from Socialist Review, No.212, October 1997.
Copyright © 1977 Socialist Review
Downloaded from the Socialist Review archive at http://www.lpi.org.uk/srindex_.htm
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
“Whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise. It has surpassed my wildest dreams and I can hardly believe it is true. After two and a half years of mental suffering and darkness I at last begin to see light. Long live Great Russia who has shown the world the road to freedom. May Germany and England follow in her steps.” So Morgan Phillips Price, who was in Russia writing for the Manchester Guardian, described the mood in February 1917 when the Russian people threw off centuries of tyrannical rule under the tsars.
However, despite such powerful accounts of the huge steps forward in human liberation taken in 1917, in recent years there has been a steady flow of books which attempt to paint the revolution as a fundamentally undemocratic event which ruined millions of lives – partly in order to deny that 1917 has any relevance to changing the world today.
The dominant view of the revolution in these books is that it was not the act of the majority in society, but that of a handful of self appointed revolutionaries who took advantage of the situation to instal themselves in power. So Richard Pipes, author of The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, argues that “Lenin, Trotsky, and their associates seized power by force ... The government they founded ... derives from a violent act carried out by a tiny minority.” And Orlando Figes, whose recent book A People’s Tragedy has been widely praised, concurs, “The October insurrection was a coup d’etat.”
The logical conclusion of these arguments is that the seeds of Stalinism, one party rule and despotic terror were present in the way the Bolsheviks took power.
Not only are these claims intended as ideological attacks on the very idea of social revolution, but they are based on the worst historical inaccuracies, misquotes and unaccredited assertions. These range from statements about Lenin’s “lust for power” and his “destructive instincts” – backed up by quotes from enemies of the Bolsheviks, if at all – to the ludicrous assertions in Figes that Lenin went weight training as “part of the macho culture (the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action and the cult of violence) that was the essence of Bolshevism”. In the light of such assaults, the need to reclaim the Russian Revolution for the socialist tradition is more important than ever.
Russia in 1917 was predominantly a peasant country. Less than a fifth of the 160 million population lived in towns. The working class, though small – 3 million – was concentrated in huge industrial centres. Politically, Russia was an absolutist monarchy headed by tsar Nicholas – an empire that held many different oppressed nationalities within its borders. It was a repressive society: workers did not have the right to strike, form independent trade unions, or to negotiate collectively with employers.
The period immediately before the First World War was marked by huge strikes, but war broke that militancy – temporarily. The reality of waging a war that outlasted the expectations of the establishment soon resulted in rising food prices and continued carnage at the front. In February 1917 anger exploded with further food restrictions. Thousands of housewives and women factory workers surged onto the streets. Soldiers refused to fire on the rioters, marching with them to the tsarist parliament shouting, “Bread”, “Down with the tsar”, and, “Stop the war”. Hundreds of thousands struck and demonstrators clashed with troops. Workers armed themselves and, decisively, whole regiments of soldiers deserted to the side of the workers. Within 48 hours the tsar was overthrown, replaced by a provisional government.
There is general agreement about the February Revolution that it was a genuine, spontaneous revolutionary upsurge – as opposed to the “undemocratic” October insurrection. But while it is true that the February Revolution was not “called” by anyone, least of all the Bolsheviks who were slow to respond, rank and file Bolsheviks were an organic part of the revolution. The best militants in every workplace were often members or supporters of the Bolsheviks. Here was not a party floating above workers’ heads waiting to swoop down and seize power, but one integrally part of that class.
After February the key forces in Russian society were the old order, the generals keen to smash the revolution; the workers’ parties, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks; and the Social Revolutionaries who traditionally represented the peasantry, and therefore had a base in the army, but were mainly led by intellectuals. The provisional government consisted predominantly of industrialists glad to be rid of the tsar – but only to make Russian capitalism more effective – allied to big landowners. Increasingly they would rally behind the counter-revolutionary forces. The Social Revolutionary Kerensky joined the government to appease the masses.
The February Revolution inspired workers with a sense of their own strength. Within weeks workers across Russia had set up their own democratically elected soviets (workers councils). Factory committees were established which placed workers’ control on the agenda. The tsarist state apparatus was dismantled. The police were replaced by workers’ militias. Across the country peasants began to seize land for themselves, and established their own committees. National groups saw in the demise of tsarism the potential for self determination and an end to Great Russian oppression. The soviets and committees went beyond dealing with economic questions – took on a political role. The democratic organisations represented the embryo of the workers’ state. Both Pipes and Figes hail the provisional government as the embodiment of democracy, despite the fact that the soviets were infinitely more democratic in representing and involving the majority.
The coexistence of the soviets and the provisional government meant there were two powers in Russian society uneasily balanced. Although supported by the majority, the predominantly Menshevik leadership of the soviets was nervous about taking power, agreeing instead to support the government. The government knew that, while it held formal power, all real power lay with the soviets – the organisations that workers and soldiers viewed as their own.
As the year wore on, the economic situation worsened. The horrific slaughter in the trenches continued, and millions of peasants were denied land by a government anxious to appease landowners. The government refused independence to Finland, angering many whose desire for self determination was fuelled by the revolution. Growing numbers of workers became suspicious of the “moderate” socialists who propped up the unpopular government. As support drained away from the government towards the soviets, it drained away within the soviets from the Mensheviks towards the only party that opposed the coalition government and argued for a government of working people: the Bolsheviks.
In July the anger and frustration erupted into an armed demonstration of thousands trying to force the soviets to take power. Despite the obvious feeling to overthrow the government, Lenin called for patience. Lenin and the Bolsheviks acted to restrain the movement for one key reason – that the initiative of workers was probably enough to seize power, but not yet to hold it. A half made revolution risked being drowned in blood by the old order.
The retreat in July cost the Bolsheviks dearly. The “moderate” socialists in the soviet, terrified of taking power and equally terrified of losing control, called loyal troops into Petrograd, disarmed revolutionary regiments, introduced the death penalty at the front for desertion and witchhunted the Bolsheviks – hundreds were arrested and imprisoned and their presses were smashed. Kerensky plotted with General Kornilov to bring military rule to Petrograd, but panicked at the last minute. He wanted desperately to suppress the soviets and the Bolsheviks, but belatedly realised the retribution of the counter-revolution would extend to himself and other moderate socialists – so he exposed Kornilov’s plans.
Both Pipes and Figes dismiss the counter-revolution as a figment of the left’s imagination. Pipes argues that it is an “absurd assessment” to see any threat to the revolution from the right, despite his own acceptance a few pages later that Kerensky ordered the imposition of martial law in Petrograd and the encirclement of the city by Kornilov’s troops!
The Bolsheviks issued demands to Kerensky – to arm the workers, to summon loyal troops to the city – but they really spoke over his head to the workers and soldiers in the city. If the government was willing to flirt with counter-revolution, it had to be exposed. But the immediate threat was from Kornilov, and the working class sprang with all its initiative and strength to beating it. Fighting companies were formed in factories, “railroad workers tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army ... All the big stations had their own soviets, their railroad workers’ and their military committees. The telegraphers kept them informed of all events, all movements, all changes. The telegraphers also held up the orders of Kornilov.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution) Faced with such opposition, the coup attempt fell apart.
The attempted coup decisively altered the balance between the soviets and the government. Price wrote at the time, “The masses in the country won’t endure a coalition government which betrays the revolution behind their backs any longer.” The bourgeois parties in government pushed to continue the war at the expense of social reform and, combined with the masses’ new sense of power and confidence, the polarisation between the classes sharpened.
This is an element today’s revisionist historians neglect entirely. Refusing to see class as the central divide in Russian society, they cannot understand why the revolution did not restrict itself to developing parliamentary democracy. So, while accepting that the Kerensky government was weak and ineffectual, they insist a different coalition could have resolved Russia’s crisis. But the crisis was not purely driven by the mood of those at the bottom of society, but also by the increasing intolerance of the capitalist class towards any aspect of workers’ control and the landowners’ resistance to the widespread seizure of estates by the peasantry. The choice in October was not between workers’ power and parliamentary democracy, but between workers’ power and the imposition of a dictatorship intent on smashing the soviets and returning the estates to the rich landowners.
By September the Bolsheviks had won the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. The party grew enormously – from 24,000 in February to 240,000 in August. The vast majority who joined were workers and soldiers. This was no small conspiratorial group, but a mass party. Millions were moving towards revolutionary ideas. Betrayed by the leaders installed by the February Revolution – with all the conditions of war, food shortages, repression from landlords and bosses still intact – workers and peasants increasingly identified with the Bolshevik slogans: bread, peace and land. These were not, as Pipes argues, “ideas which the socialists planted in the mind of the population” – they related to the mood growing from the general crisis.
Workers’ control over the factories increased as bosses tried to sabotage production or close factories. At the front the army was disintegrating as more and more refused to fight a war they did not believe in. Peasants seized land from the estates. In other words, in real life power was already passing to the masses on the ground. All that remained was the seizure of political power.
Lenin was clear that holding power was not the task of a tiny minority, but something the whole population must take on. Far from lusting after personal power at the expense of the majority, he argued, “To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class ... Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people.”
It is true that the October insurrection did not look like the February Revolution. It was not a spontaneous outpouring onto the streets, but a carefully organised seizure of key areas of the city by armed workers. It is not true, however, that it was carried out without the support of the majority. It was an intensely popular revolution, the realisation of the aspirations of millions of people. Hardly anyone bothered to defend the government. This is backed up by Sukhanov, a Menshevik and no fan of the Bolsheviks, in a quote absent in either Pipes or Figes’ books:
To talk about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the party was followed by the overwhelming majority of the people, when the party had already de facto conquered all real power and authority, was clearly an absurdity.
To argue October was the work of one small dictatorial group not only ignores the fact that the Bolsheviks were a mass party, but also that the party could not have single-handedly created the conditions for workers’ power. Those conditions were built through a myriad of organisations on the ground – the national network of soviets, factory committees, trade unions, militias, Red Guards, co-ops, cultural associations – by millions of workers.
Workers’ actions in 1917 were not carried out blindly, but were “a cautious and painful development of consciousness”. That consciousness was not invented by the Bolsheviks. By October the working class had tried everything else. The government had betrayed them, the moderate socialists had betrayed them, demonstrations had brought either repression or limited gains which no longer satisfied their hopes for a better life, and the counter-revolutionary threat had made the stakes clear – go forward or be smashed.
The Bolsheviks were decisive in October – without a party constantly raising the level of the most advanced sections of the class, the revolution would not have been able to break the political and economic power of the capitalists and their defenders. But they did not substitute for the class. Workers knew that the Bolsheviks had argued against the war when it was unpopular. Now Bolshevik slogans articulated the demands of the advanced class and pulled millions more behind.
The way the revolution was constricted, embattled, and ultimately destroyed was a huge tragedy for the world working class. What happened in Russia was a direct result of the civil war, invasion and famine that decimated the working class in the years following 1917 – it was not a result of the way the revolution was won.
The independent activity of the masses held centre stage in the revolution. It was this which overthrew the tsar, built workers’ organisations – including the Bolshevik Party – and, coupled with the betrayals of the other parties in Russia, gave the Bolsheviks the support necessary to prosecute for power.
The Russian Revolution was the high point of workers’ consciousness of themselves as a class, and of their awakening realisation that in their hands lay the material and creative capability to construct an equal and democratic state. Any other interpretation writes this tremendous revolutionary force out of history and by definition obliterates the possibility of revolutionary change today. A true reading of history consigns the right wing conspiracy theories to the dustbin. The overwhelming victors in 1917 were not a small clique, but the working class and the oppressed of Russia.
Last updated on 31.3.2002