International Socialist Review Issue 03, Winter 1997
80 Years Since the Russian Revolution
by Ahmed Shawki
THE RUSSIAN Revolution of October 1917 remains to this day the most decisive event of the international workers movement. The Russian events took place in the midst of the barbaric carnage known as World War I. The swift overthrow of the Tsar in February of that year and the almost bloodless Bolshevik-led insurrection in October held out the hope for millions across Europe.
The Bolshevik revolution was by no means a specifically "Russian" phenomenon. As Lenin was later to put it, Bolshevism had become "world Bolshevism" by virtue of its revolutionary tactics, theory and program. By indicating the "right road of escape from the horrors of war and imperialism
Bolshevism can serve as a model of tactics for all."1
The significance of the revolution was not lost on ruling classes and politicians around the world, especially in Europe. Fear that the revolution would spread gripped the bourgeoisie. Not a friend of revolutionary socialism, British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote,
The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.2
The prospects of revolution which produced paroxysms of fear in the rich were eagerly welcomed by socialists. Victor Serge wrote:
The newspapers of the period are astonishing
riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact the whole of Europe is in movement, clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything.3
Anti-war socialist and journalist John Reed cabled the New York Call with news of the Bolshevik victory. Under the headline, "John Reed Cables the Call News of the Bolshevik Revolt He Witnessed." The subhead read: "First Proletarian Republic Greets American Workers." Reed began his article with characteristic bluntness:
This is the revolution, the class struggle, with the proletariat, the soldiers and peasants lined up against the bourgeoisie. Last February was only the preliminary revolution
The extraordinary and immense power of the Bolsheviki lies in the fact that the Kerensky government absolutely ignored the desires of the masses as expressed in the Bolsheviki program of peace, land and workers control of industry.4
The "proletariat, the soldiers and peasants lined up against the bourgeoisie." This was the essence of the Russian Revolution. October was not a coup conducted by a secretive and elitist band. Above all, the revolution was about the mobilization of the mass of ordinary Russiansworkers, soldiers and peasantsin a struggle to change their world. That is to this day the most important legacy of the Russian revolution. And this is why such considerable effort is still devoted to distort, slander and misrepresent the events of 1917. This article does not pretend to take up all questions of the revolutionlet alone what went wrongbut aims to outline its main themes.5
In the autumn of 1932, a Danish Social Democratic student group invited exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to speak in Copenhagen on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This speech stands out as one of the most forceful and concise accounts of the October Revolution.6
Trotsky outlined a series of historical prerequisites that was necessary for the October Revolution:
1. The rotting away of the old ruling classesthe nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy.
2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.
3. The revolutionary character of the peasant question.
4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nations.
5. The significant weight of the proletariat.
To these organic preconditions we must add certain conjunctural conditions of the highest importance.
6. The revolution of 1905 was a great school, or in Lenins words, the dress rehearsal of the revolution of 1917. The soviets, as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the revolution, were created or the first time in the year 1905.
7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility and thereby prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.
But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the revolution. For this victory one condition more was needed:
8. The Bolshevik Party.
This article will try to elucidate these basic features outlined by Trotsky.
The Coming of the Revolution
IMPERIAL RUSSIA lumbered into the 20th century a much weakened power than it had been 100 or even 50 years earlier. Russia had lost considerable ground both militarily and economically relative to its main rivals. The government of Alexander II, in the wake of Russias defeat in the Crimean War, took steps to implement reformsto modernize the economy, to modernize the ancient legal system, to "de-feudalize" the army by making service compulsory, to allow a certain degree of local autonomy. In short, it tried to drag Russia out of its medieval past. But the measures adopted were often half-hearted and designed to prolong the status quo rather than change it. Thus, explaining the decision to abolish serfdom in 1861, Alexander II said he decided to end serfdom because "it is better to get rid of serfdom from on high than wait for its abolition from below."7 Of course this was true, but it overlooked the fact that the key institution that needed overhauling was the autocracy itself. The strength of the autocracy, the servility of the nobility and the relative weakness of the bourgeoisie, was a key factor in explaining Russias growing economic gap with the other European powers. And while there was a spurt of industrial growth in the last two decades of the 19th century, this was in the main organized and carried out by the Tsarist state.
The state was also the main beneficiary of the program of reforms and grew even more powerful in relation to the nobility and bourgeoisie. As Marcel Liebman put it: "The nobility was politically sterile, the bourgeoisie utterly impotent. The entire history of Russia was molded by this negative factor, by the absence of vigorous or even viable social classes and so counterbalancing the weight of the autocracy."8 The defects of such an antiquated set up were exposed even more clearly given the mediocrity and incompetence of those who were born to run itthe Tsars themselves.
Throughout the 19th century they were men without vision, courage or imagination. Their hatred of the intelligentsia was but a reflection of their own intellectual incapacity. "Brute force had become a vigor, and the most hidebound conservatism served them all for a political creed and a program."9
The reforms that were designed to restore Russias might, would instead contribute to Tsarisms downfall. The effect, for example, of the attempt to maintain Russia as a "Great Power" would be profound domestically and internationally. As one historian put it: "[O]ne result of this was the effort to sustain the armed forces and defense industries of a modern great power strained both the Russian economy and domestic political stability. In addition, relative backwardness called into question the empires ability to survive in a war against the other powers."10
To focus only on Russias economic backwardness in understanding the course of events would be mistaken. The key to understanding Russia, as Leon Trotsky argued so well, is the combination of the backward and the advanced, the old and the new. In Trotskys words:
Russias development is first of all notable for its backwardness. But historical backwardness does not mean a mere retracing of the course of the advanced countries a hundred or two hundred years later. Rather it gives rise to an utterly different "combined" social formation, in which the most highly developed achievements of capitalist technique and structure are integrated into the social relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and dominating them, fashioning a unique relationship of classes.11
The consequences of such uneven and combined development are made clear by looking at Russias economy. Trotsky points out that while "peasant cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the seventeenth century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them."12 This "combined development" in Russia produced a bourgeoisie that was weak and heavily dependent on the Tsarist state and foreign capital for investment. It also produced a working class, though small in size, that was highly concentrated in the most modern enterprises. In 1914, 54 percent of workers in Russia were employed in factories of over 500, whereas in the U.S. the figure was 32.5 percent. The Putilov metal works, which employed 30,000 workers in 1917, was the largest factory in the world at the time. In Petrograd, 60 percent of the workforce was metal workers.13
Trotsky summarized the importance of the character of Russias development in understanding the October revolution in these words:
The first and most general explanation is: Russia a backward country, but only a part of the world economy, only an element of the capitalist world system. In this sense Lenin exhausted the riddle of the Russian Revolution with the lapidary formula, "The chain broke at its weakest link."
Trotsky goes on:
But the young, fresh, determined proletariat of Russia still constituted only a tiny minority of the nation. The reserves of its revolutionary power lay outside of the proletariat itself-in the peasantry, living in half-serfdom, and in the oppressed nationalities.
The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian question. The old feudal-monarchic system became doubly intolerable under the conditions of the new capitalist exploitation. The peasant communal areas amounted to some 140 dessiatines.14 But thirty thousand large landowners, whose average holdings were over two thousands dessiatines, owned altogether 70 million dessiatines, that is, as much as some 10 million peasant families or 50 million of the peasant population. These statistics of land tenure constituted a ready-made program of agrarian revolt.
In order for the Soviet state to come into existence, therefore, it was necessary for two factors of different historical nature to collaborate: the peasant war, that is, a movement which is characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development, and the proletarian insurrection, that is, a movement which announces the decline of the bourgeois movement. Precisely therein consists the combined character of the Russian Revolution.
Russias Revolutionary Movement
THE COMBINED character of Russias economic development also affected the development of politics and culture in Russia. Again, Trotsky explains:
Precisely because of its historical tardiness, Russia proved to be the only European country in which Marxism, as a doctrine, and the Social-Democracy, as a party, enjoyed a powerful development even prior to the bourgeois revolutionand naturally so, because the problem of the relation between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism were subjected to the most profound theoretical examination in Russia.16
The works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels became available in Russia because the censor opined that they were "an abstract speculation" and therefore of little relevance for Russia. Their works would help shape Russias revolutionary movement, but not quite in the way they had expected. The main current among Russian revolutionaries, the Narodniks (or populists), took Marxs denunciation of capitalism as showing that Russia would be better off if it could bypass capitalism altogether. The populists argued that the peasant Mir or traditional commune could become the basis of moving straight to a socialist society.
The later generations of populists, perhaps best represented by an organization called Zemlya I Volya (land and freedom), vacillated between two strategiesboth of which started with the assumption that the populists would act on behalf of the people. On the one hand they went "to the people" and tried to foment peasant rebellion, and when that failed they took matters into their own hands and launched a campaign of terror against the Tsar and his government.
The development of Marxism in Russia was very much influenced by, and developed against, the ideas of the populist movement. While Lenin accurately described populism as reactionary (in its historic philosophical sense) he also acknowledged the important role it played in the development of a revolutionary movement in Russia.
The break with populism and the turn to the working class came in 1883, when G.V. Plekhanov founded the Emancipation of Labor Group. Plekhanov had enthusiastically endorsed militant populism which tried to rouse the peasantry. But by the 1880s several factors led him towards Marxism. First, despite considerable heroism on the part of idealistic revolutionaries, the great hopes of Zemlya I Volya failed to ignite a social revolution, or even to produce any revolutionary activity among the peasants.
Second, after the failure of Zemlya I Volya, populism took a turn to individual terror, which Plekhanov rejected. Third, Plekhanov began to doubt the economic viability of the peasant commune as the basis of a new society. And, fourth, a newly emerging industrial working class began to make itself felt, leading Plekhanov to see workers as the key force in Russias revolution.
Plekhanov developed what became the basic ideas of Russian Social Democracy (synonymous with revolutionary Marxism today). Two propositions of Plekhanovs deserve mention.
Plekhanov argued that because the productive forces were too low, the immediate political objective of the proletariat had to be the victory of the democratic or bourgeois revolution. But Russias bourgeoisie, a diminutive late-comer, was not going to lead such a struggle or even give the struggle consistent support. Echoing Marx, Plekhanov argued "that whenever the red specter took at all a threatening form, the liberals were ready to seek protection in the embraces of the most unceremonious military dictatorship." This led Plekhanov to the central operational question. "In conclusion," he wrote, "I repeatand I insist upon this important point: the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working class movement or it will never triumph!"17
For 10 years after its founding in 1883, the Emancipation of Labor Group remained largely an exile organization. But it nevertheless played a tremendous role in spreading the ideas of Marxism within émigré circles and in Russia itself. By the early 1890s, Marxist study circles, composed primarily of students and intellectuals, existed in many Russian cities and towns. Vladimir Ilych UlyanovLeninthe future leader of the Bolshevik Party, joined such a group when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1893.
Lenin was typical in many respects of the second generation of Russian Marxists. Initially attracted to populism, he was profoundly influenced by Plekhanovs critique and by the growing ferment among Russian workers. In this period, Lenins efforts were directed in the main to fusing Marxism with the working class movement. Lenin believed that "by directing socialism towards a fusion with the working-class movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did their greatest service," because the previous "separation of the working-class movement and socialism gave rise to weakness and underdevelopment in each: the theories of the socialist, unfused with the workers struggle, remained nothing more than utopias, good wishes that had no effect on real life; the working-class movement remained petty, fragmented, and did not acquire political significance, was not enlightened by the advanced science of its time."18
Therefore, Lenin concluded, "the task of Social-Democracy is to bring definite socialist ideals to the spontaneous working-class movement, to connect this movement with socialist convictions that should attain the level of contemporary science, to connect it with the regular political struggle for democracy as a means of achieving socialismin a word, to fuse this spontaneous movement into one indestructible whole with the activity of the revolutionary party."19
Marxism, for Lenin, was therefore, not simply a set of economic laws or doctrines, nor simply a world view, but a guide to action which had definite practical implications.
Marxism makes clear "the real task of a revolutionary socialist party: not to draw up plans for refashioning society, not to preach to the capitalists and their hangers-on about improving the lot of the workers, not to hatch conspiracies, but to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organization of a socialist society."20
Lenins conclusions were not shared by all Marxists at the time. Indeed, the very success of the Marxist study circles turn to agitation in the latter 1890s produced a distinctly "anti-political" current, Economism, which glorified the economic struggles of the proletariat. This current, echoing the "revisionism" of the German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, who argued "the movement is everything, the final goal nothing," aimed to limit workers to purely economic struggles, leaving the political struggle to the liberals. In these views, the Economists were the political forerunners of the Mensheviks, who formed the moderate wing of Russian socialism after a split in 1903.
Lenin responded to the Economist challenge by arguing against the arbitrary separation of economics and politics. It would be counterproductive for a revolutionary to "adapt himself to the lowest level of understanding" in a manner that would "put the demands and interests of the given moment in the foreground and
push back the broad ideas of socialism and the political struggle." Revolutionaries should rather "connect socialism and the political struggle with every local and narrow question."21
Lenins words have tremendous relevance and meaning for socialists today. Revolutionary socialists, he argued, should not simply talk to workers about factory conditions and workplace struggles, but also about the "Brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc." The reasons for making sure that political agitation of this kind is carried out are not based on some abstract "Marxist" principles, but flow directly from what is needed in the struggle. Working class consciousness "cannot be genuine political consciousness," Lenin further argued, "unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affectedunless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social Democratic point of view and no other."22
These ideas would become the cornerstone of the revolutionary wing of the Russian socialist movementthe Bolsheviks.
Three Views of the Russian Revolution
IT WAS widely accepted among Russias Marxist revolutionaries that the coming Russian revolution would be a bourgeois revolution. The founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, stated:
The further east one goes in Europe, the meaner, more cowardly and politically weak the bourgeoisie becomes, and the greater are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat. On its own sturdy shoulders the Russian working class must, and will, carry the cause of the achievement of political liberty. This is an essential step, but only an initial step, to the realization of the great historic mission of the proletariat, the creation of a social order in which there will be no place for the exploitation of man by man.23
Russia was an economically backward country, with a weak bourgeoisie, a weak industrial base and a small working class. The country was overwhelmingly agricultural with only 4-5 million industrial workers out of a total population of 160 million.
The Mensheviks argued that because the revolution was a bourgeois one, its leadership belonged to the bourgeoisie. The working class would have to consciously subordinate its demands and interests to those of the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks drew direct parallels between the Russian bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie of France at the time of the French Revolution of 1789. It was a vital imperative for the Mensheviks that all be done to safeguard the interests of the bourgeoisie and to make sure that they were not frightened by the prospects of a movement from below.
The role of social democracy was to "exert revolutionary pressure on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie," and "to force the upper strata of society to lead the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusions." 24
Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not challenge the idea that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois. "The democratic revolution will not extend beyond the scope of the bourgeois social-economic relationships," wrote Lenin.25 He maintained this position until mid-1917.
But unlike the Mensheviks, Lenin refused to subordinate the demands of the working class to those of the bourgeoisie or to compromise the independence of the labor movement politically and organizationally. Though Russias economic level permitted only a bourgeois revolution, the development of a combative working class meant that the bourgeoisie would be incapable of taking the lead:
The bourgeoisie as a whole is incapable of waging a determined struggle against the autocracy; it fears to lose in this struggle its property which binds it to the existing order; it fears an all-too-revolutionary action of the workers, who will not stop at the democratic revolution but will aspire to the socialist revolution; it fears a complete break with officialdom, with the bureaucracy, whose interests are bound up by a thousand ties with the interests of the propertied classes. For this reason the bourgeois struggle for liberty is notoriously timorous, inconsistent and half-hearted.26
Because of this, Lenin argued, the working-class would take the lead in the democratic revolution. He went on to argue that since the peasantry had a real interest in ending Tsarism and destroying the remnants of feudalism, the "only force capable of gaining a decisive victory over Tsarism is the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry.
The revolutions decisive victory over Tsarism means the establishment of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry
But of course it will be democratic, not a socialist dictatorship
At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favor of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic
andlast but not leastcarry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution.27
Leon Trotsky rejected the Mensheviks reliance on the Russian bourgeoisie as strongly as the Bolsheviks. But this led him to conclusions quite different from those of Lenin.
Following Marx (and largely in agreement with the Menshevik theoreticians) he argued that the peasantry would not play an independent political role in the revolution.
The peasantry cannot play a leading revolutionary role
Because of its dispersion, political backwardness, and especially of its deep inner contradictions which cannot be resolved within the framework of a capitalist system, the peasantry can only deal the old order some powerful blows from the rear, by spontaneous risings in the countryside, on the one hand, and by creating discontent within the army on the other.28
Because "the town leads in modern society," only an urban class can play the leading role and because the bourgeoisie was not revolutionary, this role fell to the working class:
The conclusion remains that only the proletariat in its class struggle, placing the peasant masses under its revolutionary leadership, can "carry the revolution to the end."29
But if the working class must lead the revolution, then the working class cannot be expected to stop its struggle after the overthrow of the autocracy. Lenins "democratic dictatorship" is an impossibility.
The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.30
But this proposition clearly leads to a difficultyone that all Russian Marxists understood: Russia was economically and culturally too backward for socialism. How did Trotsky propose to overcome this problem? Given that Russia in isolation did not have the economic prerequisites to build socialism, the Russian revolution would have to be a prelude to revolutions in Europe and elsewhere.
The Russian revolution will become the first stage of the socialist world revolution.
The present productive forces have long outgrown their national limits. A socialist society is not feasible within national boundaries. Significant as the economic successes of an isolated workers state may be, the program of socialism in one country is a petty bourgeois utopia. Only a European and then a world federation of socialist republics can be the real arena for a harmonious socialist society. 31
Trotsky called his analysis the theory of "permanent revolution."
The Revolution of 1905
THE REVOLUTION of 1905 was the first mass rising against the imperial regime. It was, in Lenins words, the "great dress rehearsal" for 1917. All of the elements of 1917 were there in less developed form. Russia was embroiled in a losing war with Japan, and troop discontent mingled with peasants desire for land and the mass strikes of workers in the main cities for economic and political rights. Also of critical importance was the emergence of the sovietsor workers councilwhich first made their appearance in St. Petersburg at the height of the revolution.
The revolution began in January 1905 with Bloody Sunday when the Tsars troops massacred more than 800 workers in a mass procession to humbly ask the Tsar for reforms. This led to an explosion of mass strikes, mutinies in the army and scattered peasant revolts. It ended in December of that year with a failed uprising in Moscow under the slogan "the eight hour day and a gun," inspired and led by the Bolsheviks. Though it ended in defeat, 1905 was also significant because it cemented the political differences between the Mensheviks, who concluded that the revolution had "gone too far" and had therefore frightened the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction, and the Bolsheviks, who were confirmed in their view that only the independent mass struggle of workers could carry the revolution to success.
The soviet was a kind of workers government, made up of elected delegates from Petrograds factories and workplaces, concentrating all the forces of the revolution. Wrote Trotsky, its president:
It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which would immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-controland, most of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.32
The soviets premises, wrote Trotsky,
were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kindsmostly workers domestic servants, shop assistants, peasants, soldiers and sailors. Some had an absolutely phantasmagorical idea of the Soviets power and its methods. There was one blind veteran of the Russo-Turkish war, covered with crosses and decorations, who complained of dire poverty and begged the Soviet to "put a little pressure on Number One" [that is, the Tsar]
Trotsky recounts another case where an old Cossack sent the soviet a letter asking for some help with a problem. He addressed the letter "simply to The Workers Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal service."33
The experience of the revolutions high pointthe Soviets, the workers councilswould not be lost. Nor would the violence unleashed by the state. After the suppression of the Soviet by force, many workers drew a critically important lesson: "In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realized that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy."34
The 1905 revolution did not only exposed clearly the character of the revolution in Russia, but also showed in practice what the arguments between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks meant in practice. It also exposed the different currents in the movement internationally. For example, it sparked a heated debate inside the largest social democratic partythe SPDin Germany. Rosa Luxemburg brilliantly summed up the revolutionary implications of 1905:
But for international social democracy, the uprising of the Russian proletariat constitutes something profoundly new which we must feel with every fiber of our being. All of us, whatever pretensions we have to a mastery of dialectics, remain incorrigible metaphysicians, obsessed by the immanence of everything within our everyday experience
It is only in the volcanic explosion of the revolution that we perceive what swift and earth-shattering results the young mole has achieved and just how happily it is undermining the very ground under the feet of European bourgeois society. Gauging the political maturity and revolutionary energy of the working class through electoral statistics and the membership of local branches is like trying to measure Mont Blanc with a ruler!35
Finally, 1905 had a massive impact around the world as Julius Braunthal, one of the historians of the Internationals, writes:
It was an unforgettable experience, this first revolutionary uprising of the workers since the Paris Commune of 1871, and, for many contemporaries, the first experience of revolution. To some it seemed that they were living through a turning-point in world history and witnessing the start of a new epoch of European revolutions.36
Years of Reaction
The years after 1905 saw repression on an unprecedented scale. As the repression intensified, it was harder and harder to keep any organization going. One historian writes:
The movement inside Russia had exhausted itself and its remnants were being methodically cut down by Stolypins [Chairman of the Council of Ministers ] draconian policies. To all intents and purposes the Party as an organized structure had ceased to exist.
All the major centers of Social Democratic activity were repeatedly hit by mass arrests followed by an inevitable decline in the number of party members. In Moscow, for instance, where the Bolsheviks had had 2,000 members in 1905, their numbers shrank to 500 by the end of 1908 and by mid-1909 there remained only 260 members of the Party.37
Many of the problems facing the party were made worse by the fact that the intellectuals took fright and fled the movementand were never to return. One worker-Bolshevik, Martsionovsky, a carpenter, wrote:
In a whole series of cities where I took part in illegal work, almost everywhere the party committee consisted exclusively of workers. The intelligentsia was absent, with the exception of those on tour who came for two or three days. In the most difficult years of the reaction, the workers remained almost without leaders from the intelligentsia. They said that they were tired
We, the underground workers, had to work without the intelligentsia, with the exception of individuals. But on the other hand, after the February Revolution, they showed up, they beat their breasts and shouted "we are revolutionaries," etc., but in fact, none of them had conducted revolutionary work, and we had not seen them in the underground.38
The period between 1911 and the outbreak of World War I saw a revival in militancy and a corresponding growth in the Bolshevik Party. In April 1912, the police fired on a demonstration of striking miners in Lena, Siberiakilling 170 and provoking huge sympathy strikes in Moscow and Petersburg. The revival of the workers movement is reflected most clearly in the strike statistics for the years leading up to World War I. One study gives the following figures:
Strikes in Russia 1910-1914 39
Number of Strikes Working Days Lost (in thousands)
Total Economic Political
1910 222 214 8 256
1911 466 442 24 791
1912 2032 732 1300 2376
1913 2404 1370 1034 3863
1914 3534 969 2565 5755
World War I and the Collapse of Tsarism
FOR MANY years, the Second International had proclaimed its opposition to militarism and war. The 1907 Resolution of the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart reads:
If a war threatens to break out it is the duty of the working class and its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the consolidating activity of the International [Socialist] Bureau, to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the accentuation of the class struggle and of the general political situation.
Should war break out none the less, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.40
These resolutions proved hollow. World War I saw the main parties of the Second International abandon the slogans of peacetime and throw their support behind their ruling classes own war effort. In every belligerent country, the socialist movement split between "social patriots" and "internationalists." The anti-war camp was, in turn, sharply divided between advocates of "peace" and those, like Lenin, who called for revolutionaries to turn the world war into a civil war against their own ruling classes.
For Lenin, the betrayal of principles and the about face of the German SPD was quite unexpected. When he first heard of the reports that German socialists in the Reichstag had voted for war credits, he did not at first believe them. And the anti-war forces were small. Rosa Luxemburg sent out an anti-war circular to 20 of the most left-wing members of SPD Reichstag group and received only two responses. In 1915, the anti-war socialists met at Zimmerwald in Switzerland and reaffirmed the principles of international socialism. Trotsky wrote of the meeting:
The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains. The passers-by looked on curiously at the strange procession. The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches.41
But this nucleus also formed the basis of a new, revolutionary internationalthe Third International. The coming revolutionary storm was to swell the ranks of the revolutionaries into the hundreds of thousands across Russia and Europe.
The war exacerbated the crisis of Tsarism in several respects. The scale of the carnage and the human toll it exacted was massive. Trotsky writes in his History of the Russian Revolution: "The Russian army lost in the whole war more men than any army which ever participated in a national warapproximately two and a half million killed, or 40 percent of all the losses of the Entente."42
The war and its cost domestically began to split the ruling order in Russia. Some, with the Tsar at their head, believed the war would cement Russian society through a patriotic outpouring and would stave off social revolution. To make matters worse, the Tsar decided to take personal command of the army and war effort in the late summer of 1915. Even members of the Tsars cabinet could no longer ignore the decay and stench. The Acting Minister of Agriculture, A.V. Krivoshein:
Historians will not believe it, that Russia conducted the war blindly and hence came to the edge of ruinthat millions of men were unconsciously sacrificed for the arrogance of some and the criminality of others. What is going on at headquarters is a universal outrage and horror.43
As the war dragged on, it became more and more unpopularboth at home and at the front. In the towns, food shortages became frequent. Inflation and fuel shortages became permanent features of the lives of workers in the cities. Dissent began to grow in the factories and in the army. The Bolshevik leader, Shlyapnikov, records in his memoirs:
By the end of 1916 the idea of "war to the end," to the "final victory," was largely undermined. Anti-war feelings were rampant
Despair and hatred gripped the laboring masses
stepped up their repressive methods of fighting isolated manifestations of protest. Intensive agitation was conducted against us in the press and through the various organizations working for the "organization of defense." Every resource was set in motion: accusations of provocation, or German intrigues and bribes. But slander could not halt the workers movement either: just like the bourgeoisies other ploys it proved incapable of rousing the proletariat to.
A sign of the decline and decay of the autocracy was the growing influence of a drunk mystic, Gregori Rasputin. The Tsarina called on Nicholas to act as strongman, but it was too lateeven if hed focused his attention long enough to act decisively. Instead, despondency accompanied decline.
Even the Tsars police could see that a revolution was imminent. At the end of 1916, the police department compared the situation in the main cities to ten years earlier and concluded that "now the mood of opposition has reached such extraordinary proportions as it did by a long way among the broad masses in that troubled time."45 Trotskys remark about the 1905 revolution, "Every Paris concierge knew
in advance that there was going to a be revolution in Petersburg on Sunday, January 9,"46 applied equally to 1917. Revolution was in the air, not only because those at the bottom of society wanted a change, but so too did those at the top. In Lenins words,
For a revolution to take place, it is not usually sufficient for the lower classes not to want to live in the old way; it is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way.47
The February Revolution
THE PRELUDE to the February revolution consisted of a series of strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd commemorating Bloody Sunday. The strike movement spread and deepened after workers at the giant Putilov Works were locked out for demanding a wage increase. Even the most militant section of the Bolshevik Party, the Vyborg district, urged that the strikes end for fear that conditions werent yet ripe for mass, militant action. Then on February 23International Womens Daywomen textile workers poured into the streets of Petrograd demanding bread. As Trotsky explained:
The 23rd of February was International Womens Day. The social-democratic circles had intended
meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organization called for strikes that day.48
The women textile workers of Petrograd came out on strike and dragged behind them the Bolshevik-led metal workers of the Vyborg district. As one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Vyborg District Committee, Kayurov, put it, "with reluctance, the Bolsheviks agreed to this."49 Indeed, Kayurov later remarked that he had tried to talk the women workers out of taking any action at all.50
Trotsky remarks, "Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariatthe women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers wives."51
By the end of the day, 90,000 workers were on strikewithout the shootings the Bolsheviks had feared. The next day, the 24th, about half of Petrograds workers were on strike and large numbers of them were demonstrating in the streets. The slogan "Bread!" writes Trotsky, "is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: Down with the autocracy, Down with the war!" Fearful that the infantry would not obey orders to shoot on unarmed workers, the government brought out its most reliable troops, the Cossack cavalry. The Cossacks did not mutiny, but neither did they act as they were expected to:
the Cossacks constantly, though without ferocity, kept charging the crowd
The mass of the demonstrators would part to let them through, and close up again. There was no fear in the crowd. "The Cossacks promise not to shoot," passed from mouth to mouth.52
The disintegration of the Tsars armed forces was evident to the demonstrators. In the streets of the Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd a Bolshevik worker and demonstrator saw the front ranks of the crowd, pressed forward by those behind, come closer and closer to a cordon of soldiers:
[T]he tips of the bayonets were touching the breasts of the first row of demonstrators. Behind could be heard the singing of revolutionary songs, in front there was confusion. Women, with tears in their eyes, were crying out to the soldiers, "Comrades, take away your bayonets, join us!" The soldiers were moved. They threw swift glances at their own comrades. The next moment one bayonet is slowly raised, is slowly lifted above the shoulders of the approaching demonstrators. There is thunderous applause. The triumphant crowd greeted their brothers clothed in the gray cloaks of the soldiery. The soldiers mixed freely with the demonstrators.53
Another three days of this and it was all over for the Tsar. On the night of the 26th the reserve battalions of the Volynsky Regiment mutinied. The following morning they killed their commanding officer and joined the workers demonstrations. General Khabalov, commander of the Petrograd military garrison, conceded on the evening of the 27th, saying, "
I cannot fulfill the command to re-establish order in the capital. Most of the units one by one have betrayed their duty, refusing to fight the rioters."54 The speed of the armys mutiny was striking. On February 26 there were six hundred mutineers; three days later the whole Petrograd garrison of 170,000 had rebelled.
On February 26, Michael V. Rodzyanko, president of the lame Duma, wired the Tsar:
Anarchy in the capital, government paralyzed
shooting in the streets
supplies of food and fuel completely disrupted
universal dissatisfaction growing
there must be no delay in forming a new government enjoying the confidence of the country. Any hesitation would mean death. I pray to God that in this hour no responsibility falls on the monarch.55
The Tsars reply was to delay the opening of the Duma. Its members were at a loss. "I do not want to revolt," exclaimed Rodzyanko.
I am no rebel. I have made no revolution and do not intend to make one
I am no revolutionary. I will not rise up against the supreme power. I do not want to. But there is no government any longer. Everything falls to me
All the phones are ringing. Everybody asks me what to do. What shall I say? Shall I step aside? Wash my hands in innocence? Leave Russia without a government? After all, it is Russia! Have we not a duty to our country? What shall I do? Tell me, what?56
In the end, Rodzyanko sent another telegram pleading with the Tsar to intervene. "Situation worsening. Immediate steps are necessary, for tomorrow it will be too late. The last hour has come in which the fate of the country and the dynasty is being decided." Forever vigilant and astute, the Tsar was unmoved. "That fat Rodzyanko has again sent me some nonsense to which I will not even reply," he commented to Count Fredericks, minister of the court.57
The Tsars imbecility achieved a truly remarkable feat: it forced a majority of the Dumas members to go against his wishes. Not wanting to offend, they refused to disperse, but met only in an unofficial capacity. Rodzyanko, who contemplated the possibility of the Tsars abdication with "unspeakable sadness," had just advised Tsarist authorities to use their firehoses to disperse demonstrators. But the situation needed resolution. At midnight on February 27, the Dumas leaders proclaimed the formation of a provisional government. Their intent was clear. As the leader of the bourgeois Cadet Party, Miliukov, put it: "to direct into a peaceful channel the transfer of power which it had preferred to receive, not from below, but from above." The Duma had no choice but "to take power into its own hands and try to curb the growing anarchy," wrote Rodzyanko.58 As the Duma leaders proclaimed a new government, the last of the Romanovs recorded the proud achievements of his last night in power: "read a great deal about Julius Caesar" and slept "long and deeply."59 Three centuries of Romanovs finally came to an ignominious endthe Tsar abdicated on March 2.
The February revolution brought a bourgeois government headed by Prince Lvov to officebut it also created another center of power: the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. Indeed, in the first days after the fall of the Tsar, effective power was in the hands of the Soviets. The old state had collapsed and the bourgeoisie was reluctant to take power. But so too was the leadership of the Sovietsthen in the hands of the Mensheviks and the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs). In their view, the aim of the revolution was the achievement of a bourgeois democratic republic. They were ready and eager to support the new government to see that the tasks of the "bourgeois revolution" were carried out. As the Menshevik Potresov expressed it: "at the moment of the bourgeois revolution, the [class] best prepared, socially and psychologically, to solve national problem is [the] bourgeoisie."60
The new government was above all concerned with a return to order: restoring the authority of the officers in the army and of management over workers in industrial enterprises over the workers. Before declaring a provisional government they aptly called themselves The Committee for the Re-establishment of Order and Relations with Public Institutions and Personages." Their sole preoccupation was stabilizing Russian societyand of course to carrying on the war. Until that time, the other issues raised by the revolutionland reform, the demands of the non-Russian nationalities, the election of a Constituent Assembly, and so on, could all wait. One historian summarizes the approach of the new Provisional Government to the crisis it inherited:
How did the government deal with the problems it had inherited? It prolonged the war and trod in the Tsars footsteps. To continue Tsarist foreign policy and combine it with an adventurous military offensive would, it was hoped, divert attention from the problems of the home front. In Chernovs words"The propertied classes regarded a military victory and its concomitant chauvinism as the only way to avoid aggravation of the social revolution."61
Right up to its overthrow in October, the Provisional Government would doggedly stick to prosecuting the wareffectively laying the basis for its undoing. "If the revolution did not finish the war," wrote the Menshevik Sukhanov, "then the war would strangle the revolution."62
But the provisional government also had a big problem. It didnt have the power to rule on its own. As the Minister of War and the Navy, Guchkov, wrote to the Commander in Chief, General Alekseev, on March 9:
The Provisional Government has no real authority at its disposal and its decrees are carried out only to the extent this is permitted by the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies which has in its hands the most important elements of real power, such as the army, the railways, the post and telegraph.
In particular, it is now possible to give only these orders which do not radically conflict with the orders of the above-named Soviet.63
Reorienting the Bolshevik Party
BOLSHEVIK PARTY leaders in Russia during the February revolution largely accommodated to the Menshevik-SR political line. They clung to the notion that the Russian revolution had to limit itself to a bourgeois aims. They tried to take a verbally critical stance, but effectively served as the left face of the soviet majority, which itself covered for the Provisional Government. The new editors of Pravda, Kamenev and Stalin, who returned from exile in Siberia, "Pronounced that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution forgetting that the only important agent of counter revolution at the time was this same Provisional Government," writes Tony Cliff caustically.64 Although there was considerable opposition within the party to the political line adopted towards the Provisional Government, it would take Lenins return from exile, on April 3, 1917, to decisively shift the partyindeed, the whole course of the revolution.
At a meeting in March of the Provisional Government, when ministers were discussing Bolshevik agitation, Kerensky blurted out: "Just wait, Lenin himself is coming. Then the real thing will start."65 The "real thing" did indeed startbut in a way noone anticipated.
Lenin arrived at the Finland railway stationwhich was located in the Bolshevik stronghold of the Vyborg district. Like Plekhanov, who had returned a few days earlier, Lenin was welcomed by a group of dignitaries including Chkheidze, the Menshevik chair of the Petrograd Soviet. The description of the official meeting deserves to be quoted in full, despite its length:
Behind Shlyapnikov, at the head of a small cluster of people behind whom the door slammed again at once, Lenin came, or rather ran, into the room. He wore a round cap, his face looked frozen, and there was a magnificent bouquet in his hands. Running to the middle of the room, he stopped in front of Chkheidze as though colliding with a completely unexpected obstacle. And Chkheidze, still glum, pronounced the following "speech of welcome" with not only the spirit and wording but also the tone of a sermon. "Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petersburg Soviet and of the whole revolution we welcome you to Russia
Butwe think that the principal task of the revolutionary democracy is now the defense of the revolution from any encroachments either from within or from without. We consider that what this goal requires is not disunity, but the closing of the democratic ranks. We hope you will pursue these goals together with us."
Chkheidze stopped speaking. I was dumbfounded with surprise: really, what attitude could be taken to this "welcome" and to that delicious "But-"
But Lenin knew exactly how to behave. He stood there as though nothing taking place had the slightest connection with himlooking about him, examining the persons round him and even the ceiling of the imperial waiting-room, adjusting his bouquet (rather out of tune with his whole appearance), and then, turning away from the Ex.Com. delegation altogether, he made this reply:
"Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors, and workers! I am happy to greet in your persons the victorious Russian revolution, and greet you as the vanguard off the worldwide proletarian army
The piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe
The hour is not far distant when at the call of our [German] comrade, Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their arms against their own capitalist exploiters
The worldwide socialist revolution has already dawned
Germany is seething
Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash. The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!"
Appealing from Chkheidze to the workers and soldiers, from the provisional government to Liebknecht, from the defense of the fatherland to international revolution this is how Lenin indicated the tasks of the proletariat.66
Sukhanov summed up Lenins speech to a Bolshevik party meeting that day:
I shall never forget that thunder-like speech, which startled and amazed not only me, a heretic who had accidentally dropped in, but all the true believers. I am certain that no one had expected anything of the sort.67
The response to Lenins speech was that of stunned silence. He was denounced from all sides. "A man who talks that kind of stupidity is not dangerous," exclaimed Stakevich, a moderate socialist. Bogdanov, a Menshevik: "That is raving, the ravings of a lunatic! It is indecent to applaud this claptrap!" A member of the Bolsheviks, Zalezhki, noted: "On that day (April 4) Comrade Lenin could not find open sympathizers even in our own ranks." Lenins speech, she remembers "produced on everyone a stupefying impression. No one expected this. On the contrary, they expected Vladimir Ilych to arrive and call to order the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee and especially Comrade Molotov, who occupied a particularly irreconcilable position with respect to the Provisional Government.68
On April 9, Pravda, the Bolshevik party newspaper, ran an editorial attacking Lenin written by Central Committee member, L.B. Kamenev:
As for the general schema of Lenin, its seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.69
But Lenin refused to be cowed. He launched an attack of his own. As he had done in 1905, he attacked those "old Bolsheviks" who continued to apply policies and methods which were appropriate for one period, but now acted as a hindrance to the aims of the revolution. For example, he attacked Kamenevs "old Bolshevik" formula that "the bourgeois revolution is not completed" as "obsolete." "It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it." He criticized the old Bolsheviks for refusing to abandon the formula of the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry"which was his slogan at the start of the 1905 revolution. Those who wanted to hang on to that idea, said Lenin, "should be consigned to the archive of Bolshevik" pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of Old Bolsheviks).70
Lenin answered his critics by hammering home the central point: the workers can only rely on themselves.
Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes, as Plekhanov said yesterday.
Our is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians and teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.71
In effect, Lenin was adopting Trotskys permanent revolution position. The first stage of the revolution had created a situation of "dual power," in which the working class and rebellious soldiers were not yet conscious of the need to sweep away the bourgeois Provisional Government. The task now was to win over a majority of the proletariat to the side of Bolshevism.
No support for the Provisional Government.
Exposure (of) the impermissible, illusion-breeding "demand" that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government
The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the needs of the masses. As long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticizing and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers Deputies so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience. Not a parliamentary republic.
but a republic of Soviets of Workers, Agricultural Laborers and Peasants Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.72
Lenins isolation among the leaders of the Bolsheviks can be gauged by the outcome of a debate and vote on Lenins views at a Petrograd Committee meeting on April 8. Those opposing Lenin handily won the vote thirteen to two, with one abstention. Similar results were recorded in Moscow and other local Bolshevik committees.73
But several factors worked in Lenins favor. First, many of the rank and file members of the party were already unhappy with the line of accommodation to the Provisional Government being pushed by Kamenev, Stalin and the former Duma deputy M.K. Muranov. Indeed some members in Petrograd had called for their expulsion from the party.
Moreover, even if the Bolsheviks Petrograd leadership tailed behind the Mensheviks and SRs, the Bolshevik members did not have the same instincts as those of the Mensheviks. As Trotsky notes, the whole history and training of the Bolsheviks led them in the direction of identifying with the masses rather than the new bourgeois government. Trotsky writes:
The worker-Bolsheviks immediately after the revolution took the initiative in the struggle for the eight-hour day; the Mensheviks declared this demand untimely. The Bolsheviks took the lead in arresting the Tsarist officials; the Mensheviks opposed "excesses." The Bolsheviks energetically undertook the creation of a workers militia; the Mensheviks delayed the arming of the workers, not wishing to quarrel with the bourgeoisie. Although not yet overstepping the bounds of bourgeois democracy, the Bolsheviks acted, or strove to acthowever confused by their leadershiplike uncompromising revolutionists. The Mensheviks sacrificed their democratic program at every step in the interests of a coalition with the liberals.74
Second, the very course of the revolution, and in particular the governments continued escalation to the war effort, was a confirmation of the validity of Lenins views. Third, the numbers of workers, soldiers and peasants drawn into the revolution continued to growas did their hostility to the government and their gravitation to the Bolsheviks; fourth, the Bolshevik party itself entered a period of explosive growth. In the two months since February, party membership swelled from 24,000 to 80,000. Finally, Lenin carried enormous political weight among the cadres of the Bolshevik party. Indeed, Trotsky is undoubtedly right in saying that only Lenin could have reoriented the party so quickly and with so little damage. By mid-April, Lenins attempts to win over the party reached an important turning point: He succeeded in winning a majority at a conference of Bolsheviks held in Petrograd on April 14. By the end of April, Lenin had decidedly won the party over to his views.
No sooner had Lenin won the party over did the opposite danger come to the fore. The same militants who supported Lenins "no support for the Provisional Government" slogan tended to be involved in head-on clashes with the government. The slogan of "no support" was soon transformed into one of "Down with the Provisional Government." Lenin now swung from the partys left to its right, calling such slogans "premature" and "adventurist." Petrograds workers were well ahead of the rest of the country, and the danger existed of a premature confrontation with the government which would leave the most militant sections of the movement isolated. The Bolshevik strategy was to rely on peaceful agitation and propaganda to win over a majority in the Soviets. This was the strategy that the Bolsheviks intended to follow, but the actual course of the struggle forced them to adopt a different course.
On May 1, Guchkov, Minister of War and the Navy, resigned his post from the Provisional Government. He announced that he was no longer able to fulfill his duties because of the continued disintegration and open rebellion in the army: "conditions which I am powerless to alter and which threaten the defense and, freedom and even the existence of Russia with fatal consequences."75 One graphic symptom of the collapse of the Russian army was the ever rising number of deserters. The total number of registered deserters (as opposed to a much larger but unknown total number of deserters) from the outbreak of war to February 1917, was 195,130, or 3,423 per fortnight. From the beginning of the revolution to May 15, the number rose to 85,921 or 17,185 per fortnight.76
The collapse of the army was one reflection of the growing rebellion among peasants throughout the country. Writes Lionel Kochan: "The storm in the countryside burst in April. Statistics, necessary incomplete, show an unmistakable and sudden upsurge. In March the number of districts affected by peasant disorders had been 34; in April it was 174; in May 236; in June 280; and in July 325."77
The governments response to this crisis was to try to expand its base of supportespecially among the Mensheviks and the SRs who still held a majority in the Soviets. In late April, these parties entered the Provisional Government. The right-wing SR Alexander Kerensky became minister of war. From May onwards, the revolutions advance required fighting not only the bourgeoisie, but the leaders of the Mensheviks and SRs. From May to the October seizure of power, there is a visible and steady decline in the levels of support to both Mensheviks and SRs and a sharp swing to the left.
The swing left is best illustrated by the events of the "July Days." Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership had attempted to temper the most militant sections of the party. But this proved no easy task. Already in April, there had been clashes between pro- and anti-government forces, as demonstrations of some 30,000 workers and sailors were organized by the Bolsheviks. On June 9, the Bolsheviks found themselves having to call off a peaceful demonstration in Petrograd where their supporters were going to demand the government resign. The majority in the Soviets, citing the fear of anarchy, had banned the demonstration. The party protested, but submitted. This only infuriated thousands of workersmainly against the Provisional Government, but many also questioned the partys decision to avoid confrontation. An alternative, official Soviet demonstration held some days later paraded overwhelmingly pro-Bolshevik slogans.
The unavoidable confrontation came in July. Nearly a million demonstrators took to the streets of Petrograd on July 4, demanding an end to the war and the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks, having failed to restrain the demonstrators, decided to join them. In the confrontations that followed, there were hundreds of casualties. There is little doubt that had the Bolshevik Party called for the overthrow of the government, it could have achieved that aim. But Lenin and others were clear that the rest of Russia wasnt yet ready to overthrow the Provisional Government. Aware of the Bolsheviks growing strengthand now terrifiedthe Provisional Government banned the Bolshevik Party. Warrants were issued for the arrest of key leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolshevik press was banned and the printing presses smashed to bits. Sukhanov writes in his memoirs that the Bolshevik Party was finished.
But instead, it was the Provisional Government whose days were numbered. With every passing day, it grew more unpopular, its position more tenuous. Bolshevik Party membership increased dramaticallytransforming the party completely. In a report to the Sixth Party Congress, held in August, Sverdlov reported that party membership stood at 240,000. The report showed that in Petrograd there were now 41,000 members, as against 15,000 in April. In Moscow 50,900 as against 13,000. By October, the party numbered 350,000.78
The growth of the party is all the more remarkable given that the party was virtually driven underground after July. Alongside the repression and intimidation came a well orchestrated propaganda campaign to discredit and smear the Bolsheviks. Lenin, in particular, was "exposed" as an agent of the Kaiser and anything else they could inventa slander campaign which is still alive in many history books today! The repression was not strong enough to crush the Bolsheviks. They continued to win members and wider layers of support. The government campaign against the left had one unintended effectto virtually finish any base the Mensheviks had among workers. As an historian of the Mensheviks writes:
A few statistics tell the tale. In June the Mensheviks elected 248 delegates to the first Congress of the Soviets, whereas the Bolsheviks managed to elect only 105. But at the second Congress of the Soviets, which met in October, there were only 70 to 80 Menshevik delegates as against 300 Bolsheviks. During the early stages of the revolution the largest Menshevik organization in Petrograd consisted of 10,000 members; but by October it had virtually ceased to exist. "Membership dues," so wrote a Menshevik at the time, "were not being paid, the circulation of the Workers Gazette declined catastrophically, the last all-city conference did not take place for lack of a quorum
The withdrawal from the party of groups and individuals is an everyday occurrence."79
The governments hard line also helped push large sections of the SRs towards the Bolsheviks. But if the Mensheviks and the SRs no longer had a mass base, they were of no use to the reactionaries that made up the officer caste in the army, to the bourgeoisie or to the middle classes. The call for a military coup from the right began to be raised openly. In mid-August, the Provisional Government tried to muster public support by organizing a State Conference. To protest the conference, the Bolsheviks called a general strike in Moscow that shut much of the city downyet another sign of the Bolsheviks resurgence from the July repression. During the proceedings General Kornilov, Commander in Chief, talked about the need to restore order in the army and at "the rear."
The army is conducting a ruthless struggle against anarchy, and anarchy will be crushed
By a whole series of legislative measures passed after the revolution by people whose understanding and spirit were alien to the army, this army was converted into the most reckless mob, which values nothing but its own life
there can be no army without discipline.
The prestige of the officers must be enhanced
There is no army without a rear
The measures that are adopted at the front must also be adopted in the rear.80
General Kornilov launched a coup attempt in late August. On August 26, he sent a representative to demand the surrender of the Provisional Government. He had the backing of all the top generals, big business and the British and French governments. But Kornilovs coup failed largely because of the organized resistance led by the Bolsheviks.
Lenins response to the Kornilov revolt was clear and immediate: "The Kornilov revolt is a most unexpected and downright unbelievably sharp turn in events. Like every sharp turn, it calls for a revision and change of tactics."81 The Bolshevik Party must lead the resistance to Kornilov, Lenin argued, because a successful coup from the right would be a tremendous setback to the revolution. Thus, Bolsheviks and their supporters were organized to fight Kornilov. This did not mean, however, extending support to the government. "Even now we must not support Kerenskys government. This is unprincipled.
We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerenskys troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.82
"We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him."83
After four days, the coup collapsed. "The insurrection," Trotsky noted, "had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth."84 The forces of reaction were completely demoralized, and the Kornilovs defeat only accelerated the decomposition of the Provisional Government.
The Masses On the Stage of History
THE GREATEST historian of the revolution, and one of its most important participants, Leon Trotsky, described the significance of revolution:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of businesskings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.85
Passivity gave way to self activity. As historian Marc Ferro put it, "the citizens of the new Russia, having overthrown Tsardom, were in a state of permanent mobilization." "All Russia," wrote Sukhanov, "was constantly demonstrating in those days."86
The revolution awakened a sense of power in ordinary people.
From the very depths of Russia came a great cry of hope in which were mingled the voices of the poor and downtrodden, expressing their sufferings, hopes and dreams. Dream-like, they experienced unique events: in Moscow, workmen would compel their employer to learn the bases of the workers rights in the future; in Odessa, students would dictate a new way of teaching universal history to their professor; in Petrograd, actors would take over from the theater manager and select the next play; in the army, soldiers would summon the chaplain to attend their meetings so that he could "get some real meaning in his life." Even "children under the age of fourteen" demanded the right to learn boxing "to make the older children have some respect."87
No longer were discussions of the main issues facing ordinary workers limited to the privileged and powerful. All questions of politics and economics, of war and peace, of how to organize society, were now the property of the masses. Krupskaya, Lenins partner, describes the mood:
The streets in those days presented a curious spectacle: everywhere people stood about in knots, arguing heatedly and discussing the latest events.
These street meetings were so interesting, that it once took me three hours to walk from Shirokaya Street to the Krzesinska Mansion. The house in which we lived overlooked a courtyard, and even here, if you opened the window at night, you could hear a heated dispute. A soldier would be sitting there, and he always had an audienceusually some of the cooks, or housemaids from next door, or some young people. An hour after midnight you could catch snatches of talk"Bolsheviks, Mensheviks.
" At three in the morning "Miliukov, Bolsheviks.
" At fivestill the same street-corner-meeting talk, politics, etc. Petrograds white nights are always associated in my mind with those all-night political disputes.88
John Reed described how the thirst for knowledge and culture was insatiable:
All Russia was learning to read, and readingpolitics, economics, historybecause the people wanted to know
The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute [headquarters of the Soviet] alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corruptsbut social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky
Then the talk
Lectures, debates, speechesin theaters, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, union headquarters, barracks.
Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories.
What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.
We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, "Did you bring anything to read?"89
The Road to October
ON SEPTEMBER 1, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. On September 5, the Moscow Soviet followed suit. On September 9, Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet. A clear majority of the working class was behind the Bolsheviks. Lenin launched an offensive within the party to prepare for an armed uprising and seizure of power. He met stiff resistance from the Bolshevik Central Committee. For almost a month, Lenin insistently argued for the party to prepare for an insurrection. Bukharin describes the response of the Central Committee to one of Lenins letters.
The letter [of Lenin] was written with extraordinary force and threatened us with all sorts of punishments. We all gasped. Nobody had yet posed the question so abruptly
At first all were bewildered. Afterwards, having talked it over, we made a decision. Perhaps that was the sole case in the history of our party when the Central Committee unanimously decided to burn a letter from Lenin
Finally, on October 10, after bitter debate, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party voted in favor of a rising.
Like every other ruling class, the Russian bourgeoisie and aristocracy thought that nothing and no one could do without it. The conservative daily Novoe Vromia, wrote on the morning after the insurrection (October 26, 1917):
Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us then: the cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stable boys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush off to a meeting of the Council of State between the diaper washing sessions? Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theaters, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters, the post office. Who will it be? History alone will give a definitive answer to this mad ambition of the Bolsheviks.91
The principal responsibility for organizing the insurrection fell to Trotsky, who, as president of the Soviet and head of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (formed originally during the Kornilov revolt), organized the insurrection. The actual seizure of power involved relatively small numbers of people and had the trappings of a military operation. As Sukhanov wrote, the broad masses
had nothing to do on the streets. They did not have an enemy which demanded their mass action, their armed forces, battles and barricades
This was an especially happy circumstance of our October Revolution, for which it is still being slandered as a military rising and almost a palace coup. It would be better if they asked: Did the Petrograd proletariat sympathize or did it not with the organizers of the October insurrection?
There are no two answers here. Yes, the Bolsheviks acted on the mandate of the Petrograd workers and soldiers.92
The months of advance and retreat, of revolutionary struggle, ended on October 25. Trotsky describes the situation the morning after the insurrection:
Next morning I pounced upon the bourgeois and Menshevik-Populist papers. They had not even a word about the uprising. The newspapers had been making such a to-do about the coming action by armed soldiers, about the sacking, the inevitable rivers of blood, about an insurrection, that now they simply had failed to notice an uprising that was actually taking place. In the meantime, without confusion, without street-fights, almost without firing or bloodshed, one institution after another was being occupied by detachments of soldiers, sailors, and the Red Guards
A delegation from the municipal Duma called to see me and asked me a few inimitable questions. "Do you propose military action? If so, what, and when?" The Duma would have to know of this "not less than twenty-four hours in advance." What measures had the Soviet taken to ensure safety and order? And so on, and so forth.
"Will you dissolve us for being opposed to the transfer of power to the Soviets?"
I replied: "The present Duma reflects yesterday: if a conflict arises, we will propose to the people that they elect a new Duma on the issue of power." The delegation left as it had come, but it had left behind it the feeling of an assured victory. Something had changed during the night. Three weeks ago we had gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. We were hardly more than a bannerwith no printing-works, no funds, no branches. No longer ago than last night, the government ordered the arrest of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, and was engaged in tracing our address. Today a delegation from the city Duma comes to the arrested Military-Revolutionary Committee to inquire about the fate of the Duma.93
Trotsky then describes a conversation he has with Lenin:
The power is taken over, at least in Petrograd.
looks softly at me, with that sort of awkward shyness that with him indicates intimacy. "You know," he says hesitatingly, "from persecution and life underground, to come so suddenly into power.
" He pauses for the right word. "Es schwindet [it makes one giddy]," he concludes, changing suddenly into German, and circling his hand around his head. We look at each other and laugh a little. All this takes only a minute or two; then a simple "passing to next business."94
The promise of human emancipation was paramount in the minds of those who led the revolution. In one of his most moving passages, Lenin wrote:
Hitherto the whole creative genius of the human intellect has labored only to give the advantages of technique and civilization to the few, and to deprive the rest of the most elementary necessitieseducation and free development. But now all the marvels of technique, all the conquests of civilization, are the property of the whole people, and henceforth human intellect and genius will never be twisted into a means of oppression, a means of exploitation. We know this: surely it is worth striving with all our might to fulfill this stupendous historic task? The workers will carry out this titanic historic labor, for there are vast revolutionary powers slumbering in them, vast powers of renovation and regeneration.95
In a similar vein, Trotsky writes in his autobiography, My Life:
Marxism considers itself the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process. But the "unconscious process" in the historical-philosophical sense of the termnot in the psychologicalcoincides with its conscious expression only at its highest point when the masses, by sheer elemental pressure break through the social routine and give victorious expression to the deepest needs of historical development. And at such moments the highest theoretical consciousness of the epoch merges with the immediate action of those oppressed masses who are furthest away from theory. The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls inspiration. Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history
Rosa Luxemburg, who leveled some strong criticisms of the Bolsheviks, summed up the Russian Revolutions historical significance:
The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.
Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.
Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy
The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity forced upon them by these fatal circumstances
and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.
What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks.
It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: I have dared!
This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to bolshevism.97
Today, we still need to fight for the "great awakening of the personality," as Trotsky put it. The day will come, not easily, not automatically, but it will come, when we can talk once more of "a great awakening of the personality" in the U.S. and internationally.
1 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 28 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), pp. 292-293.
2 Quoted in John Rees, "In Defense of October," in International Socialism 52, Autumn 1991, London, p. 9.
4 Philip Foner, editor, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labor (International Publishers, New York, 1967), p. 20.
5 For those interested in pursuing any particular aspect of the Russian Revolution see the suggested reading list for a good start.
6 Isaac Deutscher writes in The Prophet Outcast: "For two hours, speaking in German, he addressed an audience of about 2,000 people. His theme was the Russian Revolution. As the authorities had allowed the lecture on the condition that he would avoid controversy, he spoke in a somewhat professorial manner, giving the audience the quintessence of the three volumes of his just concluded History. His restraint did not conceal the depth and force of this conviction; the address was a vindication of the October Revolution, all the more effective because free of apologetics and frankly acknowledging partial failures and mistakes. Nearly twenty-five years later members of the audience still recalled the lecture with vivid appreciation as an oratorical feat." Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky: 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press, London, 1970), pp.184-185.
7 Marcel Liebman, The Russian Revolution (Jonathan Cape, London, 1970), p. 17 (see foot 50).
8 Ibid., p. 24.
9 Ibid., p. 19.
10 Dominic Lieven, "Russia, Europe and World War I," in Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, William Rosenberg, eds., Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1997), p. 37.
11 Leon Trotsky, Stalin (Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1941), p. 422.
12 Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press, London, 1997), p. 31. Hereafter referred to as HRR.
13 S. A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1983), pp. 9-10.
14 One dessiatine equals 2.7 acres.
15 Leon Trotsky Speaks, pp. 252-255.
16 HRR, p. 19.
17 Neil Harding, ed., Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879-1906 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 16.
18 Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1990), pp. 17-18.
19 Ibid., p. 18.
21 Ibid., pp. 45-46.
22 Ibid., pp. 66-67.
23 Neil Harding, op. cit., p. 224.
24 Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg (Pluto Press, London, 1970), p. 89.
25 V.I. Lenin, "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution," in Collected Works, Volume 9 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), p. 57.
26 Quoted in Cliff, Lenin, Volume 1, p. 143.
27 V.I. Lenin, Volume 9, op. cit., pp. 56-57.
28 Duncan Hallas, Trotskys Marxism (Pluto Press, London, 1978), p. 15.
31 Leon Trotsky Speaks, Ed. by Sarah Novell (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972) p. 256.
32 Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1973), p. 122.
33 Ibid., pp. 238-239.
34 Leon Trotsky, My Life (Penguin Books, Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1974), p. 180.
35 Ernest Mandel, "Rosa Luxemburg and German Social Democracy," in Revolutionary Marxism and Social Reality in the 20th Century (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1994), pp. 37-38.
36 Julius Braunthal, History of the International, 1864-1914 (Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1967), p. 298.
37 Neil Harding, Lenins Political Thought (Humanities Press International Inc.: Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1983), p. 249.
38 David Mandel, "Intelligentsia and the Working Class in 1917," Critique 14, 1981, London, pp. 69-70.
39 Lewis H. Siegelbaum, The Politics of Industrial Mobilization in Russia, 1914-1917 (The Macmillan Press, Ltd., London, 1983), p. 18.
40 Quoted in Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War: The Origin of the Third International (Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif., 1976), p. 59.
41 Leon Trotsky, My Life, p. 257.
42 Trotsky, HRR, p. 42.
43 Tony Cliff, Lenin: All Power to the Soviets, Volume 2 (Pluto Press, London, 1976), p.64.
44 Alexander Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917: Reminiscences from the Revolutionary Underground (Allison & Busby, London, 1982), p. 224.
45 Paul Dukes, October and the World: Perspectives on the Russian Revolution (Macmillan Press, London, 1979), p. 85.
46 Leon Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., p. 91.
47 Quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, op. cit., p. 62.
48 HRR, p. 121.
50 Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (Jonathan Cape, Ltd., London, 1975), pp. 117-118. The Bolshevik Party did not issue its first leaflet until February 27. Sukhanov notes that the Bolshevik Party leaders present at the start of the February Revolution were unsure of themselves. He describes a meeting on February 25th at which their "flatfootedness or, more properly, their incapacity to think their way into the political problem and formulate it, had a depressing effect on us." Quoted in Liebman, op. cit.,p. 117.
51 HRR, p. 102.
52 Ibid., p. 123.
53 Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1966) p. 186.
54 Ibid., p. 187.
58 Ibid., p. 188.
59 Ibid., p. 189.
60 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 121.
61 Kochan, op. cit., p. 212.
63 Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, p. 94.
64 Lenin, op. cit., 1p. 104.
65 Kochan, op. cit., p. 207.
66 Quoted in Cliff, Volume 2, pp. 119-120.
67 Quoted in Cliff, Volume 2, p. 121.
68 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 129.
69 Ibid., p. 131.
70 Ibid., p. 130.
71 Quoted in LeBlanc, op. cit., p. 252
72 Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 24 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), pp. 22-23.
73 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 132.
74 HRR, p. 337.
75 Kochan, op. cit., p. 223.
76 Ibid., pp. 229-230. The total number of deserters reached more than 2 million by October 1917.
77 Ibid., p. 235.
78 Liebman, Leninism, op. cit., p. 158.
79 Duncan Hallas, "All Power to the Soviets," in International Socialism 90, July/August, 1976, London, p. 19.
80 Quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, pp. 290-291.
81 Ibid., p. 298.
82 Ibid., p. 299.
84 Ibid., p. 304.
85 HRR, p. 17.
86 Liebman, op. cit., p. 201.
87 Marc Ferro, October 1917 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980), p. 2.
88 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (International Publishers, New York 1979), pp. 351-352.
89 John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 14-15.
90 Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, p. 339.
91 Tony Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged, Volume 3 (Pluto Press, London, 1978), pp.1-2.
92 Quoted in LeBlanc, op. cit., p. 282.
93 Trotsky, My Life, op.cit., pp. 338-339.
94 Ibid., pp. 351-352.
95 Liebman, op. cit., p. 197.
96 Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., pp. 348-349.
97 Rosa Luxemburg, "The Russian Revolution," Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1980), pp. 394-395.