Witnesses of the revolution
Rex Dunn reviews: David E Lowes (editor), 'Bessie Beatty on revolutionary Russia', Red Revenant, 2017, £6.99, pp256 and, David E Lowes (editor), 'Arthur Ransome Three accounts of Revolutionary Russia Red Revenant', 2017, £6.90, pp212
Full marks to comrade David Lowes, who has personally collated these long forgotten accounts into two attractive books. David is an active member of the North West England Socialist Theory Study Group, which dedicates itself to Marxist education in an age when Marxism is rejected (even by the tens of thousands of ‘Corbynistas’!). This is, in part, a consequence of Stalinism’s poisonous legacy.
So these books serve two very useful purposes: firstly, they are a fitting way to commemorate the centenary of the revolution. To this end (thanks also to the Weekly Worker), they will help spread the truth about the world’s first successful proletarian revolution to an even wider readership. Secondly, by so doing, they can be used to encourage more people to study Marxism itself.
October 1917 epitomised the epoch of wars and revolutions. Both writers provide an immediate and detailed account of the revolution as it unfolded. Ransome, in particular, also highlights the enormous contradictions and ensuing problems that confronted the beleaguered regime: the imminence of a counterrevolution from without, which opened the door to the counterrevolution from within. At the same time, they express their hope that the masses could eventually free themselves from the chains of existing society. They also lay to rest many of the lies spread about the Bolsheviks ever since. Yet, in the heat of the moment, they are compelled to examine the question of what democracy really means; at the same time they have to consider the vexed subject of how to deal with counterrevolutionaries and corruption.
Today the odds for the revival of the social revolution have become more difficult. Not only are we living in the epoch of capitalist decay, but the deepening crisis of a moribund system continues to envelop humanity in a thick fog. Thus what David Lowes has done is most welcome. Bessie Beatty’s account, in particular, comes across like a breath of fresh air.
I shall start by examining Beatty’s The red heart of Russia, which covers the period, June 1917 to March 1918. This will be followed in the second part of this review by Ransome’s The crisis in Russia (1920-21). For me, both writers share a single theme: the idea of the dream versus reality - that eternal question of what is and what ought to be, at both the objective and subjective level.
Bessie Beatty was the daughter of Irish immigrants, who grew up in Los Angeles, where she started her career in journalism. In 1917, along with Louise Bryant and John Reed, Beatty went to Russia to cover the unfolding revolution. She later wrote: “I had been alive at a great moment, and knew it was great.”1
Whilst there, in line with her feminist politics, she revealed her fascination with the role of the women and their ‘death battalions’, who showed great bravery at the front, and later made a last-ditch stand in defence of the Provisional Government (but at the same time, she downplays their reactionary role). She was also fascinated by Trotsky and her famous introduction to the revolutionary leader on the night of the Bolshevik’s seizure of power is included here. In this regard, Bessie reveals another admirable strength: her determination to tell the truth in the face of the lies of the bourgeois media (which today is as strong as ever). To this end she published an interview with Trotsky, entitled ‘They lie about me in America’.
Bessie is not a Marxist, but she is so honest and objective about the drama which is unfolding that she usually comes to the right conclusion! Her determination to tell the truth about the Russian Revolution as she understood it meant that she had to be courageous as well. In 1919 she was ordered to give testimony to a committee of the United States senate. When asked to describe the Bolshevik “reign of terror”, she replied, “No, the reign of terror did not begin until the revolution was nearly a year old. The reign of terror did not really begin until after allied intervention” (p212).
Bessie is on her first visit to Russia. It is June 1917, the time of white nights in Petrograd. She finds a room in the Select hotel:
At six o’clock [am] the wild pigeons … sang me to sleep. I awoke with a start six hours later. “Where am I,” I asked. “In Petrograd,” I answered myself - “in Petrograd, in the heart of the revolution” … Eyes and ears drinking in strange sounds, and thoughts darting back and forth from the land of Tolstoy, Turgenieff and Dostoievsky … Ivan was tired of war - tired to death ... War and revolution are incompatible bedfellows! (pp5, 7, 17, 19).
Here is how she describes the night of October 25 and the following days. The uprising has started. Kerensky has been bringing troops from the front to defend the government, including
an endless procession of Cossacks [break them and the revolution has a chance]. Thursday morning the Bolsheviki were still in control of the Fortress of Peter and Paul, and were directing their operations from the palace of the famous ballet-dancer who had been a favourite of the tsar ... At 12 that night I was lying in bed reading, when suddenly again came the unmistakable sputterings of the machine guns and the crack of rifles ...
I leaned out the window … and looked at the square. Nothing was visible in the strange great light of that darkest hour of the white night. There were no shouts, no cries, no single sound but the rattle of the machine guns and the bark of the rifles …
The women stood about in frightened groups, talking in hushed tones. “It’s civil war,” somebody said. “The streets will run with blood before this thing’s over.” ... By Sunday fear had lifted from the heavy heart of Petrograd. Her people were being happy while they could. St Isaac’s Square was flooded with sunshine ... There were no rivers of blood; the gutters did not run red. There was only a handful of victims where we had feared there might be hundreds. The Bolsheviki proclaimed the uprising a success ...
The riots were significant chiefly because they introduced the Bolsheviki to a world that was soon to know much more of them ... The Cossacks were hailed as deliverers. The conservative and reactionary papers wrote paeans of praise for them ... Though they had been in favour of the suppression of the Bolshevik uprising ... Some of the Cossacks refused to accept the role of hero, and passed a resolution declaring that they did not wish to be praised by the bourgeoisie ...
Late one afternoon the soldiers carried their dead in silver coffins into the great cool recesses of St Isaac’s Cathedral ... The next morning the soldiers gathered in the square, black mourning flags fluttering from the tops of their lances. There were thousands and thousands of them ... The cavalry lined up on both sides of the square, their horses standing to perfect attention. The infantry stacked their rifles around and squatted on the cobble stones during the mass. The priests, in black mourning robes of black and silver, carried ecclesiastical banners; and the caskets were borne on ornate, canopied hearses, drawn by black horses …
As I stood watching the funeral procession file past, an acquaintance, opposed to the new Russian order, joined me for a minute. “This is the end of socialism,” he said triumphantly. On the contrary, it was only the beginning of the class struggle in the revolution (pp53-55).
Bessie now gives us a first-hand account of the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks:
It was nearly five when we reached the entrance of the Smolny. The great building until a few months before a private seminary where the feminine flower of the Russian aristocracy was cultivated in seclusion, had suddenly become an arsenal, bristling with guns and swarming with armed men.
Upstairs the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies were gathering for the Congress of Soviets. They were coming together to decide whether the Bolshevik demand of ‘All power to the soviets’ should be granted. it was a question already being answered by the voice of the guns ...
“Here’s Trotsky!” whispered the man beside me. “Come, I want you to meet him.” Before I had time to acquiesce or protest, I found a lean hand grasping mine in a strong, characteristic handshake. We stood there for a few moments, talking of inconsequential things, but all of us were charged with the intensity of the hour. There was keen intelligence here, nerve, a certain uncompromising streak of iron, a sense of power; yet I little suspected I was talking to a man whose name within a few brief weeks would become a familiar word on every tongue - the most talked of human being in an age of spectacular figures ...
The Bolsheviki, with Nikolai Lenin and Zinoviev at their head, climbed to the platform. A cheer went up from the Bolshevik supporters. Lenin and Zinoviev, who had been in hiding since the July riots, had come out of their holes to take a historic part in this new revolution.
When the ovation died down, Dan briefly stated the object of the meeting before relinquishing his place to Trotsky. “The business of this convention,” said he, “divides itself into three heads: a governmental crisis, the question of war and peace, and the Constituent Assembly” ...
Martov, the ablest of the Menshevik internationalists, took the platform and in a voice ringing with indignation demanded immediate settlement of the governmental crisis: “If this convention wants to be the voice of revolutionary democracy, it must not sit idly by before a rapidly developing civil war that may result in a disastrous explosion of the counterrevolution,” he said. “When the question of organisation of the government is being settled by one of the revolutionary parties, we are challenged by only one problem; the immediate warding off of impending civil war.”
He proposed the appointment of a committee with other socialist parties and organisations to stop the rapidly developing clash. The resolution was passed. [But Trotsky, because of other pressing reasons, delayed the implementation of the resolution, and] thereby toss[ed] away his opportunity for compromise.
Meanwhile the guns [from the Aurora] on the Neva continued their eloquent boom! boom! boom!
Kharash, a [Menshevik] delegate from the Twelfth Army, got to the floor: “While a proposition for a peaceful settlement is being introduced here, a battle goes on in the streets of Petrograd,” he said. “The Winter Palace is being shelled. The spectre of civil war is rising. The Mensheviki and Social Revolutionaries repudiate all that is going on here, and stubbornly resist attempts to seize the government.”
“He does not represent the Twelfth Army!” cried a soldier from the ranks. “The army demands all power to the soviets.”
Twenty others were on their feet in an instant. “Staff! Staff! he comes from the Staff! he’s not a soldier!” they shouted angrily, shaking their fists at the delegate from the Twelfth. Pandemonium broke loose ...
“We are leaving the convention,” a [Menshevik] said. “We can’t stand here no more! We are going unarmed to die with our comrades in the Winter Palace.”
A hush fell over the crowd. It was broken only by the sound of shuffling feet, as the speaker led the way to the door, followed by a hundred or more of the conservative revolutionists, who filed quietly out [into ‘the dustbin of history’].
At midnight, with three fellow correspondents, I left the atmosphere of that memorable meeting, great with smoke and charged with battle, and went in search of passes that would permit me to go to the Winter Palace (pp82-85).
Bessie now describes an unheralded display of opposing values, which she herself witnessed. (It also reminds me of a classic Hollywood western!) On the one hand, it reveals the moral bankruptcy of the old regime; on the other, the moral integrity of the Bolsheviks - a luxury which they could still afford in these early, heady days of revolution: ie, before the counterrevolution had really got underway. The telegraph exchange had been recaptured by military school cadets (or boy soldiers): “The boys started blithely forth, convinced that they were preparing the way for the restoration of the Provisional Government and it was merely a matter time before the victorious troops of Kerensky would come and relieve them.”
But a counter-attack by the Red Guards and sailors was imminent. However, they had Antonoff, head of the Red Guard and a member of the Bolshevik War Commissary, prisoner in a nearby room.
In the middle of the afternoon the terrified cadets suggested a peace parley, offering to surrender Antonoff if they were allowed to go free.’ But the Red Guards began to close in.
Men and girls fled to the back of the building. In a pantry I found a boy officer with a huge breadknife, trying to cut the buttons from his coat with hands that trembled so they made a long job of it … another was tearing frantically at his epaulets.
One of the cadets grabbed the coat lapels of Mr Williams, Bessie’s companion and fellow journalist, demanding that he give it up, so that he might escape incognito. But Williams, who was well known, refused on the grounds that his coat would be recognised by one of the Red Guards; he was afraid that they would then shoot him for being a traitor. He came up with another idea:
“Perhaps I can do something with Antonoff” ... he offered to go to the imprisoned minister of war and try to make terms of surrender that would guarantee their safety.
“Tavarisch Antonoff, save our lives!” cried the cadets in unison. On the word of a good revolutionist that we know you are, save our lives!”
“Where are the officers?” Antonoff asked.
“They have all left us,” they answered.
The terms of surrender were quickly made, and Antonoff and Williams started downstairs to face the crowd. The men of the Red Guard recognised their leader. [But they were frustrated because the Junker officers had fled; so they wanted to execute the cadets on the spot. Antonoff responded, saying:]
“I have given my word of honour as a revolutionist that these men shall not be killed, and as revolutionists you must keep your word ...
“I will myself shoot the first man who harms one of the [cadets]” ...
“Shoot us?” they cried incredulously.
“Yes!” he answered. “I would rather die than that this American should say that revolutionists of Russia were base and revengeful” (pp98-102).
Bessie quickly moved on to Moscow. Here things could not have been more different:
That cry, already so familiar in Petrograd, ‘All power to the soviet!’, grew louder and louder with each passing day, and I heard hectic speeches punctuated with the same “Bourgeoisie!” and “Counterrevolution!”, “Capitalists!” ...
‘On the sides of palaces of stone and stucco, huge posters announced the opening of the opera season of 1917 and 1918 under the direction of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Committee. This is the famous Bolshoi Theatre, where imperial eyes had viewed the triumphs of the great singers of all Europe ... Strikes in Moscow grew more and more frequent ... it was not until four days after the Bolshevik rising in Petrograd that Mother Moscow suddenly became aware that she was to be the battleground of a class conflict quite as determined and far more bitter than any that had torn the scorned city of Peter. It began Friday night, October 29 ... For seven days the firing continued almost ceaselessly ... on Tuesday heavy artillery sent the guests of the Metropole and National hotels to the cellars for safety ...
The military cadets, reinforced by some of the older officers, were entrenched in the city duma, the Riding Academy and the Kremlin. The Bolsheviki conducted their operations from the governor-general’s palace ...
The Bolshevist army was made up largely of factory workers. The Moscow garrison, as a whole, had agreed to remain neutral; but 20,000 soldiers offered to fight with the Bolsheviki, and it was estimated that about 5,000 took part. The critical moment came with the arrival of a company of sailors and Red Guards, sent from Petrograd to reinforce the Soviet ...
When the surrender finally came, the cadets had been driven into a corner of the Kremlin ... Here, as in Petrograd, the defence of the Provisional Government centred around the duma, and both bodies were dissolved by the Bolsheviks ...
With only a handful of people killed in Petrograd, Moscow’s death toll is estimated at from 750 persons to twice that number ...
Close beside the Kremlin wall, in the holiest of holy places, the workmen and soldiers of Moscow dug the great trench that was to receive the bodies of their fallen comrades. All day they dug and when night came they continued their work by the light of torches ... By daybreak they had finished.
It was the day of the proletariat ... At 8 o’clock in the morning the procession started, and all day long the people filed past - a vast, endless throng of them, men, women, and little children. There were no priests, no prayers. Strong young soldiers in mud-coloured coats carried the red coffins on their shoulders, and above the heads of the crowd the crimson banners flowed like a river of blood (pp112-15).
In the days before the attempt on Lenin’s life by a Social Revolutionary, there was a vigorous debate about whether the revolution should abolish the death penalty. One afternoon Bessie decided to drop into the office of Jacob Peters, who was then deputy chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Cheka). He was in the office of the Anti-Counterrevolutionary Committee, successor to the Military Revolutionary Committee:
As I passed through the outer office, I noticed a woman sitting there. Her plain face was pale, and an occasional tear trickled from her frightened eyes. Peters sighed when I asked about her.
“She’s the secretary of the Cadet party,” he said. “I have to question her because she knows about counterrevolutionary plots, and I hate to do it. I wasn’t made for this work: I detest jails, so that I can’t bear to put anyone into them.”
“What about the guillotine?” I asked. “Surely the Russian Revolution will never resort to that. It’s been a hundred years since the French Revolution, and I would like to think the world had moved a little since then”….
“No,” he said. “We will never restore the death sentence in Russia - not unless” - and he hesitated for a moment - “not unless we have to use it for men who are traitors in our own ranks” ...
[The problem was] “It’s physically impossible ... to read thoroughly every paper that I am asked to sign during the day. I have to trust others” ...
When the Military Revolutionary Tribunal began its sittings, more than 100 speculators were awaiting trial. Peters told me that one day he was riding on a street car, when the man sitting next to him … offered to sell him 1,200 bags of flour at 250 roubles each, 6,000 pounds of sugar, and some butter. Peters got him to write down his name and address, and within an hour he had been arrested and his supplies seized.
Meanwhile the people were crying out, “Bread, bread, give us bread!” in a desperate effort to keep the old ‘grey wolf’, hunger, at bay.
Wherever the death penalty was inflicted, it was done by mobs having no official sanction - mobs aroused to an uncontrollable fury, and momentarily conscious of no other passion than that of reprisal. Considering the unsettled condition of the government, such instances of violence were not frequent as to change the character of the revolution into that of a reign of terror (pp131-33).
Unfortunately, Bessie spoke too soon. The tragedy for the people of Russia, and history herself, is that she was unable to foresee the dreadful effects of imperialist intervention, the desperate struggle to save the revolution, wherein the white terror had to be countered by the red terror; otherwise Russia would have slumped into even worse forms of exploitation and suffering than that which prevailed during the days of the tsar. But there were warning signs. Bessie also reports that “the Czecho-Slavs will go on fighting” until they win back “their country”.
Here Bessie reveals a somewhat formalist method. On the other hand, she also acknowledges that the stages of the revolution are moving very quickly. In the end, it might simply be a matter of semantics. Through all this emerges a dialectical understanding of the revolutionary process. She arrives at the correct position (more or less) in the end. By so doing she echoes Lenin (as we shall see):
The revolution that overthrew tsarism was basically a political revolution. That which established the dictatorship of the proletariat was fundamentally economic. Between the political and economic revolutions, the demands of the masses had undergone a sweeping change. The Constituent Assembly, in spite of its socialistic membership, and its claim of being the only elective group in Russia, was a bequest of the political revolution (p174).
Bessie points out that there were violent protests before the assembly was due to open. They were led by members of the petty bourgeoisie, who carried banners proclaiming, “All power to the Constituent Assembly!” and “Long live the boss of Russian land!” (pp176-77). But, when they appealed to the people and the soldiers, they were quickly put down by the Red Guards.
The assembly finally opened on the afternoon of January 16 1918. The auditorium of the Tauride Palace was lined with “red-leathered couches [which] marked the places where the many mighty men of Russia’s past had sat. Here, in due time, came the People’s Commissaries. Trotsky was away at Brest-Litovsk. Kollontai, commissary of public welfare, was the first to take her place”, followed by Krylenko, commander-in-chief of the army. “Lunacharsky, the commissar of education, came next”:
The Cadets had stayed away, but the right wing of the Social Revolutionaries were already waiting there, along with their leader, Chernoff. Sverdloff, chairman of the executive committee of the All-Russian Soviet, opened the proceedings ... he began by solemnly stating that “the French bourgeois revolutionists [had] made a declaration of the rights of man, so [now] the socialist members of this new time must make their own declaration, fitting the hour of the new demand.” [But it too was based on class contradictions - not bourgeoisie and artisans, but workers and peasants!]
He followed with a statement of the Bolshevik programme of land to the peasants, control of industry to the workers, government by the soviets, recognition of the people’s commissaries by the Constituent Assembly, and immediate general democratic peace.
When it came to the vote, Chernoff had more votes in his pocket than the Left Social Revolutionary, Marie Spiridonova (who was a tiny woman). Living democracy sprang into action. There were cries of “Deloy! Deloy!” (Down! Down!) ... Poised on the railing was a Bolshevik sailor, who interrupted frequently with shouts of “Korniloff! [leader of the failed army coup against Kerensky’s government] “Kaledin! Kerensky! Counterrevolutionist!” ... Lenin alone sat unperturbed. He stretched himself out on one of the red-carpeted steps … and, hidden from the eyes of the crowd, went calmly to sleep….
A Bolshevik member read a statement declaring that the majority of the Constituent Assembly had refused to accept the demands of the people’s commissaries, which were the demands of the toiling masses and the economic revolution, and in so doing had become a counterrevolutionary body.
Comrade Spiridonova insisted that the assembly accepted the resolution of the people’s commissaries. The rightwing delegates refused: “A sudden commotion arose. Two men were on their feet ... One drew a revolver. [He was wrestled to his seat.] The Left SRs got up quietly from their seats, and departed from the convention as the Bolsheviki had done” (p177-79).
Obviously Lenin was well awake by now! The commissary of the palace informed the meeting that it had now become a caucus for the Right SRs and therefore ordered them to retire to their own headquarters, because he wished to close the building. Bessie concludes:
For the people’s commissaries to have permitted themselves to be rejected would have been to acknowledge themselves as a body of adventurers, and all their decrees mere scraps of worthless paper … The Constituent Assembly contained the seeds of a great government experiment [sic], but were scattered upon the rocks of great uncompromise, and there could be no harvest [sic].
For once, she appears to misunderstand the developing revolution, to which she is undoubtedly committed.
“At midnight Albert Williams [a colleague] was talking to Madame Kollontai. ‘How long do you think the assembly will last?’ he asked. ‘Comrade, don’t you think it has lasted too long already?’ she answered” (p182).
Bessie now turns to the Smolny, where the members of the central executive committee of the All-Russian soviet were meeting. It is worthwhile pointing out here that, at this stage, the soviet still included opposition parties. Therefore the latter were free to launch personal attacks on the Bolsheviks. Following the dissolution of the assembly, one delegate shouted at Lenin: “Long live the dictator!” Whence an angry mob sprang to their feet and demanded, “Put him out! Put him out!”
Lenin took his place. He stood quietly for a moment, surveying the audience, with his hands in his pockets and an appraising expression in his brown eyes. He knew [that] he must win over wavering members of his own flock [not for the first time!]. He began by quietly tracing the historical developments of the soviet as an institution ...
“In Russia,” he said, “ the workers have developed organisations, which give them power to execute aspirations ... We did not organise the soviets. They were organised in 1917; they were created in the revolution of 1905. The people organised the soviets. When I tell you that the government of the soviets is superior to the Constituent Assembly, that it is more fundamentally representative of the will of the masses, I do not tell you anything new. As long ago as April 4, I told you that the soviets were more representative of the people than this Constituent Assembly, which you want to organise.
“The February Revolution was a political bourgeois revolution overthrowing tsarism. In November a social revolution occurred, and the working masses became the sovereign authority. The Workmen’s and Soldiers’ delegates are not bound by any rules or traditions to the old bourgeois society. Their government has taken all the power and the rights into its own hands. The Constituent Assembly is the highest expression of the political ideals of bourgeois society, which are no longer necessary in a socialist state. The Constituent Assembly will be dissolved. If the Constituent Assembly represented the will of the people, we would shout, ‘Long live the Constituent Assembly!’ Instead we shout: ‘Down with the Constituent Assembly!’” he finished (pp183-84).
And there we must leave Bessie Beatty’s vivid, often thrilling account of the Russian Revolution. In part 2, I shall be looking at Arthur Ransome’s account of the deepening crisis which faced the Bolshevik regime in the period 1920-21.