Was the Russian Revolution Marxist?

I’m reading Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 by Orlando Figes at the moment. It’s not great, if I’m truthful. It feels like he’s trying to cram a huge amount of information into a very small space. Personally I think it could do with being about twice the length, but then I wonder if people would read it. The prose isn’t bad (not John le Carre by any means); it’s clear and readable and, occasionally, really interesting.

One of the things that has intrigued me is how much, even at the very inception of the Bolshevik movement, classical Marxism was being shunted aside to make way for personalities – Lenin’s in particular. Admittedly, Marxism is primarily an economic and historical theory dressed up as a political idea, but it was clear from the outset that Bolshevism would only happen if loyalty were pledged to an elite group, with Lenin at the top. More theoretical Marxists, like Trotsky, were less keen on the cult of personality and wanted a more democratic (i.e. rule by the masses) system. Highly outnumbered, they were quickly branded Mensheviks (i.e. minority party).

The other thing splitting the two sides was the process towards communism. Marx had always maintained that communism would replace capitalism, but Lenin believed that Russia was ripe for a communist rule without having to go through a capitalist system first (this thinking was also shared by Mao and Castro). Trotsky argued that by skipping a key step in the process, it would not be true Marxism, but Lenin won the day.

Without the discontent of the Russian people, of course, none of this would have been possible. And the one thing that made the people more unhappy than anything – including the starvation, the famines, the brutality – was the sheer inability of the Tsar to admit that anything was wrong and he needed to cede his autocratic power to an elected parliament. We’re back to the divine right of kings here, I’m afraid. Nicholas II believed that he was Tsar by the grace of God, and God was the only person he was answerable to. Events in 1917 proved the lie behind that belief, but by then the damage was done.

Mutinies of the military in 1905 finally forced the Tsar’s hand into giving way a little, but for the likes of Lenin it was not enough and a revolutionary uprising was being actively promoted. After Russia’s entry into the First World War, the Bolsheviks gained an immense amount of support and finally succeeded in gaining power in October 1917.

But my reading of Figes’ book suggests to me that this was not a Marxist revolution; it was essentially a coup d’etat by a group of organised rabble rousers with virtually no political programme. Now I admit that I probably need to do a lot more reading here – I’m dredging up the last of my history A Level exam questions for this piece – but it does strike me that the Russian Revolution wasn’t Marxist at all.


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