John Medhurst’s new book is essential reading for anyone who (a) thinks of themselves as being progressive or on the left or (b) has something positive to say about Lenin or Trotsky. Actually, (b) is optional, because John’s book is essential reading for all socialists, full stop.
What he has done in forensic detail over the course of 600 pages is to bury completely the notion that the moment that Bolshevism went bad was in 1939 (when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler), or 1937 (when the Great Purge began), or 1929 (when Stalin’s control over the Soviet state became complete) or even 1921 (with the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion). No, the Bolsheviks were a nasty lot, especially Lenin and Trotsky, from the coup d’etat in November 1917, and indeed even before. If there a single hero to emerge from this story, it is the tragic figure of Julius Martov, the revolutionary democratic socialist who led the Mensheviks until they were crushed by the victorious Bolsheviks.
I could say that I agree with pretty much every word John writes with one exception: in an attempt to make the book relevant for contemporary leftists, he often digresses to discuss current politics. Sometimes, in my view, he’s absolutely right. Sometimes, he ignores examples that I would have embraced — for example, when discussing cooperatives and communes around the world, he focusses on Mondragon in Spain, but skips any mention of the kibbutz movement in Israel. Sometimes, he chooses examples that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, such as Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela.
As socialists, of course we will probably spend the rest of our lives arguing about the 1% of this book which I think gets it wrong, rather than focussing on the 99% which is completely right and essential reading. Let’s just say that I’ve spent many years of my life reading about these very subjects, and still I found much to learn from this outstanding book. I cannot recommend it highly enough and I regret that Amazon doesn’t offer the option of six stars.