1918: first year of the Russian Revolution, part two – consolidating gains, October to December 1917

It is not the task of this article to go into any detail of the seizure of power in October 1917. Leon Trotsky has brilliantly captured this event in his History of the Russian Revolution, John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World and many other pieces, including recent articles from In Defence of Marxism. The fact of the matter is that the resounding slogan of the Bolshevik Party, "All Power to the Soviets!” received an immediate and overwhelming endorsement from the soldiers and working class in virtually every town and city throughout the Russian Empire.

Part one | part three | part four part five | part six

In fact, in Tallin, Estonia the Soviet seized power two days before the revolution in Petrograd, and on the day of that insurrection, successful transfers of power were also achieved in Minsk, Novorod, Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Tartu. Within eight days of the declaration of a new workers’ state, a further 21 towns and cities had achieved Soviet-led power. Resistance from either the Provisional Government forces or from hostile class forces was, initially, universally weak.

The exception to this was Moscow, where poor planning and preparation by the Bolsheviks and the local Soviet, coupled with a strong resistance from armed Kadets, meant that taking power involved some serious fighting over six days, leading to the loss of some 400 lives. But, by the end of 1917, most of the provincial areas of Russia had declared for Soviet power, usually under the leadership of the Bolsheviks. However, the separate nationalities in the Ukraine, the Baltic States and areas of southern Russia around the Don and in the Caucasus Region proved more resistant to socialist revolution and these were to be acute zones of struggle for years to come.

The first steps of the counter-revolution

While the taking of power proved relatively easy, the counter-revolution soon commenced and various attempts were made to turn back the tide of socialist revolution. In Petrograd, the first, ill-fated attempt to thwart the revolution was undertaken by military cadets, known as Junkers (sons of the bourgeois and middle class), who mounted an armed struggle against the Bolsheviks. After a short conflict, the Red Guards easily disarmed them.

More problematic for the new state was the effort by Kerensky, the former head of the Provisional Government, to wrest back control of the capital by using elements of the Cossacks. Having fled Petrograd in disguise, Kerensky tried to galvanise the Imperial Army from the Northern Front headquarters at Psov. However, the Imperial Army was divided and only General Krasnov agreed to organise an expedition against Petrograd. He set off with 700 Cossacks, hoping others would join him on the way.

These forces, lacking morale and any sizeable infantry support, were defeated by Red Guards, recruited from the Petrograd factories, on the Pulkovo Heights, just a few kilometres from Petrograd. These events occurred only five days after the successful revolution in Petrograd. This marked the end of Kerensky’s direct role in Russian events and he fled to Paris. Krasnov was arrested but later released and went on to participate in the civil war on the side of White Russian counter-revolution.

Laying the foundations for a new socialist order

Following the defeat of these first attempted coups, the new Bolshevik Government was given some breathing space and proceeded to lay down the foundations for a new, socialist system. Lenin drove the pace of change relentlessly. Only a few months prior to the October Revolution, Lenin had completed one of his outstanding works, State and Revolution. This spelled out with great clarity the Marxist view of the state as an instrument of class domination and the need for a successful proletarian revolution to transform the machinery and practice of the state into a vehicle of working-class rule.

Lenin in the Soviet 1918 Image public domainLenin knew that it was vital to establish the outlines of a new workers’ state immediately after taking power / Image: public domain

Lenin knew that it was vital to establish the outlines of a new workers’ state immediately after taking power. Part of his thinking was that the revolution was unlikely to succeed unless and until revolution broke out in one of the advanced capitalist countries. It was therefore imperative to lay down all the markers of a new order so as to establish a guide for the future. Decree after decree was promulgated. By the end of 1917, just over nine weeks after the successful seizure of power, 25 major decrees had been passed, covering such issues as peace, land, the press, civic rights, abolition of estates and titles, right of recall of elected representatives, the judicial system, internal security, economic planning, workers’ control in industry, unemployment insurance, nationalisation of the banks, civil marriage and so on. Many more decrees followed in 1918. In December, the government established the Economic Planning Council to direct production and distribution.

Resistance to revolutionary change: the old classes and the reformist parties

Efforts to establish the new order were carried on amidst the mounting fury of the old order, frantically scrabbling to get a purchase on the situation. Unable, at this stage, to secure any military support against the new government, the old classes resorted to sabotage and non-compliance. Many of the higher-ranking civil servants refused to cooperate with the new powers unless forced at gunpoint.

The first Council of People’s Commissars, established in late October 1917, comprised solely Bolshevik Ministers. The Left-SR Party was invited to take some government posts but refused on the grounds that they wanted a government that included all parties represented in the Soviets. This demand was taken up by the Right-SR Party and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks could not agree to this, as some parties were continuing to oppose the revolution and seek the overthrow of the government.

The Mensheviks used their dominant position in the Railway Workers’ Union Executive Committee to pressure the Bolshevik government to accede to the demands for a broad Coalition Government. This was no idle threat, as the railways were key to transport and the movement of arms, goods and other vital necessities. Moreover, they used this muscle to sabotage and disrupt the Bolshevik government’s operations as much as they could. For instance, they refused to allow trains to send troops to assist the revolution in Moscow. They also sought to mobilise other trade unions against the Bolshevik government, many of whom had backward, bureaucratic structures led by Mensheviks.

Zinoviev 1918 Image public domain12 Bolshevik members of the cabinet, including Zinoviev (pictured), argued for an all-socialist government in "broad coalition" / Image: public domain

While the majority of Bolshevik leaders rejected the idea of a broad coalition, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin and Milyutin – all members of the Bolshevik Central Committee – supported this demand, going so far as to resign from the committee when they lost the vote on 14 November.

Shortly afterwards, five out of the 12 Bolshevik members of the cabinet, including three of the above, resigned their posts and published a manifesto calling for an all-socialist government. Lenin responded robustly. He pointed out that the Left-SRs had been offered places in the government and had declined, and that the purely Bolshevik government had been created and unanimously ratified by the Congress of Soviets. Lenin denounced Zinoviev and Kamenev as deserters and pointed out that they had behaved in a similar “strike-breaking” fashion before the uprising. In the end, the reformist parties had no support among the broad mass of workers, nor in the Soviets, and the idea of a broad coalition collapsed.

While this set the scene for future battles with the Right-SRs and Mensheviks, the Left-SRs, under pressure from a Peasants’ Congress in late November, agreed to participate in the Bolshevik government and fuse with the Soviet Executive Committee. By the end of 1917, the Left-SRs received three places in the cabinet.

The Constituent Assembly and the issue of democracy

Holding elections for a Russian Constituent Assembly had long been a key demand of all socialists, including the Bolsheviks. It was seen as a popular demand to challenge the power of the aristocratic and upper-bourgeois classes entrenched in Dumas (the parliaments and city councils that operated prior to the establishment of the Soviets).

The Provisional Government endorsed the demand after the February Revolution and eventually set the time for elections in late 1917. After the October Revolution, when power had passed to the Soviets, Lenin took the position that the elections should be postponed. He argued that an elected Constituent Assembly represented the highest level of democracy in a bourgeois republic, but once power had been won by the workers on the basis of “all power to the soviets”, this new proletarian democracy represented a higher level still.

While socialists subscribe to democratic processes and indeed demand ever-improved ways of representing the mass of people, the precise form of democracy is not set in stone but must be chosen on the basis that the rights and needs of the exploited are fully and constantly represented. The new workers’ democracy that emerged in revolutionary Russia was not some formal, bureaucratic, once-every-five-years type of system, but a living, breathing, everyday democracy, where delegates were regularly changed in response to new events and new opinions. The right of recall meant that ‘50 percent plus one’ of the electorate could recall their delegate at any time.

Lenin was also against holding Constituent Assembly elections on very practical grounds, arguing that to hold the elections on the basis of out-dated electoral rolls did not reflect the split in the SR Party that had led to effectively two parties – Left-SRs-and Right SRs – and therefore could not accurately reflect political reality at that time. Moreover, he argued there was a need to lower the voting age to 18 and to outlaw counter-revolutionaries who were determined to overthrow the soviet government by force. Without these changes, the election would favour the declining forces of Right-SRs and Kadets. But he was out-voted by the other Bolsheviks, the majority still clinging to a formal notion of democracy.

Lenin in Moscow 1918 Image public domainAs Lenin had predicted, the Constituent Assembly in the conditions of late 1917 was at best an irrelevance / Image: public domain

In the event Lenin was absolutely correct. The elections were held before the revolution had been consolidated. The result was that the SRs were by far the largest party, with the Bolsheviks some way behind in second place. But the result also confirmed two further facts. The first was that the whole country was overwhelmingly left oriented. Moderate socialists, including the SRs, gained 62 percent of the vote; and the Bolsheviks, as revolutionary socialists, around 25 percent. The main bourgeois party, the Kadets, achieved less than 5 percent and the Mensheviks, once so powerful, were reduced to 3.3 percent; much of this vote concentrated in the Caucasus, and Georgia in particular.

While these results seemed to show a powerful position for the SRs, it needs to be borne in mind that the Left-SRs were scarcely on the ballot, due, as Lenin said, to out-dated rolls and candidates. Had the Left-SRs been properly represented there is little doubt the result would have looked very different.

In addition, the Bolsheviks won overwhelmingly in all the urban areas and their immediate periphery, and among many of the key soldier and navy units based in the north. Socialist Revolutionaries who dominated the Constituent Assembly represented the political confusion and indecision of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns and the millions of peasants who were relatively distant from the capital and industrial centres.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that many peasants were fully behind Bolshevik policies without realising they were Bolshevik, and also thought Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were German spies. This latter, insidious lie was widely spread by the bourgeois and Right-SR leaders and their press to confuse peasant voters.

As Lenin had predicted, the Constituent Assembly in the conditions of late 1917 was at best an irrelevance and at worst provided another basis for seeking to overthrow the Bolshevik government. He set out his view with great clarity in an article in Pravda in December 1917. The Theses on the Constituent Assembly hammered home in 19 points the basic arguments Lenin had advanced to the Bolsheviks prior to the elections. He was to take up the issue of bourgeois and proletarian democracy again in a polemic he wrote to counter Kautsky’s revisionist pamphlet, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, at the end of 1918.

Delegates to the Constituent Assembly began to arrive in the capital in December. Tension was high as the counter-revolution was underway in the Ukarine under General Kaledin and steps were also afoot to start a White Army in the Don region. The Kadets’ support for an armed counter-revolution led by Kaledin led the government to ban the party and the arrest of some of its leaders.

The Constituent Assembly met in January 1918. The Right-SRs were aware of the opposition they faced from the Soviets and the Bolsheviks and tried to prepare a defence, with a Military Organisation and a Committee for the Defence of the Constituent Assembly. They also had a paper (The Grey Overcoat) and the support of two regiments, plus other soldiers recalled from the front. They also had a strong terrorist group. Their main supporters, the peasants, did not seem very concerned about the outcome as they had primarily seen the SR Party and the Constituent Assembly as a means of getting land, which had already by then been promised by the Bolshevik Government through an important decree.

A Right-SR terrorist group had infiltrated the headquarters of the Bolshevik Party and laid plans to kidnap or assassinate its key leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. The leadership called this off when it became apparent that the plan had been leaked. A right-wing demonstration was held on 5 January, attended by the ranks of the city’s petty bourgeois: clerks, intellectuals and so on. They were easily dispersed. It was a sort of botched insurrection. The two regiments that originally supported the SR Party came over to the Bolsheviks.

It was against this tense background that the first and only meeting of the Assembly took place. Sverdlov, on behalf of the Soviet Executive Committee, seized the presiding officer’s bell, declared the meeting open and proceeded to propose a long resolution endorsing all the actions and decrees taken by the Soviet government so far. This was ignored by the Right-SR majority, which proceeded to the election of a president.

Chernov, of the Right-SR Party, achieved 244 votes, as against 153 for Marie Spiridonova, the Left-SR, whom the Bolsheviks supported. Speeches were then made to a background of boos and catcalls from the soldiers in the gallery. When the Assembly refused to discuss Sverdlov’s motion, the Bolshevik’s withdrew. The Assembly rambled on, passing three “laws” on land, a similar one to the Bolsheviks’ on peace (agreeing to the armistice) and finally proclaiming a democratic federative republic. At 5am, the Assembly was ordered to close, as the guards were tired. It dispersed, never to meet again, as the All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee dissolved the Assembly, saying that it served only as a cover for the overthrow of the Soviets. There was popular indifference to this move and the Assembly faded into history.

By the end of 1917, the October Revolution had managed to survive and defeat all the initial forces ranged against it. Moreover, the spirit and mood of the workers and soldiers still coursed with energy. The flames of the revolution, far from sputtering into darkness were burning brightly. But major obstacles to a lasting victory remained. One of the most pressing in the new year of 1918 was the matter of how best to end the war with Germany and the Central Powers.

Taking control of finance and the economy

The Banks were the first important industries to be nationalised.

The state bank refused to pay out money to the new government and the managers went on strike. Eventually, after threatening the officials, the government managed to retrieve 5m roubles. Private banks also refused to assist the new government, leading to their forcible seizure and opening of their vaults. At end of December 1917, all banks were nationalised and fused with the state bank. Withdrawals were limited to no more than 250 roubles per week.

Large houses were taken into public ownership and industrial enterprises that refused to abide by workers’ management were generally taken over. All gold held privately was confiscated by the state. In January, all payments of dividends and dealings in shares were made illegal. In February, all foreign debts were repudiated. Big industry was not immediately nationalised but certain individual concerns of strategic interest were, such as the electricity industry, the Putilov munitions factories and the Belgian Metal Company.

Wages and salaries became the main source of income for all. The government took steps to equalize these. To establish a precedent, the salary of the People’s Commissars was made equal to the average of a skilled worker (500 roubles a month), with an additional 100 roubles per month for each dependant. Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks set a strong example of austere living.

Proletarian organisation

Victor Serge in his book, Year One of the Revolution, mentions that Lenin had urged that “miracles of proletarian organisation must be achieved” in order to overcome the many-headed resistance of the bourgeois class. Only in this way, especially in these early stages, could their resistance and opposition be overcome.

Lenin statue speech 1918 Image public domainLenin urged that “miracles of proletarian organisation must be achieved” in order to overcome the many-headed resistance of the bourgeois class / Image: public domain

In fact, in the months after the revolution, the policy of the Soviet government consisted principally in awakening, stimulating, sometimes guiding, but more usually simply endorsing the initiative of the masses. The Peoples’ Commissars were ordered, by decree, to work in close contact with the mass organisations of working men and women, the sailors and soldiers. Workers took initiatives in many diverse ways. Certain trade unions, for example, undertook to organise sections of industries. In many enterprises, offices as well as factories, employees found that they had to manage their places of work as their superiors had abandoned their positions. This was regularised in a decree legalising the intervention of workers in the management of industry and other workplaces. Workers’ control of industry and offices became widespread.

Some degree of planning and coordination, however, was vital and in December the government established the Supreme Economic Council. This body had the task of coordinating all the activities of local and central organs, which managed and controlled production and distribution. This was the beginning of a centralised planning system that would supplant the rule of the capitalist market.

The press

The Bolsheviks, in common with many socialists, had called for the freedom of the press under the restricted and repressive conditions of the old order. Certainly, it was the early intention of the Soviet government to allow general press freedom. In an early decree on the press, reference was made to the fact that some suppression of the bourgeois press had been undertaken in the immediate period of the revolution. The slogan “freedom of the press” concealed the fact that it was freedom for the propertied class, as they had taken hold of the lion’s share of the press to poison, unhindered, the minds and obscure the consciousness of the masses.

The decree went on to state:

“As soon as the new (socialist) order has been consolidated all administrative pressure on the press will be terminated and it will be granted complete freedom within the bounds of legal responsibility, in keeping with a law that will be broadest and most progressive in this respect.”

Meanwhile the Bolsheviks reserved the right to suppress publications that called for open resistance to the new Government, used slander or distorted facts. In fact, the bourgeois press was operating, relatively freely, as late as May 1918, despite the pressures on the regime. This press remained vicious and slanderous. As conditions deteriorated, press freedoms were curtailed for a number of bourgeois publications and some of the SR publications. This was extended as the civil war intensified and foreign armies intervened in the civil war.

Later in July 1918, the new Constitution of the Soviet Union stated in article 14:

“In order to ensure genuine freedom of expression for the working people, the RSFSR abolishes the dependence of the press on capital, and places at the disposal of the working class and the poor peasantry all the technical and material requisites for the publication of newspaper, pamphlets, books and all other printed matter, and guarantees their unhindered circulation throughout the country.”

State security and the Cheka

As Lenin had spelled out in State and Revolution, the state is at root an instrument of class rule that depends on force to ensure its survival. In the last analysis, this is achieved through having available armed bodies of men, such as the army, police and security forces, to ensure the will of the ruling class. The transfer of one class rule to another is a process of immense struggle that has always involved armed confrontation. The new workers’ state therefore had to have its own bodies of armed men.

Dzerzhinsky Image public domainThe Bolsheviks established the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Sabotage and Counter-Revolution, otherwise known as the Cheka, and placed in charge the Bolshevik leader Dzerzhinsky / Image: public domain

These took time to establish. In the first instance, they took the form of workers militias, which became known as the Red Guards. They acted as both the shock troops of the revolution and the upholders of order within the towns. In terms of internal security, every state deploys its own specialist services. The Bolsheviks established the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Sabotage and Counter-Revolution, otherwise known as the Cheka, and placed in charge the Bolshevik leader Dzerzhinsky. In the early stages this organisation proved relatively mild and in the first few months of the revolution there were remarkably few executions or instances of draconian action. However, as the struggle with the reactionary and imperialist forces intensified, the Cheka accrued additional powers and met force with force, achieving a formidable reputation.

Social and cultural changes

Early soviet decrees highlighted the desire of the new order to radically transform social, cultural and religious norms. Central to this was the release of women from their position of legal subservience and oppression in law. In future, only civil weddings were to be recognised by the state and divorce was to be made freely available to either partner. Men and women were given full juridical equality. Children born out of wedlock were to be given the same rights as offspring of marriages. The criminal code that outlawed homosexual activity was abolished, making Russia among the first in the world to do so.

Early in 1918, a law was passed that separated the church from the state. It declared the right of any citizen to profess any religion or none. Religious oaths were abolished, as were church schools. Churches were not allowed to own property and all such property was declared the property of the people, with local and state authorities having the right to hand over buildings of worship to religious societies for free use.

Tatlins Tower Image public domainUnder Lunacharsky, radical artists were promoted and Russia's rich cultural heritage was made available to the masses / Image: public domain

In further efforts to align Russia with the modern world, it was agreed to end the use of the Justinian Calendar and, from February 1918, to adopt the Gregorian and West European calendar. This added 13 days to the year and the Revolution of 25 October was subsequently celebrated on 7 November. The Cyrillic script used in printing materials was also simplified.

The orator and somewhat maverick intellectual, the Bolshevik Lunacharsky, was appointed Commissar of Education. His brief also included protecting and advancing the cultural heritage of Russia. He proved a brilliant choice for this office. He was able to cajole and persuade reluctant teachers and academics to continue their teaching and research work under the new regime, despite many of them opposing the new direction. Under his leadership, a major programme to combat illiteracy was embarked upon and he proceeded to reform teaching procedures in a progressive libertarian spirit. New ideas, including Marxism, were introduced into curricula. His approach aroused considerable international interest.

He sought to popularise the arts, taking music, drama, literature and the visual arts to the masses. He was not afraid of the avant-garde and promoted the likes of Chagall and Tatlin to key academies, alongside the work of Eisenstein, the radical filmmaker.

Justice and administration

Justice systems also reflect class rule and so there was an early wholesale change to the Russian justice system. All the general judicial institutions were abolished. Justices of the Peace (JPs) were replaced with local courts represented by a permanent local judge, elected on the basis of direct, democratic suffrage, and two alternate assessors selected by local Soviets. Former JPs and judges were not disbarred from standing for the new posts. Similar changes were made to district and higher courts. Other detailed changes were made to court procedure.

Local government had been largely run by city and council dumas and these were effectively replaced by local and regional soviets. Other local committees and structures also became important, especially the various peasant committees and later the committees of the poor. Local co-operative structures also gained more power after the revolution, although these waned somewhat during the harsh exigencies of 1918 when increased central control was exerted in all aspects of administration.

In July 1918, the All-Russian Soviet agreed a new constitution for “The Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic”. This was arranged into the following main articles:

  1. Declaration of rights of the labouring and exploited people.
  2. General provisions, which set down a number of key principles.
  3. Organisation of Soviet power.
  4. The right to vote.
  5. The budget.
  6. The coat of Arms and Flag.

This is an important document as it marked the formal and encoded establishment of a new workers’ state with all its key principles and operating mechanisms. Although, given the acute crises facing Russia at this time, it was not possible to fully implement all its aspects, it nevertheless marked a highpoint of the struggle to overcome the old capitalist state. It was amended and enlarged in 1924 to take account of the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other matters but its key principles remained, until amended by Stalin in 1936.