanes, missiles and sputniks, moreover the people who designed, manufactured, and operated this machinery represented a transformative achievement of unprecedented scale and rapidity.

Ironically, the USSR did not end world capitalism but rather defended it from the Nazi world empire. Still more ironically, the USSR produced its own gravedigger by recasting millions of peasants into the modern urban educated specialists. This admittedly includes myself, an overeducated descendant of Armenian cobblers and Cossack villagers.

In the 1960s the USSR was at its pinnacle glorying in industrial and educational achievements. The very presence of the USSR on world arena forced Western capitalists to compete by planning their own economies to avoid depressions, offering a better bargain to workers and generous aid to former colonies. A humanizing convergence of capitalism and socialism was the word of the day. How different has the world of the 1960s has become since 1900...

Internally, however, Soviet rulers faced the new class of educated specialists who could not be treated like their hardy, fatalistic peasant ancestors. It is them - us, really, who pushed for a greater autonomy in cultural tastes, economic enterprise, political choice. In 1968 the West had its own problems with students rebelling against paternalistic bureaucracy. This was perhaps the first world revolution according to Max Weber rather than Marx. The rebellion of 1989 that buried the Soviet empire was really an aftershock of global 1968.

We are now just beginning to understand what happened to the 1989 project of my generation. This One thing seems to me clear. The anniversary of 1917 revolution is not an occasion for ritual celebration or penitent moralizing. It is an occasion for thinking rationally about the twentieth century world, about the glories, infamies, and the limits of industrial socialism. And about our world that is still moving somewhere.

Georgi M. Derluguian is A Russian Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago

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