What We Didn’t Learn About the Russian Revolution in School

 

The History of the Russian Revolution

By Leon Trotsky (1930)

Free link: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/

Book Review

In Peoples History of the Russian Revolution, author Neil Faulkner strongly recommends readers also read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (on which Peoples History is based). In this epic volume, Trotsky painstakingly assembles meeting notes (by friends and enemies of the Bolshevik Party) of the Petrograd Soviet, the Russian Duma and the Bolshevik Central Committee, which he intersperses with historical footnotes and political analyses.

The resulting narrative reveals how the Bolshevik Party systematically used the period of Dual Government (between February and October 1917*) to build Bolshevik majorities in the soviets and workers and soldiers committee throughout Russia. At the time of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks didn’t enjoy a majority in the peasant committees or soviets. However they advocated a similar land reform agenda as the Social Revolutionary Party that controlled rural Russia, and Lenin made initial concessions by allowing peasants to redistribute the landowner estates they seized as individual private plots (instead of collectivizing them).

Trotsky’s overview of this period differs greatly from what we are taught in US schools and universities. Some of the surprising facts I gleaned from this book are

  1. Owing to Bolshevik/Left Social Revolutionary majorities, Russian workers won the right legislatively to establish a worker-run state but were blocked by reactionary monarchists, landowners, militarists and their political puppets from implementing this reform. Workers would eventually be forced to arm themselves and forcibly seize Petrograd’s factories, utilities and instruments of state to make this happen.
  2. The Bolshevik Party didn’t have sufficient strength to forcibly seize all the factories and farms on behalf of the workers. The principal effect of the October Revolution was to give workers and peasants permission to seize factories and transform them into worker-run cooperatives. By October 1917, workers and peasants had already seized multiple factories and estates all across Russia. The creation of a formal worker-run state merely gave permission for all Russian workers and peasants to do so.
  3. The grassroots worker and peasant committees were far more militant than any of the soviets, just as grassroots members were far more militant than the Bolshevik Central Committee.
  4. Unlike the February Revolution, which looked like a typical insurrection with thousands of workers launching a general strike and taking to the street, the October Revolution was virtually invisible to the majority of Petrograd** residents. Except for 25,000-30,0000 workers and renegade soldiers and sailors who made up the Red Guard, Petrograd workers went to their factories and shopkeepers opened for business. Most government troops who weren’t at the front had either mutinied or deserted. Thus when armed Red Guards showed up at the post office, telegraph office, telephone exchange, power station, state bank, etc. the bureaucrats in charge quietly surrendered control of these institutions.
  5. The October Revolution was virtually bloodless, except for the seizure of the Winter Palace. Trotsky blames the loss of life on both sides on a botched military operation and unstrategic delay that gave government ministers the opportunity to send to the front for military reinforcement.

For people who aren’t inclined to read the entire book, I strongly recommend Chapter 43 The Art of Insurrection and Chapter 44 The Conquest of the Capital The Conquest of the Capitol


*See Peoples History of the Russian Revolution for an explanation of dual power.

**In 2017 Petrograd was the capitol of Russian and the seat of power.

Nuit Debut: Profile of an Insurrection

Struggles at Nuit Debut

Media Lien (2016)

Film Review

Below is a videographic examination of the months long Nuit Debut (Up All Night) movement in Paris. The latter, along with a series of rolling strikes, is a reaction to the draconian anti-labor law President Francois Hollande illegally enacted by decree.

The documentary consists of dramatic street footage interspersed with participants offering a range of viewpoints on the French uprising. Owing to its spontaneous formation, Nuit Debut has little formal structure. In essence 500 plus people meet every night after work in the Place Republique from 5-11 pm, holding general assemblies and forming self-organized “commissions” devoted to specific areas of focus – climate/ecology, labor law, urban gardens, constitution reform, refugee rights, etc.

According to one member, the real political activity (strikes, protests, etc) occurs in small groups on the periphery of the general assemblies. Participants have a variety of expectations for Nuit Debut, ranging from insurrection, a new republic to some kind of commune.

On the whole, participants seem unconcerned about Nuit Debut being infiltrated and/or smashed (by police) as Occupy was. With Hollande’s wholesale embrace of austerity and budget cutting, the plight of France’s working class is deteriorating rapidly. Thus, activists reason, the steady expansion of Nuit Debut (and/or whatever resistance movement replaces it) is inevitable.

Click on the CC tab for English subtitles.

Debt

debt

Debt: the First 5,000 Years

by David Graeber

Book Review

The primary purpose of Debt: the First 5,000 Years is to correct the historical record concerning the origin of barter, coinage and credit. Incredibly well researched, anthropologist David Graeber’s book is a fascinating read. I found it extremely helpful in gaining some understanding of modern problems with debt and perpetual war. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the 2,600 year old link between war, debt and money creation, as well as the role of violent insurrection in shaping history. Ruling elites are terrified of insurrection. Throughout history, this fear has driven most major reforms.

Debunking Adam Smith

The conventional wisdom, which originates from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, is that money (i.e. coins) originated out of barter relationships, and that paper money and credit replaced coins when trade became too large and complex to be conducted with coins. As Graeber ably demonstrates, Smith had it backwards. Not only was barter virtually non-existent in prehistoric societies, but coinage itself was an extremely late development. Virtual credit preceded coinage (and barter) by thousands of years in all early civilizations. What’s more, these complex credit-debt arrangements played a vital role in the development of traditional institutions, such as slavery, patriarchy, urbanization and organized religion.

The Myth of Barter

People didn’t barter in early hunter gatherer and agrarian societies because they didn’t need to. Well into the Middle Ages, basic needs were met by family and community mutual obligation networks. There was an expectation extended family, neighbors would provide what you couldn’t provide for yourself.

There was a vital need for credit, however, with the development of farms large enough to feed the entire community. According to archeological evidence, credit first developed around 5,000 years ago when farmers borrowed seed and farm implements from wealthy merchants and repaid the debt with a share of the harvest. When the harvest failed, they repaid it in sheep, goats and furniture. When that was gone, they sold their children and eventually themselves into slavery.

This scheme was difficult to enforce, as many indebted farmers either walked away from their land or launched violent insurgencies. In was for this reason that both Sumeria and early Chinese civilizations launched formal debt forgiveness schemes, in which people regained their lands and debt slaves were free to return to their lands.*

The first money (in the form of precious metals, shells or other tokens) was used to pay the bride price the groom paid the bride’s family, the blood debt incurred when someone was murdered and to buy someone out of slavery.

The Origin of Patriarchy

In the earliest Sumerian texts (3000-2500 BC), women appear as doctors, merchants, scribes and public officials and are free to participate in all aspects of public life. This changes over the next 1000 years, with women becoming closeted to protect the honor of their fathers and husbands. According to Graeber, this pressing need to protect a woman’s reputation arose from a reaction by agrarian peoples (such as the early Israelites) to urbanization and the prostitution that resulted from it. The rise of cities in Sumeria and Babylon was accompanied by the rise of numerous informal occupations – including prostitution – practiced by men and women who had fled slavery. Patriarchy arose simultaneously in ancient China for similar reasons.

War, Debt and Money

Coinage (gold, silver and bronze coins) arose simultaneously between 600 BC and 800 AD (aka the Axial Period) in Greece, Rome, the great plains of northern China and the Ganges Valley for precisely the same reason: it was impossible to finance war with local systems of credit.

In all three civilizations, the first coins were used to pay professional soldiers (aka mercenaries). This would lead to the first market economies, as soldiers spent their coins in local communities, as well as concepts of profit and debt interest. In fact, a vicious cycle was established whereby rulers tried to solve their debt problems through expansionist wars to acquire more land, resources and slaves. In every case, this strategy backfired and the wars only increased their indebtedness.

The appearance of coins and market economies also led to a backlash against materialism and preoccupation with money. All the world’s major philosophic tendencies (Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, prophetic Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Jainism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam) arose during the Axial Period

This period also saw the rise of the first peace movements when early philosophers (eg Socrates and Plato) made common cause with rebels who opposed the violence of war and existing power relationships. According to Graeber these movements were remarkably successful in reducing the brutality and frequency of war. By 600 AD, slavery itself was virtually non-existent.

The Rise and Fall of Credit Economies

Following the fall of Rome, populations fled the cities and lived in smaller communities that reverted to credit economies. Gold and silver were used for temples and cathedrals, and only rich people had access to coins. All the major religions prohibited usury.

Money lending and banking arose to fund the Crusades, with the Knights Templar replacing Jewish moneylenders. After their persecution, torture and extermination by Phillip IV (due to the enormous debt he owed them), the latter were replaced by Venetian and Genoan bankers. The Italian bankers used municipal and government debt bonds as the chief instrument of exchange.

Around 1450, gold and silver bullion and coin (much of it from the New World) were re-introduced to finance vast empires and predatory warfare. This development was accompanied by the return of usury and debt slavery.

The Birth of Capitalism

Graeber defines capitalism as a gigantic credit/debt apparatus pumping maximum labor out of human beings to produce an ever expanding quantity of material goods. He dates its origin to around 1700 (six years after the Bank of England issued the first paper banknotes). Police, prisons and state sanctioned slavery were essential tools in achieving the phenomenal productivity needed to finance political systems based on continual war.


*”Every seventh year you shall make a cancellation. The cancellation shall be as follows: every creditor is to release the debt he has owing to him by his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). Every 49 years came the Jubilee, when all family land was to be returned to its original owners, and even family members who had been sold as slaves set free (Leviticus 25:9).