Originally published on Medium in 2017 under the title,“DSA’s Jason Schulman: Dead Wrong on Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the October ‘Revolution’”
Jason Schulman’s response to Mitchel Cohen’s article “What Lenin’s Critics Got Right” spends a lot of time discussing the obscure history of Russia’s socialist underground prior to 1917 and avoiding what actually matters — what the Bolsheviks did once they seized power and were in a position to govern Russia. However, what little Schulman does say about the Bolsheviks in power is a series of fictions easily refuted by anyone familiar with the historical record:
“The soviets of 1917 through mid-1918 consisted of legal rival parties. In November 1917 Lenin also promoted the idea that workers’ and peasants’ organizations should be entitled to free press resources. (Cohen should also investigate how the Bolsheviks treated General Krasnov and his soldiers, who attempted armed overthrow of the Soviet government on October 31. It was very ‘soft.’) I won’t justify every action the Bolsheviks took during the Civil War. And of course the October Revolution was a ‘gamble’ on Western European proletarian revolution. That failed. But Martov’s alternative — a Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary government based on the Constituent Assembly — was impossible. The actual alternative was either many policies the Bolsheviks implemented, including coercion of the peasantry to provide food, Red Terror (partly designed to control and restrain terror ‘from below’ by peasants), etc., or the rule of White generals and White Terror. The main ‘tragedy’ isn’t the Bolsheviks’ actions; it’s the ad-hoc justifications of these actions as norms in Comintern resolutions, adopted by ‘Leninist’ organizations.”
Fiction #1: “The soviets of 1917 through mid-1918 consisted of legal rival parties.”
Fact: The Bolsheviks never accorded rival soviet parties legal protections such as freedom of agitation, press, and organization once they were in power. Lenin and the Bolsheviks began arresting their Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary (SR) rivals and closing their newspapers immediately after they overthrew the Provisional Government:
(Excerpt from Alexander Rabinowitch’s book, Bolsheviks In Power.)
Fiction #2: “In November 1917 Lenin also promoted the idea that workers’ and peasants’ organizations should be entitled to free press resources.”
Fact: One of the earliest Bolshevik decrees ended freedom of the press. In a subsequent decree, the Bolsheviks banned subscriptions to and advertisements appearing in newspapers not under their control, strangling working-class and peasant newspapers by depriving them of revenue. Newspapers of non-Bolshevik socialists were subject to a special tax and banned from the postal system while Bolshevik newspapers received state subsidies.
The Bolsheviks closed over 300 periodicals between October 1917 and July 1918. Working-class organizations that would not submit to Bolshevik control from above like the railwaymen’s union vikzhel and the soviet-like Extraordinary Assembly of Delegates were dissolved by decree and destroyed by repression.
Fiction #3: “Martov’s alternative — a Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary government based on the Constituent Assembly — was impossible.”
Fact: Such a government was only impossible because Lenin and the Bolsheviks made it impossible by dispersing the Constituent Assembly by force of arms. Dozens of peaceful demonstrators supporting the Constituent Assembly were injured and killed after being fired upon without warning by Bolshevik military units.
Furthermore, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the creation of a soviet government only the condition that it hand power to the Constituent Assembly:
“The All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies resolves: To establish a provisional workers’ and peasants’ government, to be known as the Council of People’s Commissars, to govern the country until the Constituent Assembly is convened.”
The Bolsheviks led by Lenin ignored the will of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets and seized power exclusively for themselves.
Fiction #4: “The actual alternative was either many policies the Bolsheviks implemented, including coercion of the peasantry to provide food, Red Terror (partly designed to control and restrain terror ‘from below’ by peasants), etc., or the rule of White generals and White Terror.”
Fact: The Mensheviks had viable policy alternatives and implemented them in Georgia. There, the Mensheviks established a democratic republic without either Red or White terror, without waging war on the peasantry, without wrecking the economy, without shooting striking workers, and without creating famines that killed millions of people. The Bolshevik regime could not tolerate the threat of a good example and invaded Georgia to end this promising experiment in democratic socialism in 1921.
Furthermore, coercing the peasantry to provide grain was a wholly unnecessary measure that consistently failed to feed anyone (aside from communist bureaucrats and Red Army personnel who — as the new ruling class — received extra rations and pilfered peasants’ personal possessions during requisitioning raids).
Fiction #5: “The main ‘tragedy’ isn’t the Bolsheviks’ actions; it’s the ad-hoc justifications of these actions as norms in Comintern resolutions, adopted by ‘Leninist’ organizations.”
Fact: The main tragedy of Bolshevism is the tens of thousands of innocents (many of them workers and peasants) murdered in cold blood by Bolshevik death squads known as the Cheka and millions of people starved to death by their grain-stealing detachments, not poorly worded Comintern resolutions.
On the centenary of the Bolshevik insurrection, the Bolsheviks deserve to be remembered for being Lenin’s willing executioners.