Arthur Ransome In Revolutionary Russia; The Trotsky Reappraisal; & Soviet Politics 1917-1991

John Erickson | Published in History Today
  • Arthur Ransome In Revolutionary Russia: Six Weeks In Russia 1919: The Crisis In Russia 1920
    Arthur Ransome – Redwords, 1992 - 175 pp and 120 pp. – £12.95
  • The Trotsky Reappraisal
    Edited by Terry Brotherstone and Paul Dukes - Edinburgh University Press, 1992 - 264 pp. - £30
  • Soviet Politics 1917-1991
    Mary McCauley - Oxford University Press, 1992 - 132 pp. - £20 hbk, £6.99 pbk

Russia is in turmoil, a huge empire sundered, a once mighty military machine on the verge of dissolution, with hunger abroad, privation all too common and politics presenting a disordered spectacle of sectarian squabble, 'democrats' behaving undemocratically, ethnic rivalries and nationalist passions threatening the onset of civil war. Yet none of this is new. This 'crisis in Russia' of the 90s has its parallel in 'the crisis in Russia of the 1920s', preceded by revolution and burgeoning civil war. Both are reported in riveting detail by none other than Arthur Ransome, long famous as the author of children's stories.

Whoever had the idea to reprint these scintillating and impassioned books on Russia deserves every congratulation. For the specialist, be he or she 'ex-Sovietologist' or present 'Yeltsinologist', they bring to life figures which have long been part of the substance of Soviet history: 'I went to see Lenin the day after the review in the Red Square...'. Though by no means a Bolshevik apologist, indeed his commitment is to the soviets, the local bodies, as the instrumentation of democracy, Ransome was a fierce opponent of the Intervention (a feeling also reflected in Paul Foot's introduction), armed intervention designed to snuff out the revolution.

It can be external enemies, demanding centralisation, ruthless discipline and 'War Communism', permanently distorted the structure of the emergent Soviet state at a critical stage. I am no proponent of parallelism in history, but we are now seeing a new form of external intervention in a turbulent Russia in the guise of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stipulations about a market economy and privatisation. This in turn has raised its own furore, intensifying hardship and raising the spectre of widespread unemployment with its concomitant of large-scale social disruption, thus jeopardising any progress towards greater democracy. 'Intervention' whether armed or fiscal, has its hazards. This, together with many other factors, be they a vivid picture of a disordered Russia or wonderful pen portraits of Russians, makes recourse to this marvellous reprint mandatory. None will be disappointed.

Needless to say Arthur Ransome saw Trotsky in full, fiery oratorial action. For many Stalinist years Trotsky was the great 'un-person', even down to his violent death. Now amid a blossoming revival of interest, the rehabilitated Trotsky has proved to be the subject of a mixture of fascination and controversy. The collection of papers edited by Terry Brotherstone and Paul Dukes, from a conference at Aberdeen University, is not 'rehabilitation', however, but designedly reappraisal. I suppose that, in a way, Ransome was really a Trotskyist, for it was Trotsky who affirmed, proclaimed and preached that revolutionary Russia had, in the soviets, revealed the most advanced form of proletarian organisation. What these sixteen essays set out to examine is the relevance of Trotsky's political work and theorising, both in terms of historical events and present, even future, political developments.

The important thing about this volume, with its distinguished contributors drawn from inside and outside Russia, is the attempt to represent Trotsky's political thought – so long maligned, distorted, or just plain ignored – in all of its variety and complexity. A key part of this process has been to restore Trotsky to his rightful place within Soviet political developments (see Alec Nove, 'Trotsky and NEP' or Boris Starkov, 'Trotsky and Ryutin' on the anti-Stalin resistance in the 1930s, or Michal Reiman on Trotsky and the struggle for Lenin's heritage').

But what of the past, present and future of 'Trotskyism'? This symposium is no uncritical paean of praise to Trotsky, if anything there is a strong sceptical thread running through the papers about his role and his importance, not least since it appears that socialism is almost everywhere in retreat. It was the rise of Stalinism which brought about 'Trotskyism' and it is the demise of Stalinism, rather than the defeat or retreat of socialism, which again prompts questions about the importance of Trotsky and the significance of 'real Trotskyism' (rather than the mere adulation of his followers or latter day perversions of his view, all in the name of trying to sound and to appear 'progressive'.

Terry Brotherstone, as one of the editors, with due professional caution disclaims any overweening attempt 'to discover what Trotskyism means today'. But two of his contributors, Baruch Hirson from South Africa and Sergei Kudryashov from Russia, each in their own way, do precisely that and in striking fashion. For Hirson, it is to re-establish the continuity of the socialist vision for a mass audience, for Kudryashov the revelation from an 'un-person' of integrity in the struggle against ideological opponents, struggle for the oppressed and devotion to the idea of proletarian revolution. I must confess to being in the camp of the sceptics when it came to the question of the importance of Trotsky and even more pertinently 'Trotskyism', but after reading this assembly of argument, scholarship and conviction I am more fully persuaded of the importance of Trotsky and of the need to study his political legacy, much of which is so powerfully, persuasively portrayed here, a persuasion cogent enough to have me turn afresh to Baruch Knei-Paz's major work, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford University Press, 1978).

Dr Mary McCauley in this elegant, sensitive volume which eschews clodhopping pedantry of many books on Soviet politics or the jargon of what a distinguished Russian colleague of mine used to call 'topsy-turvy Bolshevism', sets out to discover what happened after 1985 and why the system fell apart, by using knowledge of the past to discern not only the shape of the present but, ever so cautiously, a hint of the future. While the scholarship in this book is of the highest standard, it is also a book full of people, of incident and action. Inevitably we come back to 1917, back also to Trotsky, back to Trotsky's argument that the nomenklatura and satrap apparatchiki, the power-wielders and office-holders, would consolidate their own power by masking it with a great show of legality. Could it be that this is happening once again? Privatisation in an environment of weak democratic control could give the apparat a means of, and access to, wealth and privilege. Dr McCauley recognises what is apparent in this process though she is dismissive of the idea that here was calculated conspiracy. What is happening now and what has happened since 1985 is not a revolution, it is not a fresh attempt at 1789 much less 1917 – no fresh vision, no great scheme of a new political and social order. Most if not all attention is focused on rectifying the mistakes of the past.

Dr McCauley looks through the seven stages of the Soviet experience which terminated in that extraordinary extravaganza of perestroika and Gorbachev's bizarre self-defeating struggle to carry through reform using as instrument an unreformed and unreformable Communist Party. What Gorbachev did not under any circumstances desire or foresee – the collapse of central authority – duly came to pass. Why did the perestroika strategy fail? Dr McCauley rightly rejects a simple answer and in Chapter 7 provides analysis of how this strategy gradually unwound, with a key role being played by Gorbachev himself when at the 19th Party Conference in July, 1988, he proposed reforms of government structures which – almost absent-mindedly – cut the ground from beneath the leading role of the Party. This, as Dr McCauley points out, 'tore apart the perestroika package' and then with a whiff of a democratic future in the air, just a whiff, the Soviet Union proceeded to tear itself apart. A whiff was enough.

Each of these books provides profitable and illuminating reading and each separately takes up important questions. What is a Russia in crisis, the Russia of passions, hardship of revolutionary tradition, of people so conscious of a past at once burdensome and terrible? As there was Stalinism, so was there anti-Stalinism and the imprint of Trotsky and Trotskyism, not just hero-worship of a man and an orator, but representative – of what? And the present situation, so Ransome-esque in its condition of crisis, seen coolly and far from unsympathetically by Dr McCauley. These are excellent works.

John Erickson is the co-author of Deep Battle: Marshal Tukhachevskii (Brassey’s, 1987).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5