- The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution: Illiberal Liberation, 1917–41 ed. by Lara Douds, James Harris and Peter Whitewood
The three editors of this book, Lara Douds (Northumbria University), James Harris (University of Leeds), and Peter Whitewood (York St. John University), have assembled a comprehensive collection of sixteen essays on the history of Bolshevism and the early Soviet state. Their main genre is intellectual and political history. The authors, predominantly from North America and Europe, include both established scholars and early career researchers. The volume works well as a whole and makes a good addition to literature on the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union, while the individual essays intersect and engage with each other thematically and conceptually.
In the introduction, the editors seek to reconsider the notion of the intentional choice between authoritarianism and democracy (P. 2) by putting the early Soviet experience into the broader European context of democracy's troubled history. The editors make use of the Bolsheviks' own argumentation against contemporary political democracy. Reformulating the idea of proletarian dictatorship as "illiberal liberation," they suggest decoupling democracy from liberalism by looking at the Bolshevik order as alternatively democratic. They understand this alternative democracy as rule in the interest of the majority rather than rule by the majority (P. 5). I wonder if the use of the term "democracy" is analytically productive. The idea of the Bolshevik regime as a democracy is in fact challenged already in chapter 1. Furthermore, at the Third Congress of Soviets, which constituted the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin explicitly dismissed democracy altogether, implying that it could not be decoupled from capitalism when debating with other socialists.1 The introduction could also benefit from a critical reflection on the key concepts it employs, beginning with "the working masses": for one thing, the proletariat was a minority in Russia, while most peasants were classified as "petty bourgeoisie." Furthermore, even though peasants were gradually included in Soviet institutions, they were represented unequally there: hence, the early Soviet regime, not unlike the prerevolutionary [End Page 307] one, not only practiced selective representation but also marginalized the peasants. This was pointed out by contemporary socialist critics of the Bolshevik autocracy.2 Another fundamental flaw of the introduction is its homogenizing and thus implicitly Russifying reading of the Russian Revolution, rather than treating it as an imperial phenomenon.3 Indeed, the ideas of democracy differed across the former empire, and the main political targets of the Bolsheviks were not the liberals but other socialist parties, which were very popular and often integrated into national movements. The introduction ignores the problem of federalism in the Russian liberation movement, which the Bolsheviks' initial program blatantly discarded and only later in the Civil War embraced as an appropriation of the competing socialist discourse.4 Finally, instead of a longue durée perspective on the Soviet period that spanned most of the twentieth century, the introduction skips everything between the early 1920s and 1991 (P. 10). This telescopic optics contributes to the text's advancement of a homogeneous and static vision of the Soviet regime.
Aside from the introduction that narrows rather than broadens the perspective on modern approaches to the Bolshevik Revolution, the rest of the volume is well structured and thematically rich, with most of its sixteen chapters written in a critical and nuanced manner. The first two chapters form Part 1, "Bolshevik Ideology and Practice," and discuss the authoritarian inclinations in the Bolsheviks' theory and practice. Erik van Ree (University of Amsterdam) convincingly argues against reading Lenin as a democratic thinker, demonstrating the flawed nature of his ideas about the state and radical democracy and that his 1917 writings were conducive to autocracy (Pp. 17–18). Lenin favored etatism and centralization, brought about by the Great War, and envisioned socialism as a state-capitalist monopoly – the sole employer of the workforce (Pp. 21–22). In Lenin's interpretation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's ideas, self-government was replaced...