Wednesday, December 13, 2017

2772. What Fire Researchers Learned From Northern California Blazes

By Elizabeth Shogren, High Country News, December 11, 2017 
Burned neighborhood in Santa Rosa Fires in October 2017
The acrid smell of charred wood still permeates the air as Sasha Berleman, a fire ecologist, and I walk along a dirt path up through the middle of a canyon in the Bouverie nature preserve in Sonoma Valley. On the left side, the earth is black as tar, and scorch marks as tall as a person scar the trunks of the mature oak trees scattered throughout the field. But on the right side, the ground is tan and brown, and you have to look hard at the still-green oaks to see any evidence of the fire that raged through here just a few weeks before. It’s no mystery to Berleman why the fire behaved so differently on the two sides of the trail at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve. When flames hit the field on the left of the path, they met a dense wall of thigh-high grass that hadn’t been mowed, grazed or burned for 20 years. The flames must have been 5 or 6 feet tall. On the right side, however, Berleman had set a prescribed burn just this spring. So when the October wildfire hit, patches of fire blazed, but with so little fuel, the flames remained only inches high.

For more than a century, people have been snuffing out fire across the West. As a result, forests, grasslands and shrub lands like those in the Bouverie reserve are overgrown. That means that, when fire escapes suppression, it’s more destructive. It kills more trees, torches more homes and sends far more carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
The devastating fires that hit Bouverie and a large swath of Northern California’s wine country in October killed 42 people and destroyed nearly 7,000 buildings. In California’s Sierra Nevada in recent years, megafires have burned at much greater severity than those forests ever saw in the past, killing trees across large landscapes and unleashing enormous quantities of carbon. The remedy, Berleman and many other scientists say, is to reintroduce fire to the landscape by allowing more natural fires to burn and setting controlled burns when weather conditions minimize the risk of a catastrophic blaze.
“We have 100 years of fire suppression that has led to this huge accumulation of fuel loads, just dead and downed debris from trees and plant material in our forests, and in our woodlands,” says Berleman. “As a result of that, our forests and woodlands are not healthy, and we’re getting more catastrophic fire behavior than we would otherwise.”
Addressing the problem will require a revolution in land management and in people’s relationship with fire — and there are signs both may be beginning.
cribed burn at California’s Bouverie Preserve last spring cleared tall grasses and downed limbs from around the giant old oak trees. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A pres
As a child in Southern California, Berleman was deeply afraid of wildfire. But at community college, she learned that Native Americans used fire for thousands of years to manage forests and grasslands and protect their villages. Tribes regularly burned California’s oak woodlands, for instance, to remove underbrush and fight pests. It helped them spot prey more easily, keep weevils out of the acorns they gathered for food, and safeguard their homes from wildfire. In 2009, Berleman transferred to the University of California, Berkeley to study fire ecology. There, she worked on her first prescribed burn. “I instantly fell in love with the ability to use fire in a positive way to accomplish objectives,” she says. She trained as a firefighter so she could put fire to use as a land-management tool.
Sasha Berleman in the Bouverie Preserve after the massive wildfire raged through in October.
Elizabeth Shogren
Two years ago, while she was finishing her doctoral dissertation, she began working part-time at Bouverie. Last fall, she presented her boss with suggestions for using fire to restore overgrown landscapes, both at Bouverie and across the North Bay Area region. He approved, and Berleman, 28, started as a full-time fire ecologist in January, set her first burn in May and began organizing a taskforce to conduct burns and train local crews.
She knew how fire-prone the region is. Still, the big blazes in October caught her by surprise. “I thought I had more time to get work done,” she says.
High winds played a big role in spreading the California wine country’s deadly fires. But Berleman and other fire ecologists believe overgrown grasslands, forests and woodlands contributed as well. “I’m more certain than ever that there’s a lot we can do between now and the next time this happens to make it so that the negative consequences to people are nowhere near as dramatic.”
When fire hits overgrown wildlands, it burns hotter and is much more likely to kill stands of trees and threaten property and people’s lives.
But it also unleashes the carbon held by trees, other plants and soil. Forests store enormous amounts of carbon — more than double the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — and continuously soak up more, blunting the impact of all the greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels in power plants and cars. In recent decades, the size of fires, their intensity and the length of the fire season have all grown dramatically. The more destructive a fire, the more carbon it releases. In fact, largely because of fires, California’s forests emitted more carbon than they soaked up between 2001 and 2010, according to a 2015 analysis by National Park Service and UC Berkeley scientists. “After 100-plus years of fire suppression in forests, we’re seeing a lot more tree-killing wildfire,” says Matthew Hurteau, University of New Mexico fire ecologist and associate professor. “That has substantial implications for the carbon put back into the atmosphere.”
Further complicating the picture is climate change — the major factor behind the longer fire seasons and bigger fires. This creates a feedback loop, where megafires exacerbate climate change, which then encourages even bigger wildfires. One study found that from 1984 to 2015, climate change doubled the area burned by wildfires across the West, compared to what would have burned without climate change. As the globe keeps warming, scientists expect forests to continue getting warmer, drier and more flammable. Unless people reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will significantly increase the frequency of wildfires. One study projected that if fossil fuels remain the dominant source of global energy and greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, by 2085 the acreage burned by fire in California will increase one-third to three-fourths. Elsewhere in the West, the size and frequency of fire is expected to increase even more dramatically. Until recently, intense fires were rare in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But one study predicted that with climate change, fire likely would become so common and widespread there that by the middle of this century, the region’s forests as we know them will vanish, replaced by other types of vegetation that may store far less carbon.
In California’s Sierra Nevada, the combustible combination of climate change and overgrown forests already is transforming landscapes and unleashing massive amounts of carbon.
The wildfires that ravaged California’s Sonoma and Napa counties in October burned lightly in this area of the Bouverie Preserve that had a prescribed burn in May.
Courtesy of Sasha Berleman, Bouverie Preserve
A four-hour drive east of wine country, gray trunks of dead incense cedar and white fir cover the steep slopes of the Eldorado National Forest. Deep into a canyon and up to a ridge in the distance, the trees are so close together that their branches touch. UC Berkeley fire ecologist Brandon Collins brought me here to show me the consequence of decades of fire suppression combined with climate change. This forest would usually burn nine times over the course of 100 years, but no fire had blazed here since at least 1908. “Without fire, you’re going to have these dense stands no matter what,” Collins says.
In 2014, the King Fire hit this unnaturally overgrown forest, leaping into the canopy and racing across a vast landscape. Limited patches of high-intensity fire would be natural in these forests. But in 47 percent of the 97,717 acres burned in the King Fire, the blaze was so hot that it killed nearly all of the trees. This included 14 areas where rare California spotted owls were known to nest. Before people started suppressing fires, this kind of all-consuming blaze did not happen in this type of forest, according to tree-ring studies. “We have seen no evidence you could ever have gotten a mortality patch this big,” Collins says.
Brandon Collins, a UC Berkeley forest ecologist, amid trees in the Blodgett research forest, where fire scars from past controlled burns can be seen on trees that stand fairly clear of grass and underbrush.
Elizabeth Shogren
The amount of carbon sent to the atmosphere from such an enormous fire is staggering. “It’s ugly,” says Collins. “It’s not only a huge initial loss just from the direct emissions, but it’s slow emission over time as these trees break and then fall to the ground and the decomposition process really gets underway. We’re looking at 30 years or 40 years of pure emissions coming from this area with very little on the uptake side,” Collins says.
Just the initial blaze released 5.2 million metric tons, roughly as much greenhouse gas emissions as 1.1 million passenger cars emit in a year, according to an estimate by Forest Service ecologist Leland Tarnay. It’s too soon to analyze the fire’s total carbon footprint.
It could take a long time for this landscape to start packing on carbon again. Though some trees’ cones require fire to reseed, these particular types of conifers won’t grow back because the fire burned their seeds. The silver lining is the native oaks, which are fire resilient and can resprout from roots or stumps, even after a trunk is killed by fire. Already, their seedlings are emerging from the sea of dead trunks.
The King Fire of 2014 burned in an area that hadn’t burned for more than a century. In almost half of the 97,000-plus acres affected, the fire burned with such intensity that it killed nearly all the trees.
USFS Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire, Composite Burn Index
Nearby, some strips of trees are still green. Their trunks are also more broadly spaced. In these areas, the Forest Service had set prescribed burns or thinned the forests by logging some trees. Forest Service surveys show the King Fire burned much less intensely in these areas. Flames were lower, staying on the forest floor rather than surging into the canopy of the trees. Firefighters used these areas to slow and stop the fire. More trees survived.
Just a few minutes’ drive from where the King Fire raged, Collins shows me where he and other scientists have been studying how people can help restore forests to more natural conditions. Thanks to firefighters’ efforts, UC Berkeley’s Blodgett Research Forest narrowly escaped the King Fire. Blodgett was clear-cut in the early 1900s, before the university took it over. After 100 years, it’s grown into a lush forest of incense cedar, ponderosa pine, white fir and oak trees.
The first patch of forest Collins shows me is the control forest, from which fire has long been banned. The understory is so thick with small trees and shrubs that it’s difficult to walk; we have to step over tangles of dead trees and branches. If a fire were to strike this area, it would easily climb from the ground to the lower branches and up into the canopy. “And then it can really spread,” Collins adds.
In the next patch of forest we visit, loggers cut down and sold some of the medium-sized trees in 2002. Then they shredded the small trees and underbrush using a big machine called a masticator, and spread the remnants on the forest floor. Now, the trees are widely spaced; sunlight shines through the canopy. The High Sierras are visible in the distance. If a fire were to come through here, Collins says, it likely would stay on the ground, and wouldn’t harm the trees or emit much carbon.
In another plot, crews set prescribed burns in 2002 and 2009. Scorch marks blacken the thick bark of some trees, but they’re still healthy. The forest is open, but more variable than the thinned forest. In one patch of tall ponderosa pines, the fire blazed hotter than in the rest of the forest. Several big trees were killed, leaving the kind of snags that woodpeckers love. This plot would also be likely to do well in a fire, Collins says.
A fourth plot shows some of the pitfalls of combining thinning and burning. Crews cut down some trees, shredded the noncommercial wood and scattered it on the forest floor. Shortly afterwards, they burned the forest. The fire burned so hot from all the wood on the ground that the remaining trees were injured. They haven’t grown or soaked up much carbon since.
An untreated area at greater risk of severe fire.
Elizabeth Shogren
Overall, the experiments at Blodgett suggest that prescribed burns and thinning can have long-term carbon benefits. But in the short term, carbon emissions will increase. Neither the burned nor the thinned plot has caught up with the carbon stored in the forest that was left alone. But with less competition, the trees are growing faster in the thinned and burned plots, and Collins predicts that eventually they will store more carbon than the denser stand.
Scientists have seen a similar pattern in another experimental forest in the Sierra Nevada — Teakettle, an old-growth forest with giant sugar pines. As in Blodgett, the forests initially stored less carbon after being burned or thinned. But the forests at Teakettle recovered their carbon stocks more quickly than Blodgett did, in about seven years. “If you restore forests, you do knock down the total amount of carbon, but you prevent very large tree-killing fires. Over time, the carbon stored in the forest is much more stable because you’ve taken steps to prevent big hot fires from occurring,” says Hurteau.
The old-growth trees in Teakettle soaked up carbon faster than Blodgett’s younger trees. But in both types of forests, carbon should accumulate faster in fewer big trees. And the thinned and fire-opened stands make big trees healthier by reducing competition for water and nutrients. That improves their odds in both fire and drought. Big trees are generally more fire resistant, meaning they’re more likely to survive a fire and continue to soak up carbon afterward. “If we want to maintain this ecosystem service of removing carbon from the atmosphere that trees provide, we need to make investments in doing what we can to protect the big trees, because they’re doing a disproportionate amount of the work,” says Hurteau.
A single tree that is 6 feet in diameter, like one of the big sugar pines in Teakettle, holds as much carbon as 60 small trees, 8 to 10 inches in diameter, says Malcolm North, a leading Forest Service fire ecologist and Hurteau’s colleague and former teacher. That’s a much more reliable way to store carbon. “The carbon in the big trees is a secure investment like gold,” North said, whereas the carbon stored in overgrown forests is more like “junk bonds.”
A former California spotted owl nesting site after the 2014 King Fire, which burned catastrophically hot.
Sheila Whitmore/UW Madison
Despite the science, however, forest managers continue to snuff out most fires. For the decade ending 2008, the most recent data collected, only 0.4 percent of ignitions were allowed to burn as managed wildfires, North, Collins and other fire ecologists wrote in 2015 in the journal Science. “Changing climate and decades of fuel accumulation make efforts to suppress every fire dangerous, expensive, and ill-advised,” they wrote.
North was reprimanded for the article and forbidden to talk with the media for a year. But he’s speaking out again, because the dire consequences of overgrown forests are becoming so clear.
North says thinning is not a solution for much of the Sierra Nevada. Only 28 percent of the landscape can be mechanically thinned, he calculated; the rest is too steep or remote. “You cannot thin your way out of the problem,” he says. “You’ve got to use fire.”
Official Forest Service policy has acknowledged this. The 2014 interagency National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for expanding the use of prescribed burns and letting more wildfires burn. “It’s just not being followed; that’s the real problem,” North says. “Everyone knows what we’ve got to do. But it’s not being done.”
Source: Gonzalez, P., J.J. Battles, B.M. Collins, T. Robards, and D.S. Saah. 2015. Aboveground live carbon stock changes of California wildland ecosystems, 2001-2010. Forest Ecology and Management 348: 68-77.
Sasha Berlemen encountered that stubborn resistance to letting fires burn this summer, when she was on a Forest Service hotshot crew. She fought fires in Plumas, Six Rivers, Modoc and Klamath national forests. Fire managers were aggressive, often sending her crew to the fire’s edge to try to prevent it from spreading. That contradicted what she learned in her fire ecology classes about letting wildfires burn larger areas. “There’s this disconnect that I didn’t know about until summer — between what everyone is saying in academia and what’s actually happening on the ground,” she says.
Some forest managers have begun to accept more fire, however, as have national parks. The 2013 Rim Fire, the biggest fire in Sierra Nevada history, burned at lower intensity in parts of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks than it did in national forests, killing fewer trees and producing less air pollution. The parks had previously allowed wildfires to burn when weather conditions, such as light winds, minimized risks.
The Forest Service has been more reluctant to let natural fires burn, in part because of checkerboard land ownership and because houses have been built in many forests on private property inholdings. “Ecological benefits don’t have a huge voice,” Collin says. “No one will sue for not letting fire burn. If you let a fire burn and something bad happens, someone will sue you.”
Air-quality regulations play a role, too. Both North and Collins tried for weeks to schedule burns this fall. Air quality concerns and a lack of available personnel — the wine country fires were still raging — delayed their burns. Both finally were able to burn at the end of October. “The Forest Service is cursed with lands with houses in middle of them, wildland-urban interface where people don’t want to breathe smoke,” North says. “Almost everything works against trying to work with fire. The only way it’s going to change is to get public support.”
Craig Thomas, conservation director of Sierra Forest Legacy, has been calling for more natural and prescribed fire in the Sierra for two decades. He believes that after the Rim, Rough and King fires, the public and policymakers better understand the threat of unnaturally overgrown forests. “They jarred California society in a big way,” Thomas says. “This disaster is a human creation; climate change is making it even tougher.”
In 2015, the Sierra Forest Legacy, the Forest Service, CAL FIRE, the state fire agency, and other agencies and groups signed an agreement to use more fire in wildlands management and increase training for fire managers and crews. Since then, the Forest Service has increased the total acreage where it has allowed natural fires to burn from an annual average of about 10,000 acres to 247,000 in 2016 and 130,000 this year. “That was a big jump,” says Rob Griffith, assistant director of the Forest Service Pacific Southwest region’s fire and aviation program.
Prescribed burns are up, too, from 20,000 acres on average before the agreement to about double that in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Some 96,000 acres of prescribed burns are scheduled for the next fiscal year, Griffith adds.
California’s commitment to tackling climate change is giving extra oomph to efforts to bring back fire. For instance, funding for the research at Teakettle and Blodgett comes from revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program. The state auctions allowances, which big polluters buy to receive the right to pollute. California doesn’t want the progress it’s making from switching to electric vehicles and renewable energy to be nullified by giant pulses of carbon released by wildfires.
Still, Berleman thinks it will take a revolution to get people to overcome their primal fear of fire. She knows how hard it is. She grew up in Temecula, an inland city between Los Angeles and San Diego, in a valley surrounded by chaparral-covered hills that burned nearly every year. When she was 4, she stood in her yard and caught ash in her hand and watched ash cover her lawn like snow. “I was afraid of fire,” she says. “I remember having night terrors that I’d have to try to save my family from wildfire.”
But her view has changed since then, and she hopes others can change their minds, too. She thinks the October fires will be a catalyst for policymakers and the public to accept that fire is the best protection against megafires and all the carbon they emit. They already have emboldened her to move quickly than she had planned to introduce fire to parts of the North Bay Area that escaped the October fires.
“Now that this has happened, we’ve decided the wake-up call has already happened,” she says. “We need to scale up if we’re going to get though this; it’s going to take all hands and all lands.”She now plans to apply fire in five counties instead of just two. And instead of burning just grasslands, which produce far less smoke, she’ll burn forests and woodlands as well. If people push back, she knows what she’ll say: “By being afraid, we’re making our problem worse. There’s another option. That fear can actually inform a positive movement; you can take a fear of fire and decide, ‘OK, we don’t want megafires; we’re afraid of them.’ Let’s take action instead. Fire could be our favorite tool on our landscape, and we could have more beautiful and healthy landscapes. And people wouldn’t have to live in as much fear.” 

2771. Literature: Reindeer Games

By Jamie K Reaser, December 2017
Image may contain: tree, grass, plant, outdoor and nature
Photo: Jamie K. Reaser

Siberia is a place of the far North characterized by long winters, snow, and reindeer. The Tungusic are indigenous peoples of Siberia whose lives have long been dependent on an intimate and sacred relationship with reindeer – they are reindeer herders. The word ‘Saman’ (shaman) is a Tungusic word that connotes a spiritual specialist, someone who serves as a bridge between the ‘everyday world’ and the ‘spirit world.’  The shaman’s role is to engage with the spirit world (aka practice magic) in order to support the community, generally through visions, healing, protection, and resource abundance.

Far North

Amanita muscaria is the scientific name for a mushroom commonly known as fly amanita or fly agaric. It is a relatively large, attractive looking mushroom sporting a red cap specked with dots. You’ve probably seen them illustrated alongside fairytales.  Amanitas generally grows under – and in a close ecological association with - conifers (pine trees). They contain the psychoactive compound muscamol which, when ingested, can induce hallucinations (including visions of flying), euphoria, and a ruddy complexion.  Dried mushrooms are, apparently, most potent. However, it is reportedly safer to experience the affects Amanitas by drinking the urine of someone or something that has already consumed the fungus.  Amanitas muscaria is a favorite Autumn food of reindeer.

Red and
Pine trees
Reindeer games

In the Tungusic tradition, it was the shaman’s role to work with the spirit of the Amanitas mushroom – the holy mushroom. When it came time to gather them, he would do so ceremoniously, dressing in long black boots and a red and white fur-trimmed coat. He carried a large collecting sack. Once he had a sufficient number of mushrooms, he returned and distributed them throughout the village. When the snows became deep, it was common to enter the family yurts (large teepee-like structures) through a hole in the ceiling – which also served as an exit for smoke. Imagine, under the influence of Amanitas, how this rather jolly, red-faced man might look descending through the chimney with a “Ho, ho, ho!” And envision the mushrooms then being dried by the fire with care – strung together like garlands or, possibly, hanging in garments, such as socks.

Santa’s attire
Holiday decorations

When the dried mushrooms were consumed during Winter Solstice ceremonies, would these peoples have seen the shaman flying in a sleigh led by reindeer? Perhaps. Stories of the various gods being associated with flying chariots date far back in human history – and various versions of the story claim the chariot was pulled by horses or, yes, reindeer. Thor was one such god. In the Old High German language, he was known as Donar. Interestingly, mythology also reveals links between the chariot and the Big Dipper – a star constellation which appears to circle the North Star over the course of a single night.

Super human
Flying reindeer and sleigh
All in a night
Guiding star

The North Star was considered sacred by indigenous people of the Northern Hemisphere. Because it seems to be a fixed point encircled by other stars, it was essentially their Axis Mundi – the center of the universe. To some of these peoples, the North Star adorned the top of the World Tree which connected the realms of the universe – underworld (roots), middle world (Earth), and upper world (cosmos - the realm of the gods and their chariots).  The shaman was responsible for climbing the World Tree and setting the star in place.

Or, so the story goes.

Remember to leave the cookies and carrots on the hearth.

(c) 2014-2017/Jamie K. Reaser
From "Winter: Reflections by Snowlight"
Published by Hiraeth Press (

2770. On China Miéville’s “October”

By Kamran Nayeri, December 13, 2017 

There has been a flurry of books and articles published on the centenary of the 1917 Russian revolutions and for good reason. The Russian revolution continues to be a source of historical and political debates about feasibility and desirability of socialism and the Bolshevik legacy.  Were the horrors of Stalinism that followed, not just in the Soviet Union but also in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, and elsewhere the logical outcome of Bolshevism? Was the October 1917 revolution a Bolshevik coup? What was the role of the masses of Russian people, especially the proletariat, in the 1917 revolutions? How should we appraise the Cuban revolution in light of the Bolshevik legacy? What can we learn from the Russian revolutions and the Bolshevik legacy in preparation for ecological socialism? These and other similarly strategic questions require us to examine or re-examine the lessons of the Russian revolutions of 1917.

China Miéville’s “October” is a captivating and well-thought-out telling of the story of the nine months of the Russian revolutions of 1917.  The events of these nine months, each told in a chapter, are set in between the first chapter, “The Prehistory of 1917,” which offers a succinct explanation of the root-causes of the February revolution that overthrew the Tsar Nicholas II’s regime and ended the centuries-old absolute monarchy in one the most vast empires in history, and an epilogue about the demise of the historic gains of the October revolution and the rise of Stalinism. A revolutionary socialist, Miéville is not an “impartial observer” of such monumental historic events. But he also pledges “to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.”  I think his telling is consistent with the best histories of the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the more recent scholarship of the Bolshevik party, especially about Lenin’s role in it.   “October” reads like a historical novel with many well-developed characters while offering proper attention to social and political forces in play and at times incorporate recently resurrected scholarly controversies about related political, historical, and theoretical questions. 

A reader of “October” will come away with her own lessons of the Russian revolutions of 1917.  Below are a few that I think may be useful to those committed to radical social change.

The revolutionary potential of the working class: A revolution is a radical reordering of power structures.  Class societies are social organizations for the expropriation of nature through the exploitation of oppressed classes and strata for the benefit of the ruling elite.  A revolution can disrupt such power structures either in favor of another exploiting ruling strata without changing the dominant eco-social mode of production (political revolution) or it can bring a new class to power that would inaugurate a new eco-social mode of production (social revolution).  The February revolution was a largely spontaneous movement of the working and oppressed masses. It empowered workers, soldiers, peasants, women, oppressed nationalities, and religious minorities as detailed in “October.” Central to these was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies which was emulated throughout Russia (see below).  This interpretation that appears to me also shared by Miéville is at odds with Trotsky’s assessment.  Trotsky’s account tends to enhance the role the Bolshevik party played in the February revolution:
“The struggle in the capital lasted not an hour or two hours, but five days. The leaders tried to hold it back; the masses answered with increased pressure and marched forward. They had against them the old state, behind whose traditional facade a mighty power was still assumed to exist, the liberal bourgeoisie with the State Duma, the Land and City Unions, the military-industrial organizations, academies, universities, a highly developed press, and finally the two strong socialist parties [i.e., the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. KN] who put up a patriotic resistance to the assault from below. In the party of the Bolsheviks the insurrection had its nearest organization, but a headless organization with a scattered staff and with weak illegal nuclei. And nevertheless the revolution, which nobody in those days was expecting, unfolded, and just when it seemed from above as though the movement was already dying down, with an abrupt revival, a mighty convulsion, it seized the victory.”  (Trotsky, 1930, chapter 8, “Who Led the February Insurrection”)
Trotsky’s argument rests on the proposition that the vanguard of the Russian working class was trained in the school of Bolshevism.  It is true that the 1905 revolution brought a wave of radicalized workers into the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) which was largely a socialist propaganda group before 1905.  Trotsky (1938/1947) estimates that as the result of this the Bolsheviks had about 10,000 members and the Mensheviks 10,000-12,000.  With the defeat of the 1905 revolution, some members of the RSDLP left. Paul Le Blanc (1990, pp. 190-198) suggests that the intellegencia were highly represented among those who left the party, leaving the smaller party more proletarian in composition in the 1907-1912 period.  At the same time, it is also true that the workers in the Bolshevik party were schooled in revolutionary socialism thanks to Lenin’s strategic view of the coming Russian revolution and his advocacy for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” to carry forward the historical democratic tasks while the Mensheviks preached an alliance with the Russian bourgeoisie who they saw as the natural leader of the comping bourgeois democratic revolution.  As the above quotation from Trotsky makes clear, the Mensheviks and SRs worked to limits the February revolution to the formation of a bourgeois government which the masses of the working people pushed to go further and make deeper inroads into the power structures leftover from the Tsarist regime. 

Still, there are reasons to doubt the weight of workers-Bolsheviks in the working people's leadership of the February revolution and find confirmation of the revolutionary potentials of the working class itself. First, we know that the in the 1905 revolution the Russian working class formed the soviets independently and on their own initiative.  Second, the Bolsheviks obtained a small minority of 10% of the deputies in the Petrograd Soviet in February 1917. The rest went to the labor leaders who were influenced by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Yet, it was still the Petrograd Soviet that pushed the revolution to go further.  Third, workers’ councils have been formed in revolutions elsewhere in the world without a Bolshevik-type party.  The Iranian working class, through its general strike, especially by the oil workers, made the the February 11 insurrection in Tehran that extended for three days into the rest of the country possible.  No political party led the three-day February insurrection in Iran.  Not only there was no Bolshevik-type proletarian party present in Iran, Stalinism, which preached a two-stage theory similar to the Menshevik’s vision of the Russian revolution, ruled the Iranian left.  Yet, the February revolution triumphed despite Khomeini leadership’s attempt to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power with sections of the Shah’s regime. The reason for the leadership role of the Iranian working class and its ability to organize and mobilize independently was the severe damage to the Stalinist Tudeh Party in the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup which left the Iranian workers free to organize under a class-struggle ledership not trained in Stalinist class-collaborationist politics.  Once the Shah’s rapid pace of the industrialization picked up in the 1960s and the industrial working class grew two-folds to 3 million by mid-1970s, they began organizing their own unions despite severe repression (for a brief biography of the oil workers central leader, Yadullah Khosroshahi, who examplified this class-struggle leadership, see, Nayeri, 2016). When the mass movement against the Shah’s regime erupted in the city of Tabriz in February of 1976, advanced sections of the Iranian working class began to organize for the revolution which resulted in their general strike, and in October 1976, the oil workers strike that paralyzed the regime.  As in 1905 revolution in Russia, after the February 1979 revolution, the vanguard of the Iranian working class began to organize their own Shoras (councils) to run larger workplaces as the capitalists and managers fled the country. The Shoras expanded across the country until they were repressed by the clerical Islamic Republic that crushed the revolution by the end of 1982 (Nayeri and Nassab, 2006).  I think both the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 as well as the Iranian revolution of 1979 confirm Marx’s conception of the working class potential for self-organization and self-activity (I will return the key role of the Bolshevik party soon).

To return to the 1917 experience, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was founded in a conference of the leaders of the labor movement in the city organized by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SR) in the Tauride Palace on February 27. The conference empowered these labor leaders as “deputies.” By the end of March, 600 soviets of workers’, soldiers’, sailors’, peasants’, and Cossacks’ deputies were in existence in Russia.  
“The Sovietization of Russia continued over the following months. The most widespread type of soviets were soviet of workers’ deputies, of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, of peasants’ deputies…, of sailors’  deputies…, of Muslim workers’ deputies (in Central Asia), as well as unified soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies.” (Smirnov, in Acton, et. al., eds., 1997, p. 429)
Smirnov reports that according to incomplete data, there were 1,429 functioning soviets in Russia in October 1917.  Of these 706 were workers’ and soldiers’, 235 were united workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’, 455 were peasants’, and 33 were soldiers’ soviets. As I will briefly discuss below, gradually the Bolshevik influence in the Petrograd Soviet and in others across the country increased while those of the class-collaborationist Mensheviks and SRs declined.  By October, the Bolsheviks had a strong enough majority that Lenin brushed for a organizing an armed uprising to overthrow the Provisional Government and transfer the power to soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies. In fact, Lenin tried to time the uprising to coincide with the opening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies which took place in Petrograd from October 25 to 27 (Of course, there were hiccups in the actual carrying out of the armed uprising. But the Provisional Government found little mass support and surrounded). The Congress created the Council of People’s Commissars chaired by Lenin who was subordinated to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) set up by the Congress and declared to be that highest executive organ of power. 

The oppressed and exploited rose up:  Miéville tells us how in Petrograd on February 23, the International Women’s Day (old calendar), radical agitators went to factories that employed mostly a female workforce to speak about women’s rights, the war, and high cost of living. 

“As the meetings ended, women began to pour from the factories into the streets, shouting for bread. They marched through the city’s most militant districts…hollering to people who gathered in the courtyards of the blocks, filling the wide streets, in huge and growing numbers, rushing to factories and calling for the men to join them.” (Miéville, p. 41)

The February revolution politicized women in great number and from all social classes. But the Provisional Government avoided the question of women’s suffrage and many in the revolutionary movement were hesitant, some arguing the Russian women were too politically backward to vote.  The Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai took them to task:

“But wasn’t it we women, with our grumbling about hunger, about disorganization of Russian life, about our poverty and the suffering born of the war, who awakened a popular wrath? And didn’t we women first out to the streets in order to struggle with our brothers  for freedom, and even if necessary to die for it?” (quoted in Miéville, 2017, p. 94)

On March 19, 40,000 people, mostly women descended on the Tauride Palace demanding universal suffrage.  A banner proclaimed: “If the woman is a slave, there will be no freedom.” Miéville notes that pro-war banners were also present at this demonstration reflecting the presence of middle-class women.  Barbara Evans Clements similarly notes: 
“From February 1917 to the end of the civil war women from all walks of life became politically engaged in ways that would have been impossible under the old regime. Female revolutionaries worked within their movements, as did female Cadets (albeit in far lower numbers.) Blue- and white-collar workers joined political parties, organized exclusively female trade unions and professional associations, demonstrated, attended meetings, and voted.  Peasant women participated in the confiscation of the landlords’ land and in village meetings where the land was partitioned. They also asserted themselves within their families by urging their husbands to leave their parents’ households in order to set up farming on their own.” (Clements, in Acton,, eds. 1997, pp. 595-96) 
Radicalization even reached the Muslim women in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Miéville writes:
“Buoyed by the February revolution, and feeling it vindicated their own programme, members of the progressive, modernizing Muslim Jadidist movement set up an Islamic Council in Tashkent, Turkestan, and across the region, helping to dismantle the old government structures—already undermined by the spread of local soviets—and enhancing the role of the indigenous Muslim population.
“…[O]n April 23, delegates [from the Muslim Duma deputies]  gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russia Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab.” (Miéville, 2017, p. 121) 
Clements also reports that in 1920, 66,000 women were in the Red Army which had about 3 million soldiers. Thirty-thousand women joined the Communist Party between 1917 and 1921. 

As Miéville notes, the Petrograd was a cosmopolitan city with people talking politics in Yiddish, Polish, Latvia, Finnish, German, and many other languages.  That reflected the ethnic composition of the Russian empire, which was a prison house of nations.  Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Russia ceased to be a relatively homogenous ethnic polity as the empire was gradually extended to include many ethnic, national, and religious groups. Of these, the Jews, Muslims, and Armenians were the most oppressed. Thus, the February revolution engendered revolutions in Central Asia with its Turkic speaking Muslim population and the Caucasus that included Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Georgians, as well as the Baltic.

The revolution empowered these oppressed nationalities and religious minorities.  “And whether or not dissent took socialist forms,” writes Miéville, “the national aspirations of Russia’s minorities were amplifying.”  In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Muslim Uzbeks formed their own revolutionary committees expelling representative of the central government on September 10. 
“From the 8th to the 15th [of September], the Ukrainian Rada [parliament, KN] provocatively convened a Congress of the Nationalities, bringing together Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Tatars, Turks, Bessarabian Romanians, Kazakhs, Cossacks, and representatives of various radical parties. The Congress, in an escalation from the language of ‘cultural autonomy’, agreed that Russia must be a ‘federative-democratic republic,’ each component part to decide how it would link to others. Except in the case of Poland, and to a lesser extent Finland, the orientation (let alone formal demand) was not full independence…” (Miéville, 2017, p. 242)
Bolshevism and the October revolution:  A central question in the history of the Russian revolution is the role played by the Bolshevik party. Marcel Liebman expressed a widely held view about the Bolshevik party in his much-praised book, Leninism Under Lenin (1975, first published in French in 1973): 
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Lenin’s chief contribution to the political reality of our time was the creation of the Bolshevik party, of a tool to make revolutions with—indeed, the tool for making revolutions.” (Liebman, 1975, p.25, emphasis in the original)
But in what sense was the Bolshevik party the tool for making the Russian revolution? And, in what sense the Bolshevik party is a generalizable model for the rest of the world? I will briefly touch upon the second assertion at the conclusion of this essay. But the answer to the first question may be gleaned from Miéville’s telling.   As pointed out earlier, the Bolshevik party’s influence in the working class and among soldiers increased between February and October while those of its two key competitors, the Mensheviks and SRs declined.  While socialist currents had hegemony over the Russian proletariat on the eve of the February revolution and both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were proletarian parties, they were still of modest size. But by the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks had 300,000 members, heavily working class (Service, in Acton,, 1997, p. 235).    This was a significant portion of the the Russian working class which numbered between 4.2 to 4.4 million. The Bolshevik party also exerted much influence among soldiers and had some influence even among the peasantry.  How did this happen? 

Miéville’s account vividly reveals the immediate reasons for their ascendency: their opposition to the Provisional Government (there were three reincarnations of it as the revolution radicalized), their revolutionary defeatist position on the imperialist war, including their demand for democratization of the armed forces, and their consistent agitation to secure “peace, land, and bread” (demands of the February revolution), and their agitation that the working class must take power in alliance with the (poor) peasantry to fulfill the promise of the February revolution.  The Bolsheviks also theoretically, programmatically, and politically had prepared and presented themselves as the revolutionary proletarian socialist in support of the unconditional right of nations to self-determination. 

The October insurrection was organized by the Bolshevik party led by Lenin to coincide with the opening of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies on October 25.   As the ministers of the Provisional Government surrounded to the revolutionary armed forces of workers, soldiers, and sailors, Lenin sent the following proclamation to the Congress that was presented by Lunacharsky on his behalf.  It states in part:
The Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers' Deputies has opened. The vast majority of the Soviets are represented at the Congress. A number of delegates from the Peasants' Soviets are also present. The mandate of the compromising Central Executive Committee has terminated. Backed by the will of the vast majority of the workers, soldiers, and peasants, backed by the victorious uprising of the workers and the garrison which has taken place in Petrograd, the Congress takes power into its own hands.
The Provisional Government has been overthrown. The majority of the members of the Provisional Government have already been arrested.
The Soviet government will propose an immediate democratic peace to all the nations and an immediate armistice on all fronts. It will secure the transfer of the land of the landed proprietors, the crown and the monasteries to the peasant committees without compensation; it will protect the rights of the soldiers by introducing complete democracy in the army; it will establish workers' control over production; it will ensure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly at the time appointed; it will see to it that bread is supplied to the cities and prime necessities to the villages; it will guarantee all the nations inhabiting Russia the genuine right to self-determination.
The Congress decrees: all power in the localities shall pass to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies, which must guarantee genuine revolutionary order.
The Congress calls upon the soldiers in the trenches to be vigilant and firm. The Congress of Soviets is convinced that the revolutionary army will be able to defend the revolution against all attack of imperialism until such time as the new government succeeds in concluding a democratic peace, which it will propose directly to all peoples. The new government will do everything to fully supply the revolutionary army be means of a determined policy of requisitions and taxation of the propertied classes, and also will improve the condition of the soldiers' families. (Lenin, 1917) 
In contrast, both the Mensheviks and SRs joined alliances with the Russian bourgeoisie to maintain capitalism through participation in the Provisional Governments and they supported the unpopular imperialist war effort. Thus, they gradually lost the confidence of the workers and soldiers, and eventually many of the peasants as reflected in the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.  This change in the mood of the masses is revealed in the declining political fortune of Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer and a leader of a small SR faction, the Trudoviks.  In the morning of March 2, Pavel Milyukov, the prominent historian and a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party [K-Ds in Russian but written and pronounced Kadets/Cadets in English. KN], that encompassed constitutional monarchists and right-wing republicans, read a negotiated list of the first Provisional Government ministers to the revolutionary crowd gathered in the Tauride Palace.   Miéville writes: “As he listed the cabinet, the room jeered in bewilderment at the names that were unfamiliar, and in disgust at those they knew.”  He adds: “There was one appointment, though, that drew applause: the role of justice minister has been filled by the popular SR… Alexander Kerensky.”  Kerensky also was on the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet which had agreed its members would not take cabinet positions.  It turned out the Kerensky’s charm persuaded the Soviet to make an exception. He managed to become the Minister of Justice as well as the President of Petrograd Soviet, the two poles of the dual power, at the same time!  He then went on to become the defencist Minister of War who worked to undermine democratic aspiration of the ranks of the armed forces and during after the events of July appointed the rightist General Kornilov, a counter-revolutionary, as the commander-in-chief of the Russian army.  Soon, a power struggle developed between the two men as Kornilov responding to the deepening polarization decided to crush the Petrograd Soviet and take charge of the government.  While Kerensky was aware of his plans he proved incapable of acting to stop Kornilov. Meanwhile, the Petrograd Soviet-led by the Bolsheviks organized a defense force and crushed the coup.  The Bolshevik leading role in defending the revolution paved the way for the October revolution that resolved the dual power in favor of the soviets when the third Provisional Government ministers were arrested in the Winter Palace. Kerensky himself escaped and in November began organizing an armed counter-revolution. 

Let us return to Liebman’s first assertion: in what sense was the Bolshevik party the tool for making the Russian revolution? Only in the sense that given the spontaneous rise of the soviet power in Petrograd, the Bolshevik program, strategy, and tactics, helped direct the working people to organize to take power from the capitalist Provisional Government. Those “Leninists” who focus attention on the Bolshevik party as the “tool for revolution” often forget that without the working people and their soviets there would have been no revolution in Russia in 1917, let alone a Soviet Russia in October. 

The revolutionary role of Bolshevism then can only be assessed in such context.  To this, we must add a number of observations that defies the too often dominant view of the party and its leaders.  As Trotsky told us earlier, the Bolshevik party in Petrograd was a “headless” organization.  Reading “October” also reminds us that the top leaders of the party were far from in agreement in their opposition to the Provisional Governments. While Lenin was consistently on the leftwing of the leadership, others like Kamenov were conciliatory.  But even Lenin was sometimes a sectarian in his relentless opposition to the Mensheviks and SRs.  And even Lenin sometimes wrongly was to the right of the revolutionary workers.  At the same time, the reader of October sees in the Bolshevik party deliberations a very living democratic atmosphere where different and sometimes sharply at variance views presented, debated, and decided after a vote and carried out.  Even when Kamenov and Zinoviev who disagreed with Lenin’s position for organzing the October insurrection and lost the vote and went on to publish their opposition in the Gorky’s paper subsequently remained as Bolshevik leaders despite Lenin’s call for their expulsion. Such was Democratic Centralism in a mass proletarian revolutionary socialist party on the eve of October 1917. 

The legacy of Bolshevism: To discuss Liebman’s second proposition, that to make revolutions there must be Bolshevik parties in place as the “tools of revolution,” we must first see what happened to the Bolshevik party of Lenin after the October revolution.  There are numerous places in “October” where the reader learns of Lenin’s view that a workers and peasants power in Russia can only be sustained with the extension of the world revolution, in particular to Europe.  This was a kep aspect of Lenin’s political calculation in organizing the October revolution.  As we know, despite a number of revolutionary upsurges in Europe, none was victorious. Young Soviet Russia remained isolated and was besieged by the counter-revolutionary (White) armies and its imperialist allies.  The White armies engaged in 
“indiscriminate butchery, burning villages and killing some 150,000 Jews in enthusiastic programs, performing exemplary torture—mass flogging, burial alive, mutilation, dragging prisoners behind horses— and summary execution. Their instruction to take no prisoners are often graphically explicit.” (Miéville, 2017, p. 311) 
“Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, programs, torture and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes its own Red Terror.” (ibid. pp. 311-12).
In 1917, there were between 4.2 to 4.4 million workers in Russia out of an estimated population of less than 98 million. In 1918, it has fallen to 2.5 million, and in 1919, it had fallen further to 1.4 million.  The “rundown of military production,  the fuel and raw materials crisis, the call-up of workers to the front. And their flight from hunger in towns to the countryside” as well as agricultural workers becoming self-employed peasants were responsible for this trend (Iarov, in Acton, et. al. 1997, p. 604). At the same time, the militarization of industrial production and reintroduced military command hierarchy in the Red Army contributed to undermining of workers and soldiers democracy.  The soviets largely ceased to exist or function properly. The Bolshevik party substituted itself for the working class.  After the end of the war which Soviet Russia won militarily, the Red Army demobilized and many officers became the leaders of the existing soviets undermining their militancy.  “The party apparatus grew by leap and bounds, from a few hundred full-time functionaries in 1919 to 15,000 in 1922.” (Mandel, in LeBlanc, 1990, p. xxi) 

Ernest Mandel argues that the Bolsheviks made critical policy errors.  As they won in the war and substituted the New Economic Policy for War Communism, the Bolshevik-led by Lenin “decided to narrow democracy in a decisive way, by banning all opposition soviet organizations (Mensheviks, anarchists) and by banning factions inside the Bolshevik party, although not banning ‘tendencies’”. (ibid. p. xx). Mandel argues persuasively that what was needed was, in fact, the revitalization of soviet and party democracy. 
“Under a one-party regime, the decline of the working class political life unavoidably hits the party and its working-class members as well.  De facto exercise of power by paid functionaries thereby becomes the most ‘realistic’ stopgap solution, independent of any calculation by unprincipled maneuvering of the Stalin type. The formula ‘workers’ power equals party power equals party cadre power equals party leadership power’ becomes transformed into ‘workers’ power equals party power equals party leadership power equals party apparatus power equals bureaucracy’s power.’ The party bureaucracy rapidly fuses with the state bureaucracy and identifies itself with it.  Far from playing the leading role, the party becomes more and more a tool of the bureaucracy in its totality.” (ibid. p. xxi) 
Despite Lenin’s last struggle directed against the bureaucracy and of the Left Opposition fight that continued it, Stalin heading the rising bureaucracy was able to overthrow the Bolshevik program, strategy and norms while consolidating his totalitarian rule through bloody purges of the Bolshevik leaders and cadres and resistance from workers and peasants.  Stalinism was born as the ideology and rule of the conservative bureaucracy. 

While Trotsky’s Left Opposition maintained and developed the Bolshevik legacy in line of contemporary events (e.g., Stalinism, Fascism), and eventually founded the Fourth International in 1938, revolutionary socialist currents that followed Lenin’s teachings have never become proletarian mass parties. Posting as the heirs to the October revolution, Stalin and his cohort purged the Communist International and the leadership of the revolutions in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, and Korea, not mention the Eastern European countries where there was a “socialist overturn,” were schooled in Stalinism, not Leninism.   Despite the collapse of the Stalinist ruled “existing socialisms,” and embracing of capitalism in these counties by their current elite (some still using the “Communist Party” to rule over the working people), there has not yet been a resurgence of Bolshevik-type parties anywhere in the world.  Yet, as in the Iranian revolution, the working people have self-organized and self-mobilized to fight for their demands, including through the formation of councils that as in October revolution could serve as the basis of the government of workers and poor peasants. 

The Russian revolutions of 1917 and the Bolshevik legacy remain as an inspiration for those who are engaged in confronting the current social and planetary crisis through developing a worldwide ecological socialist movement.  China Miéville’s “October” offers an engaging window to that critical part of modern revolutionary history. 

Clements, Barbara Evans. “Women and the Gender Question,” in Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution: 1914-1921.  Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William G, Rosenberg. editors, 1997, pp. 592-603.
Iarov, Sergi V. “Workers,” in Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution: 1914-1921.  Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William G, Rosenberg. 1997, editors, pp. 604-620. 
Le Blanc, Paul. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. 1990. 
Lenin. V.I. “To Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants!”, October 25, 1917.
Liebman, Marcel. Leninism Under Lenin. 1973/1975. 
Mandel, Ernest. “Introduction,” in Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. 1990. 
Miéville, China. October, 2017. 
Nayeri, Kamran, and Alireza Nassab. “The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today.” 2006. 
Service, Robert. “The Bolshevik Party,” in Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution: 1914-1921.  Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William G, Rosenberg, editors. 1997, pp. 231-244. 
Smirnov, Nikolai N. “The Soviets,” Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William G, Rosenberg. 1997, editors. pp. 429-437. 
Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution. 1930. 
———————. “Discussions with Trotsky on the Transitional Program,” Fourth International. 1947 (recorded in June 1938).