1917: The Russian Revolution and the Origins of Present-Day
by Leonard Schapiro, Temple Smith, £12.95
- Leonard Schapiro was exceptionally
well-qualified to write a book on 1917. A leading academic authority on the
Bolsheviks (Professor at the LSE, author of The Communist Party of the
Soviet Union etc.), he witnessed the Russian revolution as well. Schapiro
completed 1917 in 1983, just before he died. His book is the
distillation of a lifetime's teaching and reflection on the Russian
revolution. It is both a concise and lucid narrative and a highly-charged piece
of political analysis.
- As narrative, 1917 fills a surprising
gap in the literature on the subject. There are a large number of detailed
studies of different aspects of the revolution, some of them brilliant works of
scholarship. But no simple, comprehensive account of the two revolutions and
the civil war exists. Schapiro's book is brief, but covers all the main
points with absolute clarity. It also incorporates the conclusions of the most
important recent research on the subject. The reader gets both an excellent
introduction to the Russian revolution and an idea of how new material is
causing thinking about it to change.
- The value of Schapiro's analysis is more
questionable. Schapiro was old and rigid, an adherent of the cold
war/totalitarianism school. His interpretation of the Russian revolution is
crude and unashamedly biased. He hates the Bolsheviks. He looks at the Russian
revolution purely from the point of view of political power.
- Schapiro's thesis goes roughly as follows.
After the disintegration of the monarchy in February 1917, there was general
support in the country for a broad-based socialist coalition. This quickly came
to mean support for the Soviets, rather than for the Provisional Government.
However, support for the Soviets did not mean support for the Bolsheviks, but
for the 'traditional ideals of Russian socialism', represented by the
SRs and, especially, the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks were a small band of
disciplined fanatics. They were able to seize power in October because no one
organised to stop them. They held on to it by annihilating their opponents,
ruthlessly manipulating public opinion and militarising the economy. Right up
to 1924, they were 'a largely unpopular party'. The first choice of a
majority of the population would have been 'some form of moderate
- While it is undoubtedly true that the
Bolsheviks were unscrupulous in their choice of methods and that they were not
supported by a majority of the population when they seized power.
Schapiro's thesis is prejudiced, one-sided and out-dated.
- Schapiro's hostility to Leninism (which he
sees as the precursor of Stalinism) leads him to maintain a position on the
Bolsheviks which has been shown to be wrong. He presents them as an
autocratically run and conspiratorial organization, staffed by a group of men
whose opinions were (with rare exceptions) uniform. Recent research, however,
including that of Rabinowitch (whom Schapiro himself quotes), has shown that
the Bolshevik party was not a homogeneous body, but a collection of committees.
Each of these tended to run its own affairs independently and take initiatives
of its own, regardless of the opinions and instruction of the Central
- Other problems with Schapiro's work stem
from the fact that he was an old-fashioned political historian. 1917 is
based on the premise that it is possible to understand the Russian revolution
purely in terms of political power, without reference to social or economic
- This, firstly, leads Schapiro into errors of
interpretation. He concentrates exclusively on the mechanics of the Bolshevik
seizure of power. This approach allows him to avoid discussing the appeal which
the Bolsheviks' programme held for industrial workers and peasants. He
seriously underestimates the degree of popular support which the Bolsheviks
enjoyed: the strong power base which, by October, they had in the cities; and
the enthusiasm generated by their land policy in the countryside, which was
probably the crucial factor in their victory in the civil war.
- Secondly, Schapiro's purely political
orientation affects his choice of period. He picks the dates 1917-1924 because
they delimit the transfer of political power. But, for any real understanding
of the Russian revolution, one needs to go both further back and further
forward. 1917 is not the right point at which to start. The events of that year
make sense only if viewed in the context of the rapid industrialisation of
Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 1924 is not a good place at
which to stop, because the most dramatic changes resulting from the Bolshevik
takeover - the social and economic transformation of Russia undertaken by
Stalin didn't happen until 1928-1933. Schapiro doesn't consider these
events part of the Russian revolution. Most younger historians, however, would
argue that they were and that a revolution should he defined as the period of
upheaval, social and economic as well as political, which intervenes between
the fall of an old regime and the firm consolidation of a new one. This is the
approach taken by Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her recent appraisal of the Russian
revolution, a work which forms an interesting contrast to Schapiro's.
- Schapiro's enduring advantage over more
modern historians, however, is that he lived in Petrograd as a boy (from
19l7-l920). This has helped him to bring what is essentially just a well
written text book to life. He has managed to breathe into it something of the
feel of the time - the euphoria, excitement and suffering of revolutionary
New Statesman, 20 April 1984