The Russian revolution 100 years on. Review: E.H. Carr “The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin 1917-1929”





Carr devoted thirty years of his life writing the fourteen volume, two million words, and the definitive history of Twentieth Century Russia. This is his magnum opus distilled into two hundred pages and it is extraordinary. As the October centenary of the Russian Revolution looms large on the horizon, I have been reading different historians on the topic. Unquestionably, this is the authoritative account of the era. Carr is especially informative at explaining the economic history of the USSR, which I am going to discuss in detail here.


The Russian Revolution has become an emotive issue, dependant on your political allegiances. The facile, reductive left-right political split holds no interest for me as I do not hold any strong allegiances on either side. I am intrigued by reading about the Revolution as a social event in and of itself. The economic scrutiny that Carr brings to bear seems to me to offer the most objective way to analyse why, ultimately, the Russian system failed. It is too easy to disassociate communism from totalitarianism, thereby letting the communist economic policies off the hook. The fact is that the Party instigated a plethora of different socialist and communist economic policies which led to the near ruination of Russia and millions of her innocent people.


Economic history:


In 1919, lots of Russians frequently volunteered to work for free, on what became known as “communist Saturdays”, underscoring the early sense of collective optimism felt in the country. There was a general sense of goodwill as Russia tried to rebuild herself following the disaster of World War One and the political upheaval at the time.


As soon as the Bolsheviks nationalised the banks, the economy dipped. This should have acted as a warning not to rush into further Nationalisation but because the economists and planners were ideologically driven, it was not. There followed a “catastrophic decline of industry” as Nationalisation increased. The Bolsheviks attempted to centralise all of the food that was produced, meaning the farmers could not keep any of it. This resulted in Moscow losing 44% and Petrograd 57% of its total populations as people travelled from the cities to the countryside to get food directly from the farmers. The government failed in its most basic responsibility to allocate and distribute the food it had collected. It seems so obvious that people must be given autonomy over what they produce and be allowed to control their fate. The notion of any State controlling everything is ludicrous. There was also a complete lack of management in the factories and food did not get produced efficiently. The idealistic sense of there not being a need for any management, as everyone in the factories would be equal was a recipe for disaster.


As the crisis deepened and the food shortages kicked in, Lenin recognised that a compromise had to be made. The government controlling everything was impractical and impossible. Production was at intolerable levels. Consequently, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was unveiled in 1921, which allowed peasants to keep enough of the food they produced and send the rest to the government.  The policy reaped immediate benefits and production began to stabilise. It was a massive success. This is the most damning indictment there can be of socialism in its most extreme form. It can be argued that a famine and a civil war stymied the economy.  Yet, these were both ongoing during the rollout of the NEC. So the question then becomes, why did this policy by itself work? The tireless left right debate is about the individual versus the collective. Too much of either will fail. It is merely a question of balance. The Russian episode clearly demonstrates that moving too far to the left does not work.


The NEC caused a backlash with the ideological Russian left at the time. The Party began trading with Germany in 1922, initially buying tanks from them. The Bolsheviks believed that all European, and world, countries, would eventually become socialist. Chief among the evil capitalist countries at the time was Germany. The thought that the pure communist Russians would trade with the filthy capitalists caused a consternation. Lenin had to work hard to bring everyone on board. It is easy to judge 100 years on, but the thought of refusing to trade with another country because they were Capitalist seems extremely naive at best. 


The NEC stabilised the economy, but that was it. Let us not forget, it was dead on its feet before that. Stabilisation was never going to suffice.   By 1923, it was renamed the “new exploitation of the proletariat” by workers, as union officials got paid a lot but workers toiled for next to nothing. Six years on from the revolution and the workers were worse off.


The Planned Economy: 1925 onwards:


I thought 1917-25 was ideologically driven. Whew! There followed the real rise of the USSR. This was preceded by a battle between the “Geneticists”, who thought they could use available data to plan the economy and the believers in “Teleology”, who assumed that they could force the economy to bend to their will.  Carr writes that “in practice, the teleologists tended to reject the rules of a market economy, and claimed to override them by positive action; and this meant they paid less attention to the conciliation of the peasant”. In essence, the poorest people suffered the most.


When planning a massive economy like the Russian one, the planners completely lost sight of the individual. As it was ideologues and not economists organising things, “no planning target (became) too high to attain”. Ludicrous targets of between 25% to 100% were set in different areas of the economy. Therefore, “planning (became) a political and not purely an economic activity”. This gets to the nub of why it was doomed to fail. The targets set were too political and idealistic. They ostracised any economists that were not of the same mindset that they were. 


The situation worsened when the Party began to control the means of production. This essentially “meant large investment in heavy industry which brought no immediate benefit”.  As a result, the workers had to build canals and roads and were not harvesting food for people to eat. They could barely struggle to feed the population when they were solely focused on food production. The Party then faced the dilemma of whether or not “prices go up or wages come down”. In a Capitalist society, the equipment would have been bought and leased by specific companies designed to do these jobs.  Prices skyrocketed. Then they “tried to force down retail prices by decree”. This compelled people who made goods to trade them on the black market as they could get higher prices there. Sadly, we have not learned that most basic of economic lessons, and we can see the same thing happening in Venezuela today.  The poorest suffer the most. This was, and is, the tragic irony of communism. Despite the noblest of intentions, no government can impose its will upon people. Coercing equality, no matter how lofty the aim, will not work. Society must include the individual.


Back to 1920’s Russia. When the planners discovered that they had to get the workers to build systemic structures, from which there is no tangible return, it lead to “Rationalisation”. Essentially, the Party had to get more with less. The Russian peasant / middle class “Kulaks” as they were known, began to be squeezed for more. It baffles me when I hear leftists use the term “Kulak” in modern parlance. Carr himself says that the term “became one of abuse”.  The same problem that had gnawed at communism from the outset began to rear its head, namely that the “large collective unit was more likely to provide a surplus for the market than the individual peasant working primarily for the needs of himself and his family”. In other words, like it or loathe it, if you are a peasant and you know that every single bit of food that you produce will be forcibly removed to go towards the State, then what motivation do you have to produce excess? There is none. You will not produce more. If you know that your work will feed your family and you can sell the excess, then you are motivated.


The planners had set capital growth at 110%, whilst reducing costs by 40%. They increased wages and reduced prices. It does not take a PhD in economics to work out how that will pan out.  Interestingly, in 1929 the market collapsed across the Western economies and led to a great recession. Many at the time felt that Marx was right all along. This false sense of confidence in the communist system would lead to even more drastic consequences.




It was not just the Kulaks who felt the squeeze. The peasants also bitterly resented having to hand over the means of production. On a practical level, it meant that they had to give their farmhouses, animals and tools over to the state for the greater good. You still hear modern Marxists opine about seizing the “means of production”. This is what it meant in Russia. You take from the poorest with the aim of the state being better at dividing up food for people. The mind boggles how seemingly intelligent people could not see the problem with “Collectivisation” and “seizing the means of production”.  The fact is that the ordinary peasants, who the Party claimed to represent in their fanciful “dictatorship of the proletariat” were the very people who “most resented the demand to hand over their animals. Many chose to slaughter these rather than hand them over”.


Collectivisation lead to the deaths of between 1 to 5 million people.


Collectivisation lead to the deaths of between 1 to 5 million people.


This is the part that is critical to understand. It was not dictatorship or totalitarianism that had done this. It was the communist economic policy. Plain and simple.


In 1926, pre-collectivisation, the economy was 50% State owned and 50% Nationalised. After the first five year plan, there was virtually no private enterprise.


As the economy stumbled and people were working on building with canals and railways, the Party realised that they had to demand more from the workers as there was less of them focused purely on the harvesting food. Once again, the weakest suffered the most. At this point, there was the option to liberalise the economy or use force to bend it to their will.  Sadly, the Party chose to force extra from people. As Anna Applebaum pointed out in her hauntingly insightful “Gulag: A History”, peasants and kulaks who refused to work “were taken most seriously of all. They ran counter to the entire ethos of the camp. After 1938 strikers were severely punished”. If you did not buy into the “Collectivisation” ethos, then you were thrown in the Gulag and forced to. Looking at it one hundred years on, it seems the Nordic model is the way forward. Free Market Capitalism with a well-funded welfare State providing a safety net for people who cannot work. Equality cannot be forced on people.  As Carr put it, “the peasant – and not only the kulak – was the victim of naked aggression”.




Carr clearly states that the Bolsheviks “had no use for the Western principles of democracy and constitutional government”. This is why the Russian Revolution must be consigned to the dustbin of history and not lionised like people still do today. Trotsky, for example, wrote in “Terrorism and Communism” that democracy was a “puerile illusion” and a “worthless masquerade”. He believed that the Party would speak for the working class. The conceit was obvious. He must have missed the Rousseau history lesson. Power can only come from the people. No doubt, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had exquisite intentions. This did not give them the right to violently force their will on all Russians.


Analysing the election results before the Bolsheviks took power is fascinating. In the election on 12th November 1917, the total leftist parties won 267 out of 520 seats in the Duma. The Bolsheviks won 161 out of 520.  The people never wanted them. Knowing this, Lenin suspended all elections in January 1918.


At the first Communist International “Comintern”, Lenin “denounced bourgeois democracy and proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Trotsky employed the exact same language. It is intriguing to me to see modern leftists mythologise Lenin and Trotsky. Their philosophy was and is not compatible with democracy. They sneered and laughed down their noses at it. Whilst I do not have any strong left or right leanings, I strongly believe that the only way that we can legitimately organise ourselves as a species is through the will of the majority of the people in free and fair elections. Any deviation from this has the potential to result in the type of violent,  despotic tyranny meted out to innocent Russians in the first half of the Twentieth Century.


Inevitably, people began to rebel, resulting in a long and bloody civil war. 1921 saw the infamous Kronstadt rebellion. It is instructive to read their demands. They requested free elections to the Soviet, freedom of speech, to elect a commission to review the fate of political prisoners and to equalise rations for workers etc.  All completely legitimate requests. On March 17th, 1921, they were brutally crushed & thousands of people were killed. It was Leon Trotsky who led the Red Army to quash the Kronstadt rebellion and famously exclaimed that the sailors were to be shot like partridges. People still cite Trotsky as a political influence in 2017. Ironically, when Trotsky was running for leadership of the Party in October 1923, he called the regime “unhealthy” and observed that it needed to be replaced with “Party democracy”. He thought it was important within the Party, but not the country. Go figure. When this was not forthcoming, the obvious transpired. In the 1925 party congress, Stalin took over and immediately wrested control of the opposition newspaper, before proposing the removal of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the committee. This was “apparently carried out without a vote”.  Imagine the amount of lives that could have been saved it the Party and country were democratic.




There is absolutely no doubt that the Russian Revolution was, as Carr points out “the source of more profound and more lasting repercussions throughout the world than any other historical event of modern times”. The lessons are stark.

Planning an economy for a country and not giving autonomy to individuals in a society did not and does not work.

Democracy is an absolute must to prevent tyranny.

No violence must ever be used to control the citizens of any country.


About Mick Gilbride

Aside | This entry was posted in 1917-2017, Book review, Books, communism, Democracy, E.H. Carr, History, Kronstadt rebellion, Leon Trotsky, Repression, russia, Russian Revolution, Stalin, Trying to make sense of it all, USSR, war, World War One and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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