Length Has Been Edited for Course Use


A Concise History of the Russian Revolution

Richard Pipes




The word "revolution" has an interesting etymology. When asked by Soviet sociologists what it meant to them, Russian peasants responded "samovol'shchina," or, roughly, "doing what you want." In modern adver­tising, "revolutionary" has come to mean "radically new," and hence, by implication, "improved." When used in everyday speech, it is another way of saying "drastically different." From such usage one would hardly suspect that the word had its origins in astronomy and astrology.


"Revolution" derives horn the Latin verb revolvere, "to revolve." It was originally applied to the motions of the planets. Copernicus called his great treatise which displaced the earth from the center of the uni­verse, On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies. From astronomy, the word passed into the vocabulary of astrologers, who claimed the ability to pre­dict the future horn the study of the heavens. Sixteenth-century astrologers serving princes and generals spoke of "revolution" to desig­nate abrupt and unforeseen events determined by the conjunction of planets-that is, by forces beyond human control. Thus the original sci­entific meaning of the word, conveying regularity and repetitiveness, came, when referring to human affairs, to signify the very opposite, namely, the sudden and unpredictable.


The word was first applied to politics in England in 1688-89, to describe the overthrow of James II in favor of William III and Mary. As the price for his crown, the new king had to sign a Declaration of Rights by which he committed himself not to suspend laws or levy taxes without parliamentary approval, thus inaugurating a process that would end in the triumph of popular sovereignty in England. This was "the Glorious Revolution." It affected only the country's political constitution.


The American Revolution a century later had broader implications, in that it both asserted the country's independence and altered the relation­ship between the individual and the state. It combined the principles of popular sovereignty and personal liberty with what came to be known as the right to national self-determination. But even so, it confined itself to politics. The culture of the United States, its judiciary system, its guarantees of life and property-all inherited from Great Britain-remained unaffected by the Revolution.


The first modern revolution was the French. In its initial phase it was largely spontaneous and unconscious: In June 1789, when the represen­tatives of the three estates swore the Tennis Court Oath, an act of defi­ance that launched the Revolution, they spoke not of revolution but of "national regeneration." But in time, the leadership of rebellious France passed into the hands of ideologues who saw in the collapse of the monarchy a unique opportunity to realize the ideals of the Enlighten­ment-ideals that went far beyond the limited political scope of the English and American revolutions, aspiring to nothing less than the cre­ation of a new social order and even a new breed of human beings. Dur­ing the reign of the Jacobins, measures were conceived and sometimes enacted that in their boldness of conception and brutality of execution anticipated the Communist regime in Russia. "Revolution" henceforth began to refer to grandiose plans to transform the world-no longer to changes that happened but to changes that were made.


Nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the emergence of professional revolutionaries, intellectuals who devoted themselves full-time to study­ing the history of past upheavals in quest of tactical guidelines, analyzing their own time for signs of coming upheavals, and, once they occurred, stepping in to direct spontaneous rebellion into conscious revolution. Such radical intellectuals saw the future as marked by violent distur­bances, and progress as requiring the destruction of the traditional sys­tem of human relations. Their objective was to set free the "true" human nature suppressed by private property and the institutions to which it gave rise. Radical communists and anarchists imagined the coming rev­olution as thoroughly transforming not only every political and socio­economic order previously known, but human existence itself. Its aim, in the words of Leon Trotsky, was "overturning the world."


This trend reached its culmination in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although the breakdown of the Russian monarchy was due to domestic causes, the Bolsheviks, who emerged the winners of the post-tsarist struggle for power, were internationalists consumed by ideas common to radical intellectuals in the West. They seized power to change not Rus­sia but the world. They regarded their own country, the "weakest link in the chain of imperialism," as nothing more than a springboard for a global upheaval that would completely alter the human condition and, as it were, reenact the sixth day of Creation.


The causes of post-1789 revolutions have been many and complex. The impulse of twentieth-century observers, influenced as they are by socialist and sociological ways of thinking, is to attribute them to grievances of the population at large. The assumption is that they were acts of desperation and as such beyond judgment. This view exerts strong attraction in Anglo-Saxon countries, where ideologies have never played a prominent role. But the notion that every revolution that hap­pens is inevitable and therefore justified holds true only in a limited sense. Obviously, in a country whose government accurately reflects the wishes of the majority of the people, peacefully yielding office when it loses the people's confidence, and where the people live in reasonable prosperity, violent revolutions are unnecessary and hence unlikely; every election is a peaceful revolution of sorts. But this obvious truth does not imply its opposite: that where violent upheavals do occur, the population desires a complete change of the political and economic system-that is, a "revolution" in the Jacobin and Bolshevik sense of the word. Histori­ans have noted that popular rebellions are conservative, their objective being a restitution of traditional rights of which the population feels itself unjustly deprived. Rebellions look backward. They are also specific and limited in scope. The cahiers des do/iances (lists of complaints) sub­mitted by French peasants in 1789 and, under a different name, by Rus­sian peasants in 19°5, dealt exclusively with concrete grievances, all of them capable of being satisfied within the existing system.

It is radical intellectuals who translate these concrete complaints into an all-consuming destructive force. They desire not reforms but a com­plete obliteration of the present in order to create a world order that has never existed except in a mythical Golden Age. Professional revolution­aries, mostly of middle-class background, scorn the modest demands of the "masses," whose true interests they alone claim to understand. It is they who transform popular rebellions into revolutions by insisting that nothing can be changed for the better unless everything is changed. This philosophy, in which idealism inextricably blends with a lust for power, opens the floodgates to permanent turmoil. And since ordinary people require for their survival a stable and predictable environment, all post­1789 revolutions have ended in failure.


The existence of popular grievances is thus a necessary but not suffi­cient explanation of revolutions, which require the infusion of radical ideas. The upheavals that shook Russia after February 1917 were made possible by the breakdown of public order under the strains of a world war with which the existing government could not cope. What drove the country into the uncharted waters of extreme utopianism was the fanati­cism of intellectuals who in October 1917 took advantage of the spread­ing anarchy to seize power in the name of the "people" without daring even once, either then or during the next seventy years, to secure a pop­ular mandate.


The Russian Revolution was arguably the most important event of the century now drawing to a close. It not only played a major part in pre­venting the restoration of peace after World War I, it had a direct bear­ing on the rise in Germany of National-Socialism and the outbreak of World War II, which the triumph of Nazism made inevitable. In the half century that followed Allied victory in World War II, the Communist regime that had emerged from the Revolution kept the world in a state of permanent tension that at times threatened to result in yet another global conflict. All this now seems safely relegated to the past. Yet to pre­vent it from recurring, it is essential to know how such things happened; for implicit in the history of all modern revolutions, but especially the Russian, is the momentous question of whether human reason is capable of leading humanity from its known imperfections to an imagined per­fectibility. The incontrovertible failure of the Russian Revolution in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and its Communist Party was outlawed, can be interpreted as conclusive proof that utopianism inevitably leads to its very opposite, that the quest for paradise on earth ends in hell; but it can also be seen as merely a temporary setback in mankind's quest for an ideal existence.


To the author of these lines, who has studied the subject for most of his life, the Russian Revolution appears as the unfolding of a tragedy in which events follow with inexorable force from the mentality and char­acter of the protagonists. It may offer comfort to some to think of it as the result of grand economic or social forces and hence "inevitable." But "objective" conditions are an abstraction; they do not act. They merely provide the background to subjective decisions made by a relatively small number of men professionally active in politics and war. Events appear "inevitable" only in retrospect. The documents on which the story that follows is based show only human individuals pursuing their own inter­ests and aspirations, incapable or unwilling to make allowances for the interests and aspirations of others. There were many times when the author felt tempted to admonish the protagonists to stop and think as they rushed before his eyes headlong toward a catastrophe that in the end would engulf them all, victors and vanquished alike. One emerges humbler from the experience, and less sanguine about humanity's capac­ity to change itself.



Richard Pipes