Walter Rodney
Original publication:

The Two World Views of the Russian Revolution (2018)

Walter Rodney intended to publish a book on the subject of the Russian Revolution based on his research and professorship, but his life was cut short and he wasn’t able to complete it. Historians Jesse Benjamin, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Vijay Prashad retrieved Rodney’s unfinished drafts and lecture notes and edited a volume titled The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (2018) in an effort to fulfill his wish. [1]

This excerpt is the first chapter of said work. The original contains extensive footnotes, I recommend anyone interested in the author or the subject matter to check it out.



Throughout the history of human knowledge, there have been two conceptions concerning the law of development of the universe, the metaphysical conception and the dialectical conception, which form two opposing world outlooks.
 — Chairman Mao Zedong, On Contradiction (1937). [2]

In the era from the confrontation with colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s through the process of decolonization, African scholars have resolved a number of issues. First, African history and society became a legitimate field of inquiry. Second, they have emphasized the need to counter the racist, colonialist orientation that predominated within the little that had been previously written. Third, they have given primacy to interpretations by Africans themselves. A similar and even more determined effort to overturn racist interpretations of history was made by African descendants in the New World, notably in the United States. This work is the basis for the proliferation of Black Studies programs and is responsible for the demand that, as far as black people are concerned, white people are historically disqualified from interpreting black folks to black folks. Consequently, the terms “African perspective,” and/or “black perspective” have emerged from both the continent and the Diaspora.

The concept of an “African perspective” is much broader than those of “African history,” “African society,” and “African culture.” An African scholar naturally designates activity by Africans as his primary field of study, but it does not take very long to discover that he/she is obligated to arrive at his/her own interpretation of human societies outside of Africa. At the University of the West Indies, Ibadan, Dar es Salaam, for example, the normal demands of teaching led rapidly to the decision that local staff should not merely master local affairs, but should replace Europeans presenting and interpreting Europe to Africa, and initiate the study of Asia, so as to provide our own people with a global perspective.

It was not so long ago that “we” in textbooks designed for Africans meant “we the British” or “we the French.” Conversely, “they” referred to Africans, which posed a crisis of identity, even when “they the Africans” are not referred to as savages or natives. This point hardly needs discussion with regard to studies of Africa itself, where the battle for an African identity has already been fought and won in principle. But looking at the outside world is necessary to underscore the new realization that Africans are “we,” and that we have to interpret the totality of human existence.

At the simplest level, an African account of, say, Australia or Switzerland written for Africans would demonstrate the characteristics of relating the foreign and unknown phenomenon to what is familiar in Africa. That is a very normal procedure. When the Dutch went to Benin in the seventeenth century, they exclaimed that Benin City was comparable to the best that Holland had to offer. Similarly, all Europeans compare Shaka to Napoleon, Dahomey to Sparta, and so on. Of course, for the present generation of educated Africans, a European parallel comes to mind more quickly than an African one. Nevertheless, the time will probably come when African teachers will make seventeenth-century European feudalism more readily comprehensible to African students by pointing to similarities and contrasts in fourteenth-century Ethiopia.

In initiating a study of the world at large, the African scholar or student can exercise choice — something that was impossible under colonialism. The colonized African did not merely study Europe; he concentrated heavily, sometimes exclusively on the “mother country.” The opening of the options allows for the establishment of priorities of relevance. In any event, the history of Europe or of a given European country from the fifteenth century to the present has had to give way to courses on African history. Therefore, what remains outside of African consciousness has to be rigorously studied.

There is no need to justify the selection; understanding the Soviet Union is a priority that is self-evident. Some awareness of the Soviet Union has seeped into the African consciousness, occasionally through direct tutoring among the educated, and more usually by inference and occasional references in different contexts. Both the books and the indirect references come from the colonizer to the colonized. The colonizer had national and ideological conflicts with the Soviet Union. Indeed, they were self-declared enemies. Therefore, “A” was interpreting his enemy, “B,” to a third party, “C,” which happens to be comprised of Africans. In the best of circumstances, such a procedure would be questionable, unless Africans had already agreed that our interests and basic outlooks coincided with those of Europe. As it is, we know for a fact how prejudiced and distorted Europe’s view of Africa has been. We know that European capitalism and imperialism continue to have our exploitation as their main objective. There is, therefore, every reason to be suspicious of the Western European (and American) view of the Soviet Revolution, and there is every reason to seek an African view.

In society, there are a variety of options within systems. To understand a system requires that we analyze both its national expressions and the social forces that shape the environment. The lives of Africans over the last five centuries have been affected to varying degrees by forces originating in Europe. Increasingly, Africa became enmeshed in the web of relations that constitute international capitalism — imperialism. The Russian Revolution was the first decisive break away from international capitalism, affecting thereby the subsequent course of events around the world, including Africa.

To a certain extent, this inquiry has as a premise that there is such a thing as “an African perspective,” and hopefully it will be demonstrated that the literature on the Russian Revolution bears out such an assumption. However, it is also possible to test the limits of the assumption by penetrating more deeply into the process of consciousness, the process by which individuals in society come to rationalize their social relations and external environment. Hence, it is necessary to introduce at a very early stage the concept of the two world views — idealism and materialism — representing fundamentally opposed aspects of consciousness.

There is an area of potential conflict that arises by trying to reconcile an African view with the two world views. It can be argued that aspects of ideology coming from Europe are irrelevant to the African perspective or the black world view. Conversely, it can and has been said that a world view is either idealist or materialist and that the label “African” conveys no meaning and probably mystifies. That issue can only be resolved in the forces of discussion, and it is my intention to try and avoid prejudgment. However, the very title of this chapter should indicate to the reader that whatever uniqueness one may attach to any given African view, it does not dispense with the necessity to recognize (1) the superiority of materialism over idealism, and (2) that materialist views are partial and do not take African perspectives into account.

A Preliminary Categorization of Writers on the Russian Revolution

Every piece of scholarship is implicitly and explicitly a review of previous work on a given subject. But, from time to time, it is also illuminating to direct attention specifically to the nature of existing studies on a particular theme. Historians often resort to this approach, as part of a tradition of assessing the scope and limitations of their own discipline. When this is done, the problem that immediately arises is one of categorization. Into what slot can this or that writer be fitted as a basis for further discussion? Not surprisingly, for the historian the answer is often to make use of a chronological scale. Assuming that the discussion concerns a set of events that took place at least a century or two ago, then it is a relatively simple matter to follow changing patterns of interpretation — starting with contemporaries of the events and moving toward the present. However, when the events are close to the present, a more synchronic approach is unavoidable. This is the situation with regard to the Russian Revolution.

The contrast implied above can best be seen by comparing writings on the Russian Revolution with those on the French Revolution. The mass of material produced by French historians on the central event in their national history falls fairly neatly into chronological eras. In the nineteenth century, it is possible to distinguish the Restoration from the rest of what was essentially a Republican era. The purposes and preoccupations of historians under the monarchy were quite different from those writers of a later date, even though liberal and conservative tendencies could be discerned in both periods. By the turn of the twentieth century, the nature of the debate among French historians on the French Revolution changed under the impact of socialist perceptions, which had been developing during the nineteenth century. After the First World War, the debate became more and more a clear-cut confrontation between socialists and non-socialists. This latter is the only framework that is meaningful as far as the Russian Revolution is concerned.

A chronological categorization to a great extent obscures the emergence of fundamental ideological differences in the interpretations of major historical events. The English Civil War of the seventeenth century, which often competes for the title of Revolution, is a case in point. It is entirely justifiable to distinguish between the predominantly “religious,” “constitutional,” and “economic” interpretations that have arisen at various times since the seventeenth century among historians reconstructing the English Civil War. In doing so, however, one or two Marxist views are brought in on the fringe as exhibits of how wide and exotic historical interpretations can be. But Marxist conclusions start from such different premises that they constitute a camp apart from all other interpretations, which share much more in common. From a Marxist viewpoint, in effect, there are only two world views that enter the picture. In the case of the historiography of the French Revolution, in spite of the more recent evolution, there is still confusion as to the order of difference between several interpretations. That is to say, it is still fashionable to list the “Liberal” Thiers, the “Conservative” Taine, the “Social Democrat” Jaurès and Marx himself (or the “Marxist” Soboul) as though the difference of degree and kind are more or less constant as one takes each of these writers in turn. That is the equivalent of a taxonomy which presumed the same order of difference between sheepdog, wolf, cat and lion!

The Russian Revolution, which broke out in 1917, is virtually a contemporary event. The sorts of changes that took place in the manner in which this event has been presented over time are not yet very significant. Any overview of the literature on the topic must use compartments based on differences of approach among historians and other social scientists, viewed virtually as a single generation of writers. This compartmentalization can be done on a purely subjective basis, as evidenced by James Billington’s article “Six Views of the Russian Revolution,” in which he is solely concerned with subjective attitudes such as nostalgia, regret and notions of glory. [3] However, the division reflecting the social reality of the contemporary world is that between Marxist and bourgeois views. When this is overlooked, it suggests an extreme case of mental confusion, since the Russian Revolution itself did more than any other historical event to bring about ideological polarization on a world scale between the two world views of the socialist and capitalist systems.

Before the Russian Revolution, the world at large shared the “metaphysical conception” of which Chairman Mao Zedong speaks in the opening epigraph. In Europe, the metaphysical conception took the form of bourgeois idealism, which had largely superseded the more overtly metaphysical views that had dominated Europe’s perception of man and nature during the feudal epoch. Outside of Europe, metaphysical views with a highly religious and anti-scientific content predominated. In such a context, the materialist conception was partially and inadequately grasped. Nevertheless, in the form clarified by Marx and Engels, the materialist world view was accepted by a number of individuals in the latter part of the nineteenth century. With the rise of the Soviet Union, Marxism was to acquire a class base and the support of a state power. Later, other states were to follow this lead through revolution.

The rise of states governed by Marxism sharpened the contradictions between socialist and bourgeois ideologies, producing an ideological war for the possession of the whole world. The writing of history has been a facet of, and a weapon in, that war, and historians interpreting the Russian Revolution itself have been active combatants. In analyzing the alignment of different historians, it is easier to start with the Marxist camp, which is the more readily recognizable because it is self-declared. Foremost in that camp are the Soviet historians. To the outside world, and especially to the non-specialist, the names of individual Soviet scholars of the revolution are not well known. Their works in foreign languages were almost invariably joint productions under the aegis of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Soviet Academy of Sciences. However, it does not in the least defeat our purpose to recognize the collective personality that Soviet writers have assumed. Any history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, any text on the Russian Revolution, any biography of Lenin or Stalin produced at any time in the Soviet Union, can be fairly regarded as the official Soviet view at that particular time, rather than a purely personal and perhaps eccentric expression by a single writer. It is only reasonable that Soviet historians should receive priority in a study of the historiography of the Russian Revolution, because they are interpreting national history. They have been closest to the most-relevant source materials, and they are trying to make sense of a reality that they themselves have experienced and are still experiencing.

Outside of the Soviet Union, a number of Marxists have also produced conclusions substantially in accord with those in vogue in the Soviet Union. Most supporting interpretations were written not by professional scholars but people who had ideological affinities with those who had firsthand knowledge of the revolution. One of the most famous contemporary accounts was that of John Reed, whose memoir Ten Days that Shook the World received the imprimatur of Lenin himself. [4] The publication by the American labor unionist William Z. Foster was also in the same vein; and it was written after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1922. [5] However, in the Western world, much of the early enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution died out within a short time. That seems to be one of the key reasons why few major scholarly Marxist studies have been carried out in the West on the Russian Revolution from an entirely sympathetic viewpoint. A well-known example is Christopher Hill’s biography of Lenin, written as long ago as 1947. [6] Since then, a number of articles and monographs by the English Marxian economist Maurice Dobb have had a virtual monopoly of the role of the pro-Soviet interpretations in the Anglophone world. [7]

Most Western Marxist interpretations of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime range from mild criticism to bitter denunciation. This started at the period contemporaneous with the outbreak of the Revolution of 1917, as part of the debate among European Marxists concerning tactics, strategy and the fundamentals of Marxism. Inside of Russia, the Mensheviks provided the major dissident Marxist force. Their later writings constitute a self-declared Marxist interpretation that is often diametrically opposed to the equally self-declared Marxist position of officially endorsed Soviet historians. One acceptable piece of Menshevik historical writing is that of Raphael Abramovitch, a prominent figure in the Menshevik hierarchy in the period before 1917. [8] Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, two of the most prominent Marxists on the European scene at the time of the 1917 Revolution, took issue with the Bolsheviks. Their disagreements are in fact part of the history of that period, but they must be considered within the context of Marxist scholars commenting on the Russian Revolution. In the first place, one of the crucial issues of the historiography is that concerning the application of Marxism as theory to the program of revolution and reconstruction in Russia. Both Kautsky and Luxemburg have a contribution to make in that respect. Secondly, their works have been republished and integrated into subsequent debate on the nature of the Russian Revolution.

With regard to Leon Trotsky, there is a similar situation of contemporary debate leading directly to subsequent historical controversy. Trotsky began writing historical and polemical accounts before his departure from the Soviet Union. That part of his work written at that time, and even subsequently, which dealt with the period before 1924 does bear a considerable resemblance to the official Soviet versions. But, of course, when Trotsky writes of the period when he was Stalin’s foremost antagonist, the gap between his interpretation and that of Soviet historians is virtually unbridgeable. Trotsky was not just a participant at the center of the Russian Revolution, but a historian in his own right. He was also the founder of the Fourth International and attracted a considerable intellectual following. The work of the “Trotskyites,” both in the form of pamphlets and full-length historical interpretations, constitutes a body of literature that is distinctive and has to be dealt with separately in a study such as this.

Apart from Trotsky and Trotskyites, many other Marxists fell out with the government and the Party of the Soviet Union. There has been a common thread uniting the published work of a larger number of defectors from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as ex-members of the Communist parties in the West. Their shared disillusionment is well brought out in the oft-cited compilation The God That Failed[9] In some instances, these ex-members of Communist parties have become apostates ideologically, but in other instances they claim to continue to make their criticism of the Russian Revolution from a committed, initially Marxist standpoint. This is to group them with all others with sufficient reason to profess to share the materialist world outlook; and the scant attention which will actually be paid to that particular approach in this study is due solely to the fact that most of their literature relates to the period following upon the second great war started by the capitalist powers, while the limit of the Russian Revolution is here taken to be the eve of that war.

To the extent that doubt may be cast upon the Marxist authenticity of any one of the writers or groups referred to above, their categorization remains provisional at this stage. There are many popes in the Marxist world who ordain and excommunicate this or that person or organization as true or false Marxists. Hopefully, that attitude will be avoided in this study, but it may be that in the final analysis a self-professed Marxist interpretation of the Russian Revolution will appear to have ignored all the principles of analysis based on the materialist/dialectical mode of perception. With regard to bourgeois interpretations, there is no such likelihood of having to deny the claims of self-declared supporters of capitalism. On the contrary, their modus operandi is such that they seldom declare their initial position in unequivocal terms; therefore one of the first tasks is weighing up the terms; and non-Marxist scholarship is to bring to the fore its idealist subjective bourgeois premises.

It is quite justifiable to treat the bourgeois writers as falling into a residual category of non-Marxists. All writers who do not claim to be Marxist, or at least some form of socialist, are solidly in the bourgeois camp. One reason that they are very coy in declaring themselves as such is that the word “bourgeois” carries powerful condemnatory overtones, which they would not readily accept. A second reason is that bourgeois scholarship always pretends to hold a monopoly of truth and reason; and most bourgeois writers fall over themselves to stress that they approach issues open-mindedly and dispassionately. According to that line of argument, the Marxist has prejudged issues, has a closed mind and is partisan. It would therefore be unwise for the bourgeois scholar to expose his own set of assumptions — thereby revealing that he and the Marxist are following the same pattern of arguing from established premises, but that the premises are different and the very methodology of analysis is different. Such an exposure and revelation would force one to reconsider the relative premises and methodologies; and it is clear that the bourgeois scholar is afraid of just that.

In a situation in which bourgeois scholars have a monopoly, their differing conclusions are considered as the complete sample of reasoned inquiry into that particular subject, with a Marxist view occasionally thrown in to illustrate that men are sometimes bereft of reason. For all practical purposes, the historiography of the Russian Revolution in a standard Western institution means the several opinions expressed by orthodox Western scholars on the subject. A useful illustration of that fact is seen in the selections produced in the series “Problems in European History.” That series ostensibly sets out to demonstrate significant interpretations on various subjects, and it includes three volumes relevant to the Russian Revolution. [10] In none of them is there any serious presentation of the Soviet view — a view that is significant if for no reason other than the fact that it is the common understanding of Soviet citizens and millions of other residents in socialist countries. In none of the said volumes is there any balancing in terms of space of the various Marxist views alongside of various bourgeois positions.

The Bourgeois Overview

The bourgeois view has the following characteristics: (1) claims to be concerned with humanity rather than a given class; (2) high level of subjectivism; (3) refuses to recognize contradictions, except at a superficial level. As an example of the first, one can take the work of the English historian, Hugh Seton-Watson of Oxford, one of the leading English historians of Russia and Communist Europe. Seton-Watson is solidly in the bourgeois camp, as seen when he refers skeptically to communism as “a theory which professes to explain philosophy, religion, history, economics and society.” He then goes on to say bluntly that “Communism is a science of conspiracy, a technique of wrecking and subversion.” [11] While decrying the Bolsheviks for crushing democracy, he constantly makes statements such as the “simple and guileless workers and peasants,” the “politically ignorant and gullible masses,” the “simple peasants.” [12] However much as he might pretend to be speaking in the name of democracy, he gives himself away by those terms in two ways. He indirectly admits of the fundamental class gulf between his class and the working class; and he shows that at bottom he has little regard for the workers and peasants and their political capacities.

It should be noted that within revolutionary historiography, the conservative historians always expose themselves by their contemptuous attitude to the common people. Burke, Barruel, Taine and to some extent de Tocqueville writing on the French Revolution can be found constantly referring to the “mob” and the “rabble.” They claim that these people have no right or capacity to rule and merely give way to blind passions. There are other historians who are even less discreet than Seton-Watson in hiding their bourgeois snobbery toward the workers and peasants.

An extreme example is Jacob Walkin’s The Rise of Democracy in Pre-Revolutionary Russia. By the very title, he lays claim to be speaking on behalf of the people at large. But he makes little attempt to hide the utter contempt that he felt toward the workers and peasants. Walkin starts with the Revolution of 1905. Why did the workers and peasants follow radical slogans? “It would be a mistake to conclude that the workers understood the significance of the slogans they heard.” [13] Another question that immediately poses itself: How then does one explain the revolution if not as a conscious ideological move forward, as Marxists say? To that, Walkin would reply, “At the base of the Revolution of 1905 was the emergence of a primitive, elemental and anarchistic force.” [14] This same force reemerged in 1917, according to this historian, because the administrative machinery broke down. Again, using Walkin’s own words, one can see his innate class snobbery. “With the disappearance of administrative machinery in March 1917 full sway was given to the anarchistic and irresponsible tendencies of the primitive Russian workers.” [15] What Soviet writers call the mobilization of workers under the Bolsheviks after March, Walkin refers to as a mob of violence and anarchy: “The still primitive masses, who degenerated into mobs seeking to gratify what they understood as their rights, without regard for their obligations to the law, the general interest or the rights of others.” [16]

Of the two, Seton-Watson is the more important figure and the more dangerous. His language is not as vicious, and it is easier to be misled by his implied assumption that one need not seek out class alignments, because it is sufficient to speak vaguely of democracy.

Another bourgeois approach that can be quite effective is the subjectivist one, which does not start by examining reality as it exists but rather puts forward for the reader a set of evocative images that come from his own mind — words such as “dictatorship,” “terror,” and even “communist” are used to convey the required impressions. This carries history into the realm of narcotic drugs — such historians really take one on a trip.

A good example of this type of writing comes from R. N. Carew Hunt, widely believed to be a British intelligence agent, who parades as a scholar and authority on the Soviet Union. His best-known work is a dictionary: A Guide to Communist Jargon[17] Marxist writers have inevitably had to find new terms to describe society in the way it is seen by the members of oppressed classes. The language lacks the urbanity and refinement that the bourgeoisie developed as an expression of its own disassociation from sweat and cow dung. But of course, in their supercilious manner, bourgeois scholars like Hunt see nothing in Soviet and other Marxist writings except “jargon.” The subjectivist approach of Carew Hunt and many other bourgeois scholars often reflects itself in their preoccupation with individuals rather than with broad social forces. An extreme example of this is found in the book on Stalin by the American historian Francis Randall. Everything that happened in the Soviet Union between 1925 and 1953 was personally attributable to Stalin, as far as Randall is concerned. [18] It should be noted in passing that Soviet and other Marxist writers are not always exempt from subjectivism, nor from traits such as concentration on personalities rather than social forces. But the vice is far more widespread among bourgeois writers because their ideological preparation does not equip them to deal with objective reality.

Bourgeois historians can be led into absurd positions, through their failure to perceive the deep-rooted contradictions in human society. An example of this absurdity is seen in the work of Bernard Pares, notably his The Fall of the Russian Monarchy[19] He calls it a “study of the evidence,” but the evidence of whom or what? His evidence comprises memoirs of the Russian ruling class. He admits that the Empress Alexandra’s letters were his chief source. His object is an intimate knowledge of the internal workings of the government. This is not even good bourgeois history — it is feudal in its sole preoccupation with what kings and queens did.

When Tsar Nicholas agreed to have an audience with Prince Bergius Trubetskoy in 1905, Pares comments, “the emperor at last found himself in intimate contact with men who were really representative of the public.” [20] That is to say, his idea of the “public” does not extend beyond the tiny circle of aristocrats and bureaucrats who participated in tsarist politics. Pares’s class prejudices lead him to be exclusively concerned with an inconsequential section of the whole picture. He sees that area of court life as the most fundamental aspect of the whole picture, and he concludes that the revolutions came not at all from below but from above. In his view the revolution of February 1917 did not spring from the sort of fundamental contradictions about which Soviet historians write, but rather it occurred because the ruling class of the tsar and his advisers fell asleep and never woke up. This is an elitist notion that seeks to deny the working class any role in history. It is a notion fundamentally opposed to a socialist conception of the dignity of the working class.

To understand the hegemony of the bourgeois view of history, particularly of interpretations of the Russian Revolution, we need to interrogate the university institutions that are responsible for the vast majority of research and publications in the field. From a Marxist materialist standpoint, the university is an important element of the superstructure. If the production relations in the society are capitalist, then the superstructure of belief and action is also capitalist, and the university would obviously serve the interests of the capitalist or bourgeois class. Even from a non-Marxist standpoint, the above contention is invariably upheld directly or indirectly. It is well understood at all levels of English society that the upper strata of the ruling class receive their education at certain universities, and before that at the exclusive public schools. In the United States, there are perhaps more illusions that the universities are meant to serve the pursuit of truth, justice, aesthetics and the like; but studies devoted to the subject invariably come up with different conclusions. G. William Domhoff, in his book Who Rules America?, explicitly states that his starting point is not Marxist, but he is in no doubt with concern to the role of America’s leading universities as tools of the big capitalists. Domhoff writes as follows: “Control of America’s leading universities by members of the American business aristocracy is more direct than with any other institution which they control … These mechanisms give the upper class control of the broad framework, the long-run goals, and the general atmosphere of the university.” [21]

The long-run control of the big bourgeoisie is not incompatible with a limited degree of freedom in day-to-day affairs, which allows for some deviation within the universities. Therefore, it is not impossible for a materialist world view to come from a writer within a western and bourgeois institution. Besides, progressive non-Marxists’ views can also challenge the standard bourgeois approaches. However, it is the rarity of such occurrences that must be stressed. There are several factors at work toward the elimination of any rebel or non-conformist tendencies. At one level, there is direct action to remove those who step out of line. Those who are familiar with the politics of university appointments, tenure, promotions, et cetera, know it to be a ruthless business. One tendency is that where there is a powerful, pampered professor in a certain field, he surrounds himself with a chorus of sycophants, and the non-conformists are weeded out.

Above all, when any group of scholars works together closely in an institution, they tend to develop common approaches to problems. Indeed, this tendency links together universities in the national and international context, leading to the formation of broad schools of thought within particular disciplines. As far as the Russian Revolution is concerned, a very potent influence has been exercised in this sense by Russian émigrés who were given favored positions in academic institutions because of their familiarity with the language, their plausibility in terms of having lived most of their lives in Russia, and their compatible ideological outlook. These émigrés were usually “White Russians,” hostile to the Communist government of the Soviet Union and grateful to their capitalist hosts in the United States and other countries. They did not hesitate in declaring their bourgeois orientation.

The strong bourgeois émigré interpretation made itself felt directly through the widely circulated works of such scholars as Michael Karpovich of Harvard, George Vernadsky of Yale, and Michael Florinsky of Columbia. Besides, their influence was indirectly exercised through the generation of native American (white) scholars whom they trained on the Russian Revolution and other aspects of specialization of Soviet studies. The “acknowledgement” page of numerous prominent American historians of the Russian Revolution invariably reads like a “who’s who” of Russian émigré circles as far as the academic world is concerned.

In England, the London School of Economics was one institution where Soviet studies had a special bourgeois flavor under the guidance of Leonard Schapiro, a staunch anti-communist of Central European background. Schapiro prefaces one of his works on the Soviet Union by stating, “I do not pretend to conceal my predilection for a society based on the established legal order.” [22] Every society is based on an established legal order, so either the learned professor was saying absolutely nothing, or he had something else in mind. The fact is that such are the curious sophistries by which many bourgeois scholars admit to support of the established order of capitalist society.

From time to time, the bourgeois scholar does reveal his ideological prejudices in a frank manner outside of the body of his study. An entertaining example of this type is to be found in Adam Ulam’s preface to one of his books on the Soviet Union, entitled The Unfinished Revolution. He writes, “It is perhaps appropriate in view of one of the main themes of the book, that this study of socialism should have been assisted by Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, the names being those of the foundations which have been very generous.” [23] One would have to search very hard in the history of capitalism to find another trio of capitalist exploiters bigger than Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Carnegie! Their “philanthropic” foundations sponsor academic research and publications to promote the bourgeois ideology and the capitalist system. It would be unfair to say that everyone who receives money from such capitalist foundations necessarily shares the values of the capitalists who give the money, but in the case of Adam Ulam, he himself is affirming that his purpose and conclusions with regard to his study of socialist Russia do justice to his capitalist sponsors.

Adam Ulam is a foremost American scholar on the Russian Revolution based at Harvard, where he is a professor of government at the Institute of Russian Research. That fact is also prima facie evidence of his bourgeois commitment and orthodoxy, because not only is Harvard a bastion of the ideological superstructure in the United States, but that particular Russian center has been exposed as a very active instrument of the American state. In other words, some institutions are more compromised than others within the bourgeois camp, and studies emanating from such institutions are more compromised than others within the bourgeois camp, and studies emanating from such institutions are unmistakably of a certain ideological flavor, as are studies emanating from a Soviet university under the aegis of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and/or the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. One such institution, which is most relevant to a study of views on the Russian Revolution, is the Hoover Institution for War and Peace at Stanford University.

The Hoover Institution is notorious for its connections with the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. The kinds of projects for which they make funds available are the publication of accounts by Russians hostile to the Communist regime, or other Americans writing diatribes against Communism. In 1955, the Hoover Institution published Harold H. Fisher’s The Communist Revolution. Fisher took the stand that “the Soviet-led Communist movement seeks the same ends by the same means and threatens our liberties and those of other free peoples.” [24] The reader would need to ask whether he or she is included in Fisher’s collective “our,” and whether he or she wants to be included, bearing in mind that the “free people” to whom he refers include the oppressed masses of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Latin America, plus (in 1955) all the colonized and exploited people of Africa and Asia and all the oppressed black people within the United States!

If one were to single out a bourgeois writer whose studies on the Russian Revolution are least redolent of the above assumption, that it is a revolution that threatened “free people,” the most likely candidate would be E. H. Carr. Carr is a perceptive historian whose reflections on the writing and meaning of history are well known. [25] The Russian Revolution has been his major field in a long academic career, and his multi-volume history of the Russian Revolution is worthy of consideration as one of the few texts that have already come to be considered “classics” on this subject. These volumes, and other studies by this English historian, display considerable sympathy for the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian Revolution and for the Russian people who reaped the fruits and sufferings of the revolution. It is illuminating to notice what an orthodox bourgeois reactionary says of Carr. The above-mentioned Schapiro, in the preface to his own book The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, mentioned that “Mr. E. H. Carr read the manuscript at an early stage in its existence, and made a number of comments on points of detail which I was glad to adopt. I regret that I was not able to adopt some other suggestions, because our interpretation of the facts diverged too fundamentally.” [26]

The Soviet Overview

One expects to find certain basic Marxist features within the Soviet analysis, such as emphasis on contradictions, technology, class and ideology. The basis of the Marxist world outlook is the notion of dialectical materialism. It is a notion that first of all recognizes that change and historical movement are dependent upon the contradictions within things and between things. Any form of logic other than dialectics assumes that when one has a given object the object remains constant and discrete in itself. The dialectical notion stresses that every phenomenon is constantly transforming itself, owing to its own internal contradictions and to contradictions between itself and other phenomena.

Thus, bourgeois logic expects to find a bourgeois class in existence at a particular point in time and to see that same bourgeois class in existence one hundred years later. Marx stressed that the bourgeois class was evolving because of its own internal contradictions, because of contradictions between itself and other classes and because of the basic contradictions between man and nature.

According to the classic formulation of dialectics, one can always discern a pair of opposites in operation-thesis and antithesis, giving rise to synthesis, which in turn is merely a thesis in relation to another opposite. Hence the law of the unity of opposites. How can one have a proletariat without a bourgeoisie? And so long as one has them both, one has a contradiction, just as there was previously a contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.

The vital role of technology comes about because technology is required to solve the oldest and most persistent of all contradictions — that between man and nature. For Marx, it is within nature and the material conditions of existence that one must find the motive forces in history. There were others who believed in dialectics, but who believed that all history flowed from ideas. This was the case with Marx’s predecessor, Hegel. Marx, however, insisted on the primacy of matter over ideas, and having given priority to the material conditions of man’s existence as the mainspring of history, he naturally gave similar high priority to man’s tools or technology for achieving mastery of the material environment.

According to their way of earning a living, men in society fell into definite categories. In feudal times, those who earned their living through possession of land were the aristocratic class, while those who earned theirs by working on the nobles’ lands were the serfs. Under capitalism, those who owned the factories (the principal means of production) were the bourgeoisie or capitalists, while those who sold their labor to exist were the workers or proletariat. Within society itself, this contradiction between classes was the most dynamic force, and it led to revolution at certain junctures in history when the class in power was overcome by its challenger.

Ideas came after matter. The ideas in men’s heads were the reflection of their material environment, their state of technology, their class position and the ideas that they inherited historically, which too were ultimately traceable to material conditions. The sum total of ideas in men’s heads can be called “ideology” of consciousness. Since men in society fell into classes, their ideology of consciousness had the stamp of a particular class on it. There was feudal ideology, bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology, which is socialism.

When the Soviet historians look at the old regime in Russia, they first explained how the development of technology had produced and transformed classes. The bourgeoisie had been produced out of the peasantry and the aristocracy; the proletariat had been produced out of the peasantry. They explain how the presence of large factories affected the character of the proletariat and how the backwardness of agrarian technology affected the peasants. [27] They identify the principal class contradictions as being that between the bourgeoisie and the workers, and that between the aristocracy and the peasants. In addition, they note the contradictions between the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist state and the mass of the people. [28] They see the contradiction between Great Russia and the colonial parts of the Russian Empire. [29] They note the contradictions between Russian national interests and the interests of the Western capitalists. [30] They explicitly commit themselves to the side of the workers and peasants.

As far as ideology is concerned, one can gather directly or indirectly from Soviet presentations that the bourgeois ideology was only partially represented in the Russian state structure. Bourgeois elements wanted to go further — to remove feudal traces and remold the state structure to bring it in line with the bourgeois democracy of Western Europe. Besides, there was also the Marxist socialist ideology, which attacked not only feudalism, but capitalism as well, and this ideology was carried forward by the Bolsheviks.

The Soviet view combines the above elements by saying that the various contradictions were sharpening during the late nineteenth century and led inevitably to the outbreak of revolution in February and March 1917. The bourgeoisie thereupon tried to take over state power through the Provisional Government. However, guided by Marxist theory and the Bolshevik Party, the workers and peasants overthrew the bourgeoisie in October 1917. Subsequently, the Bolshevik party spearheaded the people’s struggle to build a socialist society.

Soviet historians would draw attention to two further factors that aided the workers and peasants in their seizure of state power both in February and October. The first was the contradictions between the capitalist/imperialist powers in the form of the world war, and the second was the contradiction between Great Russia and the colonies, leading to nationality struggles.

If it was not already a common understanding, then it should now be clear from this brief preview that sharp differences can appear among scholars professing the same fundamental world outlook. The debate within ideological camps or between them is sometimes about “facts” or the validity of sources. But all serious studies on the writing of history concur in stressing what the historian brings to his sources: the prejudices and biases that reflect an individual’s distinctive social group and particular historical epoch in which she/he lives. To categorize a view as either Marxist or bourgeois — materialist or idealist — is to identify its most important bias. Furthermore, the differences between the materialist and idealist modes of perception emerge more strongly in some kinds of discussions than in others. A discussion of the Russian Revolution is certainly one instance where the ideological biases are highly relevant, and most striking. Besides, to approach the debate with an ideological schema is to focus on the most important issue of our time: the confrontation between capitalism and socialism, incorporating all the world-shaking problems of national liberation, racial emancipation, economic development and the liberation of man.

  1. Walter Rodney, 2018. The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. Edited by Jesse Benjamin, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Vijay Prashad. [web] 

  2. Mao Zedong, 1937. On Contradiction. [web] 

  3. James H. Billington, “Six Views of the Russian Revolution,” World Politics 18, no. 3 (April 1966), 452–73. 

  4. John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (New York: New American Library, 1967, orig. 1919). 

  5. William Z. Foster, The Russian Revolution (Chicago: Trade Union Educational League, 1922). 

  6. Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971, orig. 1947). 

  7. Maurice Dobb, Russian Economic Development Since the Revolution (London: Routledge, 1928) and Soviet Economic Development Since 1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1966, orig. 1948). 

  8. Raphael Ambramovitch, The Soviet Revolution, 1917–1939 (New York: International Universities Press, 1962). 

  9. Richard Crossman, ed., The God That Failed (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950). 

  10. The works to which Rodney refers are mainly collections edited by Arthur E. Adams: Imperial Russia after 1861: Peaceful Modernization or Revolution? (Boston: D.C. Heath Co., 1965); The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik Victory: Why and How? (Boston: D.C. Heath Co., 1960); The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik Victory: Causes and Processes (Boston: D.C. Heath Co., 1960). 

  11. Hugh Seton-Watson, The Pattern of Communist Revolution: A Historical Analysis (London: Methuen & Co., 1953), vii. 

  12. This is the case in all of his works. See The Russian Empire, 1801–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967); The Decline of Imperial Russia, 1855–1914 (London: Methuen & Co., 1952); in addition to The Pattern of Communist Revolution

  13. Jacob Walkin, The Rise of Democracy in Pre-Revolutionary Russia: Political and Social Institutions Under the Last Three Czars (New York: Praeger, 1962), 206. 

  14. Ibid., 206. 

  15. Ibid., 235. 

  16. Ibid., 239. 

  17. R. N. Carew Hunt, A Guide to Communist Jargon (New York: Macmillan, 1957). Another popular work by Hunt is The Theory and Practice of Communism (New York: Macmillan, 1950). 

  18. Francis B. Randall, Stalin’s Russia: An Historical Reconsideration (New York: The Free Press, 1965), 1–2, 6, 8, 9. 

  19. Bernard Pares, The Fall of the Russian Monarchy: A Study of the Evidence (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1930). 

  20. Ibid, 82. 

  21. G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? (Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 77. 

  22. Leonard Schapiro, The Origins of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State — First Phase, 1917–1922 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977, orig. 1955), xi. 

  23. Adam B. Ulam, The Unfinished Revolution: An Essay on the Sources of Influence of Marxism and Socialism (New York: Random House, 1960), i. 

  24. Harold H. Fisher, The Communist Revolution: An Outline of Strategy and Tactics (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1955), iii. 

  25. See E. H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage, 1961). 

  26. Schapiro, The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, xiv. 

  27. Outline History of the USSR (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960), 142–5; V. I. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Collected Works, vol. 3, 228–35, 431–5, 496–507; A. M. Pankratova et. al., A History of the USSR (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947), part II, 231–4. 

  28. Pankratova et. al., A History of the USSR, part II, 230–7; Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 191–3; 369–78. 

  29. Pankratova et. al., A History of the USSR, part II, 240–3. 

  30. Outline History of the USSR, 155–67; Pankratova et. al., A History of the USSR, part III, 13–18; Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, in Collected Works, vol. 22.