Lessons of the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918

The Finnish Revolution is a proud chapter in the history of the international working class. Tragically, despite the tremendous energy expended by the masses, their leaders vacillated and betrayed the revolution. The forces of counterrevolution unleashed a bloodbath, which physically annihilated the flower of the working class, contributing to the encirclement and isolation of the Russian Revolution.

Among the proletarian revolutions in the Nordic countries, the Finnish Revolution of 1917–1918 went the furthest and came closest to establishing a workers’ state. During the course of the revolution, the masses moved again and again to change society, but at every step, the leadership of the workers’ organisations betrayed the movement. There is a myth that Finland, along with the other Nordic countries, is nice, peaceful and civilised. But the history of the Finnish Revolution shows that the real face of capitalist terror can be revealed with all its bloodthirsty ferocity when the interests of private property are threatened. Although these events transpired a century ago, this is a history rich in lessons for the new generation of revolutionaries.

The spectre of the Finnish Civil War looms large in the minds and consciousness of modern-day Finland. For a long time, this history was completely hidden away and the official history simply celebrated it as a war of independence against Russia. Yet to this day, people often know whose great grandparents fought on which side in the civil war. Those who are still alive to relate their experiences provide valuable insights into what was ultimately a class war.

The rise of the Finnish working class

For centuries, Finland was a predominantly agricultural country, but without fully developed feudal property relations. It was made up largely of smallholding independent farmers, artisans, and wage labourers. As late as 1910, 70 percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture.

As a large country with a small population, Finland had been dominated by foreign powers for centuries. Bordered by Russia, Norway, and Sweden, Finland was wedged between East and West. By the time it was ceded to the Russian Empire in 1809, it had been a province of Sweden for almost 700 years. Full national independence was won only after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia during the October Revolution in 1917.

Centuries of oppression meant that many Finns saw the Swedes as the historic enemy, and not so much the Russians. For its part, tsarism had little problem with pro-Finnish and anti-Swedish sentiment, which served to draw Finland away from Sweden’s historic influence.

Lenin described the Russian Empire as a “prison house of nations.” But in comparison with the other oppressed nations, Finland was not subjected to the harshest treatment. For most of its time under Russian domination, as the Grand Duchy of Finland, it enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy, eventually having its own legislative assembly, currency, postal system, local government, and even militias – as long as it paid what was due to St. Petersburg.

Starting in the 1870s, Finland saw a quick process of industrialisation, which accelerated in the 1890s. The development of the timber and paper industries put Finland’s advancing economy ahead of many other parts of the Russian Empire. With industry came also the growth of an industrial working class, toiling for long hours with low pay and very few rights. For example, a law from 1865, which was still in effect in 1917, allowed employers to search the belongings of the workers if they lived at the workplace.

Generally speaking, the southern areas of Finland were more industrialised, proletarianised, and left wing, while the north was more petty bourgeois, atomised, agricultural, and conservative. It is estimated that by 1917, some 500,000 out of a population of three million were industrial proletarians and their families, plus a large layer of agricultural day-labourers.

The fresh Finnish working class moved quickly to organise itself to fight for better living conditions. There had been early forerunners of a labour movement in the form of workers’ societies led by liberals, but proper trade unions were now formed and led several important struggles. The Finnish Labour Party was formed in 1899, and at its congress in Forssa in 1903, it was renamed the Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP) and adopted a programme based on the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party. It was organically linked to the Finnish Trade Union Federation (formed in 1907) and formally affiliated itself to the Second International. There had been individual party branches since 1898, and the would-be newspaper of the party Työmies (The Worker) had been established in 1895. The SDP and the trade unions were an important counterweight to the bourgeoisie and the rich landlords, who lived on the backs of the toiling masses.

The 1905 revolution and its results

Revolutionary events in Russia were to have a big and immediate echo within Finland. Inspired by the 1905 revolution in Russia, the Finnish working class rose up. In November 1905, there was a general strike that started as a “national strike” with participation also from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements who saw an opportunity to break free from tsarism. This also led to the formation of militias, so-called “national guards,” which initially also included the right wing.

But the “national strike” movement quickly divided along class lines, and the right wing was ejected, leading to the formation of the first revolutionary militias – the Red Guards. These armed detachments were an organic expression of the will of the working class to change society, and temporarily took on a mass character. The bourgeoisie established its own “protection guards” as an alternative to the revolutionary Red Guards – the embryo of the first White Guards in history.

The movement continued into 1906 with further mutinies and strikes. The most well-known mutiny took place among Russian sailors stationed at the Viapori fort (now known as Suomenlinna) just a kilometer off the coast of Helsinki. This was brutally suppressed by the White “protection guards,” and several Red Guards were killed. The SDP press condemned the Whites as “butchers” – which would be their rightful name from this point onwards in the eyes of the workers.

General strike 1905 Helsinki Image National Board of Antiquities Archives for Prints and PhotographsGeneral strike in Helsinki in 1905 / Image: National Board of Antiquities Archives for Prints and Photographs

Under this pressure from below, the tsar sought to dampen the revolutionary mood and to cut across the movement by granting concessions. The power of that mass pressure and the importance of keeping Finland in the tsarist orbit is indicated by the extent of the concessions granted to the Finns. While in most of Russia the lid was put on even more tightly after the revolution failed to topple the tsar, in Finland, Nicholas was forced to grant broad autonomy and a constitution that even included universal suffrage, though there were still some property qualifications. The 1906 constitution also included the freedoms of speech, press, and organisation, as well as the formation of a Finnish parliament (known as the Diet). In the aftermath of these events, with the movement in Finland far from crushed, the SDP won 80 out of 200 seats in the first elections, held in 1907.

The SDP had grown quickly from 17,000 members in 1904 to a peak of 85,000 in 1906. But the party – which, on paper, considered itself to be orthodox Marxist and a revolutionary party – was naive and beset by contradictions and illusions in class collaboration. As just one example, at their August 1906 congress, they denounced armed struggle and ordered the Red Guards to disband on the pretext that they would be a threat to the legality of the party.

The majority of the leadership firmly believed that they could bring about socialism peacefully through parliament while preserving the trappings of bourgeois democracy. At the top of the party, a bureaucracy had taken root, whose members lived lives far removed from those of ordinary workers. They had comfortable positions and were under pressure to accommodate themselves to capitalism. The parliamentary group in particular received very high wages.

Although the SDP adopted the rhetoric of militant class struggle and socialist revolution, the party developed in conditions of relative peace and quiet until the outbreak of the revolution in 1917. The party tops came closer to the bourgeois liberals and adapted themselves to a relatively comfortable, middle-class existence. They started looking more like a workers’ aristocracy than proletarian class fighters. In such conditions, the struggle to overthrow capitalism became a distant goal. By contrast, the Russian Bolsheviks did not share a similar experience, and as a result, the revolutionary party was tempered in the fire of class struggle and tsarist suppression.

But the promised social reforms never materialised as the tsar stepped in to curtail any real change. This, along with the growing bureaucratisation of the party, increasingly demoralised and frustrated the rank and file who saw few, if any, results for their efforts. The party started to develop into something more like an electoral apparatus, with the active membership decreasing by 40 percent during the years 1907–1910. But with the outbreak of World War I, the tide began to turn.

“The war to end all wars” and the national question

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Russian tsar sent 100,000 soldiers to Finland, who acted like an occupying force. Parliament was suspended and both censorship and restrictions on the right to assemble were introduced. However, no Finnish soldier participated in the war on behalf of the Russian Empire.

Under Nicholas II, there had been a campaign of Russification, which revived and fanned the flames of Finnish nationalism. This pushed sections of the Finnish bourgeois and petty-bourgeois into the willing arms of German imperialism, who cynically posed as friends of the Finnish people, as enlightened liberators against the tyranny of tsarist autocracy – a position the German social democrats also scandalously fell for.

The German imperialists exploited the national independence aspirations of the Finnish people as a way to strike a blow against the tsar – and to gain access to the rich mineral and natural resources of the country. Among layers of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois, a movement called “the Activists” was launched. These “activists” mobilised some 1,500 “volunteers,” consisting mainly of nationalist university students and sons of the upper middle class, who travelled secretly to Germany for military training.

There they were incorporated into the German military as the 27th Jäger Battalion, which was set up in 1915. The idea was to eventually provoke an anti-Russian uprising.  On a capitalist basis, the fates of small nations are ultimately dictated by the aims of the big imperialist powers. The Germans not only wanted Finland’s resources, they also hoped to gain a key strategic position against Russia, as the Gulf of Finland is the gateway to Petrograd.

However, wartime demand for Finnish exports to tsarist Russia meant not only that there was practically no unemployment but also that the Finnish big industrial capitalists were making huge profits. This landed them objectively in the camp of Russian imperialism, in order to defend their own position. Despite tsarist oppression, the Finnish industrial capitalists were loyal above all to their own narrow class interests.

The only force that was able to carry out Finnish independence in practice was the working class. This would be shown by subsequent events, when in it was the revolutionary struggle of the Russian workers that gave Finland an opportunity for independence.

The national question would play an important role in the Finnish Revolution. The SDP had been in favour of national independence, but the majority saw it as secondary to the class struggle. No doubt, a section of the leadership fell for the trap of nationalism, and the party as a whole failed to take up a consistent revolutionary internationalist line.

The SDP

Despite its backsliding, the SDP was still a considerable force. It had 51,000 members, 890 Workers’ Houses, 46 choirs, and 71 orchestras. It published the daily paper Työmies as well as several other periodicals as well as substantial press for the trade unions.

Then, in the summer of 1914, the Second International shocked the international labour movement and its main parties by voting in favour of the imperialist war. The massive labour parties, built up painstakingly over decades, had capitulated to national chauvinism. While the SDP took a clear anti-imperialist stance and sent a representative to the Zimmerwald conference, it never adopted a clear revolutionary stance. The Zimmerwald left, around key figures such as Lenin and Trotsky, argued in favour of using the inevitable crisis around the imperialist war to transform it into a civil war and socialist revolution. But the leadership of the Finnish party, which had more of a pacifist outlook, was far removed from these revolutionary conclusions.

With the rapid industrialisation because of the war economy, new layers were drawn into capitalist production and became part of the Finnish working class. There was an influx of fresh members into the trade unions and SDP, starting in December 1915, who were more willing to fight against the bosses. These raw members of the proletariat entered political life unburdened by the traditions of the past, less willing to accept the compromises of the leadership.

Finnish workers faced tough conditions during the war. The rise of inflation meant that food prices rose sharply. Food shortages produced longer food lines. The capitalists, on the other hand, were making a killing during the war through massive exports. While the rich were getting richer, the Finnish working class saw their real wages drop by a third. The trade union bureaucracy forbade strikes during the war, condemning workers to unbearable conditions.

The February Revolution

In February 1917 (old style), the decrepit, 400-year-old Russian tsarist regime crumbled. The revolution started with women textile factory workers in Saint Petersburg on 8 March (new style), International Working Women's Day. The war was felt most acutely by women, who saw their husbands, brothers and sons slaughtered on the front lines, while the cities starved. Working women took to the streets, heading what quickly became a revolutionary movement, drawing in the whole working class. Around 90,000 participated on the first day, and the movement grew quickly, spreading to both Moscow and the provinces. Over the next five days, the movement took on a general, insurrectionary character, while mutinying soldiers also joined the strike. The workers and soldiers created their own forms of governance. The Russian workers’ councils – the soviets – represented a form of dual power which challenged the rule of the landlords and capitalists. In an attempt to reassert control, the bourgeois set up a provisional government which was supported by the “socialist” leaders of the soviet – one of these leaders, Alexander Kerensky of the Socialist Revolutionary party, even joined this government in the form of Minister of Justice.

In Finland, the first sign that things had been upended was that trains stopped arriving from Russia. But the news soon spread: there’s a revolution in Russia! Revolutions know no borders, as working men and women across all nations struggle for a common aim to be free from wage exploitation. The February Revolution got a big echo among Finland’s exploited masses. The old tsarist regime was falling apart and new possibilities were opening up.

Finnish red guard 1917 Image public domainA Finnish Red Guard unit in 1917 / Image: public domain

The Finnish workers went on strike and swarmed onto the streets. They went from one mass meeting to another, while the demonstrations continued nonstop. They called for a general strike and began implementing the eight-hour working day. There were mass meetings up and down the country, demanding the removal of unpopular state bureaucrats and that food should be requisitioned and redistributed to the people, overseen by new local committees.

With the disintegration of the old tsarist state, there was no one left to defend the old order: the Finnish military had been abolished by the tsar in 1901, and now the tsarist police was disintegrating and disbanded. The sailors of the Russian Empire’s Baltic fleet were among the first to move, mutinying against their hated overseers. 50 or so of the most hated officers were executed and thrown overboard, while the sailors raised red flags on the ships and arrested a number of key representatives of the tsarist state. The Russian soldiers were also playing a revolutionary role, arresting officials and actively dismantling the old tsarist state. In May, the Tsentrobalt Soviet was set up, which took complete control over the Baltic fleet.

All of this inspired the workers to set up their own red guards, just like they had done in 1905. While the unions and the SDP were more firmly under the control of the labour bureaucracy, these bodies would be the main organised expression for the Finnish working class during the events that followed. Militias were formed organically and began maintaining order on the streets, and much to the dismay of the ruling class, they refused to break up strikes.

The SDP leaders didn’t organise this movement. Instead, they outright condemned these workers’ actions and mass meetings. The Finnish workers meanwhile had spontaneously set up soviets in Helsinki, Vyborg, and Oulu. By 17 March, the Helsinki Soviet was effectively in power.

The SDP leaders found themselves in a situation like Newton under the apple tree – hit on the head by a deeper necessity. Not by an apple conforming to the laws of physics but by the proletarian revolution, which erupted due to the laws of historical development. But unlike Newton, these organic reformists couldn’t draw the necessary conclusion from their experience – that the workers had effectively already seized power. The SDP in practice had a crushing superiority that they could have used to establish a genuine workers’ state based on the experience of the Paris Commune.

A declaration on 6 April proclaimed that the Helsinki Soviet was now the highest authority in Finland. But only two days later they formally proclaimed the opposite, and handed this authority over to the provisional government. How could this be?

As we have seen, the SDP leadership was extremely confused and naive, and completely absorbed by its own parliamentary illusions. They had never understood the role of the workers’ councils, and their schematic, utopian vision for Finland did not include a workers’ government based on such councils. They had not bothered to absorb the lessons of Russia’s 1905 revolution, nor the advanced debates that took place in the Russian Bolshevik party.

Instead of working to generalise and spread the councils across Finland, they did the opposite and attempted to put a brake on the movement. They came under intense pressure from hostile classes with irreconcilable differences: the proletariat and the peasants on the one hand, and the ruling bourgeoisie and big landlords on the other. Within the party this took the form of a struggle between the right-wing socialists and the increasingly revolutionary left wing that emerged as a spontaneous current from below. All this was mediated by the party “centre.” Leaders like Otto Kuusinen, who were eager to paper over the cracks in the party, ended up merely giving revolutionary cover to the party’s right wing.

The party leaders threw all their weight into derailing the mass workers’ struggle into constitutional channels. In an attempt to get the movement under control, the SDP explained that workers should not form red guards, but struggle instead through the already existing party and trade union organisations.

Instead of forming a workers’ government, the SDP entered into a coalition with the bourgeois parties. Only two in the leadership voted against, including the centrist Otto Kuusinen. The new senate was led by Antti Tokoi from the SDP and consisted of six socialists and six bourgeois politicians. It soon issued appeals against “anarchy” and in favour of “order.”

The SDP leaders, no matter what lofty ideals they may have thought they were adhering to, threw themselves objectively into the task of maintaining the old order. The SDP, ostensibly a party of revolution, ended up during these crucial revolutionary weeks as a pillar of Finnish capitalism and landlordism.

The Finnish March revolution could have resulted in a peaceful seizure of power. Instead, it sowed confusion among the workers and gave the enemy class time to regroup. Far from stabilising the situation, as the SDP leaders had hoped, it only contributed to destabilising things even further. Nothing had been neither solved nor settled.

The power law and the provisional government

The bourgeois had been given respite by the reformist leaders of the SDP. But they had little trust in this party or its confused leaders. The big capitalists, with their main representatives split and weak, now looked to the Russian provisional government for help. Unlike the Finnish Social Democrats, the Finnish bourgeois had no illusions in parliamentary democracy or national independence in the abstract. Like all bourgeois, they were concerned above all with their property rights – which the “Red Diet” threatened. They forged an alliance with the provisional government in Russia, which now formally governed Finland, replacing the tsar. Unsurprisingly, this bourgeois organ refused to recognise the right of self-determination, and would not grant Finland its independence. Such a move would have sent a dangerous message to others in the former tsarist “prison house of nations” – and above all because of the message this would send to the colonies of his good friends, the Allies, i.e., French and British imperialism.

During the summer there was a party congress of the SDP, which again saw a struggle between the left and right wings of the party. The left-wing proposals to push for a general strike were defeated, and instead the party adopted Finnish independence with a bourgeois parliament as its main programmatic goal.

In the middle of the summer, the Finnish parliament adopted the “Power Law,” which amounted to a unilateral declaration of independence. The response from the so-called “democratic” Provisional Government – which had since co-opted more “socialist” ministers and which was now headed by Kerensky – was to shut down the Finnish parliament on July 31. When the SDP parliamentarians tried to enter the parliament building at the end of August, they were prevented from doing so by Russian troops on the order of the Kerensky government. The provisional government, having “democratically” disbanded a parliament “too red” for their liking, now announced that new elections would take place in October.

New elections and the question of bread

The Finnish March Revolution had solved nothing for the workers. All the big orders from the Russian war industry had been cancelled by the new provisional government, and tens of thousands ended up unemployed. Grain imports plummeted. In one case, only a fifth of the grain that had been ordered arrived in the transport train from Russia. This was a big problem in a country whose food sector was quite specialised for dairy products and which imported 60 percent of its grain. With essential supplies disrupted by the growing chaos in Russia, famine began to stalk the poor.

Työmies reported:

“A large part of the working population is already suffering from hunger. In Tampere, for the last couple of days, there has been no bread available. In Viapori for the last week or so a large part of the population has not received any bread on their ration cards. In Turku the situation is quickly becoming the same. The same is true for Pori. In Helsinki it is better; there is still bread for another month, but how things will develop after that is hard to say.”

Finnish women Image public domainFinnish Women of the Red Guard in 1917 / Image: public domain

From the beginning of August, workers started taking matters into their own hands. They organised mass meetings and strikes, and in several cases even expropriated stores of bread and butter that were then handed out or sold at a reduced price. At the same time, the membership of the trade unions quadrupled to 160,000, and nearly every organised worker in the country participated in a strike during the course of the year; in total there were 500 strikes with 140,000 participants.

The SDP had declared the re-elections set for October illegal, but participated in them nonetheless. The election was rife with irregularities, and clearly rigged by the right wing. During the subsequent civil war, many boxes were discovered filled with votes for the SDP that had been hidden away and never counted. In the end, although the SDP was able to increase its total number of votes, the main right-wing parties had merged and were able to win a majority of seats.

The bourgeoisie, increasingly alarmed by the growing revolutionary mood, began organising their counteroffensive. After the fall of the tsar and the disorganisation of the tsarist army, the first White Guard in history was openly formed in Finland, the “Protection Guards,” to ensure that so-called “law and order” were maintained. Right-wing militias had secretly begun training around the country. During a meeting in the Stock House in Helsinki, representatives of the ruling class decided that two million markka would be given to the military committee. In addition, on 31 October, the Whites received a big shipment of guns from Germany.

Only now did the leaders of the labour movement begin realising where things were heading. Työmies issued a warning not to join the White Guards. In many areas, the Red Guards had not seen any activity since May or so, but following a secret meeting in Tampere in October, the trade union confederation LO issued an appeal for workers to join. In November the SDP belatedly did the same.

Everything was now pointing towards an open confrontation between the classes.

The November Revolution

On 7 November, according to the new calendar, the workers of Russia took power. Led by the Bolshevik Party, the October Revolution scored a resounding victory with almost no resistance from the forces of the collapsing old order.

This left Finland in an uncertain position. With no provisional government left in Russia, the Finnish bourgeoisie had to look for support elsewhere. They used their newly won and illegitimate parliamentary majority to move towards a dictatorship, with the reactionary Pehr Evind Svinhufvud at its head.

The workers responded with a general strike and established a Revolutionary Central Council to serve as its leadership. They immediately sent representatives to meet with the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, and Lenin urged them to take power. The day they returned to Finland with this revolutionary message, the strike began. The night before, workers had received guns from Russian troops, and in mass demonstrations on the first day, 3,000 armed workers marched through the streets.

Tampereen Red Guard Image public domainTampereen Red Guards in 1918 / Image: public domain

Local strike committees and Red Guards quickly took control of the country. They disarmed and jailed local authorities and state representatives, and took over the food supply and communications. Many important buildings were seized and barricades erected in the streets. The Red Guards moved to disarm and defeat White Guards trained at the “Police Academy” in Saxby.

Just as in March, there was very little resistance from the forces of reaction. The Whites represented just a handful of the population and did not have sufficient time to prepare for the mass upsurge. In contrast, the entire Finnish workers’ movement was mobilised in the streets, ready to respond enthusiastically to a call to establish a workers’ state.

Power was within reach. All it would have taken from the leaders of the workers’ movement was to say the words. But on the fourth day of the strike, a motion to take power was just barely defeated in the Revolutionary Central Council by a vote of eight against eight – with the Chairman casting the decisive vote.

As Trotsky explained in Lessons of October:

“The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when the maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are, of course, referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself.

“During a revolution all these processes take place with lightning speed. The whole tactical art consists in this: that we seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us.“

Such a situation had arisen in Finland. But the SDP leaders were not ready to follow in the footsteps of their Russian counterparts. They were not ready to shed their bourgeois illusions.

As Kuusinen aptly put it: “Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to maneuver round this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution . . . We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it.”

The general strike is ended

On 19 November, the fateful decision was taken to call off the strike, with the incomprehensible formula: “The strike is cancelled, but the revolution will continue.” This egregious move meant relinquishing yet another perfect opportunity to seize power peacefully.

When this decision was presented in Tampere, the speakers were booed off stage and nearly ejected from the meeting. The assurance that “the revolution will continue” was met by angry questions from the audience: “By whom?!” In the towns of Kotka, Lahtis, and Lovisa, the speakers were thrown out of the meeting. In Kotka, the workers passed a resolution that urged “power to the workers – the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be established!”

An extraordinary party congress of the SDP called on 25–27 November again saw sharp struggles between the right and left wings of the party. The left argued for the completion of the revolution and the seizure power, while the right argued in favour of a coalition government.

This deadlock was resolved by a clever formula presented by the party leader Otto Kuusinen: There was to be both an armed revolution and a coalition government – at the same time!

But the arming of the workers and the general strike are the methods of the proletarian revolution. To begin on this road, only to recoil in fear of the consequences is the surest way to demoralise the masses. It amounts to playing with revolution, without taking the necessary steps to complete it. Lenin always warned against this. As we have seen time and again over the course of the last century, it is not possible to make half a revolution!

The only thing the SPD had succeeded in doing was to give the ruling class more time to organise a bloody counterrevolution – and what a bloody counterrevolution it would be.

The class war bursts into the open

On 6 December, the bourgeois-led Finnish parliament declared that Finland was independent, which was soon recognised by the Bolshevik government. The Bolsheviks understood that this would help forge a closer bond between the Finnish and Russian workers, and show the Finns that despite the history of tsarist oppression, they had nothing to fear and everything to gain by linking up with the new workers’ state.

The revolutionary mood continued to spread, even into the more backwards areas of Finland. There were large meetings of landless peasants, who began to draw the conclusion that their liberation could come only through self-action, not by waiting for decrees from parliament. At the same time, the Red Guards held a big meeting in Tammerfors, where the Helsinki guards demanded more independence from the party. This motion was voted down.

The clock was ticking. This unstable situation of dual power could not last forever – either one side or the other would have to get the upper hand.

Jägers in 1918 Image public domainJägers being inspected by a White Army commander in 1918 / Image: public domain

For their part, the Whites lost no time in preparing to restore “law and order.” On 9 January, Svinhufvud moved to establish a police force based on the White Guards. General Gustaf Mannerheim, who had participated for tsarist Russia during World War I, was called in to organise the counterrevolution. All of this was seen as a clear provocation by the Reds, who were not willing to accept that these butchers would be in charge of maintaining order.

Finally, the SDP saw no other choice but to move towards revolution. They accepted leaders from the Red Guards on to the Central Committee of the party, which gave the revolutionary wing the majority. At a meeting of the central leadership of the party held 19–22 January, the party finally came out in favor of revolution – but precious time had been lost through vacillation.

On 27 January, the red flag was hoisted over the Helsinki Workers’ House, signalling the start of the revolution. A new revolutionary government was formed, called the Council of People’s Commissars, like its Russian counterpart.

Within days, with very little resistance, all the major cities and towns in the South had been taken. This was not only the most densely populated but also the most industrialised part of Finland. Workers’ control of industry and the eight-hour day were implemented, sabotage by the banks was brought under control, and a Council of People’s Delegates was formed, a kind of workers’ government in bourgeois parliamentary form. The old system of land distribution, which included elements of tribute and corvée labour was abolished, and domestic servants and farm hands were emancipated from their indentured conditions. Freedom of the press was instituted. It seemed all too easy and daily life went back to normal almost immediately.

The limitations of Social Democracy

But the social-democratic leadership didn’t recognise the need to fully consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. They did not expropriate the bourgeois. They did not move to implement a programme that could win or neutralise the masses of small and middle-sized, petty-bourgeois farmers in the North. They did not collectivise the land or even break up the estates of the larger peasants. According to Kuusinen, “Until they were defeated, most of the leaders of the revolution had no clear idea of the aims of the revolution.”

The SDP leaders were imbued with the Menshevik idea that, based on its current stage of development, bourgeois democracy was the most Finland could aspire to. Their aim was to establish – without the expropriation of the rich or the dictatorship of the proletariat – a bourgeois parliamentary democracy in which the workers would be the leading class.

It was a workers’ revolution in the name of an idealised bourgeois democracy, complete with a beautifully utopian constitution. The new constitution was presented in February 1918, to be ratified by referendum later that Spring. It included universal suffrage and proportional representation, including the right for women to vote, the right to strike, the recall of deputies to the parliament, election of the judiciary and its autonomy from the government, and even the constitutional right to rise in insurrection against a tyrannical government that did not respect the constitution. Unfortunately, you cannot square the circle, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The reformist illusions that blinded the leadership at the time were summed up by Kuusinen:

“The weakness of the bourgeoisie led us into being captivated by the spell of democracy, and we decided to advance towards socialism through parliamentary action and the democratisation of the representative system.”

Of course, the problem was not a representative system as such, but a system trying to serve two irreconcilably opposed classes. As we have seen, the bourgeoisie did not have any illusions in a system where they would share power with the working class. They were not about to give up without a fight and had no illusions in a peaceful parliamentary road to restoring their class rule.

The civil war

As part of their preparations, the 27th Jäger Battalion was recalled from Germany. With their military training and experience, they formed the backbone of the “armed bodies” of reaction. A small White army was formed under Mannerheim, the former tsarist general, comprised of the “Protection Guards,” the 27th Jägers, and a brigade of 1,300 Swedish volunteers made up largely of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois youth. These “volunteers” included military officers that the Swedish government allowed to go on temporary “leave” to join the Finnish Whites.

The Whites attacked several poorly defended Russian garrisons in the North to acquire weapons, and it is likely that the commanders of those garrisons were complicit in letting the arms fall into the White Guards’ hands. All told at that time, they had around 5,000 troops against the 1,500 poorly armed Red Guards. But the Red Guards were heroic, and with the help of some revolutionary Russian commanders, including part of the Baltic Fleet, which was docked at Helsinki, they repelled Mannerheim’s first attacks, and began arming and training more Finnish Red Guards.

But although the Reds held all the main cities, the Whites were stronger in the less-developed North, where the more backwards layers of the population were tricked or compelled by force to participate in the war on the side of the Whites. Their main lie was that the Reds were “just a bunch of Russians” looking to once again subjugate Finland.

On 3 March, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was forced on the Bolsheviks after German militarism went on a brutal offensive against the tired and weak Russian troops. The Bolsheviks, who were literally fighting for survival, had no option but to sign the harsh conditions of the treaty. These included a provision for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Finland. Combined with the political mistakes of the SDP leadership, this dealt a terrible blow to the Finnish Revolution.

Battle of Tampere aftermath Image public domainThe aftermath of the Battle of Tampere / Image: public domain

But the Reds weren’t going to give up without a fight either. Around 1,000 Russians remained behind, organised in Finnish units, and at the beginning of March, the Reds launched a general offensive. This failed, unfortunately, but the workers’ will to fight was still not broken. By April they had gathered a force as large as 60,000. At the height of the civil war, some 80–90,000 fought on each side. However, aside from some sympathetic Russian soldiers, sailors, and officers, they had little or no military training and no capable military leaders. This meant that they made some critical mistakes.

Major battles included Tampere, Lahti, Helsinki, Vyborg, and others. The battle of Tammerfors was particularly brutal as 10,000 Reds led by a few Russian officers were unable to hold off Mannerheim’s troops, which now included poor peasants forcefully conscripted from the North. 2,000 Reds were killed in the fighting or massacred, and 5,000 were taken prisoner.

Within a few weeks, the tide decisively turned against the Reds. As the Russians left in the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans entered. Svinhufvud opened the door to Wilhelm II’s troops, and on 3 April, some 20,000 well-trained and equipped soldiers landed in Hangö, Helsinki, and Lovisa in Southern Finland, effectively attacking the Reds from the rear. After bitter street-by-street fighting, they captured Helsinki. One tactic used by the Kaiser’s troops was to round up the workers’ wives and children, and to march them in front of them through the streets. At least 100 women and children were killed during the fighting, and hundreds more women summarily shot without trial after Helsinki fell. They were marched out into the streets and onto the frozen ice and shot. Tampere had been valiantly defended for a week and a half, but now fell within just a couple of days.

The decisive battle came at Tavastehus. 20,000 to 25,000 Reds – who had been accompanied by their families – fought heroically before again being defeated. A few thousand escaped, but most did not. The reprisals were again brutal: the wounded were murdered in cold blood, thousands were massacred, and 10,000 taken prisoner.

The White Terror

Wars between bourgeois nation states almost seem like “civilised affairs” when compared to open war between the classes. The capitalists are very fond of the “fair” rules of engagement set in the Geneva Convention, but when it comes to dealing with the revolutionary masses, their true colours are revealed. The massacre of Reds during and after the Finnish Revolution ranks right up with the Paris Commune, when 40,000 Communards were hunted down in the streets and killed in the weeks after the Commune’s fall in May of 1871.

For example, in the town of Kummen, 43 Red Guards died in the actual battle, but nearly 500 were slaughtered in the aftermath. Men, women, and children were hunted, gunned down, and rounded up to be shot later, often simply because of the neighbourhoods they lived in, the workplaces they were employed at, their last names, or their clothing. The execution squads fired their overheated machine guns literally for hours and days at a time.

From the beginning, the Whites ordered that all Reds should be considered traitors – an offence punishable by death. A decree was passed which, among other things, stated that anyone found with concealed guns or guns without a permit should be executed on the spot. This “shoot them where they stand” directive was explained by one member of the drafting commission, R. Åkerberg, as follows: “The directive for how to treat the arrested is already clear. It has been prepared by our delegation and approved by high judge Ossian Procopé and the high commander. The principle: Shoot as many as possible before capturing anyone.”

Unburied bodies of Reds after Battle of Tampere Image public domainUnburied bodies of Reds after the Battle of Tampere / Image: public domain

An estimated 70,000 Reds were interned in concentration camps, some of the first examples of this in the world. Over 10,000 died due to abuse or neglect in these camps. The German high command, in a preview of their policy during World War II, had plans to send many of the prisoners to forced labour camps in Germany. Only the outbreak of the German Revolution, in November 1918, cut across this.

To cover up the crimes of the Whites, bourgeois and liberal historians have tried to exaggerate the extent of the Red Terror. While there certainly was a Red Terror, it had a completely different character than the White. For example, while the Council of People’s Delegates supported the armed struggle, they opposed executing prisoners. Unlike the Whites, there were no decrees or official orders to this effect. The historian Anthony F. Upton, in his thorough research, found only one article in the entire Red press which advocated the execution of counterrevolutionaries captured in arms.

Among the poor layers of the population there was, however, a widespread and deep-seated class hatred against their exploiters and oppressors. After decades of humiliation and oppression, and in the context of brutal and bloody suppression of the movement of the masses, it is understandable that many ordinary people on the side of the revolution took matters in their own hands against people who they correctly saw as responsible for carrying out these atrocities. Thus there was a proliferation of small incidents and killings, especially in what were then very backward, rural areas. This was thoroughly researched after the civil war, and all included, 1,649 people were executed by the Reds. However, these killings were disorganised and ultimately did little or nothing to stop the White Terror, the White’s military advance, or to discourage the supporters of the counterrevolution – though it gave plenty of ammunition to the White propaganda machine.

In fact, up to the last moment, the workers’ leaders were unwilling to take the harsh measures that were needed to defend the revolution. During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks created the Cheka as a revolutionary intelligence service to root out the counterrevolutionaries in their midst. But the soft, naive workers’ leaders in Finland refused to take even such basic measures of self-defence. Although they had outlawed the White press, no one thought to expropriate the stores of paper, meaning that while the Red press suffered from a severe shortage of paper for printing, the White underground newspapers could come out regularly. As another telling example, on the day before the uprising on 27 January, members of the White senate were still in Helsinki, but no one bothered to arrest them!

When the workers’ leaders finally did begin to move against the reaction, the counterrevolutionaries were often sentenced leniently, which only encouraged them further. These mistakes meant that the Red Guards and the workers would now face the full wrath of the White Terror. As Lenin and Trotsky pointed out repeatedly: in the class war, one must be decisive: weakness invites aggression!

Reaction in the saddle

After the civil war ended, Finnish society was literally purged for months and years afterwards. Dozens of revolutionaries committed suicide, rather than be captured. Tens of thousands went into exile, many to the US state of Minnesota. Tens of thousands more were sentenced to prison if they were not shot. The irony is that many of the social-democrats being murdered were not socialist revolutionaries at all and presented no threat to private property. Rather, these were faithful servants of capitalist rule. As we have seen time and again throughout the 20th century, the Finnish ruling class needed the reformists as the last line of defense against the revolutionary workers. But once they regained the upper hand through brute force, they no longer needed these people. Firing squads and prison were the reward for their loyal service to capitalism.

Vybord county jail massacre Image public domainVictims of the Vyborg county jail massacre, in which 30 Red prisoners were slaughtered / Image: public domain

Victor Serge perfectly summarised the nature of the White Terror, applicable also to the subsequent events in the Russian Civil War, the rise of fascism, and any civil war between the classes. This has been true since Antiquity – see for example what the Romans did to the defeated slave army of Spartacus:

“The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, the violence of class hatred or any other psychological factor. The psychosis of civil war plays a purely secondary role. The terror is in reality the result of a calculation and a historical necessity. The victorious propertied classes are perfectly aware that they can only ensure their own domination in the aftermath of a social battle by inflicting on the working class a bloodbath savage enough to enfeeble it for tens of years afterwards. And since the class in question is far more numerous than the wealthy classes, the number of victims must be very great . . .

“The total extermination of all the advanced and conscious elements of the proletariat is, in short, the rational objective of the White terror. In this sense, a vanquished revolution – regardless of its tendency – will always cost the proletariat far more than a victorious revolution, no matter what sacrifices and rigors the latter may demand.”

By some estimates, as many as 100,000 Finnish workers were killed, imprisoned, or exiled – that is, 25 percent of the working class! Anyone who is scandalised by the alleged brutality of the Reds during the Russian Civil War should look to the behaviour of the Whites in Finland, or the Russian White generals, such as Kolchak. It is no exaggeration to say that for every 1 person killed by the Russian Red Terror, 100 were killed by the Whites.

Even Lenin did not initially realise the extent to which the imperialists would go to crush the Bolshevik Revolution. He hoped they might be given a bit of space and peace to strengthen the economy and destabilise the country after the chaos of World War I and the revolution. Once recovered, the Russians could then move on the offensive against world imperialism in support of the workers of the world politically, economically, and militarily. But neither the Allies nor the Austro-Germans were going to give them that break, as 21 foreign armies invaded and did their utmost to throttle the revolution in its infancy. The suffering of the Russian masses during the civil war was extreme. But it would have been even worse if the Whites had won. In the aftermath of Finland, just imagine the massacres that would have taken place on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow.

As the Ancient Romans understood all too well, vae victis – woe to the vanquished.

Lessons of the Finnish Revolution

Marxists understand that mistakes in theory can lead to catastrophes in practice. The Finnish Revolution is a perfect and tragic example. The events in Finland in the early 20th century are an object lesson in how betrayal is inherent in reformism – no matter how well-intentioned. The leaders were caught up in their own reformist illusions and led the workers to a bloody defeat.

Lenin’s State and Revolution was written in August and September of 1917 in Finland – it is a shame the Finnish leadership either didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. They had a kind of fatalistic two stage-ism: the belief that capitalism would naturally grow over into socialism, so there was no need to build a revolutionary party to overthrow and replace it.

The SDP considered itself to be more or less “orthodox Marxist,” but in practice, they were essentially adherents of the ideas of Karl Kautsky, the prominent theoretician of the German Social-Democracy. He had adopted a revisionist conception, completely removing the active intervention of the conscious and organised working class from the equation of socialist transformation. According to Kautsky, the task of the party was not to lead the working class to power, but rather, to observe passively from the sidelines while broader, mechanical historical laws unfolded – unaffected by the will of individuals, classes, and parties. This denial of the active and essential role of the revolutionary party was something the Finnish SDP had adopted through-and-through, leading them to an impasse – and a death trap.

The tragedy of the Finnish Revolution is that there was no organised revolutionary left-wing that could challenge this reformist, or at best, centrist leadership. If there had been even a small revolutionary tendency, it could have fought for a revolutionary program within the Soviets, the Red Guards, the trade unions and the party itself. On the basis of events, this would have had a powerful impact, and it could have grown quickly in these circumstances.

If the Finnish working class in 1918 had been armed with a correct perspective and programme, and led by a revolutionary Marxist party, it could easily have swept away capitalism. But the failure of the Finnish Revolution marked the beginning of the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the imperialist encirclement to strangle it. Had the workers of Finland won and held power, it is likely that the German Revolution would have been in a better position to succeed as well. The Russians would have had a somewhat more industrialised country as part of the USSR, not to mention an important strategic position from which to defend Petrograd. All of these events are connected, all the way through the rise of Stalinism, the Spanish Revolution, Hitler, World War II, and everything else humanity has had to endure because nowhere other than Russia has the working class built the leadership it requires and deserves.

On the basis the rapid industrialisation of the economy that followed World War II, the modern Finnish working class is more powerful than ever. This means that a repetition of the bloody events of 1917–1918 is highly unlikely. Today, as in March and November 1918, the Finnish working class has the potential to take power peacefully. But its leaders, at best, still remain tied to illusions in reformism and class collaboration with the capitalists – despite the bloody lessons of the past.

The bourgeoisie will go to any extreme to defend its power and its privileged position. While Marxists are in favour of a peaceful revolution, this can only happen on one condition: that we build a revolutionary tendency capable of transforming itself into a mass revolutionary party in the heat of the struggle. This requires not only a skilful orientation to the mass organisations of the workers, but also an understanding that we cannot trust socialist “reformists” to change society. Their tinkering with this or that aspect of the system is ultimately doomed to failure. In the long run, if capitalism is not overthrown, it will continue its descent into crisis, and even more terrible tragedies will be suffered by the working class. The more prepared the workers are for any eventuality, and the stronger the revolutionary leadership, the less likely that things will end up in a catastrophe and the less likely the ruling class is to be able to stage a counteroffensive. While we have full confidence in our class, we must never be naive about the real face of our class enemies – even in places like “nice, peaceful” Finland.

After a prolonged period of relative class peace and rising living standards, the Finnish workers are experiencing first-hand the effects of the world crisis of capitalism and their consciousness is already being transformed. The one-day political general strike of 2015 against austerity was only the beginning of the beginning of this process. As the experiences of the past and the present are digested, hundreds of thousands will be open to revolutionary Marxist ideas.

This puts the building of a revolutionary Marxist tendency in Finland on the order of the day. To be successful, such a tendency must thoroughly understand the true lessons of the Finnish Revolution. Above all, a revolutionary tendency in Finland must help the Finnish workers break decisively with reformism and adopt a revolutionary perspective. At a certain stage, the heroic traditions of the Finnish working class will be revived – including the mass general strike, the creation of workers’ councils, and the fight for workers’ political and economic power. Contact the IMT and get involved in the fight for a better world!