Susan Dunn
Sister Revolutions

The Bolsheviks, observed Steinberg, slavishly imitated the speech and behavior of the French Jacobins. 'But,' he added, 'they forgot that the French Revolution itself was drowned in bloody defeat precisely because of its terrorism.' Like their Girondin predecessors, Russian dissidents, including the revolution's own founders, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, were later liquidated or exiled for their deviation from the party line.

Within a year, the Commissar of justice had become one of the revolution's prisoners. Steinberg was arrested in February 1919, thrown into the Butyrki prison in Moscow. 'How shall one relate the grim emotions of a revolutionist thrown into a prison of the revolution?' he wrote, trying to describe his sense of disbelief. Yet his weary mind grasped the parallel with the French Revolution when men similarly fell 'from the height of power to the gates of prison.' In prison, Steinberg requested Jean Jaures's Socialist History of the French Revolution, seeking to put order and understanding into his thoughts.

Lenin never held the Jacobins or the Terror responsible for the downfall of the French Revolution. On the contrary, he believed that it was the Thermidorean reaction, not the Terror, that had spelled the end of the French Revolution. In Thermidor, July 1794, members of the French National Convention had risen up and revolted against Robespierre, shouting 'Down with the tyrant!' The following day, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and their allies were arrested and guillotined. Lenin was determined to avoid the trap of a Thermidor. In other words, he was convinced that compromise with moderate elements might sometimes be necessary to avoid a counterrevolutionary movement.

In the winter of 1918, there was just such a movement for popular democracy, the counterrevolution that Lenin had feared. The sailors at the strategic naval base of Kronstadt, located on an island off Russia's Baltic coast, revolted. Deeply discontented with party policy, they demanded liberal concessions for workers and peasants—freedom for trade unions, the release of political prisoners, an end to official propaganda, free elections of Soviets, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Instead of negotiating with the sailors, the Bolshevik government issued an ultimatum and prepared for an attack. Lenin and Trotsky, according to Victor Serge, demanded that the rebels surrender 'or be shot down like rabbits.' When they refused to capitulate, units of the Red Army trekked across the ice to assault Kronstadt and the battleships, frozen in the water. The ice cracked under the advancing soldiers' feet; the freezing water swallowed them. For several weeks in March both sides fought a ferocious battle, but the rebels were finally overpowered. Some escaped to Finland; the rest were shot in Petrograd.

'This is Thermidor,' declared Lenin. 'But we shan't let ourselves be guillotined. We shall make a Thermidor ourselves.' Lenin's response to the idealistic counterrevolution of Kronstadt was his own 'counterrevolutionary' liberal economic package. He announced that he was willing to make a moderate swing to the right. Indeed, his 'New Economic Policy' granted peasants some control over their production, gave artisans more freedom in their trades, and permitted some private trade and private ownership. Lenin had backtracked, endorsing a 'partial restoration of capitalism.' It was a 'retreat,' he said, but 'for a new attack.' Political freedom, however, was not included in the Thermidorean bargain.

For Lenin, the French Revolution was not a failed movement but an unfinished one, a necessary stage in class history. He was convinced that the French Revolution, by furthering the rise of the bourgeoisie and the development of capitalism and by restructuring to a certain extent French society, had prepared the way for the eventual rise of the working class. The Russian Revolution would fulfill the promise of the French Revolution, finally inaugurating the reign of equality.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.