What the Failure of Russian Liberalism Means for Us

A century on, the Russian Revolution still looms like a shadow from the past. Rather surprisingly, in a way, since the Cold War has been over for nearly three decades. Yet there is something enduringly fascinating and even romantic about the Russian Revolution: the collapse of tsarism, the mass uprising of the Russian people against oppression in the eventual triumph of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and the establishment of the world’s first workers’ state.

This romanticized view, however, is somewhat compromised when read alongside the rise of Stalin and apparatus of state murder and brutality on an unprecedented scale. (Most historians today would agree that the origins of Stalinism are found in Lenin and Trotsky.) Not that Stalin lacked apologists in the West. Notably amongst them was Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who, whilst defending Stalinism and Stalin himself, was able to summon enough of his principles to reject the offer of a British knighthood. To give you an idea of the man who the British establishment continue to admire, when asked in an interview if Stalin’s political vision of a “radiant tomorrow” had been achieved, would it have been worth the cost of 20 million human lives, he replied with a terse but confident “yes.”

Yet for progressively minded people with an ounce of decency, defending Stalinism became increasingly difficult by the 1950s. Consequently, there arose a tendency to see the Russian revolution as a tragedy of sorts, but one of betrayal in the years following the revolution itself, specifically in the ascendancy of Stalin. The English writer and left-wing activist, China Miévillenot long ago summed it up this way: “Why does the revolution matter? Because of what was right about it, and what went wrong.”

To my mind, this is not unreasonable, even if a little unoriginal. Certainly there are lessons to be learned here, for instance, on how the impersonal machinations of a state bureaucracy can be a source and architect of evil in its own right.

Yet it seems to me there are other, more over-looked lessons to draw from this period in history that are far more relevant to today. Especially when the direction of politics seems to be towards increased fragmentations, radicalism, and a routine failure to conduct dialogue across ideological divides.

Asking “how did Bolshevism turn into Stalinism” is all well and good. But today, it seems more pertinent to be asking how did Bolshevism eclipse liberalism?

What happened to Russian liberalism, and why did it fail?

First of all, it would be wise to rid oneself of the notion of inevitability. That sort of thinking might find a home in high school textbooks, but it is essentially flawed. Even Lenin would not have endorsed the idea that revolution was inevitable in 1917 Russia. More to the point, it obscures the fundamental reality that the Revolution of 1917 was an absolute and utter shock to the world.

Reportedly, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote his beautiful poem The Second Coming in reaction to revolutionary events unfolding in 1917 Russia.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats seems to suggest that the whole ‘blood-dimmed tide’ of anarchy that the Revolution unleashed can be traced back to the collapse of the political centre in a historical moment of discontent and extremism.

I found this insight fascinating.

In Russia, the responsibility of acting as the political center largely lay with the Constitutional Democrats, or the Kadet Party. Arguably, the origins of Russian liberalism might be traced back further in history, practically speaking however, it did not exist politically in the Russian Empire until the 1905 Revolution.

After a wave of popular uprising across the country, the tsar proclaimed his famous October Manifesto wherein he promised basic civil liberties and a national assembly (the Duma). He transformed Russian liberalism from the illegal and clandestine to the open, and invited it into the very halls of power.

But in reality, the October Manifesto was half-pledge of reform, half-admission of defeat and certainly half-hearted. The tsar only ever agreed to it reluctantly. By April 1906, he released his Fundamental Laws in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to turn back the clock on the gains of the 1905 Revolution. Whilst the Duma would still be elected and sit in governance, it would be overseen by the tsar who asserted authority over it, including the right to dismiss it should he see fit.

Tsar Nicholas II was a rather weak character. He inspired neither fear nor respect, except perhaps in his family whom he loved genuinely and tenderly. Ineffectual and indecisive, he was too weak to rule as the autocrat he fancied himself to be, and at the same time refused to commit himself to the reforms that Russia needed.

In some sense, Nicholas II was unable to put the past behind him. He was unwilling to recognize that the age of absolutism was over. Instead, he looked back and saw the assassination of his grandfather, Alexander II,—the “tsar liberator” who ended serfdom in Russia in 1861,—as a result of his willingness to give into the demands for reform. In his heart, the tsar fully believed in the autocracy, and he vowed not to end up making the same mistakes as his grandfather.

It might be said Nicholas drew the wrong lessons from the past.

As for the liberals, they too were burdened by their past. Before the 1905 October Manifesto allowed for the formation of the legal Constitutional Democrat Party, they were the Union of Liberation: illegal, in exile and infused with radicalism. Of its 20 or so founding members there were more than a couple Marxists amongst them. In the 1904, they had made a pledge to make common cause with the Marxists and socialists to create a “common radical liberation movement.” According to George Fischer, this marked the ascendancy of the intelligentsia class (over the more conservatively minded gentry) in what is a discernible “left-ward turn” in Russian liberalism on the very eve of the 1905 Revolution.

The curtailed role of the Duma in the new constitutional order established under the Fundamental Laws only worked to radicalize the liberals further. How unfortunate this was, because the system could only function on the basis of co-operation; of the Tsar and particularly the cabinet, but necessarily also that of the Duma itself. The increased radical stance of the liberals precipitated a more reactionary response from the tsar. Russian constitutional democracy began to snowball out of control into a dysfunctional system instead of evolving into a responsible one through shared trust and co-operative efforts.

For some, the blame is to be laid at the feet of the tsar for his attachment to autocracy and refusal to embrace a more democratic vision. There is some truth to this. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it is ultimately the fault of the liberals (particularly the Kadets) who refused to work with what they were given.

Nicholas, after all, was born into an absolutist autocracy wherein all power was held in the hands of the tsar. He did indeed give up a lot of his own power to establish the Duma. However, for the liberals, they only gained power—a power they never had before, and therefore had no experience in executing. For them it was “not enough,” which strikes me as a rather short-sighted ground upon which to scuttle Russia’s first ever experiment in constitutional democracy.

“The October Manifesto conceded more than anyone had demanded even a few months earlier,” wrote Edward Cruickshank, though by now “the liberals were now in a mood to reject any form of government short of a constituent assembly.”

In this regard, the First Duma truly represented a lost opportunity for the Kadets. It was in the First Duma which the Kadets had a clear plurality, yet it was also in this Duma that they pursued a policy of “confrontation politics.” Ultimately, this policy did not pay off. After having passed only one bill, the first Duma was ended by dissolution.

This was the great tragedy of the First Duma: a period later referred to by former Kadet leader, V. Maklakov, as those ‘irresponsible years’ because it was the First Duma in which the Kadets held the unquestionable leadership of the Duma yet failed to take full advantage of it. The plurality of the Kadets, it should be noted, was in large part thanks to the boycott of radical parties, among them Bolsheviks, whose absence was an act of protest against the “bourgeois” Duma assembly. By the Second Duma, however, the liberals (mostly Kadets) fell from 180 to only 99 seats (of 518) in the Duma, whereas other socialist parties and various right-wing groups gained on the Kadet losses. Unfortunately for representational government, “neither the extreme left nor the extreme right took the parliamentary business seriously” and instead used the Duma as a pulpit for their radical speeches under cover of parliamentary immunity.

As the years progressed and the share of the Duma for the Kadet party increasingly dwindled, the American historian William Henry Chamberlin commented, the Russian liberals “became resigned to the use of the Duma as a forum for voicing grievances and initiating discussion, not as an instrument for shaping legislation. And this role was not uncongenial.”

The class politics and quasi-radicalism born out of their early flirtation with left-wing revolutionism persisted. Yet, a greater difficulty was posed by these actual radical Marxist parties that radicalized the Duma and, in creating class “consciousness” and antagonism, made it nearly impossible for Kadets to become a popular party. In other words, while the government marginalized the liberals from the structure and exercise of power, the Marxist radicals marginalized them from the popular support they need for political leverage. Thus separated from the key sources of power and authority, the Kadets were in constant danger of becoming politically impotent.

This whole predicament was a symptom of what might be called the “emotional radicalism” of the Kadets. In other words, they thought of themselves in radical terms and in the mythologized “revolutionary tradition” of Russia, but were never going to win the support of the working-class or peasants. They were outflanked on the left by the Marxist and socialist parties who promised the people, according to Kadet founder Paul Milukov—“anything they pleased except a peaceful compromise.”

The cost of this emotional radicalism was high. It cost them the trust of the tsar to see the Duma as anything but a hotbed of political extremism unfit to make real decisions.

The failure of the liberals to provide an evolutionary alternative to revolution was more than simply a strategic error. It was, in my opinion, also a moral one. The liberals of the brief period of constitutional democracy in Russia chose to indulge their revolutionist fantasies in a way that was unproductive to achieving real reform within the existing system. I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s reflections (albeit in a very different context): “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”

The world today seems to be increasingly divided and politicized into extremes of right and left and different identity groups. Whilst I do not consider myself a centrist or a liberal, a political center wherein dialogue and real power can be exercised is a necessity for a functioning system. The troubling tendency to enable political extremists, whether it’s the defense of Antifa hooligans, or the consistent failure to preserve basic freedom of speech and religion across the West, does nothing but undermine the moral grounding and weaken the strategic positioning of the center.

The political center must be humble with the exercise of power but assertive in its moral positioning. As Burke also wrote: “our patience will achieve more than our force.”

It was the First World War that ultimately caused the constitutional system to crumble in Russia. I fear that today the moral foundation of the political center is being washed away, particularly on the liberal left. How might a crisis of a similar scale affect our political system today? For now the center holds, but we should bear in mind history has a tendency of repeating itself, as Marx noted, the second time as farce. It all comes down not only to learning from the past, but learning the right lessons.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Romanov royal family circa 1913.


Paul Ferguson is a Canadian who teaches history at an independent Catholic school in West London.

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