An Introduction to the Russian Revolution
By Socialist Organizer
The Russian Revolution is possibly the most misrepresented event in history. Mountains of articles and books make the case that in October 1917 a small group of Bolshevik conspirators organized a coup d’etat and set up a totalitarian regime eventually taken over by Joseph Stalin. The fate of the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, we are repeatedly told, proves that socialism is nothing more than a utopian dream, at best.
Ironically, the continued offensive against the Russian Revolution testifies to the threat it still represents to the ruling rich. In the past 90 years, the causes of the 1917 uprising — war, mass poverty, and brutal exploitation — have spread like cancer throughout the world. Capitalism — in its final stage of crisis and decay, called “globalization” by some — offers no future for humanity. The era of wars and revolutions opened by World War One and the Russian Revolution is far from over.
The Russian Revolution — the opening shot of the international socialist revolution — hit the world like a bolt of lighting. It showed that capitalism was not eternal. It showed that working people do have the power to take over the reins of society. Two short quotes will hopefully give you a glimpse of the event’s impact. After the influential American journalist Lincoln Steffens visited Russia in 1919 he proclaimed, “I have seen the future and it works.”
On the other hand, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, lamented: “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.”
This introduction intends to briefly clarify some of the important moments and lessons of the long-slandered Russian Revolution of 1917.
Causes of Revolution
Socialist revolutions are not the work of a small elite. The explosive entry of the vast majority of the population onto the political stage is the essence of all revolutions. Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the October Revolution, explained:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical 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 business — kings, 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. … 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.”
So what pushes a whole people to rise up? The answer is simple. At certain moments in history, ordinary people — empowered through preceding struggles — come to see through experience that the terrible conditions created by the system are not inevitable and can be eliminated through their collective action.
In Russia, the main immediate cause of the popular uprisings was the misery caused by World War One. Russia — a backwards peasant country governed for centuries by the despotic and corrupt Czarist regime — entered the war on the side of France and England, which were fighting Germany and Austria-Hungary for control of the world. Russian soldiers were used as cannon-fodder; more than 3 million Russians lost their lives in the war.
WWI completely dislocated the economy. Cities lacked basic food supplies such as meat and flour, and lines for bread filled the streets. Many families simply went hungry. In response, spontaneous labor strikes erupted. The Czarist government made the mistake of punishing the strikers by sending them to the front-lines and the trenches, which only resulted in putting the revolutionary activists in contact with the mass of soldiers, who came mostly from peasant backgrounds. Revolutionary ideas spread very rapidly in an army demoralized by so many defeats and so much senseless carnage.
The February Revolution: The Czar Falls
The revolution began on International Women’s Day, February 23. The women of Vyborg — the main working-class neighborhood of the capital, Petrograd — decided to go on strike in response to dictator Czar Nicholas’ introduction of bread rationing. Ninety-thousand working women took to the streets, demanding “Bread, Peace, Freedom!” The protests spread like wildfire.
Years of pent-up frustrations and anger fueled the uprising. Millions of people who had never participated in politics were swept up into the rising tide of revolt. A general strike effectively shut down the capital. Within a few short days, the entire power structure was on the verge of collapse. On the evening of February 25, Czar Nicholas ordered the armed forces to “end the disorders in the capital by tomorrow” — in other words, drown the uprising in blood. But it was too late to turn back the tide.
The mutinies of February 26 proved to be the turning point. In the words of one participant:
“The 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.”
Many socialists had thought they might never live to see the fall of the old regime. But nevertheless the ranks of the army — the pillar upon which all states rest — joined the revolution and the seemingly all-powerful Czarist state collapsed like a house of cards. And nobody raised a peep in its defense.
The workers took over the cities. Overnight, Russia went from being the most reactionary country in Europe to the most democratic. “The whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing the ‘Marseillaise’. It has surpassed my wildest dreams, and I can hardly believe it is true,” reported Morgan Phillip Price, a British journalist. The old state had been smashed by the heroic actions of the workers and soldiers, but what would take its place?
With a correct revolutionary leadership, a workers’ government based on the Soviets (councils in Russian), could have taken power in February 1917. No other authority existed.
Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies — mass workers´ councils that united all the workers of different regions, trades, and organizations — sprung up throughout the country during the insurrection. Soviet representatives were directly elected in the workplaces and garrisons by workers and soldiers; they were controlled by the ranks, and revocable at all times. This was true democracy in action.
Soviets had first been created in the heroic but abortive 1905 Revolution in Russia — “the dress rehearsal,” in Lenin’s words, for the 1917 revolution. Learning from this earlier experience, the advanced Russian workers revived the old tradition in the heat of battle.
After the fall of the Czar, effective power was in the hands of the Soviet. But instead of creating a government based on the Soviets, the “moderate socialist” leaders of the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties voluntarily handed over power to the “liberal”. The capitalist politicians — who had not participated in the revolution against the Czar — quickly set up a bourgeois Provisional Government, which held formal power but existed only through the support given it to through the leaders of the Soviets.
In the euphoria created by the fall of the Czar, the masses, newly awakened to political life and full of political illusions, let power slip out of their hands. As is often the case in the first phase of a revolution, working people sought the path of least resistance and placed their trust in the well-known leaders. Yet these opportunist politicians feared the power of the workers and sought to collaborate with the capitalists.
Dual Power and the Permanent Revolution
The Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties justified their decision by arguing that Russia was not ripe for a workers´ revolution — a socialist revolution — due to the fact that the country was economically backwards. Unlike Britain or Germany, Russia had just begun to industrialize, aristocratic landlords monopolized the land, the vast majority of the population were peasants. The working class was a small minority, less than 15% of society.
It is true that the main immediate tasks of the revolution were the same as in the classic bourgeois revolutions such as the French Revolution of 1789: agrarian reform, industrialization, the establishment of political democracy, self-determination for the nationalities, and the creation of a modern nation-state.
But the opportunist leaders — and many workers — made the error of thinking that the feeble Russian bourgeoisie and its Provisional Government could fulfill these tasks. For them, the revolution would take place in stages: first a democratic revolution, then, in the distant future, a workers’ revolution.
They failed to see that the Russian bourgeoisie was cowardly in comparison with — and in the face of — foreign imperialism and the landed aristocracy. Both in 1905 and then in February 1917, the Russian bourgeoisie took fright when the people mobilized. It vacillated and ended up allying with Czar, the landlords, and imperialism against the occupation of factories and the popular insurrection.
Up until 1917, only Leon Trotsky had argued that any successful revolution in Russia would have to be socialist. In other words, the struggle for democratic and socialist demands, far being divided by “historic stages,” were inseparable because the only social class with the power and will to fight for democracy was the working class, in alliance with all the oppressed. This perspective — known now as the theory of “permanent revolution” — was proven correct by subsequent developments in 1917. It still holds true today for nations and peoples dominated by imperialism.
Before 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party held a confused position on these questions. But in 1917 he saw that the situation of “dual power” — the co-existence of two parallel governments, the bourgeois Provisional Government and the workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets — was unsustainable. It could only result in the victory of one of these forces over the other. At this point, Lenin adopted the essence of Trotsky’s theory and concluded that it was “necessary to pass from the first stage of the revolution, which gave power to the bourgeoisie, to its second stage, which will put power into the hands of the working class.” Lenin argued that socialism could not be built within the borders of Russia alone. Spreading the revolution throughout Europe and the world was the only way for it to survive.
Lenin made this case to the party when he returned from exile in his famous April Theses. At first he was in a small minority. But by the end of April, Lenin, relying only on the force of his ideas, won the majority of the party to his position, centered around the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” Now that the Bolshevik Party had been won to the correct political orientation, the central task became to win over the majority of the working class for the seizure of power.
Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics
The Bolsheviks were a small minority in the Soviets. The masses supported the opportunist leaders of the Menshevik Party and Socialist-Revolutionary Party. These leaders made vague “leftist” declarations but entered the weak Provisional Government at the end of April in order to prop it up. A coalition government between working-class and bourgeois parties — what Marxists call a Popular Front — was created.
In June 1917, at the first congress of the Soviets, the Socialist-Revolutionaries had 285 delegates, the Mensheviks 243, the Bolsheviks 105, and 134 either belonged to small parties or were independents. The method of the Bolsheviks to advance the struggle and win over the majority of the workers has nothing in common with the method of the small sects who spend all their time talking about socialism in the abstract and denouncing everyone else as “reformists.”
The Bolsheviks understood that the broad masses learn through their direct experience in life and struggle. Therefore the only way to win the leadership of the working class was to directly participate in its struggles, articulate its demands, and fight for the unity and political independence of the workers’ organizations. In this way, the revolutionary Marxists could prove in practice that they were the most consistent defenders of the interests of the oppressed.
The Bolsheviks’ slogans were adapted to the existing consciousness of the workers. They were points of leverage for their mobilization, the conscious expression of the desires of the broad masses: Peace! Land! Bread! All Power to the Soviets! Likewise, the Bolsheviks directed most of their agitation and propaganda against the class enemy — and called on the opportunist leaders to break from their subordination to the capitalists.
“From April to September 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded that the S.R.s and Mensheviks break with the liberal bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. Under this provision the Bolshevik Party promised the Mensheviks and the S.R.s its revolutionary aid against the bourgeoisie — categorically refusing, however, either to enter into the government of the Mensheviks and S.R.s or to carry political responsibility for it. Nevertheless, the demand of the Bolsheviks, addressed to the Mensheviks and the S.R.s: ‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power into your own hands!’ had for the masses tremendous educational significance. The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and S.R.s to take power definitely doomed them before mass opinion and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks.”
It is also important to remember that from April to October the Bolsheviks fought for both a sovereign Constituent Assembly (a democratic demand) and for the soviets to take power (a socialist demand). There was absolutely no contradiction between the two demands — and the bourgeoisie and imperialism were adamantly against the implementation of both of them.
The Turning Tide
In periods of revolutionary crisis, the masses learn very quickly. The illusions they held in the Provisional Government and the opportunist leaders were shattered in only a few months because the Provisional Government led by the lawyer Kerensky did not solve a single one of the burning demands of the people. It continued and deepened Russia’s participation in the bloody world war, refused to convene a Constituent Assembly, and failed to provide bread in the cities. It refused to grant self-determination to the oppressed nationalities — Ukranians, Finns, etc. — in the borderlands.
The army collapsed. Literally hundreds of soldiers deserted the front every day. Peasant seizures of land shook the countryside. The oppressed nationalities throughout the Russian empire mobilized for real political and cultural autonomy. Workers took control of the factories. From the month of March onwards, the consciousness of the people moved steadily to the left.
Faced with this rising militancy, the Provisional Government responded with violence and slander. The government brutally broke up workers’ demonstrations in July and went on a political witch-hunt against the Bolsheviks, who were accused of being “German spies.” The Bolshevik Party was forced underground and its leaders were sent into prison or hiding. But no amount of repression could smash the growing movement.
The definitive turning point in the revolution took place in August when the workers and soldiers rose up in a general strike to crush the attempted counter-revolutionary coup d’etat of Military General Kornilov, behind whom had rallied most of the capitalists and landlords. The Provisional Government (which had collaborated with Kornilov up until the coup) and the opportunist leaders (who participated in and propped up the government) were completely discredited. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were at the forefront of the resistance and demonstrated in practice to the people that they were the most farsighted and most resolute leaders. The party’s growth in size and influence was nothing short of explosive, rising from 23,000 members in February to 240,000 in August.
The October Revolution
By October, the Bolsheviks had officially won the majority of the delegates to the Soviets in Central Russia’s main cities, Petrograd and Moscow. Virtually nobody supported the Provisional Government. The time was ripe for a second revolution.
In the framework of the Military Revolutionary Committee (the Soviets’ organ of defense) headed by Leon Trotsky, the Bolsheviks organized the insurrection to coincide with the second national congress of Soviets on October 25. During the night of October 24, the revolutionary workers and soldiers occupied the printing-presses, the bridges, the telephone offices, and the government buildings.
Trotsky described the morning after the insurrection in his autobiography:
“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.”
Contrary to the distortions of many historians, the October Revolution was not a coup d’etat imposed by a tiny band of revolutionaries. Far from it. From February to September, Lenin had argued against those impatient activists who called for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. Time and time again, Lenin explained that the task was to “patiently explain” to the workers until they were won over to supporting a second revolution.
Everybody in Russia at the time knew that the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party had the overwhelming support of the workers and soldiers. Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik opponent of the Bolsheviks, admitted: “To talk about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the Bolsheviks were 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.” The fact that the insurrection in Petrograd was virtually bloodless is further proof of the popularity of the Bolsheviks and their fight to place all power in the hands of the soviets.
The Soviet Government
The Bolsheviks won the overwhelming majority of the delegates in the second national Soviet congress. This congress — “the most democratic parliament in human history,” in the words of Trotsky — quickly elected a multi-party revolutionary government, composed of Bolsheviks and left-wing Socialist-Revolutionaries, elected Lenin as chairman, and gave all power to the soviets.
The Soviet government immediately decreed peace (proposing a negotiation to Germany for a cease-fire), offered self-determination to the oppressed nationalities, and decreed the confiscation of the big landed estates, an immediate agrarian reform, workers’ control of industry, and the nationalization of the banks. These measures were followed by decrees granting freedom of religion, abortion on demand, and the liberalization of divorce.
Democracy, the rule of the people, became a reality. “The creative initiative of the masses,” explained Lenin, “is the fundamental factor of the new society. Socialism is not the result of decrees from above. Bureaucratic and administrative automatism is foreign to its spirit. Living, constructive socialism is the work of the popular masses themselves.”
The 1917 Revolution — despite its tragic degeneration into Stalinism after the revolution failed to spread to other countries — remains one of the most important events in world history and a shining example of how ordinary people can rise up to turn the world upside down.
Why did the Russian Revolution triumph, while so many revolutions since then have been defeated? Trotsky explains:
“In the year 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis. One can say with certainty, however, on the basis of all the lessons of history, that had there been no Bolshevik Party, the immeasurable revolutionary energy of the masses would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions, and the great upheavals would have ended in the severest counterrevolutionary dictatorship. The class struggle is the prime mover of history. It needs a correct program, a firm party, a trustworthy and courageous leadership — not heroes of the drawing room and parliamentary phrases, but revolutionists, ready to go to the very end. This is the major lesson of the October Revolution.”
In other words, in the same way as steam needs a piston to be effectively channeled, the revolutionary upsurges of the oppressed can only result in victory when led by revolutionary party. Such an organization is necessary to help the masses overcome all the obstacles in their path to power. Without this determining factor, the ruling class has been able to co-opt or crush most workers’ revolutions since 1917.
Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, a new revolutionary wave is shaking the world. Workers and youth are rising up from Mexico to Greece, from Palestine to Tunisia, from Wisconsin to La Paz, to take control of their destinies. But the task of building revolutionary parties capable of leading the masses to power in all nations remains unfinished. In the words of Trotsky, who founded the Fourth International in 1938 in order to build such a political instrument, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” This is the main and lasting lesson of the Russian Revolution.
Recommended Further Reading
History of the Russian Revolution – Leon Trotsky
Ten Days That Shook the World – John Reed