Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£30)

 “Books have their destinies.”

“Lenin despised anybody who disagreed with him, even – especially – within his own party”

Anthony Beevor

“Just as a blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand, so the proletariat cannot directly seize the power; it has to have an organisation accommodated to this task. The coordination of the mass insurrection with the conspiracy, the subordination of the conspiracy to the insurrection, and the organisation of the insurrection through the conspiracy constitutes that complex and responsible department of revolutionary politics which Marx and Engels called “the art of insurrection.” It presupposes a correct general leadership of the masses, a flexible orientation in changing conditions, a thought-out plan of attack, cautiousness in technical preparation, and a daring blow.”

History of the Russian Revolution, Chapter 30 (1930) Leon Trotsky

“ Arguments to the effect that all violence, including revolutionary violence, is evil and that Communists, therefore, ought not to engage in “glorification” of armed struggle and the revolutionary army amount to a philosophy worthy of Quakers and the old maids of the Salvation Army. Permitting such propaganda in a Communist Party is like permitting Tolstoyan propaganda in the garrison of a besieged fortress.”

Introduction to the Military Writings (1923) of Leon Trotsky

The Russian Revolution and the Civil War 1917-1921 are two events that, even after over one hundred years, are still buried under layers of myths, lies, distortions and a few hundred dead dogs.[1]

Hopefully, a new book covering both subjects written by Anthony Beevor would counter the lies and myths perpetrated by historians and writers who belong to the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. It has proven not to be the case. Beevor, despite having one of the foremost researchers in Russia, Lyubov Vinogradova, who used the most up-to-date scholarship and archival research, tends to repeat largely verbatim previous lies and falsifications.

Antony Beevor is a military historian best known for his books Stalingrad and Berlin. His books have sold in the millions. His latest book takes pride of place amongst the already large pile of anti-Marxist literature from the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. Beevor is now vice president of that elite group.

He believes the Russian Revolution was a putsch or coup d’état carried out by a few ruthless, deranged people determined to impose a totalitarian dictatorship upon the people. Beevor asserts, “Lenin was the only one within the Bolshevik party who believed a coup was possible, and even Trotsky was nervous. Lenin perceived – and he was absolutely right – that the success of a coup depends on the apathy of the majority, not on how many real supporters you have.”[2]

If one is to take this analysis at face value or without one’s tongue in cheek, you would have to conclude that Beevor has a very low intellectual understanding or interest in complex political and historical processes. Beevor continues this lack of knowledge by arguing that the Bolshevik Party was a small sect and utilised the great confusion created by the revolution to grab power. Beevor’s lies and distortions are nothing new and merely repeat what previous historians, such as the right-wing historian Richard Pipes, have said.

Pipes, too, believed that the revolution was carried out by a group of crazed intellectuals who he defines as “intellectuals craving power. They were revolutionaries not for the sake of improving the conditions of the people but for the sake of gaining domination over the people and remaking them in their image.”[3]

Most of the capitalist press has sided with Beevor, with one person saying, “Beevor is not interested in the revolutionaries’ ideology (rightly so, since hatred and vengeance were the underlying motive forces, and Marxist or anarchist slogans were mere rallying cries). Nor does he delve deep into revolutionary psychology, though he denounces Lenin’s mix of cowardice, callousness and obstinacy and singles out Trotsky’s hypnotic charisma. He chronicles Stalin’s brutal and often disastrous military interventions without comment.”

According to Beevor, revolutionaries like Lenin carried out their work in secret behind the backs of the people. He leaves out that Lenin wrote enough books, articles, and letters to fill fifty-one volumes, none of which Beevor quotes. Beevor’s stupid assertion can be easily refuted. As the Marxist writer David North does very easily asking us to “Consider this: To produce fifty-five volumes of political literature, each volume between 300 and 500 pages, means that Lenin, in the course of his thirty-year political career, had an average annual written output of between 600 and 1,000 pages (in printed form). This output included economic studies, philosophical tracts, political treatises, resolutions, newspaper commentaries and articles, extensive professional and personal correspondence, innumerable memoranda and private notes, such as the Philosophical Notebooks, which enable us to follow the intellectual development of Lenin’s conceptions. Much of Lenin’s working day, for years on end, was spent at the writing desk. And yet all this writing was nothing more than the means by which Lenin skilfully concealed what he was really thinking!”[4]

I somehow doubt if Beevor studied a single page of Lenin’s collected works. The same can be said of the co-leader of the Russian revolution and leader of the Red Army Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, without military training, won a stunning victory over White reactionaries and seventeen capitalists and still found time to write five volumes of military writings again, none of which Beevor consults. If Beevor had read Trotsky, it would have been very uncomfortable for him because he refutes all his arguments.

Take this quote on the need for revolutionary violence “Arguments to the effect that all violence, including revolutionary violence, is evil and that Communists, therefore, ought not to engage in “glorification” of armed struggle and the revolutionary army, amount to a philosophy worthy of Quakers and the old maids of the Salvation Army. Permitting such propaganda in a Communist Party is like permitting Tolstoyan propaganda in the garrison of a besieged fortress.”[5]

The reader of this book will need a strong stomach because large chunks of the text contain lurid tales of violence committed on both sides. The Guardian writer Andrew Anthony backs up Beevor’s squeamishness stating, “the violence committed by all sides was unconfined, with torture and executions widespread, and it was not uncommon for people to be thrown alive into blast furnaces. As Lenin saw any opposition as tantamount to treason, he demanded that all signs of resistance be met with brutal force. Trotsky, charming intellectual though he could be, was no less willing to issue orders that opponents should be shot on sight.”[6]

The reader must ask whether Beevor makes a serious attempt to understand the objective causes of the Civil War when Beevor states, “What has stood out is the sheer horror of the civil war? There’s savagery and sadism that is very hard to comprehend; I’m still mulling it over and trying to understand it. It was not just the build-up of hatred over centuries but a vengeance that seemed to be required. It went beyond the killing; there was also the sheer, horrible inventiveness of the tortures inflicted on people. We need to look at the origins of the civil war: who started it, and was it avoidable? But one also needs to see the different patterns seen in the “Red Terror” [the campaign of political repression and violence carried out by the Bolsheviks] and the “White Terror” [the violence perpetrated by that side in the war] – and consider the question: why are civil wars so much crueller, so much more savage than state-on-state wars?”[7]

Beevor continues in the same mode when he asserts that “Lenin wanted the civil war. Civil war is the sharpest form of class struggle. In his view, it was the only way for the Bolsheviks to take power. The other socialist parties – the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks – were horrified by his plans because they knew that after he had smashed the liberal and conservative parties, he would turn on them – and he certainly did. Lenin despised anybody who disagreed with him, even – especially – within his own party. The less-extreme members who warned against this complete seizure of power, this total dictatorship that Lenin was planning, were either more or less rejected from the party or kept in a kind of subservient position.” Beevor turns events on their head and is guilty of falsifying the historical record. Counter-revolutionaries caused the civil war with the aid of seventeen capitalist powers seeking to drown the revolution in blood.

The book presents no objective understanding of the complexities of the revolution or civil war. We get a cataloguing of violence in the Civil War that does not enlighten the reader one iota. Beevor quite deliberately downplays the fact that much of the violence, such as the execution of Czar Nicholas II and other examples in the book {which should be taken with a large pinch of salt and on many occasions, are not factual and have no supporting evidence} were extreme measures forced upon the revolution when it was fighting for its life against a savage and ruthless enemy, backed by the armies of all the major imperialist powers. Beevor is forced to admit that the counter-revolutionary White officers “wanted to bring back the punishments used by the tsarist army, which meant that they would be allowed to punch soldiers in the face on a summary charge, whip them using rifle-cleaning rods, things like that.”

                                                     The War In Ukraine

Although the book concentrates on the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War, much of the media interest has centred on Beevor’s attitude towards the current war in Ukraine, the war in Ukraine has mistakenly been compared to the Rusian Civil War. Beevor holds the same position as other capitalist media. Beevor’s analysis of Russia’s war with Ukraine is shallow, chaotic and wrong. He equates Putin with Hitler and Stalin and says, “Putin Wants to Be Feared – Like Stalin and Hitler, and he sees Russia as a “prisoner of its past.”

Christoph Vandreier writes that while the Russian invasion of Ukraine is politically reactionary, “it cannot be compared to the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation, let alone the Holocaust. The forces deployed by the Putin regime against Ukraine are minuscule compared to the invasion force hurled by Hitler against Russia in 1941.

Vandreier, in his article, quotes Historian Stephen G. Fritz, who made the following remarks “Deploying over 3 million men, 3,600 tanks, 600,000 motorised vehicles (as well as 625,000 horses), 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft (a number that was smaller than that employed during the invasion of France), the Germans had launched the largest military operation in history. Germany’s “Operation Barbarossa,” Fritz continued: was not only the most massive military campaign in history, but it also unleashed an unprecedented campaign of genocidal violence, of which the Holocaust remains the best-known example. This Judeocide, however, was not an isolated act of murder; rather, it formed part of a deliberate, comprehensive plan of exploitation, a utopian scheme of racial reorganisation and demographic engineering of vast proportions.[8]

                                                 Conclusion

The author is an accomplished historian, and his book is accessible and written in a vivid style. However, the book is no masterpiece. Beevor’s tendency to ignore politics and his lack of understanding of complex historical processes weakens the book beyond rescue. The book is too short, given the magnitude of the subjects covered. Beevor’s references and notes are virtually nonexistent, as is his use of previous historiography. As the great historian E.H Carr once said, “Great history is written precisely when the historian’s vision is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present” [9] . Beevor’s book is not great history. It would be precise to say that his historical falsification is bound up with his efforts to obscure an understanding of the present.

 Notes

Melvyn Bragg and historians discuss Lenin on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time at bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00546pv

Letter to a Young Trotskyist in Russia- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/06/30/oqgd-j30.html

Imperialism and the lie of the soul- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/05/24/rach-m24.html

The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky-Volume 1, 1918-How the Revolution Armed- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/index.htm


[1] Thomas Carlyle, who had complained that his study of Cromwell had required that he “drag the Lord Protector from out of a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion.”

[2] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-history-magazine/20220609/282239489241759

[3] Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 495.

[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/special/library/russian-revolution-unfinished-twentieth-century/01.html

[5] Introduction to the Military Writings (1923)-Leon Trotsky

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/jun/05/russia-revolution-and-civil-war-1917-1921-antony-beevor-review

[7] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-history-magazine/20220609/282239489241759

[8] Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East- Stephen G. Fritz

[9] [E.H. Carr, What is History? p. 37].

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