100 years ago, the world was shaken by the October Revolution. We rightly celebrate this heroic act as the first instance of workers’ power in history. But how exactly did the Bolsheviks and the working class exercise this power never-before wielded by the working class? What problems did they face – economic, administrative, political and military, from within and outside Russia – and how did they meet these problems?
1918 proved to be one of the most tumultuous and violent years the world had ever seen. Not only were vast armies from all countries and continents fighting a gruesome World War but also the victorious Russian Revolution of October 1917 was facing a huge wave of internationally financed armies, Russian and Foreign, dedicated to its overthrow. By the end of the year the World War was over. The Bolshevik-led workers and peasants government of Russia had withstood all possible trials to secure a vital foothold for the revolution and begin the long task of defeating all the elements of armed counter-revolution. Much remained to be done and it wasn’t until 1921 that Soviet power had been fully consolidated in all of Russia. This article traces the key events and identifies the main challenges facing the revolution in 1918, the decisive role of the Bolshevik Party and its leaders and the lessons that remain for us today.
A revolution involves a tremendous clash of class interests, as has happened at various junctures throughout human history, such as the English Revolution of 1642, the French Revolution of 1789, the Paris Commune of 1871 and then the Russian Revolutions of 1917. These are rare events that are important to understand for all those interested in human affairs, but especially Marxist revolutionaries who seek to change the world bourgeois order to a working class order that will pave the way for a classless society.
Revolutions are the highest expression of historical change. They mark a qualitative change in the development of human society. During such revolutions the masses enter into direct political action. In the normal course of events politics is conducted by relatively small numbers of people representing class interests. But, in a major revolution, such as occurred in Russia in 1917, large numbers of ordinary people throw off such inhibitions and directly participate to achieve a transfer of power. However, it also requires a conscious and clear-headed political agency with a political programme to channel and direct this creative energy to transform society.
As revolutionaries, our aim is to be a part of that critical political agency. We need to arm ourselves with past experiences to guide future action. We need to understand the processes that occur during a revolutionary period. These lessons cannot be applied mechanically but must be refracted through the prisms of subsequent history and our current experience. Nothing is ever repeated exactly. We take from the past and test its relevance and application today to see how this may offer some guidance as to how to adapt effectively to our own age.
Russia at the end of 1917
The Russian Empire at the end of 1917 was a huge conglomeration of nationalities and ethnic groups covering millions of square miles from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Baltic and Black seas in the west. With a population of over 178 million people it was overwhelmingly a rural and agrarian society. Eighty percent of the population was composed of peasants living for the most part in scattered villages with poor communications between them. To the Russian peasants, the village and surrounding fields was, for all practical purposes, their world. Whilst in 1861 the peasants had been freed from serfdom, the legislation doing so had failed to modernise and develop agriculture and the conditions of the peasants still lagged way behind most other comparable European countries.
Industry was concentrated in a few areas such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, with oil production in Baku in the south and coal mining in the Ukraine’s Donets Basin. A great proportion of the industrial capital was owned by foreign interests especially in St Petersburg, and the national capitalist class was both weak and divided, with much of it heavily dependent on the state. Some of its factories were very modern and even by world standards extremely large, especially in the capital St. Petersburg. This created a relatively compact and concentrated working class, much of it recruited relatively recently from the villages.
The Russian Empire consisted of a large number of different nations that had, over the years, been conquered and suppressed by the Russian Tsarist state. These comprised, among others, the Baltic States, Poland, Finland, the Ukraine, the various Caucasus States such as Georgia, Belorussia, Bessarabia, and a number of Asian States such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and others. Nationalism was, therefore, a potent force within Russia and something that required a response from all socialist parties.
This issue had provoked considerable debate in Marxist circles. It demanded creating federated socialist states on the basis of of international socialism in addition to the more immediate question of throwing off the yoke of Russian imperialism. Lenin’s approach was practical. He recognised, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, that in order for the working class to achieve victory in an empire of oppressed nationalities, they had to win over those masses, often peasants and other petty-bourgeois classes, by adopting the principle of the right of all nations to self-determination. Without this approach the task of the Socialist Revolution in Russia would have been impossible.
The Russian Orthodox Church
The power and wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church was considerable. But it was strongly linked to the Tsar and the old Imperialist order. Whilst it had held tremendous sway over the peasant masses, the experience of the First World War and the growing disapproval of the Tsar caused a significant loss of its authority. During the counter-revolution and civil war the Church unreservedly backed the reactionary forces, leading to an even greater weakening of loyalty from the masses. Its power, wealth and influence were considerably reduced by new Bolshevik government decrees confiscating Church land and privileges and restricting its operations and influence.
Classes and conditions in Russia in late 1917
Russia in late 1917 was clearly in crisis. The country had been involved in a devastating World War for three years. The soldiers were weary and rebellious, prone to mutiny, with many deserting and returning to their peasant homes. The Provisional Government that followed the February Revolution failed to tackle any of the acute issues of war, food or land and was plainly ineffective. The economy and general morale of the country was in tatters. The motor for change in Russia was the relatively small but powerful working class. They had organised themselves in Soviets that became a parallel power to the Government. The old governing structures of the State and local Dumas became the last redoubts of the bourgeois class, allied with some of the remnants of the old aristocracy.
The bourgeois class – the bankers, capitalists, big business managers and senior civil servants – was small, though relatively wealthy and with access to resources. However, it lacked the weight and history of similar classes in Western Europe and the USA. The Russian bourgeois had been denied a full place in government due to the backward nature of the Russian state. Whilst they gained leading positions in the first Provisional Government after the February Revolution, they proved weak and ineffective. The vast peasantry was not homogenous but, rather, split into rich, middle and poor peasants with the poorest, often landless, by far the larger proportion. Most peasants were poorly represented in governing structures. Local administration remained in the hands of the large landowners and their supporters, including rural merchants and businessmen and kulaks (rich peasants).
The Red Guards
Armed workers’ militias, known as the Red Guards, had emerged at the time of the February 1917 Revolution, often in spontaneous form. Various factories and political parties sought to encourage and develop such units. The Bolsheviks were the most successful and ardent in promoting the idea of armed workers militias. There was a suppression of the Red Guards after the events of July 1917 but this was reversed in September in the face of the threat to the Provisional Government by General Kornilov, and the forces under his command, who were then threatening Petrograd. The Bolsheviks were entreated to assist the resistance and rapidly mobilised and armed 25,000 Red Guards. After that, the Red Guards remained a key feature of future struggles in all the major cities and at the moment of the October Revolution, numbered 200,000. After the revolution, the Red Guards performed the functions of the police and army until such times as new police and Red Army units were constituted, sometimes quite late into 1918.
Political Parties and Leaders
By the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks had gained a majority following among the urban working class but had a minority position in the countryside. The Bolshevik Party had a number of strong distinguishing features that gave it a unique strength in the conditions of Russia in late 1917 and into the turmoil of 1918. They had a grounding in Marxist theory, especially dialectical thinking, which allowed them to analyse events from all angles and uncover the underlying forces that such events represented.
There was no culture of rigid and uniform thinking in the Bolshevik Party. In the heat of the revolution there were initially several splits and occasionally resignations and later re-joining. Lenin, outstanding as the most sober, the most realistic, the chief dialectician, and Trotsky, also a great dialectician, proved to be head and shoulders above all other Bolshevik leaders in their capacity to analyse events and urge decisive action. Within the Party there was a strong tradition of internal democracy and debate. Leaders were acknowledged but opposed if they were thought to be wrong. Conversely, leaders accepted decisions that went against them, even if continuing to oppose them in debate. This pertained even in the darkest hours and throughout 1918 and up to 1924, when Lenin died and Stalin took the reins and changed this key Party principle. Once Lenin arrived back in Russia in April 1917, the Party developed great élan and confidence, which they transmitted to the working class and spurred heroic efforts to protect and advance the revolution. The Bolsheviks embodied the aspirations of the most advanced layers of the working class and utilised their skills and energy. This convinced ever-widening layers of workers, soldiers and poor peasants of the value and aims of the Bolsheviks.
The Social Revolutionary Party (SR) was founded in 1902 and was a member of the Second International. The Party was an amalgam of various influences, including some Marxism and some of the ideas of the old populist and terrorist group the Narodniks, but were primarily a reformist party with a focus on land reform. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs placed an emphasis on individual, rather than collective outcomes for successful land reform. It was essentially a peasant-based party and thus tended to vacillate between the classes in its positions, since the peasantry is composed of scattered and heterogeneous elements, some much richer than others. In 1917 it was the majority party of the countryside with strong support among ordinary soldiers, who were in the main of peasant origin. They played a major role in the formation and leadership of the Soviets, albeit in most cases playing second fiddle to the Mensheviks.
After the February 1917 revolution the SR Party became a major component of the new Provisional Government. As that Government moved to the right under the pressure of events and Kerensky took the reins of power, the left faction of the SRs, led by Maria Spiridonova, began to establish a separate position, more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. At the Second Congress of Soviets in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks proclaimed the deposition of the Provisional government, the split within the SR Party became final. The Left SRs stayed at the Congress and were elected to the permanent Soviet Executive (initially refusing to join the Bolshevik government), while the Right SR Party and their Menshevik allies walked out. Later, the Left SR Party joined the Bolshevik government, obtaining three ministries. The Right SRs thereafter moved into opposition to the new Bolshevik-led government, eventually taking up arms and attempting uprisings and later linking with the reactionary White armies.
The Mensheviks were a socialist and Marxist party, but their Marxism was of a rigid and mechanistic form. Along with the Bolsheviks they had originally been part of the Russian Social Democratic Party. They split with the Bolsheviks over the definition of membership of the Party. But, in fact, the deeper cause for the difference between the two factions lay in the Menshevik belief that socialism could not be achieved in Russia due to its backward economic conditions, and that Russia would first have to experience a bourgeois democratic revolution and go through a capitalist stage of development before socialism was technically possible and before the working class could develop the necessary consciousness for a socialist revolution. Thus, the Mensheviks were opposed to the Bolshevik idea of the party and the pursuit of socialist revolution in Russia.
Their opposition to revolutionary Marxism led inexorably to a path of reformism and eventually, for most of them, opposition to the October Revolution. The Mensheviks gained a considerable following among the working class in the run up to the February Revolution and often held majorities in Soviets and a strong presence in local Dumas. But their support for the War and their participation in an increasingly unpopular Provisional Government saw their support melt away throughout 1917. Following the October Revolution they split between the majority right faction, led by Tsereteli, who favoured action against the Bolsheviks and the left faction, led by Martov, who tended to support the Reds in the civil war but refused to break completely with the right section. Many of the most militant Mensheviks joined the Bolsheviks.
The Anarchists were relatively small and unpredictable. At times supporting the Bolsheviks, at times opposing. In the Spring of 1918 they were disarmed following attempts to stage an uprising within Russia. Initially the Anarchists were principally urban and drawn from the ranks of the intellectual and other petty-bourgeois elements, but in the Ukraine anarchist bands of guerrillas rested on the peasantry. There they eventually coalesced into a large force under Makhno, who fought all-comers, mainly the Germans, but later also the Whites and eventually the Reds.
The Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), formed in 1905, was the main bourgeois party, representing capitalist interests. They were broadly liberal, favouring a constitutional monarchy and bourgeois democracy. Following the February Revolution they held five portfolios in the first Provisional Government, including that of Prime Minister (Prince Lvov) and Foreign Minister (Miliukov). Their position steadily eroded as opposition mounted to the Provisional Government’s War Policy. Following the October Revolution they called for the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime and supported counter-revolution. As a consequence they were banned in December 1917.