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Violence to Velvet: Revolutions—1917 to 2017

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2017

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From their inception, the 1917 Russian Revolutions, specifically the October Revolution, have been synonymous with Bolshevik violence. In the course of the last century, almost all observers have believed that violence was inherent in the Russian revolutions and revolutions generally. Such views have obscured what a revolution actually is. Closer examination of the October Revolution confirms violence was not its defining feature. Further, the Bolsheviks conceived October as the opening salvo of international, socialist revolution; expectations largely crushed by overwhelming counter-revolutionary violence. The discrediting of war and political violence since World War II has seen the conception of revolution as a “velvet” process of political transformation emerge, particularly in Latin America, the US, Britain, and Europe. While such movements rarely look back to the Russian Revolutions, they echo the democratic, egalitarian, and emancipatory impulses bequeathed by 1917, and raise the possibility of near non-violent socialist revolutions.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies 2017 

Revolutions have had a bad press. Ever since the Great 1789 French Revolution made the guillotine and terror household words, revolutionary “furies” have been an idée fixe for anti-revolutionaries and historians alike.Footnote 1 Likewise, the 1917 Russian revolutions, above all the October Revolution, have been synonymous with violence: Bolshevik violence. In the course of the last century, whatever the sympathies of historians, politicians, or commentators, almost all have believed that violence was inherent in the Russian Revolutions and revolutions generally, exemplified by Russia's ensuing savage civil war. Such assertions have often been polemical rather than analytical, although with the end of the Cold War more nuanced analyses have emerged.Footnote 2 Nevertheless, Cold War paradigms linger, shaping misperceptions of what a revolution actually is and the potential for near non-violent revolution in an era that prizes peace.Footnote 3

A teleology of violence has pervaded the language of analysis of the 1917 Russian Revolutions: coup d’état, insurrection, terror. “Bolshevism” has come to be synonymous with brutal dictatorship.Footnote 4 These conceptions have overshadowed the fact that violence did not define either the titular February 1917 Revolution or the Bolsheviks “coming to power” in October.Footnote 5 Above all, they have overshadowed the emancipatory thrust of October 1917, the real revolution, which entailed the “forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization . . . to create new political institutions.”Footnote 6

The 1917 revolutions were not bloodless; far from it. The demonstrations initiated by striking Petrograd women textile workers on International Women's Day were viciously suppressed, triggering revolutions that culminated in Russian women's suffrage, civil marriage, divorce, and legal abortion.Footnote 7 By contrast, the October “armed insurrection” was virtually a “velvet revolution” enacted in a very violent environment. The “storming of the Winter Palace” was not even a “Bastille.” Violence was unleashed by the counter-revolution that erupted in the immediate aftermath of the Bolsheviks ascending to power on October 25.Footnote 8 The ensuing civil war was extraordinarily savage; 10.5 million people died, eclipsing the two million Russian deaths in the First World War.Footnote 9

The Bolsheviks were ruthless in defense of their revolution—in ruthless times. In the era of the Russian Revolutions political violence was an “epochal” norm.Footnote 10 The drowning in blood of the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1905 Revolution, and the carnage of the First World War, only confirmed Bolshevik convictions that there was no peaceful road towards socialism. Vladimir Lenin above all was clear on this: “Revolution is war.”Footnote 11 Lenin's conviction that coercion was inherent in revolution sprang not from some latter-day Jacobinism but from his analysis of the modern “Leviathan”: hyper-militarized imperialism.Footnote 12 He unequivocally called for “imperialist war” to be turned into “civil war.”Footnote 13 In his State and Revolution, written on the eve of October, he declared the capitalist state “special bodies of armed men” that had to be “smashed” and replaced by a revolutionary counter-state.Footnote 14

Lenin's espousal of the Marxist credo that “force is the midwife” of history provided ammunition for the “cold warrior” explanation for Bolshevik violence: driven by ideology, the Bolsheviks waged fanatical class war in their utopian will to power.Footnote 15 However, a post-Cold War cohort of historians argue the Bolsheviks essentially adopted coercive “modern state practices” honed in the course of European colonialism and “total” warfare.Footnote 16 Illuminating as such perspectives are, by cataloguing Bolshevik practices under “modernity” they underestimate the degree to which the Bolshevik revolution was sui generis: it aimed to forge an anti-capitalist state resting on popular power as the launching pad for international socialism. The resultant rupture with the existing world imperial order unleashed savage counter-revolution and civil war.


The Bolsheviks did not initiate mass terror. Nevertheless, they waged unforgiving war against counter-revolution, domestic and international. Amidst administrative chaos, economic collapse, famine, forced grain requisitioning, and assassination attacks on Lenin and others, foreign military intervention was the catalyst for “mass Red Terror” against “White terror.”Footnote 17 With the crushing of the anticipated European revolutions, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” became the sole instrument for staving off “the dictatorship of the imperialist bourgeoisie.”Footnote 18 Leon Trotskii invoked the precedent of Jacobin terror to justify Red Terror “breaking the will of the foe.”Footnote 19 Fearful of losing power, Bolshevik “terror psychosis” took on a life of its own, escalating into ferocious “war” on peasant “banditry” in 1920–21.Footnote 20 Although Bolshevik leaders frequently condemned and occasionally punished Chekist lethal excesses, Chekist terror was “sacralized,” in the name of socialist “humanism,” “morality” and “justice.”Footnote 21 In Lenin's “apocalyptic view,” in an era of “bestial” imperialist wars, it was either revolution or counter-revolution: there was no third way.Footnote 22

Civil war savagery was “seared” into Soviet memory, paving the way for “unprecedented” Stalin-era violence.Footnote 23 Although there was “significant continuity” between civil-war and Stalin-era personnel and “repressive practices,” Stalinist violence was of a different order and intent: near-autarkic, forced-march industrialization, and militarization.Footnote 24 The immediate result was Joseph Stalin's declaration of war on the so-called kulaks–“kto kogo?”—who would be “eliminated as a class,” and mass famine.Footnote 25 In 1937–38, fear of invasion raised the political temperature to white heat, unleashing secret, “excisionary violence” that, inter alia, finally erased the old Bolshevik internationalists.Footnote 26 Ultimately, Stalin's “military-mobilizational” state was his only bulwark against Hitler's genocidal onslaught.Footnote 27

Road to Revolution

Civil war and Stalinist violence has obscured the non-violent political methods of the Bolsheviks in 1917.Footnote 28 “Patient” political persuasion was their primary weapon; not military force à la General Kornilov. In the wake of Kornilov's abortive coup, Lenin even declared the Bolsheviks would do “everything to secure” the “peaceful development of the revolution.”Footnote 29 The Bolsheviks and their Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) allies rode to power on the back of vast popular movements—workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors—that were the driving forces of the revolutions. The Bolsheviks captured the elementary aspirations of desperate millions for an end to carnage, for land redistribution, and for food, in the simple slogan: “Peace, Land, and Bread”; aspirations Lenin in particular emphasized the Provisional Government could not satisfy.Footnote 30 They won a plebian political constituency with their call for “All Power to the Soviets!,” an active “civil society” that was the nucleus of an alternative state power.Footnote 31 In extreme circumstances, the political authority of the Provisional Government, like its autocratic predecessor, evaporated rather than being conspiratorially overthrown by armed force.Footnote 32

Bolshevik tactics in the “July Days”—their opposition to a pre-emptive seizure of power because they lacked sufficient support in the soviets and the Provisional Government had still not exhausted its options—epitomizes their political approach.Footnote 33 In October, despite Lenin's impatience, securing the support of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was decisive for the Bolsheviks in their plan to overthrow the government. When the Bolshevik-led Military Revolutionary Committee of the soviets arrested the remnants of the government on October 24, ratified by a fractured soviet congress on October 25, the Bolshevik–Left SR dominated congress was filling the political vacuum left by an impotent regime. October 24–25, 1917 was a revolution, not simply a coup d’état (perevorot). It was the political culmination of a “process” unleashed in February: the armed insurrection crowned the replacement of one form of state power by another, propelled by “mass movements.”Footnote 34 The October Revolution opened a fraught passage to massive socio-economic changes in Russia that would ricochet politically throughout the world for three quarters of a century.

Emancipatory Politics

Not violence, but the political principles espoused by the Bolsheviks first resonated internationally. The audacious October Revolution was conceived by the Bolsheviks as an international, socialist revolution against war, underdevelopment, exploitation, and the imperialist capitalism that produced them.Footnote 35 An end to war was at the core of the Bolshevik appeal and its threat to the prevailing social order. The specter of millions of Russian peasant soldiers abandoning the Eastern Front under the banner of peace terrified the warring powers.Footnote 36 The Bolsheviks stuck to their anti-war guns: the day after they came to power Lenin issued their first decree: “The Decree on Peace,” which called for an “immediate . . . just, democratic peace . . . without annexations.”Footnote 37 Two weeks later, Trotskii declared war on “secret diplomacy,” publishing hitherto secret documents of the imperial powers.Footnote 38 Indeed, the Bolsheviks were the Wikileaks of their time.Footnote 39

The Bolsheviks strove to internationalize the October Revolution, in accordance with the classical Marxist conviction that a full-fledged socialist society could only be built on the foundation of highly productive industrial capitalism. Russia was famously the “weakest link in the imperialist chain,” which next needed to be torn asunder in Germany if the political revolution in semi-developed, agrarian Russia was to survive. The Bolsheviks were banking above all on socialist revolution in Germany as a bulwark against the military and industrial might of the imperial powers. To that end, in 1919 they established a political, not a military, instrument to internationalize the revolution: the Communist International.Footnote 40

Bolshevik internationalism reached out not only to the working classes of the industrialized world but also to the colonized peoples, whose aspirations for national self-determination they championed. Woodrow Wilson's famous “14 Points” principle of national self-determination was a riposte to Lenin's “Decree on Peace.”Footnote 41 Where the Versailles peace treaties provided for selective self-determination or none at all, the Bolsheviks universalized this principle. Wilsonian betrayal of China's quest to be treated as an equal at Versailles led directly to China's May 4th Independence Movement and two years later the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party, inspired by October 1917 and the Bolshevik championing of colonial self-determination.Footnote 42 China was not alone. The Bolsheviks enjoined the Muslims of the Middle East and Asia as a “holy task” to “overthrow the imperialist robbers and enslavers.”Footnote 43 Such anti-imperial cries, coupled with the formation of the Comintern, saw the proliferation of communist parties from Germany to the USA, from Indonesia to India. They were born in an ultra-violent era: a “second thirty years war,” 1914 to 1945, that raged from Berlin to Beijing.Footnote 44 The communist parties in Europe and Asia were principally political organizations that, although schooled in “armed insurrection,” were largely quelled by overwhelming counter-revolutionary violence before the Second World War.Footnote 45 Germany was the axis of anti-communist violence that engulfed Europe. Hitler's National Socialist “revolution” unleashed war on “Judeo-Bolshevism” that culminated in his genocidal “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union.Footnote 46 Parallel anti-communist repression was unleashed in China by Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang, notably the 1927 Shanghai massacre that sparked a civil war lasting until Mao Zedong's victory in 1949; a legacy of October 1917 that thrives today.Footnote 47

Soviet victory in the “Great Patriotic War” and the leading role that many communist parties played in the anti-fascist resistance boosted struggles for democracy, “anti-colonialism, nationalism and ‘social humanism.’”Footnote 48 In the post-war years, many of these parties conducted armed struggle against the re-imposition of colonialism. The Cold War became hot war against political movements and states that derived from October: Korea (1950–1953), Algeria (1954–1962), the Congo (1960–1965), Indonesia (1965–1968), and Vietnam (1954–1975).

“Give Peace a Chance”

In contrast, growing opposition to the Vietnam War in the US and Europe in the mid-1960s was overwhelmingly characterized by mass, largely peaceful protests. The “Prelude to Revolution” in France in May 1968 was nothing like as incendiary as February 1917.Footnote 49 From Washington to London, Paris to Prague, mass demonstrations, teach-ins, and civil disobedience were the weapons of choice against batons and tanks.Footnote 50 As social rather than labor movements, driven by “visceral moral anger” against war rather than “ideology,” they mainly promoted alternative forms of social organization, political decision-making, life-style, and cultural values, rather than the overthrow of consumer capitalism.Footnote 51 Above all, they evinced the non-violent, anti-war sensibility that had come to prevail, at least in the “West.”Footnote 52 “Lennonism” rather than Leninism was the refrain in the 1960s that embodied what has been deemed the post-Enlightenment “humanitarian revolution” against violence in our age.Footnote 53

Indeed, the discrediting of war and political violence in the late-twentieth to early twenty-first centuries has seen the conception of revolution as a peaceful, mass, “velvet” process of social renewal and political transformation—the antithesis of violence—emerge. Human “Rights Revolutions” characterized the latter part of the twentieth century, especially in the US and western Europe, “strikingly” distinguished by “how little violence they employed or even provoked.”Footnote 54 The same might be said of Czechoslovakia's 1968 “socialism with a human face” and Poland's 1980–81 Solidarność (Solidarity) “revolution,” with this difference: they were short-lived experiments in participatory democracy, which aspired to the realization of the putative promises of democracy enshrined in communist party programs. They were movements which strove for a “civil” socialist society; not simply autonomy from a one-party state but for the democratization of state and society. In that sense, they briefly reprised the soviets and factory committees of 1917. Snuffed out by tanks and police, they proved a last chance for Soviet renewal.

In the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's failed perestroika, the fall of the walls in Soviet east central Europe, above all Czechoslovakia in 1989, gave rise to the so-called “velvet revolutions.” They too aspired to civil societies, but this time they repudiated a stale authoritarian state-socialism in favor of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. The last bastions of authoritarian socialism, including the Soviet Union itself, relinquished power without firing a shot (except Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu), leading some to deny violence is “integral” to revolution.Footnote 55 These velvet revolutions have proved to be hollow, as have the so-called “colored Revolutions” in the Soviet successor states. In the main, former communist elites simply reconfigured themselves as oligarchs and presidents.Footnote 56 Unlike October 1917, there was no decisive political break.

Twenty-first Century Socialism

The end of the Cold War and the seeming triumph of capitalism over communism has actually opened new possibilities for radical change, notably in Latin America, home of anti-communist coups d’état, Guevaraist guerillaism, and Castroist “humanism.”Footnote 57 “Twenty-first century socialism” has become the clarion cry of “New Left” governments elected in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. While faced with many of the same socio-economic challenges as were the Bolsheviks, but not apocalyptic warfare, they have eschewed a “state-smashing” approach to revolution. Opting for “Gramscian hegemony” rather than Marxism-Leninism, radical electoral and participatory politics and popular-patriotic appeals have been the drivers of redistributive policies in all three countries. While denouncing imperialism and neoliberalism, this troika has generally refrained from using coercion against their adversaries, mobilizing civil society en masse to preserve their precarious political dominance instead.Footnote 58

In North America and Europe, non-violent, mass political movements have resurfaced, particularly in the wake of the 2007–8 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Anti-capitalism and class conflict have re-emerged, driven by the gross inequalities generated by neoliberal capitalism. “Occupy Wall Street” erupted in 2011 as the “99%” opposed to the “greed and corruption of the 1%.” With roots in 1960s US social and protest movements, “Occupy” was more akin to anarchism than Bolshevism: a “leaderless” “laboratory for participatory democracy.”Footnote 59

It is in Europe and Britain, however, with their historical reservoir of socialist movements, that anti-neoliberal, party-political movements have begun to gain traction. Beleaguered Greece was first cab off the rank, with Syriza’s upsurge; in Spain Podemos took wings; and the UK witnessed Jeremy Corbyn's triumphal “Momentum” revolt within New Labour. Across the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’ avowedly “socialist” “political revolution” threatened the establishment presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Such party-political movements were a reaction to the complicity of center-left parties in implementing punishing solutions to the GFC, protecting the “1%,” and for the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite vocal, massive public opposition. Militant, if predominantly peaceful, popular protests have fuelled the tide of neo-socialist movements, of which only Syriza and France's Parti de gauche have some roots in 1917.Footnote 60

Obviously, such movements are in no way intent on Leninist “state smashing.” Sanders’ “political revolution” amounts to little more than encouraging more citizens to vote. Podemos has advocated a more democratic voting system based on “Autonomous Communities.” Class certainly creeps into these movements’ rhetoric—“the billionaire class” (Sanders), the “super rich” (Corbyn), a “financial casino” (Pablo Iglesias)—but not anti-capitalism; rather, all advocate “sustainable growth.” Their approach to war making varies, however. Sanders has been inconsistent, supporting wars by Democrats but opposing wars by Republicans. Corbyn is a founder of “Stop the War,” the “largest anti-war movement today in any NATO country,” although neither he nor Iglesias advocate leaving NATO any longer. The cautious politics of these leaders does not vitiate the movements or the issues that motivate them. “Bernie or Bust” opposition to Clinton certainly opened “cracks” in the “hegemony of the two party system”; even more so has the election of authoritarian-populist Donald Trump to the US presidency.Footnote 61

Bloodless Revolution

The contemporary world faces many of the same issues that confronted Russia and Europe in 1917: endless war, authoritarian states, extremes of wealth and poverty, racial, national, and gender oppression. In a far more urbanized world, land reform does not have the same weight, but a new existential crisis has been added: global warming. This is not the “Age of Extremes,” to invoke Eric Hobsbawm, wracked by total war, but planet Earth and the human species are faced with a stark choice. “Socialism or barbarism” was the alternative posed by Rosa Luxemburg in 1916. “Socialism or extinction” would be today's equivalent.Footnote 62 Apocalyptic as such a choice seems, none of the contemporary mass movements in the western world, socialist or otherwise, advocate political violence. On the contrary, in keeping with the predominant ethos of our age, they universally repudiate violence as a political weapon. Few look back to 1917 or the Bolsheviks for inspiration, but in their quest for alternative social organization and democratic decision-making, such movements unwittingly reprise the egalitarian, emancipatory, civil-society impulses bequeathed by the revolutions of 1917, stripped of the garb of violence which was foisted on the meaning of revolution in another, infinitely more violent era and place. Nevertheless, they have yet to confront an enduring lesson from 1917: should “Twenty-first century socialism” really encroach on the prerogatives of the “1%” then it too might face “the furies” of state power.Footnote 63 Only a mass, democratic, counter-state can disarm such a threat with minimal, ethical, violence “in pursuit of emancipation.”Footnote 64 But this scenario presumes a massive social crisis in which established authority loses its legitimacy, “the essential precondition for the escalation of revolt into revolution.”Footnote 65


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62. See Foster, John Bellamy, “Marxism and Ecology: Common Fonts of a Great Transition,” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine 67, no. 7 (December 2015): 113 Google Scholar.

63. Mayer, The Furies, 45–47.

64. Hewlett, Blood and Progress, esp. 101, 110, 164–73.

65. Mayer, The Furies, 35.

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