Richard Pipes’ eighty-four page book Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution — based on a series of lectures delivered at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna in 1995 — is a controversial work that reveals much about the early years of the Soviet Union, disproving a number of popular statist notions of Soviet history.
The book seeks to answer three often-asked questions regarding the 1917 revolution in Russia: (1) Why did tsarism fall? (2) Why did the Bolsheviks triumph over other revolutionary parties? and (3) Why did Stalin succeeded Lenin? Though the book takes on a tone quite biased against the Bolsheviks (and seemingly against Marxism in general), other histories told of the USSR, as well as previously classified documents, confirm Pipes’ suspicions and validate his theories on the Russian revolution, its causes, and its outcome.
Pipes’ bias against the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik Party (later the Communist Party of the USSR) stems from his Polish background, having lived in a post-First World War Poland in which the effects of Poland’s war against Red Russia (Russian Civil War) were still widely felt in his motherland. Though biased against the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union in general, Pipes’ theories, statements, and generalizations (summaries of points from his books The Russian Revolution and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime) are substantiated by his research of formerly top-secret documents from Russia’s Presidential Archive and the Centre for the Preservation of the Study of Documents of Recent History. His conclusions — drawn together and published just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the rest of the world adopted 20-20 historical hindsight — are supported not only by his own research, but also by Dimitry Volkogonov’s damning biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. Classified Soviet documents that even Pipes never had access to can be accessed from the Volkogonov archive in the Library of Congress. More information on these archives is also given in lectures by professor Yuri Maltsev, courtesy of the Mises Institute.
Regarding the fall of tsarism, most historians — unbiased historians as well as devout Marxist-Leninists — tend to make the argument that the Tsar’s overthrow was inevitable due to a multitude of factors. Pipes argues to the contrary, stating based on source documents that the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917 was just as unexpected and shocking to the world as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Historians Catherine Evtuhov and Richard Stites support such a notion through their textbook narrative of Russian history, portraying a highly nationalistic Russian population whose support for their government never greatly waned until the end of 1916. Marxist historians cannot dare pursue this line of reasoning because the striking parallels between the Tsar’s overthrow and the dissolution of the Soviet state completely undermine the dialectical materialist approach to history.
The second “why,” that being the cause of the Bolshevik triumph following the October Revolution, is portrayed by Pipes not as a popular uprising — as per the Marxist historians and official Soviet history — but rather a coup by a minority that was better organized and more ruthless than the other revolutionary parties. Trotsky writes in his History of the Russian Revolution that no more than 25,000 or 30,000 of Petrograd’s 2 million people were involved in the October Revolution. Pipes even quotes Lenin’s writings from July 1917: “In times of revolution… we see countless instances of how the better organized, more conscious, better-armed minority imposed its will on the majority and conquered it.” Even left-leaning historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, coming from a Marxist background, openly calls the Bolsheviks’ actions a coup d’état in her own history of the Russian Revolution.
Pipes goes on to refute leftist viewpoints that the merciless terror waged on enemies of the new regime was a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of the revolution and a dire necessity for defeating the forces of counter-revolution there and then. This approach to Bolshevik terrorism is faulty at best, as Pipes reveals that “the Cheka [communist secret police] was established in December 1917, before there was any organized resistance to the new regime.” Fitzpatrick even admits that over 87,000 people were arrested by the Cheka and over 8,000 shot without a trial long before the Bolsheviks unleashed the “Red Terror” in 1920. All of Pipes’ claims to the unnecessary brutality of the Bolsheviks are fully substantiated by the writings of Ludwig von Mises in Planned Chaos and chapter 7 of Theory and History.
This takes us to the third why, regarding Stalin’s succession of Lenin, where the author kills the “good Lenin, bad Stalin” myth. After seriously pondering the dictatorial nature of Lenin — from the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly to the launch of the Red Terror — as well as the brutality and aggressiveness of the Bolsheviks prior to and during the civil war, a brute like Stalin becoming the next leader could be the only logical conclusion. A difference between Lenin and Stalin is that the latter had three decades to expand and increase the power of the Soviet state apparatus and the total disregard for human life in pursuit of a utopian ideal.
However, most striking in this book is Pipes’ claim that Bolshevism and the communist victory in the Russian Revolution played a major role in the birth and rise of National Socialism in Germany. Pipes sheds light on diplomatic relations and military alliances between Soviet Russia and Germany both in the Weimar era and the fascist eras, even going so far as to expose the striking parallels between Bolshevism in Russia and fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. Mises makes a lengthier argument in Planned Chaos that supports this notion, though no one is sure as to whether or not Pipes ever read Mises’ publications on socialism and Russian Communism. However, many parallels between Soviet Russia and the totalitarian parties of the Axis countries as argued by Pipes are reflected in Edvins Snores’ documentary The Soviet Story, namely the film’s section “Why Killing Is Essential to Communism.”
Though not specifically outlined in Pipes’ book but explained in The Soviet Story, the slight difference between Marxian communism and national socialism can be summarized in three points:
1. Marxism calls for international socialism whereas National Socialism calls for one worldwide Reich.
2. Marxism calls for the abolition of private property of the state whereas National Socialism tolerates private property under complete control of the state.
3. The Marxist faith believes in the rise of the proletarian New Man of Tomorrow, whereas the Hitler faith glorifies the sublime Aryan.
Other than those points, Soviet Socialism and German National Socialism are kissing cousins, no matter how hard the Communists and Neo-Nazis scream and rant otherwise.
Though Pipes is clearly biased against the Soviet Union and against Marxism, his arguments are supported by ample documentation, by other historians, and by Soviet insiders like General Volkogonov. Plainly, his bias is justified by the fact that his arguments are true and his conclusions are correct. Though for those interested in Russian history (or Communism in general) it is mainly a gateway that leads to his other remarkable books, Three Whys of the Russian Revolution is a slim volume that packs a punch and provides a valuable intellectual defense against the lingering Marxist propaganda being preached all over academia and much of American civil society.
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